All posts filed under: Psychology

Beware Your Innate Pessimist

With the COVID-19 lockdown upon us, anxiety and depression are on the rise. It would be irresponsible to downplay the risks that the novel coronavirus poses to America’s health and economy. But excessive pessimism is also in no one’s interest. Problems and their purported solutions must be evaluated dispassionately. Evidence, reason, and science rather than intuition or emotion must guide us during this difficult moment. Unfortunately, some of our most basic impulses evolved at a time when the world was very different from the one we now inhabit. “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind,” note Leda Cosmides and John Tooby from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Consequently, that mind can mislead us as we address today’s problems, including those of anxiety and depression, in ways that can have unintended and harmful consequences. What sort of “habits of the mind” have we developed over the hundreds of millennia we spent living in a world that was more inhospitable than our own? First, we have evolved to prioritize bad news. “Organisms that treat threats …

An Orwelexicon for Bias and Dysfunction in Psychology and Academia

In this essay, I introduce a slew of neologisms—new words—to capture the tone and substance of much discourse, rhetoric, dysfunction, and bias in academia and psychology. It’s partly inspired by an article entitled ‘Lexicon for Gender Bias in Academia and Medicine’ by Drs Choo and May in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), although that one was coming at this from a different perspective. They argued that “mansplaining” was just the “tip of the iceberg” and so coined terms such as “Himpediment,” defined as a “man who stands in the way of progress of women.”  Adminomania: A delusion that increased administrative and bureaucratic intrusions into people’s lives will actually improve something, fueled primarily by a pervasive blindness to unintended negative side effects. See Title IX. Athletic gynocide: The elimination from sports competitions of people identified at birth by doctors or other adults as female because they cannot successfully compete with people identified at birth by doctors or other adults as males but who identify as females. Bias bias: A bias for seeing biases, often manifesting as either claiming bias …

Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective-Taking?

Are humans hardwired for compassion? Glancing over my bookshelves, titles such as Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Altruistic Brain remind me that many of my scientific colleagues answer this question with an enthusiastic “yes.” Each of these books, in its own way, teaches that the animal designated Homo sapiens has evolved to care for strangers. It’s just part of who we are. If it doesn’t come effortlessly, all it takes is some patience and some practice. Attend a workshop. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read some fiction. Meditate. Read a book about compassion. Compassion is inside of you. You just need to nurture it. One of the ways we have been taught to nurture empathy is by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a suffering person. “Before you judge people, walk a mile in their shoes,” we exhort our compassion-challenged friends and family. And we parents regularly encourage our kids to imagine the feelings of the people who might be hurt by their self-centered behavior, hoping that our admonitions are …

Build Your Own Intellectual Oasis

Two years ago I started an experiment I would like to recommend to you. At the urging of my best friend, concerned not just about my happiness but my mental health, I went dark. Perhaps if enough people give this a try it could help pull our troubled culture out of its downward spiral. What do I mean by going dark? I’ve enjoyed a four-decade long career as an engineer, entrepreneur, and venture capital investor working with many others to help build the digital world in which we now live. As the years passed I became more of an “activist,” devoting increasing amounts of time, money, and attention to various issues and causes impacting the body politic. For 25 years I wrote regular opinion columns for publications like Network Computing and Communications Week, back in the pre-web days, transitioning to Forbes.com, the Huffington Post, RealClear Markets, the Daily Caller, and the Foundation for Economic Education in the digital age. As my tech career began winding down I spent half a dozen years as a fellow …

The Ranks of Gender Detransitioners Are Growing. We Need to Understand Why

A recent NBC News report warned that media coverage of detransitioners—formerly transgender individuals seeking to return to the gender associated with their biological sex—is misleading and potentially harmful. “No one disputes that transition regret does exist,” author Liam Knox writes. “However, trans advocates say some of the recent coverage around the topic portrays detransitioning as much more common than it actually is.” The article suggests that journalists are creating a “panic” about detransition, and fuelling the “misconception” that trans individuals are “just temporarily confused or suffering from a misdiagnosed psychological disorder.” Knox quotes Dr. Jack Turban, a psychiatric resident at Massachusetts General Hospital who researches the mental health of trans youth, to the effect that “affirming” a child’s gender transition in general (and providing puberty-blocking drugs, in particular) is usually the most prudent course of action—though the article does not offer evidence to support this assertion, nor specify how the associated risks and benefits might be compared. Readers of such articles might not realize that data regarding the medical transition of children and adolescents is …

Scandinavia: Can The New “Parental Team” Replace Marriage?

We all know the statistics: Children of divorced or separated parents underperform in school, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and have lower social mobility. A full list of the negative effects would require a lot of space. But the takeaway is that unless your partner is abusive or your home has become seriously dysfunctional, there are good reasons to stick it out for the children. But what if there were a way around these negative outcomes? Imagine some new, postmodern “parental team” that can take the place of a married couple when it comes to raising children. That is the new concept emerging from Sweden, where divorce has become common and socially accepted, with children moving frequently between two parental homes. According to the new book Divorcing With Children: Parents in Two Homes (Att skiljas med barn: föräldrar i två hem) by Swedish child psychologist, researcher and university lecturer Malin Bergström, research suggests that kids who move between two homes do almost as well as their peers with parents who live together. Her …

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 …