The World’s Healthiest Countries

According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, which includes such factors as life expectancy, access to health care, and malnutrition, these are the world’s healthiest countries:

The top ten nations were:

  1. Italy
  2. Iceland
  3. Switzerland
  4. Singapore
  5. Australia
  6. Spain
  7. Japan
  8. Sweden
  9. Israel
  10. Luxembourg

Continue reading

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 Most Efficient Healthcare Systems in the World

According to the most recent Bloomberg Health-Care Efficiency Index, Hong Kong has the most efficient healthcare system in the world, a position it and close runner up Singapore have held since 2009. During the same span of time, Spain and South Korea climbed up to third and fourth place respectively, with Japan dropping two places but remaining at a very respectable fifth.

Here are the full results of all fifty-five countries measured.  Continue reading

The Countries That Support Free Speech The Most

This past spring, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of over 40,000 people across 38 countries to find out how much they supported free expression, ranging from criticisms of the government to sexually explicit comments in public. The following map shows the results:

Here’s Vox’s take on the results:

People in Western countries, like America, Poland, and Spain, tend to be more supportive of free expression, while those in the eastern parts of the world — like China, India, Japan, and Turkey — are generally less supportive. And the U.S. stood out as more supportive of free expression than anyone else.

Still, the 38 countries surveyed by Pew were broadly supportive of free expression — with a few exceptions. For instance, a global median of about 52 percent of respondents said the media should not be able to publish information that’s sensitive to national security issues. And respondents outside the U.S. generally seemed to favor restrictions on specific types of speech, including that which may offend religious or minority groups

Overall, there was a clear divide between east and west on this issue, with the former less supportive of free speech than the latter (and African nations being somewhat in the middle ground). Nevertheless, most countries were generally pro-free speech, with respondents expressing hangs ups mostly towards sexually explicit content or anything that may be offensive to certain ethnic or religious minorities. This was the case even in the U.S., which is generally more comfortable with political speech than with anything sexual. Continue reading

How Much Should You Sleep?

Restfulness is one of the most elusive things in modern society. It seems like no one is getting enough sleep these days. But how much is enough in the first place? Nine hours has long been the widely accepted position, but recent research has shown that the optimal amount varies by age range, as well as other factors, namely when people sleep (e.g. sleep is more restful when done during the night than during the day, even if the amount is the same).

The National Sleep Foundation, an American nonprofit organization, released new guidelines on the preferred amount of sleep for the average person of a given age range. Based on a two-year study, as well as a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies by leading sleep experts, the ground has offered the following recommendations:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours (previously 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours (previously 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours (previously 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours (previously 11-13)
  • School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours (previously 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours (previously 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours (previously the same)
  • Older adults (65 and older): 7-8 hours (new age category)

More from The Atlantic:

These new recommendations do little in the way of upsetting the old, with minor variations and clarifications for older adults and young children. And the numbers may vary among people with medical conditions, and among the few outliers who still function optimally outside of these ranges. But these are the amounts that the panel wants people to consider “rules of thumb.” The issuance of new guidelines, however familiar they are, serves at least in an effort toward awareness amid an ongoing public-health effort to rebrand sleep deprivation as less of a testament to mettle and more of a serious medical hazard.

The evidence against too much sleep is not as strong as the evidence against too little, though getting too much sleep has been linked with increased risk of near-term mortality. Still some experts argue that it’s unclear if sleeping beyond nine hours is inherently dangerous to adults. In relation to poor health and failure to thrive, deviating from these sleep ranges can either be a cause or an effect.

In practical terms, the panel also reminds people, familiarly, of the benefits of avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed, exercising as a means to better sleep, and the reprehensibility of bringing a phone into bed. Because ultimately, the National Sleep Foundation implores us today, evoking the scythe: “Humans, like all animals, need sleep, along with food, water, and oxygen, to survive.”

Speaking for myself, seven hours seems to be the magic number. Any more or less and I feel “off” in some way. I can also attest to the importance of avoiding technology — especially screens — at least an hour before bed. Since I have cut back on that bad habit (for the most part) and upped my physical activity, I have been enjoying far more restful sleep — which in turn has markedly improved my anxiety, depression, and ability to concentrate.

