Friends matter. If psychological science has proven anything, it’s that feeling liked, supported, and encouraged by close friends and family fosters health and happiness. Having friends to confide in calms us, enables better sleep, reduces blood pressure, and even boosts immune functioning. Compared with socially isolated or lonely folks, those socially connected are at less risk of premature death. As the writer of Ecclesiastes surmised, “Woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.” But how many friends are enough? And for how many meaningful relationships do we have time and energy? Robin Dunbar, a recently retired Oxford evolutionary psychologist, offers an answer: about 150. He first derived that number—“Dunbar’s number”—by noting, in primates, the relationship between neocortex size and group size: the bigger the neocortex, the bigger the group. Extrapolating from his studies of non-human primates, he predicted that a manageable human group size would be around 150. Many evolutionists and animal behavior observers find Dunbar’s number amusing but, at best, simplistic. They note, for example, that primate group sizes are also influenced by diet and predators (see here and here ). As one primate-culture expert told me, “We humans are too complicated to expect these simple numerical approaches to work.” In response, Dunbar—who seems not to suffer his critics gladly—vigorously defends his number. In his new book Friends (now available in the U.S. on Kindle in advance of a January, 2022 hardcover), Dunbar itemizes examples of 100- to 250-person human groups, including Neolithic, medieval, and 18th-century villages; Hutterite communities; hunter-gatherer communities; Indigenous communities from Inuit to Aboriginal; military companies; wedding invitees; and Christmas-card networks. “Every study we have looked at,” he emphasizes, “has consistently suggested that people vary in the number of friends they have, and that the range of variation is typically between 100 and 250 individuals.” But surely, you say, that number (which includes both family and nonfamily friends) varies across individuals and life circumstances. Indeed, notes Dunbar, it varies with age. The number of our meaningful relationships forms an inverted U-shaped curve across the lifespan. It starts at birth with one or two, and rises in the late teens until plateauing in our 30s at about 150. After the late 60s or early 70s, it “starts to plummet.... We start life with one or two close carers and, if we live long enough, we end life that way too.” personality. Extraverts are (no surprise) social butterflies, with lots of friends. Introverts accumulate fewer friends, but invest in them more intensely. family size. If you live surrounded by a large clan, you likely have fewer nonfamily friends than someone from a small or distant family. Have a baby, and—with less time for other relationships—your friendship circle may contract for a time. (Perhaps you have felt a diminished connection with friends after they had a baby or fell intensely in love?) Dunbar also describes people’s friendship layers. On average, he reports, people have about 5 intimate shoulder-to-cry-on friends—people they’re in touch with “at least once a week and feel close to.” Including these, they have, in sum, 15 close friends whom they’re in contact with at least monthly. The 50-friend circle incorporates our “party friends”—those we are in contact with at least once every six months. And the 150 totality incorporates those we’re in touch with at least annually—“what you might call the wedding/bar mitzvah/funeral group—the people that would turn up to your once-in-a-lifetime events.” Dunbar’s layers: Our friendship circles are of increasing size and decreasing investment/intensity (with each circle including the numbers in its inner circles). As on Facebook, “friends” include family. Our friendship circles vary in the time and concern we devote to them, says Dunbar. From studying people’s time diaries and friendship ratings and from analyzing big data on phone texting and calls, he found that we devote about 40 percent of our total social time to the 5 people in the innermost circle, and a further 20 percent to the additional 10 people in the 15-person “close friends” circle. Think about it: 60 percent of our total social effort is devoted to just 15 people. The remaining ~130 have to make do with what’s left over. Do Dunbar’s numbers resonate with your experience? Do you have a small inner core of friends (including family) who would drop anything to support you, and vice versa? Are these supplemented by a somewhat larger group of close-friend social companions? And do you have further-out layers of good friends and meaningful acquaintances that you would welcome to significant life events? Even if, as critics charge, Dunbar’s numbers are too exact, two conclusions seem apt. First, as Aristotle long ago recognized, we humans are social animals. We flourish and find protection and joy in relationships. Second, close relationships are psychologically expensive. Life requires us to prioritize, allocating our limited time and mental energy among our relationships. Friendships feed our lives—but, as with food, we’ve only got room for so much. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Psychological science has taken some body blows of late, with famous findings challenged by seeming failures to replicate. The problem isn’t just that prolific researchers Brian Wansink and Derek Stapel faked data, or that David Rosenhan (of “On Being Sane in Insane Places” fame) and personality researcher Hans Eysenck have been accused of doing likewise. Every discipline has a few self-promoting deceivers, and more who bend the truth to their side. And it’s not just critics arguing ( here and here ) that a few celebrated findings, such as the tribalism of the Stanford Prison and Robbers Cave experiments, were one-off, stage-managed happenings. Or that some findings of enormous popular interest— brain training for older folks, implicit bias training programs, or teaching to learning styles— all produce little enduring benefit. The problem is that other findings have also not been consistently reproducible. The effects of teachers’ expectations , power posing , willpower depletion , facial feedback , and wintertime depression (seasonal affective disorder) have often failed to replicate or now seem more modest than widely claimed. Moreover, the magnitude and reliability of stereotype threat , growth mindset benefits, and the marshmallow test (showing the life success of 4-year-olds who can delay gratification) are, say skeptics, more mixed and variable than often presumed. Hoo boy. What’s left? Does psychology’s knowledge storehouse have empty shelves? Are students and the public justifiably dismayed? As one former psychology student tweeted : “ I took a [high school] psychology class whose entire content was all of these famous experiments that have turned out to be total horse**bleep**. I studied this! They made me take an exam! For what?” To which others responded: “I'm putting all my chips on neuroscience, I refuse to listen to psychologists ever again, they had their chance.” “Imagine if you'd spent 10 years getting a PhD in this stuff, going into $200k in debt.” “You can learn more from life never mind a psychology lesson just take a look around fella.” “I have a whole damn degree full of this @#$%.” But consider: How science works. Yes, some widely publicized studies haven’t replicated well. In response to this, we textbook authors adjust our reporting. In contrast to simple common sense and to conspiracy theories, science is a self-checking, self-correcting process that gradually weeds out oversimplifications and falsehoods. As with mountain climbing, the upward march of science comes with occasional down slopes. Some phenomena are genuine, but situation specific. Some of the disputed phenomena actually have been replicated, under known conditions. One of my contested favorite experiments—the happy pen-in-the-teeth vs. pouting pen-in-the-lips facial feedback effect—turns out to replicate best when people are not distracted by being videotaped (as happened in the failure-to-replicate experiments). And stepping back to look at the bigger picture, the Center for Open Science reports that its forthcoming analysis of 307 psychological science replications found that 64 percent obtained statistically significant results in the same direction as original studies, with effect sizes averaging 68 percent as large. The bottom line: Many phenomena do replicate. What endures and is left to teach is . . . everything else. Memories really are malleable. Expectations really do influence our perceptions. Information really does occur on two tracks—explicit and implicit (and implicit bias is real). Partial reinforcement really does increase resistance to extinction. Human traits really are influenced by many genes having small effects. Group polarization really does amplify our group differences. Ingroup bias really is powerful and perilous. An ability to delay gratification really does increase future life success. We really do often fear the wrong things. Sexual orientation really is a natural disposition that’s neither willfully chosen nor willfully changed. Split-brain experiments really have revealed complementary functions of our two brain hemispheres. Electroconvulsive therapy really is a shockingly effective treatment for intractable depression. Sleep experiments really have taught us much about our sleeping and dreaming. Blindsight really does indicate our capacity for visual processing without awareness. Frequent quizzing and self-testing really does boost students’ retention. But enough. The list of repeatedly confirmed, humanly significant phenomena could go on for pages. So, yes: Let’s teach the importance of replication for winnowing truth. Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. Let’s encourage critical thinking that’s seasoned with healthy skepticism but not science-scorning cynicism . And let us also be reassured that our evidence-derived principles of human behavior are overwhelmingly worth teaching as we help our students appreciate their wonder-full world. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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In their new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein introduce two kinds of error. Bias (systematic error) “is the star of the show.” The biases that skew our judgment captivate our science and our news. Noise (variable judgments) plays off-Broadway, with no marquee. Yet its contribution to inaccuracy and misjudgment is scandalously big. Noise pervades medical judgments. In an ideal world, all physicians would correctly diagnose medical conditions. In the noisy real world, physicians presented with the same symptoms vary markedly in their diagnoses of cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, and especially mental disorders. Physicians also more often prescribe quick-fix opioids if tired and time-pressed at the day’s end, rather than at its beginning. political asylum decisions. Asylum seekers face a “refugee roulette,” their fates determined by the luck of the draw as a judge becomes 19 percent less likely to approve asylum if two prior cases have been approved, or as one judge admits as few as five percent of applicants while another admits 88 percent. hiring and promotion decisions. Interviewers vary widely in their assessments of candidates, as do supervisors in their assessments of employees. There is more unreliability in assessment—more noise—than evaluators realize. sentencing and parole decisions. Criminal sentences for the same crime vary across judges. They also vary if a judge is hungry (sentencing before vs. after lunch), if the judge’s football team won or lost the day before, and if it is the defendant’s