In the United States, anti-Asian prejudice has resurged, with nearly 6,600 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic’s first year. Reports of harassment, vandalism, and brutal attacks on Asian Americans, from the very young to the very elderly, have made one-third of Asian Americans fear for their safety. An Asian-American friend last week recounted his fearful father getting a gun for self-protection. Women and girls reportedly endured two-thirds of these hostilities, including the horrific March, 2021 Atlanta shooting spree that claimed the lives of eight people—six of them Asian American women. One in four AAPI-owned small businesses has also faced pandemic-related anti-Asian words or acts. Today’s bigotry extends a long history, beginning with the 20th century’s ground zero event of anti-Asian prejudice: the World War II internment of 120,000 West Coast people of Japanese descent. As I have explained here and here , it was on my home island—Bainbridge Island, near Seattle—that the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans began. With only six days’ notice, Exclusion Order #1 ordered the evacuation of the island’s 276 Japanese American residents, each lugging nothing more than they could carry. (One government concern: The island’s south end overlooked a narrow passage to a naval shipyard and submarine base.) Today, that March 30, 1942 ferry departure point is the site of a national “Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.” On each visit home to Bainbridge, I return to the memorial, where a 276-foot wall with wood sculptures tells parts of the story. As my insurance agent father would later recall, it was a devastating day as the islanders bid farewell to their neighbors. His autobiography recalls the sadness, and also the lingering discrimination: “We had many Japanese friends and it was heartbreaking for us when the war started and the Japanese people on Bainbridge Island were ordered into concentration camps. . . . Most were educated here on the island [and] it was hard to believe that they were not as loyal Americans as we. I did all I could to keep the insurance on their homes in force. . . . The insurance companies that I represented were a bit prejudiced against insuring the Japanese people, particularly for liability insurance, for fear that lawsuits would be brought against them and the juries, being Caucasian, might be prejudiced in their jury awards. [One post-war returnee, wanting insurance on a car] named his four brothers and recited how all five of them had been in one or another of the American armed forces and had served in Italy, France, Germany and Japan. [When I showed the letter to the insurance manager] she said G___ D___ you, Ken Myers, for bringing me this letter. How can I say, ‘No’? So she wrote the first policy on a Japanese American after the war.” In contrast to the media-fomented bigotry that greeted other West Coast internees on their post-war return home, the Bainbridge internees were welcomed back by most. On my recent visit to the Memorial, I chanced to meet internee Lilly Kodama recalling her experience, as a seven-year-old, of being abruptly taken from her world. She presumed she was going with her family on a shopping trip, and was surprised to find her cousins and neighbors on the dock. But Kodama also spoke of the support of fellow islanders, including my father, but especially Walt and Millie Woodward, the heroic local newspaper owners who challenged the internment and then published news from the camps. The Bainbridge Island contrast illustrates what social psychologists have often reported: Social contact, especially between parties of equal status, restrains prejudice. In minimal-contact California, people of European descent and people of Japanese descent lived separately. Few people bid the departing internees goodbye. On their return, “No Japs Here” signs greeted them. Minimal contact enabled maximal prejudice. On high-contact Bainbridge, islanders intermingled as school classmates (as illustrated in this 1935 elementary school picture). Their homes, strawberry farms, and businesses were dispersed. In their absence, thirteen empty chairs were on stage at a high school graduation so all would remember who was missing. Internees returning after the war were greeted with food and assistance. Cooperative contact enabled minimal prejudice. Lincoln Elementary School photo courtesy Bainbridge Island Historical Museum This real-life social experiment has been replicated in our own time: People in states with the least immigrant contact express the most anti-immigrant antipathy, while those who know immigrants as neighbors, classmates, or fellow workers more often profess a welcoming attitude. Amid the anti-Asian prejudice of 2021, how can we replace incidents of closed fists and tight jaws with open arms? We can seek and facilitate intergroup contacts. We can travel and experience other cultures. We can welcome diversity into our communities and workplaces. We can challenge slurs. We can educate ourselves and others about our culture’s history. In such ways we can affirm the memorial’s closing words: (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Friends matter. If psychological science has proven anything, it’s that feeling liked, supported, and encouraged by close friends and family fosters health and happiness. Having friends to confide in calms us, enables better sleep, reduces blood pressure, and even boosts immune functioning. Compared with socially isolated or lonely folks, those socially connected are at less risk of premature death. As the writer of Ecclesiastes surmised, “Woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” But how many friends are enough? And for how many meaningful relationships do we have time and energy? Robin Dunbar, a recently retired Oxford evolutionary psychologist, offers an answer: about 150. He first derived that number—“Dunbar’s number”—by noting, in primates, the relationship between neocortex size and group size: the bigger the neocortex, the bigger the group. Extrapolating from his studies of non-human primates, he predicted that a manageable human group size would be around 150. Many evolutionists and animal behavior observers find Dunbar’s number amusing but, at best, simplistic. They note, for example, that primate group sizes are also influenced by diet and predators (see here and here ). As one primate-culture expert told me, “We humans are too complicated to expect these simple numerical approaches to work.” In response, Dunbar—who seems not to suffer his critics gladly—vigorously defends his number. In his new book Friends (now available in the U.S. on Kindle in advance of a January, 2022 hardcover), Dunbar itemizes examples of 100- to 250-person human groups, including Neolithic, medieval, and 18th-century villages; Hutterite communities; hunter-gatherer communities; Indigenous communities from Inuit to Aboriginal; military companies; wedding invitees; and Christmas-card networks. “Every study we have looked at,” he emphasizes, “has consistently suggested that people vary in the number of friends they have, and that the range of variation is typically between 100 and 250 individuals.” But surely, you say, that number (which includes both family and nonfamily friends) varies across individuals and life circumstances. Indeed, notes Dunbar, it varies with age. The number of our meaningful relationships forms an inverted U-shaped curve across the lifespan. It starts at birth with one or two, and rises in the late teens until plateauing in our 30s at about 150. After the late 60s or early 70s, it “starts to plummet.... We start life with one or two close carers and, if we live long enough, we end life that way too.” personality. Extraverts are (no surprise) social butterflies, with lots of friends. Introverts accumulate fewer friends, but invest in them more intensely. family size. If you live surrounded by a large clan, you likely have fewer nonfamily friends than someone from a small or