Archive for the ‘ Psychology ’ Category

The art of slow reading

Patrick Kingsley in The Guardian:

Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? An increasing number of experts think so – and say it’s time to slow down . .

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

The problem doesn’t just stop there: academics report that we are becoming less attentive book-readers, too. Bath Spa University lecturer Greg Garrard recently revealed that he has had to shorten his students’ reading list, while Keith Thomas, an Oxford historian, has written that he is bemused by junior colleagues who analyse sources with a search engine, instead of reading them in their entirety.

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other. And so, as Carr writes, “we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion”.

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How facts backfire

Joe Keohane in The Boston Globe:

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

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The World Turned Upside Down

From Neuroskeptic:

This map is not “upside down”. It looks that way to us; the sense that north is up is a deeply ingrained one. It’s grim up north, Dixie is away down south. Yet this is pure convention. The earth is a sphere in space. It has a north and a south, but no up and down.

There’s a famous experiment involving four guys and a door. An unsuspecting test subject is lured into a conversation with a stranger, actually a psychologist. After a few moments, two people appear carrying a large door, and they walk right between the subject and the experimenter.

Behind the door, the experimenter swaps places with one of the door carriers, who may be quite different in voice and appearance. Most subjects don’t notice the swap. Perception is lazy: whenever it can get away with it, it merely tells us that things are as we expect, rather than actually showing us stuff. We often do not really perceive things at all. Did the subject really see the first guy? The second? Either?

The inverted map makes us actually see the Earth’s geography, rather than just showing us the expected “countries” and “continents”. I was struck by how parochial Europe is – the whole place is little more than a frayed end of the vast Eurasian landmass, no more impressive than the one at the other end, Russia’s Chukotski. Africa dominates the scene: it can no longer be written off as that poor place at the bottom.

One of the most common observations in psychotherapy of people with depression or anxiety is that they hold themselves to impossibly high standards, although they have a perfectly sensible evaluation of everyone else. Their own failures are catastrophic; other people’s are minor setbacks. Other people’s successes are well-deserved triumphs; their own are never good enough, flukes, they don’t count.

The first step in challenging these unhelpful patterns of thought is to simply point out the double-standard: why are you such a perfectionist about yourself, when you’re not when it comes to other people? The idea being to help people to think about themselves in more like healthy way they already think about others. Turn the map of yourself upside down – what do you actually see?

A Neuroscientist Uncovers A Dark Secret

Barbara Bradley Hagerty in NPR:

The criminal brain has always held a fascination for James Fallon. For nearly 20 years, the neuroscientist at the University of California-Irvine has studied the brains of psychopaths. He studies the biological basis for behavior, and one of his specialties is to try to figure out how a killer’s brain differs from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fallon made a startling discovery. It happened during a conversation with his then 88-year-old mother, Jenny, at a family barbecue.

“I said, ‘Jim, why don’t you find out about your father’s relatives?’ ” Jenny Fallon recalls. “I think there were some cuckoos back there.”

Fallon investigated.

“There’s a whole lineage of very violent people — killers,” he says.

One of his direct great-grandfathers, Thomas Cornell, was hanged in 1667 for murdering his mother. That line of Cornells produced seven other alleged murderers, including Lizzy Borden. “Cousin Lizzy,” as Fallon wryly calls her, was accused (and controversially acquitted) of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in Fall River, Mass., in 1882.

A little spooked by his ancestry, Fallon set out to see whether anyone in his family possesses the brain of a serial killer. Because he has studied the brains of dozens of psychopaths, he knew precisely what to look for. To demonstrate, he opened his laptop and called up an image of a brain on his computer screen.

“Here is a brain that’s not normal,” he says. There are patches of yellow and red. Then he points to another section of the brain, in the front part of the brain, just behind the eyes.

“Look at that — there’s almost nothing here,” Fallon says.

This is the orbital cortex, the area that Fallon and other scientists believe is involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making and impulse control.

“People with low activity [in the orbital cortex] are either free-wheeling types or sociopaths,” he says.

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Rose-coloured spectacles?

From The Economist:

Cheats may or may not prosper, but they despise themselves for cheating

THOSE who buy counterfeit designer goods project a fashionable image at a fraction of the price of the real thing. You might think that would make them feel rather smug about themselves. But an intriguing piece of research published in Psychological Science by Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests the opposite: wearing fake goods makes you feel a fake yourself, and causes you to be more dishonest in other matters than you would otherwise be.

