There is an Indigo Girls song called Galileo that references a fear of motion (00:01:19 into the song) and suggests that the source of this particular fear is from “some other fool across the ocean years ago [having] crashed his little airplane.”  In the song, the means of transmission of this fear is reincarnation, which according to is “the belief that the soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form.”  Such claims lie outside the measurable parameters of science and are dubious.  However, recent research is suggesting that perhaps some fears are indeed transferable across generations.  How can this be?


First, lets consider the life-cycle of a butterfly which commences as an egg laid by a mature butterfly.  The egg hatches and a caterpillar (the larval stage) begins consumption of copious amounts of foliage (molting as he grows) in preparation for one of life’s most mysterious transitions.  When the caterpillar is ready for its amazing metamorphosis, it cocoons itself into a chrysalis.  During this phase the caterpillar essentially digests itself becoming a sack of ooze.  It doesn’t transition from caterpillar into a butterfly by simply sprouting wings.  Nope, it breaks down into a primordial soup and starts a remod from component cells called imaginal discs.  These stem cells of sorts, comprised of just a small number of organized cells, ultimately reconfigure the sack of melted ooze into a fully functional butterfly.  Although the imaginal discs have their beginnings in the egg stage, they remain essentially invisible but preparatory for the butterfly stage throughout the larval stage.  They jump into rigorous reconstruction mode while in the chrysalis.  This same process occurs in moths as well.


Life Cycle of a Butterfly

Life Cycle of a Butterfly


Life itself ceases for the caterpillar as it pupates in the chrysalis.  It stops breathing, its heart stops beating: its muscles, skin and brain, legs, and antennae, all melt down, becoming liquid fodder for the resurrection.  It’s not simply a transition – it’s a death and a rebirth.


So, you may be asking, how is this relevant?  Let’s consider some amazing research by Martha Weiss, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University.   Her research focuses on evolutionary ecology, plant-animal interactions, butterfly and wasp learning, and caterpillar behavior.  One of her studies looked at whether learning during the caterpillar stage would make it across the pupal stage and be evidenced by the moth, despite the death and liquefication of the entire caterpillar.  Such maintenance of memory was largely considered impossible.  In her study, Dr. Weiss exposed caterpillars to a clearly distinguishable, but neutral odor, and then she paired the odor with a mild electric shock.  Pretty quickly, after many repeated pairings,  the caterpillars developed an aversion and a subsequent escape behavior, associated with the odor.  They came to fear it.


Following the pairing sessions and demonstration of learning, the caterpillars pupated.  Just over one month later, as mature moths, when exposed to the conditioned odor, the moths demonstrated a strong aversion to what would normally be a neutral stimuli.   In this study there were also subjects that constituted the control group.  The control moths were, when in the caterpillar stage, exposed to the odor but were not shocked.  They never exhibited a definitive aversion to the odor (as caterpillars or moths).  The caterpillars that were shocked, when presented with the odor, sustained the aversion even after pupating.  The memory made it through the metamorphosis even though the caterpillar had died and the brain turned to goo in the meantime.


This is remarkable – and suggests that memories are capable of being sustained across the death of the caterpillar and the rebirth (probably as a result of the data sustained in the imaginal disks).  As amazing as this is, such memories were not transmitted from adult moths through to the egg and onto subsequent generations of  caterpillars.   So memories can transcend metamorphosis, but is there any evidence of the capacity to sustain memories across generational lines like that implied by the Indigo Girls?


Researchers Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta used a similar research design with mice, whereby adult mice were trained to have an aversive response to the aroma of cherry blossoms.  They repeatedly paired this particular odor with electrical shocks and the mice subsequently learned, through classical conditioning, to fear the conditioned odor.  Unlike moths, mice procreate through intercourse, gestation, and give live birth to baby mice.  There is no metamorphosis, although gestation is a pretty amazing process in its own right.  Anyways, Dias and Ressler breed the mice who had developed the aversion and tested to determine whether their offspring also feared the conditioned stimuli (aroma of cherry blossom).


As it turns out, the offspring and their offspring evidenced an aversion to the cherry blossom odor despite never having been exposed to it or shocked.  The fear appears to have been handed down across generations through a process called epigentics.  Epigentic methylation results in changes in the DNA of the parent prior to conception that are then conferred to their offspring through sexual reproduction.


Granted this has not been scientifically evidenced in humans as yet, but the implications of these findings are staggering. This suggests that DNA is not immutable: that in fact, what happens to a parent prior to conception, can alter his or her DNA, and that those changes can be handed down across multiple generations.  Epigentics is well established and this process is increasingly understood.  But evidence of trans-generational fear responses have not been likewise so well substantiated.  This ability had been seriously doubted.  It is now conceivable that a survivor of a plane crash may later produce offspring who themselves have a subsequent fear of flying.  This may explain human phobic responses to spiders, snakes, heights, and other irrational fears that were previously unexplainable.


This makes me think of my previous article titled Irrational Fear: It’s Just an Alief.  In that article I wrote:


Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon.  She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be.  An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence.  Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces.  But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them.  This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness.  They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.


To call such fears an Alief just gives it a name.  The underpinnings of such fears have been vague and speculative.  The findings of Dias and Ressler provide a testable hypothesis for such phenomena.  And now, when I stand at an intimidating precipice, I can speculate that my fear stems from an incident experienced by unfortunate kin rather than from random bad karma.




1. Blackiston DJ, Silva Casey E, Weiss MR (2008) Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar? PLoS ONE 3(3): e1736. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001736


2. Dias BG, Ressler KJ (2014). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience (17):89–96. 


3. Jabr F. (2012) How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Scientific American


4. Radio Lab (2014)  Black Box.

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Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2013, the traffic to my site remained relatively vigorous.  Throughout 2013 my blog had 24,007 hits from 21,042 unique visitors, accounting for nearly 30,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and 158 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, Australia, India, China, and Germany also brought in large contingents.


Of my posts published in 2013, none made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010,  four were published in 2011, and one was from 2012.  This year the top ranked article (The Moral Instinct) was a 2010 review of a very popular 2008 New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker.   This perennially popular piece ranked 5th last year, 4th in 2011 and 3rd in 2010.   Its bounce to the top this year is more of a testament to Pinker and the popularity of his piece that explores the universality of morals.  In that piece I wrote:


Pinker delves into the neurological factors associated with morality and the evolutionary evidence and arguments for an instinctual morality. He reviews several important studies that provide evidence for these hypotheses. But, he argues that morality is more than an inheritance – it is larger than that. It is contextually driven. He notes: “At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. ” He further contends “But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground.


This article may have also remained popular because of its relevance with regard to the state of affairs in today’s political arena and the application of Jonathon Haidt’s increasingly popular work on the Moral Foundations Theory.  


The 2013 number two ranked piece Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is, is a review of one of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous articles where he argued that there is no evidence of morality in nature, that in fact “nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral” (Gould).  Historically this has been a controversial topic and remains so in certain circles today.  This piece has remained popular over the years – ranking 4th last year and 2nd in 2011 and 2010.


