Our minds overflow with images of evil . . . of senseless killings of innocent people; of white supremacist marchers; of conspiracy theories and barefaced lies spreading from on high. And we are uplifted by images of goodness . . . of national heartache and empathy for the targets of racism; of volunteers sewing face masks and staffing food banks; of health care workers risking their own health to care for those alone near death’s door. In his 1665 Maxims, French moralist François La Rochefoucauld noted that our “natures are like most houses—many sided; some aspects are pleasant and some not.” So it is with humans. We are capable of such vile hatred and brutal violence, and of such compassionate altruism and self-giving love. But which, in our core, predominates? Deep in our hearts, are we, as the Psalmist said, “little lower than the angels”? Or did psychologist Donald Campbell rightly argue in his 1975 American Psychological Association presidential address that “original sin” better describes us—that selfishness-predisposing genes won the evolutionary competition? (Campbell anticipated Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene.) Photo: Colonel/E+/Getty Images Are the selfish behaviors of the marooned boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies an apt image of our human nature? One possible answer surfaced in a recent Guardian report of an actual group of teen boys from Tonga who, for 15 months, were marooned on an uninhabited island: “The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty.” The six Tonga boys cooperatively created a food garden, carved out tree trunks for water storage, improvised recreational facilities, and kept a permanent fire going, until being rescued by an Australian boat captain who noticed the fire. “Their days began and ended with song and prayer,” and problems were solved with a “time out.” But offsetting that heartwarming true-life story is another, told in Langdon Gilkey's 1966 book, The Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. Gilkey, who later became a University of Chicago theologian, was one of 1800 foreigners sent to a Japanese internment camp in North China’s Shantung Province during World War II. Businesspeople, missionaries, doctors, professors, junkies, and prostitutes—crowded into a former mission station no bigger than two football fields—were subjected to privation but not torture, malnutrition but not starvation. Before long, conflicts and selfishness ruled: The “fundamental bent of the total self in all of us was inward, toward our own welfare,” observed Gilkey, with abundant examples. “And so immersed were we in it that we hardly seemed able to see this in ourselves.” Two natural social experiments, with two different results. And so it is with the similarly mixed pictures of human nature emerging from Americans’ recent national experience—and from psychological science research. One mountain of research explores the self-centered behaviors that prevailed in the Shantung Compound. We have demonstrations galore of self-serving biases, of selfish behavior in social dilemma experiments, and of evil situations overwhelming benevolent intentions, inducing people to conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. Nice guys often don’t finish nice. Dozens of other experiments reveal how group influences can exacerbate our worst tendencies. Social psychological phenomena such as “deindividuation,” “groupthink,” and “group polarization” accentuate our sins. Police brutality, lynchings, wars, genocides, and looting are things people do in groups. Terrorism springs from like-minded people reverberating off one another. Disliking inflates to despising. Self-serving perceptions swell into collective pride, leading racists, sexists, and nationalists to perceive the superiority of their group—their race, sex, or country. Lewis Thomas, whose essays helped inspire my own, offered a dismal conclusion: “For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation.” All that is true. But there is another mountain of research that testifies to our potential for goodness. Humanistic and positive psychology explore our capacity for growth and gratitude, humility and hope. Evolutionary psychology explains the roots of our caring for kin and our care for others; groups composed of mutually supportive altruists survive to spread their group-serving genes. Social and developmental psychologists also document our capacity for empathy from early childhood onward. When observing another’s suffering, we wince and then we often help — even when our helping is anonymous. We give blood, donate money, protest injustice, and volunteer time to people we will never see. Genuine “empathy-induced altruism is part of human nature,” concluded Daniel Batson, after conducting 25 experiments. We are self-giving social animals. Moreover, if groups inflame our worst tendencies, they also amplify the flickers of our compassion, faith, and hope. In groups, runners run faster, audiences laugh louder, and givers become more generous. In support groups, people strengthen their resolve to stop drinking, lose weight, and study harder. In kindred-spirited groups, people expand their spiritual consciousness and dream of a better world. In The War for Kindness , social neuroscientist Jamil Zaki explores our human capacity for empathy and prosociality. Only a cold heart could view the knee upon George Floyd’s neck and not feel empathy and pain. Zaki also argues that the current pandemic has unleashed “ catastrophe compassion .” From food-sharing to mask-wearing, people are giving mutual aid and experiencing “social connection, solidarity, and shared resilience.” Langdon Gilkey found a glimmer of such compassion in the self-giving presence of Eric Liddell, a ray of light piercing the Shantung Compound’s self-centeredness. Thanks to the Oscar-winning 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, Liddell is best known as the Scottish runner so committed to his Christian principles that he accepted reproach for declining to participate in the 1924 Olympics 100-meter dash, being held on a Sunday. He instead ran the 400-meter, for which he had not trained, and won the Olympic gold. Although Liddell returned home a national hero, his greater heroism began where the movie ended, as he walked away from fame, fortune, and the next Olympics to teach chemistry and English as a missionary in rural China. Shortly before Japan entered World War II, Liddell’s pregnant wife and two daughters left China for the safety of home. Liddell stayed behind and in 1943 he found himself in the Shantung Compound, where he would die shortly before the camp’s liberation. While at the Camp, he organized games and worship, taught science to the children, and offered to sell his Olympic gold watch to buy them sports equipment. One Russian prostitute, for whom he put up shelves, said he was the only man who did anything for her without wanting to be repaid. As Gilkey explained: It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known. Often in an evening of that last year I (headed for some pleasant rendezvous with my girlfriend) would pass the games room and peer in to see what the missionaries had cooking for the teenagers. As often as not Eric … would be bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance—absorbed, warm and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the minds and imaginations of those penned-up youths. … He was aided by others, to be sure. But it was Eric's enthusiasm and charm that carried the day with the whole effort. So, are humans basically bad? Or good? Yes, and yes. As physicist Niels Bohr reminded us, sometimes “the opposite of a deep truth is also true.” Like a house, our human nature is many sided. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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In the aftermath of now-iconic images of senseless police cruelty, public opinion has taken a left turn. In a Monmouth University poll , the number of Americans agreeing that police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black person increased from 34 percent in 2016 to 57 percent today. People responding to a CBS News survey concurred, with 57 percent now perceiving that police in most communities “treat Whites better than Blacks.” But we err, says Attorney General William Barr. “There are instances of bad cops,” he grants. Despite those supposed few bad apples, he disputes the idea “that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.” He has many kindred spirits, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Chad Wolf, and Wall Street Journal commentator Heather Mac Donald all arguing that systemic police racism is a myth. Are they right? Biased by the availability heuristic—the compelling power of a readily available image—have our emotions been hijacked by unforgettable but unrepresentative images of police cruelty? Alas, the data suggest that America’s tragic history of racism survives, and not just within police departments: Police killings. From 2012 through 2018, Black men’s mortality risk from police killings has been, relative to their population size, triple that of White men—a difference that has continued through the past year . Police physical force. In Minneapolis , the 20 percent of the population that is Black has reportedly been the recipient of nearly 60 percent of police use of physical force. For broader data see here. Traffic stops. Studies ( here , here , here , here, and here, among many more) have found Black drivers more likely to be stopped, searched, and subjected to physical force. Perceived discrimination. Black Americans, Pew Research reports , “are about five times as likely as Whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity (44% vs. 9%).” Pew also reports that “Nearly two-thirds of Black adults (65%) say they’ve been in situations where people acted as if they were suspicious of them because of their race or ethnicity, while only a quarter of White adults [and a third of Asian and Hispanic adults] say that’s happened to them.” Perceived unfairness may be somewhat over reported: People who think they look different (for example, when wrongly believing they’ve been given a disfiguring theatrical facial scar) misperceive others as treating them differently. But there is more than a grain of truth to these perceptions—race-influenced policing is reality. Everyday discrimination. In experiments ( here , here , and here ), people seeking employment interviews, Airbnb reservations, and Uber and Lyft pickups have received better treatment when applying with a name like John rather than Jamal, or Emily rather than Lakisha. Automatic perceptions and reactions. Modern prejudice is also substantially implicit. In experiments, participants have more often perceived an ambiguous object, when held by a Black person, as a gun rather than a bottle. And, when reacting in simulations, untrained participants also shot more quickly. One other finding for us to ponder: Two experiments ( here and here ) show that most folks predict they would be upset and would intervene if witnessing a sexist or racist slur, yet respond with indifference when actually experiencing such. In one study, only 5 percent expected they’d say nothing. But faced with the actual situation, 55 percent stayed silent. Good intentions exceed courageous actions. T. S. Elliot understood: “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.” So, is there any hope for progress? Are efforts to create a better future pointless? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quoting of a nineteenth century abolitionist was optimistic: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Today, we can take heart that twentieth century civil rights efforts bent the arc. Acceptance of racial integration, interracial marriage, and Black presidential candidates—all once supported by few—are now supported by 9 in 10 people or more. “Decades ago,” notes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson , “unarmed Black people getting beaten or killed by the police barely merited the local news. But now it’s national news–even breaking news–no matter where in the country it occurs.” Even implicit racism has been declining . These historic advances are, however, offset—since 2016—by some regression. By modeling divisiveness, the President’s bullying and racist tweets and retweets have contributed to a more polarized and toxic culture. For example, hate groups are more numerous . And the FBI reports that hate crimes increased from 5,850 in 2015 to 7,120 in 2018. The bottom line: In the last six decades, overt racism, violent crime, sexism, homophobia, and other ills have substantially declined . So there is reason for hope. Our efforts can bear fruit. Yet prejudice persists. Systemic racism endures. To reach full justice, the moral arc needs to bend much further. If 2020 is to be an inflection point, there is work to be done on the barrel that can make apples go bad. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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I am fascinated by the human tendency to fear the wrong things. W e routinely display probability neglect by fretting about vividly publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. Dramatic catastrophes make us gasp, while probabilities we barely grasp. Thus, we may fear airline flights more than driving—though over the last decade driving has been, per mile traveled, 501 times more likely to kill us. We may fear nuclear power more than coal mining and burning. And how many parents agonize about statistically rare terrorist acts, school shootings, and child abductions . . . while not bothering to strap their child into a car seat? Psychology geeks will recognize the availability heuristic at work here, skewing our intuitive risk assessments. That reality triggers my wondering—as a genuine question from one who is respecting the sheltering mandate— Are our COVID-19 fears proportional to the COVID-19 threat? Consider: About 2.8 million Americans die each year. Imagine that in 2020, an additional 200,000 of us die of COVID-19. That number would be an enormous tragedy, reflecting a mountain of suffering and pain. Without minimizing those losses, also consider this: In this scenario, the average person this year would be 14 times more likely to die of something other than the lethal virus. So, should we be 14 times more afraid of all those other causes of death—such as heart disease (647,000 deaths), cancer (599,000), and accidents (170,000)? Of course, the actual risks facing any individual vary, depending on their occupational exposure, their underlying health, and also their age. As we all know, older people are much more threatened by the coronavirus, while “ Young, healthy Americans have a fatality rate similar to that of the seasonal flu,” reports Johns Hopkins public health professor Marty Makary. The age gap was seemingly not fully appreciated by letter writers who told the New York Times how much they feared for the lives of students being sent to college this fall. The CDC report s that, between February 1, and May 6, 2020, COVID-19 claimed the lives of 58 Americans under age 25. Although each life lost is a tragedy, that’s a small fraction of the ~1300 under-age-25 Americans who die in vehicle crashes during an average 3+ month interval. Moreover, as Dana Rose Garfin and colleagues note , vivid media depictions of public health crises or terrorism can trigger anxiety and stress among those “at relatively low risk” and “with downstream consequences” on their health-protective behaviors and health. This is not to minimize the COVID threat. In April, COVID-19 was the number 1 cause of death in the United States. In just the first 18 days of that month, the country experienced 51,218 “excess deaths” (220,002 versus an expected 174,784). And scientists are still discovering the full range of possible lingering effects of COVID-19 infection. Furthermore, when low-risk younger adults shun parties and wear masks they not only protect themselves, they also protect their communities. Their caution expresses intergenerational altruism. Thankfully, we have expert guidance that helps them and us discern situations that are higher risk (face-to-face, sustained indoor meetings and meals) and very low risk (fleeting outdoor passersby). I therefore will not soon be a customer at indoor restaurants. Even so, I sheepishly wonder: Have I taken more risk when fearlessly biking without a helmet than when entering a COVID-19-era grocery store or walking by people in the outdoor air? So, what shall we conclude? On balance, are our fears proportional to the various risks we face? On reflection, I suspect that my fears are imperfectly correlated with actual lethal threats. I am not immune to the cognitive distortions about which I write—to excessively fearing what’s in the news and to what psychologists call “unrealistic optimism” about what isn’t. In that, I suspect I am not alone. In explaining Notre Dame University’s decision to reopen in August, its president, the Rev. John Jenkins, cites “ Aristotle, who defined courage not as simple fearlessness, but as the mean between a rashness that is heedless of danger and a timidity that is paralyzed by it. To possess the virtue of courage is to be able to choose the proper mean between these extremes — to know what risks are worth taking, and why.” Pondering these things has not altered my sheltering in place. But it has prompted a different change. On my daily bike outings, I am now donning a helmet. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Despite fewer work and vehicle accident deaths during the shutdown, the CDC excess death estimate considerably exceeds the CDC’s 34,254 COVID-19 actual death count during those three weeks. This s uggests that, contrary to conspiracy theories of hospitals inflating COVID death counts, the official COVID death counts are under estimates.
