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  whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn” and  “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.
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).
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 FactCheck.org):
- 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.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Corporate Crime
, Socioeconomic Status
, White-Collar Crime
| Tagged: Cheating
, Confirmation Bias
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Self Serving Bias
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 ProCon.org, 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.”
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. Forbes.com
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: spectator.org
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Corporate Crime
, Socioeconomic Status
, White-Collar Crime
| Tagged: Crime
, Erroneous Thinking
, White-Collar Crime
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 News.com
Guild, G. (2010). Are You a Robot? can I Program Your Responses? How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com
Guild, G. (2012). The Guilt – Empathy Connection. How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com
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 American.com
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. ScienceDaily.com
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 2011.
- Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail (2011)
- Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
- Wicked! Things are NOT as they Seem (2012)
- Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
- Moral Instinct (2010)
- IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity (2010)
- Where Does Prejudice Come From? (2011)
- Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? (2010)
- Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox? (2010)
- 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.
Posted by Gerald Guild
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Socioeconomic Status
| Tagged: Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture
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.
Posted by Gerald Guild
| Tagged: Autism
Saying “I’m sorry” can be very difficult for some of us. We routinely make mistakes. As coined by Alexander Pope: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.“ Within any interpersonal relationship there will be inadvertent missteps or even acts of anger that hurt those close to us. Its not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Forgiving is important, as Pope emphasizes: and it is also quite often a difficult thing to do. But the act of apologizing, it seems to me, can be even harder.
Obviously it necessitates swallowing one’s pride and accepting responsibility for one’s misdeeds. It also requires a departure from one’s unique view of the world and the adoption of another person’s perspective. Swallowing one’s pride is hard enough and perspective taking stirs the feelings of guilt. For these reasons alone, I believe that saying the two simple words “I’m sorry” is perhaps one of the bravest things a person can do.
There are other factors that contribute to the difficulty associated with an apology. Some view it as a tacit acknowledgement of one’s weakness. It does tend to elicit a personal feeling of vulnerability and perhaps pangs of subjugation, defeat, and loss of status. It can entwine and envelope one in a aura of incompetence and humility. No one likes such feelings: none of them elevate one’s sense of well being. The opposite is true: they instead elicit dysphoric feelings that essentially punish the inclination to apologize. Thus, many avoid, ignore, or steep themselves in denial. Pointing outward and blaming the other party for causing the problem strips one of responsibility and allows escape from the unpleasantness of having to apologize. It is the easy way out, and ultimately it tends to bankrupt a relationship.
I really like how Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, conceptualizes relationships. He analogizes relationships to a bank account. When you treat another person with dignity and respect, you make deposits in their emotional bank account. When you hurt someone, you essentially make a withdrawal. By virtue of being in a sustained relationship, you will, over time, make a series of deposits and withdrawals. When you hurt another person and then deny your responsibility for having done so, you compound the withdrawal. And too many withdrawals can drain that person’s emotional bank account. A drained account stirs contempt and lays the foundation for the end of that relationship. A genuine apology is typically a deposit and it can go a long way toward bringing the account back into balance. To be effective, it must be heartfelt, with an acknowledgment of the depth of harm done, and with full acceptance of responsibility. The results should help heal wounds and it may even strengthen the relationship. It is a gift, because it can make forgiveness easier for the injured party. Denial, on the other hand, deepens the wound and widens the gap.
Saying “I’m sorry” is supposed to be difficult. It is an act of contrition, whereby one bares the difficult weight of the misstep and takes responsibility for it. This courageous endeavor is essential for sustaining a loving and caring relationship. The world in general, and your relationships specifically, will be better if you endeavor to be brave enough to utter these simple words. Doing the right thing is ultimately way more important than being right (Ludwig, 2010). To err is human; to apologize, heroic.
Belkin, L., (2010). Why is it so Hard to Apologize Well? The New York Times
Lazare, A., (2004). Making Peace Through Apology. GreaterGood.berkley.edu
Ludwig, R., (2009). Why is it so Hard to Say “I’m Sorry?” NBC NEWS.com
Mumford & Sons (2010). Little Lion Man
O Leary, T. (2007). 5 Steps to an Effective Apology. Pick The Brain.com
Sometimes the quietest moments are the most troubling. 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.
