Does Political Ideology Taint Perceptions About Expertise?

Need more evidence for political hooliganism? Check out the findings from a recent working paper:

Here, we ask whether (dis)similarity in political views interferes with the ability to learn about another person’s competency in an unrelated task (specifically categorizing [geometric] shapes) in a situation in which it is in people’s best interest to learn who excels in the task in order to turn to them for assistance. In the first part of our experiment, participants had an opportunity to learn whether others (i) had similar political opinions to theirs and (ii) how well they did in a task that required learning about shapes. After rating others on these two characteristics, they completed the second part of the experiment, where they decided to whom to turn to for advice when solving the shape task. They were rewarded for accuracy on the task and thus had an economic incentive to turn to the participant who was most skilled at the task. 

We find that (dis)similarity in political views interferes with the ability to make an accurate assessment of people’s expertise in the domain of shapes, which leads to two central outcomes. The first is that people chose to hear about shapes from others who are politically like-minded, even though those people are not especially good at the shape task, rather than to hear from people who excel at the shape task but have different political opinions. The second is that people are more influenced by those with similar political opinions, even when they had the opportunity to learn that those by whom they are influenced are not especially good at the task they are solving. We suspect that these findings are replicated in the real world of political behaviour, and that they help explain a range of phenomena, including the spread of fake news (Friggeri, Adamic, Eckles, & Cheng, 2014; Kahne & Bowyer, 2017), conspiracy theories (Del Vicario et al., 2016), polarization (Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013; Prior, 2007), and insufficient learning in general (Yaniv & Kleinberger, 2000; Yaniv & Milyavsky, 2007) (pg. 3-4).

Perhaps this is another contributor to the death of expertise.

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Says the liberal/conservative layman to the conservative/liberal astrophysicist.

Is Partisanship Driven By Misperceptions About Party Makeup?

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Hooligans = the rabid sports fans of politics

Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan describes political “hooligans” in this way:

Hooligans are the rabid sports fan of politics. They have strong and largely fixed worldviews. They can present arguments for their beliefs, but they cannot explain alternative points of view in a way that people with other views would find satisfactory. Hooligans consume political information, although in a biased way. They tend to seek out information that confirms their preexisting political opinions, but ignore, evade, and reject out of hand evidence that contradicts or disconfirms their preexisting opinions. They may have some trust in the social sciences, but cherry-pick data and tend only to learn about research that supports their own views. They are overconfident in themselves and what they know. Their political opinions form part of their identity, and they are proud to be a member of their political team…Most regular voters, active political participants, activists, registered party members, and politicians are hooligans.

What’s more, voters are overwhelminglyat times astonishinglyignorant. Here’s another study demonstrating this sad state of affairs (from an earlier draft):

Across five studies, we find that people overestimate the degree to which partisans belong to party-stereotypical groups, often vastly so. Even in cases where these groups comprise just a sliver of the population, people report that these groups constitute upwards of 40% of the party they “fit.” And when people are given information about these groups’ shares in the population, the bias in their estimates doesn’t decline, suggesting that people rely on representativeness when making judgments about party composition.

Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, all overestimate the share of party-stereotypical groups in both the major parties. Partisan differences, although statistically significant, are relatively small compared to the overall magnitude of these misperceptions. Even more strikingly, those most interested in politics hold the most skewed perceptions of party composition. One plausible explanation for both of these results is that mediated, impersonal information drives these misperceptions. However, all the evidence we have presented on this point is descriptive. Additional research is needed to assess the extent to which media shape these perceptions.

These misperceptions are also consequential. Experimental evidence suggests that beliefs about out-party composition affect perceptions of where opposing-party supporters stand on the issues. These findings provide a potential explanation for why people tend to overestimate the extremity of opposing partisans. In future extensions, we plan to further investigate whether beliefs about party composition explain the striking finding that people also overestimate the extremity of co-partisans (Ahler 2014; Levendusky and Malhotra 2015). Misperceptions about out-party composition also lead partisans to feel more socially distant from the opposing party. Building on work by Hetherington and Weiler (2009) and Mason and Davis (2015), who find that partisan animus is related to party composition, we experimentally show that people’s beliefs about party composition affect their feelings towards the opposing party.

…The experimental findings support the notion that orientations toward constituent social groups affect how people feel toward the parties, among other things. However, they also show that beliefs about shares of various groups in the parties matter. Thus, while the group identity account makes a compelling case that partisanship is a relatively stable, affective attachment, work in this tradition must grapple more thoroughly with the social cognitions (and cognitive biases) that are relevant to how people reason about politics.

