The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

The World’s Most Empathetic Societies

Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.

It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health. Continue reading

Trauma Can Run In Our DNA

It is not surprising that the impact of trauma often transcends generations; after all, the psychological and behavioral consequences can easily rub off on one’s children. But a recent finding from New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital strongly suggests that trauma is not just socially conditioned, but genetically inheritable.

As the Guardian reports, the study analyzed the genes of children born to Jewish men and women who, in some way or another, had suffered during the Second World War (as camp internees, torture victims, being on the run, etc.). The offspring of these survivors were already known to have an increase chance of stress disorders, and sure enough, results showed that the region of a gene linked to stress was altered in a way not seen in the control group. (The research team confirmed that the changes were not due to any trauma experienced by the children themselves.) Continue reading

The Importance of Gratitude

Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.

The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.

The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.

Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects: Continue reading

Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

How Visible Inequality Erodes Communities

Poverty and inequality are bad enough on their own, but a recent Yale study published in Nature suggests that the mere visibility of income disparity can be socially and psychologically disruptive. As The Atlantic reported:

“Making wealth visible was a very corrosive force. It resulted in the rich exploiting the poor”, said Nicholas A. Christakis, the co-director of Yale Institute for Network Science and one of the senior authors of the study. When wealthy people find out that their neighbors don’t have the resources they do, researchers find, they’re less likely to help them, or anyone else …

… Researchers found that when rich subjects knew that their neighbors were less wealthy than they were, they became less likely to cooperate with them. The poor, however, chose to keep cooperating. This leads to what researchers call an exploitation scenario, in which the poor keep lowering their own wealth to invest in their local network, “making them worse off relative to their neighbors and allowing the rich to get richer”, the researchers write.

When rich subjects don’t know the wealth of their neighbors, though, they are more likely to cooperate than are poorer subjects. This leads to what researchers call a “fairness” scenario, in which the rich invest their wealth into a local network, which then grows richer as a whole.

Overall, visible poverty reduces overall cooperation, interconnectedness, and wealth. But inequality itself has “relatively little” impact on cooperation or interconnectedness. “Most people thinking about inequality today may be confusing two distinct phenomenon”, Christakis told me.

This might explain why famously egalitarian societies like Sweden and Japan tend to report higher than normal levels of social cohesion: not only is income broadly distributed, but any disparity that exists is plastered over through public policy and communitarian values. Broad access to education, healthcare, and quality housing means that the material markers of poverty are absent. There are also cultural taboos against the ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption that are common in the U.S. and elsewhere. No doubt these factors make cooperation and social trust a lot easier, as people do not feel worlds apart despite what their actual incomes and lifestyles might be. Continue reading

How Doodling Helps The Brain

From The Atlantic:

For most people, the big question isn’t “when did you start drawing?” but “when did you stop drawing?” Virtually everyone drew and doodled at one point in their lives. For artists and non-artists alike, drawing is about more than art—it’s about the very art of thinking…

…”Drawing with pencil, pen, or brush on paper isn’t just for artists. For anyone who actively exercises the brain, doodling and drawing are ideal for making ideas tangible. What’s more, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers find it easier to recall dull information (even 29 percent more) than non-doodlers, because the latter are more likely to daydream.

While drawing is definitely the artist’s stock and trade, everyone can make doodles, bypassing the kind of refinement demanded of the artist. Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone. Just think of all those napkins (or Post-Its) on which million-dollar ideas were sketched out.”

As a frequent doodler myself, I never really considered any palpable mental and emotional benefits. But in retrospect, there was something relaxing and self-affirming about it — hence why so many people, myself included, tend to doodle during times of boredom.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

The Psychology of Misunderstanding

Misunderstanding someone, and being misunderstood in turn, is an indelible part of the human experience. So it is not surprising that there is a deep psychological basis for this inconvenient — and often times even dangerous — tendency to mutually misinterpret each other.

Business Insider and The Atlantic report on research that is getting to the bottom of why humans seem inherently unable to read one another’s feelings and intentions (or conversely, clearly convey their own). The reasons — and solutions — are pretty interesting:

First, most people suffer from what psychologists call “the transparency illusion” — the belief that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal clear to others, even though they have done very little to communicate clearly what is going on inside their minds.

Because the perceived assume they are transparent, they might not spend the time or effort to be as clear and forthcoming about their intentions or emotional states as they could be, giving the perceiver very little information with which to make an accurate judgment.

“Chances are,” Halvorson writes, “how you look when you are slightly frustrated isn’t all that different from how you look when you are a little concerned, confused, disappointed, or nervous.

Your ‘I’m kind of hurt by what you just said’ face probably looks an awful lot like your ‘I’m not at all hurt by what you just said’ face. And the majority of times that you’ve said to yourself, ‘I made my intentions clear,’ or ‘He knows what I meant,’ you didn’t and he doesn’t.”

In other words, we have a blindspot with respect to our own behavior and communication. We fail to recognize, let alone see, that we might be coming off a certain way to others than we mean to. This goes a long way to explain another common human failing: hypocrisy.

While many hypocritical acts are no doubt deliberate, a lot of times it is accidental — you genuinely do not notice you are acting contrary to your intention behaviors and values. The transparency illusion applies as much to ourselves as to our external communications with others. We think our principles and values are clear, and thus fail to be vigilant or aware of any instance in which we violate them. After all, it is neither instinctive nor feasible to be methodically analyzing each and every action or statement. Hence we tend to just assume we are consistent and principled as we think we are.

