Imaginary conversations with imaginary atheists can reduce mistrust of real atheists

Pacific Standard reports: They’re feared and often loathed, viewed as non-conformists who pose a threat to our nation’s moral compass. But if more were open about their inclinations, and engaged in congenial conversation with members of the mistrusting majority, that prejudice might start melting away.

It happened with gays and lesbians. Perhaps it’s time for atheists to give it a try.

That’s one implication of newly published research, which reports simply imagining a positive interaction with an atheist is enough to increase willingness to engage and cooperate with them. [Continue reading…]

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The significance of ‘untranslatable’ words

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Tim Lomas writes: [‘untranslatable’] words exert great fascination, not only in specialised fields like linguistics or anthropology (Wierzbicka, 1999), but also in popular culture. Part of the fascination seems to derive from the notion that such words offer ‘windows’ into other cultures, and thus potentially into new ways of being in the world. As Wierzbicka (1997, p. 5) puts it, ‘words with special, culture-specific meanings reflect and pass on not only ways of living characteristic of a given society, but also ways of thinking’. Thus, ‘untranslatable’ words are not only of interest to translators; after all, many such professionals argue that it can be difficult to find exact translations for most words, and that nearly all terms lose some specificity or nuance when rendered in another tongue (Hatim & Munday, 2004). Rather, ‘untranslatability’ reflects the notion that such words identify phenomena that have only been recognised by specific cultures. Perhaps the most famous example is Schadenfreude, a German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words are not literally untranslatable, of course, since their meaning can be conveyed in a sentence. Rather, they are deemed ‘untranslatable’ to the extent that other languages lack a single word/phrase for the phenomenon.

The significance of such words is much debated. A dominant theoretical notion here is ‘linguistic relativity’ (Hussein, 2012). First formulated by the German philosophers Herder (1744–1803) and Humboldt (1767–1835), it came to prominence with the linguist Sapir (1929) and his student Whorf (1940). Their so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ holds that language plays a constitutive role in the way that people experience, understand and even perceive the world. As Whorf (1956, pp. 213–214) put it, ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native languages … The world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized … largely by the linguistic systems in our minds’. This hypothesis comes in various strengths. Its stronger form is linguistic determinism, where language inextricably constitutes and constrains thought. For instance, Whorf argued that the Hopi people had a different experience of time due to particularities in their grammar, such that they lacked a linear sense of past, present and future. This strong determinism has been criticised, e.g. by Pinker (1995), who argued that the Hopi experience of time was not particularly different to that of Western cultures. However, the milder form of the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, simply holds that language shapes thought and experience. This milder hypothesis is generally accepted by most anthropologists and other such scholars (Perlovsky, 2009). [Read more…]

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Forgotten excrementitious humours of the third concoction shed by the English

Erica Wagner writes: Helen Maria Williams observed the French Revolution at first hand. A poet, essayist and novelist known for her support of radical causes, she entertained the likes of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft in her salons. Among the things she perceived, in her accounts of political turmoil across the English Channel, were differences in national character when it came to expressing emotion.

“You will see Frenchmen bathed in tears at a tragedy,” she wrote in 1792. “An Englishman has quite as much sensibility to a generous or tender sentiment; but he thinks it would be unmanly to weep; and, though half choaked with emotion, he scorns to be overcome, contrives to gain the victory over his feelings, and throws into his countenance as much apathy as he can well wish.”

And so you would be forgiven for thinking that the stiff upper lip – the complete refusal of lachrymosity, no matter what disaster befalls us – has been paralysing the faces of Britishers since Stonehenge was raised on Salisbury Plain. But, as Thomas Dixon shows in his erudite and entertaining book Weeping Britannia, you would be wrong. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, this nation was given to paroxysms of sobbing at almost any opportunity. Dixon, a historian of emotions, philosophy, science and religion (phew!) at Queen Mary, University of London, asks what dried our tears and wonders whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 unlocked the floodgates again.

