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Posts Tagged ‘social psychology

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”*…



Detail: The Blue Boat (1892) by Winslow Homer


Coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, ‘nostalgia’ referred to a medical condition – homesickness – characterised by an incapacitating longing for one’s motherland. Hofer favoured the term because it combined two essential features of the illness: the desire to return home (nostos) and the pain (algos) of being unable to do so. Nostalgia’s symptomatology was imprecise – it included rumination, melancholia, insomnia, anxiety and lack of appetite – and was thought to affect primarily soldiers and sailors. Physicians also disagreed about its cause. Hofer thought that nostalgia was caused by nerve vibrations where traces of ideas of the motherland ‘still cling’, whereas others, noticing that it was found predominantly among Swiss soldiers fighting at lower altitudes, proposed instead that nostalgia was caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, or eardrum damage from the clanging of Swiss cowbells. Once nostalgia was identified among soldiers from various nationalities, the idea that it was geographically specific was abandoned.

By the early 20th century, nostalgia was considered a psychiatric rather than neurological illness – a variant of melancholia. Within the psychoanalytic tradition, the object of nostalgia – ie, what the nostalgic state is about – was dissociated from its cause. Nostalgia can manifest as a desire to return home, but – according to psychoanalysts – it is actually caused by the traumatic experience of being removed from one’s mother at birth. This account began to be questioned in the 1940s, with nostalgia once again linked to homesickness. ‘Home’ was now interpreted more broadly to include not only concrete places, such as a childhood town, but also abstract ones, such as past experiences or bygone moments. While disagreements lingered, by the second part of the 20th century, nostalgia began to be characterised as involving three components. The first was cognitive: nostalgia involves the retrieval of autobiographical memories. The second, affective: nostalgia is considered a debilitating, negatively valenced emotion. And third, conative: nostalgia comprises a desire to return to one’s homeland. As I’ll argue, however, this tripartite characterisation of nostalgia is likely wrong.

First, two clarifications: nostalgia is neither pathological nor beneficial….

In the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of nationalistic political movements that have gained traction by way of promoting a return to the ‘good old days’: ‘Make America Great Again’ in the US, or ‘We Want Our Country Back’ in the UK. These politics of nostalgia promote the implementation of policies that, supposedly, would return nations to times in which people were better off. Unsurprisingly, such politics are usually heralded by conservative groups who, in the past, tended to be better off than they currently are – independently of the particular politics of the time. In a 2016 study conducted by the Polish social psychologists Monika Prusik and Maria Lewicka, a large sample of Poles were asked nostalgia-related questions about how things were prior to the fall of communism 25 years earlier. The results revealed that people felt much more nostalgic and had more positive feelings about the communist government if they were better off then than now, if they were older, and if they were currently unhappy. Doubtlessly, older and conservative-leaning folk who perceive their past – whether accurately or not – as better than their present account for a significant portion of the electorate supporting nationalistic movements. But we’d be misled to think of them as the primary engine, let alone the majority. For the Polish results show something very different: a large number of younger individuals avidly supporting nostalgic policies that would return their nations to a past they never experienced…

Neuroscience is finding what propaganda has long known: nostalgia doesn’t need real memories – an imagined past works too: “Nostalgia Reimagined.”

* Marcel Proust


As we we muse over our madeleines, we might recall that this date in 1970 was “Black Tot Day,” the last day on which the British Royal Navy issued sailors with a daily rum ration (the daily tot).  In the 17th century, the ration had been beer– one gallon per day– but the the switch was meade the following century to rum in order to cut down on the weight and volume necessary to carry to meet that requirement.  The daily allowance was steadily reduced thereafter, until finally it was eliminated.

And so, on July 31, 1970, the last tot was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of “up spirits.”  Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were “buried at sea,” and in one navy training camp, HMS Collingwood, the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire, there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.  The move was not popular with the ratings (enlisted personnel), despite an extra can of beer being added to their daily rations in compensation.


