People often divide the world into "us" and "them" then forget about everybody else.
- A new study shows that our polarized "us" vs. "them" view of the world can be modeled mathematically.
- Those who don't fit easily into either group tend to be disliked.
- The model is not limited to politics and could be used to explain many aspects of society.
In most of the great debates, many possible stances get reduced to two options in a hurry. In American politics, we often frame all debates as "Democrats versus Republicans" and proceed to label every policy or action as belonging to one of those factions. Anybody else, particularly those in the middle, are quickly swept aside and forgotten.
According to a new study, this tendency is not only common but is so ingrained in our thinking that you can make a formula to describe it.
"We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down." — Aneurin Bevan
A team of researchers at the Santa Fe Institute studied the system using a commonly applied model to try to "solve" for where social boundaries appear on a political scale. The researchers added cognitive and social components -- which often drive people into an "us vs. them" style of thinking -- to the model's equations. They hypothesized that people would devise measurable camps of "us" and "them" which would appear in the models. Those who don't fit cleanly into these roles would tend to be overlooked.
The results of the model were compared to data from surveys in the 1980s, which included questions about how respondents felt about members of other political groups, to check for accuracy. Importantly, during that decade, many people were asked about political independents in the center, deemed "inbetweeners" by the researchers, as well as about their stance on members of other parties.
Though one might suspect that people viewed those in the middle as potential allies, the tendency to divide the world into two buckets simply excludes those in the middle. The model predicted, and the survey's from the 80s confirmed, that both those on the left and right viewed centrists unfavorably.
Lead author Vicky Chuqiao Yang explained the unfortunate situation of these centrists:
"By being 'inbetweeners,' independents are viewed as unfavorably as the other party by both sides, and left out. So Independents get the worst of both worlds, and there are downstream consequences."
Graph showing how members of both major American parties viewed fellow party members, those of the other party, and independents. The values came from the American National Election Studies surveys. Credit: Yang et al.
The authors speculate that this phenomenon could cause those in the middle to drift towards the extremes in hopes of avoiding the ills of being in the middle. Over time, this could lead to a highly polarized society, as nobody is left in the middle at all.
These findings are not necessarily limited to politics. The model could be applied to how society views people of indeterminate race or who do not fit cleanly into categories of sexuality, for example. Additionally, because group labels evolve over time, we should see the formation of entirely new groups and inbetweeners. In the study, the authors note that the model was limited for exactly this reason and hope that future studies will expand on the concept.
The present-moment awareness that stems from mindfulness practices may be the cost-effective tool that our society needs.
- Mindfulness practices may lead to the human brain's transcendence of previously established associations that lead to racial biases.
- A mindfulness-based program, which has a myriad of benefits, may be more effective than a specific racial bias training program and may benefit BIPOC youth and police officers alike.
- Professionally known as Director X, Julien Christian Lutz of the Toronto-based mindfulness organization Operation Prefrontal Cortex believes that many young people that identify as BIPOC lash out violently due to past traumas, the hopelessness that they experience in the face of systemic racism, and other stressors that mindfulness can alleviate.
Researchers at Ball State University and Michigan State University have found that mindfulness practices, including but not limited to mindfulness meditation, may lead to the human brain's transcendence of previously established associations that lead to racial biases.
Like other cognitive biases, racial biases typically lie beyond our conscious attention, informing our conscious thoughts and decisions in ways that science does not fully understand.
Famed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote that "[t]he psyche is still a foreign, almost unexplored country of which we have only indirect knowledge; it is mediated by conscious functions that are subject to almost endless possibilities of deception."
Historical factors have contributed to racial biases. In the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," author Yuval Noah Harari discusses the origins of anti-Black racism as it presently exists in North America.
Because African slaves were resilient to the diseases that wiped out many of the indigenous slaves before them in North America and South America, Harari theorizes that "genetic superiority (in terms of immunity) translated into social inferiority: precisely because Africans were fitter in tropical climates than Europeans, they ended up as the slaves of European masters! Due to these circumstantial factors, the burgeoning new societies of America were to be divided into a ruling caste of white Europeans and a subjugated caste of black Africans."
An evolutionary adaptation that once kept my ancestors alive may have ironically contributed to the suffering and death of millions of people around the world.
Racial biases, racism, and systemic racism are interrelated and have been essential conversation topics globally, throughout 2020 and 2021.
Such topics have been incredibly polarizing in the United States, given the residual effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the shocking death of George Floyd in May 2020 due to former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 30 seconds.