Does this sound familiar? I have long struggled to make sense of this sequence of thoughts. It’s not as though these distant missteps weigh heavily in my conscious mind. And most of the time they have no or very little current relevance. Almost always the events involve a situation where I had no intention of being hurtful. So why would my brain dredge up painful events and spoil a perfectly pleasant moment? It makes little sense to me.
I have long felt like there is a dark and deeply self effacing entity lurking in the shadows of my mind just waiting for an opportunity to rain guilt on me. Really, it does feel like there is something lurking inside my mind, stalking my thoughts, waiting for a memory that can be linked back to an event that will make me feel bad about myself. Freud’s notion of the Super-ego seems particularly relevant, but there is no evidence of such embodied moralistic forces battling it out in the brain. There are however, brain systems that interact in a way that are compellingly similar to Freud’s model with regard to active decision making. But it is not clear to me how, or why, these systems would reach back in time to spoil a moment of serenity.
As I understand it, the brain is comprised of a complex combinatorial neuronal network that has evolved over millions of years. With this being the case, there must be either some adaptive value to this capacity to stir up guilty feelings, or it may be a side effect of some other adaptive neurological system. These hypotheses are made assuming that this propensity is neither pathological or unique to me. Given the fact that these recall events do not adversely affect my life in any substantive way, beyond briefly bumming me out, and the likelihood that I am not alone in experiencing this – it must be adaptive at some level.
As it turns out there appears to be evidence for a relationship between dispositional empathy and one’s proneness to feelings of guilt. In a study titled Empathy, Shame, Guilt, and Narratives of Interpersonal Conflicts: Guilt-Prone People Are Better at Perspective Taking by Karen P. Leith and Roy F. Baumeister they found that Guilt:
“… seems to be linked to the important cognitive components of empathy, particularly the ability to appreciate another person’s perspective (or at least to recognize that the other’s perspective differs from one’s own). Guilt-proneness is linked to both the ability and the willingness to consider the other’s perspective.”
So these feelings of remote guilt may indeed be adaptive in that they fuel my perspective taking capacity. In other words, they compel me to be all the more careful and sensitive so as to facilitate better outcomes with regard to current social relationships (and thus avoid future negative recollections). I am inherently driven to look at the other person’s perspective in most of my encounters with people. It seems that those situations that spring forth from the depths of my memory are those occasions when I did not effectively employ good perspective taking.
Empathy is widely accepted as being an adaptive skill and perhaps guilt proneness facilitates positive feedback thus driving one toward more effective empathy. Or perhaps the guilty feelings drudged up are experiential outliers – the memories with stronger visceral tags – the ones that are more easily dragged to the forefront as my brain meanders down memory lane. Leith and Baumeister’s research did not address the retrospective nature of experiences like mine; therefore, I continue to speculate. But this link between empathy and guilt makes sense. Or maybe this is a self-serving bias.
If you have a moment, please click on the link below to answer some questions that will give me some preliminary information on this empathy-guilt relationship. It’s only 5 questions – and really, it should only take a minute or so.
Click here to take survey
We humans like to think of ourselves as strong and dominant forces. Why shouldn’t we? After all, we have conquered many of our natural foes and reign supreme as rational and commanding masters of our destiny. That is what we like to think. But this may be an illusion because as it turns out, we share our bodies with an unimaginably vast array of organisms that seem to play a substantial role in our well-being.
In and on your body, there are ten microorganisms for every single human cell. They are invisible to the naked eye – microscopic actually. For the most part they are bacteria, but also protozoans, viruses, and fungi. This collection of organisms is referred to as the microbiome and it accounts for about three pounds of your total body weight: about the same weight as your brain. In all, there are an estimated 100 trillion individuals thriving on your skin, in your mouth, in your gut, and in your respiratory system, among other places. And it is estimated that there are one to two thousand different species making up this community.(2)
Image of Microscopic Bacteria
Since wide spread acceptance of the Germ Theory, in the late nineteenth century, we have considered bacteria as the enemy. These organisms are germs after all, and germs make us sick. This is accurate in many ways: acceptance and application of the germ theory vastly extended the human life expectancy (from 30 years in the Dark Ages to 60 years in the 1930s). Other advances have since increased that expectancy to about 80 years.
