Today, even while wishing President-elect Biden a happy birthday, some wonder: At age 78, does he have—and will he sustain for four years—the energy, mental acuity, and drive to excel in his new role? Or, as he approaches 80, will he embody his opponent’s caricature of “Sleepy Joe”—as someone not to be trusted with the cognitive demands of national and world leadership? Mr. President-elect, I empathize. I, too, turned 78 this fall. So on behalf of you and all of us late-70s folks, let me shine the light of psychological science on our capacities. First, people should understand that the more we age, the less age predicts our abilities. Knowing that James is 8 and Jamal is 18 tells us much about their differences. Not so with two adults who similarly differ by a decade. Many a 78-year-old can outrun and outthink a 68-year-old neighbor. It’s true that we late-70s folks have some diminishing abilities. Like you, Mr. President-elect, I can still jog—but not as fast or far. The stairs we once bounded up have gotten steeper, the newsprint smaller, others’ voices fainter. And in the molasses of our brain, memories bubble more slowly to the surface: We more often experience brain freezes as we try to retrieve someone’s name or the next point we were about to make. Yet with a lifetime’s accumulation of antibodies, we also suffer fewer common colds and flus than do our grandchildren. Physical exercise, which you and I regularly do, not only sustains our muscles, bones, and hearts; it also stimulates neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells and neural connections. The result, when compared with sedentary folks like your predecessor, is better memory, sharper judgment, and minimized cognitive decline. Moreover, we either retain or grow three important strengths: Crystallized intelligence. We can admit to experiencing what researchers document: Our fluid intelligence—our ability to reason and react speedily—isn’t what it used to be. We don’t solve math problems as quickly or learn new technologies as readily, and we’re no match for our grandkids at video games. But the better news is that our crystallized intelligence—our accumulated knowledge and the ability to apply it—crests later in life. No wonder many historians, philosophers, and artists have produced their most noteworthy work later in life than have mathematicians and scientists. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (“Grandma Moses”) took up painting in her 70s. At age 89, Frank Lloyd Wright designed New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. At age 94, my psychologist colleague Albert Bandura has just co-authored yet another article. Perhaps our most important work is also yet ahead? Wisdom. With maturity, people’s social skills often increase. They become better able to take multiple perspectives, to offer helpful sagacity amid conflicts, and to appreciate the limits of their knowledge. The wisdom to know when we know a thing and when we do not is born of experience. Working at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute, psychologist Paul Baltes and his colleagues developed wisdom tests that assess people’s life knowledge and judgments about how to conduct themselves in complex circumstances. Wisdom “is one domain in which some older individuals excel,” they report . “In youth we learn, in age we understand,” observed the 19th-century novelist Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach. Stable emotionality. As the years go by, our feelings mellow. Unlike teens, who tend to rebound up from gloom or down from elation within an hour, our highs are less high and our lows less low. As we age, we find ourselves less often feeling excited or elated. But our lives are also less often disrupted by depression. We late-70s people are better able to look beyond the moment. Compliments produce less elation; criticisms, less despair. At the outset of my career, praise and criticism would inflate and deflate my head. A publication might have me thinking I was God’s new gift to my profession, while a rejection led me to ponder moving home to join the family business. With experience, both acclaim and reproach become mere iotas of additional feedback atop a mountain of commentary. Thus, when responding to the day’s slings and arrows, we can better take a big-picture, long-term perspective. Mr. President-elect, I understand these things, as I suspect you do, too. When in my 60s, I assumed—wrongly—that by age 78, I would no longer have the energy to read, to think, to write. Instead, I take joy in daily entering my office at a place called Hope. I relish each day learning something new. I find delight in making words march up a screen. And I’m mellower, as it takes more to make me feel either ecstatic or despondent. And you? Will you, as a newly minted 78-year-old, show your age? Yes, that jog up to the podium will surely slow. You will likely more often misspeak or forget a point. Your sleep will be more interrupted. But you will also benefit from the crystallized intelligence that comes with your lifetime’s experience. You can harness the wisdom that comes with age. And you can give us the gift of emotional maturity that will enable you, better than most, to navigate the “battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or follow him on Twitter @DavidGMyers).
