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

The Kids Are Alright

Contrary to popular belief, this generation of Americans is among the most well behaved and law abiding in decades, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics cited by the Washington Post:

In absolute terms, arrests (like crime) are as expected consistently concentrated among the young at each historical time point. But surprisingly, the drop in the arrest rate over time is entirely accounted for by the current generation of young adults, who are busted 23 percent less frequently than prior generations were at their age. Remarkably, despite the national drop in overall crime and arrest rates, the arrest rate among older Americans is higher than it was 20 years ago. This holds for adults ages 40 to 54 (a 9 percent increase) and even more so for adults age 55 and older (a 12 percent increase). The baby boomers, who drove the American crime explosion in their youth, are apparently continuing to outdo prior generations in their late-life criminality.

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…Presuming that like prior generations millennials carry their crime-related habits forward as they age, the country could soon see an acceleration of the recent trend toward reduced incarceration as millennials replace their more crime-prone elders in the population.

Meanwhile, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, conducted biannually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since 1991, has found a marked decline in various other social ills that were once prevalent among past generations generations of youth  — including the often Millennial-bashing boomers. Vox.com sums up the data thusly: “today’s teens smoke less, drink less, and have sex less than the previous generation. They are, comparatively, a mild-mannered bunch…”

Indeed, only 10.8 percent of teens smoke cigarettes, compared to nearly a third in the 1990; they are 46 percent less likely to binge drink alcohol compared to teens twenty years ago, and 21 percent less likely to have even tried alcohol; and only 2.3 percent of teenage girls become pregnant, compared to more than double the percentage ten years ago. They are also less likely to bring weapons to class, get into a physical fight, contemplate suicide, to forget to put on their seatbelt.

Yet despite such relative timidity and good behavior, today’s youth are commonly perceived to be among the most rambunctious, self indulgent and ill disciplined of any generation in American history. For example, teen pregnancy is widely perceived to be on the rise when it has in fact declined to historic lows. And I imagine most readers are familiar with the regular barrage of articles, opinion pieces, memes, and social media rants about the various alleged improprieties of teens and college students.

To be sure, it is not as if young people are without faults — no generation, young or old, past or present, has been perfect. But by and large the kids are alright, and whatever real or imagined moral or social failings they display must be looked at in the larger historical context: younger generations have always been overly scrutinized by their elders, and have always developed or embraced new ideas, habits, and lifestyles that cause some measure of anxiety and apprehension among the older folks who are unfamiliar with them. I think social media has gone a long way towards amplifying the extent to which isolated but ultimately mundane instances of misbehavior are occurring.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

Violence Worldwide

While citizens across the Western World lament a growing sense of fear and vulnerability to violent crime and terrorism, the World Economic Forum has issued a report showing that most of the world’s lethal violence, be it homicide, war, or terrorism, is concentrated in only a handful of countries and regions.

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Indeed, as the above visual data show, terrorism has only become “global” in the sense that while it does span different countries, it is far from being geographically dispersed; the same few regions and subregions have more or less accounted for most of the world’s violence for the past few decades, with some dropping out (Colombia and India) and some recently joining (Libya and Ukraine).

It turns out that extremist violence is much less pervasive than you might think. As other analysts have noted, it is significantly more prolific outside Western countries than in them. A recent assessment of terrorist risks in 1,300 cities ranked urban centres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Somalia as significantly more vulnerable than those in Belgium, France, the UK or the US. At least 65 cities were described as facing extreme risk, with Iraq – especially Baghdad, Mosul, Al Ramadi, Ba´qubah, Kirkuk and Al Hillah – fielding six of the top 10. Consider that between 2000 and 2014, there were around 3,659 terrorist-related deaths in all Western countries combined. In Baghdad there were 1,141 deaths and 3,654 wounded in 2014 alone.

It is true that there have been dozens of terrorist attacks in recent years, but how are they spread around the world? The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) tracks terrorist-related fatalities between 2005 and 2014 in 160 countries. In a handful of cases where there is ongoing warfare – including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen – the GTD sometimes conflates terrorist and conflict-related deaths. The authors of the database go to great lengths to avoid this from happening, but it is unavoidable. There are alternative datasets that apply much more restrictive inclusion criteria, but they are not as broad in their coverage and also suffer flaws. Rather than focusing on absolute numbers of violent deaths, it may be more useful to consider prevalence rates.

On the one hand, most countries at the top of the list of most terrorism-prone are clustered in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. They include war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Other countries in the top 15 are more unexpected, not least the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Central African Republic, and Kenya. Belgium comes in at 86th place while France and the United States come in at 98th and 105th respectively. These latter rankings will obviously shift upwards given recent attacks in 2015 and 2016, but not by as much as you might expect.

