Seventeen years ago, a couple of criminologists at the University of Maryland published an interesting paper about the 1976 District ban on handguns — a ban that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds it was inimical to the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms to protect themselves.
The researchers employed a simple procedure: They tabulated all the suicides that had taken place in Washington between 1968 and 1987. Colin Loftin and David McDowall found that the gun ban correlated with an abrupt 25 percent decline in suicides in the city.
Loftin and McDowall, who now work at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York, also tabulated suicide rates in Maryland and Virginia over the same period, to test whether suicide rates just happened to be declining in the entire region. There was no difference in the suicide rate in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs before and after the D.C. gun ban. The researchers also tabulated the kinds of suicide that declined in Washington: The 25 percent decline was entirely driven by a decline in firearm-related suicide.
There are many ways to read the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, but all the versions point to one core idea: Americans have the right to own guns to protect themselves against outside threats, whether the danger comes from a school shooter, a vicious mugger, a robber breaking into a house, a lawless neighborhood — even the government itself.
What the authors of the Second Amendment did not foresee, however, is that when people own a gun, they unwittingly raise their risk of getting hurt and killed — because the odds that they will one day use their gun to commit suicide are much larger than the odds they will use their gun to defend themselves against intruders, muggers and killers.
States with high rates of gun ownership — Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico — have suicide rates that are more than double the suicide rate in states with low rates of gun ownership, such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii and New York, said Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. The difference is not because people in gun-owning states are more suicidal than people in states where fewer people own guns, but that suicide attempts in states with lots of guns produce many more completed suicides.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard. “There are a dozen case-controlled studies, all of which show the gun in the home is a risk factor for suicide for the gun owner, for the spouse, for the gun owner’s children.”
Turning a gun on ourselves, or having a family member turn a gun on someone in the household, doesn’t intuitively feel as real a risk as muggers, robbers and murderers. Given the choice between trusting our intuitions and trusting the evidence, most of us go with our gut.
If TV dramas about cops and violence were to actually depict the reality of how death and mayhem usually unfold in America, however, these are the scenarios that would stream into our homes each night: An elderly widower, lonely beyond words, shoots himself. A middle-aged executive, who has lost everything in an economic downturn, throws herself off a tall building. Two teenagers pull a Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide as a protest against an uncaring world.
The reason we can be sure that suicide — and not assaults, break-ins, muggings, school shootings and other fatal attacks by sinister strangers — would account for most of the stories is that suicide dwarfs homicide as a killer in the United States. There were 32,637 suicides in the country in 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available. That year, the collective homicidal mayhem caused by domestic abusers, violent criminals, gang fights, drug wars, break-ins, shootouts with cops, accidental gun discharges and cold, premeditated murder produced 18,538 deaths.
Even the risk of terrorism doesn’t begin to come close to the risk of suicide.
Only a tiny fraction of the 400,000 suicide attempts that bring Americans into emergency rooms each year involve guns. But because guns are so lethal, 17,002 of all suicides in 2005 — 52 percent — involved people shooting themselves.
The grimness of these statistics repeats itself endlessly, year after year, but makes no difference to our collective fantasies and fears about violence — and the reasons millions of people buy handguns for “protection.” Muggers, robbers and gangs feel scary. Most people don’t think of themselves as potential threats — after all, doesn’t suicide happen only to the insane?
Overwhelmingly, the research suggests suicide is usually an act of impulsive desperation — an impulse that passes. Most people who survive suicide attempts do not go on to kill themselves later on. Gun owners are no more likely than non-gun-owners to be suicidal. But within the window of a mad impulse, people who have lethal means at their disposal are much more likely to kill themselves than those who lack such means.
“If you bought a gun today, I could tell you the risk of suicide to you and your family members is going to be two- to tenfold higher over the next 20 years,” Harvard’s Miller said. “There are not many things you can do to increase your risk of dying tenfold.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
On YouTube and talk radio, at town halls and rallies, voters seem to be angrier than they’ve been before. Host Guy Raz talks to journalist Sasha Abramsky about the origins of this wave of rage. Abramsky examined the phenomenon in a recent article called “Look Ahead in Anger.” Raz also talks with politicians who’ve borne the brunt of the anger, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC).
GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Guy Raz.
About a week ago, California Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat, showed up for one of his regular town hall meetings with constituents. And at that meeting, Sherman was taken aback a bit when a constituent stood up with an unusual question.
Representative BRAD SHERMAN (Democrat, California): The question in question started off by saying that the Department of Justice had a policy not to prosecute any African-American for any crime if the victim was white.
RAZ: Now, the thing you should know about Brad Sherman is he’s one of the most mild-mannered members of Congress, a hardworking, if a bit nerdy, public servant. And so Sherman politely answered that question.
(Soundbite of applause)
Rep. SHERMAN: I am extremely sure that we do not have a policy at the Department of Justice of never prosecuting a black defendant if the victim was white.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes, you do.
(Soundbite of booing)
RAZ: This is par for the course nowadays for many, many members of Congress, mostly Democrats now for obvious reasons: They have the power, and they’ve used it to make some pretty fundamental changes. But an increasing number of legislators from both sides are asking whether the intersection of politics and politicized news has made the idea of civil discourse impossible.
Rep. SHERMAN: I mean, I remember extremely angry people on both sides of the Vietnam War, but they were both watching pretty much the same news every night. Now, you can have people living in their own separate worlds with their own sources of facts or alleged facts.
RAZ: And in this parallel universe, government becomes the biggest threat to Americans, especially the current government.
Mr. MARK LEVIN (Host, The Mark Levin Show): But a Marxist is going to be a Marxist is going to be a Marxist, and he appoints these people around him.
Mr. GLENN BECK (Television Host, Fox News Channel): We already know of at least five radical leftists currently advising the president of the United States.
Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Radio Host): And just as Obama’s doing, Hitler – well, even prior to Hitler – German socialists attempted to remake and order their country using health care as the springboard and the foundation.
RAZ: Sounds pretty scary. Those are the voices of some top-rated populist media personalities.
We begin this hour with a look at the politics of anger. In a moment, a writer who argues that anger in and of itself has become a sort of ideology. But first to another congressman, South Carolina’s Bob Inglis, a Republican.
Last month, he lost the primary to an opponent who is, at least publicly, angrier. Now, the American Conservative Union gives Bob Inglis a 93 percent lifetime rating.
