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:

wicked-poster

 

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.

 

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Cheaters

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 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).

 

Source: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1012/subsidize-this/flat.html

Source: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1012/subsidize-this/flat.html

 

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.

 

 

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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.

 

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Science has a PR problem.  Perhaps it is because science is responsible for some technological developments that have outpaced our moral capacity.  Or perhaps it is because the knowledge bestowed upon us through the scientific process increasingly pushes God out of the gaps.  But some are irritated by “scientists” who arrogantly assert absolute truths about the universe when in actuality, underneath their assertions, there are only probabilities with error bars.

 

I believe that one of the most fundamental problems with science is that we cannot see it.  The vastness of time and space and the minuteness of science’s edge, right now, defy the senses.  We do not have the capacity to imagine the scope and breadth of time involved in the formation of the universe or even the time scale of the evolution of complex life.  It is beyond our capacity to imagine how incredibly insignificant our place is in the cosmos.  Likewise, the realities of life at the cellular level and the complexity of interactions at the subatomic level, escape logic and defy the rules by which we live our lives.

 

Science is a juggernaut of increasingly and unapproachable complexity.  No longer are great discoveries made with home-made telescopes or in monastery greenhouses.  Science has become so specialized and at its focus, so minute, or so vast, that it is beyond the human experience.  The technical and mathematical skills required, and the sophistication of the instruments employed, all take us deeper and deeper, and further and further beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.

These realities literally bring science to the level of science fiction.  I once read a bumper sticker that said “I don’t have enough faith to believe in science.”  Although that sticker was posted by a Christian troubled about science’s role in the diminishment of God, it strikes me, that it may, on another level, represent the level of detachment science has accomplished through its very own progress.  If one does not truly understand the scientific process and the absolute intellectual scrutiny of the process itself, it is easy to assume that faith is necessary to believe in science. To the average person, buying what science tells us does require a leap of faith.

 

Yet, there is a fundamental difference between science and faith.  I once heard Donald Johanson talk about Lucy, his famous find.  In 1973 Johanson found a fossil that dramatically changed the way we conceptualized hominid evolution.  Lucy was a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil that provided evidence that hominids walked upright before the brain got bigger.  It had been believed up until then, that in hominids, a bigger brain evolved first, giving our ancestral kin the smarts needed to survive a ground based and bipedal existence. The paradigm shifted based on this new evidence.  Such is the way of science.  In his talk, Dr. Johanson clearly and simply differentiated science and faith.  What he said was:

Science is evidence without certainty while Faith is certainty without evidence

 

I guess it boils down to what degree one values evidence.

 

A related issue pertains to the fact that sometimes the results of science are portrayed with too much certainty.  And sometimes writers overreach with their interpretation of findings.  This is a legitimate concern.  The greater scrutiny I give science, the more I see that this problem generally emanates from science writers (journalists) rather than from the scientific community.  Humility and the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s findings (i.e., error bars), are the hallmarks of good science.  This becomes increasingly important as we investigate deeply remote phenomena, be it the quantum realm, the formation of the universe, or even the geological evolution of our planet.  Science attempts to form a clear picture when only intermittent pixels are accessible.

 

A wonderful example of such humility is evidenced in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Some people use his own skeptical analysis as a refutation of his own theory.  Reading the book negates such an argument.  Every paper published in a reputable peer reviewed journal includes a Discussion section where the authors detail the potential flaws and confounds, as well as suggested areas of improvement for future research.  If one accesses the actual science itself, this humility is evident.  But in the media, over reaching is commonplace, and it warrants reasonable suspicion.

 

There are however, areas of science where the evidence is so broad and so complete that certainty is absolutely asserted.  Evolution by means of natural selection is one of those areas.  Yet evolution and the dating of the planet for example run into controversy as they intersect with the beliefs of those who sustain a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is where two world-views diverge, or more aptly, collide.

 

Long ago, when we lacked an understanding of geology, meteorology, the germ theory of disease, and neurology, people tried to make sense of random events like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, plagues, seizures, depression, mania, and dementia.  We did this because we struggled to make sense of substantial, catastrophic,  and seemingly random events.  When such events occur, it is our nature to seek out patterns that help us make sense of it all.  Vengeful deities were historically the agents of such destructive forces.  Just as we are universally driven to explain our origins, as evidenced by a plethora of diverse creation stories, we are compelled to make sense of our destruction.  As we have come to develop a better understanding of the world around us, little by little, God as a creative and destructive force has been displaced.