The racism at the center of Floyd's highly publicized death and the deaths of many other Black people throughout the last two centuries has led to outrage across the globe, culminating in the largest civil rights movement in human history last summer.
In Toronto, Canada, this past summer, the Toronto Board of Health voted unanimously in June of 2020 to declare anti-Black racism a public health crisis.
As police violence relates to Black people, less than 9 percent of Toronto's population is Black, and yet, Black people are significantly more likely than other ethnic groups to be arrested, charged, and killed by Toronto police, according to a 2018 Ontario Human Rights Commission report.
The same report states that between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service.
Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Design Exchange, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2019.
Credit: Ajani Charles
Such statistics are troubling to me for many reasons, including the fact that I am the art director for Operation Prefrontal Cortex, a Toronto-based program harnessing the power of mindfulness and meditation to help reduce incidences of gun, mass, and police violence in Toronto.
Lutz is known for directing high-budget, visually distinctive videos for famous artists, including but not limited to Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Kanye West.
When I spoke to Lutz about what Operation Prefrontal Cortex is doing to prevent incidents like George Floyd's death, he said that "we're talking to police about it, really implementing mindfulness. And then spreading a message of what mindfulness and meditation can do for everybody.
"We also need to see the research. From what I've seen, meditation does help reduce racial bias. So, we need to do the proper science and test it and test it again to see if these results are consistent, and if they are, well then again, it feeds right back into what we're talking about."
I also spoke to him about the hopelessness that numerous BIPOC youth experience, especially in low-income communities in Toronto and elsewhere, due to receiving the short end of the stick that is systemic racism.
To Lutz, "it's an impossibility to reach some kind of meaningful existence someplace where you can achieve goals and be happy if you can't see that in your world. Then you become self-destructive. And you lash outwards."
Frequent solidarity marches throughout 2020 on behalf of Black people and other marginalized groups were a by-product of many forces, including but not limited to hundreds of years of oppression, the stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the global mental health epidemic. These marches illuminated the quiet and overt suffering of millions of people, and the ruthless violence that can grow from the seeds of racial biases.
All human beings, regardless of socio-economic status or intellectual prowess, can experience and perpetuate racial biases. The unconscious nature of biases causes them to be elusive, which is a phenomenon that American writer and filmmaker Ben Hecht once eloquently described in the following way, through his "Guide For The Bedevilled": "Prejudice is our method of transferring our own sickness to others. It is our ruse for disliking others rather than ourselves. We find absolution in our prejudices. We find also in them an enemy made to order rather than inimical forces out of our control."
Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Since racial biases are essentially judgments, mindfulness may be a tool that can lead the human brain to transcend such judgments, both consciously and unconsciously.
There is conflicting evidence of whether [racial bias training] actually does any good or potentially makes people defensive and reactive, and potentially do bad things in response. Doing a program like mindfulness, which has a myriad of benefits, can be better and make people less reactive.
In a report entitled "Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias," Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University and his research partner Adam Lueke of Ball State University found that "mindfulness can positively affect peoples' lives in a number of ways, including relying less on previously established associations."
Participants in the study listened to either a mindfulness or control audio. They then completed Implicit Association Tests (IATs), which are commonly used by researchers to measure the strength of associations between concepts like race and evaluations like "good" or "bad."
Lueke and Gibson's research showed that mindfulness meditation led to a decrease in implicit age and race bias.
I spoke to Lueke about his research, and he had this to say: "I think it's really interesting and potentially very valuable that mindfulness has been shown to help de-automatize our engagement with the environment, which can help us interact with people in a much more objective way, rather than allowing our previous histories or experiences or bugaboos of whatever, change or alter the way that we interact with new people that we don't know anything about, and we shouldn't necessarily make assumptions about."
Lueke explained that mandatory and optional racial bias training within organizations often results in resistance from those that have strong racial biases.
"There is conflicting evidence of whether [racial bias training] actually does any good or potentially makes people defensive and reactive, and potentially do bad things in response. Doing a program like mindfulness, which has a myriad of benefits, can be better and make people less reactive."
Capt. Latisha Fox centers herself while learning about basic meditation techniques during an Operation Army Ready: Ready and Resilient seminar at Enduring Faith Chapel on Bagram Airfield.
Credit: Photo Credit: U.S. Army
In Gibson and Lueke's research, the participants were 72 white college students from a midwestern university town, 71% of whom were female. Would the study differ with a more diverse group of participants?
According to Lueke, most people tend to view their group members more positively than those outside of their in-group. So, positive associations will need to be considered in future studies with diverse participants.