Inglis is also a man who believes in the politics of civility. He was one of seven Republicans who supported a resolution condemning his fellow Republican, Congressman Joe Wilson, for shouting “you lie” at President Obama during a speech to Congress.
But that vote and a few others made Inglis the target of populist anger, anger he says motivated in part by what some people want to believe is true rather than what is actually true.
Representative BOB INGLIS (Republican, South Carolina): It’s misinformation that passes as news. Then what you end up with is a public discourse that’s not based on debating policy response to a common set of facts, but rather a discussion of whatever fact you want to allege is fact and then draw whatever conclusions you want to from that.
So that’s, I think, a big change that we’re seeing is in the blurring of the distinction between talk and news, we end up with a pretty wild discussion because the facts aren’t held in common.
RAZ: Are you surprised at the level of anger you have seen?
Rep. INGLIS: It is surprising because I was in Congress for six years, and I was out of Congress for six years, and then I returned in ’04 for another six years, and it’s quite different now than it was in that first time in Congress.
RAZ: What do you make of this idea, this theory that some have floated that some of the anger is motivated by fear, sort of the fear of the changes that are happening in America, the demographics changes, and also the fact that our president is different, obviously is different from every president before him?
Rep. INGLIS: I think there’s a fear that maybe the facts are going to show us that we are, in fact, all in this together. I think there’s a sense that maybe if it’s just somebody else’s fault that we’re here in this spot, facing a greased cliff that we could go over, then you can sort of blame it on somebody else.
And as to the president, I think that it is a challenge for some people to adjust to a fellow who has a name that’s different than one they’re used to hearing, of a different race, and we really need to be careful, I think, not to give racial explanations.
I heard one the other day, for example, that CRA, Community Reinvestment Act, is the cause of the financial collapse in October 2008.
RAZ: And CRA offered low-income Americans the opportunity to buy homes.
Rep. INGLIS: Actually, I was on a call-in show, and I said back to the caller something that, you know, I know politically you’re not supposed to say. I said, how could it be? CRA has been around for decades. Why would it have suddenly caused a collapse of the economy?
If it’s listed as a cause of what happened in October of ’08, it’s way on down the list. But unfortunately, some folks like to put it near the top of the list, and you can see how that, then, immediately raises the spectre of race as the reason we got to the spot that we’re in, which it’s not. It’s not the cause.
RAZ: Do you think that the Republican Party, obviously a party in opposition, do you think the Republicans are playing it smart for this election year? I mean, do you think that by embracing certain ideas of the Tea Party, it’s a good strategy?
Rep. INGLIS: I think it’s never a good strategy to travel on misinformation. Talking about death panels when there are no death panels is a disservice to the country and, long-term, to the conservative movement.
Explaining the collapse or the near collapse of the banking system in October 2008 as the fault of the Community Reinvestment Act is clearly wrong, and long-term, it hurts the credibility of the movement.
So I think it’s very important to build on credible solutions rather than offering misinformation that directs people towards scapegoats.
RAZ: Bob Inglis, thank you so much for your time.
Rep. INGLIS: Good to be with you.
RAZ: That’s Republican Congressman Bob Inglis from South Carolina.
Now, writer Sasha Abramsky worries that the kind of rhetoric he hears nowadays threatens to swamp our politics, and he’s written about it in the recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. His article is called “Look Ahead in Anger.”
Mr. SASHA ABRAMSKY (Journalist; Author, “Look Ahead in Anger”): The title of the essay is a play on the 1950s film from England, “Look Back in Anger.” And “Look Back in Anger” was very much about young people’s reaction to decline of power, decline of influence, decline of empire.
And when I was writing this article, it seemed to me that we’re at this moment where the American polity is increasingly being defined by a sense that the future is not going to look as rosy as the past.
And what I was looking at in this essay was what that does to our broader culture, what it does, if you like, to our collective psyche. And it seemed to me the more I researched this and the more I thought about it that one of the worst things it does to our collective psyche is it makes us angrier. It makes us more fearful. It makes us more bitter. And increasingly, it makes us want to shape our politics around those emotions.
RAZ: You argue that there is something new happening in America right now in our political discourse.
Mr. ABRAMSKY: That’s right. I mean, if you look at anger and paranoia and rage, there’s a rich vein of that in American history. The poli sci professor Richard Hofstetter, half a century ago wrote a very, very famous essay about the paranoid style in American politics. And he said, look, the paranoia that you see in groups like the John Birch Society is as American as apple pie.
But until fairly recently, the apple pie, the Norman Rockwell vision of America, the sort of sunnier, more optimistic vision of what America is and what it represents, has usually counterbalanced those sort of rageful, paranoid, fringe elements of the political process.
And what worries me about the current moment is that the middle ground, the people who in ordinary times in the past were fairly optimistic about the country they lived in – that middle ground is becoming increasingly fearful.
RAZ: Sasha, there was obviously left-wing anger during the Bush years, certainly against the Iraq War. Isn’t the rage you describe now simply part of the cycle of politics, you know, that if a conservative president was elected, this type of anger would simply dissipate?
Mr. ABRAMSKY: No, I think to a degree, that’s true, that we live in a political moment that defines itself by nastiness to a large extent. The politics in this country has become something more than a parlor game. It’s become something that people get very impassioned about and very infuriated about.
And what I write about in my essay is that there’s an amplification chamber, an echo chamber that’s being created by certain technological changes around the media in particular that allow for anger to become all-pervasive.
So you’re absolutely right. When George Bush was in charge, you had people like Al Franken or Michael Moore, who on a daily basis were drumbeating anger about the state of the country, and they got their anger amplified by the blogosphere.
And when Obama comes in, you see that anger in a sense inverted, and the right gets very, very angry, and you have the talk radio heads up in arms. You have the television rant speakers like Glenn Beck up in arms.
I think that what’s happening is that each cycle, people are getting angrier, and so you’re seeing an overlap now of economic anger and this sense that our best days are behind us, which I guess you could call cultural rage.
We could enter a period where whoever’s in charge can’t solve our problems, and no matter what kind of policies are put forward, millions of people still feel that their basic economic needs aren’t getting met. And it’s in that sense of failure, it’s in that sense of expectations shattered that the risk of a very uncivil, brutal politics exists.
RAZ: That’s Sasha Abramsky. He’s the author of “Inside Obama’s Brain.” His article, “Look Ahead in Anger,” can be found in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sasha Abramsky, thanks so much.