This is especially the case because partisans overestimate the share of party-stereotypical groups in their own party. For instance, many lower- and middle-class Republicans think that their party contains far more rich people than it actually does. This suggests that many partisans like their own parties to the extent they do—a great deal, with average ratings exceeding 80 on the thermometer scale (Iyengar, Sood and Lelkes 2012)—despite believing that the party has a greater share of groups to which they tend not to belong than it actually does. Green, Palmquist and Schickler (2002, p. 8) suggest that partisans choose parties based on “which assemblage of groups” looks like them. While this may still be true, the data suggest that people identify with parties based on which groups they like.

Finally, and most broadly, this research furthers our understanding of people’s perceptions of mass collectives and how these perceptions shape individuals’ own political attitudes. Mutz (1998) describes impersonal influence as the effect of people’s perceptions of what others are experiencing, or what others believe, on their own attitudes and behaviors. We take this one step further and assert that people’s perceptions merely of who belongs to a collective can be a source of impersonal influence—and in this case, a catalyst for partisanship in American politics (pg. 27-28).

I’ll say it again: politics makes us mean and dumb.

Goals Gone Wild…Again

Image result for gooooaaaallllA few years ago, researchers from Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg, and the University of Arizona argued that goal setting was “overprescribed” and featured “powerful and predictable side effects” (pg. 6). While acknowledging past research demonstrates that “specific goals provide clear, unambiguous, and objective means for evaluating…performance” and thus “motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortations” (pg. 7), the researchers found that this intensity of focus on goals can lead to tunnel vision and poor, often unethical decisions. Examples include Sears in the early 1990s, whose sales goals for its auto repair staff led to overcharging and unnecessary repairs. Revenue-based rather than profit-based goals at Enron helped lead to the company’s destruction. A challenging goal (a car “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000”) coupled with a tight deadline at Ford in the late 1960s brought about the easily-combustible Pinto, many deaths and injuries, and expensive lawsuits. These narrow goals crowded out not only ethical behavior, but the broader purpose of the goals themselves. Quality, in essence, is often sacrificed for the quantifiable. Short-term gains are pursued rather than long-term health and growth. Furthermore, such narrow goals create “a focus on ends rather than means…[The researchers] postulate that aggressive goal setting within an organization increases the likelihood of creating an organizational climate ripe for unethical behavior (pg. 10). Narrow goals decrease satisfaction, even with high-quality outcomes, which have negative effects on future behavior. They can also inhibit learning and experimentation with alternative methods, undermine cooperation, and harm intrinsic motivation.

Further research supports these findings, including an October 2017 paper. As reported over at Ethical Systems,

Goal setting is often a subject of discussion about behavioral ethics and internal programs.  We’ve seen in recent cases such as at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen how cheating and lying become the norm when performance goals are not reasonably achievable.  Recent evidence in a paper by Niki den Nieuwenboer, João da Cunha, and ES collaborator Linda Treviño shows the internal dynamics and processes that lead directly to cheating behaviors.  

The researchers, one of which was embedded inside the company, observed managers and sales staff over 15 months at a large (10,000 employees) telecommunications company.  The company had established goals for its desk sales teams designed to motivate productivity, including a target for sales as well as sales-related work, such as making cold calls to customers, and gathering information about potential customers, among other planning activities.

For the senior leaders at the company, these targets were part of a broader– and cost-lowering — strategy of shifting sales staff from the field towards desk jobs.  The field staff cost the company $225 more per customer contact than the sales teams working at desks.  The aim was thus to incentivize desk people to improve efficiency and reduce costs in the long-run.

However, because the desk sales team cheated the internal systems, the company didn’t actually gain the cost savings that it thought it had.  The apparent success of the desk sales team (based on false information) led to upper management reducing the number of field staff sales numbers, which undermined an important sales channel at the firm.

The misconduct was uncovered inadvertently. Originally, one of the researchers was embedded inside the company to observe the implementation of a sales-related IT system.  As he observed and interviewed employees about their use of the system, the scope of the research was soon expanded to include unethical behaviors. He observed that both middle managers and frontline sales staff were aware that the sales goals were unreachable, and that sometimes sales staff tried to push back on pressure from their managers.  When sales targets didn’t budge, the managers got creative to solve their goals, devising strategies to induce the sales staff to cheat the internal systems.  Manager pay was directly tied to whether their direct reports met performance goals hence the need to game the system to safeguard their income.

The managers took advantage of “structural vulnerabilities” in the system. For example, they changed rules such as expanding the definition of “sales calls” so that more types of calls counted towards that goal – case in point, they counted internal calls and emails as “external” sales calls. Some also just logged fictitious information for calls that never occurred.  Other manipulations involved devising IT and administrative schemes that allowed the desk sales teams to take credit for work done by the field sales teams. Additionally, to satisfy the requirement that sales plans be developed for customers, some simply were told to copy and paste plans across various customers, because they knew that very few of them would actually be verified.