"If we were to get a more diverse group of people, we would probably have to switch the measures a bit in order to most accurately figure out whether mindfulness was doing anything on an unconscious or automaticity type of level."
When I asked Lueke about his thoughts on racial biases in general, he had this to say: "It's shortcut thinking, to just automatically label somebody. And pretty much all human beings do it; it's a way of attempting to predict your environment without a lot of information. So if you don't have a lot of information, your brain will attempt to label that individual in order to try to get as much information as possible about them."
"The problem with that is, oftentimes, those inferences can be incorrect and wrong. So it does take those extra resources to disengage from all of those automatic types of evaluations and try to actually do the work to interact with that person and get to know them a little bit better."
Because I wanted to understand how research like Leuke and Gibson's could be enhanced from another researcher's perspective, I spoke to Benjamin Diplock, a Clinical Developmental Psychology Ph.D. Student at York University in Toronto.
Diplock believes that using psychometrically validated measures could be beneficial. "Individuals evaluating psychological measurement (psychometrics) consider the reliability of the respondents' answers when they are filling out a questionnaire."
He also recommended using an MRI and other machines to evaluate biological response markers. For example, "are there particular areas of the brain that light up or that are activated, based off of self-reported feelings of fear related to a Black person?"
The present-moment awareness that stems from mindfulness practices may be the cost-effective tool that humanity needs to access the present while significantly reducing the proliferation of systemic racism and race-based violence throughout communities, organizations, and nations.
More research on the topic is needed, as such research can potentially save some of the most marginalized people's lives on a global scale.
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.
- Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
- The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
- The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
The Stanford marshmallow test, an experiment asking kids to hold off on eating one marshmallow for 15 minutes in exchange for two as a reward, was introduced in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel. The study checked in on the participants years later and noted that those who could delay their gratification a bit generally turned out better than those who could not.
The study has attracted attention since the day it was published. Attempts to recreate it have confirmed its basic findings, although some of those attempts suggest that how well the kids turn out is partly attributable to factors other than the ability to delay gratification.
While we debate how important the ability to wait for rewards is, science continues to find out which other animals are capable of it. A new variation on the experiment adds cuttlefish to that list.
Proof that some people are less patient than invertebrates
The common cuttlefish is a small cephalopod notable for producing sepia ink and relative intelligence for an invertebrate. Studies have shown them to be capable of remembering important details from previous foraging experiences, and to adjust their foraging strategies in response to changing circumstances.
In a new study, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers demonstrated that the critters have mental capacities previously thought limited to vertebrates.
After determining that cuttlefish are willing to eat raw king prawns but prefer a live grass shrimp, the researchers trained them to associate certain symbols on see-through containers with a different level of accessibility. One symbol meant the cuttlefish could get into the box and eat the food inside right away, another meant there would be a delay before it opened, and the last indicated the container could not be opened.
The cephalopods were then trained to understand that upon entering one container, the food in the other would be removed. This training also introduced them to the idea of varying delay times for the boxes with the second symbol.
Two of the cuttlefish recruited for the study "dropped out," at this point, but the remaining six—named Mica, Pinto, Demi, Franklin, Jebidiah, and Rogelio—all caught on to how things worked pretty quickly.
It was then that the actual experiment could begin. The cuttlefish were presented with two containers: one that could be opened immediately with a raw king prawn, and one that held a live grass shrimp that would only open after a delay. The subjects could always see both containers and had the ability to go to the immediate access option if they grew tired of waiting for the other. The poor control group was faced with a box that never opened and one they could get into right away.
In the end, the cuttlefish demonstrated that they would wait anywhere between 50 and 130 seconds for the better treat. This is the same length of time that some primates and birds have shown themselves to be able to wait for.
Further tests of the subject's cognitive abilities—they were tested to see how long it took them to associate a symbol with a prize and then on how long it took them to catch on when the symbols were switched—showed a relationship between how long a cuttlefish was willing to wait and how quickly it learned the associations.
All of this is interesting, but what use could it possibly have?
A diagram showing the experimental set up. On the left is the control condition, on the right is the experimental condition.
Credit: Alexandra K. Schnell et al., 2021
As you can probably guess, the ability to delay gratification as part of a plan is not the most common thing in the animal kingdom. While humans, apes, some birds, and dogs can do it, less intelligent animals can't.
While it is reasonably simple to devise a hypothesis for why social humans, tool-making chimps, or hunting birds are able to delay gratification, the cuttlefish is neither social, a toolmaker, or is it hunting anything particularly intelligent. Why they evolved this capacity is up for debate.