... View more
In a pre-election essay, I contrasted the prognostications of poll-influenced prediction models with the wisdom of the betting crowd. I suspected that bettors—many of whom believed their candidate would win—were overly influenced by the false consensus effect (the presumption that most others see the world as we do). But score this round for the wisdom of the betting crowd, which better anticipated the election closeness, including Trump’s Florida victory. That’s a contrast with Britain’s Brexit vote, where polls indicated a toss-up (a half percent edge for “Remain”) while the betting markets wrongly estimated a 90+ percent Remain chance. The U.S. polls had a rougher-than-usual year, with the final Biden margin likely near 4.5 percent rather than the predicted 8 percent. The pollsters also struggled in key states. On election eve, the average poll gave Trump a 0.8 percent edge in Ohio; he won by 8 percent. In Florida, the polls gave Biden a 2.5 percent edge; he lost by about 3 percent. In Wisconsin, the polls favored Biden by 8.4 percent; he won by less than a percent. With so few people now responding to pollster calls and texts, precision is increasing a challenge (even with pollster adjusting results to match the voting demographics). But lest we dismiss the polls and sophisticated forecasters, let’s grant them three points. First, they got many of the specifics right. FiveThirtyEight, for example, correctly anticipated 48 of the 50 presumed state outcomes. Some of its correct predictions even surprised its creator: Second, polls, as Silver has said , could be worse and they would still greatly exceed conventional seat-of-the-pants wisdom. In a University of Michigan national survey in September, 4 in 5 Republicans incorrectly anticipated a Trump victory. Third, although the models missed on some details, credit them with the big picture. “Biden’s Favored in Our Final Presidential Forecast, but It’s a Fine Line Between a Landslide and a Nail-Biter,” headlined FiveThirtyEight in its final election forecast. And Biden did win. As I write, though, the betting markets —mindful of fraud allegations and legal challenges—still give Donald Trump a 12 percent chance of victory. But this, says Silver , “ is basically a market saying there's a 12% chance that the sky isn't blue.” Consider, say the media analysts who have called the election: How would widespread voter fraud account for Donald Trump’s doing much better than predicted by the historically reliable polls (and for down ballot Republicans doing better yet)? And how could that be so across America in countless local municipalities, including those with Republican-elected officials? Take my community—Holland, Michigan, a historically Republican town where Betsy DeVos grew up and has a home just a bike ride from my own. With a changing demography that now closely mirrors the nation, our last three presidential elections have been razor close, with Donald Trump narrowly edging Hillary Clinton in 2016 . . . but with Biden defeating Trump by 11 percent. Likewise, our surrounding county—one of the nation’s most reliably Republican counties—voted Trump by 30.2 percent in 2016 but only 21.5 percent in 2020. Neighboring Kent County, also leans Republican and is the home of Republican-turned-Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash, gave Biden 50,000 more votes than Clinton received four years ago. Is it conceivable that the Republican-friendly voting officials in countless such places across the U.S. consistently committed Biden-supporting fraud? All in all, it was not the best of years for pollsters and modelers, though it was a worse year for John and Joan Q. Public’s expectations of their candidate’s triumphant success. Winston Churchill once called democracy “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms.” To borrow his sentiment, polls and models are the worst forms of prediction, except for all the other forms. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
... View more
To many observers, the election was a clash of two Americas—a war between two increasingly partisan identities, each of which is incredulous at what the other supports. As the Pew Research Center documents , the gulf between them is enormous. For example, 74 percent of Biden supporters told the Pew Research Center that “it is a lot more difficult” to be a Black person in this country than to be a White person, a view shared by a mere 9% of Trump supporters. Likewise, 68 percent of Biden supporters said climate change was important to their vote—as was the case for but 11 percent of Trump supporters (who scored this last among 12 issues of possible concern). Many Republicans, having believed Donald Trump would win, are aghast at the defeat of their pro-life, law-and-order supporting, free-enterprise-buttressing, patriotic values-embracing leader. Democrats had hoped the massive turnout heralded a massive blue wave repudiation of Trump’s bigotry, divisiveness, and climate unfriendly