from the world's big
Human Nature in the Lab and on the Page
Cognitive science exists in a golden era. The amount of resources pouring into research that examines human nature is unmatched by any other time in history.
We live in an era where readers of science books on the human condition expect clever psychological studies to explain every nook and cranny of our complex nature. They expect specifics, what happens in the brain when musicians improvise or when we experience a-ha moments, and they expect generalities, how friendships form or how decision-making works.
Readers also want surprise. A good author declares how a commonly held intuition about human nature is, after all these years, untrue in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence. Gladwell did it beautifully in Blink. “We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it,” he states in the introduction. “[But] decision made very quickly can be every bit as good as decision made cautiously and deliberately.”
Or consider Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide:
Ever since the ancient Greeks, [we’ve assumed that] humans are rational…. There’s only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it’s wrong.
Or Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated:
We still say that [people] have a gift, which is to say their greatness was given to them, for reasons no one can explain, by someone or something apart from themselves… the trouble with this explanation… is that it’s wrong.
Readers also crave drama. An effective introduction positions society as nearing a time of momentous change, in which ignoring a certain area of study will lead to irreversible errors. My favorite example of this comes from Susan Cain, who said this about introverts to a TED audience:
[Ignoring introverts is] our colleagues’ loss, and our community’s loss, and at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world’s loss.
When did human nature get so awe-inspiring?
Cognitive science exists in a golden era. The amount of resources pouring into research that examines human nature is unmatched by any other time in history. As a result, science writing is experiencing a golden era of its own. Scores of books with a new perspective on human nature are published every year because science writers have a lot of material to work with.
This relationship is reinforcing: thought-provoking research ends up in bestselling books putting pressure on researchers to produce rousing results of their own. Science writers, in turn, dig deeper for the latest counter-intuitive research. Wanting in on the action, young science writers and scientists are throwing themselves into the mix.
Is this a good for each industry?
A few months ago I corresponded with behavioral science professor Dave Nussbaum who teaches at the University of Chicago. He riffed on similar talking points and his response is worth reading.
There's been a rise in research that's aimed at creating a stir, sometimes at the expense of the soundness of the research. At the same time, I think done properly, "cool" and counter-intuitive findings are very important. They not only get us to think in a different way, they also make it much easier to tell an engaging story about psychology, and I think that's an important thing to do. There's been a huge rise in the interest of the general public towards psychology, and I think that's great. Imagine, Power of Habit, and Thinking Fast and Slow are all on the bestseller list, and in the last decade the number of great psychologists… who are getting their important research out there for the public to consume is way up. There are downsides, too… but on the whole I think it's extremely positive. O
One consequence, as you rightly worry, is that it creates a bad system of incentives for researchers. It's not just the books, of course, it's also some journals that are motivated to publish eye-catching work. There are upsides to this, but the big downside is that you're publishing unreliable or incorrect findings and in a field where sometimes you don't get much replication, you're polluting our knowledge. Worse still, these studies get all the attention, while more careful but no less important research is ignored, while being more costly to run and less rewarding. Not really sure what to do with this problem other than to try to be more careful.
As a science writer I’m not sure either. Two ideas. First, psychological science is young. Counting from Wilhelm Wundt’s first experiments it’s only about 150 years old. Other cognitive sciences – neuroscience, linguistics, and modern sociology and anthropology – are even younger. I’ve interviewed several psychologists and it’s not uncommon from them to respond to questions like this: “You know, there’s no real evidence of this in the psychological literature. There are just not that many people studying that.”
Second, when it comes to writing about psychological research it’s probably best to do what a good teacher does. He won’t give you answers per se. He will suggest a style of thinking that will help you see the world more accurately. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t expect psychological science to continue pursuing specific questions. But it is to recommend a moment of humility when it comes to understanding human nature.
Finally, Dave reminded me in an email yesterday that science is always a work in progress and that it’s much more exciting to tell a story that isn’t over. “That's what I would imagine would excite young readers,” he said. “The opportunity to be able to contribute something to the answer. There's plenty of room to give people interesting (interim) answers to good questions without pretending like the book has been written and there's nothing more to add.”