distant family. Have a baby, and—with less time for other relationships—your friendship circle may contract for a time. (Perhaps you have felt a diminished connection with friends after they had a baby or fell intensely in love?) Dunbar also describes people’s friendship layers. On average, he reports, people have about 5 intimate shoulder-to-cry-on friends—people they’re in touch with “at least once a week and feel close to.” Including these, they have, in sum, 15 close friends whom they’re in contact with at least monthly. The 50-friend circle incorporates our “party friends”—those we are in contact with at least once every six months. And the 150 totality incorporates those we’re in touch with at least annually—“what you might call the wedding/bar mitzvah/funeral group—the people that would turn up to your once-in-a-lifetime events.” Dunbar’s layers: Our friendship circles are of increasing size and decreasing investment/intensity (with each circle including the numbers in its inner circles). As on Facebook, “friends” include family. Our friendship circles vary in the time and concern we devote to them, says Dunbar. From studying people’s time diaries and friendship ratings and from analyzing big data on phone texting and calls, he found that we devote about 40 percent of our total social time to the 5 people in the innermost circle, and a further 20 percent to the additional 10 people in the 15-person “close friends” circle. Think about it: 60 percent of our total social effort is devoted to just 15 people. The remaining ~130 have to make do with what’s left over. Do Dunbar’s numbers resonate with your experience? Do you have a small inner core of friends (including family) who would drop anything to support you, and vice versa? Are these supplemented by a somewhat larger group of close-friend social companions? And do you have further-out layers of good friends and meaningful acquaintances that you would welcome to significant life events? Even if, as critics charge, Dunbar’s numbers are too exact, two conclusions seem apt. First, as Aristotle long ago recognized, we humans are social animals. We flourish and find protection and joy in relationships. Second, close relationships are psychologically expensive. Life requires us to prioritize, allocating our limited time and mental energy among our relationships. Friendships feed our lives—but, as with food, we’ve only got room for so much. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Which of these worldviews (from an Economist—YouGov poll ) comes closest to your view? “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated.” “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.” Yaorusheng/Moment/Getty Images Psychological science offers support for both the humans-are-basically-good view and the humans-are-prone-to-evil view. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers recognized cruelty but did “not find that this evil is inherent in human nature.” Instead, he argued, evil springs from toxic cultural influences. Fellow humanistic psychologist Rollo May disagreed, noting that “The culture is evil as well as good because we, the human beings who constitute it, are evil as well as good.” Several research streams support May’s acknowledgement of our human capacity for evil: Selfish genes (to use the title of Richard Dawkins’ famous book) predispose what social psychologist Donald Campbell called our “self-saving selfishness.” Self-serving biases lead people to perceive and present themselves as relatively superior—a phenomenon that also feeds ingroup favoritism and prejudice, which then often gets amplified by group polarization. Evil situations can overwhelm good intentions, inducing people to conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. (Psychology students: think Asch and Milgram.) But if our minds of late are filled with images of evil—senseless police killings; anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Semitic sentiment and violence; anti-vax conspiracy spreaders—we also have abundant images of human generosity: of anti-racism initiatives and self-sacrificing health care workers. Our capacity for selfless altruism also appears in psychological science: Group selection. Some evolutionists contend that in competition with other groups, groups of mutually supportive altruists will survive and spread their group-serving genes. Compassionate acts. Altruism researchers explore our unhesitating willingness to offer directions, give blood, donate money, and volunteer time. Empathy. Observing someone’s suffering, we naturally empathize. And if we can do something, we’re often willing to help even when our helping is anonymous. We are not just selfish animals; we are social animals. Still, on balance, is the world “mostly full of good people”? Or does the threat of terrorists, criminals, and immigrants loom larger? Our answer to that worldview poll question matters. Of Biden voters, 77 percent saw a “big, beautiful world” mostly populated by good people. Of Trump voters, only 21 percent saw that world; 66 percent perceived a more threatening world. Our worldview can foretell our politics. Now consider a second question: How large is the circle of people with whom you identify and about whom you care? Does it include the people in your community? Your country? The whole world? As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, a University of Washington research team put that issue to people from 80 nations, asking various questions to gauge their identification with their community, their country, and all of humanity: “How much would you say you care (feel upset, want to help) when bad things happen to people in my community? My country? All over the world?” Then, they investigated: What best predicted people’s willingness to follow pandemic public health guidelines? To engage in prosocial behaviors, such as donating from their own household mask supply to a hospital? To come to the aid of someone with COVID? The striking finding: Compared with identification with one’s own community and nation—as well as other predictors, such as age, gender, and education—identification with all humanity was the runaway winner. Psychologist Andrew Meltzoff explained : “Our research reveals that a crucial aspect of one’s world view—how much people feel connected to others they have never met—predicts people’s cooperation with public health measures and the altruism they feel toward others during the pandemic.” Social psychologists offer many examples of how specific attitudes (toward exercise, toward religion, toward one’s workplace) predict behavior. As these studies demonstrate, our larger worldview matters, too. So what do you think? Is human nature, at its core, mostly good or mostly evil? And how wide is your circle of care and concern?" (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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A recent YouGov U.S. survey produced a startling result. Of folks fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 54 percent nevertheless remain “very” or “somewhat” fearful of catching the virus—as do only 29 percent of those who “refuse to get vaccinated.” Asked about their comfort levels with various activities, 51 percent of vaccine refusers believe it’s safe to travel, as do only 29 percent of those vaccinated. You read that right: Most protected folks still feel unprotected. And most of those unprotected by choice feel safe. It’s no secret that the two groups differ in many ways, including politics. In Dalton County , Georgia, 9 in 10 people voted for Trump and, as of early May 2021, 4 percent were vaccinated. In San Francisco, 1 in 10 voted for Trump and 2 in 3 are vaccinated (and the COVID case rate is approaching zero). As much as the vaccinated and vaccine-refusers differ, they seemingly share one thing in common: In their gut, neither fully trusts the vaccine efficacy science. “No! Not social reëntry!” ~ Cartoon https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a24198 by Julia