Dr Gino and her colleagues provided a group of female volunteers with Chloé sunglasses that cost about $300 a pair, supposedly as part of a marketing study. They told some of the volunteers that the sunglasses were real, and others that they were counterfeit. They then asked the volunteers to perform pencil-and-paper mathematical quizzes for which they could earn up to $10, depending on how many questions they got right. The participants were spun a yarn about how doing these quizzes would allow them to judge the comfort and quality of the glasses.

Crucially, the quizzes were presented as “honour tests” that participants would mark themselves, reporting their own scores to the study’s organisers. The quiz papers were unnumbered and thus appeared to be untraceable, and were thrown away at the end of the study. In fact, though, each had one unique question on it, meaning that it could be identified—and the papers were recovered and marked again by the researchers after they had been discarded.

Of participants told that they were wearing authentic designer sunglasses, 30% were found to have cheated, reporting that they had solved more problems than was actually the case. Of those who thought they were wearing fake sunglasses, by contrast, about 70% cheated.

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Rewriting Morality II: Suicide and Euthanasia

Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:

(This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams (Cambridge University Press))

This is the second of three posts dealing with the implications of evolutionary theory for traditionalmorality (see Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity). In it, we’ll be looking at the vexed and disconcerting issue of suicide and the closely-related topic of voluntary euthanasia.

Philosophers have debated the ins and outs of self-killing for thousands of years. The questions they ask are provocative. Are we obliged to stay alive if we really do not want to? Should people have the right to kill themselves? Should people have the right to stop others from killing themselves, if that’s what they really want to do?

As a general rule, philosophers and religious thinkers have been opposed to suicide. Their reasons are many and varied. Some have argued, for instance, that God has forbidden us to take our own lives, others that it’s up to God to choose the moment and the manner of our deaths, and others still that suicide is wrong because it’s unnatural. But arguably the most important argument is based on the doctrine of human dignity. As I discussed in my last post, this is the idea, implicit in traditional Western systems of morality, that the lives of human beings have infinite value whereas the lives of other animals have little value or perhaps even none at all. A natural corollary of the idea that human life is infinitely valuable is that taking a human life – including one’s own – is infinitely wicked. Thus, according to this argument, ending one’s own life is wrong for the same reason that murder is wrong: because human life is sacred.

The argument is most often applied to suicide, but it has been applied to voluntary euthanasia as well. Kant noted that when an animal is suffering we put it out of its misery, and that’s OK; but it’s not OK when it comes to human beings because of the infinite worth of human life. Similarly, the Rabbi Moshe Tendler opposed voluntary euthanasia on the grounds that ‘Human life is of infinite value’. In his view, we should not cut short a person’s life by even a few days because ‘a piece of infinity is also infinity, and a person who has but a few moments to live is no less of value than a person who has 60 years to live’. Thus, the injunction against assisted suicide – like that against unassisted suicide – is commonly underwritten by the doctrine of human dignity.

But the whole edifice starts to crumble once we bring Darwin into the picture. With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of thehappiness of the individual living that life?

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Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity

Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:

(This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams (Cambridge University Press))

This post is the first of three looking at the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution for some of the most important topics in applied ethics, including suicide and euthanasia, and the proper treatment of nonhuman animals. These are controversial topics and you may well disagree with some of the ideas I’m going to float. I hope, though, that you’ll at least find it interesting and perhaps that you’ll find some food for thought in here.

First things first, a lot of people claim that evolutionary theory simply has no implications for any moral question. I suspect this view has been motivated in part by some of the unpopular and unpleasant conclusions that were drawn from the theory in the past. For instance, the Social Darwinists of the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century argued that giving aid to the weak, sick, and poor goes against nature – it undermines natural selection – and thus that it should be stopped. The vast majority of people reject this view now, and that includes the vast majority of evolutionists. But there have been some recent suggestions about other possible implications of evolutionary theory for ethics. One of the most important of these stems from the work of moral philosophers such as James Rachels and Peter Singer. According to these philosophers, in the wake of evolutionary theory, we must rethink or recalibrate our ethical commitments. Specifically, we must rethink the value we place on the lives of human beings vs. other animals.

Rachels identified an important trend in traditional Western moral thinking, which he dubbed the doctrine of human dignity. (Peter Singer uses the phrase sanctity of human life to refer to essentially the same thing.) Although the doctrine of human dignity is often not explicitly expressed, it is the heart and soul of the Western moral system, and provides the moorings for traditional morality.

The doctrine has two parts; the first pertains to humans, the second to nonhuman animals. The part pertaining to humans is the idea that human life has supreme worth – according to some, it has literally infinite value. A corollary of this view is that any activity that involves taking a human life (or at least an innocent human life) is utterly forbidden. This includes suicide, euthanasia, and abortion.

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