Brain MRI

Brain MRI

Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the 3rd ranking post this year ranked 2nd last year and 1st in 2011. This very popular piece takes a pragmatic, comparative, and colorful look at the various ways of measuring brain activity.  My 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  is finally getting some attention.  Although it ranked 10th last year, it has climbed into the number four slot this year.  I contend that this is perhaps one of the most important articles I have written.


Proud as a Peacock  By Mark Melnick

Proud as a Peacock By Mark Melnick

My critical article on the widely used Implicit Associations Test ranked 5th this year, 6th in 2012, and 4th in 2011. Last year’s number one piece on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail  is one of my favorite pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock’s tail).


I am excited to report that Poverty is a Neurotoxin is also finally gaining some traction.  Published in 2011 it has never achieved a top ranking; although, in my humble opinion, it is no less important.  Rounding out the top ten of 2013, my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked 8th this year, 9th last year, and 10th in 2011. One of my all time favorite posts from 2010,  What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule made it back to the top ten list this year coming in 9th.  It was 7th in 2011 and 8th in 2010.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked 10th this year, 7th last year, and 5th in 2011.


So here is the Top Ten list for 2013.


  1. Moral Instinct  (2010) 4182 page views since published – All time ranking #5
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010) 4616 page views since published – All time ranking #3
  3. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011) 7941 page views since published – All time ranking #1
  4. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012) 1719 page views since published – All time ranking #8
  5. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010) 2572 page views since published – All time ranking #6
  6. Conspicuous Consumption & the Peacock’s Tail (2011) 7677 page views since published – All time ranking #2
  7. Poverty is a Neurotoxin (2011) 960 page views since published – All time ranking #18
  8. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010) 1702 page views since published – All time ranking #9
  9. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule (2010) 1381 page views since published – All time ranking #12
  10. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011) 1625 page views since published – All time ranking #10


Rounding out the top ten All Time Most Popular Pieces are:



These top ranking articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.


There are several other 2013 posts that ranked outside this year’s top ten list; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:


  1. get out of jail free cardMind Pops: Memories from out of the Blue
  2. Who Cheats More: The Rich or the Poor?
  3. Crime, Punishment, and Entitlement: A Deeper Look
  4. Cheaters
  5. American Exceptionalism: I’m all for it!
  6. Partisan Belief Superiority and Dogmatism as a Source of Political Gridlock


Maintaining relevance is an article, published in 2012, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth: Our Microbiome, pertains to the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms (bacteria for the most part) thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiotic ecosystem as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).  I have continued to update this piece with comments including links to new research on this topic.

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)


Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.



The bottom line:


The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human-kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions (intuitions) have sustained us, and in many ways they still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.


Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:


“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.


Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover what is indeed true.


The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.



Are you sick and tired of politicians and their antics throughout the United States? Regardless of your political orientation, this is likely the case.  Over the last 20 years there has been a rising tide of bitter partisanship, leaving a large contingent of US Citizens feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.  Meanwhile both parties point their fingers at their adversaries proclaiming that it is the ideological extremism of the other party causing the divide.   The liberals are accused of promoting socialistic policies while the conservatives are accused of acquiescing to religious and corporate interests.


Underlying this partisanship are two driving concepts, dogmatism and belief superiorityDogmatism is generally conceptualized as ideological rigidity.  This is characterized by the holding of beliefs as “incontrovertible and sacrosanct,”with a conviction that the beliefs cannot, and should not, be abandoned.  Belief superiority, on the other hand, is self defining but it lacks the rigidity factor.  One can hold a belief as being superior to the beliefs of others, but be willing to modify that belief based on evidence or changing societal values.


Some contend that both liberals and conservatives at the polar ends of the political spectrum are ideological extremists and thus are more likely to be dogmatic.  This position is known as the Ideological-Extremist Hypothesis.  Another perspective, held by many, is the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis, that contends that conservatives tend to score higher than liberals on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and closed-mindedness.  Naturally, the issue is more nuanced than this.  These issues have been studied and published in a paper by Toner, Leary, Asher, and Jongman-Sereno (2013) titled Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority.   Toner et al., (2013) contend that:


“Not only do individuals – liberals and conservative alike – vary in the issues about which they feel superior, but also evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives may be dogmatic about different issues.  For example compared to conservatives, liberals are more dogmatic about global warming, equally dogmatic about civil unions, and less dogmatic about affirmative action.” 1


Measuring both belief superiority and dogmatism, Toner and her colleagues attempted to assess the veracity of both the Rigidity of the Right and the Ideological Extremism Hypotheses.   They did this through an online questionnaire service whereby they collected data on 527 subjects (55% male, 49% with some college, ages 18-67 years with a mean age of 30.7).  Three questionnaires were completed by each participant including: 1) an issues oriented set of questions quantifying attitudes on nine contentious political topics –  thereby determining their political sensibilities on a conservative-liberal spectrum; 2) a superiority of belief measure assessing the degree of certainty of correctness on each issue, and 3) a measure of dogmatic thinking.  Co-author Mark Leary  noted that they: “… examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.2


Consistent with previous research findings, those espousing more conservative attitudes scored significantly higher on the dogmatism scale.   Thus the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis was supported while the Ideological Extremism hypothesis was unsubstantiated.  In other words, extreme conservatives scored much higher on the dogmatism scale than did extreme liberals.  With regard to belief superiority, both conservatives and liberals demonstrated this attribute, but on different topics (see Figure 2 below from Toner, et al., 2013).  Specifically, people who endorsed conservative attitudes expressed greater belief superiority than did liberals when asked about voter identification laws, affirmative action, and taxes.  Liberals demonstrated greater belief superiority on the issues pertaining to the role in government in helping the less fortunate, the use of torture on terrorists, and the basing of laws on religious teachings.  The more “extreme” one’s attitudes were, the greater their belief superiority tended to be.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 6.54.54 PM

As this study and a number of previous studies have provided evidence for, dogmatism tends to be associated with those at the conservative end of the spectrum.  Meanwhile, belief superiority is more specific to the issues and is evident at both ends of the spectrum.  Toner et al., (2013) note:


“… belief superiority does not include the unchanging, inflexible element implied by dogmatism.  Thus, people who endorse extremely liberal views may feel as equally superior in their beliefs as those endorsing extremely conservative views, but they might be more likely to adjust their views over time with changes in evidence, social norms, or other people’s influence.”1


History is filled with travesties perpetrated by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum promoting egalitarian (liberal), individualistic (conservative), and/or religious agendas.   As Toner et al., (2013) suggest, strong beliefs based in evidence may be reasonable and justified.  It is dogmatism, regardless of what belief system that it emanates from, which constitutes danger. Dangerous yes, but more relevant today is the reality that such bombast results in gridlock.  These mindsets help explain the current US governmental stalemate as Toner noted in an interview for Duke Today: “These findings help to explain why politicians with more extreme views can’t reach across the aisle.  As more extreme candidates get elected to Congress, compromise becomes more difficult and deadlocks increase because those with more extreme views are more certain that they are right.”2


Although certainty and confidence are attractive in leaders, it is exactly these very attributes that render politicians ineffective.  Life and society are complicated.  There are no easy solutions.  What I took away from this study is that we need collaboration among diverse and intelligent thinkers who are unencumbered by dogmatism and extremist ideology.  We, as a people, must stop feeding into the vitriolic nature of politics and look for leaders who are more willing to work together to solve complex problems.  We must stop feeding the monster, before it eats us up.  One important way to end this is to stop attending to extremist political pundits who stir up hatred and polarize politics.  We all know who these pundits are.  The reality is that media driven hatred and fear mongering drives these phenomena and it is commercial Television and Radio that gives these pundits a platform.  Perhaps it is time to hit their corporate sponsors as they are complicit in spoiling the well.