Mr. ABRAMSKY: Thank you very muchRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
When it comes to those who hold high office, we’re often told, you should respect the office if not the man. But sometimes that’s hard to do, when the man is right there in your face.
That proved to be the case when Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer met President Obama upon his arrival at the Phoenix airport on Wednesday. Their discussion quickly turned into an argument about Brewer’s account in her new book about an earlier meeting between the two.
A photo of the governor shaking her finger in the president’s face quickly circulated around the Internet.
“My perception at least was that he was a little thin-skinned about what I wrote in the book,” Brewer said on KTAR, a Phoenix talk radio station.
Asked whether her gesture showed disrespect, Brewer said, “I would never disrespect a president. I would certainly never disrespect the office of the president. … I don’t know when that photo was snapped.”
It was an unusual moment. Although politicians are often critical of each other, presidential historians struggle to think of other examples where one openly confronted a president in full view of the cameras.
Brewer’s behavior may have been unplanned and represent only an isolated moment, but it also may speak to a larger erosion of social norms, suggests Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Politics in Houston, which offers civility training to students and others.
“I grew up hearing that you treat the office with respect, and people aren’t buying that anymore,” she says.
There may be a combination of factors that have contributed to this change, Dahnke suggests, including the unending airing of grievances on websites and the kind of open hostility that now sometimes gets expressed at congressional town hall meetings — leading to fewer town hall meetings being held.
“With congressional approval ratings so low, people feel like they don’t respect the Congress, so they’re going to communicate that,” Dahnke says.
Former Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, says he believes his governor simply stood up for herself in a confrontation of the president’s own making. Everyone understands that the tarmac greeting ceremony is not the place to raise contentious issues, but the congressman says Obama began making bones about Brewer’s book.
“If he had a problem to discuss with her and he intended to be critical, he picked an inappropriate, very public time to raise it,” Shadegg says. “I believe she was genuinely surprised and shocked and instinctively reacted to defend herself.
“In my opinion, if someone disrespected the office of the president, I think it was him,” Shadegg says.
Like other types of behavior, political rudeness spreads in ways that permeate the culture. People don’t know where to draw the lines, so they end up snacking in church, texting during weddings and wagging fingers at a president.
“Much of the politics we have today is strident and polarized and mean,” says Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic House member who now runs the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “The fundamental problem, of course, is we do not show respect to those who are involved.”
Hamilton points out that while everyone pays lip service to the idea of civility, few will castigate a politician for being impolitic. Instead, the media always show some love for confrontation, while constituents may well reward a politician for taking an aggressive stance against another politician they don’t like.
Hamilton cites Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who was showered with millions in campaign contributions after yelling “You lie!” at Obama during a 2009 address to Congress.
“When you do show disrespect, when you yell out at the State of the Union or you shake your finger at the president, you get a lot of support,” Hamilton says. “You raise a lot of money and get a lot of plaudits and emails for standing up.”
Incivility is nothing new in American politics. The classic extreme example came in 1856, when South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks beat anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane on the Senate floor.
Things may not get so out of hand these days, says George C. Edwards III, a scholar on the presidency at Texas A&M University. But every political incentive in the current climate seems to reward attacks on politicians from the other party, he says, while discouraging collaboration or compromise.
“We as Americans don’t just see the people on the other side as having different views, but as evil,” Edwards says. “The Republicans try to portray Obama as not just being wrong, but trying to undermine America and being really different and fundamentally bad.”
Edwards and others point out that Obama has not been unique in receiving such treatment.
President George W. Bush also triggered a good deal of rancor, with many Americans talking about how much they “hated” him and at least one well-regarded novelist coming up with a book that turned on a fantasy about assassinating the president.
Of course, it was an Iraqi who actually threw his shoes at Bush. But the feeling that half the country seems to share in contemporary times — that the person in the Oval Office is “not my president” — necessarily leads to a diminution of respect for the office itself.
And the general lack of esteem in which politicians are held seems to be seeping into their relations with one another.
“It seems like that practice of disrespect is growing and growing and growing,” Dahnke says. “It’s eating away at the boundaries which say, you go this far and no further.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
This campaign season, inconsistency seems to be, well, almost everywhere. Each flip-flopping politician revels in pointing out the flip-flopping ways of his opponents.
Why are politicians and those of us who vote for them so obsessed with inconsistency? We take that question on from three angles: how our brains are wired; the psychology of judging what’s consistent; and how consistency plays out in leadership styles.
The problem with flip-floppers is that they are, by definition, inconsistent. They’re unpredictable. And our brains don’t like that, says David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins.
To understand why, Linden says, it helps to consider how the brain looks for consistency and predictability in even a mundane event like reaching for a cup of coffee.
Long before your hand reaches the cup, your brain starts making predictions about everything from how much force will be required to lift the cup to how the coffee will taste.
Once the brain makes its predictions, it starts to “use sensory information as it comes in to compare the prediction with what actually took place,” Linden says.
You grasp. You smell. You taste.
If the cup’s weight and the coffee’s flavor match the predictions, your brain declares victory. If not, it tries to figure out what went wrong.
Of course, coffee forecasting is pretty low stakes. Linden says.
But we have lots of brain circuits that are making predictions about all kinds of things, every second of every day. And the brain pays special attention to other people, Linden says.
“We’re extremely attuned to the veracity, and the predictability, and the group spirit and the motivations of those around us,” he says
That’s probably from thousands of years living in groups. To stay alive, we had to know if the person who helped us yesterday might hurt us tomorrow.
Prediction is so important that our brains actually give us a chemical reward when we do it well, Linden says.
“We are intrinsically wired to take pleasure from our predictions that come true,” he says.
Get it right and you get a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine or a related brain chemical. Get it wrong and dopamine levels dip, Linden says.
All that training makes us extremely sensitive to the consistency and predictability of people we depend on, Linden says.
“If we have a sense that there is a mismatch between our prediction and their actions, that is something that sets off neural alarm bells,” he says. And if we think they have been inconsistent about something fundamental, he says, we will feel betrayed.
“When we feel deeply betrayed, either by a leader, or by someone in our social circle, or by our beloved, that pain really is similar to physical pain,” Linden says.
In other words, we’re hard-wired to suffer from the inconsistency of flip-floppers. No wonder we don’t like them.
My colleague Jon Hamilton makes the argument that we don’t like flip-flopping. But this flip flopping thing? It’s really in the eye of the beholder.
Consider the work of Jamie Barden, a psychology professor a Howard University in Washington.