Lead author Alexandra Schnell of the University of Cambridge discussed their speculations on the evolutionary advantage cuttlefish might get out of this skill with Eurekalert:
"Cuttlefish spend most of their time camouflaging, sitting and waiting, punctuated by brief periods of foraging. They break camouflage when they forage, so they are exposed to every predator in the ocean that wants to eat them. We speculate that delayed gratification may have evolved as a byproduct of this, so the cuttlefish can optimize foraging by waiting to choose better quality food."
Given the unique evolutionary tree of the cuttlefish, its cognitive abilities are an example of convergent evolution, in which two unrelated animals, in this case primates and cuttlefish, evolve the same trait to solve similar problems. These findings could help shed light on the evolution of the cuttlefish and its relatives.
It should be noted that this study isn't definitive; at the moment, we can't make a useful comparison between the overall intelligence of the cuttlefish and the other animals that can or cannot pass some variation of the marshmallow test.
Despite this, the results are quite exciting and will likely influence future research into animal intelligence. If the common cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test, what else can?
Cold hands and feet? Maybe it's your anxiety.
- When we feel anxious, the brain's fight or flight instinct kicks in, and the blood flow is redirected from your extremities towards the torso and vital organs.
- According to the CDC, 7.1% of children between the ages of 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have an anxiety diagnosis.
- Anxiety disorders will impact 31% of Americans at some point in their lives.
Here's what you may not know about anxiety...
There's a fine line between stress and anxiety - and many people don't know what the difference is.
Both stress and anxiety are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger and can be short-term (a looming deadline at work, for example). People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, insomnia, and headache.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined as a persistent, excessive worry. Even in the absence of the thing that triggered it, anxiety lingers. It can lead to a nearly identical set of symptoms, which is why they are often confused. Feelings of anxiety then differ from an anxiety disorder - an anxiety disorder means your anxiety typically persists for months and negatively impacts your daily functioning.
There are five major types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalized anxiety (GAD) is characterized by chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry, and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (or obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
- Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or abdominal distress.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also an anxiety disorder, and it can develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include things like personal assaults, natural and/or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (also known as 'social phobia') is characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations.
Anxiety disorders can impact 31 percent of Americans at some point in their life.
According to the American Psychological Association, 19 percent of Americans over the age of 18 have had an anxiety disorder in the past year and 31 percent of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Anxiety may be genetic.
According to HealthLine, anxiety may be genetic but can also be influenced by environmental factors. It's possible to have anxiety without it running in your family, however, there is speculated to be some genetic component that makes anxiety more prevalent in some individuals. Research has indicated some link between genetics and anxiety, though much more research is required in this area.
Anxiety often begins in childhood.
According to the CDC, 7.1 percent of children between the ages of 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have an anxiety diagnosis. Six in ten children (59.3 percent) between the ages of 3-17 have received anxiety therapy or treatment.
Having an anxiety disorder can increase your risk of other physical health complications.
According to research from Harvard Medical School, anxiety has been indicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, gastrointestinal conditions such as IBS, and more.
Cold hands and feet? Anxiety may be the reason.
If you're someone who constantly struggles with having cold hands or feet, it could be a result of your anxiety. When we feel anxious, the brain's fight or flight instinct kicks in, and the blood flow is redirected from your extremities towards the torso and vital organs.
Anxiety can be related to anger issues and memory loss.
A lesser-known side effect of anxiety is anger. When you feel powerless over a situation, expressing anger is a natural way to feel as though you have some kind of control. With chronic sufferers of anxiety, depression is the most common issue to develop, but anger is close behind. As Discovery Mood explains, "anxiety is often connected with overstimulation from a stressful environment or threat, combined with the perceived inability to deal with that threat. In contrast, anger is often tied to frustration. When anxiety is left unacknowledged or unexpressed, it can turn into frustration which then easily leads to anger."
Anxiety can also cause memory problems.
According to Mayo Clinic, stress, anxiety, or depression can often cause forgetfulness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating. VeryWellMind explains further, "memories can be affected when you are under periods of stress or experience some sort of disturbance in mood. Having a significant anxiety disorder like GAD can create some of these problems routinely, leaving you operating below your normal level of memory functioning."
Anxiety can even impact your sense of smell.
People who struggle with anxiety may be more likely to label natural smells as bad smells, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. When processing smells, typically it's only the olfactory system that is activated. However, in people with high anxiety levels, the emotional system can become intertwined with the olfactory system, which can slightly alter our perception of smells.