But, as we are increasingly becoming aware, this microbiome plays a crucial role in our ability to live in the first place. There are “good” and “bad” microbes. But this dichotomy is not so black and white. Some good microbes turn problematic only if they get in the wrong place (e.g., sepsis and peritonitis). But what we must accept is that we would not survive without the good ones. We are just beginning to learn of the extent to which they control our health and even our moods.
For example, some of our nutritive staples would be of very limited value if it wasn’t for Baceroides thetaiotaomicron. This microbe in our stomach has the job of breaking down complex carbohydrates found in foods such as oranges, apples, potatoes, and wheat germ. Without this microbe we simply do not have the capability to digest such carbohydrates.(1) And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The “beneficial” bacteria in our guts are clearly very important. They compete with the harmful bacteria, they help us digest our food, and they help our bodies produce vitamins that we could not synthesize on our own.(3) Surprisingly, these microbes may play a significant role in our mood. A recent study looking at the bacteria lacto bacillus, fed to mice, resulted in a significant release of the neurotransmitter gaba which is known to have a calming affect. When this relationship was tested in humans we discovered a relationship between such gut bacteria and calmness to a therapeutic level consistent with the efficacy of anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals.(2) This alone is amazing.
But wait, there’s more. Take for example Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) whose job seems to be regulating acid levels in the stomach. It acts much like a thermostat by producing proteins that communicate with our cells signaling the need to tone down acid production. Sometimes things go wrong and these proteins actually provoke gastric ulcers. This discovery resulted in an all out war on H pylori through the use of antibiotics. Two to three generations ago more than 80% of Americans hosted this bacteria. Now, since the discovery of the connection with gastric ulcers, less than 6% of American school children test positive for it.(1) This is a good thing! Right?
Perhaps not. As we have recently come to discover, H pylori plays an important role in our experience of hunger. Our stomach produces two hormones that regulate food intake. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone), tells your brain that you need food. Leptin, the second hormone, signals the fact that your stomach is full. Ghrelin is ramped up when you have not eaten for a while. Exercise also seems to boost Ghrelin levels. Eating food diminishes Ghrelin levels. Studies have shown that H pylori significantly regulates Ghrelin levels and that without it your Ghrelin levels may be unmediated thus leading to a greater appetite and excessive caloric intake.(1) Sound like a familiar crisis?
The long and the short of this latter example is that we really do not understand the down stream consequences of our widespread use of antibiotics. Obesity may be one of those consequences. When we take antibiotics, they do not specifically target the bad bacteria, they affect the good bacteria as well. Its not just medical antibiotics that cause problems – we have increasingly created a hygienic environment that is hostile to our microbiome. We are increasingly isolating ourselves from exposure to good and bad bacteria, and some suggest that this is just making us sicker. See the Hygiene Hypothesis.
We have co-evolved with our microbiome and as such have developed an “immune system that depends on the constant intervention of beneficial bacteria... [and] over the eons the immune system has evolved numerous checks and balances that generally prevent it from becoming either too aggressive (and attacking it’s own tissue) or too lax (and failing to recognize dangerous pathogens).”(1) Bacteroides fragilis (B fragilis) for example has been found to have a profoundly important and positive impact on the immune system by keeping it in balance through “boosting it’s anti-inflammatory arm.” Auto immune diseases such as Chrones Disease, Type 1 Diabetes, and Multiple Sclerosis have increased recently by a factor of 7-8. Concurrently we have changed our relationship with the microbiome.(1) This relationship is not definitively established but it clearly merits more research.
Gaining a better understanding of the microbiome is imperative, and is, I dare say, the future of medicine. We humans are big and strong, but we can be taken down by single celled organisms. And if we are not careful stewards of our partners in life, these meek organisms may destroy us. It is certain that they will live on well beyond our days. Perhaps they shall reclaim the biotic world they created.