Barden found a clever way to look at how people make judgments about inconsistent behavior in politics.
In one study, Barden gathered a group of students, both Democrats and Republicans, and told them that their job was to evaluate the behavior of a political fundraiser named Mike.
The first piece of information the students got about Mike was that after a long night of drinking at a fundraiser he’d organized, Mike drove home and wrapped his car around a telephone pole.
Then they found out that about a month after the crash, Mike had gone on the radio and delivered a screed about the dangers of drunken driving. Mike had driven while drunk, then Mike had preached against drunken driving.
The students were then provided with a blank space and the opportunity to weigh in on Mike’s behavior.
Now obviously there are two possible interpretations of Mike’s actions. The first interpretation is that Mike is a hypocrite. Privately he’s driving into poles. Publicly he’s making proclamations. He’s a person whose public and private behavior is inconsistent.
The other interpretation is that Mike is a changed man. Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew.
So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth?
What Barden found is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened, than on tribe.
Half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students in the study as a Repubican, and half the time he was described as a Democrat.
When participants were making judgments of a Mike who was in their own party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When participants were making judgments about a Mike from the opposing party, 40 percent found him to be a hypocrite.
In other words our judgments about what is inconsistent and what isn’t are clouded by our social allegiances. In fact, the research makes it clear it is hopelessly clouded.
Further, there’s a whole other school of research that shows that though we can often see this bias in our opponents, we are blind to the behavior in ourselves. We believe that we are earnestly making judgements based on facts, on reality.
So during this campaign season watch the way you watch. Are you seeing hypocrisy where there’s growth? Or maybe growth where there’s hypocrisy?
A desire for consistency is wired into the brain, which is why we care so much about politicians being consistent.
We’re also inconsistent about how we perceive consistency. We’re more likely to spot it in our opponents than among our friends or ourselves.
But what are the consequences of consistency? Voters say they want consistent leaders: What happens when they get what they want?
Psychologist Philip Tetlock, at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, has worked on an enormous research project for decades that can help answer that question.
He’s based some of his conclusions on an ancient aphorism from the Greek warriot-poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Tetlock applies this analogy to politics. The hedgehog has one goal: It doesn’t want to get eaten. Foxes, on the other hand, are crafty. They have lots of strategies to catch a hedgehog.
Tetlock thinks consistent leaders simplify a complex world into a few big ideas. That’s why he thinks they’re like hedgehogs.
“There are many different types of hedgehogs,” Tetlock says. “You could be on the left or the right. You could be a free-market hedgehog, or you could be a Keynesian hedgehog or even a socialist or Marxist hedgehog.”
By contrast, leaders who are foxes don’t have a single agenda. They have lots of contradictory goals. They support government spending in one case; oppose it in another. They compromise.
“Foxes, on average, are more likely to be neither extreme boomsters nor extreme doomsters,” says Tetlock. “They are less likely to be on the extreme left or the extreme right.”
Consistent hedgehogs and inconsistent foxes both claim great results, so Tetlock has put their claims to the test. He asked a large number of hedgehogs and foxes to make specific predictions about events. Over 20 years, he’s collected more than 28,000 predictions about issues in 60 countries.
The results are in: Foxes make the right calls more often than hedgehogs. If you want to know where the economy’s headed, ask a fox.
But hedgehogs have a curious quality. The upside is when they’re right, they’re spectacularly right. Think of Winston Churchill, who saw the threat of Hitler before everyone else. The downside is hedgehogs are also more likely to be spectacularly wrong.
“Churchill had a low threshold for seeing threats to the British empire,” Tetlock says. “He saw Gandhi as a terrible threat and he actually made comparisons between Hitler and Gandhi; comparisons that now we would regard as historically embarrassing.”
Tetlock’s work intersects with other research that shows leaders with inconsistent worldviews tend to do better in office. But leaders who have a clear, consistent message do better during campaigns.
The best presidents, Tetlock says, may be foxes — who disguise themselves.
“They campaign like hedgehogs, and they govern like foxes,” Tetlock says.
So when you next hear a politician with a clear, consistent message, ask yourself, is this a hedgehog, or a fox in hedgehog’s clothing?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Through the smog and the smeariness of the seemingly ceaseless process of selecting a president, one thing is clear: Americans are seething.
Some Americans are livid over illegal immigration. Others are ticked off about Obamacare. President Obama himself is not too happy about the way things are. “If one emotion came through in President Obama’s State of the Union address,” Forbes magazine notes, “it was anger.”
Newt Gingrich growls every chance he gets: “I am angry, and every American should be angry” about what he calls Mitt Romney’s dishonesty. Recently rising Rick Santorum tells Fox News that Romney’s health plan is “something to get mad about.”
Tempers flared during Florida’s primary in January, and former Gov. Charlie Crist told MSNBC that he was struck by the tone of the Republican Party. “This past week or 10 days in Florida,” Crist said, “it has been a very angry tone, and regrettably, amazingly negative. My hope is, as a Floridian, as an American, we can get away from that negative tone.”
Good luck. We are in an angry, angry time. On the right, the Tea Party stages protests. On the left, the Occupy movement occupies. The Arizona governor wags an angry finger in the president’s face. Candidates snarl at one another. Voters yell at candidates. Everybody is angry about something, even if it’s just about the anger of everybody else.
We’ve gone through angry times before in this country: Vietnam, Redbaiting, the Depression, Reconstruction and the Civil War. The Revolution itself was sparked by a bunch of choleric colonists. So it’s in our collective DNA.
But historically, eventually, we always seem to sort of get over it. So how did we do that? Are there lessons to be learned in the anger-recovery periods of history?
An individual who needs to get over being outraged in order to live a more productive and harm-free life can sometimes get help. Anger managers have strategies for escorting people through periods of pique.
The emotion of anger, explains Rich Pfeiffer, president of the National Anger Management Association, “activates the ‘primitive’ human brain — sometimes called the limbic system — which is automatic and impulsive, and if you are functioning out of the primitive part of your brain, you tend to want to punish, hurt, get back at, teach a lesson, or do something destructive to the person triggering your anger.”
Anger managers tell us that we should slow down our reaction to anger “in order to have time to respond out of our more evolved brain — sometimes called the neocortex — which has the capacity to be reasonable, rational and logical,” Pfeiffer says.
Courses in managing fury suggest taking deep breaths, going for a walk — anything to separate yourself from the source of your anger.
