Author Archives: Jer Clifton

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone.

Is this the story a more thoughtful Trump would tell?

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Some try to explain Trump’s rise by citing local causes like Hillary or the wall.  But there’s something  happening all over the world.  Why?  And why now?

Once upon a time, there was a planet named Terra that teemed with life.  These life forms lived by a particular philosophy on how to interact with each other called the “Right to Oppress.”  Under this egalitarian philosophy, every creature had the right to oppress other creatures because all creatures were committed to the rule of oppressing other creatures if given the chance.  In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sum up this philosophy in 431 B.C. while explaining to the Milesians why they are attacking their neutral city and wanting to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and take their possessions.

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As millennia went by, one Terran life form grew more intelligent, more collaborative within their groups, and began to dominate the rest, and also sought to dominate each other.  For thousands of years, they organized themselves into ever larger and larger tribes to protect themselves from other groups.  Eventually these very large tribes were called “nation-states” the role of which was two-fold: to actively protect a population of millions within a geographic boundary and to actively protect and promote the culture of the majority (i.e. way of life).

Following the “Right to Oppress,” many nation-states rose and fell over the centuries as they tried to enrich and profit themselves at the expense of others.  Famous examples include nation-states Terrans call “the Romans” and another called “the Mayans.”  But one group of nation-states, often called “Western” nation-states, happened to be the ones particularly strong at a moment of two big changes in Terran history.

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Western colonial empires covered most of the world.  

First, unprecedented planetary war.  War was normal, but the scale of this war was not.  All the most powerful nation-states on Terra devoted their resources to destroying each other.  One generation later, another global war took place, this one more devastating.  Afterwards, though Western nation-states remained strong, they were not quite strong enough to continue the “Right to Opress” philosophy as usual.

Secondly, they didn’t want to.  Under their feet, the “Right to Oppress” had been declining in popularity for some time, dating back to what the Terrans called the “Enlightenment,” which was birthed in Western nation-states.  This new philosophy held that creatures did not have a right to be oppress.  Instead, the opposite was true.  Creatures had the “Right to Not Be Oppressed.”   This included rights to be free of things like unfairness and coercion.  In this view, people had the right to keep private property no matter who was in power, say outwardly what they thought inwardly, and be able to freely enter into contracts with each other as each individual saw fit.  This new “Right to Not be Oppressed” philosophy spread rapidly across Terra and became the general expectation of the governments of nation-states.  Moreover, most judged their ancestors who lived under the previous philosophy as barbaric and pathetic.

Because Western nation-states where those most recently “winning” under the now discredited set of rules, they were scorned by others and, more tellingly, by themselves.  They felt guilty for their old colonial empires and oppression.  At the same time, they did not feel that their culture was currently especially threatened.  Indeed, their language and customs was relatively dominant and they were still by and large the most powerful nation-states on Terra.  As a result of this, many Western nation-states became merely “states.”  These states saw their sole role as protecting a people within a geographic boundary but not actively promoting the culture of the majority.  They didn’t want to.  It also seemed immoral under the new philosophy of “Right to Not be Oppressed.”

But other Terran nation-states did not feel this guilt.  They remained keenly interested in promoting and protecting national culture and identity.  Consider, for example, the issue of naturalization, the process in which members of one nation-state becoming members of another nation-state.  Though the issues is more complex, limiting naturalization is an important way that nation-states protect the identity, cultural norms, and values of their nation.

For comparison, consider the European Union, which was a collection of Western states with a total population of 510 million.  They naturalized about 800,000-900,000 people a year between 2009-2014.  In 2014, 2.6 new members were naturalized for every 100 non-new members.  The United States was another collection of Western states, though more unified by history and language, with a total population of 320 million.  They naturalized 600,000 to 1,000,000 a year during the same time period.  In 2014, there was about 2 new members naturalized for every 100 non-new members.

This can be contrasted with naturalization rates in non-western nation-states such as Japan and China.  Japan, home of 127 million, naturalizes 10,000 people per year, or about .1 people per 100 (5% of the United Sates 2014 naturalization rate).  China has 1.3 billion people, the largest nation-state on Terra, yet it only has a total of 1,448 naturalized citizens in total.  If we divide that total across 50 years of naturalization, this means China naturalized on average a mere 29 individuals a year or .00002 new members per 100 non-new members (.001% of the United States 2014 naturalization rate).  Furthermore, in many non-Western nation-states, governments actively promoted it’s national character by, for example, banning foreign influences by excluding certain media, monetarily supporting efforts to revitalize and expand traditional culture and values, and even promoting cultural ways of doing everyday things like eating food.  In these Nation-States, the “Right to Not be Oppressed” came to also mean the right to live in a state that actively promotes your own values and the general sense of feeling at home and welcome in one’s own country.  In these countries, a priority of the government is protecting a certain way of life.

Furthermore, dovetailing with expansive naturalization policies among Western states, new technologies allowed growing communities within Western states to keep their own national identity.  They could eat their foods that tasted foreign to locals, build their own buildings that looked foreign to locals (see how Swiss and German nationalist movements pursue minaret ban), interact with those back at home via a worldwide communications network so they made fewer local connections, etc.  Furthermore, many states worked diligently to make sure that these communities were given equal resources and treatment, removing power dynamics that typically assist a homogenizing process

The result was unprecedented intermixing with much less homogenization.  Many members of western states welcomed and celebrated this new diversity, and in a way welcomed the eroding of the dominance of their culture, which they themselves associated with oppressiveness.  Many others, however, felt that though they were truly warm and welcoming of other people into their homeland, and had nothing against their way of life specifically, they resented when these guests were not willing to adopt their host culture.  Instead, they found that many of these new members wanted to create mini-nations within their own.   They were witnessing, in other words, small, ongoing, lawful, and peaceful invasions by foreign groups into their territory.  They felt that their government was keeping them safe, but not keeping their way of life safe.

These frustrations built for about 50 years until Terran history reached another tipping point, though this tipping point was less important and it only happened within Western states.  In short, many decided they wanted to be nation-states again.  They wanted their government to actively promote their cultural norms and values and they did not want to feel guilty about it.  New generations of Terrans no longer felt colonial guilt to the same extent, as those sins became increasingly associated with the work of ancestors than family members.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Western states en masse made democratic decisions to close borders, promote traditional values, and make their homeland more distinctively their’s.  To those who lost these surprising elections, it seemed like a return to racism, bigotry, and the “Right to Oppress,” and that narrative was not entirely false either.  Many were racist.  But for many others, this nationalism was not a nationalism against any particular nation, but a positive nationalism for one’s nation.

Moving forward with this new philosophy, Terrans are then confronted with difficult questions.  Do Terrans in Western states have the right to live under a nation-state that actively promotes their way of life?  Can nations choose to welcome people through their borders only if immigrants adopt the host culture?   Who is to decide what aspects of a culture are important, or which culture to promote in a heterogenous state?  When a nation makes decisions that make it increasingly heterogenous, can they then seek to homogenize at the expense of minority communities that they previously welcomed more unconditionally?  Will Terrans continue to uphold the universal “Right to Not be Oppressed”?  Is the future of Terra to be dominated by states or by nation-states?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer most of these questions, but I’m sympathetic to the reasonableness of each side.  Is this the narrative, or something like it, that many Trump folks and Brexit folks are trying to share?  (If it is, please pick a more honest, respectful, and better informed spokesperson next time.  I simply cannot promote a nationalism that exalts a figure that represents to me everything crass, ugly, and materialistic about America.)  If it’s not, should it be?

I grew up as a white kid in Taiwan for the first 18 years of my life.  In Taiwan, it’s really hard to become a citizen, even though I was born there and lived there so long.  A foreigner is not even allowed to buy land and the government spent considerable sums of money on promoting local culture. I assumed that is what nation-states did.  When I came to America, I was surprised to learn about what seemed to me an immense double standard.  I wasn’t surprised that the rest of the world had that double standard–the default disgust mechanism against the loud and powerful is understandable–but Americans themselves had it too.  Many seemed fine with decisions of other countries to protect their own way of life, such as how Vietnam actively discouraged  American-style burgers and fast-food chains in Saigon, but if New York State outlawed burritos, that would have been interpreted as racist.  That doesn’t seem fair to me (or racist, but that’s another post).  While in Taiwan, I also adopted a Chinese name to use with locals.  This was expected of me and I was fine with it.  How could I expect them to remember or pronounce such foreign syllables?   But when I came to the U.S., I assumed that it would work here the other way.  Often it did, often it didn’t, but what was interesting to me was the posture of the Americans I knew, who did not feel comfortable encouraging foreigners to adopt local names.

So is our future a world of states or nation-states?  I’m not sure what the future holds or even what I would wish for.  Both paths seem enlightened in their own way, as long as both firmly resist the old philosophy of the “Right to Oppress.”  Both present starkly different versions of the future that make me excited that I get to live for the next 50 years (hopefully) to find out what happens.

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I was born in Taipei, Taiwan.  My Mommy and Daddy loved me and named me Jeremy.  But that is a super foreign sounding word in Taiwan, so I took a local name too that was easier for locals to remember and pronounce.  It seemed helpful and appropriate to me and I figured that’s the way it worked everywhere.  So it feels strange that I haven’t been able to find an English-speaking culture where the members would feel comfortable having the same expectation of Taiwanese long-term residents that the Taiwanese had of me.  It’s not racism.   It’s just hard to make friends and influence people if they can’t say your name.  