Suits Some vaccine refusers discount the pandemic as overblown. As one said , “The coronavirus is a wildly overrated threat.” (Never mind its causing more U.S. deaths than the sum of all its wars except the Civil War.) But many also discount or suspect the vaccine science: They distrust the government, doubt the need, worry about side effects, perceive a conspiracy, assert their liberty, or question the benefit. Therefore, they agree with Senator Ron Johnson : “Why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?” Ironically, they are joined by fully vaccinated people who still fear a devastating COVID-19 infection and so continue to wear a mask when walking outdoors, to eschew socializing with other vaccinated friends, or to travel on planes with virus-filtered air. Never mind that among the 74,000 people in clinical trials receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Astra-Zeneca, or Novavax vaccines, the total who died of COVID during the trial period was zero. And the number hospitalized with COVID was also zero. The vaccines are amazingly protective. Yes, a very few vaccinated people have contracted the virus (nearly all without becoming seriously sick). And among the millions now vaccinated, many will die—because even with no COVID-19, some 8,000 Americans and 800 Canadians die each day. Thus, there will be alarming stories of vaccination + death for media reporting. And the ready availability of those stories will, for many people, override the statistics of risk. Thanks to their automatic use of the availability heuristic (judging the frequency of things by their availability in memory), most folks display probability neglect: They fear the wrong things. They fret about massively publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. So it is that most folks fear commercial flying more than driving (which, per mile, is 500 times more dangerous). So it is that many parents who don’t bother strapping their child into a car seat fear letting their child walk alone to school. And so it is that vaccinated people, after habitually living with pandemic fear for more than a year, have difficulty embracing the good news of vaccine efficacy. After 14 months, habitual fear is slow to subside. But the good news: Subside it will. As exposure therapy has demonstrated, people who repeatedly face fear-arousing situations—starting with minimally anxiety-arousing settings—gradually become desensitized. Over time, their fear response extinguishes. Life will return to normal. Meanwhile, for us educators, there remains an ongoing challenge: to help people think smart—to think critically, enlightened by evidence (and, yes, statistics). Between fearlessness and paralysis lies wisdom. Between cynicism and panic lies courage. Between recklessness and reticence lies informed prudence. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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“I am among [Michigan’s] 300 plus ‘Juvenile Lifers,’” a prisoner known to his friends as Chan wrote me in 1994, kindly passing along a math error he had caught in one of my textbooks. More than half a lifetime ago, Chan, as a 17-year-old, had joined a friend in committing an armed robbery and murder. He expressed “great remorse and regret” for his crime, as well as his hope to learn and grow with the goal of contributing “something of substance and worth.” In the ensuing six years of our occasional correspondence, Chan—an intelligent and now deeply religious man—has been described to me by others, including the retired superintendent of his former prison, as a model prisoner. He is excelling in prison-taught college courses. After taking introductory psychology with my text, he alerted me that Aristotle’s Apothegems is actually spelled Apothegms. Chan, now in his mid-40s, would much rather be contributing to society and paying taxes than having his room and board funded by Michigan taxpayers, whose $2.06 billion prison budget impedes our governor’s fulfilling her campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads.” But does society somehow benefit from keeping those who have committed an impulsive juvenile crime endlessly locked up? Might Chan, if released, still be a risk? Hardly. Teens’ inhibitory frontal lobes lag the development of their emotional limbic system. With brains not yet fully prepared to calculate long-term consequences, the result is teen impulsiveness and emotionality. No wonder arrest rates for rape, assault, and murder soar during the teen years and decline after age 20—to a much lower level by the mid-40s. As psychologist David Lykken noted , “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.” By that time, the frontal lobes have matured, testosterone is subsiding, and men are mellowing. Middle-aged men are not just adolescents with inflated waistlines. But if the incarceration of juvenile lifers like Chan is costly to society, might it nevertheless deter future Chans from violent acts? Alas, when committing an impulsive act or a crime of passion, people seldom pause to calmly calculate the long-term consequences. (Even the threat of capital punishment does not predict lower state homicide rates.) Any deterrence effect lies less with the length of a punishment than with its probability—its swiftness and sureness. The immaturity of the teen brain and the diminishing risk of violence with age, as explained in Supreme Court briefs by the American Psychological Association and other health associations, contributed to the Court’s 2012 ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Even discretionary life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional, it ruled, except for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Then, last week, the Court qualified that judgment by affirming the life sentence of Mississippian Brett Jones, who—when barely age 15, and after a lifetime of abuse—responded to his grandfather’s reportedly hitting him by impulsively stabbing his grandfather to death. Like Chan, Jones, now 31, is said to be “remorseful for his crime, hardworking and a ‘good kid’” who gets along with everybody. How ironic, commentators noted, that the majority opinion—that teens can forever be held responsible for their juvenile misdeeds—was written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had argued during his confirmation hearings that holding him responsible for his high school yearbook page was “a new level of absurdity.” Moreover, responded Justice Sonia Sotomayor, this decision will prevent hundreds of other juvenile defendants, 70 percent of whom are people of color, from securing early release. zodebala/E+/Getty Images Nevertheless, there has been increasing bipartisan concern about the human and financial costs of lengthy mass incarceration for long-ago transgressions. The Smarter Sentencing Act , co-sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), responds to the reality that the seven-fold increased federal prison population since 1980 makes such incarceration “one of our nation’s biggest expenditures, dwarfing the amount spent on law enforcement.” Surely, we can say yes to public protection, but also yes to smarter sentencing—sentencing that holds the Chans and Brett Joneses accountable for their acts, while also recognizing that the impulsive, momentary act of an immature teen needn’t predict one’s distant future. Indeed, how many of us would like to be judged today by the worst moments of our immature adolescence? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” ~Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse
As Aristotle recognized long ago, we are social animals. “Without friends,” he observed in Nicomachean Ethics, “no one would choose to live.” Cut off from friends or family—alone in a foreign land, isolated during a pandemic, or separated by a death—people acutely feel their lost connections. Thanks to our distant ancestors surviving in groups that collectively hunted, shared, and protected, nature has endowed us with a powerful need to belong.
