Matthew Taylor on human psychology and political change

One of my students, Nikolas Dawson, hipped me to these nifty animated videos developed from lectures at the RSA, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, ‘a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress.’ My student was pointing out a video about recent financial crises, RSA Animate – Crises of Capitalism, that combined an edited version of a David Harvey lecture with great animation, but in the process of poking around their website, I realized that there’s an interesting clip for readers at Neuroanthropology.net.

The video is ‘RSA Animate Matthew Taylor: Left brain, right brain,’ and fortunately, it has virtually nothing to say about ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain,’ but is instead a very interesting discussion of the relation between human psychology and the possibility of social and political change. In addition, the animation is great!

The video is linked to the RSA’s project, The Social Brain, which is a platform for a number of expert speakers to discuss how the things we’re learning about the brain help us to understand a range of social issues. If you want to watch the whole video, but without the animation, you can go to YouTube recording of the whole lecture: Matthew Taylor – Left Brain, Right Brain: Human nature and political values. Matthew Taylor has his own blog as well.

The RSA website also has a piece by our colleague, Joan Chiao, ‘Face Value.’ Chiao discusses why some societies seem to prefer hierarchical governments, and others prefer leadership that promotes great egalitarianism, as well as some of the relationship between research on facial preferences and democratic decision making. She concludes:

This cultural diversity in political preferences and structures is proof that our evolutionary instincts for social hierarchy are not cultural destiny and that, through knowledge of where we come from and imagination about whom we may become, we can come closer to building a society with consideration and compassion for all.

For more information about the RSA, especially the Social Brain project, you can read below.

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Be Afraid, America. Be Very Afraid: The Effect of Negative Media

By Mallory Meter and Jacob Minnaugh

“The most used phrase in my administration if I were to be president would be ‘What the hell do you mean we’re out of missiles?” -Glenn Beck

Comforting? We think not. Luckily, Glenn Beck is not the president of the United States. Still, millions of people every night flip on their T.V. to watch Beck dish out the day’s events. And you can imagine that if his dream presidency would be filled with explosions and bombs, his newscast is too.

But if you can’t tune into Glenn Beck’s riveting hour of negative news, not to worry. CNN, MSNBC, ABC and pretty much every other outlet will have similar newscasters and similar news. All of these news outlets have one thing in common: negativity.

Whether it’s about the various diseases children can contract at preschool, the possibility of a nuclear missile attack, or how poorly our nation’s leaders are doing their jobs, the news never fails to make the situation as dismal as possible. Every day, millions of people tune in to the media outlet of their choice and get pummeled with these stories.

This is where the real problem comes in: this negativity is affecting us. The way we see ourselves, others, and the world are a result of what we take in everyday. It follows that if we are taking in an overwhelming amount of negativity, that negativity will come to be our output as well.

This post explores how negativity in the media permeates the way we think. We will address how human culture lends itself towards a negative bias as well as how our place in this world affects what we do with the negativity. Finally, we will show how the media does, in fact, result in negative ideals and actions that are so much a part of our culture today.

Media as a Mirror

The negativity in the news penetrates the way we think and act without us being fully aware. Nightly news tells us how dangerous it is to fly in planes nowadays, and we rethink our travel plans. Girls see negative body images splashed across the magazines they read, and they starve themselves until they match those images. The news is a mirror in which millions look every night and what they end up seeing in the reflection is a life in imminent danger.

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Cynthia Mahmood and Political Violence

Cynthia Mahmood is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and a great colleague of mine. She is also now a star on YouTube. Here Cynthia explains how she approaches understanding political violence as an anthropologist:

About six minutes in, Cynthia discusses the present case of Pakistan, and expounds further in a press release accompanying the video, U.S. must help calm nuclear-armed Pakistan.

“Right now, we’re finally seeing that the heartland of the region’s instability, in fact, is in Pakistan, and that the problem President Obama is having to deal with is not just what to do about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, but what to do about the very serious and urgent danger that a nuclear-armed nation is on the verge of either collapse or takeover by radical Islamists.”

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Race in the Race

The most recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll indicates:

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles. The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points… More than a third of all white Democrats and independents — voters Obama can’t win the White House without — agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t have such views.

In related coverage, Brent Staples writes a NY Times op-ed on Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race. Staples highlights the parallels between “uppity” blacks and the recent use of “uppity” about Obama by a Georgia Republican. He concludes:

Mr. Obama seems to understand that he is always an utterance away from a statement — or a phrase — that could transform him in a campaign ad from the affable, rational and racially ambiguous candidate into the archetypical angry black man who scares off the white vote. His caution is evident from the way he sifts and searches the language as he speaks, stepping around words that might push him into the danger zone. These maneuvers are often painful to watch. The troubling part is that they are necessary.

Nicholas Kristof recently argued that the repeated questioning of Obama’s Christian faith (isn’t he a Muslim?) represent another way to “otherize” Obama:

What is happening, I think, is this: religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian. The result is this campaign to “otherize” Mr. Obama. Nobody needs to point out that he is black, but there’s a persistent effort to exaggerate other differences, to de-Americanize him.

As I argued recently in David Brooks and the Social Animal, the Republican party is about “one culture,” portraying itself as the most American, and avoiding the inherent complexity and even relativity that the anthropological notion of culture entails. A lot of that, historically, comes back to race, including the Southern strategy of the Republican party that has proven successful over the last three decades.

I lectured on race last week in my Introduction to Anthropology class. In lieu of that, you might check out the American Anthropological Association’s outstanding project Understanding Race. The site focuses on three main areas: (1) history, complete with an online video; (2) human variation, with online graphics and text exploring topics like the human spectrum (a basic intro to thinking about human variation), race and human variation, and the variation in human skin color; and (3) lived experience, exploring topics like sports and beauty.