Measuring out the tot (diorama aboard HMS Belfast)




Written by LW

July 31, 2020 at 1:01 am

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good”*…




If one takes Donald Trump and his administration to embody modern conservatism, it is easy to see in their response to the coronavirus pandemic the right’s final divorce from science and expertise. There was the case of Rick Bright, the Health and Human Services scientist who claims that the Trump administration retaliated against him when he objected to the administration’s rapid push to distribute anti-malaria drugs that were largely untested for treating coronavirus patients. There are reports that the president for months ignored his own intelligence experts’ warnings that the virus threatened our shores. There was the ongoing drama over whether Trump would fire Anthony Fauci, who has headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. And there was the president’s daily passion play—the White House press briefings where he’d stand next to scientists who grimaced as he speculated that the death toll was exaggerated and that sunlight inside the body might kill the virus.

The White House’s sorry Covid-19 track record has sparked a chorus of dissent recently distilled by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who argues that the crisis displays conservatives’ long-standing “antipathy to science,” owing to “populist distrust of experts, religious rejection of information that undermines biblical literalism and efforts by giant corporations to evade regulation.” But this narrative is too pat. While something is plainly amiss in the relationship of the Trumpian right to science, it is hardly as principled as the religious objections of, say, creationists opposing evolutionary theory. Neither is it straightforwardly hostile.

What’s more curious about the response by the president and his allies to the virus is rather their embrace of scientific expertise of a sort…

The story of the crisis is not quite that of scientists who knew the answers and one political party that just wouldn’t listen to them. Rather, it is a story of fracture—of conflict and confusion, of experts earning mistrust, of each side cultivating its own class of experts to own the other’s. It is also a perverse story of how a group of self-styled truth-telling outsiders turned science’s mythology against its institutions, warping it from a tool to fight the virus into a tool to attack the establishment.

How did we get here?…

Ari Schulman (@AriSchulman) explains how a new class of outsider experts is exploiting institutional failures and destabilizing knowledge: “The Coronavirus and the Right’s Scientific Counterrevolution.”

TotH to Byrne Hobart, who notes (in his nifty newsletter, The Diff):

… this essay obviously takes a side, but it tries to be fair to the side it disagrees with. Which means there are two Straussian readings: maybe it’s an essay about how science is on one side in an American political context, and the other side only makes vague gestures towards empiricism. Alternatively, it could be an essay on how science never answers political questions, but politics corrupts science. (Why doesn’t science answer political questions? Because you can’t build a coalition out of stating the obvious, but you can build one from denying it—if your beliefs are crazy, you can spot members of the ingroup. So most scientific questions are irrelevant to politics, and when they’re relevant, politics wins by default in the short term, even if it loses long-term. To build a coherent and healthy ingroup, you need beliefs that are crazy but don’t lead to bad decisions.)

Pair with another of Hobart’s suggestions: “On Cultures That Build” (and the reasons why, the author argues. the U.S. is not one).

* Carl Sagan


As we commit to learning, we might note that today is the birthday of not one but two extraordinary mathematicians:  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646; variants on his date of birth are due to calendar changes), the German  philosopher, scientist, mathematician, diplomat, librarian, lawyer, co-inventor, with Newton, of The Calculus, and “hero” (well, one hero) of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy…  and  Alan Turing (1912), British mathematician, computer science pioneer (inventor of the Turing Machine, creator of “the Turing Test” and inspiration for “The Turing Prize”), and cryptographer (leading member of the team that cracked the Enigma code during WWII).

Go figure…

Turing (source: Univ. of Birmingham)

Giambattista Vico was also born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).



Written by LW

June 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”*…




The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack…

The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise. A leading researcher on the psychology of human wrongness– David Dunning himself– explains the Dunning-Kruger effect: “We are all confident idiots.”

* James Baldwin


As we reconsider our confidence, we might recall that it was on this date in 1996 that the cable channel Fox News debuted.

fox-news-logo source


Written by LW

October 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule”*…




Over the course of a decade, the male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own. On average, eight males gang up on the victim.

If such is the violent reality of life as an ape, is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into “us” and “them” and go to war over these categories? Reductive comparisons are, of course, dangerous; humans share just as much of their DNA with bonobos, among whom such brutal behavior is unheard of. And although humans kill not just over access to a valley but also over abstractions such as ideology, religion, and economic power, they are unrivaled in their ability to change their behavior. (The Swedes spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.) Still, humankind’s best and worst moments arise from a system that incorporates everything from the previous second’s neuronal activity to the last million years of evolution (along with a complex set of social factors). To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them…

Robert Sapolsky on the biology of “us and them”: “This is your brain on nationalism.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


As we muse on membership, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Ludovico Ariosto; he was born on this date in 1474.  An Italian poet, he is best remembered for his epic Orlando Furioso; a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, it describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando (the Christian knight subsequently known as Roland), and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens.