actions. Thus, many are stunned that all this barely moved the needle—from a 2016 electoral vote margin of 2.1 percent to about 5 percent—despite improved Democratic party demographics, increased fund-raising, and a better-liked candidate. In Why We’re Polarized , journalist Ezra Klein draws on social science research to document how Americans now view politics through the lens of their strongly held partisan identities—who “we” are versus who “they” are. Klein describes how our political tribal identities engage what we psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” Whatever our party and its leaders do—even when it clashes with what we formerly believed—we rationalize. Even morality and religion have become subservient to politics. In the latest issue of Science , an interdisciplinary team of 15 scholars, led by social psychologist Eli Finkel, further describe today’s “political sectarianism” and the rise of out-party hate. They document the growing contempt that today’s partisans feel for the other party, which greatly exceeds the love they have for their own. Recall, too, the power of the availability heuristic—our tendency to estimate the commonality of events based on their mental availability. Whatever information pops readily into mind—often vivid images—can hijack our thinking. Thus, potent memes (“defund the police”) and scenes (rampaging protesters) can define those we associate with them, even if the meme represents no political party and the scene represents an infinitesimal proportion of otherwise peaceful demonstrators. In the post-Trump era to come, both parties will be debating and massaging their brand identities in hopes of drawing more people in while retaining their base. Partisans on both sides could, methinks, benefit from a reading of Peter Wehner’s prescient The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump —a guidebook to seeking a more perfect union (a book acclaimed, remarkably, by both Democratic strategist David Axelrod and Republican strategist Karl Rove). (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
... View more
I see you. My psychic powers enable me, from a great distance, to peer into your heart and to sense your unease. Regardless of your political leanings, you understand the upcoming U.S. election to be momentous, world-changing, the most important of your lifetime. Part of you is hopeful, but a larger part of you is feeling tense. Anxious. Fearing a future that would follow the outcome you dread. Hungering for indications of the likely outcome, you read the latest commentary and devour the latest polls. You may even glean insight from the betting markets (here and here) , which offer “the wisdom of the crowd.” They are akin to stock markets, in which people place bets on future stock values, with the current market value—the midpoint between those expecting a stock to rise and those expecting it to fall—representing the distillation of all available information and insight. As stock market booms and busts remind us, the crowd sometimes displays an irrational exuberance or despair. Yet, as Princeton economist Burton Malkiel has repeatedly demonstrated , no individual stock picker (or mutual fund) has had the smarts to consistently outguess the efficient marketplace. You may also, if you are a political geek, have welcomed clues to the election outcome from prediction models ( here and here ) that combine historical information, demographics, and poll results to forecast the result. But this year, the betting and prediction markets differ sharply. The betting markets see a 34 percent chance of a Trump victory, while the prediction models see but a 5 to 10 percent chance. So who should we believe? Skeptics scoff that the poll-influenced prediction models erred in 2016. FiveThirtyEight’s final election forecast gave Donald Trump only a 28 percent chance of winning. So, was it wrong? Consider a simple prediction model that predicted a baseball player’s chance of a hit based on the player’s batting average. If a .280 hitter came to the plate and got a hit, would we discount our model? Of course not, because we understand the model’s prediction that sometimes (28% of the time, in this case), the less likely outcome will happen. (If it never does, the model errs.) But why do the current betting markets diverge from the prediction models? FiveThirtyEight modeler Nate Silver has an idea: The Dunning-Kruger effect, as psychology students know, is the repeated finding that incompetence tends not to recognize itself. As one person explained to those unfamiliar with Silver’s allusion: Others noted that the presidential betting markets, unlike the stock markets, are drawing on limited (once every four years) information—with people betting only small amounts on their hunches, and without the sophisticated appraisal that informs stock investing. And what are their hunches? Surely, these are informed by the false consensus effect—our tendency to overestimate the extent to which others share our views. Thus, in