Both he and Tiffany Watt Smith, in The Book of Human Emotions, offer a reminder that “emotion” is a pretty novel idea. [Continue reading…]

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The sound of beauty in sadness

Princess Ojiaku writes: Sad music might make people feel vicarious unpleasant emotions, found a study published last year in Frontiers in Psychology. But this experience can ultimately be pleasurable because it allows a negative emotion to exist indirectly, and at a safe distance. Instead of feeling the depths of despair, people can feel nostalgia for a time when they were in a similar emotional state: a non-threatening way to remember a sadness.

People who are very empathetic are more likely to take pleasure in the emotional experience of sad music, according to another study in Frontiers of Psychology. Others enjoy sad songs because they help them return to an emotionally balanced state, according to a review in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, published in 2015. And those more open to varied experiences might enjoy the songs because the unique emotions that come up when listening to the music fulfill their need for novelty in thoughts and feelings.

In fact, the quest for variety could also explain why some people crave dissonant or experimental music full of uneven, cacophonous or downright disorienting sound. Musical genres such as noise, no wave and experimental rock have a dedicated fan and artist base in thriving underground scenes. Research suggests that people who are more open to novelty are more likely to take pleasure in the uncommon elements found in these non-traditional types of music. A 2012 study in Psychology of Music found a positive correlation between openness to experience and liking jazz, a genre that often defies a traditional pop structure. [Continue reading…]

Arve Henriksen, voice and trumpet, from his album, Chiaroscuro, with an excerpt from the film, Labyrinth of Dreams.

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Babies have more acute powers of perception than adults

Science News reports: Six-month-old babies can spot subtle differences between two monkey faces easy as pie. But 9-month-olds — and adults — are blind to the differences. In a 2002 study of facial recognition, scientists pitted 30 6-month-old babies against 30 9-month-olds and 11 adults. First, the groups got familiar with a series of monkey and human faces that flashed on a screen. Then new faces showed up, interspersed with already familiar faces. The idea is that the babies would spend more time looking at new faces than ones they had already seen.

When viewing human faces, all of the observers, babies and adults alike, did indeed spend more time looking at the new people, showing that they could easily pick out familiar human faces. But when it came to recognizing monkey faces, the youngsters blew the competition out of the water. Six-month-old babies recognized familiar monkey faces and stared at the newcomers longer. But both adults and 9-month-old babies were flummoxed, and looked at the new and familiar monkey faces for about the same amount of time.

Superior visual skills don’t apply to just faces, either. Three- to 4-month-old babies can see differences in lighting that are undetectable to adults. This ephemeral superskill evaporates just months later, scientists reported in December in Current Biology. To test babies’ visual acuity, researchers led by Jiale Yang of Chuo University in Tokyo first generated a series of 3-D pictures of snails. The shiny snails were made to look as though light was hitting them from different places. Like adults, 5- to 6-month-old babies couldn’t spot the lighting differences. But younger babies could, the team found. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump and the politics of disgust

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Alexander Hurst writes: In 2012, a team of academics from Europe and the U.S. — Yoel Inbar, David Pizarro, Ravi Iyer, and Jonathan Haidt — published a paper titled “Disgust Sensitivity, Political Conservatism, and Voting,” looking at the role disgust plays in political orientation. The researchers posited three different types of disgust: interpersonal disgust (i.e., the feeling produced by drinking from the same cup as someone else); core disgust (the response to maggots, vomit, dirty toilets, etc.); and animal-reminder disgust (how we react to corpses, blood, anything that evokes our animal nature).

Disgust, they write, “serves to discourage us from ingesting noxious or dangerous substances,” but also plays a role in moral and social judgments. Those who feel more disgusted by unpleasant images, smells, or tastes judge more harshly that which violates their subjective moral code.