1. Toner, K., Leary,  M. R., Asher, M. W., & Jongman-Sereno, K. P. (2013).  Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848


2.  Duke Today. (2013). Belief Superiority is Bipartisan


Also See:


American Exceptionalism: I’m All For It!


The Illusion of Punditry


Political Divide


Moral Foundations Theory


Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?






It is often argued that the United States is exceptional with regard to its capabilities and responsibilities.  With respect to its military prowess, and defense budget, it is certainly exceptional.  I am curious however.  To what extent is the US exceptional in other important ways?  Is the US the envy of the world with regard to its educational system and its healthcare?  How safe are Americans?  Further, does America prove exceptional with regard to issues such as equality, democracy, and opportunity?  I for one, am all for being exceptional.  Shouldn’t we strive for superiority in all these areas?  Is not a person’s character judged based on variables other than one’s physical strength?  Are not issues such as kindness, fairness, and morality given important consideration when we evaluate each other?  I suggest that nations too should be judged on these issues.  We as a people certainly judge other nations based on these attributes.


So, how does the US compare to other wealthy and developed nations on these important issues?  Let us take a closer look.  By far, the best accessible and concise analysis of this question is contained in The Measure of a Nation by Howard Steven Friedman.  Dr. Friedman is a prominent statistician and health economist at the United Nations and he teaches at Columbia University.  Measure of a Nation was named by Jared Diamond (author of Pulitzer Prize winning Guns Germs and Steel) as the best book of 2012 in an interview published in the New York Times.  I have to agree with Diamond’s opinion.  Friedman’s book is a data driven assessment of 14 nations, each meeting specific criteria for population (at least 10 million) and wealth (mean GDP at least $20,000).   Friedman methodically and carefully analyzes data from each nation and creates a relative ranking system whereby each nation is evaluated on diverse issues such as Health, Safety, Education, Democracy, and Equality.  The comparison countries include: UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Australia, Korea, and Japan.


Friedman’s book constitutes an ambitious undertaking and he is careful to be clear about the pitfalls associated with the measures and analyses used.  In the end however, as a skilled statistician and economist, he was able to pull together a clear and concise  comparative ranking system that factually answers the question – “Is America Exceptional?”


He are the rankings:

Data is from The Measure of a Nation, by Howard Steven Friedman

Data is from The Measure of a Nation, by Howard Steven Friedman


I don’t know about you, but I was appalled by these findings.   The US comes up with a last place ranking on a majority of very important quality of life variables with regard to health, safety, democracy, and equality.  It gets worse when you look at all the comparisons drawn in Friedman’s book.  I included only those measures that could easily be put in a table without the need for deeper explanation.   And with regard to education, we are in the middle and bottom third of the rankings, except when it comes to years of education and percent of the population getting secondary education.   Our literacy rankings are unacceptable.


Neither Friedman or I are driven to bash the United States.  Instead, he and I both are motivated by a desire for exceptionalism across all these measures.  Friedman makes recommendations about how we as a people, and a nation, could improve on all these important variables.   The subtitle of his book is How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge And Boost Our Global Standing.  The problem is one of over-confidence and unquestioning nationalism.  To boldly contend that America is exceptional in every way is both unsubstantiated and untrue.  How I wish it was otherwise.


It is time to step back, look deeply at these issues, accept the reality that we can do better, and then devote our efforts to making it so.  We are arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world with a vast capability for excellence.  It comes down to priorities and hubris.  If “we the people” demand excellence in these areas, and stand-up and make our voices heard, politicians will have to respond.  If however, we bombastically proclaim “We’re #1” regardless of what the evidence suggests, we will continue to languish.   Should not the measure of a nation, with such capabilities,  be the best?


Spread the word, get and read Friedman’s book.  Let’s start changing the dialogue in this country away from the current divisive and unproductive rancor, and begin focusing on what really matters.  It starts with knowledge and it ends with a healthier, safer, smarter, and more fulfilled populace whose politicians truly represent them and actually address important issues.




For other discussions and data points on US rankings relative to other nations see:


We’re # 37! USA! USA! USA! A look at the US Healthcare System


A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math.


Happiness as Measured By GDP: Really?


There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem.  Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it.  The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.



It is widely believed that as a society, we are heavily burdened by freeloaders who are content with living off the fruits of others’ labor. Inherent in this belief is the idea that the poor are more likely to be cheaters. This notion is core to the ideology that fuels the discontent of many on the conservative end of the political spectrum. I have recently written about cheating behavior in general, and how pervasive it is, particularly at the upper end of the economic spectrum. I have also written about corporate and white-collar crime and the egregious costs we all bare as a result of misconduct among the nation’s economic elite. When I sat down to write each of those two previous articles, my intent was to write something about a recent peer-reviewed paper that looked empirically at the relationship between cheating behavior and income level. The evidence substantiated in this series of studies challenges the belief that poor people are more inclined to cheat. In fact, the results turn this misconception upside down.


In this very interesting 2012 paper titled: Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the authors, Paul Piff, Daniel Stancato, Stephanie Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner empirically examine the relationship between relative wealth, propensity to engage in unethical behavior, and attitude about greed. Piff, et al. reviewed the relevant literature and hypothesized, based on a landslide of evidence, that affluent people, relative to low income people, will be more likely to engage in and condone unethical behavior and value greed. In their review of the literature they note that:


“Abundant resources and elevated rank allow upper-class individuals increased freedom and independence, giving rise to self-focused patterns of social cognition and behavior. Relative to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have been shown to be less cognizant of others and worse at identifying the emotions that others feel. Furthermore, upper-class individuals are more disengaged during social interactions — for example, checking their cell phones or doodling on a questionnaire — compared with their lower-class peers. Individuals from upper-class backgrounds are also less generous and altruistic. In one study, upper-class individuals proved more selfish in an economic game, keeping significantly more laboratory credits — which they believed would later be exchanged for cash — than did lower-class participants, who shared more of their credits with a stranger. These results parallel nationwide survey data showing that upper-class households donate a smaller proportion of their incomes to charity than do lower-class households. These findings suggest that upper-class individuals are particularly likely to value their own welfare over the welfare of others and, thus, may hold more positive attitudes toward greed.”