What have your experiences been?

First Pre-Human Art Discovered

The news is a bit old, but is no less relevant and amazing: for the first time in history, scientists have discovered evidence that our pre-human ancestors had some concept of art — something previously believed to be intrinsic to Homo sapiens. 

As National Geographic reports:

[N]ew analysis of an engraving excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia suggests that it’s at least 430,000 years old—and that it wasn’t made by humans, scientists announced Wednesday. At least it wasn’t made by humans as most people think of them, meaning Homo sapiens.

Rather, the earliest artist appears to have been one of our ancestors, Homo erectus. Hairy and beetle-browed, H. erectus was never before thought to have such talents.

“The origin of such cognition, such abilities,” said archaeologist Josephine Joordens, “is much further back in time than we thought.”

As it turns out, the source of this art — a geometric engraving on mussel shells — had been unearthed over a century ago by a Dutch paleoanthropologist named Eugène Dubois. They were found among the remains of what we now know as Homo erectus, the first hominids of the genus Homo to leave Africa, as well as the foundings members of the family from which modern humans emerged.

It was only seven years ago that Joordens and an Australian anthropologist, Steven Munro, noticed this unusual and clearly deliberate zigzag pattern. They and their team of nearly two dozen researches meticulously determined the shell to be between 430,000 and 540,000 years-old — far earlier than the previously oldest example of art among humans — and were also careful to rule out alternative explanations; a paleoanthropologist from the esteemed Smithsonian Institution also confirmed that the methodology was sound.

Needless to say, the implications this has for human evolution is, to quote Joordens, profound:

It’s generally thought that humans became anatomically and behaviorally modern  between 100,00 and 200,000 years ago, in a relatively quick stroke of evolutionary inspiration.

In subsequent millennia would come cave paintings and sculpted figures, the full flowering of an ostensible cognitive uniqueness reflected in our very name: H. sapiens, or “wise man.” Neanderthals may also have possessed a rich symbolic culture, but theirs was relatively recent, and they are arguably not so evolutionarily distinct from modern humans as H. erectus.

A geometric artmaking H. erectus challenges the narrative of dramatic human exceptionality. “What we think of as typically modern human behavior didn’t suddenly arise, in sparklike fashion,” Joordens said. “Something like that seems to have been in place much earlier.” (Learn more about H. erectus smarts in “Homo Erectus Invented “Modern” Living?”)

Like goods scientists, Joordens and her group are careful with drawing their conclusions too definitively; they avoid terms like “art”, “symbolism”, and “modernity”, even if those things can be reasonably gleaned from this finding. Indeed, despite the caution, they admit that had a similar finding be found among Homo sapiens, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art” (as has been the case).

“This raises the big, hairy question of what is ‘modern human behavior’ all over again,” said paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University.

Indeed, the very notion of modern humans as being cognitively unique is now “up for reconsideration,” said Joordens.

That will likely be argued for years to come. In the meantime, the researchers plan to further study the collection and revisit the excavation site.

“We’re certain we haven’t found everything yet,” Joordens said.

Clearly, the question of what it is to be human will remain an ever-more dynamic and complex one. It may never have a true answer given the larger philosophical and religious variables involved, but it is great to see more evidence to expand our discussion.

The precursor to the sum of human artistic output may have began with humble zigzags on a shell.


Economics and Optimism Around the World

According to research cited by the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of American adults felt their children would be worse off than they are, a sobering testament to the economic malaise and political dysfunction that have been entrenched (if not worsened) these past several years. Who could blame anyone for being so cynical?

But how do other nations compare? Which societies have been brought low by the global recession and the subsequent stagnation, and which ones have managed to remain optimistic? Earlier this month, eminent pollster Pew issued a report that explored these attitudes across dozens of rich and developing countries.