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For you and psychology teachers everywhere—most with students confined to their homes—the COVID-19 pandemic is an unexpected challenge and stress. Even so, perhaps its dark clouds can come with a small silver lining: some teachable moments. In so many ways, we are experiencing psychology writ large. In this 12-minute video vignette, I offer you and your students—in case you might want to share this—some examples of how psychological science can help them understand what they are observing and experiencing. This comes as a gesture of my gratitude for the great privilege of assisting your teaching, and with all good wishes.
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A classic moral psychology dilemma invites us to contemplate a runaway trolley headed for five people who are tied to the tracks and destined for death—unless you pull a lever that diverts the trolley to a side track where it would kill one person. So, do you: a) do nothing and allow five people to die, or b) take an action that causes one person’s death?
Utilitarian ethics would admonish you to pull the lever and save lives. But doing so, says an alternative “deontological” perspective, would involve you in a moral wrong and make you actively responsible for someone’s death.
The trolley problem is now playing out on the world stage in the medical ethics surrounding COVID-19 vaccine development. Developing a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine will reportedly take many months, as researchers vaccinate thousands of people with a trial vaccine or placebo, then allow time for the natural course of events to expose some to the virus. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of the world’s people may die, and rates of poverty and its associated ills will soar.
Some ethicists , and 35 U.S. Congress members , have therefore proposed speeding up vaccine development with “human challenge” experiments—double-blind clinical trials that expose minimally-at-risk young adult volunteers to the virus, with all volunteers then being followed for a medically supervised quarantine period. This is not a mere hypothetical idea: Thousands of people have already volunteered to participate.
So, should we proactively expose a relative few to infection in hopes of sparing the lives and livelihoods of so many more? This real-life trolley problem offers a provocative discussion topic for your class or dinner table. Here are arguments I’ve heard on each side of this issue:
We should not solicit volunteers for experiments that infect people, even young adults:
Exploitation. Young people have a natural tendency to believe themselves invincible, and we would be exploiting their natural “unrealistic optimism” in asking for volunteers. With the offer of pay, poor people might be especially vulnerable to exploitation.
History. The horrific history of unethical medical experimentation provides a cautionary tale. Remember the revolting medical experiments done by the Nazis on those unwilling and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment on those unwitting.
Unintended consequences. As a recent Science article explained, we don't yet know anything about potential long-term health consequences from having been afflicted with COVID. There have been questions about whether people who get very sick, for example, will ever recover full lung function, and many of those placed on ventilators suffer lingering neurological deficits. There have also been reports of young COVID sufferers experiencing kidney damage, blood clots , circulatory problems (“ COVID toe ”), and a post-infection inflammatory response .
Unethical. “I cannot imagine that this would be ethical,” said one vaccine researcher. We should not induce humans to serve as guinea pigs in an experiment with unknown consequences. Would you want one of your own children to volunteer for a human challenge experiment? What about the Hippocratic oath: “First do no harm”?
We should conduct human challenge experiments:
Little risk. The risk to younger adults would be minimal. Among COVID deaths in the U.S., very few—. 001 —have been to people ages 15 to 24.
Humanitarian purpose. If, by taking less lethal risk than taken each year by driving a car, young adult volunteers could save countless thousands of lives, is that not a net good? Don’t we owe it to our at-risk elders?
Mere acceleration of exposure. One could conduct the experiment in a city—or a country such as Sweden—where volunteers might simply be accelerating the timeline for their likely exposure and subsequent likely immunity.
The moral logic. Where is the moral logic in sending young adults into combat zones, where the risks are vastly greater and the moral outcome often more ambiguous, while denying young volunteers their wish to serve humanity? “If healthy volunteers, fully informed about the risks, are willing to help fight the pandemic by aiding promising research,” argue ethicists Peter Singer and Richard Yetter Chappell, “there are strong moral reasons to gratefully accept their help. To refuse it would implicitly subject others to still graver risks.”
What do you (or your students or companions) think? And what risk/benefit ratio might change your answer?
If you oppose a human challenge experiment, is there some minimal level of risk and some magnitude of benefit that would lead you to support it?
If you support a human challenge experiment, what level of risk or what constraint on the benefit might lead you to oppose it?