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I also lived in Hong Kong for a while.  My brother (right) still lives there with his family.  Last time my wife and I went to visit, there was a Chinese traditional opera that was performing in the local square.  Apparently the troupe travels around Hong Kong performing for local communities at the public expense.  America certainly does some things that are somewhat similar (e.g. the Smithsonian), but nothing comes to mind quite like that.   Sometimes I wonder about why.  

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In Trump’s World—But Not of It

The morning after the election, I sat down to work, and couldn’t concentrate. Like millions of Americans, I felt strangely ill.  Like fewer Americans, I processed my emotions via essay-writing.  It’s about why this particular election result hurts so stupidly much, and what we can do about it.

Why listen to me?  I’m a politics and history nerd, but no expert.  Mainly, I consider myself a bridge between the Ivy League and rural/small town America. To the former group, I’m too conservative. To the latter, too liberal.  (I’m guessing I’m a centrist Democrat.) I hope these reflections will help Democrats understand themselves and Republicans how to deal with us. To the latter, you will disagree with many premises, but I’m not trying to persuade you.  This post is reflective.  I’m describing what I think is our common dilemma.

For as long as I’ve known who Trump was, I thought he was a buffoon representing everything that was awful about America: wealth, trophy wives, bullying, reality television, loudness, entrepreneurship that feels like scams, sue-happy, uneducated, and self-important.  So, of course, this election result is an unreal-for-the-love-of-god-pinch-me nightmare, but what makes it special? I’m weirdly affected by this. After staying up until 3:30AM to find out Trump won, I could not fall asleep until 8:30AM. Why did I suddenly tear up in the shower this morning? Why do I go to bed each night thinking about it? Why do I care this much? I’ve never done this.

Let’s get some things out of the way: History nerds everywhere can cite a few reasons to not be too too upset. First, regarding the end of the world, be of good cheer. The Republic will stand. We’ve survived worse (e.g. Fascism, Andrew Johnson, the Civil War, the Cold War, etc.). Though the man is much, he is not totally incompetent. That much is obvious. Second, is this a step backwards? Of course! But I remain completely convinced that the arc of history is towards progress and big steps backwards are nothing new. For example, immediately following the Civil War, there were numerous African Americans elected to public office in the South before they disappeared for a century. Our setback yesterday is major and serious, but it is not a precious or unique snowflake. Third, by historical standards, our current problems are small. This is arguably one of the best times in our history to make a stupid presidential choice. Lastly, though shocked by the result of this election and my predictions being so wrong about it, I’m not shocked that we were shocked. Upsets are nothing new. Truman 1948, anyone?

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In 1948, FDR was dead, Truman was up for re-election, WWII was over, and the Democratic party, which had been in power for 16 years, was split three ways, with fringes on both ends mounting independent bids. Everyone thought that if the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, was cautious and made no mistakes, he would win for sure. The Chicago Tribune even printed their papers before full results were in. But everyone was wrong.

Let’s get the demographic determinism out the way too: I’m very white, very man, very heterosexual, and very safe all around. I have great health care through my employer. I have job security. I’m not afraid of being deported or otherwise being personally impacted in some specific way.

Let’s get the policy out of the way too: a great many people are posting that this election being tragic because of what it means for the environment, foreign policy, immigration, taxes, gender equality, you name it. But, painful as it may be, “this is (exactly) what democracy looks like.” Losing any election entails direct hits to policies and issues you care about. Nope! That’s not what makes this election result special.

So what is it? The diagnosis of my malaise, and I suspect of Democrats across the country, is much more simple, immediate, and personal. We are in a moral dilemma and don’t know how to move forward with integrity. We have two competing values. They put us in a bind. It’s new to us. It’s confusing. It’s what makes this especially hard.

On the one hand, we believe in respecting the will of the people. We believe in coming together. We believe that, in a democracy, sometimes you lose. We believe that we are Americans first and Democrats second. This drives me to embrace the winner on the other side. I’ve lived long enough to know that, in my own life, this drive is real and not lip service. For example, at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I (with Hillary) supported W. I figured he was President, he was in the best position to make this hard choice, and we should follow his lead. Though it ended up being the wrong choice, I don’t regret my inclination to be supportive. Knee-jerk antagonism towards our leaders is a failure of patriotism, regardless of who is in power. Even if we see the opposing winning candidate as having no experience, the wrong policies, little knowledge, poor wisdom, and a bad temperament, our civic duty remains clear: respect the people’s choice. Elections matter and they should alter our attitudes. This is what Trump said the first night, and what Clinton and Obama said the first morning.

But I’m not feeling it. Why? Because elections don’t and can’t change my sense of right and wrong. Morality stays the same. For example, calling people names is not OK with me, and never will be. Discriminating on the basis of religion is not OK with me, and never will be. Sexual assault is not OK with me, and never will be. Not being committed to the peaceful transfer of power unless you win is not OK with me, and never will be.

These sorts of moral issues, you might say, our first-order concerns. Though I care enormously about experience, policy, knowledge, wisdom, and temperament, these are “just” second-order issues. I expect election results that go the other way to be painful on any or all of these points. What makes this election result so hard is that many of us have never dealt with first-order concerns before and don’t know how. I guess I didn’t think I’d ever have to. Unlike some other Dems maybe, I could have fairly easily united behind McCain, Romney, and clearly did for W. These people were obviously fundamentally decent human beings. I can’t stress this enough: McCain and Romney are good people.

But Trump is not. I’m sorry. I want to unite! But this is one those Martin Luther “here-I-stand-and-can-do-no-other” sort of things. I can’t both embrace the “let’s unite” instinct and also see myself as a good person. Many Democrats, myself included, have not been lying when saying for months that Trump is a different sort of Republican in our eyes. I think we used words like “temperament” and “unfit for office,” but what we have really meant is that our honest opinion is that he’s a deeply immoral human being and that we would be unable in good conscience to be supportive.

So, where does that leave us? Civil war? Obviously not. Nothing remotely that drastic. At the moment, three things are clear:

First, Trump won an open and free election. Violence is not justified at all. I went to a protest last night in Philadelphia and found myself disgusted and alienated by “not my president” chants. He is my president—for all of us. To reject this decision is to reject democracy. Like it or not, the Trump/Tea-Party/former-but-really-still-a-little-birther wing of the Republican Party is stunningly triumphant. They won fair and square. Seriously, I would personally enlist and fight in a war to defend this national choice. Trump is our legitimate President. That must be accepted and supported.

Secondly, we must not light the house on fire to burn Trump. After Obama won in 2008, Republicans did this to Obama. For example, Obamacare, very similar to plans proposed by Gingrich and implemented by Romney, was designed to work through and expand the private insurance industry. Of course, there was room for criticism—that’s necessary and helpful—but none for demonization, lies, “death panels,” etc. So, yes, let’s work with President Trump to get as much done as possible. We can’t help others less for the sake of soothing our own self-righteousness or gaining political advantage by denying Trump political victories. We must be bigger. I’m glad to see Warren and Sanders make statements to that effect.

Lastly, and I’ll get to details on how we might do this in a second, we absolutely must deny Trump any claim to moral leadership. He’s an immoral man and we have to say it, and keep saying, to our kids, outsiders, and each other. Why exactly? Many reasons.

The biggest one: we cannot allow morality to be redefined for the next generation. We must tell our kids that it’s not OK to be a bully. We must tell our less-than-large breasted daughters that they are beautiful. We must tell our sons it’s not OK to insult a woman’s looks (or anyone’s looks for that matter). We must tell our kids its not OK to lie to get ahead in life. We must tell our kids that apologizing is a sign of strength, not weakness. We must tell our kids that its not OK to view people that look different than you as worse than you. We can’t budge on this.

More practically, we must distance ourselves for the sake of stopping violence against Americans abroad. One of the things that annoys many Americans about Muslims is that they spend too little time and energy condemning fringe elements that call themselves Muslims who support terrorism. Of course, the analogy is far from perfect in both directions (Trumpism is definitionally not fringe; his immoral behavior is nothing in comparison to terrorists). Still, a broad point stands: without Muslims seeing Americans very active in condemning the immoral behavior of other Americans, they will assume they condone it to some degree. In particular, the Trump win represents a stunning recruiting opportunity for ISIS. This logic has not changed. His election confirms their suspicions that Americans are ignorant, loud, immoral, bullies, whose religion is fame, wealth, and worldly pleasures. The brief inter-culturalism of Barack Hussein Obama can be construed as an aberration. We must do whatever we can, therefore, to isolate Trump as a moral leader and any claim to representing American values. (In fact, Trump might make a speech to that effect and pacify a few people.)

And let’s not focus only on enemies. Canadians, Europeans, Mexicans and others are freaking out. Some of them Trump has openly insulted and threatened. In particular, we must tell the Mexican people that we are ashamed of Trumps comments and policies. We have to assure them that, despite losing this election, he doesn’t speak for all of us.

We must also tell the world that it’s not OK to lie about elections being rigged as a tactic for winning them, seek to jail political opponents (or give the impression that that is appropriate), or malign judges for personal expediency. That’s the strategy of 3rd world dictatorships and threatens to undermine peace and order.

