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?

A World of Dreams

While traveling the world as a journalist, Roc Morin spends his down time “collecting dreams” for the World Dream Atlas, an index that aims to compile dreams from every country on Earth. Over the past ten months, he has managed to gather dreams from hundreds of people across 17 countries. Continue reading

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?

Six People From Nepal Weigh In On World Happiness Day

Today, March 20, is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, which recognizes the importance of creating economic, social, and political paradigms that favor well-being not only in the basic sense (food, healthcare, shelter, etc.) but in psychological and mental flourishing.

Nepal, a country of 25 million located between India and China, seems to be an auspicious choice for NPR to spotlight in commemoration of this event. It is “struggling out of poverty after a decade-long civil war”, has faced chronic political paralysis by “squabbling politicians”, and suffers unemployment so high that “1,500 youth leave every day for jobs in Malaysia and the Middle East.”

But none of this means that Nepal is devoid of happy people, each of whom offer unique lessons and perspectives on how they — and others — can be happy even in the most trying individual and societal circumstances. Here are six such views:

Tara Devi thinks she is about 45 years old and has three adult children. She is a farmer in Khokana, one of the oldest Newar towns in the Kathmandu Valley. Her family has lived here for generations. Tara has never attended school and can speak only Newar, a Tibeto-Burmese language, and a smattering of Hindi she has learned from Bollywood movies. She loves to laugh.

“Working is my happiness. I go to my fields every day. We grow everything we eat: garlic, rice, vegetables. I have done this since I was a child. And I love Bollywood movies. But the government — they cut the electricity all the time and it is hard to watch the movies. Where is our constitution? Where is the development the government promises? That makes me sad. But I do not like to be sad. It is better to be happy.”

Devaki Raut, 16, says reading makes her happy.

Devaki Raut, 16, says reading makes her happy.

Devaki Raut, 16, comes from Sindhupalchowk District in central Nepal, east of Kathmandu, where her parents still reside. Devaki, who is in eighth grade, lives in Lalitpur near Kathmandu in a home where she is also employed as a domestic worker, earning her school and boarding fees. She has no Internet access at the house, nor does she own a cellphone.

“I am happy all the time. When I am not studying or working, I chat with my friends. We all love to play volleyball and badminton. Reading makes me happy. My sister and I will be the first girls in our family to go to college. I want to study computer science. Thinking of this makes me feel good.”

Keshav Shiwakoti, 52, is a former communist revolutionary from a small village in the high mountains of eastern Nepal. One of seven children, he grew up in stark poverty. Looking for employment, he moved to Kathmandu, where he learned English and became a high-end cook specializing in European cuisine. His only child, a son, is a migrant worker in Abu Dhabi.

“I fought for change for 19 years, but I have no faith in our government. On World Happiness Day, everyone should drop their guns. The small, fleeting moments make me happy — like the child I just saw on the street being breast-fed by her mother, or watching my baby goats play. It’s the joy in sunshine or rain. Sometimes I cry because I feel such great happiness.”

Kunda Dixit, 60, likes to make faces to make himself — and others — feel happy.

Kunda Dixit, 60, likes to make faces to make himself — and others — feel happy.

Kunda Dixit, 60, writer, journalist and political satirist, is editor of The Nepali Times, an avid trekker and an expert on all things related to airplanes and airports. Political satire is his version of happiness therapy.

“What makes me happy is that we Nepalis have this irreverent sense of humor and the ability to be happy about how unhappy we are. I survived absolute monarchies, military coups, Maoist prime ministers who believed editors needed to be spanked, right down to the bunch of clowns who are ruling over us today. But I may soon be out of a job [as a satirist] because the present crop of politicians are giving me stiff competition.”

Sabin Munikar, 28, is a self-taught violin and piano player and teaches at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. He is the founder of the Kathmandu Youth Orchestra, which plays traditional Nepali music. He also loves and plays jazz and classical music. Newly married, he hopes to do graduate studies in music in the U.S.