As an article in The Atlantic observed, the findings show a strong connection between economic development, attitudes towards certain economic concepts (like the free market), and thoughts about the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany, South Korea, and the United States are the advanced countries with the most robust support for the market economy. Among emerging markets, Jordan and Argentina are most opposed to the free market. And among developing economies, which are the poorest in Pew’s sample, the market economy is least popular in Uganda and El Salvador, while Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua (another country with a socialist government) report the strongest support.In general, the world is inclined to favor the free market (66 percent of all those surveyed by Pew do), but its greatest supporters are in the poorest countries (80 percent in Bangladesh, 75 percent in Ghana, and 74 percent in Kenya). Among emerging economies, 76 percent of Chinese respondents think people do better in a market economy, and that number remains high in India (72 percent), socialist Venezuela (67 percent), and Brazil (60 percent).

Here is a visual representation of the results:

For comparison, here is how respondents from these countries feel about the future of their countries.

Note the strong optimism among developing countries, especially those in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As The Atlantic notes:

Asia […] is the most optimistic region when it comes to how people view the economic prospects of their children. Europeans and Americans, meanwhile, are quite grim about the future. Pessimism abounds in France, where 86 percent of those surveyed believe that children will be worse off financially than their parents, and the numbers of those who worry about the outlook for younger generations is also high in Japan (79 percent) and Italy (67 percent). In contrast, the expectation that future generations will be better off is widespread in Vietnam (94 percent), China (85 percent), Chile (77 percent), and Bangladesh (71 percent).

Indeed, the following chart shows just much more optimistic Asians are than the rest of the world (although large minorities still remain pessimistic):

So not only does support for the free market correlate with greater optimism, but this pattern applies overwhelmingly to poorer countries. For all their positive views of this economic approach, the average rich-world resident remains skeptical about the future and perhaps doubtful that their vaunted free market is really in place as they would prefer.

I personally suspect that this may have something to do with the rise in inequality, which has been especially well publicized in the rich world, despite being an otherwise global phenomenon. With companies reaping record profits but wages and employment remaining stagnant, even the most enthusiastically pro-business societies like the U.S. cannot help but feel cynical, whatever their support for the principles of the free market.

Indeed, it appears that economic growth was more of a determinant than current economic conditions. Generally, poorer countries are growing faster than richer ones, so even if times are bad now, most residents in the developing world have much to look forward to, especially if they are rising from a much lower base.

So it makes sense why there appears to be a mismatch in optimism between developing and developed countries. Emerging economies probably feel that their support of the free market is being vindicated by growing prosperity, while richer but stagnant states are less optimistic even if they hold true to the ideal of the free market.

Of course, there is the issue of semantics: what exactly is the “free market” in the context of this survey? Like most academic concepts, it is difficult to neatly define, let alone implement in the real world. Moreover, different societies no doubt have different interpretations of it. I imagine Pew accounted for that to some degree, but I am not sure. Just a caveat to keep in mind.

And what about the issue of inequality that I mentioned before? Surely that has an impact on attitudes towards the both free market and the future? Well it does, albeit in an interesting and nuanced way. Citing Pew:

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs.

The top culprit for income inequality cited by publics around the world is their national government’s economic policies. A global median of 29% say their government’s policies are to blame for the gap between the rich and the poor, while the amount workers are paid is a close second at 23%. Globally, people place less blame on the educational system (11%), a lack of individual hard work (10%), trade between countries (8%) and the structure of the tax system (8%).

Advanced economies in particular lean toward the notion that their governments are to blame for inequality (median of 32%). The Greeks (54%), Spanish (52%) and South Koreans (46%) are government’s harshest critics. Significant percentages among advanced economies also fault workers’ wages for the gap between the rich and the poor, including 29% in Japan and 26% each in France and Germany. The Americans and British are two of the few publics to blame individuals’ lack of hard work (24%) about as much as they do their government’s policies (24% in U.S., 23% in UK).

Emerging markets are more divided. Pluralities in nine of the 25 countries surveyed blame their government for inequality in their country, including roughly four-in-ten or more in Ukraine (45%), India (45%), Lebanon (43%), China (43%), Tunisia (43%), Turkey (42%) and Nigeria (39%). Meanwhile, pluralities in another six countries say workers’ wages are the primary scapegoat. Latin American publics – such as Brazilians (44%), Chileans (39%) and Colombians (39%) – are particularly likely to blame inadequate take-home pay for the gap between the rich and poor.

