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What are we like? 10 psychology findings that reveal the worst of human nature
Are we doomed?
It's a question that's reverberated through the ages – are we humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or deep down are we wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers and there's clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but this feature post aims to shine some evidence-based light on the matter. Here in the first part of a two-part feature – and deliberately side-stepping the obviously relevant but controversial and already much-discussed Milgram, Zimbardo and Asch studies – we digest 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:
We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human
Through history humans have demonstrated a sickening willingness to inflict cruelty on one another. Part of the explanation may be that we have an unfortunate tendency to see certain groups – especially outsiders and vulnerable people perceived as low status – as being less than fully human. One striking example of this "blatant dehumanisation" came from a small brain-scan study that found students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Many more studies have since demonstrated subtle forms of dehumanisation (in which we attribute fewer mental states to outsiders and minorities) and there have been further demonstrations of blatant dehumanisation – for instance, people who are opposed to Arab immigration or in favour of tougher counter-terrorism policy against Muslim extremists tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there's also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women.
What's more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (those belonging to people who live in a different city or who are of a different gender than the child) as less human than in-group faces.
We already experience schadenfreude at the age of four
That last finding is particularly dispiriting since we often look to young children to give us hope for humankind – they are seen as the sweet and innocent ones who have yet to be corrupted by the grievances of adulthood. And yet many other studies show that very small kids are capable of some less-than-appealing adult-like emotions. For instance, a study from 2013 found that even four-year-olds seem to experience modest amounts of Schadenfreude – pleasure at another person's distress, especially if they perceived the person deserved it (because they'd engaged in a bad deed). A more recent study found that by age six children will pay to watch an antisocial puppet being hit, rather than spending the money on stickers. Oh, and maybe you should forget the idea of children offering you unconditional kindness – by age three, they are already keeping track of whether you are indebted to them.
We believe in Karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world must deserve their fate
On a related note, so strong is our inherent need to believe in a just world, we seem to have an inbuilt tendency to perceive the vulnerable and suffering as to some extent deserving their fate (an unfortunate flip-side to the Karmic idea, propagated by most religions, that the cosmos rewards those who do good – a belief that emerges in children aged just four). The unfortunate consequences of our just-world beliefs were first demonstrated in now classic research by Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons. In a version of the Milgram set-up, in which a female learner was punished with electric shocks for wrong answers, women participants subsequently rated her as less likeable and admirable when they heard that they would be seeing her suffer again, and especially if they felt powerless to minimise this suffering. Presumably derogating the woman made them feel less bad about her dismal fate. Since then, research has shown our willingness to blame the poor, rape victims, AIDS patients and others for their fate, so as to preserve our belief in a just world. By extension, the same or similar processes are likely responsible for our subconscious rose-tinted view of rich people.
We are blinkered and dogmatic
It's not just that we are malicious and unforgiving, we humans are worryingly close-minded too. If people were rational and open-minded, then the straightforward way to correct someone's false beliefs would be to present them with some relevant facts. However a modern classic published in 1967showed the futility of this approach – participants who believed strongly for or against the death penalty completely ignored facts that undermined their position, actually doubling-down on their initial view. This seems to occur in part because we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity. It doesn't help that many of us are overconfident about how much we understand things, and that when we believe our opinions are superior to others, this deters us from seeking out further relevant knowledge.
We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts
Maybe if we spent a little more time in contemplation we would not be so blinkered. Sadly, for many of us, it seems the prospect of spending time in our own thoughts is so anathema we'd actually rather electrocute ourselves. This was demonstrated dramatically in a 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation. Although others questioned the interpretation of the results, at least one other study has shown people's preference for electrocuting themselves over monotony, and another found cross-cultural evidence for people's greater enjoyment of doing some activity alone rather than merely thinking (also replicated here). The gist of these findings would seem to back up the verdict of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal who stated that "All of man's troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself".
We are vain and overconfident
Our irrationality and dogmatism might not be so bad were they married with some humility and self-insight, but actually most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness – a phenomenon that's been dubbed the Lake Wobegon Effect after the fictional town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average". Ironically, the least skilled among us are the most prone to over-confidence (the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect). This vain self-enhancement seems to be most extreme and irrational in the case of our morality, such as in how principled and fair we think we are. In fact, even jailed criminals think they are kinder, more trustworthy and honest than the average member of the public. Our vanity manifests in other ways too: for instance, researchers believe that our preference for donating to charities that share our initials is a form of "implicit egotism".