Finally, we we need to affirm our moral code to each other, to people within our country that are afraid, and anyone afraid or happy that there is a new standard for what is right and wrong. There’s not.

So how do we reject Trump as a moral leader? It’s starts by being moral ourselves and accepting the election results. But it must include some ongoing form of visible protest that the world can see everyday. What exactly? We #neverTrump people will continue to reflect on how to do this. As I’ve said, moderates like me are new to more extreme political action and need time to figure it out. However, a few ideas are emerging.

First, screw snarky tweets, angry Facebook posts, or being passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive dicks to our friends and family for four years. We can do things more helpful to others and ourselves.

One thing we must do is draft a moderate declaration that condemns some of Trumps worse behaviors, articulates moral values, and gets 50 million signatures. That’s a start.

A second thing we can do, and this one excites me, is commit to a visible and non-violent four-year Trump protest. It’s purpose? Remind ourselves and each other of the simple point: we are in Trump’s world, but not of it.

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Paul wrote his most seminal, intentional, and structured epistle to the Romans, the most dominate (and some thought decadent) nation on earth. He gives an exhortation on how to live in their world.

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2)

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.  (1 John 2:16)

Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God.  (1 Peter 2:11-12)

For me, the Christian teaching “Be in the world, but not of it,” expresses exactly my belief that Trump is both legit Caesar and legit unethical, and I won’t conform.

So what do we do exactly for our four-year protest? Ideally, all of us would do the same thing. Wear black? Too sad. Arm bands?  Too fascist. We also want to draw attention, but not so much it defines life. It should be inexpensive, not time-consuming, and easy as possible to implement as we’ll have to do this a lot. What should we do?

One thing that spread after Brexit was wearing safety pins as a sign to refugees, minorities, and other groups afraid and facing increased rates of assault. The message was simple: you are safe with me. I’m surprised by how much I like this. It’s simple, beautiful, and inexpensive. I also love it’s not just anti-something. But there’s 2 small problems. First, it’s not as visible as we’d like: it would be impactful if we could see them everywhere on a busy street. Second, it takes work, even if it’s just a tiny thing. People would have to pin them to their shirts everyday, and I would just forget about them, wash them, and ruin my shirts. I’m ethical and all, but there are limits.

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The safety pin protest is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and it’s already picking up steam.

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This is a selfie of my wife she just put on Facebook. Her caption: I am a safe place. #safetypin #ally In the words of my dear friend, Brent Chamberlain, I wear this pin “to represent safety not just for the minorities with whom I feel solidarity, but also the majority whose too-often legitimate feelings of fear have led to this climate. No one is alone, not the steelworker in Ohio, nor the child of illegal immigrants in New York.”

I love it though. If that’s what we all decide to do, count me in! I’ll wear my ruined shirts with pride. However, I’m toying around with something else: pink socks–they always change the world. Seriously, I want to buy 25 pairs of bright pink socks and wear them for 1,460 days; from January 20, 2017 until January 20, 2021. I think this strikes that balance of visible but not too visible. I’d also actually do it (just put your other socks away). It’s a tad pricey, but it’s also not wasteful. I’d get four years of sock use! Anyway, I’m not ready to commit to it, but the point is “Do Something!” All of us in this ethical dilemma must express that we are both in Trumps world but not of it. If you are doing something else, I’d love to hear about it! Maybe we can all do your idea! For me, I picked pink partly because it’s distinctive, but mainly because I think women and girls are doubly hurt by this election, and it breaks my heart.

Finally, on the right or left, if you are distraught by this election, if you see productive public discourse as important, if you are depressed, if you feel the need to act right now but don’t know what could possibly do any good, there actually is something concrete you could do in the next five minutes.

Search for Common Ground is the largest dedicated peace-building non-profit in the world. They work in 49 countries on everything from high-level diplomacy to community engagement. One thing I love is that they set up discussion groups between individuals of opposing political and ethnic groups and mediate weekly discussions over 10 weeks that cover increasingly divisive topics. This shit changes lives. Unfortunately, they have virtually no grassroots presence in the United States. Why? Money. Yay! A solvable problem! Go donate $10. It will help America heal and help you feel better. It did for me. Also, I’ve got science: we know that supporting causes you care about contributes to mental health. Seriously, you’ll feel better.

My goal in this essay was to articulate what makes this election result especially upsetting for me and others, and what we might do about it. I wanted to close, however, with an apology to Republicans.

I’m super angry with you, don’t get me wrong. Policy aside, you forced an immoral person on all of us. Really? Kasich would have killed you? I’m super pissed at you. However, however, however, I’m also painfully aware that, had the election gone differently, many of you, policy aside, would feel the same about Hillary.  I apologize for forcing you to decide between someone you found morally reprehensible and Donald Trump. It was wrong of us.  I’ve realized we shouldn’t want nominees with cross-party appeal for only electability reasons. We want them for wellbeing reasons. Good rule of thumb for future primaries: If my guy wins, will the other side hate their lives for four years? This time, it’s moderate Dems like me who feel ethically bound to purse new and radical things like four-year protests. Next time, it might be you. Moving forward, I hope to be more like we were in 2008 and 2012, and nominate people universally acknowledged as morally upright to champion our different views.  Lesson (painfully) learned.

In future posts, I hope to get into more details about the ramifications of this win, why it happened, and process what it might mean for the future. There’s a lot of reflecting to do! Also, I’m a guest blogger on Huffington Post now, so feel free to make suggestions about how to make this better and shorter for that venue.  Thanks!

Disclosure: I have a super big conflict of interest about Search. My wife works there and I will do whatever’s neccessary to get into her pants. Please note: she’s super talented and could work anywhere, but she chose Search because she believes in it. I also know the organization pretty well and I think it’s a good one (and I’m a serious non-profit snob). Seriously, go donate $10. You’ll feel better.


What Reality are Trump People Living In?

If you are anything like me, you don’t quite understand what to make of the Trump phenomenon.  Sure Hillary is winning, but what is more interesting to me is that over a third of Americans still plan to vote for this guy.  Why?  I’m bored with demonizing Trump and Trump supporters.  I want to understand the world they are seeing because I don’t get it.

As luck would have it, I happen to be a researcher at Penn who studies the impact of primal world beliefs, which are beliefs about the nature of reality writ large such as “the world is fascinating.”  Primals are the most super simple, essential, and general beliefs we have.  As of a few months ago, we can now measure 28 primals (yay!).  To give away the results, 24 of them mostly collapse into three big ones (Safe, Enticing, and Alive) and these in turn collapse into 1 big one (Good, defined hedonistically).  Currently, I’m trying to publish all these measures and look at psychological correlates (super happy…lots of big effect sizes and highly significant findings… primals predict depression, wellbeing, life satisfaction, etc.), but I had some data on current politics and, in this season of absurdity, I thought some people might find it interesting.  I’m also learning how to report and conduct these analyses, so it’s good practice. What follows is a summary and an appendix with all the numbers.  Keep in mind that all findings below come from one online sample of 533 people [so place grain of salt here].  Eventually, I plan to publish a peer-reviewed journal article with much of this information.

What reality are Republicans and Democrats living in?

So I had this fantastic theory that Republicans would see the world as way more dangerous than Democrats.  I though that might explain Republicans’ “irrational” a) fear of criminals which manifests as interest in law and order and support for mandatory minimums, b) fear of ISIS, c) fear of Mexicans, d) fear of people coming to take their guns, e) fear of government, and f) fear of out-group members generally.  At their last convention, and indeed for every single Republican debate, it seemed like candidates were always trying to out-terrorize each other (“No, I understand the great peril we are in!”…”No, no.  I understand it better.”)

However, this theory was wrong.  True, Republicans see the world as slightly more dangerous, but way less than I thought.  It’s a small relationship.

Furthermore, both parties see the world as about more or less equally good, revolving around them, abundant, acceptable, beautiful (Dems were slightly higher), changing, pleasurable, improvable, improving (Dems were slightly higher), interesting, meaningful, needing them, fragile, understandable, and against them.  There were so many similarities!

Ok.  So where do they differ?  Republican reality differs from Democratic reality in 9 ways, 4 small, 4 medium, and 1 big.  Let’s get the small ones out of the way first.

  • On average, Democrats see the world as less competitive.  That is, on average, their honest opinion is that collaboration, and not competition, makes the world go round.  In turn, this would make sense of why Republicans tend to see Democrats as more naive “kum-by-ya-ists,” and Democrats tend to see Republicans as more merciless cutthroats.
  • On average, Republicans see the universe as more atomistic while Democrats tend to see the universe as more of an interconnected whole.  Perhaps this helps Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together” have traction among those with a worldview in which deep interconnection and cooperation is more of a felt reality.  Perhaps this allows the issue of climate change to find more fertile ground among Democrats.

I predicted the two above.  They make sense of Republicans emphasizing free markets and American exceptionalism, among other things.  I did not predict the two below:

  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny.  Republicans tend to think that funny things are fewer and farther between.  I wonder if this partly explains why virtually all comedians and entertainers are Democrats.
  • One of the primals I measured is what I call “Characterizable.”  Basically, do you think the world has an overall nature or not?  On average, Republicans tend to think it has a nature while Democrats do not.  Again, however, these are all fairly small differences.