The team had respondents position themselves on a political scale from conservative to liberal. The respondents then stated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like “I never let any part of my body touch the toilet seat in a public washroom,” and rated other hypotheticals according to the level of disgust they generated. Even when controlling for age, education, geography, and religious belief, individuals with higher “disgust sensitivity” were found to be more likely to tolerate wealth inequality, view homosexuality negatively, and place more belief in authoritarian leaders and systems.

Most strikingly, interpersonal disgust was an important predictor of anti-immigrant attitudes.

Trump, of course, is a well-known, admitted germaphobe. “One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal. “I happen to be a clean hands freak. I feel much better after I thoroughly wash my hands, which I do as much as possible.”

Trump even described shaking hands as “barbaric” in an interview with Dateline in 1999, saying, “They have medical reports all the time. Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch it, you catch all sorts of things. Who knows what you don’t catch?”

Beyond the aversion to hand-shaking, Trump used to pre-test his dates for AIDS, and reportedly avoids pushing elevator buttons.

The connection between modern xenophobia, disgust sensitivity, and the strength of Trump’s campaign is fairly easy to make. As Inbar, Pizarro, Iyer, and Haidt point out, “Disgust evolved not just to protect individuals form oral contamination by potential foods, but also from the possibility of contamination by contact with unfamiliar individuals or groups.” And after all, Trump’s success has come not from presenting voters with detailed policy proposals, but from connecting with them on a gut level. [Continue reading…]

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Stress amplifies the illusion of control

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Bob Henderson writes: I’d lost almost $200 million in October. November wasn’t looking any better.

It was 2008, after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Markets were in turmoil. Banks were failing left and right. I worked at a major investment bank, and while I didn’t think the disastrous deal I’d done would cause its collapse, my losses were quickly decimating its commodities profits for the year, along with the potential pay of my more profitable colleagues. I thought my career could be over. I’d already started to feel those other traders and salespeople keeping their distance, as if I’d contracted a disease.

I landed in London on the morning of November 4, having flown overnight from New York. I was a derivatives trader, but also the supervisor of the bank’s oil options trading team, about a dozen guys split between Singapore, London, and New York. Until this point I’d managed the deal almost entirely on my own, making the decisions that led to where I … we … were now. But after a black cab ride from Heathrow to our Canary Wharf office, I got the guys off the trading floor and into a windowless conference room and confessed: I’d tried everything, but the deal was still hemorrhaging cash. Even worse, it was sprouting new and thorny risks outside my area of expertise. In any case, the world was changing so quickly that my area of expertise was fast becoming obsolete. I pleaded for everyone to pitch in. I said I was open to any ideas.

As I spoke, I noticed that one of the guys had tears welling up in his eyes. I paused for a second, stunned. Then my own eyes started to fill from a sudden wash of gratitude and relief that came, I think, from no longer being alone.

Stress testing is a standard technique derivatives traders use to test how their portfolio will perform in an imagined “worst-case” scenario. The problem is that “worst-case” is subjective, making stress testing as much of an art as a science, and exposing the trader doing the testing to something called the “illusion of control.” [Continue reading…]

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Fear of terrorism may cause more physical harm than terrorism itself

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Melissa Dahl reports: On Tuesday morning, kids all over Los Angeles arrived at school only to be told to turn around and go back home. Every last school in the Los Angeles Unified School District was closed on Tuesday as a result of a bomb threat that warned of an impending attack on “not one school, but many schools in the district,” superintendent Ramon Cortines said.

The threat is now thought to have been a hoax, something New York authorities — who received a similar message — had already suspected. “These threats are made to promote fear … we can not allow us to raise the levels of fear,” Police Commissioner William Bratton said. But in some ways, whether or not the threat was real is almost beside the point. Either way, the fear is real, and that alone can be dangerous. The latest medical research suggests that, over the years, simply being afraid of terror — even if you never actually witness any sort of attack — may be enough to trigger measurable, physiological harm.

That finding comes from a study published late last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by a team of physicians at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The researchers gathered 11 years’ worth of data from more than 17,000 healthy Israeli adults, who had completed multiple physical health tests as well as surveys measuring their fear of terror. (For example, they were asked how strongly they worried about a terror strike harming themselves or their family, and how tense they felt when in a crowd.)

