Tag Archives: psychology

Short post: Green, compensatory ethics

There was an article in the Guardian that talks about how “green” consumers may be more likely to engage in socially irresponsible or unethical behavior due to a phenomenon called “compensatory ethics.” I take that to mean that if a person feels good about himself for one reason (he only buys fair trade organic coffee, for instance) he won’t feel as bad about himself if he steals from the barista’s tip jar.

In the words of Dieter Frey, a social psychologist at the University of Munich quoted in the Guardian piece, “at the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere.”

Does that mean your hippie friends are cheaters? No – but it does explain why my vegetarian roommate was habitually rude and inconsiderate.

NatureBlog picked up on it too!


Extremely cynical: the Politics of Fear

I have tried to avoid making the topic of the Big Upshot political. I’ve skirted the line with that recent post about Ukraine and Russia. I admit that. For the most part, I just don’t think that I can do a lot of good in the political sphere. I could write inflammatory, poorly-researched posts about surface issues, but there are lots of those already. I could write well-researched, well thought-out, powerful analyses, but I suspect nobody would read them. So, instead, I try to focus on the humor of science and the humor of living around science.


But this was just too much. ScienceNow at Science Magzine (Arguably the most prestigious publication on the map) posted a piece called “The Politics of Fear.” Not too long ago, The Jester talked about our culture of Fear and Consumption.His opinion is that the fear-memes of that kind prey on our natural responses to scary, threatening things. Evidently, it is more than just speculation. The article over at ScienceNow sums up an article by Okley et. al. called “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits.” The article correlates genetics, fear responses and political decisions.

The implication is that some people have a more pronounced fear response – they are easier to scare and upset. And this correlates with the person for whom they vote. People who are threatened easily (“Are you threatening me?!”) probably are easier to influence with lies and scary pronouncements in paid TV commercials. Evidently, this is so much the case that they will vote against their own selfish interest.

I’m afraid that I have a hard time not reading this with a very cynical eye. The implication is that it is hopeless to try to have a good political debate (in my naivete, I thought I would see one this election). This scientific result implies that inflammatory, poorly-researched diatribes will win consistently over well-researched, well thought-out, powerful analyses. They will excite different kinds of brains, and I’ll let you guess which are more strongly represented in the general population.

Sorry for the cynicism today. I miss my girl.


Some people are more Flexible than others

I’m still in Germany and I’m having a great time. Writing the dissertation is a slow, but steady process. I think I’m done processing the data for which I worked so hard last month. It lines up nicely.

I read an interesting article in Newsweek on Monday that I wanted to share with you all. The notion was that scientists (Frank et. al. 2007 ) found evidence that there is a genetic link to a person’s ability to learn from mistakes. I honestly don’t know how controversial that is. It seems pretty common-sense to me. Some people will be more able than others to discern when they have made a mistake, and upon realizing this, some people will be more able than others to change their own behavior.

If anything, the controversial issue (and the thing that is the subtle beauty of the proposition) is that this in not trained. It seems intuitive to think that if someone doesn’t learn from their mistakes, they could be trained to do so. This result, if true, suggests that the degree of trainability is, itself, variable.

I imagine this has implications for parents everywhere. Take a child who is less capable of intuiting that a repeated mistake will have repeatable consequences. That child should be reared differently than one who immediately modifies behaviors in after making a mistake. A child who responds immediately might be allowed to make some mistakes so that he will learn limits on his own before mistakes are life-threatening. On the other hand, such mistakes will be less useful experiences for the child with this newly identified genetic condition.

But what about the subtle implications? This also suggests that the degree of “habit plasticity” is variable among the population. It suggests that there are outliers on both sides: people who need external structure and limits to survive, and people who will immediately adapt their behavior to the social structure around them. Furthermore, I would venture to guess that this won’t correlate with intelligence or other personality traits (e.g. introversion/extroversion). In fact, it is more like a meta-trait.

Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has 4 dimensions along which a person will score somewhere on a continuum. People who score any given way on the test will tend to have certain preferred modes of living. What this new result suggests is that, for some people, this preference is more fixed than others.

If nothing else, it’s a caveat on any predictions based on most psychological tests.


ideas can ‘hijack’ a person’s mind and make them do things

I think that some people are uncomfortable with the memetic perspective because it presupposes that an idea can ‘hijack’ a person’s mind and make them do things. Dan Dennett speaks at length about this notion. A meme is a semi-autonomous thing: it is an idea that spreads through minds as if it had a will of its own. People don’t like to think of ideas as things that control them. For most people who think of “ideas” in the abstract, they are like items in a catalog, not programs resident in memory. A post over at meme-weaver gave me an interesting example of exactly the hijacking that poeple are afraid of (and that fear is not without reason).

Here is the example. What Derren Brown implants into his mark’s brain is not a meme per se, since it does not spread. But it does show that an idea can be implanted in such a way that it hijacks a person’s brain rather than becoming a passive item within it.

Here is one explanation for how this was done. Based on neurolinguistic programming

There are a bunch of tricks that D. Brown has played that expose deeply the vulnerabilities of our minds. He’s a magician; he doesn’t want his memes to spread. A magician never reveals the trick.  But the tricks are out there, spreading by inducing people to spread them.  The marketing magicians know it.  I think we should too.