A nation, on the other hand, doesn’t always have time to count to 10 or the ability to get away from itself. It doesn’t always recover quickly or easily from periods of anger. And some historians are not so sure that it should.
“Why assume that anger is always something to ‘get over?’ ” asks Jane Dailey, who teaches American history at the University of Chicago. “Is it always negative or unproductive? Obviously we don’t want to devolve into assaults on the floor of the Senate — although I can think of one or two people who might benefit from caning — but there are times when rage is productive.”
Ushering the country through angry, divisive periods, says Mary Niall Mitchell, an American history professor at the University of New Orleans, has traditionally required a couple of things — a sort of two-step recovery program.
The first step, Mitchell says, is some crisis or occurrence “that took the collective attention away from the source of anger.”
The second step is “a great deal of forgetting,” she says. “That forgetting — which is not to say forgiving — depended, in part, on the telling of new stories about the recent past.”
The creation of a new historical memory, one that was at odds with the historical record, Mitchell says, “generally came at a great cost.”
She uses the Civil War and Reconstruction to illustrate. The crises that distracted the angry nation in the wake of the war, she says, were a financial panic and wars against Native Americans in the West. The forgetting was the explanation by certain historians of the war’s aftermath “as one of reunion between the North and South achieved by rewriting the history of the Civil War,” Mitchell explains. “It was no longer a war to end slavery — in this interpretation — but rather a war over ‘states’ rights,’ indeed, a war between brothers; and it was time, many argued in the 1890s and later, for the brothers to bury the hatchet.”
The Confederacy took on a romantic glow — with the myth of the “Lost Cause” — Mitchell says, and the South was portrayed in movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind “as a ‘lost civilization’ where all slaves were happy and all hell broke loose with emancipation.”
Mitchell says that, as historian David Blight has pointed out, Frederick Douglass foresaw the revisionism coming and the worsening plight of African-Americans as the nation set about getting past its anger.
“Douglass, of course, was angry having fought so hard for African-American freedom and citizenship,” Mitchell says. And “you could argue that the leaders of the civil rights movement carried forward Douglass’ anger and frustration, and were able to restore the rights that Reconstruction’s aftermath had eliminated.”
So, says Mitchell, “with my historian’s hat on, I’m leery of the notion of getting over the anger. The lesson, I suppose, is to always remember exactly why we were angry in the first place.”
There are, then, ways for a nation to soldier through angry eras. We have seen in recent times how a crisis — say Sept. 11 or the Tucson shootings — can refocus our attention and repurpose our emotions.
But in this day and age, forgetting may not be as simple — or as acceptable — as it once was. With our deep databases, powerful search engines and countless websites, blogs and bulletin boards and interminably talkative media, it is arguably easier to remember — and easier to remind others — about the inaction or injustice that originally made us mad. Really, really mad.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Harvard researchers say they’ve uncovered a big problem among the nation’s 700,000 police officers: a serious lack of sleep.
In what’s believed to be the first study of its kind, the researchers queried nearly 5,000 municipal and state police officers in the U.S. and Canada about their sleep habits and symptoms of possible sleep disorders. Then they assessed their on-duty performance for two years.
Forty percent had sleep disorders, and the vast majority of these were undiagnosed before.
The implications are big – both for the officers themselves and the public they serve.
Consider these findings:
- Those who screened positive for a sleep disorder had a 25 percent higher risk of expressing uncontrolled anger to a suspect or citizen, and a 35 percent higher chance of having a citizen complaint filed against them.
- Sleep-deprived officers had 51 percent greater odds of falling asleep while driving on duty.
- One in three officers has sleep apnea – waking up repeatedly because breathing has temporarily stopped. That’s at least 8 times higher than the rate among the general population.
- They had a 43 percent higher chance of making a serious administrative error.
Sleep-starved officers also reported falling asleep at meetings more often and calling in sick.
The surprisingly high incidence of sleep apnea has grave implications for officers and their departments. The disorder taxes the heart, probably because the sudden jolts of waking up are accompanied by a surge of adrenalin.
“That may be what lays the groundwork for an increase in cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Charles A. Czeisler of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Officers with sleep apnea “had 90 percent greater odds of cardiovascular disease, even when we adjusted for their age, sex, body mass index, smoking and other risk factors.
Officers with sleep apnea also had much higher risk of diabetes (61 percent), depression (150 percent), emotional burnout (270 percent) and risk of falling asleep while driving home from work (126 percent).
The driving implications are especially sobering, given the amount of time many officer spend behind the wheel – and the importance of police cars as an everyday work tool.
One in four of the total study group reported falling asleep at the wheel once or twice a month. They also reported a higher rate of falling asleep while stopped in traffic, talking on the phone or in meetings.
Czeisler thinks frequent problems with what he calls “drowsy driving” help explain why car accidents have overtaken criminal assaults as the top cause of death among police officers.
“Motor vehicle crashes have overtaken felonious assaults as the most common cause of police mortality,” Czeisler told Shots. “And drowsy driving is one of the leading causes of motor vehicle crashes and fatalities.”
Asked what can be done about the problem – given the intrinsic nature of police work, with frequent changes in shifts – Czeisler says the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association, contains an important clue.
Massachusetts state troopers had far less sleep apnea than other officers in the study. That fits, Czeisler says, because they were much less likely to be obese – and obesity is a prominent risk factor for sleep apnea.
The likely reason the Massachusetts troopers were more fit, Czeisler says, is that the state requires them to pass an annual fitness test and provides gym equipment and paid time to work out.
“I’m sure this fitness test has paid for itself many times over in reducing sleep apnea,” Czeisler says, “because of the markedly increased health care costs and accident rates among those who have sleep apnea. If that turns out to be the reason, then Massachusetts could be a model for the nation.”
Massachusetts officials tell the Harvard researchers that they will start screening troopers for sleep problems, using the questionnaires the researchers employed.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
A student raised his hand in my torts class last week and asked whether Joe Paterno might be exposed to liability for failing to tell the police about Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual assault of a young boy in the Penn State locker room. It was a perfectly legitimate question—we had been studying tort law’s general reluctance to impose liability for omitting to act. And it didn’t come as a surprise—I have always encouraged students to bring current events to class, and the Penn State situation was nearly impossible to avoid last week. Still, I had prayed no one would ask about it because I was not sure I could make it through any sort of answer. As I’d feared, the question stopped me cold.