PBS has a documentary series on Race: The Power of an Illusion. Here’s one clip that I used from it:

I also played the first part of this video to get them to think about how the black vs. white dichotomy doesn’t capture our variation today, and also to think more about the assumptions they make when they see someone. And while I think overall the lecture helped do that, still at the end there were statements being made like “those Asians” or “white kids,” showing just how powerful our “racial” categorization is here in the United States.

Richard Thaler Speaks at RSA

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Richard Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago, co-wrote the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness with the legal scholar Cass Sunstein. Here Thaler presents his views about decision making, policy and goverment before an audience at the RSA – often called the Royal Society of Arts.

For those of you looking to read something shorter, Thalen and Sunstein give an overview of their book in this LA Times article Designing Better Choices. They also have a scholarly article Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron. And for the truly devoted, you can check out their website Nudges.

Thalen is a behavioral economist, and thus sees the notion of perfect rationality and idealized cost/benefit decision making as irrational. We are human, flawed and imperfect; more importantly, our “choice architectures” are significantly shaped by features of the environment, such as what captures our attention or simply following the default option like the rest of the herd. Hence the nudge, those small features in the environment that we can shape in specific directions while still letting people make their own decisions.

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Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash

Neurotosh. The best word from the entire Montreal Critical Neurosciences conference! There was Cordelia Fine, capturing perfectly her frustration at the manipulation of data and science in the service of stereotypes. Just pure neuro-nonsense.

The neurotosh in question was Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, an excellent representative of the neurosexism sold in recent popular books. It is popular, a bestseller translated into many languages, and it is simply bad science. In Nature Rebecca Young and Evan Balaban describe the book as “dressing the [gender] myth up in new clothes” and selling a “melodrama,” noting that “The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance.”

Cordelia Fine took us step-by-step through several passages, examining the supposed citations and supporting evidence. Gender differences were confirmed by (a) studies with only women, (b) studies on a different topic entirely, and (c) personal communication. Ouch.

Plenty of other people have gotten on the bash-Brizendine-bandwagon, helping to undermine the moral authority that Dr. Brizendine wields through her academic credentials and “scientific” claims. Language Log has several critical analyses of the gender difference claims about language (see here, here and here). Mother Jones takes Brizendine to task on her approach to medicine. The most popular Amazon reviews of the book lead with titles calling The Female Brain disappointing” and “nonsensical.” Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks gets in on the pile-on-party as well.

Still Simon Cohn, a British anthropologist at the meeting, was rather nonplussed at Cordelia’s agonizing over the data and methods and claims made by Brizendine. As Simon said to me, “It’s called ‘The Female Brain.’ Doesn’t that tell you everything right from the start?” His point was that knowledge gets turned in the service of ideology and profit and power all the time.

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The Gay Brain: On Love and Science

A lot of controversy and blogging about the gay brain of late. Here’s the Savic and Lindstrom paper that got the fray started, with Mind Hacks’ accompanying coverage on the Return of the Gay Brain.

Shortly afterwards, Vaughan proposed “hard wired” as one of the worst psychobabble terms. For me, the fixation on biological determinism is the larger, and worse, cultural concept behind that. So I propose leaving behind biological claims for identity. It just gives us claptrap like the opening lines from the New Scientist news report, “Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.”

Compelling evidence? While there is interesting work on biology and sexuality (the LA Times covers some of it), there is plenty to doubt about the present work, as the Neurocritic points out quite well here and here. This sort of work represents bad brain science: reported claims overreaching the evidence, an often notable lack of comparative work and appropriate controls, little longitudinal analysis, and on and on.

The worst thing about it? The science, whatever it turns out to be, cannot take us from is to ought.

To add my two anthropological cents, human sexuality is varied. Trying to shoehorn sexuality into one socially and politically charged box just does not work well from an anthropological point of view. As one example, men in some cultures go through different life stages, and in some of those stages homosexuality is the normal way of being, whereas at other times heterosexual relations are the norm. To speak personally, I’ve known people who have had an array of partners in their lives, individually recreating what cultures like the Etoro have shown us ethnographically.

On the neuroplasticity and experience/behavior side, this type of approach generally leaves out something every consenting adult knows. Sex matters! The experience of a sexual encounter helps shape our desires, our pleasures, our associations.

But there is something that matters more to me, and most of the people I know, than sex. LOVE. All this debate about cerebral asymmetries and biological determinism misses the human point. Love matters.

Who cares whether sex between whatever combination of men and women is or is not natural? Love makes a much bigger difference in people’s lives. Love between two committed partners, love of a parent for a child, love of family and friend and groups finding common bond.

Love holds us together, whereas the debates over how gay our brains may or may not be aims to divide us, to heighten identity politics at the expense of those experiences and behaviors whose impact lasts longer. We sacrifice the strength of intimacy to proclaim the supposed facts of science.

There are those who will say that knowing the nature of the problem (how easy to slide from one sense of the problem to another) will help us make better determinations about what to do, that more information will lead to better decisions. Or that being able to claim the mantle of biologically innate will help in the fight against the other side.

I would counter that these sorts of assertions cut entirely against the grain of the society we have built, whether that is a liberal vision of equality before the law or a conservative vision that government should not dictate people’s private choices. But that vision gets sacrificed at the altar of proclamations of moral superiority and the exercise of vindictive power.

Science, with its claims of facts and evidence, steps so easily into that arena, declaring this and that truth. In doing that, the scientists are forgetting what matters, both about science and about human experience.