Moving on to the 4 differences that are a bit bigger:

  • On average, Republicans see the world as more alive, which means they see the universe as more imbued with intention and that the world is interacting with them personally.  However, these sorts of views correlate with increased religiosity, so I’m not sure if seeing the world as alive is relevant to political views or just a side effect of religion.  My intuition says it’s probably more of a side effect, so I don’t talk about it as much in the analysis below.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as less worth exploring.  This is essentially a gut level sense of return on investment for the worthwhileness of exploring or learning more about any given thing, place, or person.  Democrats do not necessarily actually explore their worlds more; it just means that they think most everything is more likely to be worth exploring.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more just.  Does the arc of life trend towards justice.  Does life find a way to reward those who do good and punish those who do bad?  Is the world a place where working hard and being nice pays off?  Republicans tend to say ‘Yes,’  and Democrats say ‘No.’

    Demi are top. Reps are bottom.

    Dems (top) tend to see reality as unfair and Republicans (bottom) tend to have the honest opinion that life will find ways to reward those who work hard and help others.

  • Finally, the second biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans live in a reality marked by decline, and Democrats think the world is getting better.  On the one hand, this makes sense of why such vague rhetoric as “We don’t win anymore” appeals to Republicans and not Democrats, because even though it’s a super vague statement, it corresponds to a primal world belief that distinguishes these groups.  On the other hand, this distinction between Reps and Dems might be to some degree an artifact of who’s in the White House.  I imagine that when Bush was in charge, Republicans might have seen the world as in less decline and Democrats’ views would have changed a bit too.  Still, I doubt this distinction would disappear.

All this, however, except for decline, is relatively small potatoes.  Let’s talk about the biggest difference, because it both makes sense and doesn’t make sense: hierarchical.  

hiear

Democrats are on top, and Republicans are below. As you can see, despite plenty of overlap between the two groups, there is a striking difference.

What the hell does “hierarchical” mean?  Out of all the primals we have identified, this one is the least intuitive.  For me, it was also super fun to see it “pop” in relation to politics because Hierarchical wasn’t related to depression, anxiety, optimism, curiosity, income, education, or really any of the other variables I looked at.

The “hierarchical” primal concerns the nature of differences.  Namely, does difference imply that something is better or worse?  For those who believe that reality is hierarchical, if two things are different that usually implies that one is better than the other.  Likewise, for those who see reality as nonhierarchical, differences are likely surface and meaningless distinctions and probably distractions.  Under the latter view, any attempt to organize the world into “better” or “worse” things will either fail or be inaccurate and superficial.  However, for folks who see the world as hierarchical, most things can be fairly usefully ranked and ordered from better or worse.  This includes objects, from knives to landscapes, and people, from individuals to ethnic groups.  The biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans, on average, see the world as more hierarchical, or, to put it a different way, Democrats gloss over differences.

Are Trump supporters particularly strange Republicans?  

In a nutshell, no.  Trump people, as opposed to old Cruz and Kasich people, as well as independents, are fairly similar on every primal except 4.  Trump supporters out-Republican their Republican peers by seeing the world as even more Alive, Just, and  Hierarchical.  Also, Trump people think the world isn’t changing quite as much.

just2

All Republicans/independents on top. Trump folks on the bottom.

So what does this all mean? 

I’ve been trying to wrap my head arounds what this means, but it is starting to make some sense.  I’d love input:

  • Those who see the world as hierarchical and just will tend to assume in small ways that successful people are better people.  This suggests susceptibility to infatuations with billionaires.
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then political correctness appears foolish.  PC culture is a real problem because it glosses over differences that really matter.  This might explain a deep frustration on the Right about political correctness that the Left just doesn’t get.
  • I’ve often been confused by why Americans need to talk about their country like it’s the best country in the history of the world.  But, if we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, and America is the most powerful country in the world, then it stands to reason that America is also the best.  It would feel false to say, “America is unique” without also saying, “America is the best.”
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then we will have more difficulty mixing with and including out-groups.  Obviously, hispanic or African American culture is different than the culture of small-town white America where, according to Haidt, sanctity concerns matter more.
  • Jon Haidt identifies 5 political values: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, & sanctity/degradation.  Democrats score higher on two–care and fairness–while Republicans score more equally on all of them.  It may be useful to understand how primals interact with these values.  For instance, if, like many Republicans, you see the world as more just, then pursuing fairness should be less of a priority.  Likewise, if you see the world as hierarchical, then it is natural to value authority and submit to it.  Indeed, investigating the relationship between the values and primals of political ideologies could be a fascinating line of research.
  • The difference between Dems and Reps regarding Worth Exploring may be merely a manifestation of the much bigger difference on Hierarchical.  For Dems, the tendency to assume that differences don’t speak to value may be a tendency to gloss over differences in how worth exploring things are too.  In turn, for Republicans, seeing the world through the lens of rankings and hierarchies can’t allow every thing to be equally interesting because some things got to be boring.
  • Finally, the very definition of conservatism entails conserving something.  This is not an urgent priority for someone who sees reality as improving.  But, if the world is going to the dogs, then we need to hold on to the more just hierarchy of yesterday.

Ok.  Pretending this makes sense for a second, where do these primals come from?  

We don’t know.  I speculate that they come from many sources, including religion and numerous life experiences.  But what seems promising for explaining Hierarchical is simply where one lives.  Ask yourself, if you wanted to design an intervention that encouraged people to see the world as less hierarchical, what would you do?  Well, we would want to expose people to many different types of people and things that were quite different from each other, but not necessarily better or worse.

Where better to do that than in cities?

With all the talk about red and blue states, we forget that the political divide in America is likely better described as the rural-urban divide.  Check out the map below of the 2012 presidential election results by county.  You will find, of course with plenty of exceptions, that rural areas are red and urban areas are blue.  For instance, Oregon is a reliably blue state, but what’s really happening is that a redder countryside surrounds Portland and Eugene.  In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg are blue dots in a mostly red state.  In Texas, Dallas (up there on its own), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Beaumont are particularly striking.  This seems to hold for Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and others.  Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.  If I remember correctly, Oklahoma City is particularly conservative.

2012-usa-election-map-by-county-nyt

In other words, belief that the world is nonhierarchical could be a side-effect of urban life.

Could Democrats or Republicans use my data to help win this election or future elections?  

I think so, but should we?  Full disclosure: as a missionary kid who grew up overseas and is quite intercultural, I see the world as deeply nonhierarchical.  Adopting the lens of hierarchy does not come naturally to me, and of course I’m very much a fan of making everyone more like me.  Woohoo! Let’s do it!  Further, as a scientist, we’ve discovered no evidence so far that seeing the world as hierarchical helps or hurts wellbeing that much (though that’s not saying much… we’ve just started looking at this).

However, for a Democrat, I’m also a bit of an outlier on the belief that the world is just.  I tend to assume that life finds ways to reward those who work hard and do good.  As a scientist, I should note too that belief in a just world is the most studied primal to date.  It is connected to wellbeing, being more productive, being kinder to those around you, and numerous other good things.  Unfortunately, it’s also tied to blaming victims for their misfortunes, whether the victim is poor, sick, or disenfranchised.

What about Decline?  Way before I got into primals, and as a history super nerd (seriously friends, audiobooks and lectures on history are almost exclusively what I listen to in my spare time; I’m currently working through 3 books on medieval England), I have had a strong view that the world, in almost every way, is improving.  For example, Harvard’s Steven Pinker makes a case that violence has declined over human history.  Reasonable people can disagree, however, including Democrats like my wife, who happens to be much smarter than I am!

So, though I’m personally not down for changing Just beliefs, I could get excited about changing Declining and Hierarchical.  For the former, I would suggest that, in school, we study social history more and the history of those in power less.  Much of the improvements across the ages have been in such things as health, how we treat the mentally ill, women’s rights, human rights, legal systems, etc.  In my view, the facts speak for themselves (but that, I suppose, is how all of us think about all of our primals).

For Hierarchical, the big trick, as implied above, seems to me to be exposure.  One could seek to expose individuals to very different people, places, and things.  The logic being that this is why going to college, immersive overseas travel experiences like the Peace Corps, and moving to big cities tends to manufacture liberals (nothing new here).  These sorts of activities expose us to gays, jews, jesuits, rich, homeless, etc.  They become our friends, and we realize that the differences between us are very visible and fairly superficial. Who knows?  Maybe the DNC should think about supporting reality TV shows like Wife Swap (I’ve never seen it).

Finally, assuming we (Democrats) want to get more Republicans to vote for Hillary by capitalizing on primals already in place–to appeal to primals for political purposes without changing them–it seems that the Clinton folks were right to seize on how the Trump convention was pessimistic about America and then, at the Democratic convention, do more than the usual “America is the best” fanfare.  In other words, in order to appeal to those who see the world as more hierarchical, just, and in decline, it may be useful to be seen, to some degree, as the party of and celebrating the successful in-group.  I’m not sure if it’s worth it though.  It could alienate all those Dems who see the world as unjust and nonhierarchical.

In the meantime, I think it is important to not be condescending.  My original hypothesis had been that Trump people are essentially scared children, and that drove them, their politics, and their party into the arms of a demagogue.  This paternalistic theory was wrong.  The major difference between me and Trump supporters is more interesting and, hopefully, more useful.

