All posts filed under: Psychology

The Availability Heuristic and Mass Shooting Fears

Fear of mass shootings is becoming a source of pervasive anxiety for an increasing number of people in the United States. A recent APA survey of American adults found that 79 percent of respondents reported experiencing stress because of the possibility of a mass shooting; a third of the sample even said that this fear held them back from going to certain places and attending events. This widespread anxiety is starkly out of step with the level of risk presented by these events, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it. It’s easy to cite statistics about the number of people who die in mass shootings each year (372 in 2018 according to the Gun Violence Archive) and to reassure people that their actual risk of falling victim to a mass shooting is exceedingly low, yet, on its own, this sort of thinking does little to assuage fears. But why? Why doesn’t focusing on the numbers alleviate fear? And why are people so frightened of an event that poses such a minor overall risk? Part of the answer to these …

The Danger Is Real: Why We’re All Wired for ‘Constructive Conspiracism’

I once met a politician who told me that he believes water fluoridation is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public. I have been confronted by “truthers” who insist the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” engineered by the Bush administration. Others have regaled me for hours with theories about who really killed JFK and Princess Diana—not to mention the nefarious goings-on of the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, and the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) that secretly runs the United States. In the course of researching a 2012 BBC documentary, I spent a day in Las Vegas with a cohort of British conspiracists during their journey around the southwestern United States in search of UFOs and aliens, and the government facilities where their existence supposedly was covered up. One woman told me about the orange balls of energy hovering around her car on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. (Fortunately, they were chased away by …

The Dangerous Dream of Dismantling Human Hierarchies

It is an idea that has always united radicals, from the sans-culottes of the French Revolution to current student activists at the University of Missouri: they have all detested the scourge of social hierarchy, the peculiar fact that some people rank higher than others and enjoy privileged access to some resources—be they power, esteem, attention or financial reward. It is, of course, not only radicals of past and present who shun hierarchies. Even in the more polite circles of newsrooms, sociology departments or centrist party academies, there is broad agreement that abolishing hierarchies has to be a moral imperative. Prestigious philosophers, like, say, Elizabeth Anderson, who can in no way be associated with the radical fringes, demand the dismantling of social hierarchies. In effect, the discourse of social justice is now largely synonymous with outlining what an abolition of status hierarchies would involve and if you ever wanted to make enemies and alienate people try to suggest at the next board meeting: “Well, let’s introduce a clear, steep hierarchy for a change!” Yet at the …

The Misuse of Empathy Is Devaluing Pain

Pain is losing its meaning, and empathy is the culprit. Treating the pain of others as if it were one’s own has become less about relating to the anguish than demonstrating the empathizer’s piety. Spotlighting someone else’s suffering is now a means to an end, so it should come as no surprise that cultural and political appeals to humanity’s empathetic edge seldom produce the intended result; instead, it’s often divisive, self-centered, and unhelpful. Advocacy for change built on a transient emotional state is weak motivation for sustained action. Getting people to think about how they’d feel after following through with an action, however, is far more effective. Shifting those attitudes could be the key to combatting the nearsighted emotional surges that hijack a coherent sense of direction in Western culture. And it may reclaim the respect once held for pain—and the people who are experiencing it—in the process. Empathy is a fundamental human emotion that helps us to understand one another. Typically, it has been reserved for personal relationships, which helped to ensure sincerity. When …

Against Determinism—A Brief Reply to Jerry Coyne

In my previous Quillette article, I offered what was intended to be an intellectual history of agency, drawing partly upon the traditions of the continental school of philosophy. I contended that those intellectuals most resistant to deterministic explanations for human affairs are unconsciously, and fiercely, trying to protect the historical legacy of agency from normative determinism. I linked the rise of agency to the rise of secular-humanism, and argued that a belief in agency and free will could therefore be understood as a new version of Pascal’s Wager. This provided Coyne with a great deal of ammunition for his critique of my piece; he drew many parallels between my arguments for believing in free will and the apologetics offered by religious fundamentalists for their belief in God. However, the arguments for some notion of free will are about as hard to shake as the sense that we have it, and I don’t think they are shaken much by Coyne’s hard determinism. In this brief reply to Coyne, I’ll also take my cue from Ben Burgis’s …

‘Virtue Signalling’ May Annoy Us. But Civilization Would Be Impossible Without It