Ariosto’s epic was hugely influential on later European literature (including English poets Spencer, Shakespeare, and Byron).  And while the work had a “patriotic” (and, at least overtly, Christian) cast, Ariosto coined the term “humanism” (in Italian, umanesimo), helping pave the way for Renaissance Humanism.


Ariosto, detail of votive painting Madonna with saints Joseph, John, Catherine, Louis of Toulouse and Lodovico Ariosto by Vincenzo Catena,



Written by LW

September 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination”*…



John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Capitol Rotunda


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
—The Declaration of Independence

These words, from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, are so familiar that it is easy to assume their meaning is obvious. The puzzle lies in the assertion that we have a right to pursue happiness. John Locke, in his Two Treatises of 1690, said we are all created equal and have inalienable rights, including those to life and liberty. But for Locke the third crucial right was the right to property. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, also published in 1690, he wrote about the pursuit of happiness, but it follows from his account there that there can be no right to pursue happiness because we will pursue happiness come what may. The pursuit of happiness is a law of human nature (of what we now call psychology), just as gravity is a law of physics. A right to pursue happiness is no more necessary than a right for water to run downhill.

Jefferson meant, I think, that we have a right to certain preconditions that will allow us to pursue happiness: freedom of speech, so we can speak our minds and learn from others; a career open to talents, so our efforts may be rewarded; freedom of worship, so we may find our way to heaven; and a free market, so we can pursue prosperity. Read this way, Jefferson’s right to the pursuit of happiness is an elaboration of the right to liberty. Liberty means not only freedom from coercion, or freedom under the law—or even the right to participate in politics—it is also a right to live in a free community in which individuals themselves decide how they want to achieve happiness. The “public happiness” to which Jefferson aspired can therefore be attained, since public happiness requires liberty in this expanded sense.

Jefferson was well aware that being free to pursue happiness does not mean that everyone will be happy. And yet we trick ourselves into thinking we know what is needed to be happy: a promotion, a new car, a vacation, a good-looking partner. We believe this even though we know there are plenty of people with good jobs, new cars, vacations, and attractive partners, and many of them are miserable. But they, too, imagine their misery can be fixed by a bottle of Pétrus or a yacht or public adulation. In practice, our strategies for finding happiness are usually self-defeating. There’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that much of what we do to gain happiness doesn’t pay off. It seems that aiming at happiness is always a misconceived project; happiness comes, as John Stuart Mill insisted, as the unintended outcome of aiming at something else. “The right to the pursuit of happiness,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.”

This problem is particularly acute in our modern consumer economy, in which political institutions, the economic system, and popular culture are all now primarily dedicated to the pursuit of happiness…

How have we come to build a whole culture around a futile, self-defeating enterprise: the pursuit of happiness?  David Wootton explores the implications of our (mis)understanding of America’s founding document: “The Impossible Dream.”

* Mark Twain


As we think twice about self-gratification, we might send porcelain birthday greetings to Marcel Duchamp; he was born on this date in 1887.  A painter, sculptor, and conceptual artist, Duchamp was, with Picasso and Matisse, one the defining figures in the revolution that redefined the plastic arts in the early Twentieth Century– in Duchamp’s case, as an early Cubist (the star of the famous 1913 New York Armory Show), as the originator of ready-mades, and as a father of Dada.

In the 1930s, Duchamp turned from the production of art to his other great passion, chess.  He became a competitive player; then, as he reached the limits of his ability, a chess writer.  Samuel Beckett, an friend of Duchamp, used Duchamp’s thinking about chess strategy as the narrative device for the 1957 play of the same name, Endgame.  Then in 1968, Duchamp played an on-stage chess match with avant-garde composer, friend, and regular chess opponent John Cage, at a concert entitled Reunion, in which the music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath the chessboard, triggered when pieces were moved in game play.

Duchamp (center; his wife Teeny, right) “performing” Reunion with John Cage (left) in 1968



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