 

This increased material understanding of our world poses a serious threat to literal religion.  Although, for most scientists, the target is not the destruction of God.  On the contrary, knowledge is the goal.  Unfortunately, because of this looming and powerful threat, science and knowledge have become targets for some religious people.  The problem with science is that it threatens deeply held ideological belief systems that, at their core, value faith over evidence.

 

It comes back to that Evidence question again.  As humans we are more compelled by stories that provide comfort and give significance to our existence, than by the data that asserts and demands humility.  This is not a problem with science, it is a problem with the human brain.

 

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We humans are very good at dividing ourselves up into groups.  We accomplish this in a multitude of ways.  Even within homogeneous groupings we tend to find subtle ways to carve people out.  It is far easier however, when people vary by gender, ethnicity, race, class, neighborhood, region, nationality, religion, and/or sexual orientation.  For some reason we are drawn to and comforted by others that share physical resemblance, culture, attitude, values, history, important symbols, and affiliations.  Conversely, we are threatened by those in the outgroup.  Why is this?  What drives us to carve out, cast away and divide our fellow human beings into camps of “us” and “them?” Is it a byproduct of socialization or perhaps a part of our nature?

 

I saw this very clearly growing up in a small rural town in Western New York.  Even though we were all white middle class Christian kids for the most part, we effectively divided ourselves into camps – some actively participating in the parceling and others passively falling victim to it.  There were the popular kids, the tough kids, the village kids, and the farm kids.  And as we became more “sophisticated,” the parcels emerged with more universal group titles such as the heads, the jocks, the brains, the nerds, etc.  Some kids traversed multiple groups quite effectively while others fit into no group at all.

 

It wasn’t until I went to college that I was immersed with young adults who parceled out their peers in even more “enlightened” ways.  I went to SUNY Geneseo where the student body was very similar to that of my home town, again, largely a white middle class subset of New York State – but a bit more diverse geographically and religiously.  The most striking division was imposed by students from Westchester County, Long Island, and New York City who looked at their fellow New Yorkers emanating from any location west of the Hudson River as being inferior.  This “geographism” was shocking to me.  I was clearly in the inferior outgroup.

 

On top of that, there were sorority and fraternity groupings, valuations made by respect for one’s major, and more subtly by the size of the town one came from.  All this being said, I enjoyed college, learned a lot, and have great respect for the institution today.  I am not singling out any one town or university – I suspect that my experience was no different than that most kids encountered growing up.  The point is this – we are seemingly driven to parcel ourselves.  Even during my doctoral training in Cincinnati there was “geographism” whereby people from Kentucky (just across the Ohio River) were cast in a relative negative light by Ohioans much as New Yorkers downcast people from Pennsylvania or New Jersey.  On another level, think about the antipathy between cat lovers and dog lovers.  Then there are Yankee fans and Red Sox fans (insert any sports team where fans divide themselves with similar acrimony).  It is every where!

 

I was very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to respect diversity and not to judge others by group affiliation.  She spoke out against or talked with me privately so that I would not emulate other role models who were not so open minded.  I have always been thankful for her influence.  And because of her I have in maturity always tried to emulate her.  It’s not always easy – but I do try.  Something tells me that one’s level of prejudice is not simply a function of having a great role model or a bad one.  This tendency is so universal and plays out in very subtle ways that are not always evidenced as explicit overt racism or sexism.

 

Evidence, as it turns out, is increasingly supporting my hunch.  Group prejudices are evident even in pre-vocal babies (Mahajan, 2011). This growing body of research has been supplemented by an ingenious set of studies of prejudice in nonhuman primates published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The primary author, Neha Mahajan, from Yale University, was kind enough to share with me her paper entitled The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques.

 

The researchers conducted seven different in-vivo experiments to explore whether old world monkeys, with whom we shared a common ancestor more than 30 million years ago (Hedges & Blair, Ed., 2009), evidence human-like intergroup bias.  This preliminary work establishes that we do share this trait, suggesting that prejudice may in fact be a part of our very nature.  It appears that prejudicial thinking has been adaptive from an evolutionary perspective or at least has been a vestigial stow away linked with some other trait that has been naturally selected.