Our deeply social nature is revealed by the contribution of social support to our health and happiness. Folks who have close friends—people to whom they freely disclose their ups and downs, who rejoice with them over good news and commiserate over bad—live more happily and longer. In contrast, being ostracized, excluded, or shunned—your texts unanswered, your online friend ghosting you, others avoiding you—causes real emotional and physical pain. Loneliness is less a matter of being alone than of feeling ignored, dismissed, or uncared about. We are designed for relationships.
It’s understandable, then, that with fewer pandemic-era face-to-face meetings, parties, and coffee klatches, people’s mental health has suffered . Separation from our nearest and dearest has taken an emotional toll. But what about those fleeting interactions—a brief chat in passing, a friendly exchange with the mail carrier, a wee blether with the ride share driver? Do these pandemic-diminished micro connections also feed our souls? The consistent verdict of some inspiring social experiments is Yes.
Bantering with a barista. University of British Columbia researchers Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn offered patrons entering Starbucks a $5 gift card to participate in a simple experiment . After consenting, half were randomly assigned to be respectful but efficient when interacting with the barista (“have your money ready, and avoid unnecessary conversation”). The others were assigned to be social (“smile, make eye contact to establish a connection, and have a brief conversation”). When later exiting the store, those assigned to be social reported feeling more positive emotion, less negative emotion, and greater satisfaction with their Starbucks experience.
Reaching out to a stranger. In multiple experiments , University of Chicago researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder similarly offered Chicago commuters a $5 gift card for completing a randomly assigned task: to a) do as they would normally do on their train or bus, b) sit in solitude, or c) strike up a conversation with a stranger (“try to get to know your community neighbor this morning”). Although most people expected the attempted conversation would be awkward, the surprising outcome was positive—they were in a happier mood upon finishing their ride. Moreover, the intentional friendliness created an equally happy experience for both extraverts and introverts.
The delight of compliments received—and given. In five experiments , University of Pennsylvania researchers Erica Boothby and Vanessa Bohns observed the unexpected power of compliments. In one, they instructed compliment-givers to approach strangers, observe “something about them that you like” (often their hair or clothing), and compliment them on it. Although the compliment-givers expected the compliment-receivers would be a bit put off, perhaps feeling their own awkwardness, the consistent result was the opposite: The little act of kindness was warmly received. Even the compliment-giver felt better afterwards.
Engaging with a bus driver. At Turkey’s Sabanci University, Gül Günaydin and colleagues wondered if greeting, thanking, or expressing good wishes to campus shuttle drivers would boost commuters’ happiness. A survey revealed that those who routinely did so were happier. But maybe happy people are just friendlier? To pin down cause and effect, they experimented . They gave some commuters an envelope with instructions to do as she reports Turks normally do: to not speak with the driver. Others were asked to smile, make eye contact, and say something like “Thank you” or “Have a nice day.” When later hopping off the bus, the friendly-acting commuters were feeling happier.
The moral of the story: “Prosociality” doesn’t just brighten others’ days, it brightens one’s own. When the pandemic ends, and our facial expressions are no longer masked, we will surely savor our renewed connections—even our micro connections.
I wondered: Does the lesson of these studies ring true in my Facebook friends’ everyday lives, as it does in mine? So I asked them: Can you recall happy experiences of humanizing brief interactions—either as giver or as receiver?
Dozens of heart-warming replies flooded in.
RgStudio/E+/Getty Im ages
Many recalled the happy results of reaching out to homeless people, grocery store clerks, tradespeople, taxi drivers, and fellow hikers, campers, or dog-walkers. Teachers reported, during the pandemic, missing “the short conversations outside of class time—in hallways, in the lunch line, at the door on the way into or out of school . . . the little blessings [that] enrich my day and my membership in the community.”
Others recalled how, with repeated brief encounters, miniature but meaningful relationships arose. Repeated micro interactions with restaurant servers, corner shop owners, or pharmacists grew into fondness: “On our daily walk past a hotel to our Tokyo train station we got to ‘know’ a friendly bellhop on a first name basis, with updates on her life. She would often run out and wave most enthusiastically greeting us.”
Some noted the prevalence of micro interactions in certain cultures. A friend reported that, in Malawi, “ we had grown used to these kinds of micro friendships” as people exchange pleasantries with passersby on the street, and with the vegetable and fruit-sellers. “If they have their babies with them you greet them, too. Eventually you see that the baby is now in school and there is another one on the way, so you feel you have gotten to know them through a series of small exchanges over the years. When we left Malawi to return to the U.S. our daughter noticed the difference. She asked us, ‘Have I disappeared?’ When we asked why she said, ‘No one greets me!’”