the University of Michigan’s July Survey of Consumers, 83 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of Republicans predicted that voters would elect their party’s presidential candidate. Ergo, bettors are surely, to some extent, drawing on their own preferences, which—thanks to the false consensus effect—inform their predictions. What we are, we see in others. So, if I were a betting person, I would wager based on the prediction models. Usually, there is wisdom to the crowd. But sometimes . . . we shall soon see . . . the crowd is led astray by the whispers of its own inner voices. ----- P.S. At 10:30 a.m. on election day, the Economist model projects a 78 percent chance of a Biden Florida victory, FiveThirtyEight.com projects a Biden Florida victory with a 2.5 percent vote margin, and electionbettingodds.com betting market average estimates a 62% chance of a Trump Florida victory. Who's right--the models or the bettors? Stay tuned! P.S.S. on November 4: Mea culpa. I was wrong. Although the models--like weather forecasts estimating the percent change of rain--allow for unlikely possibilities, the wisdom of the betting crowd won this round--both in Florida and in foreseeing a closer-than-expected election. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
... View more
On most days, one great pleasure of my job (reading and reporting on psychological science) is learning something new. As Michelangelo said at age 85, “I am still learning.” A recent example is social psychologist Jean Twenge’s remarkable reports ( here and here ) of teens’ resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparing national teen surveys from 2018 and 2020, she found that “Teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic.” In fact, “the percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower in 2020.” Does this surprise you, as it did me? After all, for the past seven months, reports of pandemic-related mental stress have proliferated. “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.,” headlined The Washington Post . Indeed, as the pandemic struck, Gallup surveys found U.S. adults’ quality of life evaluations plummeting, and their worry sharply rising. The Census Bureau reported that a third of Americans were experiencing clinical anxiety or depression. And The Lancet described a similar mental health decline in the U.K. Moreover, multiple surveys found that those most afflicted were young adults. Mental distress , loneliness , and suicidal ideation rose most sharply among 18- to 29-year-olds. For those who have come to view depression and other disorders as biologically influenced—as syndromes that occur even in happy-seeming environments—the pandemic’s “ massive mental health impact ” is a reminder of the power of the situation. Significant stresses, and a thwarting of the human need to belong, can be emotionally toxic. The toll on young adults also reminds us of the importance of face-to-face relationships, especially for younger adults with their many friendships. As Nathan DeWall and I report in Psychology, 13th Edition, older adults “tend to have a smaller social network, with fewer friendships.” So what gives? Why might teens—pulled from school, separated from friends, so close in age to those struggling young adults—exhibit not only stable, but improved mental health during these trying times? One factor is more sleep. We know that a full night’s sleep contributes to health and well-being, and that high school teens are commonly sleep-deprived. In the 2018 survey, only 55 percent of American teens reported sleeping 7+ hours per night. In 2020, while homebound during the pandemic—and without needing to rise so early to go to school—84 percent of teens reported getting 7+ nightly hours. A second seeming factor is family. During the pandemic, 56 percent of teens reported “spending more time talking with their parents,” 54 percent “said their family now ate dinner together more often,” and 68 percent “said their families had become closer during the pandemic.” So, while the pandemic has taken a huge toll on our lives and livelihoods, the news from teen-world offers a reminder: Sleep and close relationships are vital components of a flourishing life. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)
... View more