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“If public health officials recommended that everyone stay at home for a month because of a serious outbreak of coronavirus in your community, how likely are you to stay home for a month?” When Gallup recently put this question to Americans, 76 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans answered “Very likely.” This partisan gap coheres with an earlier YouGov survey finding (replicated by NPR/Marist 😞 By a 2 to 1 margin (58 percent versus 29 percent), Republicans more than Democrats believed “the threat of coronavirus has been exaggerated.” The gap extends to mask wearing, with mostly maskless shut-down protestors storming my state’s capitol. Politico headlined that wearing a mask is for smug liberals,” adding “For progressives, masks have become a sign that you take the pandemic seriously.” Given how right George W. Bush was to remind us “how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” my social scientist curiosity is tickled: Why the gap? What is it about being a Democrat that makes one more accepting of disruptive sheltering-in-place and mask-wearing? It’s not because kindred-spirited Democrats control the White House bully pulpit and the federal agencies that recommended sheltering-in-place. It’s likely not because Democrats are more submissively docile and obedient of authority. It’s not because Democrats are more fearful of threatening diseases, or have had more COVID-19-related experiences. And no, it’s seemingly not because Democrats are more knowledgeable about basic science. When Pew in 2019 gave Americans a science knowledge test, Republicans and Democrats were about equally likely to know, for example, that the tilt of the Earth’s axis determines the seasons, that antibiotic overuse produces antibiotic resistance, and that a control group helps determine the effectiveness of a new drug. So what gives? And why, in another Gallup survey, is there an even greater political gap in concerns about climate change—with 77 percent of Democrats and only 16 percent of Republicans being “concerned believers”: people who believe that climate warming will pose a serious threat, that it’s human-caused, and that news reports about it are accurate or underestimate the problem. As one who grew up Republican—my beloved business-owning father was Washington State treasurer of Nixon for President—I scratch my head. Why has the conservative party I associate with family values, low taxes, and business-supportive policies become so unsupportive of people’s right to life under a pandemic and of our conserving the environment for our grandchildren? One answer, reports University of Montana psychologist Luke Conway, is that conservatives are small government folks. They resist government intervention in their lives. A second answer comes from another Pew survey . Although telling me your political affiliation won’t clue me to your basic science knowledge, it will clue me to your science attitudes. Should scientists take “an active role in public policy debates?” Yes, say 73 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans. Even among those with high science knowledge, Republicans (64 percent) are much more likely than Democrats (39 percent) to “say scientists are just as likely to be biased as other people.” Speaking to protestors here in Michigan’s state capitol, David Clarke, a former Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, sheriff, reportedly mocked “bending the curve,” scorned “so-called experts” who created the six-foot social distancing recommendation “out of their rear ends,” and declared the coronavirus death count phony. (Actually, excess mortality data indicate the death count underestimates the toll.) Conservative commentator Yuval Levin, a former science adviser to President George W. Bush, also notes how social media and the Internet diminish respect for scientific expertise: “People tend to think that the expert is just a person. And so now information is available anywhere. And so anyone can be an expert.” If Levin is right, this is the Dunning-Krueger effect writ large (the least competent people most overestimating their knowledge). Another source of science skepticism may be the reversal of Republicans being the party of college graduates (as were 54 percent in 1994 versus only 39 percent of Democrats). By 2017 those numbers had exactly flipped. More education used to predict Republican voting. Now it predicts Democratic voting. Highly educated scientists, for example, now identify as Democratic rather than Republican by a 10 to 1 margin (55 to 6 percent). Does a Democratic-leaning academia—with 6 in 10 college professors identifying as “liberal”—explain why only one-third of Republicans (but two-thirds of Democrats) now perceive colleges and universities having a positive effect “on the way things are going in the country”? And, in addition to valid concerns for jobs and the economy, does Republicans’ suspicion of higher education and the role of scientists in public policy feed their push to reopen the country? Despite scientists’ progressive leanings, we can credit them with listening to their data and then letting the chips fall. Yes, I know, science is not an utterly neutral, value-free enterprise. But credit science with the pursuit of truth—with giving us research findings that sometimes affirm progressive views (about climate risk, sexual orientation, and socially toxic inequality), but also sometimes affirm conservative views (about the contribution of marriage to human flourishing, the association of religiosity with health and well-being, and growth mindsets that power individual initiative). And take note of the rising voices within academia who, in the words of the Heterodox Academy movement, believe that “diverse viewpoints & open inquiry are critical to research and learning.” As psychologist Scott Lilienfeld declares in a forthcoming special issue of Archives of Scientific Psychology, the welcome mat is now out even for “unpopular ideas.” If we educators can help people appreciate both the nonpartisan nature of scientific findings and academia’s openness to a free marketplace of ideas, then might we enable tomorrow’s citizens—whether Democrat or Republican—to welcome the wisdom of science? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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Those mindful of our human need to belong are surely unsurprised by the emotional challenges of shelter-in-place life. As social animals, our ancestors—and we, too—have flourished when connected in close, supportive relationships. To be physically distanced from friends, deprived of our communal parties, sports, and worship, isolated from work-mates, and unable to break bread with close friends is to have our social identities thwarted. Facebook, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Instagram, and messaging all help. Facebook’s mission—“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—has merit. Nevertheless, as psychologist Jean Twenge reminds us, screen-based relationships are but a partial substitute for how nature has designed us: for eyeball-to-eyeball relationships. Moreover, those crowded in small apartments with others may experience their own added challenges of too much contact, albeit with too few. So it doesn’t astonish us, though it should concern us, that a Kaiser Family Foundation late March national survey found that, as the Washington Post headlined, “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.” And we’re likely also not shocked by an early-April Gallup survey that found people experiencing heightened worry and stress: But consider a less obvious question: Who do you suppose is feeling most stressed and lonely—those young or old? If you guessed those old—those often alone and with so much less virtual socializing than those young and connected through social media—guess again. Who, for example, has in the last seven days reported feeling “lonely or isolated”? An AEI survey provides a clear answer: Ages 18–29: 69 percent Ages 30–49: 59 percent Ages 50–64: 45 percent Ages 65+: 39 percent Gallup replicated the age difference, noting that “ the decline in the percentage who are thriving is substantially greater among adults aged 18–44 than for older age groups.” That accelerates a nearly decade-long decline in teen and young adult mental health. Finally, a point to ponder from 18-year-old essayist Jamie Margolin : “The way the coronavirus disproportionately affects older people is the exact way the climate crisis disproportionately affects young people…. Older generations have the highest risk of dying from [the coronavirus]. When it comes to the climate crisis, most of the statistics are flipped: Young people will suffer the most.” Thus, a great question for our time: In our actions and voting, will we older folks (who feel grateful to younger folks who self-isolate to protect us from future harm) reciprocate with similar intergenerational altruism?
