Harvard Business Review: Researchers have confronted us in recent years with example after example of how we humans get things wrong when it comes to making decisions. We misunderstand probability, we’re myopic, we pay attention to the wrong things, and we just generally mess up. This popular triumph of the “heuristics and biases” literature pioneered by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has made us aware of flaws that economics long glossed over, and led to interesting innovations in retirement planning and government policy.
It is not, however, the only lens through which to view decision-making. Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has spent his career focusing on the ways in which we get things right, or could at least learn to. In Gigerenzer’s view, using heuristics, rules of thumb, and other shortcuts often leads to better decisions than the models of “rational” decision-making developed by mathematicians and statisticians.
Gerd Gigerenzer: Gut feelings are tools for an uncertain world. They’re not caprice. They are not a sixth sense or God’s voice. They are based on lots of experience, an unconscious form of intelligence.
I’ve worked with large companies and asked decision makers how often they base an important professional decision on that gut feeling. In the companies I’ve worked with, which are large international companies, about 50% of all decisions are at the end a gut decision.
But the same managers would never admit this in public. There’s fear of being made responsible if something goes wrong, so they have developed a few strategies to deal with this fear. One is to find reasons after the fact. A top manager may have a gut feeling, but then he asks an employee to find facts the next two weeks, and thereafter the decision is presented as a fact-based, big-data-based decision. That’s a waste of time, intelligence, and money. The more expensive version is to hire a consulting company, which will provide a 200-page document to justify the gut feeling. And then there is the most expensive version, namely defensive decision making. Here, a manager feels he should go with option A, but if something goes wrong, he can’t explain it, so that’s not good. So he recommends option B, something of a secondary or third-class choice. Defensive decision-making hurts the company and protects the decision maker. In the studies I’ve done with large companies, it happens in about a third to half of all important decisions. You can imagine how much these companies lose.
HBR: But there is a move in business towards using data more intelligently. There’s exploding amounts of it in certain industries, and definitely in the pages of HBR, it’s all about Gee, how do I automate more of these decisions?
GG: That’s a good strategy if you have a business in a very stable world. Big data has a long tradition in astronomy. For thousands of years, people have collected amazing data, and the heavenly bodies up there are fairly stable, relative to our short time of lives. But if you deal with an uncertain world, big data will provide an illusion of certainty. For instance, in Risk Savvy I’ve analyzed the predictions of the top investment banks worldwide on exchange rates. If you look at that, then you know that big data fails. In an uncertain world you need something else. Good intuitions, smart heuristics. [Continue reading...]
Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller write: It is possible to examine any object — including a brain — at different levels. Take the example of a building. If we want to know whether the house will have enough space for a family of five, we want to focus on the architectural level; if we want to know how easily it could catch fire, we want to focus on the materials level; and if we want to engineer a product for a brick manufacturer, we focus on molecular structure.
Similarly, if we want to know how the brain gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we want to focus on the bigger picture of how its structure allows it to store and process information — the architecture, as it were. To understand the brain at this level, we don’t have to know everything about the individual connections among brain cells or about any other biochemical process. We use a relatively high level of analysis, akin to architecture in buildings, to characterize relatively large parts of the brain.
To explain the Theory of Cognitive Modes, which specifies general ways of thinking that underlie how a person approaches the world and interacts with other people, we need to provide you with a lot of information. We want you to understand where this theory came from — that we didn’t just pull it out of a hat or make it up out of whole cloth. But there’s no need to lose the forest for the trees: there are only three key points that you will really need to keep in mind.
First, the top parts and the bottom parts of the brain have different functions. The top brain formulates and executes plans (which often involve deciding where to move objects or how to move the body in space), whereas the bottom brain classifies and interprets incoming information about the world. The two halves always work together; most important, the top brain uses information from the bottom brain to formulate its plans (and to reformulate them, as they unfold over time).
Second, according to the theory, people vary in the degree that they tend to rely on each of the two brain systems for functions that are optional (i.e., not dictated by the immediate situation): Some people tend to rely heavily on both brain systems, some rely heavily on the bottom brain system but not the top, some rely heavily on the top but not the bottom, and some don’t rely heavily on either system.