birthday. To experience the bias/noise distinction—or to teach it to students—Kahneman et al. suggest a simple demonstration. Pull out your phone and open up its clock or stopwatch. Use its “lap” function to check your accuracy in estimating consecutive 10-second time intervals. After you hit “start” and look away, let your finger hover over the “lap” button. When you sense that 10 seconds has elapsed, touch “lap” and repeat, until you have five trials. The difference between your averaged elapsed intervals and the actual 10.0 seconds reveals your bias—toward over- or underestimating the time interval. The variation among your estimates, represented by their range, is your judgmental noise. I launch my basketball free-throw shots with little bias—they average center of the net—but with more noise than I’d wish. So, how might we reduce unwanted noise? Kahneman et al. offer suggestions: Compile the wisdom of the crowd. In 1907, Francis Galton invited 787 villagers at a country fair to guess the weight of an ox. Galton had little regard for individual people’s judgments, which displayed considerable noise (variation). Yet their average guess—1200 pounds—nearly hit the bull’s eye (the ox weighed 1,198 pounds). Likewise, a crowd’s average answer typically bests most individual judgments when estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar, the temperature one week hence, the distance between two cities, or future stock values. A large foundation that I serve recognizes the wisdom of the crowd when judging grant proposals: When much is at stake in a decision, they aggregate many expert opinions. Harvest the wisdom of the crowd within. When researchers Edward Vul and Harold Pashler asked individuals what percent of the world’s commercial airports are in the U.S., they hazarded a very rough guess. Three weeks later, the researchers asked them to guess again. The average of their two guesses (on this and other questions) tended to be closer to the truth (for airports, 32 percent). We are, after all, different people at different times. For example, our momentary moods affect what we notice, how we interpret it, what we recall, and even how gullible we are. Thus, just as it pays to combine the wisdom of multiple people, so it pays to combine the wisdom from across our varying states of mind. Sleep on it, and decide again. Harness the powers of statistical prediction and machine learning. Whether predicting suicide risk, GPA, criminal recidivism, employee success, or mental disorders, statistical models outperform noisy professional intuition (as I also explained in Intuition: Its Powers and Perils). Likewise, artificial intelligence now enables machines to excel by reducing judgmental noise when recognizing faces, generating driving directions, spotting breast cancers, and detecting impeding cardiac collapse. Assess job candidates with structured interviews and create behavioral scales for assessing employee performance. Replace informal hiring interviews with work sampling and structured interviews that assess candidates on each work dimension. When evaluating employees, break a complex judgment into specific, behaviorally-described components. To reduce noise from some raters being lenient graders and others being tough, ask each rater to rank those being assessed. Eliminate sequencing noise. First impressions often matter, coloring ensuing interpretations. Likewise, the first person to speak when assessing an idea or a candidate, and the first person to rate an online product, often gain added influence. Control for such sequencing noise by having people independently record their judgments. Eliminating noise is usually, but not always, a good. The three-strikes life imprisonment policy reduced sentencing noise. But it did so with frequent injustice (when the offenses were minor, the life circumstances tragic, or the rehabilitation prospects promising). Algorithms that predict criminal risk may minimize noise yet be racially biased, as when the underlying crime data reflect over-policing in certain neighborhoods, over-reporting of certain offenses, or greater conviction rates for less affluent people. But more often, noise entails unfairness. When decisions become arbitrary—a matter of who does the judging, or their mood, or the time of day, or who speaks first—Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein recommend decision hygiene. Aggregate multiple judgments. Think statistically; discount anecdotes. Structure decisions into independent tasks. Constrain premature hunches. Welcome dissent. In sum, think smarter, judge more reliably, and decide more wisely. (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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Which of these worldviews (from an Economist—YouGov poll ) comes closest to your view? “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated.” “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.” Yaorusheng/Moment/Getty Images Psychological science offers support for both the humans-are-basically-good view and the humans-are-prone-to-evil view. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers recognized cruelty but did “not find that this evil is inherent in human nature.” Instead, he argued, evil springs from toxic cultural influences. Fellow humanistic psychologist Rollo May disagreed, noting that “The culture is evil as well as good because we, the human beings who constitute it, are evil as well as good.” Several research streams support May’s acknowledgement of our human capacity for evil: Selfish genes (to use the title of Richard Dawkins’ famous book) predispose what social psychologist Donald Campbell called our “self-saving selfishness.” Self-serving biases lead people to perceive and present themselves as relatively superior—a phenomenon that also feeds ingroup favoritism and prejudice, which then often gets amplified by group polarization. Evil situations can overwhelm good intentions, inducing people to conform to falsehoods or capitulate to cruelty. (Psychology students: think Asch and Milgram.) But if our minds of late are filled with images of evil—senseless police killings; anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Semitic sentiment and violence; anti-vax conspiracy spreaders—we also have abundant images of human generosity: of anti-racism initiatives and self-sacrificing health care workers. Our capacity for selfless altruism also appears in psychological science: Group selection. Some evolutionists contend that in competition with other groups, groups of mutually supportive altruists will survive and spread their group-serving genes. Compassionate acts. Altruism researchers explore our unhesitating willingness to offer directions, give blood, donate money, and volunteer time. Empathy. Observing someone’s suffering, we naturally empathize. And if we can do something, we’re often willing to help even when our helping is anonymous. We are not just selfish animals; we are social animals. Still, on balance, is the world “mostly full of good people”? Or does the threat of terrorists, criminals, and immigrants loom larger? Our answer to that worldview poll question matters. Of Biden voters, 77 percent saw a “big, beautiful world” mostly populated by good people. Of Trump voters, only 21 percent saw that world; 66 percent perceived a more threatening world. Our worldview can foretell our politics. Now consider a second question: How large is the circle of people with whom you identify and about whom you care? Does it include the people in your community? Your country? The whole world? As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, a University of Washington research team put that issue to people from 80 nations, asking various questions to gauge their identification with their community, their country, and all of humanity: “How much would you say you care (feel upset, want to help) when bad things happen to people in my community? My country? All over the world?” Then, they investigated: What best predicted people’s willingness to follow pandemic public health guidelines? To engage in prosocial behaviors, such as donating from their own household mask supply to a hospital? To come to the aid of someone with COVID? The striking finding: Compared with identification with one’s own community and nation—as well as other predictors, such as age, gender, and education—identification with all humanity was the runaway winner. Psychologist Andrew Meltzoff explained : “Our research reveals that a crucial aspect of one’s world view—how much people feel connected to others they have never met—predicts people’s cooperation with public health measures and the altruism they feel toward others during the pandemic.” Social psychologists offer many examples of how specific attitudes (toward exercise, toward religion, toward one’s workplace) predict behavior. As these studies demonstrate, our larger worldview matters, too. So what do you think? Is human nature, at its core, mostly good or mostly evil? And how wide is your circle of care and concern?" (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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The Coming Post-Pandemic Fear Extinction
A recent YouGov U.S. survey produced a startling result. Of folks fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 54 percent nevertheless remain “very” or “somewhat” fearful of catching the virus—as do only 29 percent of those who “refuse to get vaccinated.” Asked about their comfort levels with various activities, 51 percent of vaccine refusers believe it’s safe to travel, as do only 29 percent of those vaccinated.
You read that right: Most protected folks still feel unprotected. And most of those unprotected by choice feel safe.
Fear Conditioning and the Pandemic
It’s no secret that the two groups differ in many ways, including politics. In Dalton County , Georgia, 9 in 10 people voted for Trump and, as of early May 2021, 4 percent were vaccinated. In San Francisco, 1 in 10 voted for Trump and 2 in 3 are vaccinated (and the COVID case rate is approaching zero).
As much as the vaccinated and vaccine-refusers differ, they seemingly share one thing in common: In their gut, neither fully trusts the vaccine efficacy science.
“No! Not social reëntry!” ~ Cartoon https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a24198 by Julia Suits
Some vaccine refusers discount the pandemic as overblown. As one said , “The coronavirus is a wildly overrated threat.” (Never mind its causing more U.S. deaths than the sum of all its wars except the Civil War.) But many also discount or suspect the vaccine science: They distrust the government, doubt the need, worry about side effects, perceive a conspiracy, assert their liberty, or question the benefit. Therefore, they agree with Senator Ron Johnson : “Why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?”
Ironically, they are joined by fully vaccinated people who still fear a devastating COVID-19 infection and so continue to wear a mask when walking outdoors, to eschew socializing with other vaccinated friends, or to travel on planes with virus-filtered air. Never mind that among the 74,000 people in clinical trials receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Astra-Zeneca, or Novavax vaccines, the total who died of COVID during the trial period was zero. And the number hospitalized with COVID was also zero. The vaccines are amazingly protective.
Fear Extinction after the Pandemic
Yes, a very few vaccinated people have contracted the virus (nearly all without becoming seriously sick). And among the millions now vaccinated, many will die—because even with no COVID-19, some 8,000 Americans and 800 Canadians die each day. Thus, there will be alarming stories of vaccination + death for media reporting. And the ready availability of those stories will, for many people, override the statistics of risk.