Their results showed that those who feared terror the most were also most likely to show signs of poorer cardiovascular health — specifically, a resting heart rate that increased over the years. A person’s resting heart rate — their pulse, in other words — typically decreases with age, and a heart that beats 60 times per minute is considered normal. In contrast, some of the people in this study who feared terrorism the most had a resting heart rate as high as 80 beats per minute. An increased heart rate signals a higher risk for cardiac problems, like heart attacks or strokes, and as the Washington Post noted, previous research has found that people “whose resting heart rate rose by 15 beats per minute were 90 percent more likely to die” over the course of a two-year study. And here’s another striking part of this research: These people in the survey suffered real, physical damage because of their anxiety over terrorism, even though none of them had ever actually witnessed an act of terrorism themselves. [Continue reading…]

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America’s gun problem has everything to do with America’s masculinity problem

Elizabeth Winkler writes: After US president Obama’s call for restrictions on assault weapons on Dec. 6, Americans went gun shopping.

That Monday, The New York Times reports that stock prices for gun makers Smith & Wesson and Ruger soared. Guns sold well on Black Friday, too, the day after three people were shot dead at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and just two weeks after terrorists killed more than one hundred in coordinated attacks in Paris. In fact, gun sales have been rising steadily all year, as though determined to keep pace with the growing frequency of high-profile shootings.

But who exactly are America’s gun owners?

According to a Pew survey conducted in 2014, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to be members of a gun-owning household. Gun owners are also geographically spread out: They’re just as likely to live in the Midwestern US (38%) as they are to live in on the West Coast (35%), or the South (34%), debunking the myth that gun ownership is more prevalent in southern states. (In the Northeast, by contrast, gun ownership is lower, at around 27%.)

Above all, though, gun owners are men. It is true that gun sales are rising among women, but a substantial gender gap persists: In 2013, men are around three times as likely as women to own a gun. [Continue reading…]

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How a joke can help us unlock the mystery of meaning in language

By Vyvyan Evans, Bangor University

What do you get if you cross a kangaroo with an elephant?

You’ll have to wait for the punchline, but you should already have shards of meaning tumbling about your mind. Now, jokes don’t have to be all that funny, of course, but if they are to work at all then they must construct something beyond the simple words deployed.

Language is the tissue that connects us in our daily social lives. We use it to gossip, to get a job, and give someone the sack. We use it to seduce, quarrel, propose marriage, get divorced and yes, tell the odd gag. In the absence of telepathy, it lets us interact with our nearest and dearest, and in our virtual web of digital communication, with hundreds of people we may never have met.

But while we now know an awful lot about the detail of the grammatical systems of the world’s 7,000 or so languages, scientific progress on the mysterious elixir of communication – meaning – has been a much tougher nut to crack.

[Read more…]

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Is Facebook luring you into being depressed?

Chelsea Wald writes: In his free time, Sven Laumer serves as a referee for Bavaria’s highest amateur football league. A few years ago, he noticed several footballers had quit Facebook, making it hard to organize events on the platform. He was annoyed, but as a professor who studies information systems, he was also intrigued. Why would the young men want to give up Facebook? Social scientists had been saying the social network was a good thing.

“At the time, the main paradigm in social networking research was that Facebook is a positive place, it’s a place of happiness, it’s a place where you have fun, you get entertained, you talk to friends, you feel amused, accepted,” says Hanna Krasnova, an information systems researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Influential studies had shown that the social capital we earn on social media can be key to our successes, big and small. Our virtual connections were known to help us access jobs, information, emotional support, and everyday favors. “Everyone was enthusiastic about social media,” Laumer says.