I have spent the better part of my life working to cover wounds from my own childhood abuse, about which I have never spoken publicly. In fact, I’ve hardly talked about it at all; I can count on two hands the number of people who know anything about it. Some of my siblings will learn of it from this article.
The cascade of emotions that washed over me as I stood before my torts class and tried to muster a coherent response would be impossible to describe here. After many years of hard work, and with a lot of help, I no longer think every single day about that terrible winter night. There are still plenty of reminders, to be sure, and there are some things that will never be normal for me. But most days, the wound is insulated by lots of scar tissue. Not this week, though. The story hit me at a bad time, during a year that was already very difficult. And the similarities were too hard to ignore.
The perpetrator at Penn State was a coach, as was mine. The abuse happened on the periphery of a major college football program, and I was a walk-on college football player when the weight of my childhood abuse became too much for me and I finally sought help. Most significantly, I have a son who is about as old as the boys Sandusky allegedly assaulted, and nearly the same age I was when I was victimized. He is so young.
I cried uncontrollably at least three separate times last week. This is part of what makes abuse so wretched—it strips you of control, not only of your body in those moments of abuse, but of your mind long after. Sometimes emotions just sneak up on you. And even when you know difficult conversations are going to arise and you try to steel yourself, sometimes there’s nothing you can do. The emotions come, and you can’t make them go away. Then you hate yourself for feeling so weak and exposed. You are sure everyone is looking at you, and you know that no one would look at you the same way if they knew your story. They’d see you as damaged goods. Or they’d pity you. It’s hard to know which is worse.
All this rushed through me when the student asked his question. I can never recall my classroom having been so quiet. Mercifully, no one followed up on my answer; perhaps they could sense my discomfort. So I moved on, knowing I had probably shortchanged the class with my half-answer.
But as the story has remained in the headlines and the uncomfortable conversations have continued, I haven’t been able to shake an overwhelming feeling that I failed Sandusky’s victims and, by extension, far too many other boys. Abuse thrives on silence. In some cases, as the Penn State situation makes clear, the silence of third parties gives perpetrators license. But victims’ silence also plays a huge role. This is true in the immediate aftermath of the abuse, where victims’ inability to speak out puts them (and others) at further risk. It’s also true much more generally. Several of my friends, for example, were shocked when Rick Reilly reported that, according to a 1998 study on child sexual abuse by Boston University Medical School, one in six boys in America will be abused by age 16. For girls, it’s one in four by the age of 14. They were shocked, no doubt, because concrete examples of abuse are not as available to them as the statistics suggest. Most people don’t think they know any abuse victims.
But they do know victims. They just don’t realize it, because so many of us have been unable to reveal ourselves. This breeds a false sense of security, with too many adults believing abuse is someone else’s problem.
This reality that the silence of victims creates opportunities for evil is a particularly cruel one, especially when you know it to be true and still haven’t been able to reveal your own abuse. It is another reason abuse is so insidious. Perpetrators procure their victims’ silence by causing such deep shame that private torment seems tolerable by comparison. But it is precisely this silence that helps create the conditions for abuse. This is what has been on continuous replay in my head in the days since my torts class. I can’t shake the feeling that I failed those boys. I failed them by hiding. You cannot imagine how devastating that feeling has been.
When I told this to my friend, the psychologist to whom I disclosed my abuse in college and whose counsel I have relied on for the last 16 years, he told me all the reasons I couldn’t have expected more of myself. Intellectually, I know he is right. But this isn’t primarily about what I didn’t do long ago—it’s about what I wasn’t doing last week. So here it is: I am a victim of sexual abuse.
I say this now, at age 36, in the hopes it can make a small difference to those currently suffering in silence. You know them, I promise. They are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, and, painfully, your children. Be a safe place for these people. If you are one of them, I am sorry. Know you are not alone. You did nothing wrong, and you are lovable. It can get better.
I am also moved to say this publicly to counter two aspects of the public reaction to the Penn State situation, both of which reflect our collective attempt to distance ourselves from the reality of abuse. First, it is a mistake to characterize Jerry Sandusky as some kind of subhuman monster. The inclination to do so is entirely understandable, for his behavior was unequivocally monstrous. But to describe him as a monster shields us from the reality that human beings have the capacity for tremendous evil. This recognition is critically important. Predators do not look like monsters; they look like your neighborhood basketball coach or the guy running a children’s charity. They look like people you know, because they are. This is so important for parents to realize: If you allow yourself to think of these predators as “monsters,” you will convince yourself that they are rare, and you will not be as vigilant as you need to be. This recognition is also important for your kids, because if you teach them that they should be on the lookout for monsters, they will be confused by the inappropriate behavior of adults who don’t fit that profile.
This is particularly true with respect to adults who have parents’ implicit trust: friends, family members, and coaches. Sadly, the statistics tell us that most perpetrators are in this group. Focus on behavior—teach your kids that adults are never entitled to touch their bodies, and that no one is entitled to touch their bodies without their permission.
Second, many have painted this story as one fundamentally about Penn State or college athletics. At the Sports Law Blog, for example, Alan Milstein asked whether, were the perpetrator an assistant professor of biology and the witness a graduate student, there was “any doubt the perpetrator, if aware he had been seen, would immediately stop, the witness would intervene, the cops would be called, the professor would be put away, and the university and its president would not be implicated in the least?” In Milstein’s mind, there was no doubt: The big money in college football is the reason Jerry Sandusky’s abuse was not reported.
This is wrong. There is absolutely a doubt about what a graduate student would do in these circumstances. Graduate students are as highly dependent on faculty advisers for their futures as graduate assistant coaches (like Mike McQueary) are on their superiors. For the same reason, I have significant doubts about what an associate at a law firm (or a junior person at Goldman Sachs, or an intern in Congress) would do if he witnessed a sexual assault. Because this is not about a problem at some other institution; it’s a reflection of a universal human tendency to look out for oneself, and to preserve hierarchical institutions about which one cares and upon which one is dependent. It’s also a reflection of the nearly boundless capacity to ignore inconvenient facts and to make excuses for those within our own circle. Think about the Catholic Church. Predators flourished in parishes for years, not simply (and probably not even primarily) because higher-ups worried about financial exposure. They flourished because many otherwise good people could not bring themselves to believe or to act upon information that their priest was a rapist.