Unfortunately, noncombatants are for more likely to be killed in today’s wars, nearly all of which are civil conflicts taking place within countries, often with the involvement of paramilitary forces that blend in with civilian populations and thus make them likely targets of all sides. This is to say nothing of the fact that civilians are also the primary and explicit targets of nearly all terrorist and criminal acts.

Yet, however awful they are, even these wars are not as bloody as they otherwise could be:

It turns out that the risk of dying violently from war is considerably higher than the probability of being killed in the course of extremist violence. Although in some countries this risk is an order of magnitude higher, the overall conflict death rate in conflict zones is still far lower than many might have predicted. For example, the average conflict death rate is sky-high in Syria – site of some of the most horrific warfare over the past decade. But it is comparatively lower in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Chad and Yemen, countries that have been exposed to industrial-scale violence. The conflict death rate of course varies according to the ebb and flow of warfare, but the average prevalence is surprisingly low.

In fact, for all the attention geared towards war and terrorism, it is homicide — shorn of any ideological or political motive — that is the biggest threat to human life today. And as with other forms of violence, it is disproportionately concerned in a select number of places, albeit still more widely distributed than war and terrorism.

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Although homicidal violence is steadily declining in most parts of the world, it still presents one of the greatest threats of what public health experts call external causes of mortality – especially among young adult and adolescent males.

As in the case of terrorist and conflict-related violence, there are also hot spots where murder tends to concentrate. People living in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Southern Africa are more at risk of dying of homicide than in most other places. The most murderous countries in the world include El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Venezuela, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil.

About 46 of the 50 most violent cities are concentrated in the Americas. Also included in the top 15 most murderous countries, though located outside the Americas, are South Africa, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And beyond these pockets of extreme homicidal violence, the risk of murder is also more widely distributed than violent deaths associated with terrorism or war. There are roughly 85 countries that are consistently above the global average of around seven homicides per 100,000 people. In fact, about nine in every 10 violent deaths occurring around the world over the past decade were due to murder; just a fraction can be attributed to either war or terrorism. This is not to minimize the real dangers and destruction associated with these latter phenomena, but rather to ensure that we keep our eye firmly on the ball.

In nearly half the world’s countries, murder is a far bigger and more prevalent threat to the average person than any other form of deadly violence. This morbid fact renders several important lessons:

First, it is a reminder that a relatively small number of countries are dramatically more at risk of terrorist and conflict-related violence than others – especially Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. While they must protect their homeland from terrorist events, diplomats, development experts and defence specialists would do well to double down on preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention in the most badly affected countries. Doing so could have a dramatic effect on reducing the global burden of terrorist and conflict violence and related humanitarian consequences such as refugee flows and internal population displacement.

Second, there are also a handful of countries – most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean – where homicidal violence is off-the charts. Most of the murders in these states are concentrated in fast-growing large- and medium-sized cities. If homicides are to be reduced there, it is essential that federal and municipal planners focus on risk factors that are driving urban violence – not least social and economic inequality, high rates of youth unemployment, poor and uneven governance, and the limited purchase of the rule of law. There is mounting evidence of data-driven strategies that work – including focused-deterrencecognitive therapy and targeted prevention, but they need sustained leadership to have lasting effect.

Finally, we need to get better at nurturing resilience – the ability to cope, adapt and rebound in the face of adversity – in high-risk communities. While obviously distinct in their causes and consequences, there are still many commonalities connecting terrorist, conflict and homicidal violence. When communities are disorganized and suffer from neglect, there is a higher likelihood of politically, criminally and ideologically motivated organized violence erupting. Governments, businesses and civil society groups need to make sure that political settlements are inclusive, that marginalized groups and broken families are taken care of, and that resilience is designed in to communities from the get-go.

What are your thoughts?

The Good Life Around the World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental group of 34 mostly developed countries, is seeking out the answer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: what makes the good life? Most people across the world would probably answer that it is a combination of things, such as good health, adequate leisure and social time, and a decent income.

Based on these relatively universal assumptions, the OECD’s Better Life Index tries to answer the questions by analyzing the average well being of its member states (plus other nations such as Brazil and Russia) based on 23 factors across eleven dimensions, including health, financial wealth, civic engagement, social support, and work-life balance. Continue reading

What the Popularity of Selfies Says About Our Visual Culture

Love them or hate them, selfies have become something of an icon of the 21st century. Considered the ultimate expression of narcissism and irreverence — especially among the already much-criticized Millennial generation most likely to take them — selfies instead reflect something much deeper and more fascinating about the state of humanity.

I know, it might be hard to believe given how vacuous selfiest seem, but Nicholas Mirzoeff of The Guardian makes a pretty compelling case about the sociological and cultural impact of selfiest and digital media in general. Continue reading

How Human Sacrifice Created Modernity

The title doesn’t just refer to the tens of millions of faceless laborers who, over the centuries, quite literally built, maintained, and fought for everything that makes up modern civilization. I am talking about ritual and religious human sacrifice, wherein individuals — and sometimes masses of people at a time — are killed to serve or petition some sort of higher divine source.