Laumer, an assistant professor at Otto-Friedrich University in Germany, suspected that quitting Facebook was a classic response to stress. He knew other researchers had looked at something called “technostress,” which crops up in workplaces due to buggy interfaces or complex processes. But that didn’t really fit with Facebook, which is easy to use. Something else seemed to be stressing people out. “We thought there was a new phenomenon on social media in particular,” Laumer says.

Through probing interviews, surveys, longitudinal studies, and laboratory experiments, researchers have begun to shift the paradigm, revealing that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and their ilk are places not only of fun and success, but of dark, confronting, and primal human emotions—less Magic Kingdom and more creepy fun house. In many ways, researchers say, these platforms are giant experiments on one of our species’ most essential characteristics: our social nature. So it shouldn’t be a surprise there are unintended consequences. [Continue reading…]

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Why futurism has a cultural blindspot

Tom Vanderbilt writes: In early 1999, during the halftime of a University of Washington basketball game, a time capsule from 1927 was opened. Among the contents of this portal to the past were some yellowing newspapers, a Mercury dime, a student handbook, and a building permit. The crowd promptly erupted into boos. One student declared the items “dumb.”

Such disappointment in time capsules seems to run endemic, suggests William E. Jarvis in his book Time Capsules: A Cultural History. A headline from The Onion, he notes, sums it up: “Newly unearthed time capsule just full of useless old crap.” Time capsules, after all, exude a kind of pathos: They show us that the future was not quite as advanced as we thought it would be, nor did it come as quickly. The past, meanwhile, turns out to not be as radically distinct as we thought.

In his book Predicting the Future, Nicholas Rescher writes that “we incline to view the future through a telescope, as it were, thereby magnifying and bringing nearer what we can manage to see.” So too do we view the past through the other end of the telescope, making things look farther away than they actually were, or losing sight of some things altogether.

These observations apply neatly to technology. We don’t have the personal flying cars we predicted we would. Coal, notes the historian David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old, was a bigger source of power at the dawn of the 21st century than in sooty 1900; steam was more significant in 1900 than 1800.

But when it comes to culture we tend to believe not that the future will be very different than the present day, but that it will be roughly the same. Try to imagine yourself at some future date. Where do you imagine you will be living? What will you be wearing? What music will you love?

Chances are, that person resembles you now. As the psychologist George Lowenstein and colleagues have argued, in a phenomenon they termed “projection bias,” people “tend to exaggerate the degree to which their future tastes will resemble their current tastes.” [Continue reading…]

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Is there anything wrong with men who cry?

Sandra Newman writes: One of our most firmly entrenched ideas of masculinity is that men don’t cry. Although he might shed a discreet tear at a funeral, and it’s acceptable for him to well up when he slams his fingers in a car door, a real man is expected to quickly regain control. Sobbing openly is strictly for girls.

This isn’t just a social expectation; it’s a scientific fact. All the research to date finds that women cry significantly more than men. A meta-study by the German Society of Ophthalmology in 2009 found that women weep, on average, five times as often, and almost twice as long per episode. The discrepancy is such a commonplace, we tend to assume it’s biologically hard-wired; that, whether you like it or not, this is one gender difference that isn’t going away.

But actually, the gender gap in crying seems to be a recent development. Historical and literary evidence suggests that, in the past, not only did men cry in public, but no one saw it as feminine or shameful. In fact, male weeping was regarded as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history. [Continue reading…]

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The dangerous idea that life is a story

Galen Strawson writes: ‘Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’

So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.

I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves. [Continue reading…]

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Oliver Sacks, casting light on the interconnectedness of life

Michiko Kakutani writes: It’s no coincidence that so many of the qualities that made Oliver Sacks such a brilliant writer are the same qualities that made him an ideal doctor: keen powers of observation and a devotion to detail, deep reservoirs of sympathy, and an intuitive understanding of the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the intricate connections between the body and the mind.

Dr. Sacks, who died on Sunday at 82, was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life — the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.

In his writings, as he once said of his mentor, the great Soviet neuropsychologist and author A. R. Luria, “science became poetry.” [Continue reading…]

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