Manipulating strategies to meet targets became the norm at the organization.  While employees in the unit were aware of these practices, the managers worked to ensure that word of the deceptive practices didn’t get out to senior leaders or to other units.

To tweak the Keynes/Hayek rap battle a tad, quotas are a means, not the ends in themselves.

Identity Politics and Happiness

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I know they don’t look it, but they’re probably pretty happy people.

Now for something not the least bit surprising. From a recent working paper:

Results show that political affiliations of national politicians, especially the president, have an effect on reported happiness while there is no effect of state, gubernatorial or legislative, party control. Individuals report being happier when the president is a member of their own party, has conservative ideology, and an ideology that matches their individual tastes. Throughout all specifications, republicans and those holding conservative political values report higher happiness. Shockingly, regardless of liberal or conservative political values, those who hold extreme political values report higher levels of happiness. The large effect of partisanship and extreme views support the view that partisanship is a result of social identity and provides a psychological need for certainty and structure.

Economist Arthur Brooks, the soon-to-be-former president of the American Enterprise Institute, made this point years ago in his book Gross National Happiness:

Americans who describe themselves as holding extreme political views–somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population–are among the happiest people in America. All of those angry protesters who denounce Dick Cheney as a murderer; all of the professional political pundits who use the rhetoric of rage and misery to get on cable television–it turns out they’re not miserable at all. On the contrary, they’re enjoying themselves rather a lot. 

In 2004, 35 percent of people who said they were extremely liberal were very happy (versus 22 percent of people who were just liberal). At the same time, a whopping 48 percent of people who were extremely conservative gave this response (compared with 43 percent of nonextreme conservatives). Indeed, the gusto with which Bill Clinton’s attackers in 1998 went after him was really a clue that they were having a grand old time. George W. Bush’s harshest critics–those who have felt the predations of the Bush administration to the very depths of their soul–are quite likely to be a great deal happier than more moderate liberals. 

Why are ideologues so happy? The most plausible reason is religion–not real religion, but rather, a secular substitute in which they believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable. It is easy to live by the creed that our nation’s ills are because of George W. Bush; it is much harder to acknowledge that no administration is perfect–or perfectly awful. True political believers are martyrs after a fashion willing to shout slogans in public for causes they are sure are good, or against causes they are convinced are evil. They are happy because–unlike you, probably–they are positive they are right. No data could change their minds (pgs. 33-34).

In other words, being a political hooligan feels really good, which makes change very unlikely. Unfortunately, as Brooks points out,

the happiness of political extremists is an unhappy fact for America. They may themselves be happy, but they make others unhappy–that is, they actually lower our gross national happiness. In many cases, extremists actually intend to upset people–it is part of their strategy…Extremists are happy to stir up their own ranks, but they are even happier when they cause misery for their political opponents. For people on the far left and right, people who do not share their views are not just mistaken, but bad people, who are also stupid and selfish. They deserve to be unhappy…Extremists thrive on dehumanizing their opponents (pgs. 34-35).

Politics makes us mean and dumb.

Who Are the Most Analytical Voters?

From Tyler Cowen at Bloomberg:

Related imageYou might think that politics is an area where being analytical is especially useful. If you do, well, I have news for you: Libertarians measure as being the most analytical political group. That’s according to something called the cognitive reflection test, which is designed to measure whether an individual will override his or her immediate emotional responses and give a question further consideration. So if you aren’t a libertarian, maybe you ought to give that philosophy another look. It’s a relatively exclusive club, replete with people who are politically engaged, able to handle abstract arguments and capable of deeper reflection.

What else can we learn from this new study of political and analytical tendencies, conducted by Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand of Yale University?

For the 2016 election, one group that measured as especially nonanalytical was Democrats who crossed party lines and voted for Donald Trump. There is a stereotype of a less well-educated voter, perhaps both white and male, who reacts negatively and emotionally to Hillary Clinton, who decided to vote for Trump even if Trump’s actual policies will not prove in his best interest. For all the dangers of stereotyping, the study’s data are consistent with that picture.

Both nonvoters and independents do poorly on the analytic dimension. There is a myth of a reasonable, rational politically independent America, sitting in the middle of the spectrum, weighing arguments carefully and seeing which candidate or party has the better ideas and platform. In reality, that group measures as relatively impulsive and prone to less informed judgments.