 

There is some danger in this notion.  If we accept prejudice as a part of our nature, we may be more inclined to devote less effort to address it from a social perspective.  The authors are careful to point out, however, that previous research has established that prejudices can be re-mediated  through exposure and teaching or conversely entrenched through poor modeling.  These results do not diminish the influence of nurture, instead the authors highlight the importance of understanding that our brains are pre-wired for prejudice.  I have discussed human prejudice before within the context of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) that suggests that our biases are implicit (unconscious).  Although implicit attributes are difficult to measure, there is good reason to believe that we do universally, inherently, and unknowingly harbor biases.  We must accept this and build programs upon this understanding with targeted evidenced based strategies to combat such erroneous thinking.  It is part of who we are – and once again, evidence of how flawed the human brain is.  Hate, bullying, homophobia, and racism – they all are part of our “monkey-brain.”  Here’s hoping we can rise above it.

 

References:

 

Grewal, D. (2011).  The Evolution of Prejudice: Scientists See the Beginnings of Racism in Monkeys. Scientific American: MIND. April 5.

 

Hedges, S. B., & Blair, S. (Eds.).  (2009).  The Timetree of Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Mahajan, N., Martinez, M. A., Gutiezzez, N. L., Diesendruck, G., Banaji, M., & Santos, L. R.  (2011).  The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 100, No. 3. 387-405.

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We all love a good story.  Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out.  It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature.  It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.   This latter tendency troubles me.  Why?  Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.

 

This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  Understanding this is paramount!

 

I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog.  I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs.  And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based.  I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain.  This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view.  I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity.  But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.

 

I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality.  Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us.  Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth.  Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.

 

Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs.  We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own.  I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature.  But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”

 

We as a species are better than that.  We know how to over come these inclinations.  We have the technology to do so.  It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively.  It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature).  It necessitates the scientific method.  It requires open peer review and repeated analyses.  It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle.  It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.

 

I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests.  Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.

 

My positions are not based on ideology!  They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.

 

Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference.  My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking.  This is a huge and critical difference.  Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one.  Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality.  Enough is enough!

 

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Tribal Moral Community

25 February 2011

We humans are a unique species – capable of both incredible compassion and unequaled brutality.  We are also unique in the degree to which we congregate in social communities.  Social Psychologists refer to this propensity to gather as we do, as being ultra social.  Unlike other ultra social species (e.g., wasps, ants, bees, termites, and naked mole rats) who band together in kin-based groups for procreation, we humans join together for other more complex reasons. (Haidt, 2008)  Those things that bind us, it is argued, are also the things that fuel our brutality.

 

We are particularly good at joining together when in competition with other groups (Haidt, 2011).  Evidence suggests that this has been true since the very beginning of humankind, and it is evidenced today by family loyalty (e.g., I can bad mouth my brother but an outsider cannot), cliques that form in schools (e.g., jocks, heads, nerds), by community organizations (Elks, Masons, Kiwanis, Rotarians), by the spirit surrounding high school, college, and professional sports teams, as well as by Churches (e.g., Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, Fundamentalists, Unitarians), Mosques (e.g., Shia and Sunni), and Synagogues (e.g., Orthodox Jews, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist).  We also see this in civic pride (by town, city, region, and state) national pride (patriotism), in the gatherings of individuals by racial affiliation, by sexual orientation, by professional affiliation, ancestral heritage, and political affiliation.  We bind together and join with people who share important beliefs, values, allegiances, interests, histories, and/or symbols.

 

There is substantial evidence to believe that this proclivity to be drawn together, and at the same time, to be divided into camps, is driven by morality.  We humans have evolved, it seems, innate moral values that transcend all cultures. I have discussed this in Political Divide, Moral Instinct, Moral Foundations Theory, and Human Nature at the Core of the Political Divide in an effort to understand the vast differences in thinking evidenced within and across our cultures.  Even among my family members, all of whom I dearly love, their are vast differences that often leave me perplexed.  Jonathon Haidt’s research on Moral Foundations Theory, his talk at TED, and his recent controversial statements about bias in the social sciences inspired this post and have helped me come to grips with the deep divisions throughout society and within my family.

 

First, I must provide a brief recap of Moral Foundations Theory.  According to Haidt (based on an extensive review of the research across multiple disciplines), the five universal morals include: (1) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (2) fairness/reciprocity (equal rights, justice, and fairness for all); (3) ingroup/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (4) authority/respect (clear lines of authority, uniform expectations, and appropriate deference to the law and authority figures); and (5) purity/sanctity (clear and pure social morals in step with piety, as well as revulsion of disgust/carnality).

