Tag Social Science

Class, power, and empathy

This is a fascinating study on class and empathy. This summary explains the finding—that people with less education (their proxy for class) did better at recognizing others’ emotions—in terms of peer relationships (judging when and how to ask your friends for help), but it seems like they have a lot to do with power dynamics as well (judging how to avoid negative attention from those who have power over you).

The volunteers did a test of emotion perception, in which they were instructed to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions each face was displaying. People with more education performed worse on the task than people with less education. In another study, university students who were of higher social standing (determined from each student’s self-reported perceptions of his or her family’s socioeconomic status) had a more difficult time accurately reading the emotions of a stranger during a group job interview.

These results suggest that people of upper-class status aren’t very good at recognizing the emotions other people are feeling. The researchers speculate that this is because they can solve their problems, like the daycare example, without relying on others—they aren’t as dependent on the people around them.
A final experiment found that, when people were made to feel that they were at a lower social class than they actually were, they got better at reading emotions.


Originally published at culture-making.com.

Washing away your sins

From an interview with Chen-Bo Zhong, who researches the link between abstract concepts and physical feelings—the deep cultural power of metaphor.

LEHRER: What are some other examples of how seemingly abstract thoughts, such as feeling excluded, can have physical manifestations?

ZHONG: Another example would be the relation between morality and physical cleanliness. In my early work “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing” in collaboration with Katie Liljenquist [a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University], we discussed how metaphors such as “dirty hands” or “clean records” may have a psychological basis such that people make sense of morality through physical cleanliness.

When people’s moral self image is threatened, as when they think about their own unethical past behaviors, people literally experience the need to engage in physical cleansing, as if the moral stain is literally physical dirt. We tested this idea in multiple studies and showed that when reminded of their past moral transgressions, people were more likely to think about cleansing-related words such as “wash” and “soap”, expressed stronger preference for cleansing products (for instance, a soap bar), and were also more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe as a free gift (rather than a pencil with equal value).

Further, physical cleansing may actually be effective in mentally getting rid of moral sins. In another study, in which participants who recalled unethical behaviors were either given a chance to cleanse their hands or not, we found that washing hands not only assuaged moral emotions such as guilt and regret but also reduced participants’ willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering Thus physical washing can actually wash away sins. Perhaps this effect is why most world religions practice some form of washing rituals to purify souls. We should be cautious, however, knowing that if our sins are so easily “washed away” we might not be as motivated to engage in actual compensatory behaviors to make up for our mistakes.


from “Metaphors of the Mind: Why Loneliness Feels Cold and Sins Feel Dirty,” by Jonah Lehrer, Scientific American, 25 September 2008 :: via Arts & Letters Daily :: first posted here 6 October 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Powerlessness and shopping

Powerlessness and consumption can seem a bit at odds. There is, though, significant distinction to be made between feeling and being powerless.

a Jezebel post by SadieStein, 27 June 2008 :: first posted here 27 June 2008

Researchers at Northwestern have found that feeling powerless leads people to shell out for expensive status items to bolster their egos — explaining why those deep in debt continue to spend. “After recalling situations where they were powerless, participants were willing to pay more for items that signal status, like silk ties and fur coats, but not products like minivans and dryers. They also agreed to pay more for a framed picture of their university if it was portrayed as rare and exclusive.” Okay, can’t really comprehend a situation demeaning enough that we’d be willing to pay any amount of money for a framed picture of our alma mater but who hasn’t restored a flagging sense of self with a handsome necktie from time to time? [Science Daily]

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Thinking too much about strawberry jam

Scientists recreated a Consumer Reports study in which students were asked to rate strawberry jams. The initial results mirrored the findings of the magazine’s taste experts. In the next phase of the experiment, things got stranger …

But that was only the first part of the experiment. The psychologists then repeated the jam taste test with a separate group of college students, only this time they asked them to explain why they preferred one brand over another. As the undergrads tasted the jams, the students filled out written questionnaires, which forced them to analyze their first impressions, to consciously explain their impulsive preferences. All this extra analysis seriously warped their jam judgment. The students now preferred Sorrel-Ridge—the worst tasting jam according to Consumer Reports—to Knott’s Berry farm, which was the experts’ favorite jam. The correlation plummeted to .11, which means that there was virtually no relationship between the rankings of the experts and the opinions of these introspective students.

What happened? Wilson and Schooler argue that “thinking too much” about strawberry jam causes us to focus on all sorts of variables that don’t actually matter. Instead of just listening to our instinctive preferences, we start searching for reasons to prefer one jam over another.  For example, we might notice that the Acme brand is particularly easy to spread, and so we’ll give it a high ranking, even if we don’t actually care about the spreadability of jam. Or we might notice that Knott’s Berry Farm has a chunky texture, which seems like a bad thing, even if we’ve never really thought about the texture of jam before. But having a chunky texture sounds like a plausible reason to dislike a jam, and so we revise our preferences to reflect this convoluted logic.


from “We Are All Talk Radio Hosts,” by Jonah Lehrer, Wired.com, 5 August 2010

Originally published at culture-making.com.

