“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” ~ Anonymous proverb Character education’s greatest task is instilling a mark of maturity: the willingness to delay gratification. In many studies, those who learn to restrain their impulses—by electing larger-later rather than smaller-now rewards—have gone on to become more socially responsible, academically successful, and vocationally productive. The ability to delay gratification, to live with one eye on the future, also helps protect people from the ravages of gambling, delinquency, and substance abuse. In one of psychology’s famous experiments, Walter Mischel gave 4-year-olds a choice between one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows a few minutes later. Those who chose two later marshmallows went on to have higher college graduation rates and incomes, and fewer addiction problems. Although a recent replication found a more modest effect, the bottom line remains: Life successes grow from the ability to resist small pleasures now in favor of greater pleasures later. Marshmallows—and much more—come to those who wait. The marshmallow choice parallels a much bigger societal choice: Should we prioritize today, with policies that keep energy prices and taxes low? Or should we prioritize the future, by investing now to spare us and our descendants the costs of climate change destruction? “Inflation is absolutely killing many, many people,” said U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, in explaining his wariness of raising taxes to fund climate mitigation. Manchin spoke for 50 fellow senators in prioritizing the present. When asked to pay more now to incentivize electric vehicles and fund clean energy, their answer, on behalf of many of their constituents, is no. But might the cost of inaction be greater? The White House Office of Management and Budget projects an eventual $2 trillion annual federal budget cost of unchecked climate change. If, as predicted, climate warming increases extreme weather disasters, if tax revenues shrink with the economy’s anticipated contraction, and if infrastructure and ecosystem costs soar, then are we being penny-wise and pound-foolish? With the worst yet to come, weather and climate disasters have already cost the U.S. a trillion dollars over the past decade, with the total rising year by year. nattrass /E+/Getty Images The insurance giant Swiss Re also foresees a $23 trillion global economy cost by 2050 if governments do not act now. The Big 4 accounting firm Deloitte is even more apprehensive, projecting a $178 trillion global cost by 2070. What do you think: Are our politicians—by seizing today’s single economic marshmallow—displaying a mark of immaturity: the inability to delay gratification for tomorrow’s greater good? A related phenomenon, temporal discounting, also steers their political judgments. Even mature adults tend to discount the future by valuing today’s rewards—by preferring, say, a dollar today over $1.10 in a month. Financial advisors therefore plead with their clients to do what people are not disposed to do . . . to think long-term—to capitalize on the power of compounding by investing in their future. Alas, most of us—and our governments—are financially nearsighted. We prioritize present circumstances over our, and our children’s, future. And so we defend our current lifestyle by opposing increased gas taxes and clean-energy mandates. The western U.S. may be drying up, sea water creeping into Miami streets, and glaciers and polar ice retreating, but even so, only “1 percent of voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll named climate change as the most important issue facing the country, far behind worries about inflation and the economy.” The best time to plant a tree, or to have invested in climate protection, was 20 years ago. The worst time is 20 years from now, when severe climate destruction will be staring us in the eye. As we weigh our present against our future, psychological science reminds our political representatives, and all of us, of a profoundly important lesson: Immediate gratification makes today easy, but tomorrow hard. Delayed gratification makes today harder, but tomorrow easier. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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“Donald Trump . . . unleashed something, that is so much bigger than he is now or ever will be: He pushed the limits of acceptability, hostility, aggression and legality beyond where other politicians dared push them.” ~ Charles Blow, 2022 This is a venomous time. From 2015 to 2019, FBI-reported U.S. hate crimes increased 25 percent. Social psychologists have therefore wondered: Is this increase, and the accompanying resurgence of white nationalism, fed by Donald Trump’s rhetoric—his saying, for example, that the torch-carrying Charlottesville white nationalists included some “very fine people”? Or did the president’s tweets and speeches merely reflect existing prejudices, which, in a few disturbed individuals, fed hateful acts? Simply put: Do political leaders’ words merely voice common prejudices and grievances? Or do they also amplify them? They do both. Leaders play to their audiences. And when prominent leaders voice prejudices, it then becomes more socially acceptable for their followers to do likewise. When disdain for those of another race or religion or sexual orientation becomes socially acceptable, insults or violence may ensue. Social norms mutate, and norms matter. A new Nature Human Behaviour report of 13 studies of 10,000+ people documents the norm-changing influence of President Trump’s rhetoric. During his presidency, “Explicit racial and religious prejudice significantly increased amongst Trump’s supporters,” say the report’s authors, social psychologists Benjamin Ruisch (University of Kent) and Melissa Ferguson (Yale University). Some of their studies followed samples of Americans from 2014 to 2017, ascertaining their attitudes toward Muslims (whether they agreed, for example, that “Islam is quite primitive”). As seen on this 7-point scale of anti-Muslim prejudice, Trump supporters’ anti-Muslim sentiments significantly increased. But what about those for whom Donald Trump was not a positive role model? Would they become less imitative? Might they be like those observed in one study of jaywalking, in