All this touches on the next conclusion of the study, which looks at our perceptions to one another (and towards ourselves):

The perceiver, meanwhile, is dealing with two powerful psychological forces that are warping his ability to read others accurately. First, according to a large body of psychological research, individuals are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” That is, people are lazy thinkers.

he perceiver, meanwhile, is dealing with two powerful psychological forces that are warping his ability to read others accurately. First, according to a large body of psychological research, individuals are what psychologists call “cognitive misers.” That is, people are lazy thinkers.

According to the work of the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, there are two ways that the mind processes information, including information about others: through cognitive processes that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. These “systems,” which Kahneman describes in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” serve as metaphors for two different kinds of reasoning.

System 1 processes information quickly, intuitively, and automatically. System 1 is at work, as Halvorson notes in her book, when individuals engage in effortless thinking, like when they do simple math problems like 3 + 3 = 6, or when they drive on familiar roads as they talk to a friend in the car, or when they see someone smile and immediately know that that person is happy.

When it comes to social perception, System 1 uses shortcuts, or heuristics, to come to conclusions about another person. There are many shortcuts the mind relies on when it reads others facial expressions, body language, and intentions, and one of the most powerful ones is called the “primacy effect” and it explains why first impressions are so important.

According to the primacy effect, the information that one person learns about another in his early encounters with that person powerfully determines how he will see that person ever after.

For example, referring to research conducted about the primacy effect, Halvorson points out that children who perform better on the first half of a math test and worse on the second half might be judged to be smarter than those who perform less well on the first part of the test, but better on the second part.

In contrast to System 1 style of thinking, which is biased and hasty, System 2 processes information in a conscious, rational, and deliberative manner. Whereas System 1 thinking is automatic and effortless, System 2 thinking takes effort.

Thus, System 2 acts as a check on System 1. It helps evaluate and update first impressions, prejudices, and other brash thoughts. It is basically a backup for when your thoughts fail you.

But as I alluded to during my tangent about hypocrisy, this sort of deeper, conscious thinking takes time and mental energy. In fact, it is rarely ever engaged in without some sort of external trigger or reminders — such as someone pointing out that you misunderstood them or read a certain situation wrong (even then, egotism, face-saving, or just plain arrogance might leave you resistant to sincere self-analysis).

But as the article points out, humans are otherwise too inclined to be “cognitive misers” to go much further beyond System 1. Hence why misunderstandings and miscommunications alike are so common.

To make matters more complicated, there is more to interpersonal conflict than a shortcoming in our thought processes. A lot of other variables — albeit as just as psychologically inherent — are at play, too.

Perception is also clouded by the perceiver’s own experiences, emotions, and biases, which also contributes to misunderstandings between people. As Halvorson puts it, everyone has an agenda when they interact with another person. That agenda is usually trying to determine one of three pieces of information about the perceived: Is this person trustworthy? Is this person useful to me? And does this person threaten my self-esteem?

How a perceiver answers those questions will determine whether she judges the other person in a positive or negative way. Take self-esteem. Researchers have long found that individuals need to maintain a positive sense of themselves to function well.

When someone’s sense of herself is threatened, like when she interacts with someone who she thinks is better than her at a job they both share, she judges that person more harshly. One study found, for example, that attractive job applicants were judged as less qualified by members of the same sex than by members of the opposite sex. The raters who were members of the same sex, the researchers found, felt a threat to their self-esteem by the attractive job applicants while the members of the opposite sex felt no threat to their self-esteem.

In a sense, there is something reassuring about a lot of our misunderstandings being rooted in flaws that are mostly beyond our control. It is not that most people have bad intentions or are purposefully being obtuse, unclear, or inconsiderate — it is that our minds and cognitive capacity make us inherently prone to faulty thinking, nearly always without us realizing it.

Given all these obstacles to accurately perceiving someone (or conveying yourself to them), what do people have to do to come across they way they intend to?

“If you want to solve the problem of perception,” Halvorson says, “it’s much more practical for you to decide to be a good sender of signals than to hope that the perceiver is going to go into phase two of perception. It’s not realistic to expect people to go to that effort.

Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to weigh every possible motivation of another person? Plus, you can’t control what’s going on inside of another person’s mind, but you can control how you come across.”

People who are easy to judge — people who send clear signals to others, as Halvorson suggests people do—are, researchers have found, ultimately happier and more satisfied with their relationships, careers, and lives than those who are more difficult to read.

It’s easy to understand why: Feeling understood is a basic human need. When people satisfy that need, they feel more at peace with themselves and with the people around them, who see them closer to how they see themselves.

In a recent discussion about this article with some friends, it was brought up whether or not humans should somehow be altered, perhaps with cybernetic implants or something, so that they can think and communicate more clearly. Setting aside the precise means and mechanics of it, the hypothetical suggests that we if somehow eliminate our tendency to misunderstand and miscommunicate with each other, the world would be a better place overall.

Humans would be less prone to anxiety, less likely to fight with loved ones or make wrong assumptions about strangers, and refrain from the sort of violence that is often predicated by misunderstanding.

But this would raise questions about how fundamentally different human behavior and society as a whole would be without this barrier between us. Our individual and collective psychology is shaped by this constant and fundamentally human inability to communicate or understand clearly. As a species, we have developed all sorts of ideas, rituals, approaches, institutions, and even art forms to get around this problem, or to express ourselves in alternative ways. What would happen to all of that if we removed this inconvenient yet familiar issue?

It is a bit of a tangent, but it touches on the overall point expressed in this research and many more about how biological, psychological, and evolutionary limitations shape our existence and affect our conditions. What are your thoughts?