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Do you get worried or angry? Ever forget to tithe? One minister has bad news for you.
- A recently published article claims to identify the symptoms of "low-level atheism."
- Among these symptoms are worrying, cursing, and not tithing.
- There is a solution to all of this though, not being an atheist. Sending in money is also involved.
Are you worried about literally anything? You're an atheist now!<p>The essay begins by focusing on worrying, an all too common problem and gateway emotion to atheism:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Every time we take a thought break and begin to wonder about how we will pay the stove oil bill, or the light bill, or what we are going to do if we get laid off from work in six months, we are worrying. We are actually telling the Lord, 'Jesus, you know all that stuff you said in Matthew chapter six about how you will take care of us? I don't believe it. I don't believe that you can do what you promised, so I am taking matters into my own hands; I'm going to worry about it until the situation is taken care of.'"</em></p><p>As it turns out, God plans his days around your dilemmas and will get to them in due course. So, if you are bothered about not being sure where your rent is coming form this month, you're doubting the Lord. Concerned about things like climate change? You're practically an iconoclast. Anxious at the thought that you aren't a good enough Christian? According to this, that exact worry is a sign that you aren't!</p><p>Are you feeling even more worried now? Oh, that isn't a good sign at all. You ought to be worried about that. </p>
Swearing and occasionally being angry, now signs of metaphysical distress!<p>According to Lindley:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"I have only sworn two times since receiving the Holy Ghost. The Lord has the power to change our attitudes and habits. I wish I could say that I never get angry anymore either, but that is not the case. Just like you, I struggle with atheistic tendencies.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Every time something doesn't go the way we want it to and we get angry, we are telling the world, 'I am losing my temper, because this problem is so messed up that not even God can sort it out.' When we slam doors, swear, yell, break dishes, speed, or shake our fist at somebody we are in the grip of an atheism attack. </em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"You see the Bible very clearly states that there is nothing too hard for God to fix.</em> <em>'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.' </em>(Romans 8:28 NKJV) <em>This is why a person who has been born again can hit their thumb with a hammer and not swear. This is why the sincere Christian can look at a flat tire and say, 'I guess God needs to slow me down, because he has someone he needs me to cross paths with today.' Swearing and getting angry only says, 'There is absolutely no way that God can turn this flat tire into a blessing!'"</em><em></em></p><p>Well, shit. It seems that being angry with things, including things that might seem to be perfectly reasonable things to be mad at, is admitting that you think God is useless.</p><p>How exactly this reconciles with Jesus getting pissed off at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple" target="_blank">the moneylenders in the temple</a> and <a href="https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+3&version=NIV" target="_blank">healers that refused to save lives on Sunday</a> is unclear. Neither of these incidents seem to be the things that happen to somebody without bursts of anger, though I do suppose it is possible Christ had fits of atheism multiple times in his life. </p><p>Sometimes I don't believe in myself either. </p>
Stinginess, now coming to a den of heathens near you!<p>Lindley points out the final, most advanced symptom of atheism last: Not sending God money. He writes:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"<em>Some people are so greedy that they actually rob God.</em> <em>'…In what way have we robbed God? In tithes and offerings</em>.' (Malachi 3:8 NKJV)) <em>To those who would hold back the tithe the Lord has a challenge</em>: <em>'Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this' says the Lord of hosts, 'If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.' </em>(3:10 NKJV)"</p><p>While the God of Abraham is well known not to need money on account of his transcendental nature, it seems that he is still owed ten percent of everybody's earnings. This is not paid to him, of course, but to his helpers. In exchange for this, God will make good things happen. If you don't send money in addition to swearing or occasionally being grouchy, the minister assures us that <em>"you are at extreme risk for very serious complications from your atheism."</em></p><p>While this may look remarkably similar to a concept used by the mafia, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protection_racket" target="_blank">the protection racket</a>, it is an utterly different operation. In the case of the mob, the threat of punishment is used as a way to force people into paying part of their earnings to a larger organization. In return, they are promised the protection of that organization from vague threats, often including that organization. <br> <br> In this holy case, vague are threats used to show people the wisdom of paying part of their earnings to the church. In exchange for their payments, they are offered kickbacks from God and protection from vague threats made by the people telling them they need to send in money. </p><p>Luckily, Lindley suggests a solution for all three problems, especially the last one: Don't be an atheist! In particular, start praying and sending God money. This will resolve the third symptom automatically and the first two eventually.</p><p><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhnsHvz7UL8" target="_blank">It's an offer you can't refuse.</a> </p>