 

You see, across the five universal morals, people differ in the degree to which they value each moral.   This is evidenced most clearly in Haidt’s research on the degree to which Liberals and Conservatives deviate on their weighting of the importance of each specific value.  See Political Divide for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

Click on Figure to enlarge

 

Liberals seem to value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity above the others, devaluing ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.  They look out for the little guy and highly value equal rights for all.  They also value diversity, are open to experience – tending to enjoy creativity and novelty.  They may see harm in overreaching government intrusion (e.g., Patriot Act), danger in blind nationalism, and the injustices in puritanical religions and free market capitalism (particularly for those at the bottom – namely: women, children, and minorities).  Think of places like New York City or San Francisco where diversity and creativity abound and are in many ways celebrated. Conservatives tend to look at the social entropy and degradation in such places as evidence of immorality.

 

Conservatives tend to hold all of the values on an equal level.  They do value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity but less so than Liberals.  But unlike Liberals, they do highly value ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.   As a result they tend to value social order, restraint, and conventions all held together by a strict authority.  They value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups (Haidt, 2008).  Liberals tend to view such systems as repressive, invasive, and constrictive.

 

Liberals and Conservatives join together in their respective camps forming what Haidt (2011) refers to as Tribal Moral Communities.  Such banding is not unique to those with strong political affiliations – this proclivity transcends society.  And what characterizes a Tribal Moral Community is a grouping of people who rally around sacred objects and principles (e.g., the flag, patriotism, freedom, religion) in such a way that their sacralized truths render them blind to the truths held by the outgroup.

 

Conflict and brutality can arise when the people rally around the certainty that their moral position is correct.  Threats to a Moral Tribal Community tend to incite its constituents to become intuitive theologians, employing reason not to find the truth but rather to defend their moral position.  They tend to circle the wagons around their belief systems becoming rigid and impervious to input (especially facts that challenge one’s position).  (Haidt, 2011)

 

To make this more concrete lets look at a few examples of Tribal Moral Communities.  Of particular note is the conservative stand denying anthropogenic global warming because of the implications it has on their free-market ideology. Belief in an ideology blinds adherents to the evidence.

 

Lets also consider the conflict between fundamentalist Christians and Scientists who contend that, based on a huge convergence of objective evidence from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, that the universe is over 13.67 billion years old, that the earth is 4.56 billion years old, and that all living organisms are interrelated, having evolved by means of natural selection to their current forms over billions of years.  Because the Bible is considered sacred text – scientific evidence that undermines the word of God is often vilified rather than objectively scrutinized.

 

And then there are the proponents of vaccines and the anti vaccine folks, Socialists and Capitalists, Free-Market and Keynesian Economists, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choice Advocates, the LGBT Community and religious conservatives, the Hutus’ and Tutsis of Rwanda, the Zaghawa and Tama tribes of Chad, the Sunni and Shia of Islam, Al Qaeda and the US, Iran and the US, North Korea and the US, and I could go on and on.  At the core of each of these divisions is a moral divide that stirs both binding forces that fuel patriotism and in-group loyalty and blinding forces that have the potential of negating the moral standing of, or even the humanity of those in the out-group.

 

It is this capacity that has fueled humanity’s most brutal behavior.  Picture in your mind, images from Auschwitz,from the lynchings of African Americans in the South, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and from 9/11.  All of these were fueled by moral authority.

 

Of course there are degrees of effect associated with Tribal Moral Communities.  Dr. Haidt has gone out on a limb to challenge his own professional community.  He has noted that according to Gallop polls over the last ten years, 40% of Americans consider themselves Conservative, 20% Liberal, and 38% Moderates.  Yet in the field of Social Psychology, approximately 90% are acknowledged Liberals – with less than 1% acknowledged Conservatives.  He contends that this narrow political perspective weakens the field, although he did not suggest that the research to date has been flawed.  He suggests rather, that it would likely be bettered if more conservatives were in the field to bring the richness of diversity that it currently lacks. (Haidt, 2011).

 

There are other important gradients to consider.  Here in the United States for example, rarely do Buffalo Bills fans and Miami Dolphin fans brutalize one another.  But African Americans, Gays, Jews, American’s of Middle Eastern descent, and even doctors employed at family planning clinics have not been so lucky.