Thanks to their automatic use of the availability heuristic (judging the frequency of things by their availability in memory), most folks display probability neglect: They fear the wrong things. They fret about massively publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. So it is that most folks fear commercial flying more than driving (which, per mile, is 500 times more dangerous). So it is that many parents who don’t bother strapping their child into a car seat fear letting their child walk alone to school. And so it is that vaccinated people, after habitually living with pandemic fear for more than a year, have difficulty embracing the good news of vaccine efficacy. After 14 months, habitual fear is slow to subside.
But the good news: Subside it will. As exposure therapy has demonstrated, people who repeatedly face fear-arousing situations—starting with minimally anxiety-arousing settings—gradually become desensitized. Over time, their fear response extinguishes. Life will return to normal.
Meanwhile, for us educators, there remains an ongoing challenge: to help people think smart—to think critically, enlightened by evidence (and, yes, statistics). Between fearlessness and paralysis lies wisdom. Between cynicism and panic lies courage. Between recklessness and reticence lies informed prudence.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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“I am among [Michigan’s] 300 plus ‘Juvenile Lifers,’” a prisoner known to his friends as Chan wrote me in 1994, kindly passing along a math error he had caught in one of my textbooks. More than half a lifetime ago, Chan, as a 17-year-old, had joined a friend in committing an armed robbery and murder. He expressed “great remorse and regret” for his crime, as well as his hope to learn and grow with the goal of contributing “something of substance and worth.” In the ensuing six years of our occasional correspondence, Chan—an intelligent and now deeply religious man—has been described to me by others, including the retired superintendent of his former prison, as a model prisoner. He is excelling in prison-taught college courses. After taking introductory psychology with my text, he alerted me that Aristotle’s Apothegems is actually spelled Apothegms. Chan, now in his mid-40s, would much rather be contributing to society and paying taxes than having his room and board funded by Michigan taxpayers, whose $2.06 billion prison budget impedes our governor’s fulfilling her campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads.” But does society somehow benefit from keeping those who have committed an impulsive juvenile crime endlessly locked up? Might Chan, if released, still be a risk? Hardly. Teens’ inhibitory frontal lobes lag the development of their emotional limbic system. With brains not yet fully prepared to calculate long-term consequences, the result is teen impulsiveness and emotionality. No wonder arrest rates for rape, assault, and murder soar during the teen years and decline after age 20—to a much lower level by the mid-40s. As psychologist David Lykken noted , “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.” By that time, the frontal lobes have matured, testosterone is subsiding, and men are mellowing. Middle-aged men are not just adolescents with inflated waistlines. But if the incarceration of juvenile lifers like Chan is costly to society, might it nevertheless deter future Chans from violent acts? Alas, when committing an impulsive act or a crime of passion, people seldom pause to calmly calculate the long-term consequences. (Even the threat of capital punishment does not predict lower state homicide rates.) Any deterrence effect lies less with the length of a punishment than with its probability—its swiftness and sureness. The immaturity of the teen brain and the diminishing risk of violence with age, as explained in Supreme Court briefs by the American Psychological Association and other health associations, contributed to the Court’s 2012 ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violated the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Even discretionary life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional, it ruled, except for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Then, last week, the Court qualified that judgment by affirming the life sentence of Mississippian Brett Jones, who—when barely age 15, and after a lifetime of abuse—responded to his grandfather’s reportedly hitting him by impulsively stabbing his grandfather to death. Like Chan, Jones, now 31, is said to be “remorseful for his crime, hardworking and a ‘good kid’” who gets along with everybody. How ironic, commentators noted, that the majority opinion—that teens can forever be held responsible for their juvenile misdeeds—was written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had argued during his confirmation hearings that holding him responsible for his high school yearbook page was “a new level of absurdity.” Moreover, responded Justice Sonia Sotomayor, this decision will prevent hundreds of other juvenile defendants, 70 percent of whom are people of color, from securing early release. zodebala/E+/Getty Images Nevertheless, there has been increasing bipartisan concern about the human and financial costs of lengthy mass incarceration for long-ago transgressions. The Smarter Sentencing Act , co-sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), responds to the reality that the seven-fold increased federal prison population since 1980 makes such incarceration “one of our nation’s biggest expenditures, dwarfing the amount spent on law enforcement.” Surely, we can say yes to public protection, but also yes to smarter sentencing—sentencing that holds the Chans and Brett Joneses accountable for their acts, while also recognizing that the impulsive, momentary act of an immature teen needn’t predict one’s distant future. Indeed, how many of us would like to be judged today by the worst moments of our immature adolescence? (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)
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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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