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities In my circle of friends—yours, too?—there is palpable anxiety bordering on despair. They see relationships and health disrupted by a plague with no end in sight, and politics that have descended into warring tribes and broken pledges. Progressives bemoan betting markets that give better than a 40 percent reelection chance to a U.S. president who lampoons mask-wearing, foments racism, threatens democracy, dodges taxes, and rejects climate science, and a future Supreme Court that’s likely to advance right-wing priorities for a generation to come. Conservatives lament the arc of history trending away from them as the nation becomes increasingly diverse, secular, and progressive—making their current ascendance “the dying spasms of a political movement.” My friends are not alone in their angst. In a September, 2020 Gallup Poll , 85 percent reported being dissatisfied “with the way things are going in the United States.” Other U.S. surveys similarly find that a decided majority perceive things as on “the wrong track,” “headed in the wrong direction,” or going “badly.” An internet meme captures the sentiment: “Goodnight moon. Goodnight Zoom. Goodnight impending sense of doom.” If you—from either side of the political spectrum—share some of this anxiety and anguish, and for good reasons, might I point you to three evidence-based information sources that could complement your malaise with a splash of longer-term optimism? First, those on Twitter can sign up for the daily good news fact from Beautiful News Daily . An example: Second, read my psychologist colleague Steven Pinker. In The Better Angels of Our Nature he cogently documents the long-term decline of all forms of violence, including wars, genocide, and murders. That includes the U.S., where violent as well as property crime—and hostility toward women and LGBTQ folks—have sharply declined since the early 1990s. Pinker’s newer Enlightenment Now documents many other ways—from the environment to life expectancy to human rights to quality of life—in which the world is getting better. Bill Gates lauds that latest Pinker book as “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read,” and also praises Hans Rosling’s kindred-spirited Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things are Better Than You Think as “one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” I know, I know: We must not look past lingering systemic racism, the looming climate crisis, or the world’s recent increase in human suffering . The current situation gives us reason for gloom. Climate change, especially, looms as a future weapon of mass destruction. Nevertheless, Rosling, along with his coauthors Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, offer an antidote for utter despair. My eyes were opened as Factfulness compared a) people’s gloomy perceptions of long-term trends with b) factual long-term trends, such as those below. [i] (For more such information, visit their Gapminder.org .) There are justifications for today’s anxiety and angst. Yet even amid our epoch of incredulity and winter of despair, let us also retain sight of the light and the enduring spring of hope. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .) [i] I share these figures with the permission of Rosling’s American editor and publisher who, in a happy coincidence, are also the editor and publisher of a forthcoming book in which I will shine the light of psychological science on the hidden wonders of our lives.
... View more
Since 1991, through its school-based surveys of 4.9 million high school students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has monitored the health and well-being of America’s youth. Its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System monitors trends in adolescent risky behaviors, sexuality, mental health, drug and alcohol use, exercise, and diet. The 2019 survey, released in late August of 2020, includes these findings of possible interest to teachers, counselors, parents, and others who support or nurture America’s youth: Sexual identity. Two percent of boys and 3 percent of girls report being gay or lesbian. But more report being bisexual or unsure. This is especially so for girls: Nearly 20 percent identify as neither straight nor gay, which accords with other studies that find women’s sexual identity less fixed than men’s. Sexual identity and victimization. It’s often presumed that gay and lesbian teens are vulnerable to becoming victims of antisocial acts, and the CDC survey confirms that presumption. Gay and lesbian youth are twice as likely as straight youth to report feeling unsafe, being bullied, and experiencing violence directed against them. They also are 3.6 times more likely to report experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 4.5 times more likely to have “seriously considered attempting suicide” in the past 12 months. Sexual activity. The long-term decline in teen sexual intercourse has continued. Psychologist Jean Twenge, also following this trend, has attributed it to the smartphone generation’s diminishing face-to-face relationships. Of those sexually active, 23 percent reported using oral contraceptives and 54 percent reported using condoms during their last sexual intercourse, with 9 percent using both (or some other accompanying birth control device). Suicidal thoughts and attempts. High school students’ contemplating or attempting suicide has increased since 2009. Moreover, both depression and suicide attempts are twice as likely among teen girls compared with teen boys. The rising depression rates coincide with another government national youth survey that reported a marked increase in teen rates