Third, these four scenarios define four basic cognitive modes— general ways of thinking that underlie how a person approaches the world and interacts with other people. According to the Theory of Cognitive Modes, each of us has a particular dominant cognitive mode, which affects how we respond to situations we encounter and how we relate to others. The possible modes are: Mover Mode, Perceiver Mode, Stimulator Mode, and Adaptor Mode. [Continue reading...]
Jerome Groopman writes: I began writing these words on what appeared to be an unremarkable Sunday morning. Shortly before sunrise, the bedroom still dim, I awoke and quietly made my way to the kitchen, careful not to disturb my still-sleeping wife. The dark-roast coffee was retrieved from its place in the pantry, four scoops then placed in a filter. While the coffee was brewing, I picked up The New York Times at the door. Scanning the front page, my eyes rested on an article mentioning Svoboda, the far-right Ukrainian political party (svoboda, means, I remembered, “freedom”).
I prepared an egg-white omelette and toasted two slices of multigrain bread. After a few sips of coffee, fragments of the night’s dream came to mind: I am rushing to take my final examination in college chemistry, but as I enter the amphitheater where the test is given, no one is there. Am I early? Or in the wrong room? The dream was not new to me. It often occurs before I embark on a project, whether it’s an experiment in the laboratory, a drug to be tested in the clinic, or an article to write on memory.
The start of that Sunday morning seems quite mundane. But when we reflect on the manifold manifestations of memory, the mundane becomes marvelous. Memory is operative not only in recalling the meaning of svoboda, knowing who was sleeping with me in bed, and registering my dream as recurrent, but also in rote tasks: navigating the still-dark bedroom, scooping the coffee, using a knife and fork to eat breakfast. Simple activities of life, hardly noticed, reveal memory as a map, clock, and mirror, vital to our sense of place, time, and person.
This role of memory in virtually every activity of our day is put in sharp focus when it is lost. Su Meck, in I Forgot to Remember, pieces together a fascinating tale of life after suffering head trauma as a young mother. A ceiling fan fell and struck her head:
You might wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and not know who you are. I don’t know. The accident didn’t just wipe out all my memories; it hindered me from making new ones for quite some time. I awoke each day to a house full of strangers…. And this wasn’t just a few days. It was weeks before I recognized my boys when they toddled into the room, months before I knew my own telephone number, years before I was able to find my way home from anywhere. I have no more memory of those first several years after the accident than my own kids have of their first years of life.
A computed tomography (CT) scan of Meck’s brain showed swelling over the right frontal area. But neurologists were at a loss to explain the genesis of her amnesia. Memory does not exist in a single site or region of the central nervous system. There are estimated to be 10 to 100 billion neurons in the human brain, each neuron making about one thousand connections to other neurons at the junctions termed synapses. Learning, and then storing what we learn through life, involve intricate changes in the nature and number of these trillions of neuronal connections. But memory is made not only via alterations at the synaptic level. It also involves regional remodeling of parts of our cortex. Our brain is constantly changing in its elaborate circuitry and, to some degree, configuration. [Continue reading...]
Lisa Guenther writes: I first met Five Omar Mualimm-ak at a forum on solitary confinement in New York City. He wore track shoes with his tailored suit. ‘As long as the Prison Industrial Complex keeps running, so will I,’ he explained. After hearing him speak about the connections between racism, poverty, mass incarceration and police violence, I invited Five to speak at a conference I was organising in Nashville, Tennessee. He arrived, as always, in a suit and track shoes. As we walked across campus to a conference reception, I worked up the courage to ask him how he got his name. He told me: ‘I spent five years in solitary confinement, and when I came out I was a different person.’
In an article for The Guardian last October, Five described his isolation as a process of sensory and existential annihilation:
After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.
There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.
There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of ‘recreation’.
Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.
The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.
Five’s experience of solitary confinement is extreme, but it’s not atypical. His feeling of disconnection from the world, to the point of losing his capacity to make sense of his own identity and existence, raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?
My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. [Continue reading...]
“Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion,” a paper recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, finds that half of Americans consistently endorse at least one conspiracy theory.
Tom Jacobs writes: It’s easy to assume this represents widespread ignorance, but these findings suggest otherwise. Oliver and Wood report that, except for the Obama “birthers” and the 9/11 “truthers,” “respondents who endorse conspiracy theories are not less-informed about basic political facts than average citizens.”
So what does drive belief in these contrived explanations? The researchers argue the tendency to accept them is “derived from two innate psychological predispositions.”
