“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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Those mindful of our human need to belong are surely unsurprised by the emotional challenges of shelter-in-place life. As social animals, our ancestors—and we, too—have flourished when connected in close, supportive relationships. To be physically distanced from friends, deprived of our communal parties, sports, and worship, isolated from work-mates, and unable to break bread with close friends is to have our social identities thwarted. Facebook, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Instagram, and messaging all help. Facebook’s mission—“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—has merit. Nevertheless, as psychologist Jean Twenge reminds us, screen-based relationships are but a partial substitute for how nature has designed us: for eyeball-to-eyeball relationships. Moreover, those crowded in small apartments with others may experience their own added challenges of too much contact, albeit with too few. So it doesn’t astonish us, though it should concern us, that a Kaiser Family Foundation late March national survey found that, as the Washington Post headlined, “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.” And we’re likely also not shocked by an early-April Gallup survey that found people experiencing heightened worry and stress: But consider a less obvious question: Who do you suppose is feeling most stressed and lonely—those young or old? If you guessed those old—those often alone and with so much less virtual socializing than those young and connected through social media—guess again. Who, for example, has in the last seven days reported feeling “lonely or isolated”? An AEI survey provides a clear answer: Ages 18–29: 69 percent Ages 30–49: 59 percent Ages 50–64: 45 percent Ages 65+: 39 percent Gallup replicated the age difference, noting that “ the decline in the percentage who are thriving is substantially greater among adults aged 18–44 than for older age groups.” That accelerates a nearly decade-long decline in teen and young adult mental health. Finally, a point to ponder from 18-year-old essayist Jamie Margolin : “The way the coronavirus disproportionately affects older people is the exact way the climate crisis disproportionately affects young people…. Older generations have the highest risk of dying from [the coronavirus]. When it comes to the climate crisis, most of the statistics are flipped: Young people will suffer the most.” Thus, a great question for our time: In our actions and voting, will we older folks (who feel grateful to younger folks who self-isolate to protect us from future harm) reciprocate with similar intergenerational altruism?
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For psychology teachers everywhere—many with students displaced to their homes—the COVID-19 pandemic’s dark clouds offer a potential silver lining: some teachable moments. In so many ways, we are experiencing social psychology writ large, with so much to study. Here’s my initial list of opportunities for online and in-class discussion of social dynamics in action. Concept: The need to belong. We humans are social animals. We live and find safety in groups. We flourish and find happiness when connected in close, supportive relationships. Separation (or, worse, ostracism) triggers pain. Discussion questions: 1. Are there ways in which the pandemic thwarts our need to belong? Possible answers: by social distancing, cancelled communal gatherings (sports, parties, worship), the isolation of off-site learning and work, diminished travel to be with loved ones or for shared experiences. 2. If so, might the isolation increase risk of physical or mental health problems? Possible answers: Isolation may exacerbate loneliness and depression, both of which can make people vulnerable to ill-health and, ironically, compromised immune functioning. [P.S. My colleague Jean Twenge offers more on this here.] 3. Are there ways we can nevertheless satisfy our need to belong? Possible answers: online meetings through video conferencing; connecting through social media (Facebook’s mission: “ to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together ”); Facetime conversations; acts of caring to those in need or at-risk; love-bombing friends and family with messages and emails. Perhaps physical distancing needn't correspond with social distancing? Concept: The social responsibility norm. Norms are social expectations for desirable behavior. The social responsibility norm is the expectation that we help those in need. Discussion question: Have you observed or read examples of the social responsibility norm in operation during the current crisis? Possible answers: People doing grocery runs for neighbors at risk; friends reminding peers “even if you aren’t at risk for serious illness, you need to protect yourself so older and at-risk folks you meet aren’t imperiled and hospitals overwhelmed.” Concept: The availability heuristic’s influence on our fears . Heuristics are thinking shortcuts. The availability heuristic is our automatic tendency to estimate the likelihood of an event by how readily it comes to mind (how available it is in memory). Vivid media images of disasters can therefore lead us to fear things that kill people in bunches (such as plane crashes, when auto travel is vastly more dangerous). Discussion question: Although it’s too early to know the coronavirus’ lethality (because we don’t yet know how many people have undiagnosed infections), have you witnessed examples of some panicked people fearing it too much? And of others, by failing to appreciate its exponential future spread, fearing it too little? Discussion question: Do you agree with statistician-writer Nate Silver’s speculation that these two tendencies (fearing too much and fearing too little) might balance each other? Concept: Unrealistic optimism. We are natural positive thinkers. In study after study, students have believed themselves far more likely than their classmates to be destined for a good job and salary and as less likely to develop a drinking problem get fired, or have a heart attack by age 40. Likewise, smokers think themselves less vulnerable to cancer or better able to quit. Newlyweds believe themselves invulnerable to divorce. Discussion question: If cognitively available COVID-19 horror stories inflate too much fear in some, does unrealistic optimism create too little in others? If so, what are (or were) examples of such? (People, despite initial warnings, flocking to bars and beaches?) Concept: Selective exposure to information. Selective exposure is the human tendency to prefer and seek information and news feeds that affirm rather than challenge our preexisting views. Discussion question: A recent survey (replicated by NPR/Marist) found that 58 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Democrats believed “the threat of coronavirus has been exaggerated.” Might selective information exposure explain this difference? If so, how? Discussion question: Are you selectively exposing yourself solely to news and social media sources that affirm rather than challenge your views? Concept: Group polarization. In experiments, discussion among like-minded people tends to enhance their preexisting views. Discussion question: In times of crisis, does the internet enable the segregation of like-minded people clustered in echo chambers, progressives with progressives, and conservatives with conservatives—each group sharing links to sites that affirm their own views? Discussion question: Does this polarization describe you and your friends? Discussion question: Are there other ways in which you engage views other than your own? Concept: Individualism vs. collectivism. Cultures vary in the extent to which they prioritize “me” or “we”—personal (my) goals and identity or group (our) goals and identity. Discussion question: Have you observed examples of individualism or collectivism in response to health or government guidelines for controlling the spread of the virus? Possible answers: Individualism—objecting to limits on one’s activities—“I’m fine and not at risk, so why shouldn’t I be able to party with my friends?” Collectivism: “We’re responsible for each other and could pass the virus on to an older person or someone with an underlying condition.” Discussion question: Does China’s collectivism help explain its plummeting rate of new COVID-19 cases—from several thousand per day during February to just 27 on March 15? Possible answer: Students may note that China is more collectivist—more “we” focused—but also more autocratic. Concept: The motivating power of social perceptions. Stock market drops and bank runs occur when people perceive that others will be selling their holdings or withdrawing their money, causing collapse. People who may not think conditions are terrible may create a downturn by fearing that others think so. Discussion question: Has your community experienced a similar run on goods—by people who may not fear a lack of goods, but worry that others do, and will empty shelves? Concept: Terror-Management. Some 300 studies explore the effects of reminding people of their mortality. “Death anxiety” provokes varied defenses, which range from aggression toward rivals to shoring up self-esteem to prioritizing close relationships to embracing worldviews and faith that remind us of life’s meaning. Discussion question: Have you observed any examples of people’s heightened death anxiety and their adaptive responses to such? Concept: The unifying power of a common enemy and a superordinate goal. When diverse people experience a shared threat—a common enemy, a natural disaster, a mean boss—they often feel a kinship, as many Americans did after 9/11. Moreover, working cooperatively toward a shared (“superordinate”) goal can transform distant or conflicting people into friends. Discussion question: Have you seen instances when the shared threat of a pandemic virus helped someone appreciate our common humanity? Discussion question: Have you seen instances when the awareness of the virus made you or a loved one more suspicious of others—whose mere cough might make them seem like an external threat? For psychological science (the most fascinating science, methinks), the world around us is a living laboratory in which we observe powerful social forces at work in others . . . and in ourselves. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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In a long-ago experiment by Columbia University social psychologist Stanley Schachter, groups discussed how to deal with fictional juvenile delinquent “Johnny Rocco.” One “modal” group member (actually Schachter’s accomplice) concurred with the others in arguing for leniency and became well liked. A second accomplice, the “deviate,” stood alone in arguing for harsh discipline. At first, the study participants argued with the nonconforming deviate, but eventually they ignored him and then reported disliking him. Recent experiments with children and adults confirm the lesson: Groups respond harshly to members who deviate from group norms and threaten their group identity. Other studies show how agonizingly difficult it can be to publicly state truths after hearing consensus falsehoods from one’s peers, and how “groupthink” suppresses dissent. After President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, his adviser Arthur Schlesinger, having self-censored his misgivings, reproached himself “for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions.” To dissent from one’s group—one’s fraternity, one’s religion, one’s friends—can be painful, especially when a minority of one. Mitt Romney understands. For being a minority of one in voting for President Trump’s removal, he anticipated being “vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters.” And so he has. “I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” vented the President, before ridiculing Romney for “one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.” Donald Trump, Jr. went further, calling for Romney to “be expelled” from the GOP. Romney, some Congressional colleagues derided, was a “ sore loser ” who acted “ to appease the left ” and was “ not very collegial .” The rewards of conformity, and the rejection of dissenters, are no secret. As President Kennedy recalled in Profiles in Courage (1955), “‘The way to get along,’ I was told when I entered Congress, ‘is to go along.’” It is a temptation we all face. When feeling alone, we may silence our voice. We may join a standing ovation for something we do not inwardly applaud. We may succumb to the power of our herd and its leader. And then, feeling some dissonance over conforming, we rationalize. Observing our own silence and our false witness, our mind mutates, and we begin to believe what we reluctantly stood up for. Our attitudes follow our actions, which grow their own self-justifying legs. As C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity , “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.” For those who endure the distress of dissent, there are compensations. First, minorities of one can matter. “All history,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a record of the power of minorities, and of minorities of one.” Think of Copernicus and Galileo, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony, of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. In the short term, these heroes, and the conformity-resisting former senators whom Kennedy later celebrated in Profiles in Courage, were scorned for flouting team play and resisting expectations. It was only later that historians and filmmakers honored their heroism. Mitt Romney can take the long view. Second, experiments on “minority influence” show how a minority of one can matter; When such individuals, despite ridicule, persist with consistency, they can sway their laboratory group, or even change history. Being a persistent dissenting voice may get you disliked and even ignored, but it can also, eventually, stimulate rethinking. It punctures the illusion of unanimity and can enable others to express their doubts. That voice is especially potent when it represents a defection from the ingroup rather than a voice from the opposition. A Republican Mitt Romney is harder for Republicans to dismiss than a Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ergo, those who dissent—who deviate from group norms and threaten a group’s identity—are often scorned. Yet a persistent, consistent, cogent voice sometimes moves the needle. “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide,” said Emerson, “the huge world will come round to him.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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A recent Templeton World Charity Foundation conference, Character, Social Connections and Flourishing in the 21st Century, expanded my mind, thanks to a lecture by famed evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. This much about him I had known: His multilevel selection theory argues that evolution favors survival-enhancing group as well as individual behaviors. Within groups, selfishness beats altruism. Yet altruistic groups triumph over selfish groups. What I learned from his lecture and our ensuing dinner conversation was that his passion has shifted to understanding and enabling effective real-world groups—from nonprofit organizations to schools to faith communities to businesses. How might people in such groups more effectively work together to accomplish goals? To enhance work team effectiveness, Wilson and his colleagues suggest implementing a group of basic principles. They point out that groups that effectively manage shared resources, such as irrigation, forests, and fisheries, follow principles that (a) integrate evolutionary principles of group selection with (b) “ core design principles ” identified by political scientist and economics Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, seasoned with (c) behavior-change insights articulated by psychologist Steven Hayes. The resulting eight principles for success: Strong group identity and purpose. Groups know who they are and what sets them apart from other groups. Fair sharing of benefits and costs. Proportional sharing (without some members benefiting at the expense of others) advances group over individual advancement. Fair and inclusive decisions. Consensus decision-making, with uncensored input, enables smart decisions, and, again, safeguards against some benefiting at others’ expense. Tracking results ensures that agreements are honored. Graduated sanctions. Accountability for misbehaviors ranges from gentle reminders to expulsion. Conflict resolution mechanisms. When disagreements occur, the group implements fair and fast resolution procedures. Authority to self-govern. In larger societies and organizations, subgroups are empowered to organize and operate. Appropriate coordination with other groups. In larger social systems, operating subgroups must integrate with other subgroups. How striking it is, notes Wilson, that the principles Ostrom identified from