of major depressive disorder since 2010. In this 2018 survey, too, the percent of teens feeling “sad or hopeless” had increased from 26 to 37 percent since 2009. Might the concurrent rise of smartphones and social media be contributing to these increasing rates? For my quick synopsis of the pertinent evidence see here. Drug and alcohol use. Since 2009, teens’ marijuana use has been stable—though with an uptick from 20 to 22 percent since 2017, coincident with widespread legalization in the United States. Daily cigarette smoking has dramatically declined, to the point of becoming gauche: But vaping has replaced cigarette use, with one-third reporting having vaped at least once in the past month, and 1 in 10 doing so most days. (In a separate survey of college age people, both nicotine and marijuana vaping increased from 2017 to 2019.) However, a brand new government report indicates that, thanks to health warnings, youth vaping dropped by 30 percent in 2020. Other tidbits from the CDC survey: TV. In the age of internet and social media, teen TV watching has plummeted—from the 43 percent who watched three or more hours per day in 1999 to 20 percent in 2019. Video games and computer use. Flip-flopping with TV watching was the corresponding increase in 3+ daily hours of video game playing and other computer use, from 22 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2019. Obesity. Youth having obesity (defined by body mass index) increased from 11 percent in 1999 to 16 percent in 2019. School safety. The percent of students carrying a weapon (gun, knife, or club) to school decreased from 12 percent in 1993 to 3 percent in 2019. Those reporting being in a physical fight in the last year also decreased—from 43 percent in 1991 to 22 percent in 2019. To view and capture simple graphs on these and other health indicators—and perhaps to create a quiz that challenges your students to guess the answers—visit here . (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
... View more
At a May 26 Rose Garden press conference, President Trump asked a face-masked reporter: “Can you take it off, because I cannot hear you.” On this matter, I can empathize with our president. At a recent dental appointment, I could understand but half my hygienist’s and dentist’s spoken words. Despite being a person with hearing loss, I normally hear them both with ease, thanks to our proximity. But when muffled by their masks and face shields, their words became indistinct. One speech researcher explains that the thicker fabrics of many home-made masks are especially likely to “significantly block the airstream, diminishing the acoustic energy.” Although I wouldn’t have it otherwise—they and other caregivers are protecting their patients, and protecting themselves from their patients—masks do impede accessibility. More than we realize, we are all natural lip readers. Even a normal-hearing friend, visiting an ice cream shop, could not make out the masked clerk’s words: “Cup or cone”? Another acquaintance, during a hospital ER visit, reporting understanding only about half of what the masked nurses and doctors said to her. In the fully masked classrooms of my campus, colleagues tell me that, for example, “I have found myself asking students to repeat their questions.” Another colleague says “I am using my outside voice,” which takes more energy (and which other colleagues report leaves them drained). Another reports that “It is frustrating to continue to ask a student to repeat something and I fear it will shut down discussion and make most classes a lecture performance—in which case I might as well go completely online.” Another has, while the weather allows, taken his class outdoors where, socially distanced, they can see facial expressions and lip-read one another, mask-free. The essential lesson: There is more to hearing than meets the ears. What our eyes see influences what our brain hears. That phenomenon, which you can experience here , is called the McGurk effect. Moreover, thanks to our powers of instantly reading facial expressions, much of our communication is nonverbal. We share our emotions through our words but also through our smiles, our tight lips, our gaping mouths. Even our emojis vary the mouth: :- ( and :- ) . One colleague explains: “It adds a barrier that feels formal and inaccessible when you can't shake someone's hand, and then you can't smile at them to say ‘but I still want to get to know you.’” Cut off from facial expression, our communication is hampered. So is face recognition. With students’ faces masked, colleagues report becoming partially face-blind. They’re not only having more difficultly immediately knowing which student is speaking, but also recognizing their obscured faces: “I cannot call on a familiar student by name, because I can't tell who anyone is.” Add to this the depletion of normal emotional display and mimicry and the natural result will be weakened social bonds, including those between teacher and student, argues German psychiatrist