Appendix

  • On average, Republicans see the world as a tad more dangerous.  There’s a small difference between Republicans (M=2.31, SD=.96) and Democrats (M=2.53, SD=.92), but it’s barely significant t(321)=1.96, p=.05; g=.24.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more Alive than Democrats (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.42, SD=.86; t(321)=-2.67, p=.008; g=.32).  This means they live in a reality more imbued with purpose and intentionality (M=2.63, SD=.91; M=2.2, SD=1.01; t(321)=-3.7, p=0.0003; g=.45).
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more easy to characterize than Dems (M=2.86, SD=.72; M=2.55, SD=.74; t(321)=-2.36, p=.019; g=.29).
  • On average, Dems see the the world as less competitive than Republicans (M=2.74, SD=.9; M=2.5, SD=.9; t(321)=2.2, p=.029; g=.27).
  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny than Republicans (M=2.88, SD=.91; M=2.66, SD=.93; t(321)=1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Dems see reality as more interconnected (M=.303, SD=1; M=2.74, SD=.91; t(321)=2.43, p=.016; g=.29).
  • The 2nd biggest difference is that, on average, Republicans see the world as more just (M=.2.58, SD=.84; M=2.86, SD=.93; t(321)=-2.78, p=.0057, g=.34).
  • When it comes to primals, the biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that whereas Republicans on average see reality as full of things that are meaningfully distinguishable from each other, Democrats tend to see all differences as not better or worse, but just different (M=2.73, SD=.82; M=2.17, SD=.91; t(321)=-5.23, p<.0001, g=.63).  You can think of this as “hierarchical.”  Republicans on average see hierarchy as more natural.  Everything is different from each other in ways that can make the object or person truly better or worse.  Democrats see hierarchy as more unnatural because the differences between things are not typically good or bad.
  • On average, Democrats see the world as more worth exploring (M=3.35, SD=.8; M=3.05, SD=.1.16; t(321)=2.8, p=0054, g=.34).
  • On average, Republicans tend to see the world as in decline (M=2.66, SD=1.32; M=2.12, SD=1.15; t(321)=-3.73, p=.0002, g=.45).
  • Compared to other Republicans/independents, Trump supporters see the world as equally good, safe (not even a little different), enticing, scarce (not even a little different), acceptable, beautiful, characterizable (Trump people see the world as slightly more characterizable), competitive (Trump people see the world as slightly more competitive), pleasurable, funny, improvable, improves, interesting, interconnected, meaningful, needs me (Trump people think the world needs them a little bit more), fragile, harmless, understandable, worth exploring, against them, and declining.
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more Alive (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.38, SD=.91; t(303)=-2.94, p=.0036; g=.36).  And thus even more intentional (M=2.77, SD=.91; M=2.4, SD=1.12; t(303)=-2.9, p=.004; g=.36) and about them (M=2.22, SD=.84; M=1.96, SD=.83; t(303)=-2.57, p=.011; g=.31).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more hierarchical (M=2.62, SD=.9; M=2.31, SD=.9; t(303)=-2.85, p=.005; g=.35).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more just (M=2.77, SD=.94; M=2.54, SD=.93; t(303)=-1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Trump people don’t think the world is changing all that much (M=2.99, SD=.81; M=3.18, SD=.71; t(303)=2.12, p=.035; g=.26).

Note: After this post got approximately a bazillion more views than I expected (actually just 15,000), I thought I would double-check my analysis.  So, FYI, the above has been updated in light of a further review of effect sizes.  


My Nerd Dream Team

I discovered my preferred form of intellectual hedonism by staying up past my bedtime one evening in late 2006.   I was a junior at Houghton College and hanging out with intellectual heavyweight classmates Alicia Walmus (now Clifton…bam!), Brent Chamberlain, and Chris Fiorello in the basement of Wesley Chapel.  They had just read a draft philosophy manuscript of mine and, before I knew it, Chris came out swinging, Alicia disagreed, Brent nuanced, and they were off debating whether I was right, what I had meant, and whether I was being brilliant or a totally inept monkey typist.  

At first, I was trying to jump in to lay down some wisdom.  But, thank goodness, stuttering slowed me down enough to be distracted by the conversation itself.  It riveted me.  Hours flew by.  I found myself adopting an observer role with occasional questions (remarkable only for being uncharacteristic), and something clicked:

There’s nothing more fun and weirdly addictive than listening to smarter better-informed people wrestle with your own ideas.   

Don’t get me wrong, I’m into being super virtuous and all, but the current topic is straight-up selfish infantile pleasure.  Whether it’s bashing, praising, building off my ideas, connecting them to other ones, etc., I love it when smarter people discuss my ideas and find them interesting.  (Finding them accurate is good too I guess).  Years later, I would learn that my top two strengths, according to the VIA strengths survey, are Creativity and Bravery.  Basically, this means that I like coming up with crazy shit and putting it out there.  My life can be generously described, therefore, as one sustained effort to gather smart people and hog discussion topics. 

Ten months ago, all my nerdiest dreams came true in the form of a three day event at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvannia.  I meant to blog about this sooner but I’ve been irrationally fearful.  Frankly, I have a hard time believing it happened.  In short, my tombstone will read,

Here lies Jer, who had an idea, made a top-ten list of the world’s scholars he’d most enjoy talking to about it, got them into a windowless conference room, didn’t let them leave for three days, made them talk about nothing else but the idea, and they seemed it find it super interesting.

These scholars are worth knowing about.  I want to introduce you and share a quote that gives a flavor of their thinking about primals.    

Dr. Carol Dweck
Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today. Her research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets. She has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard, and her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it. Carol is very involved in the primals initiative before and has been deeply kind to me, inviting me out to stay with her and spending hours talking to me about primals. Prior to the retreat, Carol is putting some thought into how we might organize primal world beliefs.

Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard and is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today.

Carol’s research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets.  In particular, the belief that abilities can be improved is critical to actually improving–we pursue what we think can be caught.  Her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it.

The picture above cracks me up because Carol is an incredibly kind person.  She was also one of the first to buy into the primals concept, inviting me out to stay with her in California, spending hours talking about primals, and continues to shepherd me through this crazy time.  I’m proud to call her my friend.  She says,

Beliefs are at the heart of motivation, personality, well being, and much pathology, yet this is not widely recognized. To the extent that studying primals (or core beliefs) can bring this to the fore, it could have a tremendous effect on how we conceptualize and study human nature.

Dr. Alia Crum
Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford. Her research focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality. Her research has won several awards, including the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize, the William Harris Prize, and has been featured in popular media outlets. I adore Alia. We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours. Prior to the retreat, Alia is putting some thought into meta-beliefs (beliefs about beliefs) and how primals relate to health.

Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford–one of the youngest ever.

Alia’s Mind & Body Lab focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality.  For example, our beliefs about the effects of stress changes the effects of stress and beliefs about fattening foods makes some foods more fattening.  

I adore Alia.  We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours.  We talk about examining the influence of meta-beliefs (beliefs about the usefulness of a belief), how primals relate to health, and how to navigate academia.  The main difference between our focus is that she studies beliefs that are more specific than primals (e.g. beliefs about stress rather than beliefs about everything), and she focuses on how they impact physical health.  She says,

Although some may be confused—or even overwhelmed—by the premise that we have implicit assumptions about the nature of the world and that those assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our experience of the world, it makes complete sense to those of us who study mindsets and beliefs…Primals, as Jer has defined them, are the most general beliefs of all. As such, they have the greatest potential to assert a biasing influence into our lives, for better or for worse.

Dr. Alan Fiske
Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Alan received his BA from Harvard, PhD from the University of Chicago, and has done fieldwork in Malawi, Congo, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso.  He’s well known for his theory of social relationships which breaks down all human relationships into four basic types.  He’s just written a new book, Virtuous Violence, in which he suggests that much violence is pursued by a genuine desire to be moral.  He helped us at the retreat by voicing some cautions.  In particular, he wants us to be careful when it comes to applying primals theory and research to other cultures.  He says,

The concept of primals is stimulating…as was evident from the animated discussions….[but] my claim [is] that concepts about the world are culturally embedded: they don’t make sense in isolation.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis
Dr. Rob DeRubeis was chair of the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the 2014 retreat. He has authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on topics that center on depression treatment. He is a recipient of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy’s Aaron T. Beck Award and the Senior Distinguished Career Award from the Society for Psychotherapy Research.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis is a depression expert, having authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on the topic.

Rob was Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the retreat, so we were lucky to have him.  He put some thought into how primals relate to depression and has also had some advice for me on how to pursue measuring primals.  

In clinical psychology, we do not adopt a hands-off attitude when one has a belief such as “I am worthless.”  We try to help the patient re-evaluate such beliefs, as they lead to poor life outcomes and nearly always are exaggerations or simply untrue.  Jer and Marty want to study the belief “the world is worthless.”  It’s imperative that we find out if this belief is also connected to poor life outcomes.