The first, which has an evolutionary explanation, is an “unconscious cognitive bias to draw causal connections between seemingly related phenomena.” Jumping to conclusions based on weak evidence allows us to “project feelings of control in uncertain situations,” the researchers note.
The second is our “natural attraction towards melodramatic narratives as explanations for prominent events — particularly those that interpret history (in terms of) universal struggles between good and evil.”
Stories that fit that pattern “provide compelling explanations for otherwise confusing or ambiguous events, they write, noting that “many predominant beliefs systems … draw heavily upon the idea of unseen, intentional forces shaping contemporary events.”
“For many Americans, complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal,” write Oliver and Wood. “A conspiracy narrative may provide a more accessible and convincing account of political events.”
That said, they add, “Even highly engaged or ideological segments of the population can be swayed by the power of these narratives, particularly when they coincide with their other political views.”
Nicholas Epley writes: One of the most amazing court cases you probably have never heard of had come down to this. Standing Bear, the reluctant chief of the Ponca tribe, rose on May 2, 1879, to address a packed audience in a Nebraska courtroom. At issue was the existence of a mind that many were unable to see.
Standing Bear’s journey to this courtroom had been excruciating. The U.S. government had decided several years earlier to force the 752 Ponca Native Americans off their lands along the fertile Niobrara River and move them to the desolate Indian Territory, in what is now northern Oklahoma. Standing Bear surrendered everything he owned, assembled his tribe, and began marching a six-hundred-mile “trail of tears.” If the walk didn’t kill them (as it did Standing Bear’s daughter), then the parched Indian Territory would. Left with meager provisions and fields of parched rock to farm, nearly a third of the Poncas died within the first year. This included Standing Bear’s son. As his son lay dying, Standing Bear promised to return his son’s bones to the tribe’s burial grounds so that his son could walk the afterlife with his ancestors, according to their religion. Desperate, Standing Bear decided to go home.
Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.
Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being. [Continue reading...]
Tom Jacobs writes: Pretty much all of us are prone to “bias blindness.” We can easily spot prejudice in others, but we’re oblivious to our own, insisting on our impartiality in spite of any and all evidence to the contrary.
Newly published research suggests this problem is actually worse than we thought. It finds that even when people use an evaluation strategy they concede is biased, they continue to insist their judgments are objective.
“Recognizing one’s bias is a critical first step in trying to correct for it,” writes a research team led by Emily Pronin and Katherine Hansen of Princeton University. “These experiments make clear how difficult that first step can be to reach.”
Although their findings have clear implications regarding political opinions, the researchers avoided such fraught topics and focused on art. In two experiments, participants (74 Princeton undergraduates in the first, 85 adults recruited online in the second) looked at a series of 80 paintings and rated the artistic merit of each on a one-to-nine scale. [Continue reading...]
Will Storr writes: For much of human history, our beliefs have been based on the assumption that people are fundamentally bad. Strip away a person’s smile and you’ll find a grotesque, writhing animal-thing. Human instincts have to be controlled, and religions have often been guides for containing the demons. Sigmund Freud held a similar view: Psychotherapy was his method of making the unconscious conscious, helping people restrain their bestial desires and accord with the moral laws of civilization.
In the middle of the 20th century, an alternative school of thought appeared. It was popularized by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist at the University of Chicago, and it reversed the presumption of original sin. Rogers argued that people are innately decent. Children, he believed, should be raised in an environment of “unconditional positive regard”. They should be liberated from the inhibitions and restraints that prevented them from attaining their full potential.
It was a characteristically American idea — perhaps even the American idea. Underneath it all, people are good, and to get the best out of themselves, they just need to be free.
Economic change gave Rogers’s theory traction. It was the 1950s, and a nation of workmen was turning into a nation of salesmen. To make good in life, interpersonal sunniness was becoming essential. Meanwhile, rising divorce rates and the surge of women into the workplace were triggering anxieties about the lives of children born into the baby boom. Parents wanted to counteract the stresses of modern family life, and boosting their children’s self-esteem seemed like the solution.
By the early 1960s, wild thinkers in California were pushing Rogers’s idea even further. The “human potential movement” argued that most people were using just 10 percent of their intellectual capacity. It leaned on the work of Abraham Maslow, who studied exceptional people such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and said there were five human needs, the most important of which was self-actualization—the realization of one’s maximum potential. Number two on the list was esteem.