If you are a Democrat, you might take some cheer in the fact that Democrats/liberals measure as somewhat more analytical than Republicans/conservatives. But if you take being analytic as a positive mark, you might feel at least a slight tug toward the libertarians. At the very least, you might find it harder to attack or make fun of the Republicans for being intellectually backward, because you as a Democratic liberal no longer sit atop of the totem pole of reason. Note that individuals who are conservative along economic dimensions measure as more analytical than those who are not, again on average. That is a slightly uncomfortable result for those on the left. The opposite is true for social conservatives, by the way: They are less analytical on average.

Cowen is quick to point out that there are analytical people in all camps. He also notes that being analytical can put “you out of touch with the American citizenry…Extremely analytical leaders might be best for managing an organization of predominantly analytical people, but that doesn’t mean they will be good national politicians.”

Check out the full study.

Formula(s) for Success

How does one become an elite performer or successful at work? According to the Greater Good Science Center,

Angela Duckworth, the celebrated psychologist who first defined “grit” as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, has a theory about success. Instead of seeing achievement as simply a byproduct of IQ or intelligence or innate talent, Duckworth sees achievement as the product of skill and effort (Achievement = Skill x Effort) in the same way that we understand that Distance = Speed x Time.

…Tremendous effort can compensate for modest skill, just as tremendous skill can compensate for modest effort, but not if either is zero.  Researchers across diverse fields have produced remarkably consistent findings that back up Duckworth’s theory. They find that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being merely good at something to being truly great.

This is hard for most of us to believe, but K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and author of several landmark studies on this topic, has shown that even most physical advantages (like athletes who have larger hearts or more fast-twitch muscle fibers or more flexible joints—the things that seem the most undeniably genetic) are, in fact, the result of certain types of effort…Even super-skills, like “perfect pitch” in eminent musicians, have been shown to stem from training more than inborn talent. Hard to believe, but entirely true.

…People who rise to greatness tend to have three things in common: 1) They both practice and rest deliberately over time; 2) Their practice is fueled by passion and intrinsic interest; and 3) They wrestle adversity into success.

Elite performers “spend hours upon hours in “deliberate practice.” This isn’t just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives—say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond their reach. In the beginning, they may practice a new phrase or even a single measure again and again and again. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t always pleasurable—far from it. In fact, it is the elite performer’s willingness to engage in hard or, quite often, very boring, practice that distinguishes people who are good at their chosen activity from those who are the very best at it.” They “also practice consistently over a pretty long period of time.”

Image result for violin gif your lie in aprilProper rest is also extremely important. “In his studies of truly great performers, K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist and author of several landmark studies on elite performance…found that they practiced and rested a lot more than their good but not elite peers. For example, violinists destined to become professional soloists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, typically in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes each. Good but not great performers, in contrast, typically practiced an average of 1.4 hours per day, with no deliberate rest breaking up their practice session…The top violins [also] slept an hour a night more than their less-accomplished classmates. They were also far more likely to take a nap between practice sessions—nearly three hours of napping a week.” It turns out that top achievers “sleep significantly more than the average American. On average, Americans get only 6.5 hours of sleep per night. (Even though studies show that 95 percent of the population needs between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.) Elite performers tend to get 8.6 hours of sleep a night; elite athletes need even more sleep. One study showed that when Stanford swimmers increased their sleep time to 10 hours a night, they felt happier, more energetic—and their performance in the pool improved dramatically.”

Failure is also a part of success. “Elite performers turn adversity into success. Most greats don’t just pile up one achievement after the next. Failure is a key part of growth and, eventually, elite performance”:

Failure—and adversity in general—is life’s great teacher. While there might not be anything good in misfortune, as Viktor Frankl wisely reminds us, it is often possible to wrench something good out of misfortune. We know that adverse life-events—a plane crash, a terrorist bombing, breast cancer—can trigger depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress syndrome. But what most of us don’t realize is that posttraumatic growth, as researchers call it, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune—even tragedy—has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose, and in this way, adversity also contributes to the passion part of the grit equation.

Finally, a five-year study of nearly 5,000 managers and employees in the U.S. finds five major strategies for work success and well-being:

  • intensely focusing on few tasks.”
  • “prioritize work that [you] can do well, efficiently, and with great benefit to others.”
  • “engage in collaboration only when it ma[kes] good business sense and when working together [i]s a benefit rather than a hassle.”
  • “success requires the support of others, and the best way to garner that support is to speak to people’s values, interests, and motivations.”
  • combine passion “with a sense of purpose.”

Try testing out these formulas in your own life.

Does More Gender Egalitarianism Reduce Gender Differences?

