When Americans gather together around a table groaning with favorite dishes on the fourth Thursday of November, what are we doing beyond filling our bellies with turkey and pie? We convened four experts in the psychology of family traditions and shared meals for a roundtable discussion about what ritual means in the context of Thanksgiving. Read More
A conspiracy theory is an invitation to an exciting alternative reality where nothing is quite as it seems. There is fun to be had defying conventional wisdom, sifting through signs, uncovering lost knowledge and secret plots. But we don’t generally believe stuff just for the fun of it. For us to really believe something it has to seem plausible.
How can we be so sure that our journey off the intellectual beaten path and down twisting trails of conspiracy theory has led us to the truth, while the scientific mainstream is deluded or deceptive? Sometimes all it takes is our own overly optimistic brain telling us we understand the world in far greater depth than we actually do.
In 1907, a Massachusetts doctor named Duncan MacDougall performed an unusual series of experiments. Intrigued by the idea that the human soul had mass, and could therefore be weighed, Dr. MacDougall put together a bed fitted with a sensitive set of beam scales, and convinced a series of terminally ill patients to lie on it during the final moments of their lives.
MacDougall was nothing if not detail-oriented: He recorded not only each patient’s exact time of death, but also his or her total time on the bed, as well as any changes in weight that occurred around the moment of expiration. He even factored losses of bodily fluids like sweat and urine, and gases like oxygen and nitrogen, into his calculations. His conclusion was that the human soul weighed three-fourths of an ounce, or 21 grams. Read More
It’s probably best to get the bad news out of the way first. The so-called scientific method is a myth. That is not to say that scientists don’t do things that can be described and are unique to their fields of study. But to squeeze a diverse set of practices that span cultural anthropology, paleobotany, and theoretical physics into a handful of steps is an inevitable distortion and, to be blunt, displays a serious poverty of imagination. Easy to grasp, pocket-guide versions of the scientific method usually reduce to critical thinking, checking facts, or letting “nature speak for itself,” none of which is really all that uniquely scientific. If typical formulations were accurate, the only location true science would be taking place in would be grade-school classrooms. Read More
We make a huge number of decisions every day. When it comes to eating, for example, we make 200 more decisions than we’re consciously aware of every day. How is this possible? Because, as Daniel Kahneman has explained, while we’d like to think our decisions are rational, in fact many are driven by gut feel and intuition. The ability to reach a decision based on what we know and what we expect is an inherently human characteristic.
The problem we face now is that we have too many decisions to make every day, leading to decision fatigue – we find the act of making our own decisions exhausting. Even more so than simply deliberate different options or being told by others what to do.
Why not allow technology to ease the burden of decision-making? The latest smart technologies are designed to monitor and learn from our behavior, physical performance, work productivity levels and energy use. This is what has been called Era Three of Automation – when machine intelligence becomes faster and more reliable than humans at making decisions.
One day in October 2010, at a school in the Gaibandha district of northwest Bangladesh, a pupil noticed that the label on a packet of crackers she was eating had darkened. Fearing the crackers were contaminated – “the devil’s deed”, as she put it – she almost immediately fell ill, complaining of heartburn, headache and severe abdominal pain.
The condition quickly spread among her fellow pupils, and later to other schools in the area. Yet toxicologists could trace no contaminant, and all those affected were quickly discharged from the hospital after doctors found no trace of illness. The following week, investigators diagnosed “mass sociogenic illness,” otherwise known as mass hysteria. The children, it seemed, had developed their symptoms simply because they had seen their classmates succumb.
Mass hysteria is thought to be an extreme example of a phenomenon that affects us all day-to-day: emotional contagion. Short of living in hermitic isolation, it is hard to escape it; we are vulnerable to the moods and behaviors of others to an extraordinary degree.
Emotional contagion caused the failure of successive banks at the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s, when investors suffered a collective loss of faith in the ability of these institutions to pay out. It is the force behind fuel crises, health scares and the spread of public grief (for example in Britain after the death of Princess Diana in August 1997). It is the reason why you are more likely to be obese if you have obese friends, and depressed if you are living with a depressed roommate.
But emotional contagion is not all bad – far from it. The mechanism behind it – our tendency to mimic each other’s expressions and behaviors – is crucial to social interaction. Without it, anything beyond superficial communication would be impossible.
“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. I’d like to broaden the definition of addiction—and also retire the scientific idea that all addictions are pathological and harmful.
Since the beginning of formal diagnostics more than fifty years ago, the compulsive pursuit of gambling, food, and sex (known as non-substance rewards) have not been regarded as addictions. Only abuse of alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, heroin, and nicotine have been formally regarded as addictions. This categorization rests largely on the fact that substances activate basic “reward pathways” in the brain associated with craving and obsession and produce pathological behaviors. Psychiatrists work within this world of psychopathology—that which is abnormal and makes you ill. Read More
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white American writer, underwent medical treatments to change his skin appearance and present himself as a black man. He then traveled through the segregated US south to experience the racism endured daily by millions of black Americans. This unparalleled life experiment provided invaluable insights into how the change in Griffin’s own skin color triggered negative and racist behaviors from his fellow Americans.
But what about the changes that Griffin himself might have experienced? What does it mean to become someone else? How does this affect one’s self? And how can this affect one’s stereotypes, beliefs and racial attitudes? That was the key question that my colleagues and I set out to answer in a series of psychological experiments that looked at the link between our bodies and our sense of who we are.
When considering extreme environments it is easy to make assumptions about personality, which on closer examination do not stand up to scrutiny. Take, for example, one of the best-researched personality dimensions: introversion-extraversion. Extraversion as a trait appears in all established psychological models of personality, and there is considerable evidence that it has a biological basis. The concepts of introversion and extraversion long ago escaped the conﬁnes of academic psychology and are widely used in everyday conversation, albeit in ways that do not always reﬂect the psychological deﬁnitions.
Broadly speaking, individuals who score highly on measures of extraversion tend to seek stimulation, whereas those who score low tend to avoid it. When asked to describe a typical extravert, most people tend to think of the lively ‘party animal,’ equating extraversion with a preference for social interactions. However, individuals who score highly for extraversion seek more than just social stimulation: they also tend to gravitate toward other stimulating situations, including active leisure and work pursuits, travel, sex, and even celebrity. Introverts, on the other hand, have a generally lower affinity for stimulation.
They ﬁnd too much stimulation, of whatever type, draining rather than energizing. Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy or fearful about social situations, unless they also score highly on measures of social anxiety and neuroticism.
On this basis, one might assume that extraverts would be drawn to extreme environments, where they could satisfy their desire for stimulating situations, whereas introverts would ﬁnd them unattractive. And yet, extreme environments may also expose people to monotony and solitude — experiences that extraverts would ﬁnd aversive, but which are tolerated or even enjoyed by well-balanced introverts. The point here is that simple assumptions about broad personality traits are unlikely to provide good explanations of why people engage in extreme activities.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
International airports are a busy place to be. Nearly 140,000 passengers pass through New York’s JFK Airport every day. The internal security of the country depends on effective airport checks.
All departing passengers pass through a series of security procedures before embarking their plane. One such procedure is a short, scripted interview when security personnel must make decisions about passenger risk by looking for behavioral indicators of deception.
These are referred to as “suspicious signs”: signs of nervousness, aggression and an unusual interest in security procedures, for example. However, this approach has never been empirically validated and its continued use is criticized for being based on outdated, unreliable perceptions of how people behave when being deceptive.
Despite these concerns, the suspicious signs approach continues to dominate security screening: the US government spends $200 million yearly on behavior-detection officers, who are tasked with spotting suspicious signs. This is a waste of money.