At the close of the decade, the idea that self-esteem was the key to psychological riches finally exploded. The trigger was Nathaniel Branden, a handsome Canadian psychotherapist who had moved to Los Angeles as a disciple of the philosopher Ayn Rand. One of Rand’s big ideas was that that moral good would arise when humans ruthlessly pursued their own self-interest. She and Branden began a tortuous love affair, and her theories had an intense impact on the young psychotherapist. In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, published in 1969, Branden argued that self-esteem “has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.” It was an international bestseller, and it propelled the self-esteem movement out of the counterculture and into the mainstream.
The year that Branden published his book, a sixteen-year-old in Euclid, Ohio named Roy Baumeister was grappling with his own self-esteem problem: his Dad. [Continue reading...]
The Register reports: A group of Canadian researchers has given the imprimatur of social-science recognition to a fact that many of us who spend time in internet comment forums have suspected: there’s a strong correlation between online trolling and sadism.
“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!” write Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus of the Universities of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and British Columbia, respectively, in a paper to be published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
The researchers define trolling as “the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose,” referring to trolls as “agents of chaos on the Internet, exploiting ‘hot-button issues’ to make users appear overly emotional or foolish in some manner. If an unfortunate person falls into their trap, trolling intensifies for further, merciless amusement.”
The Canadian psychologists’ paper is entitled “Trolls just want to have fun”, which is not merely a bit of boffinary humor at the expense of Cyndi Lauper, but rather a reference to one of the researchers’ findings. “We found clear evidence,” they write, “that sadists tend to troll because they enjoy it.” [Continue reading...]
Douglas Hofstadter — Research on artificial intelligence is sidestepping the core question: how do people think?
Douglas Hofstadter is a cognitive scientist at Indiana University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
Popular Mechanics: You’ve said in the past that IBM’s Jeopardy-playing computer, Watson, isn’t deserving of the term artificial intelligence. Why?
Douglas Hofstadter: Well, artificial intelligence is a slippery term. It could refer to just getting machines to do things that seem intelligent on the surface, such as playing chess well or translating from one language to another on a superficial level — things that are impressive if you don’t look at the details. In that sense, we’ve already created what some people call artificial intelligence. But if you mean a machine that has real intelligence, that is thinking — that’s inaccurate. Watson is basically a text search algorithm connected to a database just like Google search. It doesn’t understand what it’s reading. In fact, read is the wrong word. It’s not reading anything because it’s not comprehending anything. Watson is finding text without having a clue as to what the text means. In that sense, there’s no intelligence there. It’s clever, it’s impressive, but it’s absolutely vacuous.
Do you think we’ll start seeing diminishing returns from a Watson-like approach to AI?
I can’t really predict that. But what I can say is that I’ve monitored Google Translate — which uses a similar approach — for many years. Google Translate is developing and it’s making progress because the developers are inventing new, clever ways of milking the quickness of computers and the vastness of its database. But it’s not making progress at all in the sense of understanding your text, and you can still see it falling flat on its face a lot of the time. And I know it’ll never produce polished [translated] text, because real translating involves understanding what is being said and then reproducing the ideas that you just heard in a different language. Translation has to do with ideas, it doesn’t have to do with words, and Google Translate is about words triggering other words.
So why are AI researchers so focused on building programs and computers that don’t do anything like thinking?
They’re not studying the mind and they’re not trying to find out the principles of intelligence, so research may not be the right word for what drives people in the field that today is called artificial intelligence. They’re doing product development.
I might say though, that 30 to 40 years ago, when the field was really young, artificial intelligence wasn’t about making money, and the people in the field weren’t driven by developing products. It was about understanding how the mind works and trying to get computers to do things that the mind can do. The mind is very fluid and flexible, so how do you get a rigid machine to do very fluid things? That’s a beautiful paradox and very exciting, philosophically. [Continue reading...]
Tom Bartlett writes: The former battery factory on the outskirts of Srebrenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia, has become a grim tourist attraction. Vans full of sightseers, mostly from other countries, arrive here daily to see the crumbling industrial structure, which once served as a makeshift United Nations outpost and temporary haven for Muslims under assault by Serb forces determined to seize the town and round up its residents. In July 1995 more than 8,000 Muslim men, from teenagers to the elderly, were murdered in and around Srebrenica, lined up behind houses, gunned down in soccer fields, hunted through the forest.