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Perhaps surprisingly, the answer appears to be “no.” A 2017 study in the International Journal of Psychology found,

Gender differences in most psychological traits—Big Five, Dark Triad, self-esteem, subjective well-being, depression and values—are larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism. Gendered socialization practices, sociopolitical institutions and gender role stereotypes—some of which appear universal across cultures (Low, 1989; Nosek et al., 2009; Williams & Best, 1990)—undoubtedly influence men’s and women’s personalities to some degree (Kring & Gordon, 1998; Twenge, 1997). Nevertheless, the limited evidence reviewed here casts serious doubts on social role theory’s ability to accurately predict and explain cross-cultural variations in the relative size of psychological gender differences. Simply put, when the men and women of a nation perceive the most similar gender roles, receive the most similar gender role socialization, and experience the greatest sociopolitical gender equity, gender differences in personality are almost always at their largest.

Beyond personality traits, similar disconfirmations of social role theory’s cross-cultural predictions have been demonstrated across a variety of human attributes. For instance, gender differences in romantic attitudes and behaviours—including dismissing attachment, intimate partner violence, love, enjoying casual sex and mate preferences for attractiveness—also appear noticeably larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism (Schmitt, 2015; for notable exceptions, see Schmitt, 2005; Zentner & Eagly, 2015). Gender differences in many objectively tested cognitive measures—such as spatial location, spatial rotation and episodic memory abilities—also appear larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism (Silverman, Choi, & Peters, 2007; Weber, Skirbekk, Freund, & Herlitz, 2014). Lippa, Collaer, and Peters (2010) tested spatial rotation abilities in men and women across 40 nations, the largest gender differences in spatial rotation ability were found in Norway, the smallest were found in Pakistan. In a review of gender differences in mathematics test scores within and across cultures, Stoet and Geary (2013) concluded the evidence is mixed, but “If anything, economically developed countries with strong gender-equality and human development scores tended to have a larger sex difference in mathematics” (p. 4). Even gender differences in physical characteristics such as height, obesity and blood pressure are conspicuously larger in cultures with more gender egalitarianism (Schmitt, 2015) (pg. 49).

In short,

the vast weight of the extant evidence suggests the relatively large gender differences observed in Northern European nations are unlikely to be the result of psychological blank slates in boys and girls being written on by especially potent gender role socialization practices or especially strong sociopolitical patriarchy within Scandinavian cultures. Instead, psychological gender differences—in Big Five traits, Dark Triad traits, self-esteem, subjective well-being, depression and values—are demonstrably the largest in cultures with the lowest levels of bifurcated gender role socialization or sociopolitical patriarchy. Ultimately, the view that men and women start from a blank slate simply does not jibe with the current findings, and scholars who continue to assert gender invariably starts from a psychological blank slate should find these recurring cross-cultural patterns challenging to their foundational assumptions (pg. 50).

The researchers conclude,

It is undeniably true that men and women are more similar than different genetically, physically and psychologically. Even so, important gender differences in personality exist that likely stem, at least in part, from evolved psychological adaptations. Some of these adaptations generate culturally-universal gender differences, and many are further designed to be sensitive to local socioecological contexts in ways that facultatively generate varying sizes of gender differences across cultures. It is also true evolved gender differences in personality can be accentuated or attenuated by factors that have little to do with evolved sensitivities to socioecological contexts (Schmitt, 2015). Even gender differences in our bones can embody peculiarities of local cultural forms (Fausto-Sterling, 2005). To shift away from the dominant gender difference paradigm in psychological science—the view that perceived gender roles, gendered socialization and patriarchal sociocultural institutions are the primary causes of psychological gender differentiation (also called the Standard Social Science Model; Tooby & Cosmides,1992)—will no doubt take some time (pg. 52).

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The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #3

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m once again behind on my book reviews, so here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, their descriptions, and accompanying videos.

Image result for religious literacyStephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t (HarperCollins, 2007): “The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.

  • Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.

Despite this lack of basic knowledge, politicians and pundits continue to root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric whose meanings are missed—or misinterpreted—by the vast majority of Americans. “We have a major civic problem on our hands,” says religion scholar Stephen Prothero. He makes the provocative case that to remedy this problem, we should return to teaching religion in the public schools. Alongside “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” religion ought to become the “Fourth R” of American education. Many believe that America’s descent into religious illiteracy was the doing of activist judges and secularists hell-bent on banishing religion from the public square. Prothero reveals that this is a profound misunderstanding. “In one of the great ironies of American religious history,” Prothero writes, “it was the nation’s most fervent people of faith who steered us down the road to religious illiteracy. Just how that happened is one of the stories this book has to tell.” Prothero avoids the trap of religious relativism by addressing both the core tenets of the world’s major religions and the real differences among them. Complete with a dictionary of the key beliefs, characters, and stories of Christianity, Islam, and other religions, Religious Literacy reveals what every American needs to know in order to confront the domestic and foreign challenges facing this country today” (Amazon).