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“Memory is insubstantial. Things keep replacing it.” ~Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text,” 1988 Often in life we do not expect something to happen until it does, whereupon—seeing the forces that produced the event—we feel unsurprised. We call this phenomenon the hindsight bias (aka the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon). Hindsight bias is fed by our after-the-fact misremembering of our before-the-fact views. We don’t just retrieve our memories, we reweave them. Like those who continuously revise Wikipedia pages, our brain often replaces a retrieved memory with a modified one. Memory researchers call this process reconsolidation. Reconsolidation explains some unnerving observations. In several studies, people whose beliefs or attitudes have changed have nevertheless insisted that they always felt much as they now feel. In one study , Carnegie Mellon University students answered a survey that included a question about student control over the curriculum. A week later, after being induced to write an essay opposing student control, their attitudes shifted toward what they’d written—greater opposition to student control. Yet when recalling their earlier opinion, the students “remembered” holding the opinion that they now held. After observing other students similarly denying their former attitudes, researchers D. R. Wixon and James Laird noted that “The speed, magnitude, and certainty” with which the students revised their own histories “was striking.” And so it has been even for President Trump and his self-proclaimed “world’s greatest memory,” as reflected in his evolving views of the coronavirus (documented here and elsewhere): January 22: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.” February 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” February 24: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA… Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” February 26: “We’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck.” February 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” March 6: “I think we’re doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down … a tremendous job at keeping it down.” March 7: “I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. No, we’ve done a great job.” March 13: “National emergency. Two big words.” March 17: “I’ve always viewed it as very serious. … This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Our explanation of these contradictory statements depends partly on the lens through which we view them. Democrats may see them as evidence of dishonesty, Republicans as normal memory flaws. Or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. After following a group of adults from the 1930s through the 1990s, George Vaillant observed, “It is all too common for caterpillars to become butterflies and then to maintain that in their youth they had been little butterflies. Maturation makes liars of us all.” Decades later, his observation holds true—not only for the President but for us all. How easy it is to be wise after events. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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For psychology teachers everywhere—many with students displaced to their homes—the COVID-19 pandemic’s dark clouds offer a potential silver lining: some teachable moments. In so many ways, we are experiencing social psychology writ large, with so much to study. Here’s my initial list of opportunities for online and in-class discussion of social dynamics in action. Concept: The need to belong. We humans are social animals. We live and find safety in groups. We flourish and find happiness when connected in close, supportive relationships. Separation (or, worse, ostracism) triggers pain. Discussion questions: 1. Are there ways in which the pandemic thwarts our need to belong? Possible answers: by social distancing, cancelled communal gatherings (sports, parties, worship), the isolation of off-site learning and work, diminished travel to be with loved ones or for shared experiences. 2. If so, might the isolation increase risk of physical or mental health problems? Possible answers: Isolation may exacerbate loneliness and depression, both of which can make people vulnerable to ill-health and, ironically, compromised immune functioning. [P.S. My colleague Jean Twenge offers more on this here.] 3. Are there ways we can nevertheless satisfy our need to belong? Possible answers: online meetings through video conferencing; connecting through social media (Facebook’s mission: “ to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together ”); Facetime conversations; acts of caring to those in need or at-risk; love-bombing friends and family with messages and emails. Perhaps physical distancing needn't correspond with social distancing? Concept: The social responsibility norm. Norms are social expectations for desirable behavior. The social responsibility norm is the expectation that we help those in need. Discussion question: Have you observed or read examples of the social responsibility norm in operation during the current crisis? Possible answers: People doing grocery runs for neighbors at risk; friends reminding peers “even if you aren’t at risk for serious illness, you need to protect yourself so older and at-risk folks you meet aren’t imperiled and hospitals overwhelmed.” Concept: The availability heuristic’s influence on our fears . Heuristics are thinking shortcuts. The availability heuristic is our automatic tendency to estimate the likelihood of an event by how readily it comes to mind (how available it is in memory). Vivid media images of disasters can therefore lead us to fear things that kill people in bunches (such as plane crashes, when auto travel is vastly more dangerous). Discussion question: Although it’s too early to know the coronavirus’ lethality (because we don’t yet know how many people have undiagnosed infections), have you witnessed examples of some panicked people fearing it too much? And of others, by failing to appreciate its exponential future spread, fearing it too little? Discussion question: Do you agree with statistician-writer Nate Silver’s speculation that these two tendencies (fearing too much and fearing too little) might balance each other? Concept: Unrealistic optimism. We are natural positive thinkers. In study after study, students have believed themselves far more likely than their classmates to be destined for a good job and salary and as less likely to develop a drinking problem get fired, or have a heart attack by age 40. Likewise, smokers think themselves less vulnerable to cancer or better able to quit. Newlyweds believe themselves invulnerable to divorce. Discussion question: If cognitively available COVID-19 horror stories inflate too much fear in some, does unrealistic optimism create too little in others? If so, what are (or were) examples of such? (People, despite initial warnings, flocking to bars and beaches?) Concept: Selective exposure to information. Selective exposure is the human tendency to prefer and seek information and news feeds that affirm rather than challenge our preexisting views. Discussion question: A recent survey (replicated by NPR/Marist) found that 58 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Democrats believed “the threat of coronavirus has been exaggerated.” Might selective information exposure explain this difference? If so, how? Discussion question: Are you selectively exposing yourself solely to news and social media sources that affirm rather than challenge your views? Concept: Group polarization. In experiments, discussion among like-minded people tends to enhance their preexisting views. Discussion question: In times of crisis, does the internet enable the segregation of like-minded people clustered in echo chambers, progressives with progressives, and conservatives with conservatives—each group sharing links to sites that affirm their own views? Discussion question: Does this polarization describe you and your friends? Discussion question: Are there other ways in which you engage views other than your own? Concept: Individualism vs. collectivism. Cultures vary in the extent to which they prioritize “me” or “we”—personal (my) goals and identity or group (our) goals and identity. Discussion question: Have you observed examples of individualism or collectivism in response to health or government guidelines for controlling the spread of the virus? Possible answers: Individualism—objecting to limits on one’s activities—“I’m fine and not at risk, so why shouldn’t I be able to party with my friends?” Collectivism: “We’re responsible for each other and could pass the virus on to an older person or someone with an underlying condition.” Discussion question: Does China’s collectivism help explain its plummeting rate of new COVID-19 cases—from several thousand per day during February to just 27 on March 15? Possible answer: Students may note that China is more collectivist—more “we” focused—but also more