To test their hypotheses, these investigators devised seven studies to look at these relationships across a variety of contexts. Research subjects included more than 1,000 people from all walks of life. Studies 1 and 2 were naturalistic field studies whereby “Observers stood near the intersection, coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded [1] whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn” and [2] “whether upper-class drivers are more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk.” Affluence was calibrated based on the make, age, and appearance of the vehicles driven – because vehicles have been established as a reliable indicator of a person’s “social rank and wealth.” People driving expensive (premium brands such as BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, etc.), late model (newish), and well cared for automobiles were deemed to be affluent – while those driving older, less expensive (i.e., Chevy, Dodge, etc.), and more poorly maintained automobiles, were deemed to be low income individuals.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 12.54.33 PM


Study 3 directly assessed the participant’s relative level of affluence and their subsequent proclivity toward a variety of unethical decisions (e.g., “participants read eight different scenarios that implicated an actor in unrightfully taking or benefiting from something, and reported the likelihood that they would engage in the behavior described“). Study 4 literally assessed whether there was a correlation between affluence and the willingness to take candy from a jar purportedly for children participating in a different study. Study 5 assessed the relationship between affluence and honesty in a role play involving a hypothetical scenario where participants were asked to engage in negotiations with a job candidate looking for long-term employment. The participants were told that the job they were filling was likely to be eliminated, and their honesty about sharing the instability of the job with applicants was assessed. Study 6 looked at actual cheating behavior on a game of chance “in which the computer presented them with one side of a six-sided die, ostensibly randomly, on five separate rolls. Participants were told that higher rolls would increase their chances of winning a cash prize and were asked to report their total score at the end of the game. In fact, die rolls were predetermined to sum up to 12. The extent to which participants reported a total exceeding 12 served as a direct behavioral measure of cheating.” The tendency to cheat on this game was also assessed as a function of affluence.


In each of these first six studies, the findings suggest that upper-income people, relative to low-income people, were statistically more likely to: (Study 1) cut off other drivers, (Study 2) disregard people in crosswalks, (Study 3) condone and report a likelihood to engage in similar unethical conduct, (Study 4) take candy from children, (Study 5) be dishonest in the role of hiring someone regarding the permanence of the position, and (Study 6) cheat on a game of chance. In addition, in studies 5 and 6, people of greater wealth were more likely to favor and value greed relative to their less affluent compatriots.


Study 7 was a bit more complicated and assessed the degree to which attitudes toward greed were responsive to pro-cheating priming. Individuals from across both high and low income groups were assigned to one of two conditions: (a) a greed neutral activity (listing three things they did that day), or (b) pro-greed priming (an activity where they were asked to list several positive attributes of greed). Participants were assessed regarding their attitude toward greed and self-reported propensity to engage in unethical behavior at work. Regardless of level of affluence, those exposed to pro-greed priming were more likely to engage in unethical behavior. Attitude about greed seems to play a crucial role in driving ethical behavior. The authors note that: “… upper-class individuals’ more favorable attitudes toward greed can help explain their propensity toward unethical behavior.” They also assert that throughout their lives, richer people are more likely to be educated and primed to be assertive with regard to accomplishing their own goals. Poorer people generally have negative feelings about greed and are thus less likely to behave unethically.


In these naturalistic and laboratory studies, affluent individuals were more likely to cheat or act unethically than were poor people, and to have positive feelings about greed. These results generalized across self-reported measures of affluence as well as objective measures. The implications of these findings are not to suggest that affluent people, as a whole, are unethical and greedy – nor does it suggest that the poor are uniformly ethical and less greedy. The bottom-line here is that relative to poor people, affluent people have a greater likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior and endorsing greed. These conclusions contrast a popular misconception about the poor and expand how we should think about cheating behavior in general.


It is important to note that this study will need replication in order to become firmly established; however, these findings are unidirectional and unambiguous. They are also consistent with what has been verified in the literature to date. Although there are examples of extraordinary philanthropy by affluent people such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, there are many other examples of systematic corruption and crime among the economic elite. On the other end of the spectrum there are those poor individuals who proudly game the system in such a way to take more than they contribute. I hear stories of such individuals with such regularity that these narratives take on the feel of urban legend. I routinely work with hard working individuals from the lowest end of the economic spectrum and in my more than 20 years of exposure to this population, I have only come across one family that fits this description. Meanwhile, my professional colleagues have to devote huge amounts of time to documenting Early Intervention and Preschool Services as a result of Medicaid Fraud perpetrated by affluent and unethical service providers who bill for services never rendered. In other words, my extensive personal anecdotes align with the findings of this series of studies.


It seems to me that it is indeed time to challenge the meme that poor people are lazy, freeloading, cheaters. At the same time it seems prudent to open our eyes to the misconduct of the affluent. The evidence certainly supports such a conclusion. This brings to mind a quote by John Adams:


“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”




Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).





17 March 2013

Nobody likes a cheater.  Such acts may stir deep feelings of loathing that erode trust and have ruinous consequences with regard to reputation and relationship.  It’s one of those things that is hard to overcome.  I’m not just talking about infidelity here.  I’m referring to a broader type that does include infidelity, but also includes things like pilfering, speeding, lying about one’s age, and other forms of dishonesty that benefit you at a cost to someone else.  Irrespective of the potential social costs, most people, given the opportunity, with little threat of detection, will and DO cheat.  Be honest with yourself here.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  What is surprising is the fact that altruism, or selflessness, the behavioral opposite of cheating, exists at all.


By virtue of the fact that human beings are the product of millions of years of evolution by means of natural selection, we are imbued with a selfishness that is hard to deny.   As distasteful as this may be, it is nonetheless true.  We are compelled by our selfish genes to survive, thrive, and replicate.  Within this context, cheating and selfishness make perfect sense and altruism makes little.  Yet we do exhibit altruism.  Why is this?  Steven Pinker wrote in How the Mind Works (1997, p 337):


Natural selection does not select public-mindedness; a selfish mutant would quickly out reproduce its altruistic competitors.  Any selfless behavior in the natural world needs a special explanation.  One explanation is reciprocation: a creature can extend help in return for help expected in the future.  But favor-trading is always vulnerable to cheaters.  For it to have evolved, it must be accompanied by a cognitive apparatus that remembers who has taken and ensures that they give in return.  The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers had predicted that humans, the most conspicuous altruists in the animal kingdom, should have evolved a hypertrophied cheater-detection algorithm.


And indeed we have – this cognitive algorithm drives the emotional response we have toward cheaters.  Human beings are one of the few species that engage in altruism outside of their kin.  This is referred to as Reciprocal Altruism and clear links have been established between the demands of this type of social exchange and the origins of many human emotions (e.g., liking, anger, gratitude, sympathy, and guilt).  Pinker (1997) notes that “Collectively they make up a large part of the moral sense.”  We are inclined to engage in reciprocal altruism because we have the cognitive capacity to compute cost benefit analyses and the emotional capacity to respond in ways to encourage gains and discourage losses.  We have to be able to remember favors given and received and we must effectively calibrate reciprocation.  It is a delicate and intricate dance that if kept in balance does result in both individual and group benefits.