“For me, happiness means being completely myself wherever I am. It means freedom from cunning ideologies, philosophies and rules and regulations. It also means freedom from diseases. But even better than being happy all alone, my ultimate happiness is happiness for everyone in the world. It feels so good to watch people celebrate, laugh, sing and dance. But it is important to add that I will be truly happy only when I choose my own destiny.”

Woeser Choeden, 90, greets her oldest grandson. She finds great happiness in having raised four "independent and capable" daughters.

Woeser Choeden greets her oldest grandson. She finds great happiness in having raised four “independent and capable” daughters.

Woeser Choeden, 90, has no formal education. In 1960, she fled Tibet to Nepal on foot with her two oldest daughters. Two yaks carried the family food as well as her two youngest daughters. She has 20 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

“Happiness is relative. There are always worries and failures but I gather internal strength from the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. My life has been long. I find great happiness in having raised four independent and capable daughters. I am lucky. Happiness for me is about contentment not about extremes of happiness or sadness. I tell my children to embrace the suffering and hardship that come through hard work. Only then can one truly understand happiness.”

By no means does this suggest that Nepal and other countries should not do more to improve the circumstances of their people. It just shows that humans have a remarkable capacity to endure the worst that life throws at them and can instead find pleasure in the simple things — work, music, jokes, good weather, and much more we take for granted.

Why Do People Do The Opposite Of What They Are Told?

What is it about being told something, even politely or for good intentions, that makes us keen to do the opposite, at least on occasion? We all know about reverse psychology, which is perhaps one of the most mainstream and widely observed aspects of human behavior — but what makes us so stubborn about following advice or directions, whether from loved ones or authority figures?

Business Insider highlights three research-backed factors that explain this interestingly widespread practice.

1. Reactance: forbidden fruit tastes so much sweeter

When someone discourages you from doing something, you often feel that your freedom is being threatened, which motivates you to regain choice and control by doing exactly the opposite. Experiments show that children become more interested in a toy after they’re put under severe rather than mild pressure not to play with it, and children and adults become more likely to taste fatty foods when labels explicitly warn against them. One classic study even found support for the Romeo & Juliet effect: the more parents interfered with a romantic relationship, the stronger the feelings of love the couples developed over the next year. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Adam was but human… He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden.”

2. Rebound: whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear

When someone tells you not to think about something, your mind has a sneaky way of returning to that very thought. In a brilliant study led by psychologist Daniel Wegner, people were told not to think about a white bear. They spent the next 5 minutes thinking aloud, saying everything that came to mind, and ringing a bell if they spoke or thought of a white bear. They couldn’t escape the white bear: on average, it appeared in their thoughts every minute, and most people accidentally uttered “white bear” out loud once or twice. When the 5-minute suppression period was over, things got even worse: they thought about it more than twice as often as people who had been directly instructed to think about a white bear. When we try to suppress a thought, two things happen. The productive effect is that we consciously search for thoughts that don’t involve white bears. The counterproductive effect is that we unconsciously monitor for failures. In the back of our minds, we’re keeping an eye out for pale furry creatures in case they prove to be of the polar variety.

3. Curiosity: I wonder what’s inside…

When a behavior is forbidden or discouraged, it’s hard not to become intrigued. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick, “it’s like having an itch we need to scratch.” Experiments reveal, for example, that people are more likely to watch violent TV shows and play violent video games when labels warn against them. And there are many examples of books becoming more popular after they’re banned. There’s a mystery to be unraveled: what could be so bad about this? When you started surfing the internet today, chances are that you carried an implicit expectation that a writer would be encouraging you to read his writing. If so, my headline surprised you by violating that expectation. “Why in the world would an author tell me not to read something he wrote? That doesn’t make any sense. Is he out of his mind?”