Dr. James Pawelski
Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

James is a mentor.  I love him.  We share an affinity for facial hair, philosophy, goofiness, scholarship, and we both grew up overseas the children of Christian missionaries.  He was my Master’s capstone advisor and helped launch all this.  James is one of the world’s experts on William James, a philosopher important to both psychologists and philosophers, and is building projects exploring how the humanities can be used to explore and advance subjective wellbeing.  Also, he recently figured out what “positive” means in “positive psychology” (he would hate me for saying that).  He says,

It appears that most people, most of the time, do not know their primals, even though it seems likely that they influence us in a variety of ways.  Given the promise primals research has for yielding life-changing insight and for facilitating profound individual and cultural transformation, I eagerly await the results Jer’s research will uncover.  

Dr. Crystal Park
Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Crystal’s research explores many aspects of human life (including yoga!) with a focus on how certain beliefs influence an individual’s ability to cope with hardship.  You might say that, if there was such a thing as “primals literature,” she would be one of the world’s top experts.  She knows the studies done on beliefs which are most similar to primals, she knows how to measure them, and is now helping me figure out how to measure primals too.  She’s also become a close mentor,  a constant source of expertise and encouragement, and I am deeply grateful for her.  She says,

I am quite familiar with the literature on those psychological constructs most similar to primals, and can therefore say without reservation that focusing on primals provides an opportunity to explore a fundamental element of human experience that has heretofore been minimally examined. It may be that it is so obvious that psychologists simply overlooked it… This is one of those projects that has great potential for identifying an important piece for what it means to be human.

Dr. Paul Rozin
Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul’s major research focus has been human food choice, the emotion of disgust, and cultural psychology.  It was fun to have him.  He was one of the guest professors for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program when I was a student.  Before the retreat, he put some thoughts into how primals relate to cultural differences.  He, David, and Alan shared a concern that helped us to become more nuanced.  He says,

The problem that David, Alan and I kept returning to is that there is often no adaptive general belief that works for all situations. I will use the “world is safe” proposed primal. It is appropriate to feel unsafe in the Middle East and to feel safe in Denmark. It is appropriate to feel safe with one’s family, and less safe when dealing with strangers.

Dr. Richard Reeves
Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, and former director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank. He is also the author of John Stuart Mill – Victorian Firebrand as well as many articles, radio programs, and publications on politics and policy. Richard is one of my favorite people. Funny, witty, whip smart, and English, Prior to the retreat, Richard is putting some thought into primals that have dominated historical eras.

Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, historian, philosopher, policy-maker, and former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister

Richard’s one of my favorite people in the world to have a beer with: the smartest, wittiest (most English) philosopher/historian/policy guy I know.  Richard’s policy work focuses on inequality.  The image above is from his kickass appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart earlier this year and in the video below he explains the current state of American inequality with legos.  I recommend both.  

At the retreat, Richard talked about primals across history, looking at the primals of Sparta and Athens, which was candy for a history nerd like me.  He, James, Rob, and others, are convinced that primals have relevance across academic disciplines and for policy.  He says,

There have been a few times in my professional life when an idea came along with that feeling of freshness—like putting one’s spade into genuinely new intellectual soil. This is how I feel about primals. The idea is so basic, so simple, but I really think that is has the potential to do some really good work and influence a wide range of fields.

Dr. David Sloan Wilson
Dr. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionist at the University of Binghamton who studies all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world. His books include Darwin's Cathedral (2002), Does Altruism Exist? (2015), and Evolution for Everyone (2007).

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, President of the Evolution Institute, studies evolution at the University of Binghamton, examining all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world.

You’ve probably heard of David’s books.  He’s written Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), Evolution for Everyone (2007), and, his latest, Does Altruism Exist? (2015).  In a room of top scholars, David’s breadth of knowledge across disciplines stood out.  In addition to putting some thought into the relationship between primals and evolution, David had a suggestion for us,

Primals might not describe human and cultural universals. Instead, they might be culturally specific…vital for some cultures but marginal or even absent in others. [This] does not detract from the importance of the concept—especially if primals are found primarily in modern cultures, which are most relevant for improving human welfare in the future.

Dr. Chandra Sripada
Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences. He received his PhD in philosophy from Rutgers and completed residency training in psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Chandra has been very useful in talking about the connection between primals and values. He's also an incredibly encouraging human being, having supported me in key moments.

Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences.

Chandra is an incredibly encouraging human being and has supported me in key moments over the year.  He had a great deal to say about values, which he thinks are really important to consider in conjunction with primals, and what was great is that he could talk about his stuff so deeply from both a philosophical and empirical perspective.  He says,

I deeply hope that this project continues and that we come to identify these primal world views, measure them, and come to understand how they influence our lives. The results could be extraordinarily useful, not just in psychology, but also for other academic disciplines.

What Fun! 

Honestly, bringing these folks together is an honor and privilege I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Writing these posts, and seeing  photographic evidence of us in windowless conference rooms bathed in warm fluorescence, I’m starting to believe it actually happened.

In the next post, I’ll share more about what we did at the retreat itself.  Spoiler alert: Where’s Marty Seligman?  In the meantime, here’s two group shots.

This group picture we took of ourselves in the middle of our talks because Marty just got out of surgery and we wanted to send him a picture and our love.

Primals Research Retreat Participants left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),

Crew left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),


Remember me?

I’ve not posted in months.  I blame it on the Templeton Religion Trust who 15 months ago gave me and Marty Seligman (former president of APA, founder of positive psych, one of the most influential psychologists alive today, [insert further accolades here]) a couple hundred thousand dollars to explore an idea that I’ve been obsessed with for the past decade.  That grant just ended in a raucous celebration of sleeping.   For the next few weeks, I’m writing a series of posts with three purposes:

  • summarize everything we did
  • summarize what we plan to do
  • announce that these are my last blog posts until 2017

The series won’t make much sense without knowing what primals are.  So, for those who don’t know, post 1 is a quick recap on the idea I plan to spend my life studying and why funders have been interested.

Primals in a Nutshell

primal (ˈprīməl/) adj.

1) essential; fundamental.

2) relating to an early stage in evolutionary development; primeval.

“What sort of world is this?” is the oldest question in Western philosophy. I want to study how our gut-level answers to this question, what we call “primal world beliefs” or primals, influence our lives.

Primals are an individual’s simplest and broadest understandings of the world’s essence. They serve as automatic assumptions that provide a framework—a lens—by which we filter and interpret millions of bits of information we receive every day. Like all assumptions, primals involve a claim about something.  In this case, the claim is kinda weird because it’s (almost literally) about everything: what most things are usually like most of the time.  Individually, primals can be expressed as propositions like “the world is dangerous” or “the world is beautiful.”  Together, primals describe one’s cosmic situation, forming an implicit world which feels like “the real world” for each individual.  Philosopher William James described these worlds as, “our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.”

Primals theory has three basic tenets that are really quite simple.  First, every day, most people operate under the assumption that other people, including family, friends, and strangers walking down the street, live in the same world we do. They don’t. Though many details may be the same, we often perceive reality’s essential character differently. For example, I might see the world as sinister and ugly, and you might see it as benevolent and beautiful.  These worlds feel like totally different places.  The first tenet of primals theory holds that though we all grew up on the same planet, we live in different worlds.

The second tenet holds that different implicit worlds encourage different behaviors, resulting in many different outcomes over a lifetime.  Why work hard, for instance, if life’s not fair and will not reward you for what you do?  Why be curious if the world is usually boring and around every corner, as you guessed, is more of the same?  We suspect primals influence personality, politics, pathology, and parenting, as well as strengths, success, and split-second decision making—really any behavior or thought pattern that involves the world around you and some degree of ambiguity.  For example, the world is dangerous may influence a police officer drawing a weapon on a suspect, an entrepreneur starting a business, a nervous boy asking a girl out on a date, or a toddler exploring a room.

A third tenet holds that millions of us may have unwittingly imprisoned ourselves in maladaptive implicit worlds that lead us to act in ways that support fear, injustice, and suffering.  For example, by seeing the world as a dog-eat-dog world, we create a more competitive and cruel environment.  Moreover, millions could also benefit from understanding the implicit worlds of ourselves, family, friends, bosses, and employees.  For example, Sarah, one of my interns this year, noted that she struggles to get along with her sister because while her sister tends to see the world as super safe where things naturally tend to work out, Sarah sees a place where things naturally tend to get worse and that’s just the way things are.  My hope is expressed by philosopher and psychiatrist Dr. Chandra Sripada,

Right now, primals seem to form in people largely without our awareness. If this project can give nothing else to the world, I hope it affords the opportunity for all of us to form our implicit worlds with eyes wide open and make conscious choices about what we want to believe and what we want to pass on to our kids.

I find that many people don’t “get” the primals concept until we start talking about what beliefs about the world they want to pass on to their children.  Often people want to pass on the view that the world is beautiful, fascinating, and improvable.

Why Funders Are Interested

From the perspective of a research foundation, primals research is in the funding ‘sweet spot’ of being new(ish) and super promising, but not super risky.  I’ll explain.

Three primals have already been explored by psychologists enough to know that they can be measured and they matter. Belief that the world is fair, for instance, is unsurprisingly connected to working harder, being nicer, trusting people, and bouncing back.  In a particularly cool study on the belief that the world is dangerous, scholars found that cops who see the world as dangerous are more likely to shoot innocent people in shooting simulations. Seriously, those who scored high on a self-reported sense of general danger made more automatic reflexive decisions within a 0.63 seconds time window to shoot members of a perceived “out-group.”  In other words, at least some primals seem to matter.