We all virtue signal. I virtue signal; you virtue signal; we virtue signal. And those guys over there, in that political tribe we don’t like—they especially virtue signal. (Just as they believe that we do.) Let’s not pretend otherwise. We are humans, and humans love to show off our moral virtues, ethical principles, religious convictions, political attitudes and lifestyle choices to other humans. We have virtue signaled ever since prehistoric big-game hunters shared meat with the hungry folks in their clan, or cared for kids who weren’t their own. Our descendants will continue to virtue signal to each other in Mars colonies, and on spaceships heading for other star systems. As humans colonize the galaxy, virtue signaling will colonize the galaxy. The phrase “virtue signaling” only became popular with the 2016 American election. Yet virtue signaling goes back millions of years, to the origins of human morality. And I’ve had a love/hate relationship with virtue signaling ever since high school. I was a precociously political kid. My parents talked a lot about politics around the …

Socialization Isn’t Responsible for Greater Male Violence

Earlier this year, Dr. Julia Shaw wrote an article for Psychology Today entitled, “Why Are We Not Outraged that Prisons Are Filled with Men?” in which she argues that there is something “pernicious” and deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates men at far higher rates than women. “Prison,” she explains, “has always been an almost entirely male structure. It’s hard. It’s cold. It’s unempathetic. It’s punitive. Practically every descriptor we use for prison prides itself in its masculinity.” Shaw says the heavily disproportionate incarceration reflects a lack of faith in men, who are then adversely affected by the experience of prison and the social stigma they are forced to carry upon release. And “what leads us to blindly accept that our prisons are full of men?” she asks. I think it’s because we accept as dogma that men are naturally more criminal—particularly more violent—than women, thus they deserve to be incarcerated at higher rates. It’s about time we question this assumption. As Shaw points out, men are overrepresented in prisons because they commit more …

Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements?

If people disagree about anything, it’s politics. In the United States, nearly half of all Republicans and Democrats say they “almost never” agree with the other party’s positions. Whether the topic is health care, the economy, foreign affairs, education, the environment, privatization, energy, or immigration, it seems nearly impossible for political opponents to agree. Disagreement is often a good thing for a healthy democracy. We expect values and preferences to differ in a pluralistic society, and reasonable citizens understand that people of good will can disagree about moral and political issues. For this reason, theorizing about liberal democracy has focused largely on disagreements concerning moral and political values, while taking for granted that citizens tend to agree on the facts. But is this assumption still valid? Today, partisan disagreements seem to go beyond political values and even include disputes about obvious matters of fact. Consider the issue of climate change. The extent and causes of climate change is a scientific issue that should be settled independently of one’s political beliefs. Yet politics seems to drive …

The Deadly Boredom of ‘A Meaningless Life’

Remember when the scariest kid in your neighborhood was the football jock who terrorized the high school with his minions in tow, and got bailed out by his rich parents when he went too far? Or it was the gothic malcontent with the switchblade and the swagger. Either way, what made these high-status alphas so terrifying was that they came at you in numbers. They travelled in packs. This has been our narrative, in the stories we tell—from Henry Bowers in Stephen King’s It, to Biff Tannen in Back to the Future, to Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things, central-casting bullies attracted followers. They belonged. As any grade eight schoolgirl who’s been bullied off Instagram can attest, this stereotype still holds. But when it comes to the most dangerous and sociopathic actors, the opposite is true. All three of the young mass shooters who terrorized the United States in recent nationally reported scenes of carnage—Connor Betts in Dayton, Ohio; Patrick Crusius in El Paso, Texas; and Santino William Legan in Gilroy, California—acted alone. The old image …

The Other Crisis in Psychology

In July 2019, Christopher Ferguson published an article in Quillette on the replication crisis in psychology. As an academic psychologist, I appreciated his clear and concise discussion of some of the difficult issues facing psychology’s growth as a science, including publication bias and the sensationalizing of weak effects. I believe a related, but perhaps less-recognized, illness plagues psychology and related disciplines (including the health sciences, family studies, sociology, and education). That illness is the conflation of correlation with causation, and the latest research suggests that scientists, and not lay people and the media, are the underlying culprits. Correlation and Causation We have probably all heard the cliché “Correlation is not causation.” Of the criteria for documenting that one variable causes a change in another variable, correlation is just the first of three. That is, the first criterion for documenting that one variable causes a change in another variable is evidence that the two variables covary together: as one goes up, the other tends to, too (a positive correlation; for example, students who score high on …