The factory is now a low-budget museum where you can watch a short film about the genocide and meet a survivor, a soft-spoken man in his mid-30s who has repeated the story of his escape and the death of his father and brother nearly every day here for the past five years. Visitors are then led to a cavernous room with display cases containing the personal effects of victims—a comb, two marbles, a handkerchief, a house key, a wedding ring, a pocket watch with a bullet hole—alongside water-stained photographs of the atrocity hung on cracked concrete walls. The English translations of the captions make for a kind of accidental poetry. “Frightened mothers with weeping children: where and how to go on … ?” reads one. “Endless sorrow for the dearest,” says another.
Across the street from the museum is a memorial bearing the names of the known victims, flanked by rows and rows of graves, each with an identical white marker. Nearby an old woman runs a tiny souvenir shop selling, among other items, baseball caps with the message “Srebrenica: Never Forget.”
This place is a symbol of the 1995 massacre, which, in turn, is a symbol of the entire conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The killings here were a fraction of the total body count; The Bosnian Book of the Dead, published early this year, lists 96,000 who perished, though there were thousands more. It was the efficient brutality in Srebrenica that prompted the international community, after years of dithering and half measures, to take significant military action.
While that action ended the bloodshed, the reckoning is far from finished. Fragments of bone are still being sifted from the soil, sent for DNA analysis, and returned to families for burial. The general who led the campaign, Ratko Mladic, is on trial in The Hague after years on the run. In a recent proceeding, Mladic stared at a group of Srebrenica survivors in the gallery and drew a single finger across his throat. Around the same time, the president of Serbia issued a nonapology apology for the massacre, neglecting to call it genocide and using language so vague it seemed more insult than olive branch.
Standing near the memorial, surrounded by the dead, the driver of one of those tourist-filled vans, a Muslim who helped defend Sarajevo during a nearly four-year siege, briefly drops his sunny, professional demeanor. “How can you forgive when they say it didn’t happen?” he says. “The Nazis, they killed millions. They say, ‘OK, we are sorry.’ But the Serbs don’t do that.”
Some Serbs do acknowledge the genocide. According to a 2010 survey, though, most Serbs believe that whatever happened at Srebrenica has been exaggerated, despite being among the most scientifically documented mass killings in history. They shrug it off as a byproduct of war or cling to conspiracy theories or complain about being portrayed as villains. The facts disappear in a swirl of doubts and denial.[Continue reading...]
BBC News reports: Smaller animals tend to perceive time as if it is passing in slow motion, a new study has shown.
This means that they can observe movement on a finer timescale than bigger creatures, allowing them to escape from larger predators.
Insects and small birds, for example, can see more information in one second than a larger animal such as an elephant.
The work is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.
“The ability to perceive time on very small scales may be the difference between life and death for fast-moving organisms such as predators and their prey,” said lead author Kevin Healy, at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Ireland.
The reverse was found in bigger animals, which may miss things that smaller creatures can rapidly spot. [Continue reading...]
William Saletan writes: To believe that the U.S. government planned or deliberately allowed the 9/11 attacks, you’d have to posit that President Bush intentionally sacrificed 3,000 Americans. To believe that explosives, not planes, brought down the buildings, you’d have to imagine an operation large enough to plant the devices without anyone getting caught. To insist that the truth remains hidden, you’d have to assume that everyone who has reviewed the attacks and the events leading up to them — the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, scientific organizations, peer-reviewed journals, news organizations, the airlines, and local law enforcement agencies in three states — was incompetent, deceived, or part of the cover-up.
And yet, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl points out, millions of Americans hold these beliefs. In a Zogby poll taken six years ago, only 64 percent of U.S. adults agreed that the attacks “caught US intelligence and military forces off guard.” More than 30 percent chose a different conclusion: that “certain elements in the US government knew the attacks were coming but consciously let them proceed for various political, military, and economic motives,” or that these government elements “actively planned or assisted some aspects of the attacks.”
How can this be? How can so many people, in the name of skepticism, promote so many absurdities?
The answer is that people who suspect conspiracies aren’t really skeptics. Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites. [Continue reading...]
Pacific Standard: When was the last time you engaged in unethical behavior? Be honest, now, and be specific: What time of day was it when you cheated on that test, lied to your spouse, or stole that item from the company break room?
