What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos

1

Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers

2

Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge

3

Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
Close

Modern day, real life demonstration of the lost letter technique exposes discrimination against atheism in the US Postal Service

March 28, 2013, 9:45 AM
Usps-atheist

In the 1960's Stanley Milgram introduced the lost letter technique which had a notable impact on the field of social psychology (unfortunately the original paper is still paywalled even though it is now two decades after his death). One of the greatest inherent problems with social psychology is that you can't look directly at what is going on inside someone's head. People have a tendency to say one thing and do another. Milgram assessed political views by dropping letters addressed to "friends of the Nazi party", the "friends of the Communist party", to "medical research associates" and to a control group; on the floor and waited for passers by to post them. In the original expermient 72% of the letters to the medical researchers arrived, the controls got 71% while the Nazi's and Communists both tied at 25%. In the years that followed the lost letter technique was altered by social psychologists to predicts elections and measure attitudes to race.

The technique has fallen out of use in the digital age. Today we have more high-tech ways of measuring behaviour, but it is still extremely difficult to accurately measure the difference between what people say in public and what people do in real life.

A small german company that could only be described as a gaggle of evangelical atheist shoemakers noticed in autumn of last year that their parcels to customers in the US were going missing at an alarmingly high rate. They made a number of enquiries with the US Postal Service (USPS) which naturally went ignored. Official complaints were logged with DHL but the response was always that “the disappearances were always stateside”. The German shoemakers wondered if the mysterious disappearances could perhaps be explained by the fact that they had recently begun wrapping their parcels in tape labelled “ATHEIST”. The company decided to take matters in to their own hands and run an experiment. The experiment only differs from Milgram’s experiment in that instead of dropping their parcels on the floor the atheists actually put them in to the post.

Now I should say at this point that the graphic below did ring my PR stunt alarm bells. We should take any study of this kind with a pinch of salt. I decided to contact the shoemakers and ask some more questions. I am informed that the group are working with a social psychologist to properly write the experiment up for peer review, I was assured that:

“We have numerous emails, letters and spreadsheets documenting complaining correspondence with DHL, who were in the tricky position of having to represent USPS to us. We have lots of customer testimony of disappearances and delays from pre the study and from within the study... we would include this in a full write-up of our study.”

I wish I could say that the levels of prejudice demonstrated in this study are shockingly out of kilter with how people say they would act towards atheists. Unfortunately, prejudice towards atheists is not so low it can only be measured using clandestine behavioural techniques. A Gallup poll conducted last year suggested that atheists are the most distrusted group measured. Only 54% of Americans asked said they would consider voting for an atheist President:

 

It seems atheists have a long way to go before their era of prejudice comes to an end.

 

 

 

Hat tip: @aughraseye for the Milgram reference.

Via @BoingBoing

Study website: Atheist Berlin

Image Credit: Atherist Berlin

 

 

Modern day, real life demon...

Newsletter: Share: