“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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Meet Jack and Jill as they march up the hill to buy a new vehicle. Hoping to save gas costs and benefit the environment, they are wavering between two options: trading their 34-mpg sedan for a 56-mpg Toyota Prius Eco. trading their hefty 12-mpg pickup truck for a 14-mpg Toyota Tundra. Question: Assuming they drive both vehicles the same number of miles, which purchase would most reduce their gas consumption? Most folks—you, also?—think the Prius would save more. After all, a 34- to 56-mpg jump is a 65 percent improvement, whereas a 12- to 14-mpg jump is but a 17 percent improvement. I thought so, too, until a mutual friend alerted me to social psychologist (and Duke business professor) Richard Larrick’s studies of the MPG illusion (see here and here ). To see the MPG illusion in action, let’s do the math, assuming that Jill and Jack drive each car 15,000 miles a year and pay $3.00 per gallon for gas: The 34-mpg sedan now consumes 15,000 ÷ 34 = 441 gallons; the new 56-mpg Prius would consume 15,000 ÷ 56 = 268 gallons. That’s 173 gallons and $519 saved. The 12-mpg pickup presently scarfs 15,000 ÷ 12 = 1250 gallons, compared with the Tundra’s 15,000 ÷ 14 = 1071 gallons. That’s 179 gallons and $537 saved. The bottom line: A 2-mpg increase when purchasing or replacing a low-mileage car is hugely more beneficial—to the environment and to one’s pocketbook—than a 2-mpg increase when purchasing a high-mileage car. As Larrick says (but most folks don’t appreciate), “small MPG improvements on inefficient cars can save a lot of gas.” We can cure the MPG illusion by reframing reported fuel efficiency as GPM—gallons per mile, rather than MPG—miles per gallon. When buying, isn’t that what we need to know: not how far can we drive on a gallon, but rather how many gallons must we buy to drive this car? MPG is also useful—it tells us whether we can make it home before needing to refuel. But when purchasing a car, it’s gas consumption, not MPG, that matters most. In recognition of the MPG illusion—the perception that equal MPG increases will represent equal gas savings—the U.S. Department of Energy now includes, albeit less prominently, GPM information on fuel economy labels (#5, below). Larrick and his colleague Jack Soll report that when people stop to consider the GPM framing, most do then make fuel-smart judgments. And when people think smarter about fuel savings—when, for example, they realize that increasing fuel efficiency from 10 to 20 mpg will save twice as much as a 20 to 40 mpg increase—public energy conservation policies can become smarter as well. GPM framing helps us prioritize getting the most fuel-inefficient vehicles out of sales rooms and off the road. P.S. For fellow data geeks, U.S. “Miles per hour” are increasing: (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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We live wonder-full lives. How blessed I am to be tasked with reporting on those wonders, and, on most days, to learn something new. Last week’s reading brought news—previously unknown to me, and also to you?—of an intriguing phenomenon, numbsense. But first, some background. One stunning psychological science revelation concerns how much more we know than we know we know. We operate with two minds—one conscious, the other below the radar of our awareness. An illustration of this dual processing comes from brain-injured patients who, though consciously blind (unable to perceive their surroundings visually), act as if they see. Walking down a hall, they avoid an unseen chair. Asked to slip an envelope into a mail slot, they—despite being unable to see or describe the slot’s location and angle—can do so. These “blindsighted” individuals suggest that the brain’s “visual perception track” is—surprise!—distinct from its “visual action track.” Even normally sighted people, when their visual cortex is deactivated with magnetic stimulation, may display blindsight—by correctly guessing the nature of unseen objects. And now the week’s news: City University of New York researchers Tony Ro and Lua Koenig have also used magnetic stimulation to deactivate people’s sense of touch, leaving them unaware of whether or where someone has touched them. Yet, like some patients who have suffered sensory cortex damage, they can display a blindsight-like “numbsense.” They can guess the location of the unfelt touch. The big lesson of blindsight and numbsense: The unconscious mind sometimes knows what the conscious mind does not. Moreover, the out-of-sight mind is the bigger workhorse. Much as a cruise ship’s work mostly happens without its captain’s attention, so most of what sustains us is accomplished by our mind’s unseen workers below decks, without engaging our conscious mind’s attention. We are smarter than we know. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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The history of Americans' health is, first, a good news story. Thanks to antibiotics, vaccines, better nutrition, and diminished infant mortality, life expectancy-at-birth has doubled since 1880—from 38 to 79 years. For such a thin slice of human history, that is a stunning achievement. Even amid a pandemic, be glad you are alive today. The recent not-good news is that, despite doubled per-person health-care spending compared to other rich countries, U.S. life expectancy is lower—and has been declining since 2014. Can you guess why Americans, despite spending more on their health, are dying sooner? Our World in Data founder, Max Roser, sees multiple explanations. Smoking. While the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed 2.4 million lives in the past year, cigarette smoking kills 8.1 million people annually—and it kills more in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries. Of those people who are still smokers when they die, two-thirds die because of their smoking. Still, there’s some good news: The plunging smoking rate is reducing both smoking-caused deaths and the smoking fatality gap between the U.S. and other rich countries. Obesity. While smoking has declined, obesity—a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers—has increased: 36 percent of Americans are now obese. Compared to the other rich (but less obese) nations, the U.S. has a much higher rate of premature deaths attributed to obesity (five times that of Japan, more than double that of France, and nearly 60 percent greater than Canada). Homicides. As a gun-owning culture, Americans much more often kill each other—four times more often than the next most murderous rich nation (peaceful Canada). Opioid overdoses. Like homicides, America’s much greater opioid overdose death rate, though causing less than 2 percent of all deaths, affects life expectancy because so many victims are young. Road accidents. A surprise to me—and you?—is the U.S. having, compared to other rich nations, a roughly doubled rate of vehicle-related accidents (again, often involving the young, and thus contributing to the life expectancy gap). Inequality and poverty. Although the U.S. enjoys higher average income than most other rich countries, its lower-income citizens are poorer. This greater inequality and poverty predicts less access to health care and also greater infant mortality, which, among the rich nations, is highest in the U.S. And how might we expect the pandemic to affect the U.S. life expectancy standing? The half-million U.S. COVID-19 deaths in the pandemic’s first year have, per capita, been matched by the UK and Italy, but are roughly double those of other European nations, and many times more than collectivist East Asian countries. For its often mask-defying rugged individualism, the U.S. has paid a heavy price. Moreover, as Nathan DeWall and I report in our forthcoming Exploring Psychology, 12th Edition (with data from Carnegie Mellon University), there has been a striking -.85 correlation across states between mask wearing and COVID-19 symptoms. Less mask wearing—as in the mask-resisting Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho, and the Southern states—predicts more COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control observed the same correlation across U.S. counties during 2020: COVID-19 cases and deaths increased in U.S. counties that reinstated in-person dining or not requiring masks. As Max Roser notes, the factors that predict Americans’ dying sooner—smoking, obesity, violence, opioids, poverty, and likely COVID-19—are less about better healthcare for the sick than about averting health problems in the first place. As Benjamin Franklin anticipated, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” (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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German medical statistics expert (and psychologist) Gerd Gigerenzer can regale you with stories of ill-fated health-risk communications. He tells , for example, of the 1990s British press report that women taking a particular contraceptive pill had a 100 percent increased chance of developing potentially fatal blood clots. That massive-sounding risk caused thousands of horrified women to stop taking the pill—leading to a wave of unwanted pregnancies and some 13,000 additional abortions (which, ironically, entail a blood clot risk of their own). So, was the press report wrong? Well, yes and no. The risk did double. But it remained infinitesimal: increasing from 1 in 7000 to 2 in 7000. Fast forward to today’s dilemma for those contemplating getting a COVID-19 vaccine: Are the vaccines both safe enough and effective enough to warrant becoming vaccinated? How protective are they? Consider two possibly misleading reports: NPR invites us to imagine a 50 percent effective vaccine: “If you vaccinate 100 people, 50 people will not get disease.” The famed Cleveland Clinic reports that a 95 percent effective vaccine gives you a “95% level of protection…[meaning that] about 95% of the population would develop immunity in a fashion that would protect them from getting sick if exposed to the virus.” So, with a 50 percent effective vaccine, we have a 50 percent chance of contracting COVID-19, and with a 95 percent effective vaccine, we have a 5 percent chance…right? Actually, the news is much better. Consider what that “95 percent effective” statistic actually means. As the New York Times' Katie Thomas explained , the Pfizer/BioNTech clinical trial engaged nearly 44,000 people, half of whom received its vaccine, and half a placebo. The results? “Out of 170 cases of COVID-19, 162 were in the placebo group, and eight were in the vaccine group.” So, there was a 162 to 8 (95 percent to 5 percent) ratio by which those contracting the virus were unvaccinated (albeit with the infected numbers surely rising in the post-study months). Therein lies