Author’s Note: This article was written in part as a summary of (1) Jennifer Ackerman’s article The Ultimate Social Network in Scientific American (June 2012). Information was also drawn from (2) a Radio Lab podcast titled GUTS from April of 2012 and (3) a story on NPR by Allison Aubrey called Thriving Gut Bacteria Linked to Good Health in July of 2012.
Citizens of the United States are endowed with certain unalienable rights: one of which is the right to pursue happiness. Governments generally need to attend to the common level of happiness of its citizens in order to sustain power. As evidenced by the Arab Spring, unhappy people have the capability to overthrow ineffectual governments. As it turns out, the way politicians and economists presume to measure happiness is through a statistical measure called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Let’s take a closer look at GDP and ponder the questions as to whether it is, in fact, an appropriate measure with regard to overall happiness.
Following World War II, a metric called the Gross National Product (GNP) was adopted as the key indicator of a nation’s economic growth. Eventually GDP replaced GNP and it acquired broader meaning as a proxy of individual well-being (happiness). But what does GDP really measure? GDP as defined by InvestorWords.com is:
The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.
GDP is the measure we look at to determine whether or economy is growing, in recession, or in depression. This makes sense. But the deeper fundamental belief is that GDP equates to personal wealth, and that the more personal wealth individuals posses, the happier they will be. Our economy grows when people have money and spend it. The bottom line assumption here is that money buys happiness.
Since developed nations have strategically attended to this measure, GDP has skyrocketed. Concurrently, there have been unequivocal rises in living standards and wealth. The United States has done relatively well in this regard. But you might be surprised to know that according to a CIA website, the US ranks 12th in the world on a measure of GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) behind countries like Qatar, Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Brunei.
In poor nations where GDP is very low, quality of life and subjective measures of happiness are indeed low. As GDP increases, there is a correlated increase in both quality of life and happiness. But that relationship holds up, only to a certain point, and then it falls apart. For example, in developed Western Democracies such as the United States, UK, and Germany, since the 1970′s, GDP has grown, but on a variety of measures, the happiness of its citizens has stagnated or declined. See the chart below from James Gustave Speth’s book The Bridge at the Edge of the World.
Average Income and Happiness in the USA
As it turns out, when a nation’s GDP rises above $10,000.00 per capita there is no relationship between GDP and happiness. For a reference point, in the United States our GDP per capita rose above this $10k point in the 1960s and is currently around $50k per capita. The reality is that despite a five-fold increase in personal wealth, people as a whole, are no more happy today than they were in the 1970s. This suggests a fundamental flaw in the thinking of our policy makers.
I am not alone, nor am I first to point out the problem with assuming that GDP equates to citizen happiness. James Gustave Speth, provides a ground shaking critique of our current political, economic, and environmental policies in his 2008 book The Bridge at the Edge of the World. This GDP-Happiness issue is a prominent theme in his book and he explores what actually accounts for happiness. What follows is a summary of Speth’s discussion of this topic.
Research suggests that there are a number of important factors associated with individual happiness. What is interesting is that the major factors are relativistic, innately internal, as well as social and interpersonal. Yes, below a certain point, when people are impoverished and struggling to survive, happiness is indeed tied to GDP. But above that $10K GDP per capita line, these other human factors play a major role.
Let us start with perhaps the most powerful factor associated with happiness, our genes. It is estimated that about one-half of the variability in happiness is accounted for by our genetic composition. One’s happiness is much like one’s personality, to a large extent it is written in our DNA. Some people are just congenitally happier than others. Some are chronic malcontents no matter what the circumstances provide. Such proclivities are difficult to over ride. But the remaining 50% of variance in happiness does seem to be rooted in variables we can influence.
One’s relative prosperity is a clear variable. There is an inverse relationship between happiness and one’s neighbors’ wealth. If you are relatively well-off compared to those around you, you are likely to experience more happiness. If however, you are surrounded by people doing much better than you, you are likely to experience discontent. It is more about relative position rather than absolute income. And as everyone’s income rises, one’s relative position generally remains stable. So more money does not necessarily equate to more happiness.