 

Clearly morality binds, but is also blinds.  Every body believes that their moral perspective is the correct moral perspective, and given the brutality we see among us, it is certain that we all cannot be right.  Our certainty and righteousness unites us into teams that have the effect of amplifying that certainty and righteousness.  This binding also has the propensity to divide us and ultimately blind us to reality.  Therefore, for any sacralized issue, if we want the truth we must be willing to step away from ideology and open our minds to the possibility that we may be wrong or at least partially wrong and that the outgroup may be right or at least partially right.  That is the first step, if you are truly interested in the truth.

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Haidt, J., (2008).  The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. A Talk at TED.

 

Haidt, J. (2011).  The Bright Future of Post Partisan Social Psychology. Talk given at the annual conference for the Sociaty for Personality and Social Psychology.

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral InstinctThe New York Times. January 13, 2008.

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As I read Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature I was, for lack of a better word, flabbergasted, about the extent of acrimony that seemingly persists regarding the nature versus nurture debate.  This parley, from my naive perspective, was over long ago.  Yet Pinker detailed the extensive history to which some intellectuals, even today, attack the notion of any genetic contribution to traits such as IQ, behavior, political views, religious views, and personality.

 

For me there is very little question about the impact of genes.  It is clear as day in my family.  My daughter for example is very much like me.  And I see the influence of genes nearly every day in my practice.  As a psychologist with a specialty in evaluating and treating difficult to manage children (i.e., Autism Spectrum Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and ADHD), I often work with families who have an exceptionally strong willed and self directed child.  The children that have these latter traits, without Autistic like symptoms, are often classified as Oppositional Defiant.  Along with such independent mindedness, typically comes an explosive temperament and a highly sensitive and precocious level of personal dignity.   It is important to note that a vast majority of the time, the child is a proverbial chip off the ole-block: usually, the father was similarly quite difficult to manage as a youngster.

 

One with a nurture bias might suggest that my daughter and those oppositional children I see are simply products of their environment.  But here is what is interesting.  Often in the families I serve, there are other well behaved, well adjusted, and polite children.  To suggest that the environment uniquely and exclusively shaped the behavior and affect of the troubled child would suggest that there was a substantial level of differential parenting going on in the home.  This scenario is far too common to be a product of differentiated parenting style.  And thorough behavioral analysis almost always rules out this variable.  Socially, the parents are blamed for their bad kid, not because of their gene contribution, but because their alleged poor parenting practices.  Well, most often, poor parenting is not the cause of the problem!  And my daughter’s similarity to me unfolded despite my attempts to foster in her, her own unique identity and insufficient environmental influence.

 

The argument really is moot.  Genes do matter!  The evidence is substantial and it transcends the anecdotes I just shared.  Only those with an ideological position inconvenienced by this reality argue otherwise.  I actually prefer the idea that genes don’t matter.  It would give me greater capacity to affect change in homes given my behavior analytic skills.  It would also give me more hope that my daughter will not develop the same geeky interests that I have.  Too late!  She is a geology major.  Like me, she loves rocks.  It would also give me hope that she wont develop the same G/I ailments that have incapacitated me, my mother, and my grandfather. Again too late.  Sadly, the other day she had to buy some Tums.

 

People are uncomfortable with the idea that issues such as personality and IQ, for example, would have any genetic determinism.  It seems too limiting, too materialistic, and too deterministic.  People, I think, are more comfortable with the idea that they can affect change – that they can arrange outcomes, that the power is in our hands.  But the real power, it seems, is spread out – residing both in our hands and in our genes.  Environmental determinism, in fact, is more consistent with my political and social views, but no matter how inconvenient, I am compelled by evidence to soften my stance regarding this romantic notion.  How I wish that DNA did not enter the picture with regard to such issues.  Or do I?  Had it not, we wouldn’t be here to write/read such musings.  You’ve heard of the whole evolution by means of natural selection thing, haven’t you?