successful commons resource-managing groups are so similar to “the conditions that caused us to evolve into such a cooperative species.” These principles—when implemented by effective leaders—build a group’s moral foundation, protect it against self-serving behaviors, and allow its members to freely express themselves. To assist groups in implementing the core design principles drawn from evolutionary, political, and psychological science, Wilson and colleagues have authored a book (Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups), developed a website that offers training and resources, and produced an online magazine that tells implementation stories. Wilson’s life journey—from son of a famous author (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) to science theorist to social entrepreneur—is unique. Yet in other ways, his professional pilgrimage is similar to our own . . . as our lives have unfolded in unanticipated ways—sometimes with false starts leading to brick walls, sometimes with gratifying new directions. Little did I expect, when first encountering Wilson’s work, that it would later produce practical resources for helping groups “learn about and adopt design principles to improve their efficacy.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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Caring parents understandably want to protect their children from physical harm and emotional hurt. We do this, we presume, for their sakes. And, if the truth be told, we do it for our own as well. Many of us knowingly nodded when Michelle Obama shared the common parental experience: “You are as happy as your least happy child.” But as my friend and fellow social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, recently explained to a large West Michigan audience, sometimes parental good intentions prepare kids for failure. Haidt began by documenting what I’ve previously described —the stunning recent increase in teens’ (especially teen girls’) depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking, and self-harm (as documented in ER visits). This tsunami of mental health problems has now also reached college campuses, as evident in collegians’ increased depression rates and visits to campus mental health services. What gives? What accounts for this greater fragility of today’s youth? Teen biology hasn’t changed. They’re not drinking more (indeed, they’re drinking less). They’re not working more (they’re less often employed). What has changed, Haidt observed, is, first, technology—the spread of smart phones, the explosion of social media, and the addition of social comparison-promoting social media features, such as visible likes and retweets of one’s posts. Haidt offered correlational studies that associate teens’ social media use with their mental health, and experiments that reveal the emotional benefits of a restrained social media diet. (For more, see this prior blog essay, and Haidt’s recent Atlantic essay, with Tobias Rose-Stockwell: “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” See also this new response by his collaborator, Jean Twenge, to skeptics of the social media explanation.) As an antidote to social media’s emotional toxicity (and diminished sleep and face-to-face relationships), Haidt offered three practical family guidelines for healthy media use: He also attributes the increase youth mental health issues to a second cultural change: Today’s parents often fail to appreciate the “antifragility” principle—that children’s emotions, like their bones and immune systems, gain strength from being challenged. Bones and muscles gain strength from exercise. Immune systems develop protective antibodies from challenges (soaring peanut allergies are a sorry result of routinely protecting infants from peanut exposure). And children’s emotional health and resilience likewise builds through their unpleasant experiences. There is truth to Nietzsche’s aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Alas, as Haidt demonstrated by surveying his audience, members of Generation Z (people born since 1996) have grown up more protected—with parents restraining their roaming free until later childhood. Their grandparents, by contrast, and to some extent their parents, were experienced a less restricted “free range childhood.” (And no, today’s world is not more dangerous—it’s actually much safer than the 1970s.) Moreover, he argued (also in The Coddling of the American Mind with Greg Lukianoff, and in a new essay with Pamela Paresky), schools are ill-serving students by protecting them from uncomfortable speech. Colleges ill-prepare students for life outside the campus when they suppress unpopular perspectives and offer “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” that insulate students from “micro-aggressions.” As an alternative approach, Haidt welcomes viewpoint diversity—the thrust of the Heterodox Academy . He and his colleagues also offer resources for open-minded engagement at the new OpenMindPlatform.org . Haidt’s case for viewpoint diversity and open dialogue remind me of the long-ago wisdom of social psychologist William McGuire, whose experiments taught us an important lesson: Unchallenged beliefs existing in “germ-free ideological environments” are the most vulnerable to later being overturned. To form one’s beliefs amid diverse views is to become more discerning, and ultimately more deeply grounded in less fragile convictions. Ergo, concludes Haidt, to support teen mental health be intentional about screen time and social media, and remember: character—like bones, muscles, and immunity—grows from challenge. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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