All posts filed under: Psychology

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 Hutchinson, 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 …

She Did Not Go Gently

In August 2017, my wife Buffy was diagnosed with early onset colon cancer. She was 41 years old. In April 2019, she passed away. Our five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son lost their mother. I lost my best friend. She and I were together half of our lives, married 18 of them. She did not want to die. She was an amazingly accomplished woman. Girl Scout Gold at 16, national first vice president of the Children of the American Revolution, and president of the university chapter of the Society of Women Engineers in undergrad. Bachelors in civil engineering from Georgia Tech, masters in construction management from Stanford, certified construction estimator. She built buildings. Big ones. Cool ones, that everybody loves. She was a talented woman in a male dominated industry. To my knowledge, she succeeded at every single thing she ever set her mind to, save beating cancer. Her face lives in the Atlanta skyline. There was never any hope, if we’re being objective. Her first CT scan showed a major obstruction of the colon, twenty …

Meaning Matters

Everyone seems to be talking about meaning at the moment. Many appreciate that our lives need some kind of existential structure—cultural worldviews, social roles, and goals that give us purpose. Some speculate that we are suffering a crisis of meaning in the modern Western world for a variety of reasons including increased social alienation, automation, and the decline of religion. Others believe that meaning comes from within the individual, that we can abandon traditional beliefs, duties, and attachments and fashion our own existential framework. Some argue that meaning isn’t really that important at all and that we should instead focus solely on practical concerns such as physical health, economics, education, and the environment. As a behavioral scientist who has spent nearly two decades conducting research in existential psychology, I have some thoughts on why we should care about meaning and how modern life challenges our search for it. First, meaning is important. Perceptions of meaning in life influence a wide range of life outcomes. People who have a strong sense of meaning in life, compared …

What Explains the Resistance to Evolutionary Psychology?

A recent study conducted by evolutionary psychologists, David Buss and William von Hippel, has found empirical support for the claim that evolutionary psychology is a controversial field among social psychologists.1 Their study titled, “Psychological Barriers to Evolutionary Psychology: Ideological Bias and Coalitional Adaptations,” posed questions to social psychologists to assess their political orientation and their attitudes towards evolutionary psychology, specifically, the extent to which evolutionary theory applies to humans. The responses of the social psychologists to the question of whether Darwinian evolution applies to human minds were highly variable despite being in near unanimous agreement that Darwinian evolution is not only true, but also applies to physical human traits. Further questions revealed that their discomfort with the notion of evolved minds was neither due to religious beliefs nor to beliefs in human specialness, but were due to their varying opinions on “hot button variables” in evolutionary psychology. These included topics such as genetic tendencies for violence, universal standards of beauty, and psychological sex differences. In other words, evolutionary theory becomes contentious when it veers away …

What Doesn’t Kill Us Brings Us Together

The Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard once suggested that the appeal of the human experience resided not in comfort and complacency but in struggle and self-discovery. And indeed, human history is defined by a cycle of calamity and collective growth. Though crops may fail, settlements may flood, and diseases may spread, humans reconsolidate and rebuild. Science and technology have softened the sting of manmade and natural disasters. But such advancements have reduced the impact of key social stressors. They have curtailed flashpoint events which bring us together. One consequence of this is outrage culture.  In the absence of legitimate calamities, we create artificial ones. We argue that evolved psychological adaptations dictate this need for a shared sense of difficulty. Outrage culture is simply the calamitization of the mundane. It is a process by which group solidarity can be lazily achieved by combatting non-existent crises. Whether it’s an actor fabricating a hate crime, journalists inflating the menace of a boy in a hat, or academics creating blacklists, our outrage satisfies a deep desire to unite in overcoming …