Still, we know very little. Though current literature demonstrates that primals are measurable and meaningful, implicit worlds remain under-examined, unidentified, and unmapped. Only three primals have been studied (we are currently trying to measure 22 more), no primals classification exists, experimental research on primals is negligible, causal relationships remain unknown, no attempt has been made to identify primals conducive to human flourishing, and this lack of classification condemns the field to inefficiency. As it stands today, a researcher will occasionally bump into an interesting primal, define it idiosyncratically, and examine it en route to understanding something else, like prejudice or trauma, and not talk to researchers in other areas. As a result, how primals ground interactions with our environment remains a mystery.

This, in our view, is silly and solvable (and super interesting).  My main contribution has been merely to convince Marty, Templeton, and other scholars that primals are cool, a separate category of beliefs, worth studying in their own right, and that understanding them could allow us to improve the human condition.

To explore this further, Templeton gave us a grant last year to figure out what to do next. At first, our task struck me as strange.  I was under the impression that research foundations give out research grants, right?  But apparently sometimes they give out “planning grants.”  Templeton does this when they think that an idea could be huge, but needs further thought.  So our job, rather than doing new empirical research, was to figure out how one might turn my little baby idea into a concrete multi-million dollar research program–a nerd’s dream.

The remaining posts in this series describe outputs from this year (i.e. what we did) and our plans for the future, starting with output 1: hosting a scholarly retreat.  

 

Participants at the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat.

Here’s the folks from the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat.  Anyone you know?  In the next post, I’ll introduce you.


Should we study “the world is vast”?

As many readers may know, the UPenn Primals Initiative team is right now trying to identify humanity’s primal world beliefs using several different methods, looking across history, religions, cultures, etc.  One method, but no others, identified the world is vast/small.  Awesome.  It certainly it fits the criteria; it’s about world essence, it’s descriptive, it concerns only everything, and it’s super simple.

At the same time, more than any of the other primals we have identified, we don’t expect the world is vast/small to play a major role in human thinking and behavior, at least compared to other primals like the world is safe/dangerous.  That one probably affects a good deal of everyday behavior, life decisions, how one processes information, and more.  But this 2-minute video that Alicia shared got me thinking that maybe we should keep it.  What do you think?  It certainly evoked within me a powerful, emotional, gut-level, primal belief about reality.  I’m curious if it does the same for others.  I’m also curious how others think this primal could influence human life in tangible ways.

The world seems less small with friends...(Andrew, Amy and Reb, Alicia and I)

In my experience, the world is less alarmingly large with friends (Andrew, Amy,  Reb, Alicia, me).

 


Parenting in a Scary World vs. Parenting in a Safe World

On the afternoon of Saturday December 20th, 2014, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their 10-year old son and 6-year old daughter, without adult supervision, walk home together down Georgia Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Silver Springs, Maryland, a town in Washington DC.  (I biked through there often when I lived in DC.  It seemed to me a fairly well-to-do area with a few minor rough spots.)  A neighbor spotted the two little kids alone, called the police, and the police picked them up and drove them home.  When Alexander answered the door he had what he describes as a “tense” exchange with police who demanded ID and “told him about the dangers of the world” (CBS News) expressing disgust at his negligence.

This was not the first such encounter.  Alexander and Danielle are known to leave their children unattended in public places and Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) have confronted them about it.  This included, according to Alexander, taking aside their kids at school for interviews without parental permission “and when they were talking to them, they were painting a picture of a world that is very scary.”  Danielle added that the CPS Officer asked things like, “What would you do if someone grabbed you? The world’s a scary place and there are creeps out there who want to get you.”  After this new incident, CPS threatened to take away their children.

So why has CNN, the LA Times, Fox News, the New York Times, and scores of other news outlets around the country reported this story?  Basically, by all appearances (I’ve read only about six articles on this) these parents are the opposite of negligent.  Alexander is a physicist with the NIH and Danielle is a climate scientist.  They know data, trust data, take parenting very seriously, and ascribe to a growing movement  called “free-range parenting.”  Instead of “helicopter parenting,” which involves constant and chronic parental attention in an effort to keep kids safe, their goal is to empower children through independence, experiencing the world, and learning to navigate it.

The family at the local playground.

The Meitiv family at the local playground.

“Parenthood is an exercise in risk management,” Danielle says. “Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleep­over? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”  For instance, her own kids are allowed to walk unaccompanied to specified places such as the local library and park.  “Abductions are extremely rare,” she adds.  Peter Gray, a researcher at Boston College, confirmed to the New York Times, “The actual rate of strangers abducting or molesting children is very small.  It’s more likely to happen at the hands of a relative or family friend. The statistics show no increase in childhood dangers [over recent decades]. If anything, there’s been a decrease.”

The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood.  I think it’s absolutely critical for their development — to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.   – Danielle Meitiv

And so Danielle and Alexander, while under investigation by the government, have found themselves on talk shows sharing their story.  Across the nation, reaction is mixed.  Many see them as bad parents; others as good parents.  Whatever the response, I suspect that one’s take on the Meitivs and their style of parenting depends largely on one’s primals.

I am a researcher at UPenn who studies primals, or primal world beliefs, which are our most general and simple beliefs about the nature of everything, such as life is beautiful or everything is interconnected.  These unprovable, gut-level, emotionally-laden assumptions are often so implicit we don’t even know we have them.   Together, primals form implicit worlds in which some actions make sense and others just don’t.  Why work hard, for instance, if the world’s not just?  Why be curious if the world is boring?  Why try if nothing ever changes?

To understand one’s response to the Meitivs I ask: Do you feel, at a gut-level, that the world is generally dangerous or safe?  For the group that answers the former, the Meitivs are not only misguided, but immoral, and the government should intervene.  For the group answering the latter, the Meitivs have got it right.

In debate, we can expect these groups to speak past each other.  For instance, my police officer friends have suggested to me that in dealing with the most malignant people in our society day after day, in order to survive and do their jobs well, many police officers, though certainly not all, come to see the world as extremely dangerous.  Many adopt a pervading posture of suspicion and have trouble understanding why others don’t do the same (whether police officers are higher in belief in a dangerous world is a testable hypothesis we hope to have data on soon).  The temptation for those who see the world as safe is to cite stats, noting low abduction rates or how children are more likely to die in car accidents; it may often be safer to let kids walk home than to go pick them up.  But it won’t work.   To someone who holds a primal that the world is dangerous, whose seen it, whose experienced it, this type of evidence falls on deaf ears, and vice versa.  Both sides “just don’t get it,” and even if stats were convincing, stats support both sides.  If there is an objectively correct position, its not clear.

So, as humanity attempts to pass good laws, be good parents, and think about what primals we want to pass on to our kids, we are left with a practical question for psychologists: which primals are most useful?  Unfortunately, we got little to say.  Primals remain understudied by psychologists and many primals have yet to be identified (i.e. the world is beautiful, fun, or declining).  If you would like to change your primals; perhaps you’re a parent who would like to see the world as more safe, a history teacher who would like to share their primal that the world is interesting, or a community organizer who would like to inspire a neighborhood that the world can change; we have no empirically-grounded ideas on how one might do that.

That is the problem the UPenn Primals Initiative is trying to solve.  In addition to looking at societal level primals, we suspect millions of individuals have unwittingly imprisoned themselves in maladaptive implicit worlds where inaction, crime, desperation, depression, anxiety, cruelty, and anti-social behavior of many types, just make sense.  As a scientist, we don’t yet know if this suspicion pans out empirically.  As a person, this is what gets me up in the morning.

In the decades ahead, science can probably never tell us which primals are true, but scientists can begin to understand the power of our answers to the simple age-old question: What sort of world is this anyway?  The UPenn Primals Initiative is one attempt to find out.

 

CH stars

The most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.   – G. K. Chesterton

 

 

 

Sources for this article include:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/maryland-couple-want-free-range-kids-but-not-all-do/2015/01/14/d406c0be-9c0f-11e4-bcfb-059ec7a93ddc_story.html

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/15/maryland-couple-investigated-for-letting-children-/

http://www.ksl.com/?nid=1009&sid=33175529

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/maryland-couple-want-free-range-kids-but-not-all-do/2015/01/14/d406c0be-9c0f-11e4-bcfb-059ec7a93ddc_story.html

http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/living/feat-md-free-range-parents-under-attack/

 


Biking Adventures: 10 lessons from 50 miles in 10 below freezing

So I’ve been wanting to get more into long-distance biking in all weather conditions.  Last Saturday, I biked 50+ miles in windy weather in 10 below freezing from west Philly, PA to Princeton, NJ. It took about five hours, with about half of that in the dark, and a half an hour of that warming my hands up at a coffee shop.  Its true that I wanted to test out my lights and night time biking on country roads, but really  I started so late because our trip to Princeton was last minute.