If it was late afternoon or evening, you don’t have an excuse, exactly, but you certainly have company.
A newly published paper entitled The Morning Morality Effect suggests we’re more likely to act unethically later in the day. It provides further evidence that self-control is a finite resource that gradually gets depleted, and can’t be easily accessed when our reserves are low. [Continue reading...]
Katrin Bennhold writes: From a comfortable couch in his London living room, Sean O’Callaghan had been watching the shaky televised images of terrified people running from militants in an upscale mall in Kenya. Some of those inside had been asked their religion. Muslims were spared, non-Muslims executed.
“God, this is one tough lot of jihadis,” said a friend, a fellow Irishman, shaking his head.
“But we used to do the same thing,” Mr. O’Callaghan replied.
There was the 1976 Kingsmill massacre. Catholic gunmen stopped a van with 12 workmen in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, freed the one Catholic among them and lined up the 11 Protestants and shot them one by one.
Mr. O’Callaghan, a former paramilitary with the Irish Republican Army, has particular insight into such coldblooded killing.
On a sunny August day in 1974, he walked into a bar in Omagh, Northern Ireland, drew a short-barreled pistol and shot a man bent over the racing pages at the end of the counter, a man he had been told was a notorious traitor to the Irish Catholic cause.
Historical parallels are inevitably flawed. But a recent flurry of horrific bloodletting — the attack in Nairobi that left 60 dead, the execution by Syrian jihadis of bound and blindfolded prisoners, an Egyptian soldier peering through his rifle sight and firing on the teenage daughter of a Muslim Brotherhood leader — raises a question as old as Cain and Abel: Do we all have it in us?
Many experts think we do. For Mr. O’Callaghan, it was a matter of focus.
“What you’re seeing in that moment,” he said in an interview last week, “is not a human being.”
It is dangerous to assume that it takes a monster to commit a monstrosity, said Herbert Kelman, professor emeritus of social ethics at Harvard. [Continue reading...]
Steven Shapin writes: In the movie “Groundhog Day,” the TV weatherman Phil Connors finds himself living the same day again and again. This has its advantages, as he has hundreds of chances to get things right. He can learn to speak French, to sculpt ice, to play jazz piano, and to become the kind of person with whom his beautiful colleague Rita might fall in love. But it’s a torment, too. An awful solitude flows from the fact that he’s the only one in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, who knows that something has gone terribly wrong with time. Nobody else seems to have any memory of all the previous iterations of the day. What is a new day for Rita is another of the same for Phil. Their realities are different—what passes between them in Phil’s world leaves no trace in hers—as are their senses of selfhood: Phil knows Rita as she cannot know him, because he knows her day after day after day, while she knows him only today. Time, reality, and identity are each curated by memory, but Phil’s and Rita’s memories work differently. From Phil’s point of view, she, and everyone else in Punxsutawney, is suffering from amnesia.
Amnesia comes in distinct varieties. In “retrograde amnesia,” a movie staple, victims are unable to retrieve some or all of their past knowledge — Who am I? Why does this woman say that she’s my wife? — but they can accumulate memories for everything that they experience after the onset of the condition. In the less cinematically attractive “anterograde amnesia,” memory of the past is more or less intact, but those who suffer from it can’t lay down new memories; every person encountered every day is met for the first time. In extremely unfortunate cases, retrograde and anterograde amnesia can occur in the same individual, who is then said to suffer from “transient global amnesia,” a condition that is, thankfully, temporary. Amnesias vary in their duration, scope, and originating events: brain injury, stroke, tumors, epilepsy, electroconvulsive therapy, and psychological trauma are common causes, while drug and alcohol use, malnutrition, and chemotherapy may play a part.
There isn’t a lot that modern medicine can do for amnesiacs. If cerebral bleeding or clots are involved, these may be treated, and occupational and cognitive therapy can help in some cases. Usually, either the condition goes away or amnesiacs learn to live with it as best they can — unless the notion of learning is itself compromised, along with what it means to have a life. Then, a few select amnesiacs disappear from systems of medical treatment and reappear as star players in neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
No star ever shone more brightly in these areas than Henry Gustave Molaison, a patient who, for more than half a century, until his death, in 2008, was known only as H.M., and who is now the subject of a book, “Permanent Present Tense” (Basic), by Suzanne Corkin, the neuroscientist most intimately involved in his case. [Continue reading...]