When benefits or favors are traded, both parties profit as long as the value of what they receive is greater than the value of what they give up.  Because most favors are not exchanged at the same time and they likely vary in degree of effort and value, a calculus is needed to keep the exchange in reciprocal balance.  This balance can tip in either direction and people “remember past treacheries or good turns and play accordingly.  They can feel sympathetic and extend good will,  feel aggrieved and seek revenge,  feel grateful and return a favor, or feel remorseful and make amends.”  (Pinker, 1997 p. 503).


It is important to note that there is a different calculus, a more flexible and enduring one that plays out in friendships and kin based, as well as intimate relationships.  “Tit-for-tat does not cement a friendship; it strains it.  Nothing can be more awkward for good friends than a business transaction between them, like the sale of a car.  The same is true for one’s best friend in life, a spouse.  The couples who keep close track of what each other has done for the other are the couples who are the least happy.” (Pinker, 1997 p. 507).  Healthy close relationships come with a feeling of indebtedness and spontaneous pleasure associated with contribution instead of anticipation of in-kind repayment.  This is true to a point however, and if one person takes too much, without giving back, the relationship is likely doomed.  In such healthy relationships, there tends to be compassionate and enduring love, free of ledgers, time cards, and cash register receipts.


So, we are hyper-vigilant cheater detectors, and our scrutiny of others’ cheating behavior varies based on a number of variables.  Certainly kinship and friendship play a part in our perception.  But in addition to what we understand about reciprocal altruism and cheating, we also know that our cheater detectors tend to be finely focused on people who are different from us.  Those outside our identified social groups (tribal moral communities) are scrutinized much more closely than those inside our circles – and they are examined with much more resolution than we direct toward our own conduct and toward those in the in-group.


This inclination is a byproduct of the universal and innate tendencies to be much more forgiving toward one’s own mistakes and more judgmental towards others’ transgressions.  This is the self-serving bias.  We also have a tendency to see exactly what we expect to see and miss or ignore things that don’t fit within our expectations.  These tendencies are explained by our inclinations toward confirmation bias and inattentional blindness.   Finally, there is the fundamental attribution error which leads us to blame others’ transgression on their internal personal attributes while we ignore important and contributing external environmental circumstances.


That is a lot to take in, but suffice it to say that we are much more likely to give ourselves and those similar to us, a break when it comes to cheating.  We are much less forgiving toward outsiders, particularly those that seem to hold different values, norms, or customs.  This is even true within a society where there is, to a substantial extent, social cohesion; but, where differences exist with regard to beliefs or ideologies.  These truths are self evident – just look at the rancor between Liberals and Conservatives in the United States.  But it also helps explain the racial and ethnic tensions within and across this country toward Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, and particularly, the poor.


Currently, much blame for this country’s financial woes has been heaped onto the poor due to “entitlement spending.”  These recipients of social safety net spending are often defined as cheaters and freeloaders.  There is no doubt that there is, and shall forever be, a small contingent of citizens who are completely comfortable with getting a free ride.  It would be foolish to argue otherwise.  This is a legitimate problem.


On the other hand, I suggest that we must be willing to acknowledge the prevalence of cheating across the economic spectrum and refocus our microscope on the costs of cheating by corporations, white collar criminals, and those whom we tend to give a pass because they are similar to us.  In my previous article, Crime & Punishment and Entitlements: A Deeper Perspective, I discussed the egregious costs of our prejudicial criminal justice system and the entitlement mentality rampant in corporations and those at the upper end of the economic spectrum.  I submitted that article with the intent of opening eyes to the wider hypocrisy that pervades this country and the erroneously sharpened focus on a small fraction of our fellow “freeloading” countrymen.  If you believe that the infamous 47% of Americans are truly freeloaders, I suggest that you take an objective look at the data from that group (from


  • 22 percent [or around 47% of the 47%] receive senior tax benefits — the extra standard deduction for seniors, the exclusion of a portion of Social Security benefits, and the credit for seniors. Most of them are older people on Social Security whose adjusted gross income is less than $25,000.
  • 15.2 percent [or 32% of the 47%] receive tax credits for children and the working poor. That includes the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. The child tax credit was enacted under Democratic President Bill Clinton, but it doubled under Republican President George W. Bush. The earned income tax credit was enacted under Republican President Gerald Ford, and was expanded under presidents of both parties. Republican President Ronald Reagan once praised it as “one of the best antipoverty programs this country’s ever seen.” As a result of various tax expenditures, about two thirds of households with children making between $40,000 and $50,000 owed no federal income taxes.
  • The rest [21% of the 47%] ended up owing no federal income tax due to various tax expenditures such as education credits, itemized deductions or reduced rates on capital gains and dividends. Most of this group are in the middle to upper income brackets. In fact, the TPC [Tax Policy Center] estimates there are about 7,000 families and individuals who earn $1 million a year or more and still pay no federal income tax.


According to the US Federal Budget, in 2012 we spent about $187 billion on traditional welfare programs (e.g., food and housing supplementation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), accounting for 5% of the total $3.7 trillion budget.   An additional $333 billion (or 8.9% of the budget) was spent on Medicaid (healthcare for the poor and disabled).  In total about fourteen cents (14¢) of every tax dollar you pay goes to the poor.


For relative comparison, in 2012, $925.2 billion (or 25% of the 2012 budget or 25¢ of every tax dollar) went to defense, $805.6 billion (21.6% or about 22¢ of every tax dollar) went out in Social Security income for seniors citizens, $492.3 billion (13.2% or 13¢ of each tax dollar) went to Medicare (healthcare for our seniors), and $121.1 billion (3.2% or 3¢) went toward education.  The remaining expenses include unemployment, building roads and bridges, government operating costs, public safety, government supported research, interest payments, and so on.


For further comparison, according to a report from the Conservative think tank The Cato Institute, in 2006 $92 billion (3.5% of the 2006 budget or about 4¢ of every tax dollar) went to corporate subsidies.  This “Corporate Welfare” was defined by Cato as “any federal spending program that provides payments or unique benefits and advantages to specific companies or industries.”   Cato indicated that corporations such as “Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, General Electric and others” were recipients of your tax dollars and Cato further noted that such companies “have received millions in taxpayer-funded benefits through programs like the Advanced Technology Program and the Export-Import Bank.”  Additionally, it should be noted, that between 2002 and 2008, tax breaks totaling $53.9 billion and $16.3 billion in direct spending for a total of $70.2 billion were directed to companies in the fossil fuel industries (e.g, Exxon-Mobile, Shell, Chevron).