and psychologist Manfred Spitzer. Given that masks—and also face shields in health care—are essential to controlling the pandemic, how can we salvage hearing accessibility in a masked world? Clear hearing is helpful to everyone—our minds wander less when little cognitive effort is required--but especially for those with hearing loss. In retail contexts, where a transaction occurs with a masked person behind a clear plastic screen, a simple solution can serve most people with hearing aids. Given a microphone and an installed hearing loop , a clerk’s voice will magnetically transmit to the telecoil sensor in most aids and all cochlear implants. As I can vouch , the system also works beautifully in other venues, including auditoriums, airports, and places of worship . With the mere push of a button, my hearing aids can become in-the-ear speakers that receive PA sound and customize it for my hearing needs. But what about classrooms, where campus face-mask mandates will require teachers and students to wear mutually protective masks—and in some cases (including the classrooms of my own campus) also to speak from behind a plastic barrier? What can schools and colleges do to enable hearing accessibility while also supporting public health? Admonish clarity. Schools can admonish instructors to be mindful that their audience is experiencing some muffling of sound, without supportive lip reading. Health care workers can likewise be coached to speak more deliberately and distinctly: “Your patients, especially your older patients, are having more trouble hearing you than you suppose.” That, alas, will be only a modestly effective solution, because we soon revert to our natural speaking styles. When one experimenter asked people to act as expressive or inhibited as possible while stating opinions, the naturally expressive people—even when feigning inhibition—were less inhibited than naturally inhibited people. And inexpressive people, when feigning expressiveness, were less expressive than naturally expressive folks. It’s hard to be, for any length of time, someone you’re not. Your speaking speed and style is, once your self-consciousness subsides, irrepressible. Transparent face masks. A second solution is to equip instructors with a face mask or shield that allows people to read lips and facial expressions. One example, used by some on my campus (such as the colleague below, at left) is the ClearMask. (An alternative, germ-filtering transparent Swiss surgical mask to be available in 2021 from hmcare.ch is shown at right.) Mindful of the face’s role in communication, one colleague is hoping, with appropriate permissions, to equip all his students with face shields. Two other colleagues have, however, told me of being bothered both by breathing issues with a clear mask, and also by the altered sound of their own voice (a familiar distraction to new hearing aid wearers). Define safe distance. A third solution is to specify a safe distance at which an instructor may lower the mask while lecturing. Imagine two very different classrooms. In a small seminar, colleges would surely mandate a professor's mask wearing when seated around a table with students. When lecturing while alone as a sage on the stage of a large auditorium, the professor would be sufficiently physically distanced to make a mask superfluous. In the gradations of classrooms in between, could colleges define a minimum safe distance at which a mask could be lowered while teaching? Add PA systems. A fourth solution is to add PA systems to intermediate-size rooms. An instructor’s head-mounted mic could transmit to a class through newly installed speakers. Live captioning. Google Meet’s captioning illustrates the potential for instant, accurate captioning that rivals the speed and precision of human captioner. Not only is it, therefore, a preferred video conferencing technology for accessibility (Zoom, take note), the visual information display aids anyone whose mind has momentarily wandered. Might classrooms be similarly equipped with open captioned displays of instructors’ remarks? Hearing loops. Finally, schools could employ hearing technology. Such ranges from personal assistive technology—in which an instructor wears a mic that transmits to individual hard-of-hearing students with special receivers—to class and auditorium hearing loops that transmit to most of today’s hearing aids and cochlear implants (as I illustrate here from my Hope College campus). We want to stay healthy. And we want to hear. Let those planning for in-person, under-the-pandemic instruction aim for both—a health-protecting accessibility. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
... View more