People in developing economies are also split between blaming the government for income inequality in their country and faulting workers’ wages. Pluralities in Kenya (36%), Ghana (29%) and Tanzania (29%) say inequality is their government’s fault, while Salvadorans (32%) tend to blame the amount workers are paid. Nearly equal percentages in the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda say both the government and wages are the culprits. Nicaragua (31%) is the country with the highest percentage who say a lack of individual hard work is the problem.

And what do most respondents think is the solution? Well, given that government is perceived to be the problem, it stands to reason that the most popular solution would be to weaken the public sector in favor of strengthening the private one, as the results indeed show:

Pluralities or majorities in 22 of the 44 countries surveyed say to reduce inequality it is more effective to have low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth rather than high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund programs that help the poor. Publics in 13 countries prefer the high tax option.

Overall, advanced economies (median of 48%) are somewhat more supportive than either developing (40%) or emerging (31%) countries of using high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to address income inequality. The broadest support comes from Germany, where 61% favor using high taxes to fund poverty programs. Roughly half or more in Spain (54%), South Korea (53%), the UK (50%) and the U.S. (49%) agree. In Italy (68%), France (61%) and Greece (50%), opinion leans toward low taxes to encourage investment.In most advanced economies, people who say they are very concerned about inequality are particularly supportive of income redistribution to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

There is also a large ideological divide over taxes in Europe and the U.S. In general, individuals on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prefer high taxes on the wealthy and corporations. For example, 71% of those on the left in Spain support redistribution, compared with 45% of people on the right. In the U.S., 70% of liberals say high taxes are more effective to combat inequality while just 33% of conservatives agree.

The prevailing view in most emerging markets surveyed is that low taxes on the rich and businesses to stimulate growth are a better way to address inequality. Roughly six-in-ten or more express this opinion in Brazil (77%), Argentina (60%), Vietnam (60%) and the Philippines (59%). In just five of the 25 emerging countries do pluralities or majorities pick high taxes as the preferred means of reducing the gap between the rich and poor, including 57% in Jordan, 53% each in Egypt and Chile, 48% in Ukraine and 42% in China.

Developing economies also lean more toward low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment rather than high taxes for redistribution. At least half prefer low taxes in Uganda (64%), Ghana (57%), Kenya (52%) and Nicaragua (52%). El Salvador is the only developing economy where a majority (58%) chooses high taxes.

Again, this reflects greater faith on private sector forces — businesses, entrepreneurs, and civil society — as avenues of prosperity than public ones, namely the state and its policies. Given that corruption and inefficiency are endemic in most developing world governments, such pessimism towards public officialdom is perhaps expected, especially when those societies are otherwise more optimistic about the future and their own economic potential — and thus more wary of historically inept states getting in the way.

The conflicted solutions offered by respondents in richer countries may reflect the fact that both the public and business sectors have been disappointing, with trust in all institutions at a record low. There is plenty of blame to go around, but where does the answer life if both economic and political elites are culpable? That is a question deserving of its own blog altogether, so I will leave that to you all.

Anyway, Pew looked at attitudes to more than just the free market. There is also the universally important matter of how someone gets ahead in life. Participants were asked to rank the importance of several factors of success from zero (“not important”) to 10 (“very important”). The results were largely in favor of “getting a better education”, which 60 percent of respondents checked as maximally important. Here’s the Pew report again:

Among those surveyed in the most advanced economies, Spaniards place the greatest value on education as a factor of success, with 71 percent saying that it is very important. Not so in France, where the value of education was given its lowest marks among all surveyed countries with only 24 percent characterizing education as a critical factor. Ironically, by international standards the quality of education in France is higher than in countries where a much greater percentage felt a good education was a very important precursor to success (86 percent of Venezuelans, for example).

Half of the survey’s respondents believe that “hard work” is very important for success, while 37 percent say the same about “knowing the right people”, 33 percent about being “lucky”, and 20 percent about belonging “to a wealthy family”. Seventeen percent of those polled view being male as critical to success, and just 5 percent feel the same way about giving bribes. The countries where the greatest percentage of people believe that family money is very important for getting ahead in life are Tunisia (46 percent) and Nigeria (45 percent). These are also two of the countries where respondents ranked bribery among the most important determinants of success.

Here are how the results played out from country to country (again, the question was what is most important for getting ahead in life).