While this once near-universal practice has thankfully been left behind (for the most part), a recent study makes the provocative suggestion that religiously sanctioned killings helped lay the sociopolitical groundwork of modern society. As The Washington Post reported: Continue reading

The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

An international study published in Nature aims to explore religion’s role in expanding and refining beneficial social values such as cooperation, mutual trust, and fairness. The study’s premise alone is of tremendous interest to me as both a secular humanist and a science buff, but the abstract is even more intriguing. Continue reading

Graph: The World’s Most Religious Societies

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes survey measured the degree to which people around the world value religion in their personal lives.  The results show that poorer and less stable countries tend to be more religious, although there are some interesting outliers to this pattern.

Religious Conviction Around The World

Courtesy of The Telegraph

The above data is drawn from over 45,400 interviews from adults spanning the forty subjection nations. (You can learn more about the methodology here.) Continue reading

Why Can’t Men Cry

Like so many men across generations and cultures, I was made to believe, by both culture and social conditioning that crying in all forms was “unmanly” and something only girls and babies do (which also says a lot about our warped views and expectations towards women). Whether it was inconsolable sobbing or merely shedding a tear, any manifestation of weeping was to be discouraged, ridiculed, or even shamed.

But as Sandra Newman of Aeon writes, this largely unquestioned norm is highly anomalous by historical standards. From the accounts of the Ancient Greeks and the Bible, to Medieval European romances and Japanese epics, men cried on every occasion and circumstance.

Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history.

Still more remarkably, there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears. No one pretends to have something in his eye. No one makes an excuse to leave the room. They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.

As a love of history, it used to always surprise me how many powerful male figures — generals, kings, and conquerors — were reported to openly weep without shame or criticism. It was pretty much a given that crying was something all people did, period, and none of the manly men of history were an exception.

So when and why did this change? Well, as with so many other dramatic changes in social and psychological norms, it is not entirely clear, but there is one interesting leading theory. Continue reading

What Countries Fear The Most

Depending on where you live in the world, your foreign policy priorities will vary wildly. That is the conclusion of a 40-nation study conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center, which asked respondents to report their levels of concern about the following international threats: global climate change; global economic instability; ISIS; Iran’s nuclear program; cyberattacks (be it on governments or private institutions); tensions between Russia, its neighbors, and the U.S.; and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

Here is a map of the top threats perceived in each country, courtesy of The Atlantic:

Note: Malaysia and Venezuela both cited climate change and economic instability as top concerns.

The following chart breaks down the percentage of respondents that marked each a particular threat, with underlined figures reflecting the second-most pressing concerns.

You can see a more colorful and interactive version of the above chart at The Guardian

Needless to say, these results say a lot about a country’s political, social, and geographic circumstances. It is pretty clear why Ukraine and Poland would rank Russia as their top concern, given both current tensions and a long history of conflict with their larger neighbor. For similar reasons, Israel is most concerned about Iran, and Vietnam has many scruples with China (indeed, tensions between those states have been on and off for millennia).

Moreover, there are several clear regional trends: worries over climate change is strongest in Latin America, Africa, and Asia — in other words, the developing world. In contrast, fear of ISIS is most evident in the developed nations of North America, Western Europe, and Australia, as well as countries in the Middle East.

Somewhat surprisingly, economic instability is a secondary concern in many places, which might reflect the relative stabilization of most countries’ economies. A more cynical interpretation is that people are far more wrapped up in the sensationalism and gripping brutality of terror groups like ISIS than of more far-off and difficult to perceive threats like climate change or the economy.

Cyberattacks remain the least worrying for most citizens of the world, at least for now; things might change as technology because ever-more integrated into everyday day, or once a high-profile and calamitous cyberattack rouses greater attention and concerns.

Though Iran’s nuclear program was only a top threat for Israel, in more than half of the countries surveyed, a third or more respondents identified it as a matter of concern. (Note that this poll was conducted prior to the recent nuclear deal, so there is no telling how that has impacted public opinion.)

It is worth pointing out that this poll was only carried out in 40 of the world’s nearly 200 countries; thus it is more an approximation of collective global opinion. Much of Africa and Asia is left out, though it is safe to say that climate change would remain a top matter of concern, given the pattern among other developing states. (Central Asia would probably be a mixed bag.)

Given that climate change is a far more existential threat than ISIS (at least for any nation not near or involved with interstate tensions), this poll seem to confirm a longstanding psychological observation: as I noted in my statement about economic instability, it is far easier for people to be worried about something they can clearly identify and label as bad, then something that is harder to pinpoint, visualize, and understand. A brutal terrorist group is simpler and more visual than the complex dynamics — and for that matter solutions — regarding economics and climatology.

What are your thoughts?