These principles make intuitive sense, especially the one about “forbidden fruit” and the allure of doing something illegal, prohibited, or otherwise authoritatively placed out of our reach. These reasons are important to keep in mind, not only to reign in on this habit, but to avoid the more insidious applications of reverse psychology:

In one study, psychologists asked 159 people if they had ever deliberately tried to get people to do something by recommending the opposite. More than two thirds generated a convincing example, and reported using reverse psychology an average of 1-2 times a month, with relatively little difficulty and high effectiveness. One respondent admitted, “One time I said that my friend had a good haircut when she didn’t. Usually, she disagrees with my opinion so she changed it. Which was good.”

Is this ethical? Some might say that in the case of a haircut, the (split) ends justify the means. When people are resistant to us or our ideas, and we have their best interests at heart, it’s acceptable to mislead them for their own good. Others would argue that a meaningful relationship allows, or even requires, transparency. If we can’t be honest with someone about our intentions, how much of a bond do we really have?

Wherever you stand on this spectrum, my hope is that you’ll be more attuned to reverse psychology when it wanders into your interactions. I also you’ll prevent it from biasing your choices. Next time you find yourself opposing a recommendation or warning, it’s worth asking whether it’s genuinely a bad idea. Maybe you’re just trying to fight for your freedom or scratch an itch.

Granted, like most aspects of human psychology and behavior, it takes a lot of continuous effort and conscientiousness to get the better of this habit. But the results — for both ourselves and those who are trying to help us — are well worth it. And needless to say, recognizing the motivations of our disobedience helps us better determine whether those who tell us what to do or not do mean well or are just trying to manipulate us.

Rethinking Daylight Savings Time

And by rethinking it, I mean ending it. Aside from the inconvenience of having to adjust one’s sleeping pattern — most clocks nowadays are automated so at least that part is less troublesome — daylight savings time (DST) is both unnecessary and in many measurable respects, does more harm than good.

The Atlantic outlines just some of the problems with this fairly new and unusual concept:

Daylight Saving has been an official ritual since 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson codified it into law during the waning days of World War One. Nowadays, its ostensible purpose is to save energy: One more hour of sunlight in the evening means one less hour of consumption of artificial lighting. In 2005, President George W. Bush lengthened Daylight Saving Time by a month as part of a sweeping energy bill signed that year, citing the need to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

But does Daylight Saving Time actually make much of a difference? Evidence suggests that the answer is no. After the Australian government extended Daylight Saving Time by two months in 2000 in order to accommodate the Sydney Olympic Games, a study at UC Berkeley showed that the move failed to reduce electricity demand at all. More recently, a study of homes in Indiana—a state that adopted Daylight Saving Time only in 2006—showed that the savings from electricity use were negated, and then some, by additional use of air conditioning and heat.

The simple act of adjusting to the time change, however subtle, also has measurable consequences. Many people feel the effects of the “spring forward” for longer than a day; a study showed that Americans lose around 40 minutes of sleep on the Sunday night after the shift. This means more than just additional yawns on Monday: the resulting loss in productivity costs the economy an estimated $434 million a year.

Daylight Saving Time may also hurt people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, depriving them of light in the mornings. “Our circadian rhythms were set eons ago to a rhythm that didn’t include daylight savings time, so the shift tends to throw people off a bit,” Nicholas Rummo, the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, told HealthDay News. The switchover to Daylight Saving Time is also linked to an increase in heart attacks as well as traffic accidents.

While we take it as a given, adjusting our clocks in this manner is actually a pretty novel idea, and one that is hardly universal. The article points out that millions of people in the United States — namely those living Arizona, Hawaii, and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — do not observe the practice, and have done just fine (even despite being out of step with the majority of the nation).

Indeed, most of the world does not observe DST, and those comparatively few nations that do so have no appreciable advantage.

Daylight Savings Time Around The World

In short, DST is a dated idea with little empirical evidence or efficacy backing up it up. But even if there emerges any concerted effort to end this practice, phasing it out will probably take time given its familiarity.

Quote: On The End Of Trends

How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only “aesthetics.” A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it’s always been that way; it’s just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it’s not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad’s rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it’s a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behavior rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net.