autocratic. Concept: The motivating power of social perceptions. Stock market drops and bank runs occur when people perceive that others will be selling their holdings or withdrawing their money, causing collapse. People who may not think conditions are terrible may create a downturn by fearing that others think so. Discussion question: Has your community experienced a similar run on goods—by people who may not fear a lack of goods, but worry that others do, and will empty shelves? Concept: Terror-Management. Some 300 studies explore the effects of reminding people of their mortality. “Death anxiety” provokes varied defenses, which range from aggression toward rivals to shoring up self-esteem to prioritizing close relationships to embracing worldviews and faith that remind us of life’s meaning. Discussion question: Have you observed any examples of people’s heightened death anxiety and their adaptive responses to such? Concept: The unifying power of a common enemy and a superordinate goal. When diverse people experience a shared threat—a common enemy, a natural disaster, a mean boss—they often feel a kinship, as many Americans did after 9/11. Moreover, working cooperatively toward a shared (“superordinate”) goal can transform distant or conflicting people into friends. Discussion question: Have you seen instances when the shared threat of a pandemic virus helped someone appreciate our common humanity? Discussion question: Have you seen instances when the awareness of the virus made you or a loved one more suspicious of others—whose mere cough might make them seem like an external threat? For psychological science (the most fascinating science, methinks), the world around us is a living laboratory in which we observe powerful social forces at work in others . . . and in ourselves. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies (2020) identifies “zombie ideas”—repeatedly refuted ideas that refuse to die. He offers economic zombie ideas that survive to continue eating people’s brains: “Tax cuts pay for themselves.” “The budget deficit is our biggest economic problem.” “Social Security is going broke.” “Climate change is nonexistent or trivial.” That triggered my musing: Does everyday psychology have a similar army of mind-eating, refuse-to-die ideas? Here are some candidates, and the research-based findings that tell a different story: People often repress painful experiences, which years later may later reappear as recovered memories or disguised emotions. (In reality, we remember traumas all too well, often as unwanted flashbacks.) In realms from sports to stock picking, it pays to go with the person who’s had the hot hand. (Actually, the combination of our pattern-seeking mind and the unexpected streakiness of random data guarantees that we will perceive hot hands even amid random outcomes.) Parental nurture shapes our abilities, personality, and sexual orientation. (The greatest and most oft-replicated surprise of psychological science is the minimal contribution of siblings’ “shared environment.”) Immigrants are crime-prone. (Contrary to what President Donald Trump has alleged, and contrary to people’s greater fear of immigrants in regions where few immigrants live, immigrants do not have greater-than-average arrest and incarceration rates.) Big round numbers: The brain has 100 billion neurons. 10 percent of people are gay. We use only 10 percent of our brain. 10,000 daily steps make for health. 10,000 practice hours make an expert. (Psychological science tells us to distrust such big round numbers.) Psychology’s three most misunderstood concepts are that: “Negative reinforcement” refers to punishment. “Heritability” means how much of a person’s traits are attributable to genes. “Short-term memory” refers to your inability to remember what you experienced yesterday or last week, as opposed to long ago. (These zombie ideas are all false, as I explain here .) Seasonal affective disorder causes more people to get depressed in winter, especially in cloudy places, and in northern latitudes. (This is still an open debate, but massive new data suggest to me that it just isn’t so.) To raise healthy children, protect them from stress and other risks. (Actually, children are antifragile . Much as their immune systems develop protective antibodies from being challenged, children’s emotional resilience builds from experiencing normal stresses.) Teaching should align with individual students’ “learning styles.” (Do students learn best when teaching builds on their responding to, say, auditory versus visual input? Nice-sounding idea, but researchers— here and here —continue to find little support for it.) Well-intentioned therapies change lives. (Often yes, but sometimes no—as illustrated by the repeated failures of some therapy zombies: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, D.A.R.E. Drug Abuse Prevention, Scared Straight crime prevention, Conversion Therapy for sexual reorientation, permanent weight-loss training programs.) Association for Psychological Science President Lisa Feldman Barrett, with support from colleagues, has offered additional psychology-relevant zombie ideas: Vaccines cause autism (a zombie idea responsible for the spread of preventable disease). A woman’s waist-to-hip ratio predicts her reproductive success. (For people who advocate this idea about women, says Barrett, “There should be a special place in hell, filled with mirrors.”) A sharp distinction between nature and nurture. (Instead, biology and experience intertwine: “Nature requires nurture, and nurture has its impact via nature.”) “Male” and “female” are genetically fixed, non-overlapping categories. (Neuroscience shows our human gender reality to be more complicated.) People worldwide similarly read emotion in faces. (People do smile when happy, frown when sad, and scowl when angry—but there is variation across context and cultures. Moreover, a wide-eyed gasping face can convey more than one emotion, depending on the context.) Westend61 /Getty Images Ergo, when approached by a possible zombie idea, don’t just invite it to become part of your mental family. Apply psychological science by welcoming plausible-sounding ideas, even hunches, and then putting each to the test: Ask does the idea work? Do the data support its predictions? When subjected to skeptical scrutiny, crazy-sounding ideas do sometimes find support. During the 1700s, scientists ridiculed the notion that meteorites had extraterrestrial origins. Thomas Jefferson reportedly scoffed at the idea that “stones fell from heaven.” But more often, as I suggest in Psychology 13 th Edition (with Nathan DeWall), “science becomes society’s garbage collector, sending crazy-sounding ideas to the waste heap atop previous claims of perpetual motion machines, miracle cancer cures, and out-of-body travels. To sift reality from fantasy and fact from fiction therefore requires a scientific attitude: being skeptical but not cynical, open-minded but not gullible.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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In a long-ago experiment by Columbia University social psychologist Stanley Schachter, groups discussed how to deal with fictional juvenile delinquent “Johnny Rocco.” One “modal” group member (actually Schachter’s accomplice) concurred with the others in arguing for leniency and became well liked. A second accomplice, the “deviate,” stood alone in arguing for harsh discipline. At first, the study participants argued with the nonconforming deviate, but eventually they ignored him and then reported disliking him. Recent experiments with children and adults confirm the lesson: Groups respond harshly to members who deviate from group norms and threaten their group identity. Other studies show how agonizingly difficult it can be to publicly state truths after hearing consensus falsehoods from one’s peers, and how “groupthink” suppresses dissent. After President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, his adviser Arthur Schlesinger, having self-censored his misgivings, reproached himself “for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions.” To dissent from one’s group—one’s fraternity, one’s religion, one’s friends—can be painful, especially when a minority of one. Mitt Romney understands. For being a minority of one in voting for President Trump’s removal, he anticipated being “vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters.” And so he has. “I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” vented the President, before ridiculing Romney for “one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.” Donald Trump, Jr. went further, calling for Romney to “be expelled” from the GOP. Romney, some Congressional colleagues derided, was a “ sore loser ” who acted “ to appease the left ” and was “ not very collegial .” The rewards of conformity, and the rejection of dissenters, are no secret. As President Kennedy recalled in Profiles in Courage (1955), “‘The way to get along,’ I was told when I entered Congress, ‘is to go along.’” It is a temptation we all face. When