Clearly that 14¢ of every tax dollar has triggered much contempt in a significant proportion of our population.  Many outspoken Conservative and Tea Party folks heavily focus on the this portion of the budget and the “entitled” individuals who allegedly, willingly and lazily, live off your hard earned money.  We must acknowledge that these angered individuals are endowed with this tendency as a natural result of our altruistic tendencies and our subsequent finely tuned cheater detection neural software.  And I submit, that this software has been hijacked or perhaps even hacked by the those whose gains are ignored as long as you focus your anger at the poor.  It serves the very specific financial and security interests of the wealthy when Americans direct such anger toward those at the bottom of the spectrum rather than those at the top.  Next time you come across an economic “freeloader” I challenge you to really think about the cheating that occurs across the spectrum, and ask yourself whether there is a chance that your anger has been manipulated and perhaps even misdirected.  Coming together on this issue will likely result in more targeted and effectual reforms that will benefit us all.  The splinters that currently exist keep our collective eyes off the ball.  The result is an ever widening disparity between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us.




The true costs of crime are difficult to calculate.  Different types of crimes inflict substantially varying societal costs.  Violent crimes alone cost Americans about $50 billion dollars a year according to a report from the Center for American Progress.1  It is estimated that the costs of pain and suffering borne by the victims of violence are several times higher than this $50 billion figure.1


There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem.  Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it.  The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.1  And although violent crime captures our attention and makes us fear one another, its relative economic impact is perhaps one half the cost of so called “White-Collar” crimes committed by our affluent brethren.   Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates of white-collar crime come in at $300 billion dollars a year.2  Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme alone was estimated to cost his investors somewhere in the range of $50 billion dollars.3  And what was the cost to the American Taxpayers for the 2008 Financial Crisis?  An article in Bloomberg Businessweek tallies the total costs to American taxpayers at $12.8 trillion.  What portion of that cost could be attributed to white-collar crime?


Granted, the crisis was caused by numerous factors including pressures in the 1990s on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from Clinton Administration officials to increase national home ownership rates,4 as well as the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (eliminating banking barriers allowing banks to be both investment and depository banks).  But opaquely risky mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) were sold around the world with little understanding of the associated risks.  These CDOs and MBSs essentially bundled bad debts in the form of subprime mortgages that were sold to people for homes that they could not afford.  Then the housing bubble burst and upwards of 27 million mortgages5 had been issued for homes whose values were well below the debt obligation and ballooning payments forced many Americans to default.  This perfect storm of contributing factors was a product of greed, deregulation, lack of understanding of risk due to the complex nature of financial derivatives, and so on.  But it was also, as seems evident today, a product of criminal behavior.  In a 2010 New York Times article by Peter Henning it was reported that:


At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware summed up the frustration on Capitol Hill with the lack of any identifiable villains for the financial troubles of the last two years. “We have seen very little in the way of senior officer or boardroom-level prosecutions of the people on Wall Street who brought this country to the brink of financial ruin,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Why is that?”


Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the Federal District Court in Washington expressed similar frustration with the settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and Citigroup over the bank’s misstatements in 2007 regarding its exposure to subprime mortgage-backed securities. In its complaint, the S.E.C. refers repeatedly to “senior management” receiving information about increased losses in its portfolio from problems with subprime mortgages, but none were named in its complaint.


The United State’s prisons are filled with “criminals” because politicians have to take a “tough on crime” stand in order to get elected by their constituents, us; however, we must take a closer look at who in particular resides in our prisons and assess to what degree these white collar and corporate criminals are actually held to account.


According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at years end in 2011 over 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision or in jail or in prison.   About 4,814,200 offenders were supervised in the community on probation or parole.   About 2,239,800 were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or local jails.   According to a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2010, just under 71,000 juvenile offenders were held in residential placement facilities. These are big numbers, but let’s put them in relative terms.  From a recent BJS Report:


  • About 2.9% of adults in the U.S. (or 1 in every 34 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision at year end 2011, a rate comparable to 1998 (1 in every 34).
  • About 1 in every 107 adults was incarcerated in prison or jail.


How does this compare to other nations?  Our incarceration rates far outpace any other modern industrial nation and are only comparable to the pre World War II rates in the Soviet Union’s Gulag system.  From the National Council on Crime and Delinquency Fact Sheet (2006):


  • The US rate of incarceration is the highest in the world.
  • The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the worlds incarcerated people. 
  • Compared to the world’s other most populous countries, the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the US is 153% higher than Russia, 505% higher than Brazil, 550% higher than India, and over 2,000% higher than Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Nigeria (ICPS, 2006). 


According to a breakdown of the Federal and State Prisoner Population from, in 2008 violent criminals accounted for about 47% of the total State and Federal Prison Population, while drug offenders constituted 22%, property thieves made up 17%, drunk drivers, immigration offenders, and other public order offenders accounted for 12%, and juveniles and other unspecified offenders made up the remaining 1%.  These numbers were derived from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.  There is no category for white-collar crime; although, within the property crime statistics, at the Federal level, there is a category listed as fraud. But even in these Federal Prisons, the number of people convicted of fraud is a fraction of 6%, or well under 11,000 Federal Penitentiary inhabitants.


Now let’s look at incarceration rates by race and ethnicity.  Again from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010, White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same race and gender.  Using the same relative comparison groups, Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and black (non-Hispanic) males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 black males.  African Americans (13% of the US Population) make up about 40% of the prison population and Hispanics (16.7% of the US Population) account for about 20% according to 2010 US Census Data.  These rates are hugely disproportionate.  Let’s contrast this data to the following information on white-collar crime from the U.S. Department of Justice,  Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division:


The [National Incident Based Reporting System] (NIBRS) data for 1997 through 1999 show white-collar crime offenders are, on average, in their late-twenties to early-thirties, which is only slightly older than most other offenders captured in NIBRS. The majority of white-collar crime offenders are white males, except for those who committed embezzlement. However, in comparison to offenders committing property crimes, there is a higher proportion of females committing these white-collar offenses.


…much of the investigation and regulation of corporate white-collar crime is left to regulatory agencies and professional associations (American Medical Association, American Bar Association, etc.) and not to the police or other law enforcement agencies. White-collar offenses, in these cases, probably will be reported to the [Unifrom Crime Reports] (UCR) Program only if criminal charges are filed, which is extremely rare in instances of corporate crime. Corporate crime is usually handled within the regulatory agency (sanctions, cease-and-desist orders, etc.), or corporations are made the subject of civil cases.


A quote from Noam Chomsky seems appropriate here:


“For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.”



So, is it that Corporate Crime and other forms of white-collar crime fall largely outside the scope of the law?  Not entirely.  Individuals like Bernie Madoff, whose crimes cost his wealthy customers a great deal, are in prison.  But what about Corporate criminals?  Here is a case in point recently reported by Christina Rexrode and Larry Neumeister in the Associated Press, where corporate criminals are seemingly given a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.


When the Justice Department announced its record $1.9 billion settlement against British bank HSBC last week, prosecutors called it a powerful blow to a dysfunctional institution accused of laundering money for Iran, Libya and Mexico’s murderous drug cartels.


But to some former federal prosecutors, it was only the latest case of the government stopping short of bringing criminal money laundering charges against a big bank or its executives, at least in part on the rationale that such prosecutions could be devastating enough to cause such banks to fail.