[…] “Aesthetic,” a word that doesn’t prioritize any one particular medium of art and even suggests them all together, is a much more suitable term than “trend” or “genre,” and highly applicable to previous online-underground-led movements like vaporwave and sea punk for which imagery and multimedia is a hugely significant and probably defining factor.

— Adam Harper writing in The Faderas quote in The Atlantic

I for one welcome the end of rigidly defined, strictly enforced subcultures — assuming such a thing really existed in the first place. One of the most defining and influential aspects of the Information Age is the widespread access to all sorts of aesthetics, ideas, fashions, styles, and other cultural and intellectual outputs. With so much to command our attention, how else could any individual simply stick to one narrative, idea, or aesthetic preference?

Why keep only to rock music, sports fandom, or comic books when you can have all of the above and then some? Why feel that you need to be part of some cohesive and internally conforming subculture — akin to membership in a formal club with strict rules and guidelines — when you can follow the patterns, practices, and preferences you want based solely on what you genuinely enjoy; social circles built around particular interests need not be mutually exclusive from other activities and interests. There is no reason why loving sports and fitness puts you at odds with nerdier pursuits like video games and science fiction (or why those things should even be the exclusive purview of nerds to begin with).

For that matter, highbrow and low-brow pursuits can sit perfectly comfortably with one another: the idea that one must be a high-class auteur to enjoy orchestral music and Broadway plays is at odds with observed reality. Yes, there are some correlations between one’s class and identity and what one tends to enjoy doing — though that has as much to do with economic barriers to certain activities more than anything — but that is not always the case when people have freer access to the sorts of trends and interests they genuinely would enjoy if they had the time, resources, exposure, etc.

Of course, as usual, it is more complicated than that. People like categories and labels, however much they try to convince others (and themselves) otherwise. By neatly organizing these things, as well as other people and ourselves, we make all the information and stimuli out there easier to manage and keep track of. This is especially salient in an age where we are bombarded by ideas, concepts, designs, and other data all the time.

It is perhaps understandable then that people are threatened by, or even resentful of, perceived outsiders encroaching on their traditional territory: their subculture was fundamental to their identity before the walls began breaking down and the lines blurred, allowing people who once lacked any stock or interest in these activities to take part more easily than before (again, the increasingly mainstream nature of nerd culture is the most recognizable example, but hardly the only one).

Moreover, in the social media context, wherein everyone feels the need to sell or present themselves to a wider network of contacts and friends, listing one’s preferred musical or film genres, political persuasion, or religious adherence is a way to stand out and feel validated. As a social species, we need our peers — from loved ones to even strangers — to have some sort of impression, reaction, or conception of us: as intellectuals, sports fans, artists, blue collar laborers, etc. How will we adjust to the ever-growing circle of social connections to worry about and be accountable to? How will we adapt to the fact that so many previously exclusive and inaccessible things are increasingly available to all?

At this point, I am just expressing a stream of consciousness, so I am sure I missed something. What are your thoughts guys?

Altruism: It’s In Our DNA

Although, like most people, I have my cynical and misanthropic moments, I broadly consider myself to be an optimist with regards to human nature and our species’ capacity to improve itself and the world (arguably, I would be a poor humanist if I did not believe in the positive potential of humanity). The ability to practice concern for the welfare of others, without any want of reward or gain, represents one of the key virtues that will lead to a better world.

Much of my confidence stems from my own broadly beneficial experience with my fellow humans: I am fortunate to have experienced and witnessed so much kindness, compassion, and understanding. While my intimate study and exposure to the worst of humanity, past and present, has no doubt tempered my faith, I remain committed to the idea that humans are not in any sense fundamentally evil or violent, as many would believe.

Indeed, whatever moral and cognitive failings seem innate to our species seems offset by an inherent, evolutionary capacity to transcend such faults. Aside from ample anecdotal evidence of humans (as well as other primates) demonstrating selfless behavior, there is a large and growing body of research proving that selflessness and conscientiousness is a fundamental aspect of being human.