which pedestrians became less likely to jaywalk after observing someone they didn’t admire (a seeming low-status person) doing so? Indeed, Trump opponents exhibited decreased Muslim prejudice over time. Moreover, Ruisch and Ferguson found, “Trump support remained a robust predictor of increases in [anti-Muslim] prejudice” even after controlling for 39 other variables, such as income, age, gender, and education. Trump support also predicted increases in other forms of prejudice, such as racial animus (“Generally, Blacks are not as smart as Whites are”) and anti-immigrant attitudes. Pew national surveys similarly find that the attitude gap between those voting for and against Trump widened from 2016 to 2020 (see the 2020 data below). The 57 percent of Democrat voters who, in 2016, agreed that it’s more difficult to be a Black American than a White American increased to 74 percent in 2020, illustrating the general historical trend toward more egalitarian attitudes. But no such positive shift occurred among Trump supporters, whose agreement with the concept of Black disadvantage actually declined slightly, from 11 percent in 2016 to 9 percent in 2020. Ruisch and Ferguson see shifting social norms at work. “Trump supporters perceive that it has become more acceptable to express prejudice since Trump’s election . . . and the perception that prejudice is more acceptable predicts greater personal prejudice among Trump supporters.” Their conclusion aligns with the earlier finding of a political science research team—“that counties that had hosted a 2016 Trump campaign rally saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes over comparable counties that did not host such a rally.” The happier news is that political leaders’ speech can work for better as well as for worse. In one month during 2021, a Stanford research team randomly assigned 1014 counties with low vaccination rates to receive 27-second YouTube ads (via TV, website, or app). Each featured Donald Trump’s expressed support for Covid vaccinations. After a Fox News anchor’s introduction, shown below, clips featured the Trumps getting the vaccine, with Ivanka saying, “Today I got the shot. I hope you do too” and Donald explaining “I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it.” At a cost of about $100,000, the add was viewed 11.6 million times by 6 million people. When compared with 1018 control counties, the experimental treatment counties experienced an additional 104,036 vaccinations, for an additional cost of less than $1 each. The simple lesson: Under the influence of powerful leaders, social norms and behaviors can change. And social norms matter—sometimes for worse, but sometimes for better. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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As members of one species, we humans share both a common biology (cut us and we bleed) and common behaviors (we similarly sense the world around us, use language, and produce and protect children). Our human genes help explain our kinship—our shared human nature. And they contribute to our individual diversity: Some people, compared with others, are taller, smarter, skinnier, healthier, more temperamental, shyer, more athletic . . . the list goes on and on. Across generations, your ancestors shuffled their gene decks, leading to the hand that—with no credit or blame due you—you were dealt. If you are reading this, it’s likely that genetic luck contributed to your having above average intelligence. Others, dealt a different hand and a different life, would struggle to understand these words. Andrew Brookes/Image Source/Getty Images Individual variation is big. Individuals vary much, much more within groups (say, comparing Danes with Danes or Kenyans with Kenyans) than between groups (as when comparing Danes and Kenyans). Yet there are also group differences. Given this reality (some groups struggle more in school), does behavior genetic science validate ethnocentric beliefs and counter efforts to create a just and equal society? In The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, University of Texas behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden answers an emphatic no. She documents the power of genes, but also makes the case for an egalitarian culture in which everyone thrives. Among her conclusions are these: We all are family. Going back far enough in time to somewhere between 5000 and 2000 B.C., we reach a remarkable point where “everyone alive then, if they left any descendants at all, was a common ancestor of everyone alive now.” We are all kin beneath the skin. We’re each highly improbable people. “Each pair of parents could produce over 70 trillion genetically unique offspring.” If you like yourself, count yourself fortunate. Most genes have tiny effects. Ignore talk of a single “gay gene” or “smart gene.” The human traits we care about, including our personality, mental health, intelligence, longevity, and sexual orientation “are influenced by many (very, very, very many) genetic variants, each of which contributes only a tiny drop of water to the swimming pool of genes that make a difference.” Individual genes’ tiny effects may nevertheless add up to big effects. Today’s Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) measure millions of genome elements and correlate each with an observed trait (phenotype). The resulting miniscule correlations from thousands of genetic variants often “add up to meaningful differences between people.” Among the White American high school students in one large study, only 11 percent of those who had the lowest GWAS polygenic index score predicting school success later graduated from college, as did 55 percent of those who had the highest score. “That kind of gap—a fivefold increase in the rate of college graduation—is anything but trivial.” Twin studies confirm big genetic effects. “After fifty years and more than 1 million twins, the overwhelming conclusion is that when people inherit different genes, their lives turn out differently.” Parent-child correlations come with no causal arrows. If the children of well-spoken parents who read to them have larger vocabularies, the correlation could be environmental, or genetic, or some interactive combination of the two. Beware the ecological fallacy (jumping from one data level to another). Genetic contributions to individual differences within groups (such as among White American high school students) provide zero evidence of genetic differences between groups. Genetic science does not explain social inequalities. Harden quotes sociologist Christopher Jencks’ illustration of a genetically influenced trait eliciting an environmentally caused outcome: “If, for example, a nation refuses to send children with red hair to school, the genes that cause red hair can be said to lower reading scores.” Harden also quotes social scientist Ben Domingue: “Genetics are a useful mechanism for understanding why people from relatively similar backgrounds end up different. . . . But genetics is a poor tool for understanding why people from manifestly different starting points don’t end up the same.” Many progressives affirm some genetic influences on individual traits. For example, unlike some conservatives who may see sexual orientation as a moral choice, progressives more often understand sexual orientation as a genetically influenced natural disposition. Differences ≠ deficits. “The problem to be fixed is society’s recalcitrant unwillingness to arrange itself in ways that allow everyone, regardless of which genetic variants they inherit, to participate fully in the social and economic life of [their] country.” An example: For neurodiverse individuals, the question is how to design environments that match their skills. Behavior genetics should be anti-eugenic. Advocates of eugenics have implied that traits are fixed due to genetic influences, and may therefore deny the value of social interventions. Alternatively, some genome-blind advocates shun behavior genetics science that could inform both our self-understanding and public policy. Harden advocates a third option, an anti-eugenic perspective that, she says, would reduce the waste of time and resources on well-meaning but ineffective programs. For example, by controlling for genetic differences with a GWAS measure, researchers can more accurately confirm the actual benefits of an environmental intervention such as an educational initiative or income support. Anti-eugenics also, she contends, uses genetic information to improve lives, not classify people, uses genetic information to promote equity, not exclusion, doesn’t mistake being lucky in a Western capitalist society for being “good” or deserving, and considers what policies people would favor if they didn’t know who they would be. Harden’s bottom line: Acknowledging the realities of human diversity, and discerning the powers and limits of various environmental interventions, can enhance our quest for a just and fair society. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com . Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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Consider: If blessed with income and wealth beyond your needs, what would you do with it? If you decided to give away your excess wealth, would you focus it on present needs (by distributing it immediately) or future needs (by accumulating wealth for later distribution)? Consider two sample answers to the second question, both drawn from real life: Give for immediate use. In Bremerton, Washington, a generous anonymous donor is giving away $250,000 grants to local, national, and international nonprofits with a condition: They must spend it in the next 2 years. The seven recipients to date are gladly doing so by hiring new staff, giving scholarships, feeding people, and so forth. There’s no time like the present. Give today, but maximize future impact. The John Templeton Foundation, which I have served as a trustee, had a future-minded benefactor who grew his wealth by living simply and investing half his income from his earliest working years. Thanks to his investment success and the exponential mathematics of investment compounding, he was able, by his death at age 95, to endow the foundation, which today has nearly $4 billion in assets. Like all U.S. foundations, the foundation has a mandated 5 percent annual payout rate—meaning that they give today but with eyes also on more distant horizons. So, would you advise prioritizing the present (as the Bremerton donor has) or also focusing on the future (as most foundations do)? Dimitri Otis/Stone/Getty Images The Initiative to Accelerate Charitable Giving would appreciate the Bremerton donor. As the world recovers from Covid and strives for racial justice, the Initiative perceives that “demands for services from charities are greater than ever.” So, it argues, foundations should increase their giving now. The Patriotic Millionaires , co-led by Abigail Disney, have proposed doubling, for three years, the required foundation payout from 5 to 10 percent. The Accelerating Charitable Efforts Act , co-sponsored by Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), would incentivize a 7 percent foundation payout rate (by waiving the 1.39 percent investment income tax for any year in which payout tops 7 percent of assets). Do you agree with this strategy—is now the time to give? Should we take care of our time, and leave it to future people to take care of theirs? If so, consider: Prioritizing the present will likely diminish a foundation’s future effectiveness. Given that asset-balanced foundation endowments have tended to earn less than 7 percent on their total investments,  even a 7 percent payout mandate would, over time, likely shrink a foundation’s assets and giving capacity. Assuming a continuation of long-term stock market performance, the Templeton Foundation calculates that its 50-year total giving would be almost double under a 5 percent payout (nearly $20 billion) vs. a 10 percent payout (less than $12 billion). Given both current and future human needs, would you still support a mandate that foundations distribute more of their assets now? Are today’s crises likely greater than tomorrow’s? The present versus future ethical dilemma brings to mind three related psychological principles: Temporal discounting. Humans often value immediate rewards over larger future rewards—a dollar today over $1.10 in a month. The phenomenon is familiar to financial advisors who plead with clients to value their future, and to harness the magic of compounding by investing today. Being financially nearsighted, our governments also tend to