Others were inspired by observing micro kindnesses, such as from a spouse who engages in a “spray of random acts and words of kindness”—given to clerks, delivery people, or the adjacent person at a concert “with a smile and chat that leaves them smiling in return.” Another admired a friend who “will often meet someone—perhaps just for a moment—and take the time to tell them something strikingly wonderful about themselves.”
My friends also recalled receiving kindhearted gestures from strangers—from a 7/11 store owner having dog treats ready, a Red Cross nurse giving infusions with a personal conversation, or a fellow airplane passenger, who, on landing, complimented a mom of three young children. “ ‘You were very patient.’ Music to my ears and heart.”
One woman, stressed by managing a clinic at the pandemic’s beginning, stopped by Walgreens to console herself with “a family-sized bag of chocolate.” The cashier, “a young 20-something man, asked me if I’d come all the way to the store just for chocolate. I said yes, it had been a bad day. He then asked me why and I just burst into tears. His genuine interest and compassion were so validating and humanizing that the flood gates broke. He probably thought he made my day worse . . . but he really made my day better and I think I will never forget the kindness of this young guy toward a hot mess 40-something mom.”
Sometimes micro kindnesses are, indeed, long remembered. One man recalled that “When I was a college student, I used to smile and greet the only other dark-skinned Mexican on campus (a small California college). The other students used to mock him for his [older] age, quirky personality, and appearance. We never had classes together so I never really got to know him. But at graduation he approached me tearfully and thanked me for my frequent smiles and greetings. He told me that often it was the only kindness he would experience for long periods at the college, and that it helped him get through.”
Another told of seeing an older, white-haired man buying roses and chocolates. “I smiled at him and commented, ‘How nice! Someone special will love receiving those on Valentine’s Day.’ He turned to me, made intense eye contact, and said, ‘They are for my wife. I am giving them to her today. We just found out that she has leukemia.’ Then we just gazed at each other for a few seconds, searching each other's souls, it felt like. He wanted, needed a response. I asked God for words, and to perceive exactly what he needed. I finally said from my own heart, ‘Every woman dreams of finding someone like you to love her forever, no matter what.’ It happened so fast. The gratitude that swept over his face melted into a smile. He really needed someone to see him and hear him, exactly where he was in that moment, I think. ‘I'll take good care of her,’ he said as he left, his voice stronger. ‘I know you will,’ I said back, lifting a silent prayer of thanksgiving.”
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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People wonder: What explains so many politicians’ U-turns in their public estimates of Donald Trump? How did Ted Cruz’s 2016 assessment (“a pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen”) mutate into his ardent support? How did Lindsay Graham’s condemnation (a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot”) and Marco Rubio’s aspersions (“vulgar,” “an embarrassment,” “a con artist”) metamorphose into their ardent defense of the President? Why did 147 formerly constitution-proclaiming legislators transform from “Don’t impeach, let the people vote!” to not accepting the vote outcome? Republican politics aside, how is it that politicians of any persuasion can so readily morph from disdain to devotion? To defending what they had previously damned? Does such chameleon-like change aim only to please their public? Or does it also reveal an inner change of heart? Compliance is Strategic Surely the pundits are right to argue that much of this behavior is self-serving—caving in to political pressure, or calculated to cater to shifts in voter opinion. Thus, Carl Bernstein can name 21 mostly compliant Republican senators who, in private, “express extreme contempt for Trump and his fitness for office.” Moreover, the phenomenon is bipartisan. Post-9/11, legislators supported the Iraq war in a 3-to-1 margin despite many private reservations. The U.S. House once overwhelmingly passed a salary increase for itself in an off-the-record vote, then moments later overwhelmingly defeated the same bill on a public roll-call vote. And no more do we hear Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris declaring, as candidate Harris did, that she and Joe Biden would have been on “ opposite sides ” of school busing. So yes, public behaviors need not mirror private attitudes. Sometimes we say what we think others want to hear. Compliance Breeds Acceptance But there’s a second and more psychologically interesting explanation. As social psychological research has repeatedly shown, saying often becomes believing. Attitudes follow behavior. In experiments , people have been observed to adapt what they say to please their listeners, and then to begin believing what they have said. Retired University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman experienced the phenomenon: “I started reading palms when I was in my teens as a way to supplement my income from doing magic and mental shows. When I started I did not believe in palmistry. But I knew that to ‘sell’ it I had to act as if I did. After a few years I became a firm believer in palmistry.” The self-persuasive power of our own public behavior typically happens in small steps. In Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments, people did not begin by administering 450 supposed volts of torture, but rather with a mild and hardly-noticed 15 volts. By the time they followed orders to administer 75 volts to the “learner” and heard the first groan, they already had complied 5 times, and justified doing so to themselves . . . after which the next request was for just slightly more. In such a step-by-step fashion, decent people can evolve into agents of cruelty. Likewise, social movements, from yesterday’s Nazism to today’s White nationalism, start small and build. In more than 100 “foot-in-the-door” experiments, an initial compliance—signing a petition, wearing a lapel pin, writing an essay, stating one’s intention—begins a process that leads people to believe more strongly in what they have said or done. As social psychologist Robert Cialdini observed in his book, Influence , “You can use small commitments to manipulate a person’s self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into ‘public servants,’ prospects into ‘customers,’ prisoners into ‘collaborators.’” Ralph Waldo Emerson anticipated today’s social psychology. People’s actions “are too strong for them,” he noted. They act and then become “the victim and slave” of their action: “What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again.” After inducing Richard Rich to betray Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell consoles him: “You’ll find it easier next time.” Conscience adjusts. And so it surely has happened among some of the 126 U.S. House members who signed their support of the Texas attorney general’s effort to overturn the presidential election results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin and the 197 members who contested his second impeachment for inciting insurrection. These one-time Constitution-loving patriots may have strategically hoped to retain the support of their base, preclude a future partisan primary, or avoid the president’s scorn. Yet each time one caves, one’s morality mutates. In a 1944 lecture, “ The Inner Ring ,” C. S. Lewis described this slow-cooked process by which the lust for approval and power corrupts: Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play . . . but something, says your new friend, which "we"—and at the word "we" you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something "we always do." And you will be drawn in . . . because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man's face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel. As J. R. R. Tolkien’s friend, Lewis was familiar with the draw of the magic ring of power, and not just in the Hobbit world. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Endings matter. That’s the consistent lesson of experiments that track people’s memories of pain. Imagine yourself in one such experiment led by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (later a Nobel laureate for founding behavioral economics). You immerse a hand in painfully cold water for one minute. You then repeat the painful experience with the other hand, which gets an additional 30 seconds in not-quite-so-cold water, which allows your discomfort to diminish somewhat. Question: Which experience would you later recall as the more painful? Although the 90-second experience exposed you to more net pain, you would—if you were like the experiment’s participants—recall it as less painful. Moreover, you would choose to repeat it over the shorter experience that ended with greater pain. This curious phenomenon—that people discount the duration of a painful experience, and instead judge it by its ending (and peak) moments of pain—has been repeatedly confirmed . After a painful medical procedure or childbirth , people overlook the pain’s duration and instead recall what is most cognitively available—the peak and end moments. Recognizing that endings matter, some physicians have applied the finding by lengthening an uncomfortable experience with gradual lessening of the pain. How ironic: If a doctor or dentist, having completed a procedure, asks if you’d like to leave now or to bear a few more minutes of diminishing discomfort, there’s a case to be made for agreeing to the tapered hurt. Although the time scale of a medical procedure and a presidency differ, the Trump era will forever be remembered by its end—when, as the Senate and House convened to ratify the 2020 electoral votes, Trump encouraged his followers to flock to D.C. for a time that “Will be wild!”; reassured them that “We will stop the steal!”; admonished them that “You will never take back our country with weakness”; directed them to “Walk down to the Capitol”; and, after they had violently stormed the Capitol building and halted proceedings, took to Twitter to reiterate his claims of election fraud and tell the rioters “We love you. You’re very special.” The resulting insurrectionist assault on the nation’s democratic house—horrifying Republicans and Democrats alike—will surely color people’s future recollections of the Trump presidency and its enablers. Psychologically speaking, the assault was a double whammy that subjected America to peak pain at the presidency’s end. The vivid scenes of rampage will be imprinted in people’s minds, lingering as the most cognitively available basis for judging the Trump era, and for comparing it to the Biden era to follow. Endings matter.
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Red and blue partisans alike are aghast at what others revere. As one incredulous friend recently said of his family, “I can't believe that I personally know people who are so foolish.” This divided family is not alone. The percentage of both Republicans and Democrats who “hate” the other party soared from 20 percent in 2000 to near 50 percent in 2016. Would you be unhappy if your child married someone from the other party? From 1960 to 2019, the percent of folks answering “yes” shot up from 4 to 40 percent. What psychological forces are driving and sustaining our great and growing divide? As I’ve mentioned in prior essays, belief perseverance solidifies ideas when personal explanations of why they might be true outlast the discrediting of evidence that inspired them. Motivated reasoning justifies what we already believe or want to believe. And c onfirmation bias sustains our beliefs as we seek belief-confirming evidence. There is also a powerful fourth phenomenon at work: group polarization, which further amplifies the shared views of like-minded folks. When like minds discuss, their attitudes often become more extreme. Long ago, George Bishop and I invited high-prejudice students to discuss racial issues with others (who, unknown to them, were of like mind). We did the same with low-prejudice students. As we reported in Science , the result was group polarization: The divide between the two groups grew. Separation + conversation = polarization (see Figure 1). The phenomenon can work for good—as peacemakers, hunger advocates, and Black Lives Matter activists gain strength from connecting with kindred spirits. Or it can be toxic, as like minds amplify bigotry, intensify conspiracy paranoia, and inspire terrorism. People have long gained conviction from the meeting of like minds. But three more recent cultural changes provide fertile soil for extreme group polarization: The internet. One, obviously, is 21st-century social media. Trump supporters connect with fellow Trump supporters in disparaging those whom they despise. Progressives friend progressives who similarly affirm their shared views. The end result? Differences escalate to demonization. Partisanship becomes tribalism. Partisan cable TV. But the internet is far from the whole story, because polarization has deepened even among those least likely to use it. The soil that nourishes polarization also includes today’s politicized cable television options. In the past, a handful of mainstream news sources fed us all. Today, we can choose like-minded news—think Fox and MSNBC evening talk shows, and the recently Trump-championed Newsmax and OAN—that reinforces our existing views. The geography of division. There is also a third and less obvious social phenomenon at work. In a contest between proverbs—do “opposites attract,” or do “birds of a feather flock together”?—one of social psychology’s oldest and most firmly established principles is that similarity attracts. Opposites attracting can make for a good story: think Frog and Toad. Or: “ I’m Aquarius—decisive. He’s Libra—indecisive. We complement each other with so little conflict, because he’s happy when I make the arrangements.” But in reality, people are drawn to those with whom they share attitudes, beliefs, interests, age, religion, education, intelligence, economic status . . . the list goes on. We could wish it were otherwise, because there are benefits to diversity in neighborhoods and work teams. Yet birds who flock together—rich birds, tall birds, pretty birds, smoker birds, evangelical birds—typically are of a feather. Likeness leads to liking. Similarity breeds content. And that helps explain why, in an age of increased mobility (we more often live at some distance from our original home), our internet/TV social bubbles are compounded by geographic bubbles, where people live among other like-minded folks. Blue counties have become a deeper blue, and red counties a brighter red. As Philip Bump reports, the Democratic presidential candidate’s margin in Democratic-voting counties increased from an average 15 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2020, while the average Republican