One of the most recent studies to explore the origins of human altruism was conducted by a team from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which examined groups of primates — including humans — and how they each develop concepts of selflessness and cooperation. As reported in IFScience:

The researchers designed a test in which a food treat was placed on a sliding board. The individual moving the board can bring the treat within reach of others within the group, but will not be able to get the food themselves.

The experiment was carried out in 24 groups across 15 species of primates, including 3 groups of human children who were 5-7 years old. The food selection was tailored for each group, in order to test whether or not the primate would willingly give up a desired treat. The researchers found that species who most often utilized the “it takes a village” style of cooperative breeding were also more likely to help someone else get a treat, even though they didn’t get one themselves.

“Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically,” Burkart explained in a press release.

The researchers also examined possible relationships between giving a treat to a friend and other cooperative behaviors, such as group hunting and complex social bonds, as well as relative brain size. Cooperative breeding was the only trait that showed a strong linear correlation and was the best metric for predicting altruistic behavior.

“Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,” Burkart continued.

However, cooperative breeding is likely one of many factors that could have influenced the evolution of altruism among humans. Over the evolutionary history of our ancestors, living in cooperative groups may have benefited greatly from high cognitive abilities, especially regarding things like language skills.

Burkart concluded: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”

In other words, being altruistic comes as natural to us as any other trait we consider to be quintessentially human (language, higher thinking, etc). Not only is it a virtue in itself, but it serves a pivotal role to our survival and flourishing. Working in tandem with the other characteristics of higher sentience, altruism helped grow and solidify social bonds, which in turn facilitates the cooperation and organization that is so vital to an otherwise defenseless and vulnerable species.

In fact, without our high cognitive capacity — our ability to share and develop new ideas, to invent, to coordinate and work together — we would not have survived against the harsh elements and the many physically superior predators that inhabited it. In the aggregate, every individual act of welfare and assistance to others helps create a stronger and more robust society that can better survive and prosper.

Shortly after the IFLS piece, NPR also published an article on the subject of altruism and its roots in human biology. It was inspired by the case of Angela Stimpson, a 42-year-old woman who donated a kidney to a complete stranger without any credit or reward. She cited a sense of purpose as her motivation, echoing many other altruists who claim to derive meaning from being kind and doing good deeds.

So what is the psychological basis of this position?  That is what Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University,a leading researcher on altruism, set out to discover:

Marsh wanted to know more about this type of extraordinary altruism, so she decided to study the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 of them, including Angela Stimpson, were kidney donors.

Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of their brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.

Most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors. Except, Marsh says, for a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion.

These findings are the polar opposite to research Marsh conducted on a group of psychopaths. Using the same tests as with the altruists, Marsh found that psychopaths have significantly smaller, less active amygdalas. More evidence that the amygdala may be the brain’s emotional compass, super-sensitive in altruists and blunted in psychopaths, who seem unresponsive to someone else’s distress or fear.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, the area that primarily houses our emotional life, and that plays a large role in forming memories and making decisions. Neither the study nor articles delves into the causality of the relationship between amygdala size and altruism: is it a large amygdala that leads one to become more selfless? Or does engaging in enough altruistic act over time cause the amygdala to grow larger? There is still much to learn about this area of the body.

But one thing is for certain: for all the negative behaviors and habits we associate with human nature, we must not overlook or understate just how intimately tied our humanity is with acts of kindness and compassion. From our biology to our neurology, humans, for the most part, have an instinct to be kind whenever and however possible. The key is to build upon these foundations, cultivate them in others, and figure out how to correct any naturalistic imbalances that may undermine. A difficult and long-term goal, but certainly a worthy and ultimately human one.

The Tribulations of Empathy

It would seem intuitive that empathy is an inherently positive quality: what could be wrong with being able to deeply feel or think what other someone else is experiencing? Most acts of compassion and altruism are predicated on being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and subsequently seeking to better their circumstances; without a fundamental understanding of one’s circumstances and  needs, it is arguably harder to rouse yourself into acting for their benefit.

