All posts filed under: Psychology

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 …

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of….What Exactly?

On June 28, the morning after her eyebrow-raising theatrics at the second Democratic debate, New Age high priestess-cum-presidential aspirant Marianne Williamson retweeted this: The power of your mind is greater than the power of nuclear radiation. Visualize angels dispersing it into nothingness. — Marianne Williamson (@marwilliamson) March 29, 2011 While Williamson’s candidacy is itself certain to disperse into nothingness, legible between the lines of the guru’s flakiness is a profound insight about the most misunderstood and misguided totem in American life: the idea that positive and/or happy thoughts foster positive and/or happy outcomes. The same belief in “mind power” that elicits groans and derision when rendered in 280 characters is woven through the fabric of American life. American culture has evolved a unique view of the mind’s relationship to the external world; not in the sense of an esoteric disquisition on the nature of consciousness, but rather in the sense of spoon-bending—a view of life wherein positive thinking enables us to bend life to our respective desires. Ergo: The attitude is the action. The belief …

Coming Together to Honor a Dead Rock Star—And Ward Off Our Own Demons

In May, 2018, Scott Hutchison, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit was found dead on the banks of Scotland’s Firth of Forth after having gone missing a day earlier. The final dispatches from his Twitter account indicated that this was not an accident or a case of misadventure. His suicide cut to the heart of the band’s fan community, a refuge for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse and heartbreak. Scott’s songwriting delved deep into the dirty facts of living, but was also marked by a tender optimism housed within an envelope of pain. Scott’s disappearance and then death caused fans to ask: What does this mean? If he couldn’t save himself through his music, how can it help the rest of us? In the months leading up to the news, I was in a bad place. Nothing in life felt right, and every day was a fight against hopelessness—to the point that even when good things happened, I would remain afraid or numb. During a visit to Montreal, I walked from …

Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards

It’s hard to discern the main point of William Edwards’s article The Academic Quarrel over Determinism, as his argument is discursive, confusing, contradictory, and sometimes misleading. In a first reading you may dimly perceive that he has a problem with determinism, and sees the negation of determinism as evidence for free will. But what does he mean by “free will”? He’s not explicit about it. Since he contrasts it with determinism, it appears that for Edwards free will means our physically uncaused ability to change our decisions so that, at a given moment, we could have done something other than what we did. And what does Edwards mean by “determinism”? He seems fixated on biological determinism—the view that all our actions are coded in our genes, a “DNA-driven view of the social world,” as well as a vision that “our future…is written in our DNA.” Edwards sees little or no influence of the environment on our actions: “Our trials and triumphs…are encoded in our DNA sequence.” But no biologist is a determinist in this sense, …

Bad Data Analysis and Psychology’s Replication Crisis

In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked playing aggressive video games to real-life aggression in a large sample of Singaporean youth. The study attracted considerable news media attention. For instance, a sympathetic article in Time magazine breathlessly reported its findings and suggested that brain imaging research found aggressive games change kids’ brains. But was the evidence from the Singapore study reliable? In recent years, concerns about the Singapore dataset have grown. UK scholars Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein recently wrote that the way the dataset had been used by the primary authors was problematic. The analyses from the same dataset kept changing across published articles in suspicious ways. These shifting analyses can be a red flag for the data massaging that may produce statistically significant outcomes and hide outcomes that didn’t work out. Such practices may be unintentional or unconscious (scholars are only human after all). But they do suggest that the results could do with further scrutiny. When the dataset became available to my colleague John Wang and me, we re-analyzed the …