Psychologists Assume It's Possible to Know A Person. What If They're Wrong?
Science rests on the assumption that the world can be known: that causes have effects, and logic applied on Thursday in Katmandu is valid still on Friday in Geneva. Psychology, and its claims to be a science, rest on the assumption that people can be known, in the same way we know about chemical bonds, the Jurassic and quarks. Individuals vary and minds are complex, but under all that complexity, psychologists promise to find underlying laws that explain why and how we think, feel, perceive and act as we do.
Their tools are supposed to be the same as those of other scientists: As particle physicists deduce the presence of a Higgs boson from measurements right after a high-speed collision, so psychologists measure walking speed to deduce that being reminded of stereotypes about the elderly will make students slow down afterwards. Such explanations, like many in science, often depend on relationships among measurements (for example, in hockey players wearing black correlates with more penalties for violence, suggesting that black has an effect on behavior (or at least how behavior is perceived). This can be done in retrospect, but the ultimate test of an explanation is prediction: After I've established that black is associated with aggression, I should be able to confidently tell you which team will get more penalties for violence next season (the ones dressed like ninjas).
Now, there are people who say psychology isn't a proper science (as this guy argues) because concepts like aggression, will-power and empathy can't be precisely enough defined to be measured by scientific methods. If they're right then academic psychology is simply a more systematic form of "folk psychology," which we all do every day: Trying to understand ourselves and others by means of correlations—"My kids do better on exams when they cram at the last minute" or "our people perform better after I berate the poor performers." Whether it's formal psychology or the folk variety, though, we all depend on this faith that it is possible to know other people—to explain their behavior in coherent ways, and to predict what they are more or less or never likely to do.
And then along comes James Holmes. He is accused of murdering 12 people and wounding 58 for no reason at all, as most of us would define a reason. And so our modern priesthood of experts is on the air to "explain" why this particular person would do such a thing. And they look to their correlations of variables, their indicators and theories, and find precisely nothing. Where are the indicators we want to see, the ones we can associate with senseless slaughter? Where are the traits whose presence would reassure us that it is possible to know who is vulnerable to the lure of mass murder?
There are none. No indications of mental illness earlier in life. No signs of a violent or troubled childhood. No signs of drug abuse. Instead, traces of a mild blank person, whose signature trait seemed to be that he left little impression at all on other people. A background guy, the sort who doesn't make us alert for trouble. His story threatens formal psychology and folk psychology, because it tells us that another person can't be known, not for certain. (That he was himself a grad student in neuroscience, aiming to elucidate how the brain causes behavior, adds a quality of mockery to the tale.) So far, at least, his life suggests that however well psychologists correlate variables and generalize their theories, we still have to assume that anyone is capable of anything—that whatever we may want to believe, Charles L. Mee had it right: Another person is a foreign country.
ADDENDUM, 7/24/12: Over at The Guardian, Harry J. Enten ran the numbers to see what Holmes has in common with other rampage killers. Maleness and being described as a loner were the only ones that leapt out. Enten also noticed a paradoxical fact about the numbers: Even as rampage killings have increased in number over the past twenty years, plain old murders have been declining. Moreover, as Patrick Egan points out here, when asked if they own a gun, fewer Americans now say yes than did in the 1970s. It's a huge drop, from around half of all respondents to only one-third. If we are a gun-crazed nation compared to, say, Canada, well, we are less gun-crazed than we used to be.
This week we all find it easy to imagine being killed by a berserk lunatic (because the media keep reminding us about such killings, and when something comes easily to mind we think it is more likely). But rampage killings, though increasing, are still so rare that your chances of being shot are lower by far than they were in the 1980s.
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.
Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.
New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.
Quantum Mechanics, Onions, and a Theory of Everything<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="036ae7b8dd661df2d125a3421a0299ba"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bcVruA0AJ-o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."
Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.