the “95 percent effective” news we’ve all read about. So, if you receive the Pfizer or equally effective Moderna vaccine, do you have a 5 percent chance of catching the virus? No. That chance is far, far smaller: Of those vaccinated in the Pfizer trial, only 8 of nearly 22,000 people—less than 1/10th of one percent (not 5 percent)—were found to have contracted the virus during the study period. And of the 32,000 people who received either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, how many experienced severe symptoms? The grand total, noted David Leonhardt in a follow-up New York Times report : One. Gigerenzer tells me that his nation suffers from the same under-appreciation of vaccine efficacy. “I have pointed t his misinterpretation out in the German media,” he notes, “and gotten quite a few letters from directors of clinics who did not even seem to understand what’s wrong.” “Be assured that YOU ARE SAFE after vaccine from what matters—disease and spreading,” tweeted Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California, San Francisco. Although we await confirmation that the vaccines do, as expected, reduce transmission, she adds that “ Two vaccinated people can be as close as 2 spoons in [a] drawer!” The near 100 percent efficacy is “ridiculously encouraging,” adds Paul Offit , the Vaccine Education Center director at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Moreover, notes stats geek Nate Silver , “T elling people they can't change their behavior even once they get a vaccine is a disincentive for them to get vaccinated.” With other vaccines and virus variants the numbers will, of course, vary. And as one of the newly vaccinated, I will continue—for as long as the pandemic persists—to honor and support the needed norms, by masking and distancing. I will strive to model protective hygiene. But my personal fear of COVID-19 will be no greater than the mild fear and resulting caution that accompanies my biking and driving. Moreover, for all of us, vaccine statistical literacy—and the need to accurately convey health risks and benefits— matters. In this case, it matters a lot. [2/20/2021 P.S. In a follow-up twitter thread, David Leonhardt offered this table, showing that of 74,000+ participants in one of the five vaccine trials, the number of vaccinated people who then died of COVID was zero. The number hospitalized with COVID was also zero.} (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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Today, even while wishing President-elect Biden a happy birthday, some wonder: At age 78, does he have—and will he sustain for four years—the energy, mental acuity, and drive to excel in his new role? Or, as he approaches 80, will he embody his opponent’s caricature of “Sleepy Joe”—as someone not to be trusted with the cognitive demands of national and world leadership? Mr. President-elect, I empathize. I, too, turned 78 this fall. So on behalf of you and all of us late-70s folks, let me shine the light of psychological science on our capacities. First, people should understand that the more we age, the less age predicts our abilities. Knowing that James is 8 and Jamal is 18 tells us much about their differences. Not so with two adults who similarly differ by a decade. Many a 78-year-old can outrun and outthink a 68-year-old neighbor. It’s true that we late-70s folks have some diminishing abilities. Like you, Mr. President-elect, I can still jog—but not as fast or far. The stairs we once bounded up have gotten steeper, the newsprint smaller, others’ voices fainter. And in the molasses of our brain, memories bubble more slowly to the surface: We more often experience brain freezes as we try to retrieve someone’s name or the next point we were about to make. Yet with a lifetime’s accumulation of antibodies, we also suffer fewer common colds and flus than do our grandchildren. Physical exercise, which you and I regularly do, not only sustains our muscles, bones, and hearts; it also stimulates neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells and neural connections. The result, when compared with sedentary folks like your predecessor, is better memory, sharper judgment, and minimized cognitive decline. Moreover, we either retain or grow three important strengths: Crystallized intelligence. We can admit to experiencing what researchers document: Our fluid intelligence—our ability to reason and react speedily—isn’t what it used to be. We don’t solve math problems as quickly or learn new technologies as readily, and we’re no match for our grandkids at video games. But the better news is that our crystallized intelligence—our accumulated knowledge and the ability to apply it—crests later in life. No wonder many historians, philosophers, and artists have produced their most noteworthy work later in life than have mathematicians and scientists. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (“Grandma Moses”) took up painting in her 70s. At age 89, Frank Lloyd Wright designed New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. At age 94, my psychologist colleague Albert Bandura has just co-authored yet another article. Perhaps our most important work is also yet ahead? Wisdom. With maturity, people’s social skills often increase. They become better able to take multiple perspectives, to offer helpful sagacity amid conflicts, and to appreciate the limits of their knowledge. The wisdom to know when we know a thing and when we do not is born of experience. Working at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute, psychologist Paul Baltes and his colleagues developed wisdom tests that assess people’s life knowledge and judgments about how to conduct themselves in complex circumstances. Wisdom “is one domain in which some older individuals excel,” they report . “In youth we learn, in age we understand,” observed the 19th-century novelist Marie Von Ebner-Eschenbach. Stable emotionality. As the years go by, our feelings mellow. Unlike teens, who tend to rebound up from gloom or down from elation within an hour, our highs are less high and our lows less low. As we age, we find ourselves less often feeling excited or elated. But our lives are also less often disrupted by depression. We late-70s people are better able to look beyond the moment. Compliments produce less elation; criticisms, less despair. At the outset of my career, praise and criticism would inflate and deflate my head. A publication might have me thinking I was God’s new gift to my profession, while a rejection led me to ponder moving home to join the family business. With experience, both acclaim and reproach become mere iotas of additional feedback atop a mountain of commentary. Thus, when responding to the day’s slings and arrows, we can better take a big-picture, long-term perspective. Mr. President-elect, I understand these things, as I suspect you do, too. When in my 60s, I assumed—wrongly—that by age 78, I would no longer have the energy to read, to think, to write. Instead, I take joy in daily entering my office at a place called Hope. I relish each day learning something new. I find delight in making words march up a screen. And I’m mellower, as it takes more to make me feel either ecstatic or despondent. And you? Will you, as a newly minted 78-year-old, show your age? Yes, that jog up to the podium will surely slow. You will likely more often misspeak or forget a point. Your sleep will be more interrupted. But you will also benefit from the crystallized intelligence that comes with your lifetime’s experience. You can harness the wisdom that comes with age. And you can give us the gift of emotional maturity that will enable you, better than most, to navigate, as you have said, the “battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses.” (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or follow him on Twitter @DavidGMyers).
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In a pre-election essay, I contrasted the prognostications of poll-influenced prediction models with the wisdom of the betting crowd. I suspected that bettors—many of whom believed their candidate would win—were overly influenced by the false consensus effect (the presumption that most others see the world as we do). But score this round for the wisdom of the betting crowd, which better anticipated the election closeness, including Trump’s Florida victory. That’s a contrast with Britain’s Brexit vote, where polls indicated a toss-up (a half percent edge for “Remain”) while the betting markets wrongly estimated a 90+ percent Remain chance. The U.S. polls had a rougher-than-usual year, with the final Biden margin likely near 4.5 percent rather than the predicted 8 percent. The pollsters also struggled in key states. On election eve, the average poll gave Trump a 0.8 percent edge in Ohio; he won by 8 percent. In Florida, the polls gave Biden a 2.5 percent edge; he lost by about 3 percent. In Wisconsin, the polls favored Biden by 8.4 percent; he won by less than a percent. With so few people now responding to pollster calls and texts, precision is increasing a challenge (even with pollster adjusting results to match the voting demographics). But lest we dismiss the polls and sophisticated forecasters, let’s grant them three points. First, they got many of the specifics right. FiveThirtyEight, for example, correctly anticipated 48 of the 50 presumed state outcomes. Some of its correct predictions even surprised its creator: Second, polls, as Silver has said , could be worse and they would still greatly exceed conventional seat-of-the-pants wisdom. In a University of Michigan national survey in September, 4 in 5 Republicans incorrectly anticipated a Trump victory. Third, although the models missed on some details, credit them with the big picture. “Biden’s Favored in Our Final Presidential Forecast, but It’s a Fine Line Between a Landslide and a Nail-Biter,” headlined FiveThirtyEight in its final election forecast. And Biden did win. As I write, though, the betting markets —mindful of fraud allegations and legal challenges—still give Donald Trump a 12 percent chance of victory. But this, says Silver , “ is basically a market saying there's a 12% chance that the sky isn't blue.” Consider, say the media analysts who have called the election: How would widespread voter fraud account for Donald Trump’s doing much better than predicted by the historically reliable polls (and for down ballot Republicans doing better yet)? And how could that be so across America in countless local municipalities, including those with Republican-elected officials? Take my community—Holland, Michigan, a historically Republican town where Betsy DeVos grew up and has a home just a bike ride from my own. With a changing demography that now closely mirrors the nation, our last three presidential elections have been razor close, with Donald Trump narrowly edging