Please believe me when I say that this is not a story about Penn State or some other corrupt organization. Characterizing what happened in State College, particularly the failures of so many adults to report the abuse, as the product of some morally bankrupt institution is a way of convincing ourselves that we are outsiders to these sinister forces. It is no different from calling Sandusky a “monster.” That is soothing, I realize. But it also lets us off the hook too easily, allowing us to avoid asking hard questions about what happens, or can happen, in our own backyards. The Penn State cover-up could have, and undoubtedly has, happened at many other institutions, including those you most care about. Don’t content yourself with demanding something of Penn State, or big-time college sports. While that might make you feel better, it won’t prevent the next tragedy.
Melissa Clark sat wide-eyed and agitated in a visiting room at Cook County Jail’s Cermak Hospital, rocking her right leg so vigorously that her entire body shook.
Why can’t you bail me out? she repeatedly pleaded to her mother.
Carla Clark leaned forward, her forehead inches away from the partition that kept her from hugging her only daughter, and asked one question: If she bailed the 22-year-old out of jail, would the young woman take her antipsychotic medication?
In a rambling answer, Melissa said no. Street drugs, not medication, were what made her feel better.
Clark eyed her daughter wearily. “Then I can’t bail you out,” she said.
Melissa’s predicament tears at her mother. While jail is not an ideal place for a person needing psychiatric care, for now it might be the safest temporary option for Melissa, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
In the past she has wandered the streets, committed petty crimes, overdosed on heroin and been assaulted by drug dealers. Arrested for robbery at a Whole Foods store in Chicago a year ago, she has been in jail ever since.
Soon a criminal court judge will have to decide: What do we do with Melissa?
It’s the kind of problem that faces families, judges, psychiatrists, law enforcement officials and mental health advocates across Illinois, and comes up frequently as people with mental illnesses spill into jails and prisons because of a dearth of community-based services.
Cook County Jail’s sizable mentally ill population has transformed the detention center into Illinois’ largest psychiatric facility.
About 20 percent of the jail’s 9,000 or so detainees have been diagnosed as having a mental illness. A larger, undetermined number don’t have a diagnosis but show symptoms of psychiatric illness, said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
“It’s horribly sad on a million levels,” Dart said. “This is a person who’s here, not because they are quote-unquote criminal, but because they have an illness that manifests itself in doing certain acts and we are treating them like criminals.”
Incarcerating people for behavior caused by their mental illnesses is costly, inhumane and doesn’t make sense, mental health advocates say.
State budget cuts have made the situation worse, they say, and Dart has been considering a lawsuit against the state for allowing the jail to become a dumping ground for people with serious mental illnesses.
Melissa’s life began to spiral out of control during her teen years. She has cycled in and out of hospitals, jails and rehab facilities. Even though she comes from a middle-class family with resources, she is running out of options.
The family’s finances have been hit hard by medical, psychiatric and legal bills, lessening relatives’ ability to support Melissa. And because Melissa is an adult, she cannot be forced to participate in rehab programs or take her medications except in an emergency or under court order.
Carla Clark said jail time has been hell for her daughter, who is unable to fully understand why she is there. “I have helplessly watched her mental health deteriorate in this stressful environment,” Clark said.
Melissa is being evaluated by psychiatrists to determine if she is fit for trial, but the process has been agonizingly slow.
“For what she did, it shouldn’t take this long,” said her brother Brandon Clark. “The waiting period is unforgivable.”
The family also worries about where Melissa will go next.
In large part because of Medicaid and other funding cuts, the number of public and private psychiatric beds has plummeted over the years, and often there are waiting lists.
Even as Illinois hospitals have seen an influx of patients with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems seeking care, they have faced Medicaid cuts, inadequate private health insurance coverage and shortages of psychiatrists, especially in rural areas, said Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Hospital Association.
Hospital officials across the state “are deeply concerned and alarmed by the human consequences of delays in treatment, inadequate treatment, or no treatment at all for persons with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems,” said a hospital association white paper issued in May.
“Families have limited options available for needed services such as substance abuse treatment, medication, community outpatient and psychiatric care,” the association said. “Far too many families are waiting far too long, for far too few services.”
Outpatient programs run by community agencies also have undergone deep cuts.
“It’s so frustrating to know what to do and not be able to do it because of lack of money, especially because we know that investing in early prevention services is always going to be more cost-effective than the high-cost services,” said Lora Thomas, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. “If services are available in the community, we can avoid visits to the emergency room — by far, the most costly service — and institutionalization in jails, prisons and nursing homes, or homelessness.”
Terre Marshall, director of mental health at Cook County Jail, said homelessness keeps many mentally ill people from getting much needed medications and entitlements, such as Medicaid and Social Security disability income.
Left untreated, severely mentally ill people may engage in disruptive behaviors that can result in arrests for crimes that include loitering, disturbing the peace, drug possession, prostitution, retail theft and criminal trespass.
It can become a vicious cycle. Even though Melissa desperately wants to get out of jail, she already is resigned to come back because she can’t imagine not abusing drugs.
Almost all of Cook County Jail’s mentally ill detainees also have a substance abuse problem because they have been self-medicating with street drugs, said Dr. Jonathan Howard, jail psychiatrist.
A change last year in the way Illinois funds treatment programs has meant that people not enrolled in Medicaid are not always eligible for services that they need, some treatment providers said.
“It’s been a heartbreaking year because we have not been able to serve individuals that we would have been able to help in the past,” said Jill Valbuena, program director of the Thresholds Justice Program.
Melissa Clark was arrested after a skirmish with a security guard who caught her shoplifting food. She is one of an estimated 260,000 Illinoisans who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Before her illness took over, she was a cheerleader, a fan of ’60s rock, a ravenous reader of fiction and biographies, a good student who enjoyed drawing. A family photo shot several years ago shows a smiling Melissa with her blond hair cascading past her shoulders and her mother beaming at her side.
A far different woman recently appeared in front of a Cook County Criminal Court judge. At a hearing last month, she appeared sullen and disoriented in blue jail garb, her hands cuffed behind her back.
Melissa, who has been arrested about a dozen times, has been unable to care for herself or hold a job.
“She has no quality of life right now,” her mother said despairingly, after a recent jail visit. “She hasn’t had quality of life in a long time.”
After repeatedly fighting other detainees, she was transferred to the jail hospital.
Brandon Clark said it is heartbreaking to see his sister behind bars, especially since he feels that the prolonged incarceration is further eroding her mental health.
He and his mother would like to see Melissa transferred to a state psychiatric facility where she could get forced medication.