Image result for the 16 strivings for godSteven Reiss, The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experience (Mercer University Press, 2015): “This ground-breaking work will change the way we understand religion. Period. Previous scholars such as Freud, James, Durkheim, and Maslow did not successfully identify the essence of religion as fear of death, mysticism, sacredness, communal bonding, magic, or peak experiences because religion has no single essence. Religion is about the values motivated by the sixteen basic desires of human nature. It has mass appeal because it accommodates the values of people with opposite personality traits. This is the first comprehensive theory of the psychology of religion that can be scientifically verified. Reiss proposes a peer-reviewed, original theory of mysticism, asceticism, spiritual personality, and hundreds of religious beliefs and practices. Written for serious readers and anyone interested in psychology and religion (especially their own), this eminently readable book will revolutionize the psychology of religious experience by exploring the motivations and characteristics of the individual in their religious life” (Amazon).

Image result for free meleAlfred R. Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2014): “Does free will exist? The question has fueled heated debates spanning from philosophy to psychology and religion. The answer has major implications, and the stakes are high. To put it in the simple terms that have come to dominate these debates, if we are free to make our own decisions, we are accountable for what we do, and if we aren’t free, we’re off the hook. There are neuroscientists who claim that our decisions are made unconsciously and are therefore outside of our control and social psychologists who argue that myriad imperceptible factors influence even our minor decisions to the extent that there is no room for free will. According to philosopher Alfred R. Mele, what they point to as hard and fast evidence that free will cannot exist actually leaves much room for doubt. If we look more closely at the major experiments that free will deniers cite, we can see large gaps where the light of possibility shines through. In Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, Mele lays out his opponents’ experiments simply and clearly, and proceeds to debunk their supposed findings, one by one, explaining how the experiments don’t provide the solid evidence for which they have been touted. There is powerful evidence that conscious decisions play an important role in our lives, and knowledge about situational influences can allow people to respond to those influences rationally rather than with blind obedience. Mele also explores the meaning and ramifications of free will. What, exactly, does it mean to have free will — is it a state of our soul, or an undefinable openness to alternative decisions? Is it something natural and practical that is closely tied to moral responsibility? Since evidence suggests that denying the existence of free will actually encourages bad behavior, we have a duty to give it a fair chance” (Amazon).

Image result for human capitalismBrink Lindsey, Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter–and More Unequal (Princeton University Press, 2013): “What explains the growing class divide between the well educated and everybody else? Noted author Brink Lindsey, a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, argues that it’s because economic expansion is creating an increasingly complex world in which only a minority with the right knowledge and skills–the right “human capital”–reap the majority of the economic rewards. The complexity of today’s economy is not only making these lucky elites richer–it is also making them smarter. As the economy makes ever-greater demands on their minds, the successful are making ever-greater investments in education and other ways of increasing their human capital, expanding their cognitive skills and leading them to still higher levels of success. But unfortunately, even as the rich are securely riding this virtuous cycle, the poor are trapped in a vicious one, as a lack of human capital leads to family breakdown, unemployment, dysfunction, and further erosion of knowledge and skills. In this brief, clear, and forthright eBook original, Lindsey shows how economic growth is creating unprecedented levels of human capital–and suggests how the huge benefits of this development can be spread beyond those who are already enjoying its rewards” (Amazon).

Image result for better than beforeGretchen Rubin, Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life (Broadway Books, 2015): “How do we change? Gretchen Rubin’s answer: through habits. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. It takes work to make a habit, but once that habit is set, we can harness the energy of habits to build happier, stronger, more productive lives. So if habits are a key to change, then what we really need to know is: How do we change our habitsBetter than Before answers that question. It presents a practical, concrete framework to allow readers to understand their habits—and to change them for good. Infused with Rubin’s compelling voice, rigorous research, and easy humor, and packed with vivid stories of lives transformed, Better than Before explains the (sometimes counter-intuitive) core principles of habit formation. Along the way, Rubin uses herself as guinea pig, tests her theories on family and friends, and answers readers’ most pressing questions—oddly, questions that other writers and researchers tend to ignore:

• Why do I find it tough to create a habit for something I love to do?
• Sometimes I can change a habit overnight, and sometimes I can’t change a habit, no matter how hard I try. Why?
• How quickly can I change a habit?
• What can I do to make sure I stick to a new habit?
• How can I help someone else change a habit?
• Why can I keep habits that benefit others, but can’t make habits that are just for me?