 

As it turns out, we are products of our genes and our environment.  No duh!  Debate over!  Right?  Nope!   I had assumed that it was commonly accepted that genes matter.  I had no idea that acknowledging this reality was in a sense sacrilegious to some.  Although Pinker made clear the debate, I suspected that perhaps this was an esoteric intellectual war of words limited to philosophical types with high brow notions about macro economic models and so on.  But, I became more aware of the lingering embers of environmental determinism as a result of a firestorm that erupted last week regarding an essay written by an environmental advocacy group spread about on Twitter and a subsequent article posted in the Huffington Post.  These articles essentially minimized genetic determinism in major health issues due to the failure of the Human Genome Project to isolate specific genes responsible for specific illnesses.  Out with the genes – in with the environment the proponents celebrated.   Environmental determinists pounced on the absence of evidence as if it were evidence of absence (Carmichael, 2010).  As it turns out, genes are really complex and diseases are influenced, it seems, by gene cohorts rather than any one specific gene.  I am less familiar with the research regarding genetic influence on disease but the tone of the banter reminded me of the debate about human nature detailed by Pinker.

 

I have discussed in several recent posts the impact of genes on important issues such as personality, adaptive functioning, and even political perspectives.  The psychologist Eric Turkheimer pulled together the unusually robust evidence from extensive studies of twins (fraternal and identical) reared together and apart as well as studies of adopted children relative to biological children and concluded that there are three important laws that help explain the development of personality characteristics and intelligence.   The three laws are as follows:

 

  1. All Human traits are heritable;
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes; and
  3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

 

These laws are best summarized based on current research from behavioral genetics as follows:

 

  1. Heredity accounts for about 50% of the variance in the adaptive functioning outcomes of children.
  2. The home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10%, and
  3. The child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%)  (Pinker, 2002).

 

Corresponding laws regarding the variants affecting diseases are perhaps unclear at this time.  But denial of genetic influence is much like the denial of the heliocentric theory of the solar system or the arguments put forth by Creationists and anti vaccine advocates.  They are guided by ideological notions that hang by a thin thread.  Something near and dear to the hearts of the proponents of exclusive environmental determinism is threatened by evidence.  The only recourse is denial.  Its an old and tired song and dance.  Genes matter – but not exclusively.  Environment matters – but not exclusively.  Get used to it.

 

References:

 

Carmichael, M. (2010). DNA, Denial, and the Rise of “Environmental Determinism”. Wild Type. http://marycarmichael.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/dna-denial-and-the-rise-of-environmental-determinism/#comments

 

Katz, D. (2010).  Is There a Genie in the Genome? The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/is-there-a-genie-in-the-g_b_792844.html

 

Latham, J., & Wilson, A. (2010). The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage? The Bioscience Resource Project Commentaries.  http://www.bioscienceresource.org/commentaries/article.php?id=46

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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Are you as perplexed as I regarding the acrimony in American Politics?  The rift is peppered with claims of amorality and threats of calamity.  It’s almost as if the opposing parties come from entirely different realities.  Perhaps they do.  I have gained some insight into the liberal-conservative divide thanks to Jonathon Haidt’s work, particularly his Moral Foundations Theory.

 

Haidt contends that the political divide itself boils down to five universal and transcendent morals held to varying degrees by individuals across all cultures and civilizations.  He demonstrated how these moral values group in predictable ways.  In particular, he has identified two dichotomous groupings that had been previously discussed respectively by John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim.

 

Haidt describes the first cluster as the Individualizing Foundation, where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals.  Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009).  The second cluster of values is referred to as the Binding Foundation, which weighs more heavily moral issues that increase social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.

 

Haidt noted that liberals value above all the Individualizing Foundation and hold a relative devaluation of the Binding Foundation.  Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to hold the Binding Foundation as being of equal relative importance as the Individualizing Foundations.  This conceptualization helped me understand why less affluent conservatives support the Republican agenda regardless of the negative economic impact that such support bestows upon them.  They vote based on values that resonate with them.  It also helps explain how people at each extreme can take a stand that they contend is morally superior while their adversaries are viewed as being unprincipled and amoral.  The reality is that each perspective stems from a position of deeply held principles.

 

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Rather than looking at this political divide in terms of morality, Pinker frames it in terms of divergent views of human nature. Underlying this political divide is a deeper and more rancorous debate about what defines human nature.  This issue is as old as civilization itself and was, for example, evident in the divergent lifestyles of the conflicted Greek City States of Athens and Sparta.  Pinker contends that the political divide really comes down to how individuals attribute the motives and behaviors of people in general. It is a very basic question of how one views the human race and what drives human behavior.