“It’s such a difficult thing to say that I want someone to force medications on my sister. But after trying everything for the last seven years, it’s the only option,” Brandon said. “Otherwise she’s going to die because she’s going to overdose, somebody is going to kill her, or she’s going to get hit by a car wandering around because she doesn’t know what’s going on.”
State-operated psychiatric beds are in short supply, however.
In the 1960s there were about 35,000, according to the hospital association. That number has dropped to about 730 beds for psychiatric patients who have not been charged with a crime and about 630 for people found unfit for trial or guilty but criminally insane.
The Clarks cling to hope that Melissa eventually will get the help she needs and will have a chance to live a relatively normal life. They attend her court hearings and regularly visit her in jail.
“I don’t care what happens to me,” said Carla Clark, who blows kisses to her daughter whenever she sees her. “I have to help my daughter.”
Jail officials, who see people like Melissa Clark all the time, say they are keenly aware of the personal tragedies, and the social costs.
“I always tell people,” Dart said, “‘How is it that we, as a society, think this is good?’”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We all know congressional negotiators are trying to balance party and ideology, principle and pragmatism. But negotiators are people, too, and psychology has some useful things to say about the ongoing debt-ceiling standoff. Here are some key ideas to keep in mind.
CHOICES: Behavioral economists find that people tend to make much better decisions about their future selves, rather than their present selves. Ask the alcoholic whether he is ready to give up booze next year and he’ll find it easy to say yes. Ask him right now to walk by the bar and he’ll balk. The same phenomenon shows up all the time for people who aren’t alcoholics.
We can forsake dessert a year from now and we can decide to become better savers a year from now, but right now, we grab tasty bites from the dessert tray and spend like there’s no tomorrow. The same principle applies to the budget standoff.
Asking Congress to think about what the shape of budget cuts should be in the future will likely yield a more productive conversation, where legislators aren’t biased as much by current threats and temptations, says Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist, and the author of Nudge. “Congress would be better off spending a week dancing the hokey-pokey than debating the debt limit.”
DEADLINES: At the same time, it’s useful to have deadlines. If we told Congress to fix the budget deficit two years from now, they have no immediate incentive to act. Thaler suggests that one way to get Congress to act is to take advantage of the human tendency to pay undue importance to current threats and temptations.
“Suppose that we say that if the budget isn’t reduced, Congress isn’t paid anymore,” he said. “Or worse yet, suppose they lose their parking spots if the deficit isn’t reduced two years from now. All of a sudden you’re going to see all kinds of self control adopted.”
THE NEGOTIATING TABLE: Who sits around the negotiating table can make a big difference to how negotiations turn out. Psychologists have found that when groups are predominantly male, individuals tend to act in increasingly aggressive ways. They take bigger risks. They show off.
“Any place in which there are more men than women, the men are becoming more aggressive with each other and are competing with each other to attract women,” says Vladas Griskevicius, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota.
Griskevicius has found that cities in which men outnumber women have the highest amount of consumer debt — the result, he believes, of men buying expensive stuff to show off. Most of us don’t think the same dynamics affect professional settings, but Griskevicius finds in experiments that when men are surrounded by other men, their behavior changes without their awareness.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The Flat Earth Society was founded in Victorian England to preach one simple belief: Our planet is not a sphere. This was not a metaphor. Followers believed, quite literally, that we all inhabit a large disc, with the North Pole at the center and a large wall of ice at its edge. This particular brand of magical thinking pretty much died out in the early 20th century, though a few hangers-on were still around to accuse NASA of fraud when the agency published photographs that clearly showed a blue orb spinning in space.
The last Flat Earther supposedly was spotted in California, near Los Angeles, some years ago. But the term endures in our cultural idiom, where it has come to mean any dogmatic, rigidly anti-scientific thinker: Creationists, holocaust-deniers, indeed anyone who insists on an irrational belief, all meaningful evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The label also suggests an in-your-face, mean-spirited kind of stupidity.
Are we being too hard on Flat Earthers? Let’s look at the evidence. Psychologists have long been interested in why we make so many errors in logical reasoning and judgment. Why are we superstitious, for example? These scientists have been studying the human mind’s complex reasoning process, and there is today broad agreement on one fundamental idea: We have two very different cognitive machines working at the same time. One is a rapid, automatic, belief-driven machine, and the other is a slow and deliberate analytical machine.
When these dual processors are working in concert, all is well. The logic supports the belief. That’s why we’re not in mental anguish over widely-shared wisdom—the existence of subatomic articles, for example, or the structure of DNA. But what happens when our two mental processes don’t jibe? Psychologist Wim De Neys of the University of Leuven, Belgium, decided to explore this experimentally, to see how belief and logic slug it out in the mind. He also wanted to know if this cognitive interplay is different in smart and stupid people.
Since nobody really believes in a flat Earth anymore, De Neys had to find another way to study faulty reasoning in the lab. So he used syllogisms. He first sorted volunteers using a standard test of mental acumen, then had all of them work through a series of syllogisms. Some were logically valid, while others were not, and the volunteers had to determine which were which. Here’s one:
All fruits can be eaten.
Hamburgers can be eaten.
Therefore, hamburgers are fruits.
This one is easy, because not only is the conclusion ridiculous, the logic is obviously flawed as well. Even the stupid volunteers got this right immediately. But how about this one?
All mammals can walk.
Whales are mammals.
Therefore, whales can walk.
Again, the conclusion is wildly impossible, but to understand why requires some mental gymnastics. The syllogism is logical, but you have to stop and analyze a bit to realize that the false conclusion follows from a false premise—that is, that all mammals can walk. As De Neys reports in the journal Psychological Science, many people get this wrong: They fail to see the logic when the conclusion is so absurd.
But why? Here’s where the volunteers’ mental ability comes into play. De Neys added another mental task to the syllogism test, this one designed only to tax the volunteers’ overall mental resources. He found that the added mental demands were much harder on the slower problem solvers, causing them to default to their less rational belief system more readily. In other words, they lacked the cognitive capacity to rigorously reason themselves out of a wrong-headed conclusion.
So back to the original question: Are we being too hard on the Flat Earthers? Maybe, in a sense. Another analysis by De Neys showed that the slower subjects were not coming to their false conclusions because they didn’t try. They did indeed try to use their analytical skills, but their analytical skills were limited, so they failed. And the stupider they were, the more likely they were to fail—and to fall back on illogical beliefs. So creationists and holocaust deniers and other modern-day Flat Earthers may not be hateful after all. It may be that they really, really can’t think any better than that.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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