spend public monies on our present needs rather than our and our descendants’ future needs. Some of this present-focus reflects our commendable capacity for empathy—our hearts responding to present needs that we see and feel. But temporal discounting is also manifest in today’s consumers who oppose carbon taxes and clean energy mandates lest their lifestyle be restrained for the sake of humanity’s future. Temporal discounting undermines sustainability. Self-control: The ability to delay gratification. We aim to teach our children self-control—to control their impulses and to delay short-term gratification for bigger longer-term rewards. Better (in Walter Mischel’s classic experiment) two future marshmallows than one now. Such self-control predicts better school performance, better health, and higher income. Personal time perspective: Past, present, or future. In a 6-minute TED talk , Phil Zimbardo compared people with past, present, or future orientations—those who focus on their memories of what was, on their present situation, or on what will be. Although the good life is a mix of each, a future orientation bodes well for adolescents. Living with one eye on the future enables bigger future rewards and minimizing risk of school drop-out, problem gambling, smoking, and delinquency. Patience pays. So, mindful of both today’s and tomorrow’s needs, would you favor or oppose the proposals to increase foundation payout requirements? Of course, you say, both the present and the future matter. Indeed. But to what extent should we prioritize poverty relief (or scholarships or art galleries) today versus in the future? Who matters more—us and our people, or our great grandchildren and their compatriots? Or do we and our descendants all matter equally? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com . Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)  Century-long U.S. stock returns have averaged near 10 percent, or about 7 percent when inflation-adjusted. But most foundations also have other assets that have experienced a lower rate of return—in cash, bonds, and, for example, emerging markets.
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Consider the great COVID irony: As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted recently, “Vaccinated people may overestimate their peril, just as unvaccinated people may underestimate it.” Murthy could omit “may,” for we now have a string of national surveys ( here , here , here , and here ) showing that unvaccinated folks are much less likely to fear the virus. Moreover, those who are unvaccinated—and thus vastly more at risk of contracting and transmitting the virus—are also much less likely to protect themselves and others by wearing a mask. (If you see someone wearing a mask in your grocery store, they’re probably vaccinated.) Unvaccinated people’s discounting the threat, distrusting science, and prioritizing their rights to be unvaccinated and unmasked provide us social psychologists with a gigantic case study of unrealistic optimism, motivated reasoning, and group polarization. But looking forward, we can offer a prediction: As vaccine mandates increase, inducing more people to accept vaccination rather than being excluded from events or flights or bothered with weekly testing, attitudes will follow behavior. As every student of psychological science knows, two-way traffic flows between our attitudes and our behavior. We will often stand up for what we believe. But we also come to believe in what we stand up for. When people are induced to play a new role—perhaps their first days in the military or on a new job—their initial play-acting soon feels natural, as the new actions become internalized. When, in experiments, people are induced to support something about which they have doubts, they often come to accept their words. And in the laboratory, as in life, hurtful acts toward another foster disparagement, while helpful acts foster liking. In short, we not only can think ourselves into action, but also act ourselves into a new way of thinking. Behaving becomes believing. The attitudes-follow-behavior phenomenon is strongest in situations where we feel some responsibility for our action, and thus some need to explain it to ourselves—resolving any dissonance between our prior thinking and our new behavior. But the federal mandate—get vaccinated or face weekly testing—does (smartly) preserve some choice. What is more, we have ample historical evidence of mandates swaying public opinion. In the years following the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, White Americans—despite initial resistance—expressed steadily diminishing prejudice. Some resisted, and hate lingers. Yet as national anti-discrimination laws prompted Americans in different regions to act more alike, they also began to think more alike. Seat belt mandates, which at first evoked an angry defense of personal liberty, provide another example of attitudes following actions. Here in Michigan, the state representative who introduced the state’s 1982 seat belt law received hate mail, some comparing him to Hitler—despite abundant evidence that, like today’s vaccines, seatbelts save lives. But time rolls on, and so did seat belt acceptance, with Michigander’s approval of the law rising to 85 percent by the end of 1985 and usage rising from 20 percent in 1984 to 93 percent by 2014. Ditto other government policies, such as Social Security and Medicare—once contentious, now cherished. So amid the rampant information there is good news: Mandates can work. They can get people to protect themselves and others, as have nearly all United Airlines employees and New York health care workers . And after doing so, people will tend to embrace the way things are. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com . Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)
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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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The Coming Post-Pandemic Fear Extinction
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.
Fear Conditioning and the Pandemic
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.
Fear Extinction after the Pandemic
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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