Whether readers want to get more sleep, stop checking their devices, maintain a healthy weight, or finish an important project, habits make change possible. Reading just a few chapters of Better Than Before will make readers eager to start work on their own habits—even before they’ve finished the book” (Amazon).

Image result for the hikeDrew Magary, The Hike: A Novel (Penguin, 2016): “When Ben, a suburban family man, takes a business trip to rural Pennsylvania, he decides to spend the afternoon before his dinner meeting on a short hike. Once he sets out into the woods behind his hotel, he quickly comes to realize that the path he has chosen cannot be given up easily. With no choice but to move forward, Ben finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a world of man-eating giants, bizarre demons, and colossal insects. On a quest of epic, life-or-death proportions, Ben finds help comes in some of the most unexpected forms, including a profane crustacean and a variety of magical objects, tools, and potions. Desperate to return to his family, Ben is determined to track down the “Producer,” the creator of the world in which he is being held hostage and the only one who can free him from the path. At once bitingly funny and emotionally absorbing, Magary’s novel is a remarkably unique addition to the contemporary fantasy genre, one that draws as easily from the world of classic folk tales as it does from video games. In The Hike, Magary takes readers on a daring odyssey away from our day-to-day grind and transports them into an enthralling world propelled by heart, imagination, and survival” (Amazon).

You Are Not Morally Superior

From NPR:

Image result for i'm such a good person gifA new study by Ben Tappin and Ryan McKay, forthcoming in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, follows previous work in finding that the tendency towards self-enhancement — towards judging ourselves “better than average” — is particularly acute in the moral domain. We think we’re more sociable and cooperative than average, but we’re especially inclined to think that we’re more honest and fair. The study takes a step beyond prior work, however, in trying to quantify the extent to which this moral self-enhancement might be justified.

The argument goes something like this. Not all self-enhancement is unjustified, because people have more information about themselves than they do about others…For their sample of 270 adult participants, Tappin and McKay quantified the extent to which self-enhancement was potentially justified by developing a model that took into account people’s judgments about themselves versus others across a range of 30 traits, the actual differences between self versus others in ratings for those traits, and people’s judgments about the desirability of each trait. Based on this analysis, they could estimate the extent to which self-enhancement was simply a consequence of making an uncertain inference about others, and the extent to which self-enhancement reflected a systematic bias to over-attribute desirable traits to oneself.

The analysis revealed that by and large, moral self-enhancement isn’t a simple consequence of drawing inferences from limited information. Whereas self-enhancement regarding social traits — such as sociability or warmth — could be entirely explained by the component of their model based on uncertain inference, moral self-enhancement went well beyond what could be justified in this way. In other words, the extent of people’s moral self-enhancement appears to be unjustified.

So why do we have such inflated egos?

Image result for i'm a good person gifOne possibility is that we over-attribute positive traits to ourselves because the hit in accuracy is compensated by a boost in wellbeing. Thinking of ourselves as honest and warm, this story goes, could make us feel better about ourselves and our lives. And given that moral characteristics are especially key to identity, the effect could be greater for moral traits than for traits of other kinds.

Consistent with this idea, the researchers found that the magnitude of unjustified self-enhancement for social traits (such as sociability and warmth) was positively associated with self-esteem. But for moral traits (such as honesty and fairness), this wasn’t the case: There was no association between the magnitude of unjustified self-enhancement for moral traits and participants’ self-esteem.

A second possibility is that people aren’t overestimating their own moral virtue, but instead underestimating the moral virtue of others. In this view, the hit in accuracy that comes from regarding others less favorably than ourselves is compensated by a decreased probability of making a costly error: the error of assuming another person will be honest or fair when they’re not. Mistakenly assuming that another person is sociable or warm, by contrast, is less likely to be deadly.

In other words, we lie to ourselves to make us feel better or we have seriously misjudged everyone else. Neither speaks well of us.

The Story Behind Sexual Assaults: Power Corrupts

The list of prominent men who stand credibly accused of sexually assaulting women and children just keeps growing. Just today, Kevin Spacey and Neil DeGrasse Tyson got added to it.

In my cynical moments, I agree with Malcolm Reynolds

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Well, then you clearly missed the Wall Street Journal’s review of the Gandhi biography Great Soul which described (among many unsavory aspects of his life, from hypocrisy to outright racism) how “when he was in his 70s and close to leading India to ­independence, he [Gandhi] encouraged his ­17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her “nightly cuddles” with him.” If this is Gandhi, what did we expect from Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby? Perhaps our world is structured so that the people who get the statues built after them are the people willing to step on others to get there. After all, the blood on the hands of villains and the blood on the hands of saints is still the same color.