feeling alone, we may silence our voice. We may join a standing ovation for something we do not inwardly applaud. We may succumb to the power of our herd and its leader. And then, feeling some dissonance over conforming, we rationalize. Observing our own silence and our false witness, our mind mutates, and we begin to believe what we reluctantly stood up for. Our attitudes follow our actions, which grow their own self-justifying legs. As C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity , “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.” For those who endure the distress of dissent, there are compensations. First, minorities of one can matter. “All history,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a record of the power of minorities, and of minorities of one.” Think of Copernicus and Galileo, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony, of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. In the short term, these heroes, and the conformity-resisting former senators whom Kennedy later celebrated in Profiles in Courage, were scorned for flouting team play and resisting expectations. It was only later that historians and filmmakers honored their heroism. Mitt Romney can take the long view. Second, experiments on “minority influence” show how a minority of one can matter; When such individuals, despite ridicule, persist with consistency, they can sway their laboratory group, or even change history. Being a persistent dissenting voice may get you disliked and even ignored, but it can also, eventually, stimulate rethinking. It punctures the illusion of unanimity and can enable others to express their doubts. That voice is especially potent when it represents a defection from the ingroup rather than a voice from the opposition. A Republican Mitt Romney is harder for Republicans to dismiss than a Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ergo, those who dissent—who deviate from group norms and threaten a group’s identity—are often scorned. Yet a persistent, consistent, cogent voice sometimes moves the needle. “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide,” said Emerson, “the huge world will come round to him.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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A recent Templeton World Charity Foundation conference, Character, Social Connections and Flourishing in the 21st Century, expanded my mind, thanks to a lecture by famed evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. This much about him I had known: His multilevel selection theory argues that evolution favors survival-enhancing group as well as individual behaviors. Within groups, selfishness beats altruism. Yet altruistic groups triumph over selfish groups. What I learned from his lecture and our ensuing dinner conversation was that his passion has shifted to understanding and enabling effective real-world groups—from nonprofit organizations to schools to faith communities to businesses. How might people in such groups more effectively work together to accomplish goals? To enhance work team effectiveness, Wilson and his colleagues suggest implementing a group of basic principles. They point out that groups that effectively manage shared resources, such as irrigation, forests, and fisheries, follow principles that (a) integrate evolutionary principles of group selection with (b) “ core design principles ” identified by political scientist and economics Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, seasoned with (c) behavior-change insights articulated by psychologist Steven Hayes. The resulting eight principles for success: Strong group identity and purpose. Groups know who they are and what sets them apart from other groups. Fair sharing of benefits and costs. Proportional sharing (without some members benefiting at the expense of others) advances group over individual advancement. Fair and inclusive decisions. Consensus decision-making, with uncensored input, enables smart decisions, and, again, safeguards against some benefiting at others’ expense. Tracking results ensures that agreements are honored. Graduated sanctions. Accountability for misbehaviors ranges from gentle reminders to expulsion. Conflict resolution mechanisms. When disagreements occur, the group implements fair and fast resolution procedures. Authority to self-govern. In larger societies and organizations, subgroups are empowered to organize and operate. Appropriate coordination with other groups. In larger social systems, operating subgroups must integrate with other subgroups. How striking it is, notes Wilson, that the principles Ostrom identified from successful commons resource-managing groups are so similar to “the conditions that caused us to evolve into such a cooperative species.” These principles—when implemented by effective leaders—build a group’s moral foundation, protect it against self-serving behaviors, and allow its members to freely express themselves. To assist groups in implementing the core design principles drawn from evolutionary, political, and psychological science, Wilson and colleagues have authored a book (Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups), developed a website that offers training and resources, and produced an online magazine that tells implementation stories. Wilson’s life journey—from son of a famous author (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) to science theorist to social entrepreneur—is unique. Yet in other ways, his professional pilgrimage is similar to our own . . . as our lives have unfolded in unanticipated ways—sometimes with false starts leading to brick walls, sometimes with gratifying new directions. Little did I expect, when first encountering Wilson’s work, that it would later produce practical resources for helping groups “learn about and adopt design principles to improve their efficacy.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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Caring parents understandably want to protect their children from physical harm and emotional hurt. We do this, we presume, for their sakes. And, if the truth be told, we do it for our own as well. Many of us knowingly nodded when Michelle Obama shared the common parental experience: “You are as happy as your least happy child.” But as my friend and fellow social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, recently explained to a large West Michigan audience, sometimes parental good intentions prepare kids for failure. Haidt began by documenting what I’ve previously described —the stunning recent increase in teens’ (especially teen girls’) depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking, and self-harm (as documented in ER visits). This tsunami of mental health problems has now also reached college campuses, as evident in collegians’ increased depression rates and visits to campus mental health services. What gives? What accounts for this greater fragility of today’s youth? Teen biology hasn’t changed. They’re not drinking more (indeed, they’re drinking less). They’re not working more (they’re less often employed). What has changed, Haidt observed, is, first, technology—the spread of smart phones, the explosion of social media, and the addition of social comparison-promoting social media features, such as visible likes and retweets of one’s posts. Haidt offered correlational studies that associate teens’ social media use with their mental health, and experiments that reveal the emotional benefits of a restrained social media diet. (For more, see this prior blog essay, and Haidt’s recent Atlantic essay, with Tobias Rose-Stockwell: “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” See also this new response by his collaborator, Jean Twenge, to skeptics of the social media explanation.) As an antidote to social media’s emotional toxicity (and diminished sleep and face-to-face relationships), Haidt offered three practical family guidelines for healthy media use: He also attributes the increase youth mental health issues to a second cultural change: Today’s parents often fail to appreciate the “antifragility” principle—that children’s emotions, like their bones and immune systems, gain strength from being challenged. Bones and muscles gain strength from exercise. Immune systems develop protective antibodies from challenges (soaring peanut allergies are a sorry result of routinely protecting infants from peanut exposure). And children’s emotional health and resilience likewise builds through their unpleasant experiences. There is truth to Nietzsche’s aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Alas, as Haidt demonstrated by surveying his audience, members of Generation Z (people born since 1996) have grown up more protected—with parents restraining their roaming free until later childhood. Their grandparents, by contrast, and to some extent their parents, were experienced a less restricted “free range childhood.” (And no, today’s world is not more dangerous—it’s actually much safer than the 1970s.) Moreover, he argued (also in The Coddling of the American Mind with Greg Lukianoff, and in a new essay with Pamela Paresky), schools are ill-serving students by protecting them from uncomfortable speech. Colleges ill-prepare students for life outside the campus when they suppress unpopular perspectives and offer “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” that insulate students from “micro-aggressions.” As an alternative approach, Haidt welcomes viewpoint diversity—the thrust of the Heterodox Academy . He and his colleagues also offer resources for open-minded engagement at the new OpenMindPlatform.org . Haidt’s case for viewpoint diversity and open dialogue remind me of the long-ago wisdom of social psychologist William McGuire, whose experiments taught us an important lesson: Unchallenged beliefs existing in “germ-free ideological environments” are the most vulnerable to later being overturned. To form one’s beliefs amid diverse views is to become more discerning, and ultimately more deeply grounded in less fragile convictions. Ergo, concludes Haidt, to support teen mental health be intentional about screen time and social media, and remember: character—like bones, muscles, and immunity—grows from challenge. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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Cognitive dissonance theory—one of social psychology’s gifts to human self-understanding—offers several intriguing predictions, including this: When we act in ways inconsistent with our attitudes or beliefs, we often resolve that dissonance by changing our thinking. Attitudes follow behavior. That simple principle explains why smokers often dismiss health warnings, why racial attitudes improved following school desegregation and civil rights laws, and why we tend to dislike those whom we’ve harmed and to love those to whom we have been kind. Although we sometimes do persuade ourselves to act, we also can act ourselves into new ways of thinking. Our deeds forge our understandings. The principle reaches into our political attitudes. Consider how U.S. attitudes followed U.S. behavior as events unfolded during the 2003 war with Iraq, which was premised primarily on the need to rid Iraq of its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Four in five Americans told Gallup they believed WMDs would be found, leading 4 in 5 also to support the war. Was the war justified even if Iraq did not have WMDs? Only 38 percent of Americans believed it would be; if there were no WMDs, there should be no war. When no such weapons were found—and the war’s human, financial, and terrorism-enhancing costs became known—how did Americans resolve their dissonance? They changed their primary rationale for the war from eliminating WMDs to ridding the world of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Thus, three months after the war’s launch, the 38 percent who supported the war if there were no WMDs now had mushroomed to 58 percent. Despite the war’s discounted initial rationale, support for a war that didn’t eliminate WMDs had increased. Will such self-persuasion ride again in the 2020 American conflict with Iran? Prior to the January 3, 2020, killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani, Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of war with Iran: In June 2019, about 4 in 5 Americans (78 percent) approved of President Trump’s calling off a retaliatory strike after Iran downed a U.S. drone. Few believed that retaliation against Iran was a good idea. In July 2019, only 18 percent told Gallup they favored “military action against Iran.” In September 2019, only 21 percent responding to a University of Maryland survey said that, to achieve its goal with Iran, “the U.S. should be prepared to go to war.” I wrote the above words on January 8, 2020, and now await follow-up surveys—with the expectation that cognitive dissonance will ride again, as some Americans wrestle with the dissonance between their support for the president and their prior opposition to such military action—a tension that can be resolved by now thinking the retaliatory strike was warranted. * * * * P.S. Initial post-strike surveys: A January 4-5, 2020, POLITICO/Morning Consult survey reported that “47% of voters approve of President Donald Trump's decision to kill top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani while 40% disapprove.” A January 6–7, 2020, post-assassination Reuters/Ipsos survey found that “a growing minority of Americans say they are now in favor of a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s military.’ The poll found that 27 percent said ‘the United States should strike first.’” A January 7–8, 2020. USA Today/Reuters survey found Americans concerned about increased threats to U.S. safety, yet 42 percent supported the Soleimani assassination—far more than the 1 in 5 who favored such action in the summer of 2019. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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It’s the new year transition, the line between our last year’s self and our hoped-for healthier, happier, and more productive 2020 self. To become that new self, we know what to do. We know that a full night’s sleep boosts our alertness, energy, and mood. We know that exercise lessens depression and anxiety, sculpts our bodies, and strengthens our hearts and minds. We know that what we put into our bodies—junk food or balanced nutrition, addictive substances or clean air—affects our health and longevity. Alas, as T. S. Eliot foresaw, “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.” So how, this year, can we move from knowing the needed behaviors to doing them? Rocky89/iStock/Getty Images First, do make that New Year’s resolution. Research by Gary Latham, Edwin Locke, and others confirms that challenging goals motivate achievement. Specific, measurable, realistic goals—such as “finish the business plan by the month’s end”—direct attention, promote effort, motivate persistence, and stimulate creativity. Second, announce the goal to friends or family. We’re more likely to follow through after making a public commitment. Third, develop an implementation plan—an action strategy that specifies when, where, and how you will march toward achieving your goal. Research shows that people who flesh out goals with detailed plans become more focused in their work, and more likely to complete it on time. Through the ups and downs of goal-striving, we best sustain our motivation when we focus on immediate subgoals. Better to have our nose to the grindstone than our eye on the ultimate prize. Better to attend to daily study than the course grade. Better to center on small steps—the day’s running target—than to fantasize the marathon. Fourth, monitor and record progress, perhaps aided by a tracker such as a Fitbit. It’s all the better when that progress is displayed publicly rather than kept secret. Fifth, create a supportive environment. When trying to eat healthy, keep junk food out of the cupboards. Use small plates and bowls. When focusing on a project, hole up in the library. When sleeping, stash the smartphone. Choose the right friends. Such “situational self-control strategies” prevent tempting impulses, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues have found. Sixth, transform the hard-to-do behavior into a must-do habit. Habits form when we repeat behaviors in a given context—sleeping in the same comfy position, walking the same route to work, eating the same breakfast oatmeal. As our behavior becomes linked with the context, our next experience of that context evokes our habitual response. Studies find that when our willpower is depleted, as when we’re mentally fatigued, we fall back on our habits—good or bad. To increase our self-control, to connect our resolutions with positive outcomes, the key is forming “ beneficial habits .” “If you would make anything a habit, do it,” said the stoic philosopher Epictetus . But how long does it take to form a beneficial habit? A University College London research team led by Phillippa Lally asked 96 university students to choose some healthy behavior, such as eating fruit with lunch or running before dinner, and to perform it daily for 84 days. The students also logged whether the behavior felt automatic (something they did without thinking and would find it hard not to do). When did the behaviors turn into habits? On average, after about 66 days. Gwyneth Paltrow recalls that when she first started working with a personal trainer, “finding motivation was hard. She advised me to think of exercise as an automatic routine, no different from brushing your teeth, to avoid getting distracted. Now it is part of my life—I exercise Monday to Friday at 10 a.m. and always stick with it.” Friskie.Cin Then do it every day for two months, or a bit longer for exercise. You likely will find yourself with a new habit, and perhaps a healthier, happier, and more productive life. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com, where this essay originally appeared— here .)
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