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“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”*…

 

Generations

 

“The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs”  – Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

As recently as the late 1980s, most Americans thought gay sex was not only immoral but also something that ought to be illegal. Yet by 2015, when the Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, there were only faint murmurs of protest. Today two-thirds of Americans support it, and even those who frown on it make no serious effort to criminalise it.

This surge in tolerance illustrates how fast public opinion can shift. The change occurred because two trends reinforced each other. First, many socially conservative old people have died, and their places in the polling samples have been taken by liberal millennials. In addition, people have changed their minds. Support for gay marriage has risen by some 30 percentage points within each generation since 2004, from 20% to 49% among those born in 1928-45 and from 45% to 78% among those born after 1980.

However, this shift in opinion makes gay marriage an exception among political issues. Since 1972 the University of Chicago has run a General Social Survey every year or two, which asks Americans their views on a wide range of topics. Over time, public opinion has grown more liberal. But this is mostly the result of generational replacement, not of changes of heart.

For example, in 1972, 42% of Americans said communist books should be banned from public libraries. Views varied widely by age: 55% of people born before 1928 (who were 45 or older at the time) supported a ban, compared with 37% of people aged 27-44 and just 25% of those 26 or younger. Today, only a quarter of Americans favour this policy. However, within each of these birth cohorts, views today are almost identical to those from 47 years ago. The change was caused entirely by the share of respondents born before 1928 falling from 49% to nil, and that of millennials—who were not born until at least 1981, and staunchly oppose such a ban—rising from zero to 36%.

Not every issue is as extreme as these two. But on six of the eight questions we examined—all save gay marriage and marijuana legalisation—demographic shifts accounted for a bigger share of overall movement in public opinion than changes in beliefs within cohorts. On average, their impact was about twice as large.

Social activists devote themselves to changing people’s views, and sometimes succeed. In general, however, battles for hearts and minds are won by grinding attrition more often than by rapid conquest.

The Economist illustrates the way in which generational change is the driver of changes in public opinion: “Societies change their minds faster than people do.”

Paul Graham has tips on how to anticipate and navigate, even to lead, this change: “What you can’t say.”

“The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research. It is upon their existence more than upon that of revolutions that the notion of normal science depends… though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

* The Who

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As we go with the flow, we might send responsive birthday greetings to John Broadus Watson; he was born on this date in 1878.  A psychologist inspired by the (then recent) work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism, most dramatically through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, at Columbia University in 1913.  Watson studied the biology, physiology, and behavior of animals, viewing them as extremely complex machines that responded to situations according to their “wiring,” or nerve pathways, which were conditioned by experience.  When he continued with studies of the behavior of children, his conclusion was that humans, while more complicated than animals, operated on the same principles; he was particularly interested in the conditioning of emotions.  Watson’s behaviorism dominated psychology in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s (and got a second wind with the ascendence of B.F. Skinner).

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Ironically, it is also the birthday (1886) of one of Watson’s contemporaries and antagonists, Edwin Ray Guthrie.  Guthrie was also a behaviorist, but argued against of Watson’s theory of classical conditioning and Skinner’s related theory of operant conditioning.  Guthie’s focus was the psychology of learning and the role that association plays.  In his Law of Contiguity, he held that “a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement, will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” He held that all learning is based on a stimulus- response association; movements are small stimulus- response combinations.  These movements make up an act.  A learned behavior is a series of movements, and it takes time for the movements to develop into an act. Which is to say that he believed that learning is incremental, and that many acquired behaviors involve repetition of movements– because what is learned are movements, not behaviors.

200px-Edwin_Ray_Guthrie source

 

“It’s hard for me to get used to these changing times. I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.”*…

This fall’s entering college students, the class of 2020, were born in 1998 and cannot remember a time when they had to wait for anything. They also can’t recall a time when the United States was not at war, or when someone named Bush or Clinton was not running for office.

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List, providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students about to enter college.

In their lifetimes they have always had eBay and iMacs, and India and Pakistan have always had the bomb. The Sopranos and SpongeBob SquarePants have always been part of popular culture, Gretzky and Elway have always been retired, and Vladimir Putin has always been in charge in the Kremlin.

And although they think of themselves as a powerful generation—Sanders voters, consumers—they are faced with the prospect of student loan debt and of robots and foreigners taking their jobs making them feel anxious and weak…

This year’s Mindset List

* George Burns

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As we muster to matriculate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the (preliminary) Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that if the rebel states did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in those states would be free.  No Confederate state capitulated, and on the first day of 1863, President Lincoln issued the Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Despite it’s expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, of course, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

Still, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war.  After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom.  Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators.  By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

“First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter

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Written by LW

September 22, 2016 at 1:01 am

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