And now, the serious part.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="SuG8OGad" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e1bfda7981ed1abe9eb979157ea0496"> <div id="botr_SuG8OGad_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SuG8OGad-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/SuG8OGad-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SuG8OGad-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>While it is fun to mock the often-ludicrous positions of those who misunderstand atheism, that very misunderstanding is an all too common and all too real issue for the millions of Americans who are not religious. Atheists in the United States face <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#United_States" target="_blank">discrimination</a>,<strong></strong> are not <a href="https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-25187-001" target="_blank">trusted</a>, and are barred from <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discrimination_against_atheists#Atheists_eligible_to_hold_office" target="_blank">running for office </a>in several states.</p><p> In my experience, many of these tend to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism <em>is</em>. I, at various times, have been accused of being a Satanist, a pagan, or an amoralist, among other things. It is little wonder why a person who doesn't understand what atheism <em>is</em> would find a variety of issues arising from it. </p><p>The minister in this case makes a similar mistake: He begins by thinking that atheism is something other than the proposition that there are no gods and then works forward. In this case, he seems to presume it is some kind of psychological condition which manifests as a hybrid of anxiety, Tourette's syndrome, and kleptomania. His use of the word "symptoms" is revealing. </p><p>While it is true that atheism can be anxiety-inducing, this falls more under the category of "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism#Angst_and_dread" target="_blank">existential dread</a>" than psychosis. John-Paul Sartre, the atheistic philosopher who made Existentialism popular, wrote on this extensively. In his essay <em>"</em><a href="http://www.mrsmoser.com/uploads/8/5/0/1/8501319/english_11_ib_-_no_exit_-_existentialism_is_a_humanism_-_sartre.pdf" target="_blank">Existentialism is a Humanism</a><em>," </em>he explains:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist see him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of himself … what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind—in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility."</em><em></em></p><p>If choosing what you are and what meaning your life will have doesn't give you anxiety, Sartre would suggest you're doing something wrong. </p><p>However, this anxiety isn't necessarily cured by belief. <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/" target="_blank">Soren Kierkegaard</a>, the founder of Existentialism, wrote extensively on the topics of angst, dread, anxiety, and regretting all of your life choices while being a thoroughly devoted Christian. While he argues that the leap of faith can help, he also argues that we are still fundamentally alone and responsible for our choices when it comes to making that anxiety-inducing <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety" target="_blank">leap</a>.</p><p>The minister's point about swearing as a result of lacking faith is bizarre enough to be left alone. Ten minutes in any bar in the middle section of the country on a Friday night should be enough to convince anybody that any sincere believer can swear while remaining a believer. </p><p>Furthermore, the minister presumes that a believer is going to be of the kind that thinks God is very engaged in human life. While he may suppose God was involved in his tire going flat, many other approaches to the divine reject that idea. Deists, who tend to think that there is a God who created the cosmos but leaves it <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deism#Aspects_of_contemporary_deism" target="_blank">alone</a>, would be an example. </p><p>All in all, the essay described above is an unintentionally hilarious look at what some people think being an atheist is like. It is hardly the <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-atheist-be-in-awe-of-universe/" target="_blank">first</a>, and it won't be the last. Anxiety about atheism has a history going back to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apology_(Plato)#Accusers_of_Socrates" target="_blank">ancient Greece</a>—studies demonstrate the continued <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/atheists-threaten-believers-with-mortality" target="_blank">existence</a> of Christian anxiety about atheists—and this essay is another example of people being unduly concerned about it. </p><p>I'd accuse the minister of worrying too much about atheism, but then he'd be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Bnk6VU53Y" target="_blank">one of us</a>. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?