But there are two silver linings to the floodgates of accusations we’re now witnessing. The first is the most obvious: these men aren’t getting away with it anymore. For every famous icon who is shamed and punished, I hope there are dozens or hundreds of predators out there who begin to act with decency out of a sense of fear and self-preservation. I hope women are safer today than they were yesterday because of the courage of these women to come forward and name their attackers, and because a complicit and corrupt media has finally been shamed into covering the story.

The second is not as frequently commented on. That is the fact that the perpetrators defy partisan explanation. We’ve got a Republican presidenta Holocaust survivor, a famous gay actor (that’d be Kevin Spacey), a scientist known for his views on global warming and atheism (DeGrasse Tyson), one of the mega-pundits of conservatism, and of course Harvey Weinstein was a major Democratic fundraiser. Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, black or white, the list of predators confounds just about every conceivable partisan breakdown. And if you think your particular partisan niche is safe, just wait. Because here are a couple of inviolable rules of human nature. The first is that men–yes, men in particular–are driven by sexual desire. The second is that power tends to corrupt. This means that when men have the power to coerce victims and get away with it, quite a lot of them will do so.

This has long been my problem with so-called “rape culture” criticism. The term “rape culture” implies that there is some kind of special, unusual set of assumptions required to create an environment in which sexual assault flourishes. It is a tragically naive view that the default, natural state of human beings is to be kind and nice to each other, and if only we could get rid of these ideological perversions–the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, whatever–and return society to its default, natural state then rape would go away.

But analyzing rape and sexual assault through a political lens has always been a lost cause, because the origins of sexual assault are not political or ideological. It does not require some kind of special philosophy, culture, or ideology to allow sexual assault to flourish. Rape culture is not some kind of aberration. It is the default. Civilization is the exception.

Some people have expressed surprise or even skepticism at the #MeToo campaign. I have not. For whatever reason, when I was growing up I was the kind of person people liked to confide in. So many of my female friends told me of the times they had been sexually assaulted (up to and including rape) that I have long supposed that a woman who hasn’t been sexually assaulted is very, very rare.

The reality is that men as predators are not exceptions or aberrations. It doesn’t take a specific culture for rapists to flourish. That’s the default. It takes a specific culture to counteract the natural tendency towards exploitation and abuse. It takes unnatural institutions like criminal justice systems alongside unnatural concepts such as honor and duty and sacrifice to create an environment where rape is suppressed.

If there’s one thing that I hope we can learn from these horrific revelations: this is it. That the ideas that men and women are interchangeable or that moral violations are political are bad ideas. They are political dogmas that fly in the face of common sense, science, and–most importantly–that consistently sabotage our efforts to build an anti-rape culture. Because we should be less concerned with tearing down rape culture and more concerned with building up anti-rape culture. We should be less concerned with teaching about consent–which is a horrifically low bar–and more concerned with teaching ideals of respect, honor, virtue, and love. We should be less concerned with sexual liberation and more concerned with discipline and self-control. Yes, I realize that the idea of teaching adolescents concepts like chastity and self-control sounds laughable today.

That’s why we’re here.

There will never come a day when rape does not exist in our society for the same reason that there will never come a day when theft and murder do not exist. But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to tolerate this degree of profligate harassment and exploitation, either. It doesn’t mean we have to do nothing or accept the status quo. We do not.

What does this look like in practice? I don’t think Weinstein was confused about consent. Teaching him the concept would have accomplished nothing. But teaching him about chastity would not have done an iota more good than teaching about consent. However, a society that still had some appreciation for ideals of chastity, fidelity, self-control, and what used to be called “decency” would be a much more hostile environment for predators. We live in a country where the President of the United States could coerce a young intern into a sexual relationship and instead of being viewed as a universal affront to civilization it became a partisan issue. The day we decided Bill Clinton’s abuse and exploitation of women was somehow his personal business and decided to rehabilitate a serial sexual abusesr and accused rapist into some kind of grandfatherly political icon was the day that we told every Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the world: go ahead. It’s open season. As long as you’re powerful enough, we’ll look the other way.

If we returned to old-fashioned concepts of honor, propriety, and decency maybe some boys would grow up to be better men and never assault women. I believe that would happen. But–worst case scenario–at least we could take away the horrific sense of entitlement that men of power are currently operating under. Because, as great as it is for the current crop of serial abusers to get taken out, as long as the underlying assumptions of our society remain unchallenged, the only thing that will change is that the next generation of predators will be smarter than the last.