I listened to Florence and the Machine, Pentatonix, and a book on Theodore Roosevelt for most of the ride. No during pictures, but below are the before and after shots. Alicia & co. wanted me to get my gear back on because I looked hilarious in my ski mask, etc.  Highlights include crossing the Delaware River at Trenton and biking on country roads.  Lessons I learned:

  1. Winter-time biking can be fun with the right gear.
  2. Biking on country roads at night is awesome if you have good lights.  Cars see you easily and give a wide berth.  Though make sure you have a good external battery in case lights and iPhone start to go (my lights got pretty dim right before I made it).
  3. Winter time biking after a snow storm is dumb as toast.  All the most beautiful parts of the ride were not plowed (i.e. canal tow paths).  Also big chunks of ice on the road can make you skid out.  Good that I have my old trusty mountain bike from Taiwan with hybrid tires instead of a road bike.
  4. I think solo biking in the winter is kinda nice.  With the constant need to stop, take off gloves, check maps, adjust gear, etc., it might be annoying to do with someone (which is strange cause I usually always love adventure buddies).
  5. Bike lanes along big roads is worse than biking down residential streets.  Map your own route beforehand, only do bike paths on small roads.  And “bike routes” are bullshit.  It’s usually just a busy road with the occasional sign on it saying watch out for bikes.
  6. Either take a river or scenic trail out of a metro area or public transport to the edge of the city.  I spent 2 hours biking through North Philly.  Not so much fun.
  7. Fill up your water bags with warm water.  My insulated bike bottle froze about 45 minutes before I arrived and I got thirsty.
  8. I stopped about two hours in for bathroom, food, water fill-up, etc.  I got back on the bike without putting more layers on, and had to stop 15 minutes later (newfound love for Dunkin Donuts) because my hands were freezing.  Dethawing hands hurt and is unnecessary if you always layer up more than seems necessary before getting back on the bike (and then taking them back off after 15 minutes of biking when you get too hot).  Slight inconvenience is godliness.
  9. Have family who love you on the other end of the trip with lots of good food, warm tea, champagne, love, hugs, and a shower ready to go.
  10. Overall, totally worth doing.  Hedonic pleasure is overrated.  Adventure is forever.  Don’t stay inside all winter, friends.  Get whatever gear you need so that being outside is fun.
IMG_1478

Leaving the house with my saddle bags.

WP_20150131_20_19_36_Pro

Minutes after arriving at my Aunt’s in Princeton. Food is awesome. So is my wife and cousin : )  And my uncles super incredible champagne.  Everyone responded to my adventure appropriately: “you are weird but I’m glad you enjoyed it!”

 

 

 


Hero or asshole?

a second post in the “grad school with benefits” series, in which psych phd coursework helps me figure life out

As some may recall, a few years ago I pulled a stranger to safety who had fallen on the train tracks and was being electrified by the third rail.  Someone filmed it, posted on youtube, and in the media interviews that followed, and in my own life, people kept asking me why I acted when other people didn’t.  A year or so later, I was on a ludicrous “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show after an incident in New York, in which a man died on the subway tracks because nobody would come to his aid.  We were to explain what makes us so much better than other people.

For many reasons I’ve discussed, this is nonsense, but in my social psych readings for tomorrow, new light has been shed on this very question: “Why do some people act in emergencies when others don’t?”

In a 1968 paper, Latane and Darley note that most emergencies begin ambiguously.  A staggering man may be having a heart attack, or just drunk.  Smoke coming from a building may be a fire, or just steam.  In these ambiguous circumstances, we look around to get a clue from each other.  In so doing, a fascinating and circular social effect develops: “if each member of a group is, at the same time, trying to appear calm and also looking around at the other members to gauge their reactions, all members may be led (or misled) by each other to define the situation as less critical than they would if alone.”  This creates the bystander effect, where nobody is acting because nobody is acting.

So Latane and Darly did an experiment.  They had subjects fill out a dummy-survey in a waiting room and let some smoke come out one of the floor vents, simulating an emergency.  In one group, subjects were alone.  In a second group, individual subjects were joined by two fake subjects who were trained to fill out the survey while ignoring the smoke.  For the alone group, 75% of subjects acted super-reasonably (out of only 22 subjects, lets not get carried away with generalizability): they noticed the smoke within 5 seconds, got up, investigated, and 51% poked their head out to inform others within 2 minutes of first seeing smoke.  The group with two “fake” people took four times as long to even notice smoke, and 9 out of 10 sat there as the room filled up with smoke, so that six minutes in, after visibility was greatly reduced and people were coughing, the experiment had to be ended.

So what does this mean?  Possibly lots.  First, we may pay less attention to what is going on when in groups.  Second, when alone, we can each be expected to be more responsive in an emergency.   Third, and most importantly for the present purpose, group emergency situations are not magical windows through which inner virtue is revealed.  Rather, we misinterpret group emergency situations because we are all getting our cues from each other.  Group emergency situations, in other words, measure if we check-in with the people around us and, if we do, care what they think.  Fortunately for the world, 1 of 10 of us are egotistical assholes who obligingly give no thought to the feelings of others.

Wesley+Autrey+Bush+Delivers+2007+State+Union+Fcrpj-u9mXul

Hero or egotistical asshole?  Wesley Autrey,  a subway hero, was honored by GW Bush at his second SOTU.  Believe me, it’s hard for the torrent of praise and adoration not to go to your head–exactly what the egotist needs.

This resonates profoundly with my own experience.  On that day, I distinctly remember listening to some podcast when I heard screams.  I remember turning, seeing a man lifeless, laying down on the tracks.  I remember, with no pause whatsoever, really not a second-thought, immediately turning and running towards him, flinging off my iPod, flip flops, sunglasses, and backpack, and getting ready to jump down to him.  I have no memory of looking at the people around me, and trying to get a sense from them what was gong on,or how I should behave.

So am I hero or an egotistical asshole who doesn’t care what other people think?  Obviously this is a false dichotomy, but I think there is an important truth here.  In most situations, taking our social cues from others is a good idea.  Fortunately, we also have the occasional weirdo who won’t, but let’s not completely misconstrue weird egotism for bravery.

I will be posting on the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat in which 12 eminent scholars from around the country came together to discuss primals research.  I know many of you have been asking about this incredible experience, and you deserve some juicy details.  More to come!  


4 Reasons Evolution is (a tad) Useless

My PhD program has started and I’m in this awesome social psych class; brilliant classmates, brilliant professor, and we are required to read shit-tons and bring questions for discussion.  It’s great, except we don’t have time to get to everyone’s questions, and some of my most interesting questions go unaddressed.  That won’t do.  Quick…to the blog-mobile!

Context: Basically, the piece was about why evolution is the bees knees.  Scholar-dudes Tooby & Cosmides (2005 I believe) argue that evolution can explain all psychological phenomena and should be the basis of psychological theory, even textbook layouts.  They see reason for optimism because, among other things, scholars have recently learned more about “ancestral environments,” which means how we lived hundreds of thousands of years ago (e.g. we grouped in bands of 20-100, there was a division of labor between sexes, etc).  Tooby & Cosmides outright state that the human mind is a computer with programming that we can identify as we disassemble the brain’s mechanisms and identify cognitive processes and how they evolved.

My question: do we really know our past well enough for evolution to be the springboard for psychological theory?  For five reasons, I’m weirdly skeptical (someone please set me straight).

First, and perhaps most obviously, evolution-based theories easily make contradictory predictions.

Second, hunter-gather societies today likely differ enormously from our more fecund ancestors (e.g. they inhabit extremely marginalized land).

Most of our ancestors likely lived in more fertile places, and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.

The great majority of our ancestors lived in more fertile places than the Kalahari Desert , and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.  Yet we seem to study indigenous Kalahari people and extrapolate.

Third, ancient culture, “a potentially potent selective force in biological evolution” (Kitiyama & Uskul, 2010, p. 12) is lost to us. Consider, would we know of Easter Islanders strange priorities without their conveniently enduring monuments? Indeed, every culture values weird and unpredictable things, especially in picking sex partners.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot the island.  Creating them apparently destroyed their habitat's eco-system, and eventually the human population.  We don't know the cultural values that led to this.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot Easter Island. Creating them apparently destroyed the local ecosystem, and eventually the human population. We don’t know the cultural values that led to this, but we know they did, only because their “weird” cultural values left its mark in stone.  Such anonymous values alter evolutionary history.

Fourth, humans, defined by flexibility, neuroplasticity, and prospection (imagining the future and acting in light of it), are omnivores who migrate, learn new things, and adjust to starkly different environments.  In this process, “computer programming” would have been erased and rewritten ad infinitum to the point that tracing a program back to its source seems hopeless.

Caveat: I don’t know the literature, I’m making shit up, and, quite likely, there are reasonable responses to all these points.  However, it seems to me that a little knowledge of ancestral environments is a dangerous thing.  If the mind is indeed a computer, it’s one designed by a million engineers who keep switching goals.  Perhaps it is more productive to study the mind “as is” while keeping an eye on evolutionary plausibility.  The nice thing about living humans is at least we can observe them directly.

I will let you know if we get to my question in class.  I hope someone sets me straight.

By the way, Alicia and I just celebrated six years of marriage!  She is my buddy…til death do us part.  

 

From our recent Ireland trip, Alicia kicked butt.  This is at the end of a grueling 9-hour hike.  We just turned the last bend in the ridge and could see the town we were staying in.  That's joy : )

From our recent hiking trip in Ireland trip…this is at the end of a grueling 9-hour, 19 mile hike. We just turned the last bend in the ridge and for the first time could see the town we were staying in.  Alicia rocked it.