Yet another innately human factor that plays out in this happiness paradox is our incredible tendency to quickly habituate to our income and the associated material possessions that it affords. We seem to have a happiness set point. There may be an initial bump in happiness associated with a raise, a bigger better car, or a new house; however, we tend to return to that set point of happiness pretty quickly. We habituate to the higher living standards and quickly take for granted what we have. We then get a relative look at what’s bigger and better and begin longing for those things. This is the hedonic treadmill.
Happiness is to a large extent associated with seven factors:
- Family relationships
- One’s relative financial situation
- The meaningfulness of one’s work
- Ties to one’s community and friends
- Personal freedom
- Personal values
Speth notes that “except for health and income, they are all concerned with the quality of our relationships.“ We clearly know that people need deeply connected and meaningful social relationships. Yet we are living increasingly disconnected and transient lifestyles where we relentlessly pursue increasing affluence all the while putting distance between us and what we truly need to be happy. We are on that hedonic treadmill convinced that happiness comes from material possessions, all the while neglecting the social bonds that truly fulfill us.
Obviously, GDP misses something with regard to happiness. Speth quotes Psychologist David Meyers who wrote about this American Paradox. At the beginning of the twenty-first century he observed that Americans found themselves:
“with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We were excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life. We celebrated our prosperity but yearned for purpose. We cherished our freedom but longed for connection. In an age of plenty, we were feeling spiritual hunger. These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically.”
The reality is that there is a great deal of disillusionment in this country. And we are falling behind in other areas of significant importance. Our healthcare systems ranks 37th in the world with regard to life expectancy. The efforts of our education system finds us loosing touch with the world’s top performers. 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. Out of the 34 countries in the study, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. The US students ranked far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai each in China. Secretary Duncan, at the time of the PISA announcement, said that:
“The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades…In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”
Although GDP is an important economic measure, many economists and some leaders suggest that we should assess well-being more precisely. For example, alternatives include the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) that factors into the equation environmental and social costs associated with economic progress. See the graph below for how we in the US have fared on GPI.
GDP and GPI Growth
This GPI data suggests that since the early seventies there has been a clear divergence between GDP and the well-being of the citizens of the United States. This GPI line correlates strongly with the relative happiness line over the same time period.
Another effort made with regard to measuring the well-being of the citizens is the Index of Social Health put forward by Marc and Marque-Luisa Miringoff. They combined 16 measures of social well-being (e.g., infant mortality, poverty, child abuse, high school graduation rates, teenage suicide, drug use, alcoholism, unemployment, average weekly wages, etc.) and found that between 1970 and 2005 there has also been a deteriorating social condition in the United States despite exponential growth in GDP.
The New Economics Foundation in Britain has developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI) that essentially measures how well a nation converts finite natural resources into the well-being of its people. The longer and happier people live with sustainable practices the higher the HPI. The United States scores near the bottom of this list. At the top of the list in the Western Developed nations are countries like Malta, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, and the Netherlands (due to long happy lives and lower environmental impact). At the bottom across all nations are countries like the US, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait (each as a result of atrocious environmental impact) and Rwanda, Angola, Sudan and Niger (due to significantly shortened life spans).
“Right now,” Speth notes, “the reigning policy orientation and mindset hold that the way to address social needs and achieve better, happier lives is to grow – to expand the economy. Productivity, wages, profits, the stock market, employment, and consumption must all go up. Growth is good. So good that it is worth all the costs. The Ruthless Economy [however] can undermine families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even mental health, [but] in the end, it is said, we’ll somehow be better off. And we measure growth by calculating GDP at the national level and sales and profits at the company level. And we get what we measure.”
All this taken together seems to suggest that we would be better off as a citizenry if we radically re-prioritized our economic, social, and environmental policies with increased focus on factors that more closely align with human well-being. Yet, we continually forge ahead striving unquestionably for economic growth because we believe it will make us better off. Closer scrutiny suggests that we should broaden our thinking in this regard. If we were to focus our energies on GPI and/or HPI, like we have on GDP over the last 50 years, just imagine what we could accomplish.
Central Intelligence Agency. The World Fact Book: GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).
Guild, G. (2011). We’re Number 37! USA! USA! USA!
Happy Planet Index. NEF
Johnson, J. (2010). International Education Rankings Suggest Reform Can Lift U.S. US Department of Education.
Speth, James Gustave. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.