 

Pinker takes a stand against the commonly held notion that human nature is a blank slate shaped exclusively through environmental circumstances influenced by economic, political, and social forces.   The notion of a blank slate concedes social determinism, which is a position that is favored by liberals.  Evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience bring to the table substantial evidence that suggests that there are indeed genetic or biological determinants of behavior.  Accepting this reality comes with the dreadful reality that such notions guided the eugenics movement that resulted in the holocaust (and other horrible crimes of humanity).

 

As it turns out, political attitudes, for example, are largely, although not entirely, determined by heredity.  Pinker quotes a study of political attitudes among identical twins reared apart where the correlation coefficient was .62.  This suggests that genetics accounts for 38% of the determination of political attitude.  Such a notion is sacrilege to those on the left.  It is deeply disturbing for me, as one who leans heavily to the left on political issues, to learn that my inclinations to accept the findings of these increasingly powerful sciences at some level, distances me from other liberal thinkers.  How can this be?

 

You see, liberals emanate from the sociological tradition that holds the position that society “is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts.  People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism” (Pinker, 2002 p. 284).   On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold the belief that “society is an arrangement negotiated by rational, self-interested individuals.  Society emerges when people agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security from the depredations of others wielding their own autonomy” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).

 

The modern theory of evolution aligns best with the latter economic contract paradigm, where natural selection results in complex individual adaptations benefiting individuals rather than the species or community.  This theory holds that “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation” and that “reciprocal altruism, in particular, is just the traditional concept of the social contract restated in biological terms” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).  To make this dichotomy more clear it might help to think of the sociological tradition as being consistent with Marxist thinking while the social contract is more consistent with Milton Friedman’s free-market conservatism.

 

At the core of these paradigms are very different conceptualizations of human nature.  Thomas Sowell has captured this dichotomy in his book A Conflict of Visions where he delineates those visions as being either constrained or unconstrained.  Pinker adapted these labels to be more descriptive and thus refers to them respectively as Tragic (a term Sowell later adopted) and Utopian.  These visions refer to the “perfectibility of man” whereas the Tragic Vision holds that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue” and that as a result “all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.”   This  pessimistic view of human nature, is steeped in biological determinism and the acknowledgment of self interested motives. The liberal or Utopian View contends that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements.”  It is believed that economic deprivation elicits social depravity and that social engineering can eradicate the ills of society.

 

Sowell and Pinker suggest that these very visions of human nature shape the belief mechanisms or morals that result in divergent social policies.  For example, people who hold the Tragic Vision are more likely to support a strong military because of an inherent human selfishness and the inclination to compete for resources.  They are more likely to value religion, tough criminal sentences, strong policing, and judicial restraint because people need to be constrained in order to maintain an orderly and cohesive society.  Likewise, because of this pessimistic view of human nature, people inclined to hold such a view are likely to be censorious, meritocratic, pragmatic, and pro business.

 

People holding the Utopian View are likely to be idealistic, egalitarian, pacifistic, secularist, and more likely to tolerate homosexuality, to be in favor of the rehabilitation of criminals, judicial activism, generous social welfare programs, and affirmative action.  They are also more likely to be environmentalists. Pinker’s contention is that all these values, more or less, are heritable and that as a result, people are likely to hold them as self defining.  Subsequently, these beliefs are typically not amenable or susceptible to change because they are often held without a rationally based understanding of them.  Such deeply held (intuitive) and heritable attitudes quickly spark emotional responses when challenged and people do not move away from such notions even when reason compels them to do so.

 

So it seems, at the core of the contentious political divide there are discrepant realities pertaining to the very essence of what it is to be a human being.  And that essence is evolving regardless of the ideologies that shape the political climate.  Perhaps we can escape the gridlock by acknowledging the disconnect between ideology and reality and embrace a truer essence of humanity.  That reality, it seems, is a blend of the Tragic and Utopian Visions where human behavior is guided by both social and biological determinants.  Reality, as it turns out, is often queerer than one can suppose.

 

Breaking the chains of ideology necessarily involves abandoning and overpowering intuition, which is itself, a formidable task. But social morays have evolved over time as we have gained deeper insight into humankind. Lets hope for continued evolution!

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

 

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

 

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).

 

We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.

 

Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.

 

Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.

 

Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.

 

So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184).  Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178).  When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).

 

Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

References

 

Center for Disease Control. (2009). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Persons Aged 0 Through 6 Years. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/2009/09_0-6yrs_schedule_pr.pdf

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762

 

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman / Henry Holt and Company: New York.

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