They say it sounds a lot like the “too big to fail” meme that kept big but sickly banks alive on the support of taxpayer-funded bailouts. In these cases, they call it, “Too big to jail.”

get out of jail free card


Something seems askew here.  These disproportionate incarceration rates go hand in glove with the prejudice directed toward the poor and non-whites in our communities.  How is it that American’s give corporate criminals a pass and at the same time celebrate liberty and freedom while incarcerating the poor and our minority citizens at rates that typify the Soviet Gulag?  This all drips of palpable hypocrisy.  The economic costs alone seem to justify a colossal reorganization of our priorities.


As Conservatives and Liberals battle contentiously over important issues, it seems to me that the vitriolic banter just keeps the American eye off the factors that truly harm us.  A couple points are clear to me.  First, as long as corporations have legal rights as individuals, but limited accountability, and secondly, as long as money equates to political power, things will not change.  As we bicker over ideological perspectives that define the political poles, and as Americans direct blame and scorn toward the people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, we miss the true essence of who is entitled and who is TRULY destroying this great nation.




1. Shapiro, R. J., and Hassett, K. A., (2012).   The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime: A Case Study of 8 American Cities.  Center for American Progress.


2. Cornell Law School. White Collar Crime


3. Lenzner, R. (2008).   Bernie Madoff’s $50 Billion Ponzi Scheme.


4. Holmes, Steven A. (September 30, 1999). “Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending”. The New York Times


5. Wallison, P. (2011).  The True Story of the Financial Crisis.  The American Spectator:


Out to dinner recently, a friend and I were discussing an organization whose name implies one thing, when in actuality, what they promote is entirely the opposite.  We both racked our brains to come up with the name of that organization with no success.   Days later, without any recent thought of the elusive name – the words Discovery Institute sprung forward in my mind.  It was a spontaneous and surprising recall that brought me relief and pleasure.  “Ah Ha!  That’s what we were trying to remember the other night.  Yes!” I said to myself.   These types of memories are called Mind Pops.


They are also referred to as involuntary semantic memories.  As was the case in my example, they are completely involuntary in that this type of recall occurs without any current conscious, active thought.  In the more scholarly term (involuntary semantic memories), the word semantic suggests that the relevant recall springs forth from one’s semantic knowledge – for example, most commonly the item recalled is a word, phrase, image, melody, or a proper name that one has learned or has previously been exposed to.  These recall events pop into conscious thought  (i.e.,  your “mind“), without current conscious active pursuit – thus the origin of the more compelling descriptor Mind Pops.


These memory events are a relatively new topic of research revealing, as was the case in my example, that such events are not always truly random.  Although the memory may be irrelevant at the exact moment that it pops into awareness, they usually are linked to one’s past experiences.  Sometimes they occur with no conscious awareness of the the trigger itself.   In my example, there was an event that consciously set the stage for my Mind Pop (i.e., striving to recall the Discovery Institute), but some Mind Pops are more mysterious.


Kvavilashvili and her colleague George Mandler, propose that “the completely out of the blue” Mind Pops are often explained by “long-term priming.” Priming itself is an interesting topic, but essentially it is a phenomena whereby your behavior can be altered by exposure to stimuli that enters your unconscious (implicit) memory.  Research has demonstrated that people can be primed to be more polite and patient if unwittingly exposed to words in an unrelated task that lists concepts associated with being polite and patient.   People will walk more slowly if they are implicitly primed with words associated with the elderly.  Furthermore, recall of trivia is better if people are asked to think about the role of being a college professor before being asked the trivia questions relative to folks asked to first think about being a soccer hooligan (with other variables held constant).


This unconscious priming sets the stage for these mysterious out of the blue Mind Pops.  Subconscious exposure to an image, a word, a song, or a scene serves as the trigger for later Popping.  As the word subconscious implies, the exposure occurs completely outside of conscious awareness.  When Kvavilashvili and Mandler asked subjects to journal their Mind Pops, there were numerous examples where the Pops had no clear, or very subtle, triggers.   “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish and chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.”  Kvavilashvili noted that “I got curious about [Mind Pops] because they seemed so random and out of the blue, but these mind pops are genuine fragments of knowledge about the world. What it shows us is that our subconscious often knows the meaning of an experience, even if consciously we don’t.


Researchers like Dr. Lia Kvavilashvili are finding that Mind Pops are quite common.  I’m sure that  you have likely experienced such events yourself.  Kvavilashvili suggests that they are most often words or phrases rather than images or sounds and that they usually occur in the midst of some routine activity such as engaging self care.  In other words, they are most likely to occur when your mind is not focused on the task at hand and is free to wander.  A variant of this phenomena is the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) experience – where you may be struggling to remember a name or a word and it feels as though it is right on the tip of your tongue; yet, you just can’t spit it out.  Then later, when you have stopped actively pursuing it, the word surfaces.  That letting go of pursuit allows your implicit (unconscious) memory do its work.


Although almost everyone experiences Mind Pops, there seems to be an increased frequency of Mind Popping in individuals with mental health issues.  Researchers Keith Laws, Lia Kvavilashvili, and Ia Elua, conducted some preliminary research whereby they compared the frequency of Mind Pops in 37 individuals with schizophrenia, 31 people with depression, and 26 individuals with no mental health issues.  On average, individuals with Schizophrenia reported 3-4 Mind Pops a weeks, while individuals with depression reported 1-2 a month, and healthy individuals reported 1-2 every six months.  Invasive thoughts that bleed through consciousness are indeed some of the prominent features of schizophrenia and depression, so these categorical differences do make sense.


In my personal correspondence with Dr. Kvavilashvili, she differentiated Mind Pops from the Involuntary Autobiographical Memories I described in a previous post titled The Guilt-Empathy Connection.  In that post I discussed a similar phenomena whereby “serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past.  A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly.  And all of this occurs outside of conscious control.  For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible.  The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.”  Dr. Kvavilashvili noted that there seem to be “personality and individual difference variables at play” in my type of guilt based Involuntary Autobiographical Memories.


In a cursory review of the literature, I did come across a study by Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and she wrote that “The involuntary [autobiographical] memories more frequently referred to specific episodes, came with more physical reaction, had more impact on mood, and dealt with more unusual and less positive events.”  This coincides with my anecdotal experiences (for whatever that is worth).  For me, these events were indeed outliers, they were negative and viscerally so, and they did significantly affect my mood.  Mind Pops are quite different from such Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in that the Pops are more semantic in nature (rather than biographical or experiential), and the Pops tend to be more positively experienced.


Although Mind Pops and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories are commonplace, they certainly constitute manifestations of our amazing and incredibly complex brain.  Please share your interesting Mind Pops or Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in the Comments section below so that you can showcase the amazing capabilities of your brain.  And when you have one of those “out of the blue” Mind Pops look deep to find the source of the subconscious trigger – you might be amazed by your inattentional blindness or the vastness of what your mind’s eye takes in beyond what you see.