Another interesting result to point out: in 32 of the 44 countries surveyed, more men believed that being male was an advantage to success than women. With more women taking change of their economic and political future (as evidenced by higher rates of female employment and civic participation), they feel more hopeful and emboldened that the system can and does work in their favor. But that is just my own (optimistic) speculation.

Still, there does appear to be a consensus across all these different societies: economic prosperity is dependent largely on factors beyond one’s control, an attitude that even the most optimistic countries shared.

Pretty interesting stuff, and a lot to ruminate on. My time is short and my analysis is spotty, so I encourage you all to check out the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As always, I welcome feedback.

Reading Literature Makes You More Empathetic

So not only does reading the classics enrich you culturally, but it may very well better your capacity to understand people.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Pretty interesting stuff. But where exactly do we draw the line between literary fiction and everything else? Well, the answer to that question explains why there seems to be a correlation between reading literature and being more attuned to other people.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

“This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life,” says Castano.

This reminds me of my previous post about the evolutionary importance of art and literature. Not only do they serve as venues for sharing ideas, values, and even practical advice, but they apparently help build up the sort of empathy that is vital to human survival (since empathy in turn furthers cooperation and psychological well-being, which are vital to any high-functioning social species).

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. “But it’s unlikely that it’s going to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

And there’s the upshot: even if the evidence thus far is scant, it’s vital that we take into account the importance of art to societal well-being. Culture exists for a reason: to transmit ideas, prevent boredom, comfort us, and — ultimately — to make us human.


Research Shows That Haters Will, Indeed, Hate

No, it’s not an article from The Onion, but was essentially the conclusion of a recent study reported in Slate. 

In their paper ‘Attitudes Without Objects,’ psychologists Justin Hepler and Dolores Albarracin show that those who already hold a lot of negative views are more likely to react negatively to new stimuli.

This makes intuitive sense, in the same way that someone who is generally cynical will look at most situations or people negatively. But it’s interesting how the researchers tested for this:

The pair asked a group of 200 men and women to evaluate how they felt about various subjects, such as camping, healthcare, architecture, taxidermy, crossword puzzles, and Japan. They took note of the respondents who rated many of these unconnected prompts harshly (the haters). Then, a month later, they asked everyone to weigh in again to control for the possibility that the grumps were just in a bad mood the first time.

After marking the dependably hateful haters with a scarlet H, the researchers presented participants with information about a new product: the “Monahan LPI-800 Compact 2/3-Cubic-Foot 700-Watt Microwave Oven.” This elaborately titled microwave oven does not exist (except in Jack Donaghy’s mind), but participants didn’t know this and were given three glowing fake reviews and three dissatisfied fake reviews. While people who more or less liked taxidermy and crossword puzzles also liked the oven, the haters drenched their fake consumer surveys in haterade. They were also more likely to hate on recycling and vaccine shots. (To be fair, it’s hard to be a ray of sunshine when you’ve got the measles.)

Hepler and Albarracin write:

If individuals differ in the general tendency to like versus dislike objects, an intriguing possibility is that attitudes toward independent objects may actually be related. So someone’s attitude toward architecture may in fact tell us something about their attitude toward health care because both attitudes would be biased by a disposition to like or dislike stimuli.

Interesting stuff. I wonder if the reverse is true: are people who are exceptionally nice and positive more likely to be generous in their judgment of new people, products, and situations they encounter? I suppose this shows why one’s attitude towards the world matters — too much hate or negativity can poison your view on a range of other things in life.

But what are your thoughts?

On “Geek” Versus “Nerd”

I’ve never seen such an academic and in-depth breakdown of subcultures before. This is pretty interesting stuff.


To many people, “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, but in fact they are a little different. Consider the phrase “sports geek” — an occasional substitute for “jock” and perhaps the arch-rival of a “nerd” in high-school folklore. If “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, then “sports geek” might be an oxymoron. (Furthermore, “sports nerd” either doesn’t compute or means something else.)

In my mind, “geek” and “nerd” are related, but capture different dimensions of an intense dedication to a subject:

  • geek – An enthusiast of a particular topic or field. Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.
  • nerd – A studious intellectual, although again of a particular topic or field. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.

Or, to…

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