We are moral hypocrites
Not only do we tend to overestimate our own virtuousness, we are also inclined to moral hypocrisy. Findings in this area suggest it may pay to be wary of those who are the quickest and loudest in condemning the moral failings of others – the chances are the moral preacher is as guilty themselves, but of course they happen to take a far lighter view of their own transgressions. In one study to show this––suitably titled "The duality of virtue: Deconstructing the moral hypocrite"––researchers found that people rated the exact same selfish behaviour (giving oneself the quicker and easier of two experimental tasks on offer) as far less fair when perpetuated by others, than by themselves. Similarly, there is a long-studied phenomenon known as actor-observer asymmetry, which in part describes our tendency to attribute other people's bad deeds, such as our partner's infidelities, to their characters, while attributing the same deeds performed by ourselves as due to situational influences. These self-serving double-standards could even explain the common feeling that incivility is on the increase – recent research showed how we view the same acts of rudeness far more harshly when they are committed by strangers than by our friends or ourselves.
We are all potential trolls
Unfortunately, as anyone who has found themselves in a spat on Twitter will attest, social media may be magnifying some of the worst aspects of human nature, no doubt in part due to the online disinhibition effect, and the fact that anonymity (easy to achieve online) is known to increase our inclinations for immorality. While research has suggested that people who are prone to everyday sadism (which is a worryingly high proportion of us) are especially inclined to online trolling, a study published last year revealed how being in a bad mood, and being exposed to trolling by others, together double the likelihood of a person engaging in trolling – in fact, these situational factors were a stronger predictor of a person's trolling behaviour than their individual traits, leading the researchers at Stanford and Cornell to conclude "that ordinary users will also troll when mood and discussion context prompt such behavior". Of course this implies that initial trolling by a few can cause a snowball of increasing negativity, which is exactly what the researchers found when they studied reader discussion on CNN.com, with the "proportion of flagged posts and proportion of users with flagged posts … rising over time".
We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits
One way for us to mitigate against our human failings would be if we were inclined to choose leaders with rare virtuousness and skill. Sadly, we seem to have the opposite knack. Consider for a moment President Donald Trump. In seeking to explain his voter appeal, Dan McAdams, a professor of personality psychology, recently concluded that Trump's overt aggression and insults have a "primal appeal", and that his "incendiary tweets" are like the "charging displays" of an alpha male chimp, "designed to intimidate". Trump's supporters will disagree, but if McAdams' assessment is true it would fit into a wider pattern – the finding that psychopathic traits are more common than average among leaders. Take a survey of financial leaders in New York that found they scored highly on psychopathic traits but lower than average in emotional intelligence. In fairness, there have been some null and contradictory findings on this topic too, but a meta-analysis (an overview of prior evidence) published this summer concluded there is indeed a modest but significant link between trait psychopathy and leadership emergence, and that this has practical implications – especially since psychopathy also correlates with poorer leadership performance.
We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits
To worsen the situation, not only do we elect people with psychopathic traits to become our leaders, evidence suggests that men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short-term, to people displaying the so-called "dark triad" of traits – narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism – thus risking further propagating these traits. One study found women's physical attraction to a man was increased when he was described as having dark traits (as self-interested, manipulative and insensitive) compared with being described in the same way (in terms of his interests and so on), but with reference to the dark traits removed. One theory is that the dark traits successfully communicate "mate quality" in terms of confidence and the willingness to take risks. Does this matter for the future of our species? Perhaps it does – another paper, from 2016, found that those women who were more strongly attracted to narcissistic men's faces tended to have more children.
Are we doomed? One comforting caveat – most of the dating research relevant to that last item was based on European American samples and may not generalise to other cultures (in fact a study out this year found that among Asian Americans, it was those men and women with more pro-social traits who were more successful at speed dating). But then again, there is a lot more depressing research that I could not fit into this article, such as the studies showing we're more motivated by envy than admiration, the shocking prevalence of lying (a habit we start at age two), and the manipulativeness of babies – they fake cry you know!
Don't get too down – these findings say nothing of the success some of our heroes, heroines and saints have had in overcoming their baser instincts. In fact, it is arguably by acknowledging and understanding our shortcomings that we can more successfully overcome them and so cultivate the better angels of our nature. On which note, remember to hang tight for the sequel to this post that will detail 10 findings showcasing the brighter, more uplifting aspects of humankind.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.