Hillary Clinton in 2016 . . . but with Biden defeating Trump by 11 percent. Likewise, our surrounding county—one of the nation’s most reliably Republican counties—voted Trump by 30.2 percent in 2016 but only 21.5 percent in 2020. Neighboring Kent County, also leans Republican and is the home of Republican-turned-Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash, gave Biden 50,000 more votes than Clinton received four years ago. Is it conceivable that the Republican-friendly voting officials in countless such places across the U.S. consistently committed Biden-supporting fraud? All in all, it was not the best of years for pollsters and modelers, though it was a worse year for John and Joan Q. Public’s expectations of their candidate’s triumphant success. Winston Churchill once called democracy “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms.” To borrow his sentiment, polls and models are the worst forms of prediction, except for all the other forms. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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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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I see you. My psychic powers enable me, from a great distance, to peer into your heart and to sense your unease. Regardless of your political leanings, you understand the upcoming U.S. election to be momentous, world-changing, the most important of your lifetime. Part of you is hopeful, but a larger part of you is feeling tense. Anxious. Fearing a future that would follow the outcome you dread. Hungering for indications of the likely outcome, you read the latest commentary and devour the latest polls. You may even glean insight from the betting markets (here and here) , which offer “the wisdom of the crowd.” They are akin to stock markets, in which people place bets on future stock values, with the current market value—the midpoint between those expecting a stock to rise and those expecting it to fall—representing the distillation of all available information and insight. As stock market booms and busts remind us, the crowd sometimes displays an irrational exuberance or despair. Yet, as Princeton economist Burton Malkiel has repeatedly demonstrated , no individual stock picker (or mutual fund) has had the smarts to consistently outguess the efficient marketplace. You may also, if you are a political geek, have welcomed clues to the election outcome from prediction models ( here and here ) that combine historical information, demographics, and poll results to forecast the result. But this year, the betting and prediction markets differ sharply. The betting markets see a 34 percent chance of a Trump victory, while the prediction models see but a 5 to 10 percent chance. So who should we believe? Skeptics scoff that the poll-influenced prediction models erred in 2016. FiveThirtyEight’s final election forecast gave Donald Trump only a 28 percent chance of winning. So, was it wrong? Consider a simple prediction model that predicted a baseball player’s chance of a hit based on the player’s batting average. If a .280 hitter came to the plate and got a hit, would we discount our model? Of course not, because we understand the model’s prediction that sometimes (28% of the time, in this case), the less likely outcome will happen. (If it never does, the model errs.) But why do the current betting markets diverge from the prediction models? FiveThirtyEight modeler Nate Silver has an idea: The Dunning-Kruger effect, as psychology students know, is the repeated finding that incompetence tends not to recognize itself. As one person explained to those unfamiliar with Silver’s allusion: Others noted that the presidential betting markets, unlike the stock markets, are drawing on limited (once every four years) information—with people betting only small amounts on their hunches, and without the sophisticated appraisal that informs stock investing. And what are their hunches? Surely, these are informed by the false consensus effect—our tendency to overestimate the extent to which others share our views. Thus, in the University of Michigan’s July Survey of Consumers, 83 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of Republicans predicted that voters would elect their party’s presidential candidate. Ergo, bettors are surely, to some extent, drawing on their own preferences, which—thanks to the false consensus effect—inform their predictions. What we are, we see in others. So, if I were a betting person, I would wager based on the prediction models. Usually, there is wisdom to the crowd. But sometimes . . . we shall soon see . . . the crowd is led astray by the whispers of its own inner voices. ----- P.S. At 10:30 a.m. on election day, the Economist model projects a 78 percent chance of a Biden Florida victory, FiveThirtyEight.com projects a Biden Florida victory with a 2.5 percent vote margin, and electionbettingodds.com betting market average estimates a 62% chance of a Trump Florida victory. Who's right--the models or the bettors? Stay tuned! P.S.S. on November 4: Mea culpa. I was wrong. Although the models--like weather forecasts estimating the percent change of rain--allow for unlikely possibilities, the wisdom of the betting crowd won this round--both in Florida and in foreseeing a closer-than-expected election. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com .)
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