candidate’s margin in Republican-voting counties increased from 26 to 43 percent. Whether you live in rural Wyoming or in central Seattle, just about everyone you meet likely thinks like you do. This increasing geographical segregation of like minds helps explain the astounding result of a September, 2020, Pew survey : Four in ten Biden and Trump supporters said they did “not have a single close friend” who supported the other candidate. As I am, so are my friends. When COVID-19 is defeated, our world will be left with mammoth challenges: preventing a climate apocalypse, reducing systemic racism and hyper-inequality, and also building bridges of understanding across our partisan chasm. For better and for worse, the internet, cable television, and geographic mobility will endure. So how might we depolarize? Technologists can surely help, by prioritizing Mark Zuckerberg’s original vision of “a more connected world.” By flagging demonstrable untruths, creating forums for “ deliberative democracy ,” and linking people across boundaries, future technologies can work at increasing shared understandings. Citizen initiatives can engage dialogue. Nonprofit organizations working to depolarize America include Living Room Conversation , the Civil Conversations Project , the Depolarization Project , and Braver Angels , which is bringing red and blue together “to understand the other side’s point of view . . . to look for common ground . . . and to support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.” For some specific policies, such as higher taxes on the super-rich, net neutrality , and a $15 minimum wage , there already is bipartisan supermajority support. Educators can advance understanding. One overarching purpose of education is to counter the power of repeated misinformation and “anecdata” by teaching evidence-based critical thinking. Education can also work at enabling people, even when disagreeing, to understand others’ perspectives. It can train intellectual humility (“What’s the weakest part of my argument? What’s the strongest part of my opponent’s argument?”). And, with our attention so often drawn to how we differ, educators can teach listening skills that enable us to appreciate our shared concerns and values. For superb, evidence-based, ready-to-use online pedagogy, see www.OpenMindPlatform.org . The utopian goal is not a Nineteen Eighty-Four-like uniformity of public opinion. Rather, our challenge is to affirm both our diversity and our unifying ideals, and so to renew the founding idea of America: diversity within unity. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke for many in being astounded by “the sheer scale of the belief among conservatives that the [2020 presidential] election was really stolen,” which he attributed partly to “A strong belief [spurring] people to go out in search of evidence” for what they suppose. Douthat alluded to confirmation bias—our well-established tendency, when assessing our beliefs, to seek information that supports rather than challenges them. What’s the basis for this big idea, which has become one of social psychology’s gifts to public awareness? And should appreciating its power to sustain false beliefs cause us to doubt our own core beliefs? In a pioneering study that explored our greater eagerness to seek evidence for rather than against our ideas, psychologist Peter Wason gave British university students a set of three numbers (2-4-6) and told them that the series illustrated a rule. Their task was to discover the rule by generating their own three-number sequences, which Wason would confirm either did or didn’t conform to the rule. After the students tested enough to feel certain they had the rule, they were to announce it. Imagine being one of Wason’s study participants. What might you suppose the rule to be, and what number strings might you offer to test it? The outcome? Most participants, though seldom right, were never in doubt. Typically, they would form a wrong idea (such as “counting by twos?”) and then test it by searching for confirming evidence: “4-6-8?” “Yes, that conforms.” “20-22-24?” “Yes.” “200-202-204?” “Yes again.” “Got it. It’s counting by twos.” To discover Wason’s actual rule (any three ascending numbers), the participants should also have attempted to disconfirm their hunch by imagining and testing alternative ideas. Confirmation bias also affects our social beliefs. In several experiments , researchers Mark Snyder and William Swann tasked participants with posing questions to someone that would reveal whether that person was extraverted. The participants’ typical strategy was to seek information that would confirm extraversion. They would more likely ask “What would you do if you wanted to liven things up at a party?” than “What factors make it hard for you to really open up to people?” Vice versa for those assessing introversion. Thus, participants typically would detect in a person whatever trait they were assessing. Seek and ye shall find. In everyday life, too, once having formed a belief—that vaccines cause autism, that people can choose or change their sexual orientation, that the election was rigged—we prefer and seek information that verifies our belief. The phenomenon is politically bipartisan. Across various issues, both conservatives and liberals avoid learning the other side’s arguments about topics such as climate change, guns, and same-sex marriage. If we believe that systemic racism is (or is not) rampant, we will gravitate toward news sources, Facebook friends, and evidence that confirms our view, and away from sources that do not. Robert Browning understood: “As is your sort of mind, / So is your sort of search: you’ll find / What you desire.” Confirmation bias supplements another idea from social psychology—belief perseverance, a sister sort of motivated reasoning. In one provocative experiment, a Stanford research team led by Craig Anderson invited students to consider whether risk-takers make good or bad firefighters. Half viewed cases of a venturesome person succeeding as a firefighter, and a cautious person not succeeding; the other half viewed the reverse. After the students formed their conclusion, the researchers asked them to explain it. “Of course,” one group reflected, “risk-takers are braver.” To the other group, the opposite explanation seemed equally obvious: “Cautious people have fewer accidents.” When informed that the cases they’d viewed were fake news made up for the experiment, did the students now return to their pre-experiment neutrality? No—because after the fake information was discredited, the students were left with their self-generated explanations of why their initial conclusion might be true. Their new beliefs, having grown supporting legs, thus survived the discrediting. As the researchers concluded, “People often cling to their beliefs to a considerably greater extent than is logically or normatively warranted.” So, does confirmation bias + belief perseverance preclude teaching an old dogma new tricks? Does pondering our beliefs, and considering why they might be true, close us to dissonant truths? Mindful of the self-confirming persistence of our beliefs (whether true or false), should we therefore doubt everything? Once formed, it does take more compelling persuasion to change a belief (“election fraud was rampant”) than it did to create it. But there are at least two reasons we need not succumb to a nihilistic belief in nothing. First, evidence-based critical thinking works. Some evidence will change our thinking. If I believe that Reno is east of Los Angeles, that Atlanta is east of Detroit, and that Rome is south of New York, a look