But an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman challenges the importance of empathy in ethical decision-making, going so far as to suggest that it may even be a handicap:

The problem is that empathy – the attempt to feel or think how someone else is feeling or thinking – isn’t a reliable way of doing good. For one thing, we find it easier to empathise with better-looking people, and with those of the same race, so the more we rely on empathy as a guide to action, the more we’re vulnerable to such biases. We also get entangled in the “identifiable victim effect”: empathy makes us care more about, say, the single missing child than the thousands who might be harmed by a government policy, never mind the as-yet-unborn victims of future global warming. Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped… Let it be reported that without a sales tax the [hospitals] of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear.” A surfeit of empathy may hurt the empathetic, too: it’s been linked to burnout and depression, neither of which make people better at helping others.

This touches on two interesting problems related to misplaced and/or excessive empathy.

One is psychic numbing, whereby individuals or even entire societies give little to know attention to threats that are far-off, geographically distant, and of low probability — even though they are otherwise of massive consequences. A familiar example would be how more people seem mourn or focus upon a high-profile tragedy involving one or a few individuals, whereas genocides, famines, or calamities like climate change attract far less attention, much less action.

There are many interesting reasons why this discrepancy exists, among the most prominent being that we can better empathize with one or a few individuals than we can with faceless (and often foreign) millions — the old adage of one death being a tragedy and a million being a mere statistic. Our cognitive capacity is limited and can only connect with so many people before it fails to really impact us; similarly, we can only look so far ahead, and things like climate change are on a scale of complexity that is difficult to grasp on a strictly visceral level.

The second issue touched on in this except is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, in which individuals or societies demonstrate reduced compassion over a period of time. Unsurprisingly, this problem is most often observed among those who work with, live, or are exposed most to those that suffer: first responders, nurses, psychologists, aid workers, and the like. Over time, one can become more cynical, depressed, prone to sleeplessness, unfocused, or demonstrate other signs of hardheartedness and negativity.

On a collective level, this can be very problematic: it has been argued that the over-saturation of media with de-contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering has led to a more misanthropic and withdrawn society. Again, the familiar example is how fairly tolerant we seem to be of large-scale problems, ranging from growing poverty in the U.S. to the massive catastrophes immiserating millions abroad. After a certain point, we grow weary from it all and would much rather ignore it. We are busy and troubled enough without having to empathize with so much pain and suffering.

In light of these points, what would the alternative be? If empathy is insufficient on its own, how best do we go about making constructive and ethical decisions?

It’s hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions. That’s why job interviews can be more meritocratic – and less prone to sexism or racism – when they don’t include a free-wheeling “getting to know you” section, relying instead on structured tests. Tyler Cowen, the blogger and economist, recommends soliciting feedback not by asking “what do you think?” – the personalised version – but “what do most people think?”

Instead of empathy, Bloom concludes, we need compassion: a cooler, more rational, “more distanced love, kindness and concern for others”. A relative of his undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t like medical staff who overflow with empathy: “He gets the most from doctors who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain.” As the Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey wrote, before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes: that way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. But if you want to help them, staying planted in your own shoes may be preferable. Sure, I could feel your pain. But wouldn’t you rather I did something about it?

In short, it would appear that, as with many things, the best course of action is a balanced one — we try our best to really feel for the suffering of others while keeping just enough of a distance to have a clear head on how to determine the best course of action. It seems sensible, and I can personally relate with both extremes: owing to my own bouts of depression and compassion fatigue, I find myself at times to be either too distant or too empathetic, and in either state I feel off. It is only when I have struck that delicate golden mean between empathy and dispassion that I feel hopeful in making a decision. But such an arrangement can be difficult to maintain without conscious effort, and one can only be so emotional or so distant before breaking down.

But that is just my experience and observation. What about you all?