Berntsen, D., and Hall, N. M., (2004).  The episodic nature of involuntary autobiographical memories. Memory & Cognition. Jul; 32(5): 789-803.


Cowen, Mark, (2012).  ‘Mind-pop’ frequency increased in schizophrenia patients.  MedWire


Guild, G. (2010).  Are You a Robot? can I Program Your Responses?  How Do You Think?


Guild, G. (2012).  The Guilt – Empathy Connection.  How Do You Think?


Elua, I., Laws, K., and Kvavilashvili, L.. (2012). From mind-pops to hallucinations? A study of involuntary semantic memories in schizophrenia.  Psychiatry Research. V. 196 (2), Pgs. 165-170.


Jbar, Ferris, (2012). Mind-Pops: Psychologists Begin to Study an Unusual form of Proustian Memory.  Scientific


Kvavilashvilia, L., and Mandler, G. (2003). Out of one’s mind: A study of involuntary semantic memories.  Paper shared by author in personal correspondence.


Science Daily (2012). Mind-Pops More Likely With Schizophrenia.



Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2012, the traffic to my site doubled.  Throughout 2012 my blog had 35,819 hits from 31,960 unique visitors, accounting for over 46,720 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and visits from people from 165 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, India, and Australia also brought in large contingents.


This year the top ranked article was my 2011 post on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail, which accounted for 50% more hits than this year’s number two ranked article (Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the number one post from last year).  The piece on conspicuous consumption, is in my opinion, one of my all time most important pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock). The Brainwave piece, also from 2011, compares and contrasts the different measures used to peer into the workings of the brain.


Of my posts published in 2012, only two made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010 and three were published in 2011.  Of those eight from previous years, five were also on the top ten list last year.


My 2012 review and discussion of the Broadway Musical Wicked topped the list of posts actually written in 2012, but it came in third overall this year relative to all other posts.  This article explores the theme that “things are not as they seem.”  I relate the story told in the show to the political and historical manipulation American citizens are subjected to, and it stirs up unpleasant and inconvenient realities that many would prefer remain unknown.


Great interest persists in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article received a number four ranking, down from a number two ranking over the last two years.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved down two notches this year, ultimately ranking number five.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number six this year, versus a number four ranking last year.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked number seven this year, down two spots from its ranking in 2011.  One of my all time favorite posts from 2010, Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is?  returned to the top ten list this year coming in eighth.   In 2010 it ranked number ten, but it fell off the list last year.  My Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number nine this year, compared to a number ten ranking last year.  Finally, in the number ten slot this year,  is my 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  This post was perhaps the most important post of the year.


So here is the Top Ten list for 2012.

  1. Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail (2011)
  2. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  3. Wicked! Things are NOT as they Seem (2012)
  4. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  5. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  7. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  8. Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? (2010)
  9. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)
  10. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012)


Again this year, the top ten articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several other 2012 posts that ranked outside the top ten; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:



This latter article, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth, pertains to the microbiome, the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiome as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).


Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.



The bottom line:


The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.


Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:


“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.


Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover the truth.



Autism and the DSM-5

19 December 2012

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the forthcoming DSM-5 and the diagnosis of Autism.  The DSM-5 is the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by Doctors to make diagnoses pertaining to Autism and other behavioral and mental health disorders.  There are in fact two major changes in this newest edition regarding Autism.  The first has to do with changes to the name of the diagnosis.  The second has to do with the actual diagnostic criteria used to make a diagnosis.


Currently, when presented with a child who exhibits some characteristics of Autism, Doctors have to determine whether or not the child exhibits a sufficient array of clinically significant symptoms to warrant a diagnosis.  This process requires the clinician to rule out other disorders that may instead be causing the problematic symptoms.  The clinician also has to make a differential diagnosis to determine which of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders best describes the child.  Many professionals, me included, believe that the dividing lines between the various forms of Autism are difficult to distinguish.  The new DSM does away with this problem by eliminating the different labels (Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, PDD-NOS, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder) and instead puts in place a more general term – Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Many researchers and clinicians agree that this change is warranted.


When the DSM-5 is published in May of 2013, children who previously would have been diagnosed with Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, or PDD-NOS, will be given the new diagnosis – Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  A differentiation will then be made by indicating the degree of symptom severity.  Specifically, those with more classical Autism will be diagnosed with ASD-Severe.  At the other end of the spectrum, children diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) will likely get an ASD-Mild designation.  Those with Asperger’s may fall anywhere from ASD-Severe to ASD-Mild, depending on the degree of impairment.  Many with Asperger’s will likely fall in the Moderate range.  To be clear however, Classical Autism may span Severe to Mild ASD while PDD-NOS will likely span Moderate to Mild ASD.  Again, the severity designation depends on the number and severity of symptoms present.  If your child already carries a diagnosis, little will change, except perhaps how professionals refer to the disorder itself.   Your child will be referred to as being on the Autistic Spectrum.


The second change involves a modification of the Diagnostic Criterion used to provide a diagnosis.  When making a diagnosis, a clinician such as myself, has to have evidence of a sufficient array of behaviors listed in the DSM in order to provide a diagnosis.  The behaviors commonly associated with Autism make up the list of Diagnostic Criterion in the manual.  The new DSM includes an update of the behaviors used as these criteria.  It defines ASD by two sets of core features, namely: 1) impaired social communication and social interactions; and 2) restricted and repetitive behavior and interests. It more appropriately reorganizes the symptoms in these domains and adds sensory interests and sensory aversions to the list.


The new version is touted as an improvement because it adds to and reorganizes the diagnostic criterion so that they better address the needs of people with ASD across all developmental levels and ages.  It also includes improvements to better address the atypical symptom presentation of girls.  The goal of DSM-5 is to apply what is detailed in the scientific literature so as to add precision and validity to the diagnostic process.


As with any change, there have been some concerns expressed in the media.  Perhaps the most frequently heard concern is the fear that those at the mildest end of the spectrum with strong cognitive capabilities will no longer qualify for the diagnosis and thus may lose services.  Advocacy groups such as Autism Speaks have been actively engaging in this reorganization process and the American Psychiatric Association (the publisher of the DSM) has made statements aimed to calm the concerns.  They suggest that clinical judgment remains a crucial piece of the diagnostic process and that the new criteria are designed to be completely inclusive of those diagnosed using the current DSM-IV.  The research released by the American Psychiatric Association shows improved reliability and validity of diagnoses using the DSM-5 and strong inclusiveness of those already diagnosed using the DSM-IV.  I have seen the proposed diagnostic criterion and upon review I did not have any serious concerns with regard to how it will affect my ability to make diagnoses.


The bottom line is that for most parents, there will be no appreciable change other than how we refer to your child.  In anticipation of this change we have already been using the phrase Autism Spectrum Disorder or “on the spectrum” for quite some time now.  Diagnoses in the near term will still be made using the current DSM-IV, and thus, we will still be using the terms Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and PDD-NOS.   It is advisable for clinicians/diagnosticians to commence using both sets of terminology so as to minimize confusion in the future.  Sharing a document such as this one with the parents of the newly diagnosed is also advised.

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