“As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures” let’s also examine our own moral blind spots, urges Nicholas Kristof . Although our moral failings may not be on the horrific scale of those who enslaved their fellow humans, we likely still have what Kristof calls “moral myopia.” Kristof suggests three possible contenders for such blind spots: the animal cruelty of factory farming, indifference to suffering in impoverished countries, and climate change. He anticipates that a century from now, future generations may judge our actions in these areas as “bewilderingly immoral.” Many of us can already look back on events in our own lives with embarrassment. I recall reveling, with other Pacific Northwesterners 55 years ago, in the first killer whale captures. Today we understand those captures as a brutal separation of orcas from their family and a contribution to the endangered status of our region’s beloved 72 Southern Resident orcas. And might morally enlightened future people want to remove my name from something for attitudes or actions I have more recently embraced—perhaps for eating the flesh of factory-farmed animals, or for flying on climate-destroying flights? Perhaps even for attitudes and behaviors I am now too short-sighted to imagine as problematic to my descendants? When judging the speck in someone else’s eye, do I fail to notice what is in my own? An oft-demonstrated truth is that most of us have a great reputation with ourselves and therefore may miss the large specks in our own lives. Psychologists call this the self-serving bias. We accept more responsibility for our good deeds than for our bad. And we tend to see ourselves as better than average—as, for example, better-than-average drivers, voters, and employees. The better-than-average phenomenon extends to people’s feelings of moral superiority: Virtues. In the Netherlands, most high school students have rated themselves as more honest, persistent, original, friendly, and reliable than the average high school student. Prosocial behavior. Most people report that they are more likely than others to give to a charity, donate blood, and give up their bus seat to a pregnant woman. Ethics. Most businesspeople perceive themselves as more ethical than the average businessperson. Morals and values. When asked in a national survey , “How would you rate your own morals and values on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 being perfect)?” 50 percent rated themselves at 90 or above. This self-serving bias can lead us to view ourselves as morally superior to others, including our ancestors. We presume that, had we stood in their shoes, we would have behaved differently. We are like the people who—when told about experiments in which people have conformed to falsehoods, followed orders to administer painful shocks, or failed to help someone—predict that they would have acted more truthfully and courageously. But psychology’s experiments have indicated otherwise. Princeton legal scholar Robert George recently tweeted that he sometimes asks students “ what their position on slavery would have been had they been White and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it. ” But this is “nonsense,” he adds. Had we been White Southerners, embedded in that time and culture’s systemic racism, most of us would likely have been, to a lesser or greater extent, complicit. He challenges those who think they would have been the exception to tell him how they have, in their current life, done something similarly unpopular with their peers, causing them to be abandoned by friends and “loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions.” Of course, a brave minority in the South did join the abolitionist cause and enabled the underground railway. Under Hitler a few brave souls did protest and suffer, including Pastor Martin Niemöller, who, after seven years in Nazi concentration camps, famously spoke for many: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” But such heroes are heroes because they are the exception. Experiments ( here and here ) show that most people do err when confidently predicting that they would intervene where others have not if witnessing a sexist or racist slur. T. S. Elliot anticipated as much: “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.” So, should we and can we advocate for a more just world while also being mindful that we may similarly be judged by our descendants? As Steven Pinker documents in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, w e have made moral progress. Wars, genocide, murders, blatant racism, homophobia, and sexism, as well as illiteracy, ignorance, and lethal diseases, have all, over time, been on the decline. So, amid today’s hatreds and chaos, there is hope for continued progress. Perhaps the ancient prophetic admonition can be our guide: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
... View more
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 .)
... View more
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 .)
... View more
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.
... View more
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.
... View more
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?
... View more
“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 .)
... View more