at a globe will persuade me that I am wrong, wrong, and wrong. I may once have supposed that child-rearing techniques shape children’s personalities, that the crime rate has been rising for years, or that traumatic experiences get repressed, but evidence has shown me otherwise. Recognizing that none of us are infallible little gods, we all, thankfully, have at least some amount of intellectual humility. Moreover, seeking evidence that might disconfirm our convictions sometimes strengthens them. I once believed that close, supportive relationships predict happiness, that aerobic exercise boosts mental health, and that wisdom and emotional stability grow with age—and the evidence now enables me to believe these things with even greater confidence. Curiosity is not the enemy of conviction. Second, explaining a belief does not explain it away. Knowing why you believe something needn’t tell us anything about your belief’s truth or falsity. Consider: If the psychology of belief causes us to question our own beliefs, it can also cause others to question their opposing beliefs, which are themselves prone to confirmation bias and belief perseverance. Psychological science, for example, offers both a psychology of religion and a “psychology of unbelief” (an actual book title). If both fully complete their work—by successfully explaining both religion and irreligion—that leaves open the question of whether theism or atheism is true. Archbishop William Temple recognized the distinction between explaining a belief and explaining it away when he was challenged after an Oxford address: “Well, of course, Archbishop, the point is that you believe what you believe because of the way you were brought up.” To which the archbishop replied, “That is as it may be. But the fact remains that you believe that I believe what I believe because of the way I was brought up, because of the way you were brought up.” Finally, let’s remember: If we are left with uncertainty after welcoming both confirming and disconfirming evidence, we can still venture a commitment. As French author Albert Camus reportedly said, sometimes life beckons us to make a 100 percent commitment to something about which we are 51 percent sure—to a cause worth embracing, or even to a belief system that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death. So yes, belief perseverance solidifies newly formed ideas as invented rationales outlast the evidence that inspired them. And c onfirmation bias then sustains our beliefs as we seek belief-confirming evidence. Nevertheless, evidence-based thinking can strengthen true beliefs, or at least give us courage, amid lingering doubt, to make a reasoned leap of faith. As St. Paul advised , “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com ; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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A powerful psychological phenomenon is deflecting public approval of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, a phenomenon that is surfacing in polls and may influence the outcome of Georgia’s special Senate election. Social psychologists have repeatedly observed our human tendency to assume that we live in a just world, a world where people get what they deserve—where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Things happen for a reason, we surmise. From this “just-world” assumption it is but a short leap to assume that those who succeed must be good and those who suffer must be bad. The rich, we may think, have earned their wealth, even as the poor’s misfortune is similarly deserved. Those who viewed Donald Trump as an exceptionally successful business person would, in a just world, naturally assume that he possessed exceptional business acumen and leadership skills. At the other extreme, American slaveholders tended to view enslaved people as lazy and irresponsible—as having the very traits that justified their slavery. In both cases, folks presumed, people deserved what they got. The just-world phenomenon has played out in experiments . For example, people who were randomly assigned to receive supposed electric shocks for wrong answers on a memory test were later perceived as somehow deserving their fate. Juvenal, the Roman satirist, observed the phenomenon: “The Roman mob follows after Fortune . . . and hates those who have been condemned.” In other experiments people who read about a man and woman’s interaction judged the woman differently depending on whether the story ends with a happy ending or a rape—even when in both cases her behavior was the same. Thus the phenomenon can blind us to injustice, as people presume rape victims must have been seductive, battered spouses may have elicited their beating, and sick people as responsible for what ails them. “You reap what you sew.” So it happened in the Old Testament story of the undeserved suffering Job, whose friends judged that he must have merited his lot. Linking fortune with virtue and misfortune with moral failure sustains injustice. It enables the fortunate to feel pride in their just rewards and to avoid responsibility for the unfortunate. Just-world thinking is enabled by after-the-face narratives that explain victory or defeat. When a basketball game ends with a winning shot that rolls around the rim and falls in, fans and commentators explain the brilliant play and smart coaching that enabled the victory. Let the shot roll off, and everything remains the same—except now, the Monday morning narrative itemizes the player mistakes and coaching failures. Already we see the phenomenon operating writ large, with the expected post-election analyses of Mr. Trump’s flaws and Mr. Biden’s virtues. Losers we devalue. Winners we admire. Runoff and special elections historically have elicited more Republican turnout. This seemingly is reflected in the betting markets, which, as I write, estimate a 73 percent chance that Republicans will retain control of the Senate by winning at least one of the Georgia seats. Moreover, notes election modeler Nate Silver , “It’s easy to imagine Republicans being more motivated to turn out than Democrats, who may feel like they’ve done their duty.” But surely there is an alternative scenario: In this interim before the January 5th Georgia Senate runoff elections involving two Trump-supporting Republicans, we can anticipate further decline in Donald Trump’s public approval, which will be mirrored by rising approval of Joe Biden. If it’s a just world, both got what they deserved. And sure enough: A new Gallup Poll finds Biden’s favorability rating up six points six the election and Trump’s down three. Trump’s absence from the January ballot and his falling approval will likely weigh on the Trump-associated Senators Perdue and Loeffler. Moreover, if Mr. Biden’s public esteem rises, if the election becomes issue-focused (on allowing Biden to legislate majority-supported livable wages, climate protection, and affordable health care), and if Democratic voters are more motivated to enable Biden to govern than are dispirited Republicans motivated to block his initiatives, then the results may surprise us. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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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 .)
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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.)
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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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“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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