Category Archives: psychology

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.  

Advertisements

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/

 


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!  


An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.


Why People Like Me

I was listening to a lecture on love by Yale President Peter Solovey and he mentioned a psychological effect that explains why people like me.

Some of us wandering this world struggle with chronic amazingness.  Indeed, it is onerous.  Being good at everything annoys people.  Empirical stuff says so!  It’s objectively unlikeable.

Yet people do like me!  How can this be?  Shouldn’t the awesome oozing from my pores be driving them away?  The answer, it turns out, has nothing to do with seriously-mega-rock-solid assumptions, but with something called the “Pratfall Effect.”  Apparently, psychologists have observed that, for highly competent people, it helps to have major visible screw-ups that you can take responsibility for that shows you are just human.  Scientists see it over and over.  Not having it all together allows people to love you.

I suspect lots of people already know about the Pratfall Effect.  Maybe it’s another of those things that never quite made it to Taiwan growing up.  When I heard about it today I instantly realized something.  For years I’ve been saying that my stuttering has a strange effect on people.  Its not such a bad stutter that it substantially frustrates communication, but its just bad enough to let people know that I am struggling and don’t have it all together.  I guess its endearing to say smart things while looking like an idiot.

So now I broadcast wise counsel across the blogosphere to all those who, like me, struggle with chronic amazingness.  Acquire a speech impediment.  Despite occasionally confusing phone conversations, there is nothing finer for lubricating any social occasion.  Some people go with the lazy eye, a few try the periodic facial spasm, still others psychotic nervous laughter.  Don’t be fooled!  Stuttering gets the girls (which so happens to be the title of a collection of short stories that I am trying to publish which you should help me publish by becoming a publisher immediately or if you are one already writing me and telling me “hey we would love to publish your stories”) and stuttering may get boys as well (I am less informed in this particular area).

Stuttering is the wave of the future for overly awesome people everywhere and you are in luck.  For a limited time only, I am offering certified stuttering lessons.  Contact me before all slots are taken!  My talent in this area is legendary and your happiness is only a few elongated syllables away.

 
The Pratfall Effect while talking with Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends.  Risking your life to rescue strangers is just piss-poor career planning if you don’t have a stutter to go along with it.