To copy is human

The author of this study’s theory is that this penchant for overimitation may be crucial to humans’ ability to create and transmit culture. For us, “it is knowing the way things are done, not what gets done, that is important.”

In previous studies, dogs and chimps taught to open a box and retrieve a toy copied their teacher’s toy-seeking behavior only when it proved efficient. When the instructing adult added irrelevant actions, such as brushing a feather along the edge of the box before opening it, the animal trainees skipped them, doing only what was necessary to get to the hidden toy. But human children copied every detail, even the pointless brush of the feather.

“Animals focus on getting the job done,” explains Mark Nielsen, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “Humans seem to almost forget about the outcome and copy everything we see.”


from “Kids Overimitate Adults, Regardless of Culture,” by Gisela Telis, ScienceNOW, 7 May 2010

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Sit up straight and tell me that!

Self-praise—and self-critique—became more strident when research subjects were asked to sit up straight. Posture inspires confidence, even when you’re the only one in the room.

Researchers found that people who were told to sit up straight were more likely to believe thoughts they wrote down while in that posture concerning whether they were qualified for a job.

On the other hand, those who were slumped over their desks were less likely to accept these written-down feelings about their own qualifications.

The results show how our body posture can affect not only what others think about us, but also how we think about ourselves, said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“Most of us were taught that sitting up straight gives a good impression to other people,” Petty said. “But it turns out that our posture can also affect how we think about ourselves. If you sit up straight, you end up convincing yourself by the posture you’re in.”


Originally published at culture-making.com.

Mental illness and missing stories

Alhough the standard psychiatric diagnostic manual relegates ‘culture-bound’ illnesses to an exotic appendix at the end of the book, Western conceptions of mental illness are themselves ‘culture-bound’—an observation close to my historian-of-science’s heart, and one well-explored in both Watters’ article and in this thoughtful commentary.

No one would suggest that we withhold our medical advances from other countries, but it’s perhaps past time to admit that even our most remarkable scientific leaps in understanding the brain haven’t yet created the sorts of cultural stories from which humans take comfort and meaning. When these scientific advances are translated into popular belief and cultural stories, they are often stripped of the complexity of the science and become comically insubstantial narratives. Take for instance this Web site text advertising the antidepressant Paxil: “Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.” The Western mind, endlessly analyzed by generations of theorists and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.

All cultures struggle with intractable mental illnesses with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where madness and psychological trauma are still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, however, we get a glimpse of ourselves as an increasingly insecure and fearful people. Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.


from “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” by Ethan Watters, The New York Times Magazine, 10 January 2010 :: via 3quarksdaily

Originally published at culture-making.com.

I’m crushing your addiction!

A fascinating study that gets at at the power of gestures, postures, and practice, even when it’s only at the level of visualization. I want to see a follow-up study as to the effects of crushing real vs. virtual smokes.

Smokers who crushed computer-simulated cigarettes as part of a psychosocial treatment program in a virtual reality environment had significantly reduced nicotine dependence and higher rates of tobacco abstinence than smokers participating in the same program who grasped a computer-simulated ball, according to a study described in the current issue of CyberPsychology and Behavior.


Originally published at culture-making.com.

Not all thumbs

This is from a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. How do I love a journal with a title like that? Let me count the ways …

Nicoladis and colleagues studied one and two-hand counting gestures and cultural differences between Germans and French and English Canadians. While the majority of Germans use their thumb to begin to sequentially count, the majority of Canadians, both French and English, use their index finger as the numerical kick-off point when counting with their hands.

However, Nicoladis noted that some French Canadians also displayed anomalous differences from their Canadian or even their German counterparts.

“They show a lot more variation in what they are willing to use in terms of gestures, suggesting there might be some influence from the European French manner of gesturing (whose gestures are identical to the Germans’), or possibly other cultures too,” she said. “This association suggests that there are some cultural artifacts left over from these older French gestures and that they have been replaced because of the cultural contact with English Canadians.”


Originally published at culture-making.com.

Circadian writing

The hook for this article write-up—that patterns of email-writing are similar to older patterns of letter-writing—somehow seems less surprising than they make it out to be. The original Science study on which it is based is humbly titled “On Universality in Human Correspondence Activity.” Um, how exactly does showing that literate people in Western culture today correspond like famous literate people in Western culture did a few decades or centuries ago tell us that much about “Universality”? If the communiques of Tang Dynasty scholars, Inca string-knotters, and Roman emperors were all shown to look like my outbox, then I’d be a bit more universally impressed.

The researchers examined extensive letter correspondence records of 16 famous writers, performers, politicians and scientists, including Einstein, Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Ernest Hemingway, and found that the 16 individuals sent letters randomly but in cycles.

The same mathematical model the Northwestern team used in a previous study to explain e-mail behavior now has been shown to apply to the letter writers. This refutes the rational model, which says that people are driven foremost by responding to others.

No matter what their profession, all the letter writers behaved the same way. They adhered to a circadian cycle; they tended to write a number of letters at one sitting, which is more efficient; and when they wrote had more to do with chance and circumstances than a rational approach of writing the most important letter first.


Originally published at culture-making.com.