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Posts Tagged ‘social psychology

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

 

nationalism

 

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

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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.

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

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Written by LW

September 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination”*…

 

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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

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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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“Fortune sides with him who dares”*…

 

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… or not:

Does hot weather actually make us hot-headed? Does a warming planet induce us to take more risks? According to new research, there is indeed a correlation: When it comes to rational decision-making, changes in climate shape how individuals think about loss and risk—even if it takes centuries for that evolution to occur…

New research finds that people living in climatically turbulent regions tend to make riskier decisions than those in relatively more stable environments.  The full story at “How volatile climate shapes the way people think.”

* Virgil

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As we feel the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Volume 1, Number 1 of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was published.  Concerned with scientific and global security issues resulting from accelerating technological advances that might have negative consequences for humanity, the group created “The Doomsday Clock” which has featured on its cover since its introduction in 1947, reflecting “basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

The current “setting” is 2 minutes to midnight, reflecting the failure of world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change. This is the clock’s closest approach to midnight, matching that of 1953,

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The cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has featured the famous Doomsday Clock since it debuted in 1947, when it was set at seven minutes to midnight.

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Happy Birthday, Ada Lovelace!

 

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead”*…

 

What kinds of secrets does the average person keep? In a new paper, Columbia University researchers Michael L. Slepian and colleagues carried out a survey of secrets…

Take a peek at (and find larger versions of this chart and others) at “A Survey of Our Secret Lives.”

* Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

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As we keep it under our hats, we might send vocal birthday greetings to Melvin Jerome “Mel” Blanc; he was born on this date in 1908. A voice actor, actor, radio comedian, and recording artist, he began his 60-plus-year career performing in radio, but is best remembered for his work in animation– as the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, the Tasmanian Devil, and many of the other characters from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies theatrical cartoons that helped define the golden age of American animation.  He was, in fact, the voice for all of the major male Warner Bros. cartoon characters except Elmer Fudd, whose voice was provided by fellow radio actor Arthur Q. Bryan (though Blanc later voiced Fudd as well after Bryan’s death).  Blanc died in 1989,  just a year after voicing Daffy Duck in his classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit duel with Donald.

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Written by LW

May 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

I choose… me!

People in Western countries drown in choice. Want a T-shirt? Thousands of alternatives await you. Want some toothpaste? Sit down, we could be here a while. Many people see these options as a good thing – they’re a sign of our independence, our freedom, our mastery over our own destinies. But these apparent positives have a dark side.

Krishna Savani from Columbia University has found that when Americans think about the concept of choice, they’re less concerned about the public good and less empathic towards disadvantaged people. His work supports the idea that endless arrays of choice focus our attention on individual control and, by doing so, they send a message that people’s fates are their own concerns. Their lives are not the business of the state or public institutions, and if they fail, it is their own fault. With choices at hand, Americans are more likely to choose themselves.

Savani’s experiments and their results make for pretty bracing reading.  Still, he notes, not all cultures react the same way.  And as for Americans,

… Savani points out that the US is one of the world’s most charitable countries. He writes, “If Americans believe that they are choosing to help other people out of their free will, or if they can affirm their selves through making choices for other people, they may be even more charitable.” The problem lies more with “choice for choice’s sake.”

Read the whole story in Discover.

As we resolve to simplify, we might recall that it was on this date in 1718 that London lawyer, writer, and inventor, James Puckle patented  a multi-shot gun mounted on a stand capable of firing up to nine rounds per minute– the first machine gun.

Puckle’s innovation was as formative in the realm of intellectual property as it was in the martial arena:  Quoth to the Patent Office of the United Kingdom,”In the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain, the law officers of the Crown established as a condition of patent that the inventor must in writing describe the invention and the manner in which it works.” Puckle’s machine gun patent was among the first to provide such a description.

source and larger view, with transcription

The Annals of Solipsism: Charting Charts…

Readers will have noticed that your correspondent is something of a sucker for information, graphs, and infographics.  Imagine then his delight in discovering this chart comparing the relative effectiveness of different kinds of charts:

From I Love Charts, where much more illumination awaits.

As we resolve not to serve pie unless our readers have lots of time to digest it, we might mark the passing of sociologist, criminologist and social psychologist Gabriel Tarde; he died on this date in 1904.  Tarde conceived sociology as based on small psychological interactions among individuals (much as if it were chemistry), the fundamental forces being imitation and innovation; he conceived “the group mind” (sometimes advanced to explain so-called herd behavior or crowd psychology), and economic psychology (in which he anticipated a number of modern developments… indeed, he may be spinning in his grave to have become, as his work did, an inspiration to the “Chicago School” of economists).  But Tarde’s fame was posthumous; his thinking was overshadowed at the time by Émile Durkheim and his conception of society as a collective unity.

Gabriel Tarde (source)

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