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Scientific American

Dictators and Diehards

published March 2013 | Comments Off
Pluralistic ignorance and the last best hope
on earth
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In Tyler Hamilton’s 2012 book The Secret Race (written with Daniel Coyle), the cyclist exposes the most sophisticated doping program in the history of sports, orchestrated by Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner now stripped of his titles after a thorough investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Hamilton shows how such an elaborate system was maintained through the “omertà rule”—the code of silence that leads one to believe everyone else believes doping is the norm—and reinforced by the threat of punishment for speaking out or not complying.

The broader psychological principle at work here is “pluralistic ignorance,” in which individual members of a group do not believe something but mistakenly believe everyone else in the group believes it. When no one speaks up, it produces a “spiral of silence” that can lead to everything from binge drinking and hooking up to witch hunts and deadly ideologies. A 1998 study by Christine M. Schroeder and Deborah A. Prentice, for example, found that “the majority of students believe that their peers are uniformly more comfortable with campus alcohol practices than they are.” Another study in 1993 by Prentice and Dale T. Miller found a gender difference in drinking attitudes in which “male students shifted their attitudes over time in the direction of what they mistakenly believed to be the norm, whereas female students showed no such attitude change.” Women, however, were not immune to pluralistic ignorance when it comes to hooking up, as shown in a 2003 study by Tracy A. Lambert and her colleagues, who found “both women and men rated their peers as being more comfortable engaging in these behaviors than they rated themselves.” (continue reading…)

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The Left’s War on Science

published February 2013 | comments (14)
How politics distorts science
on both ends of the spectrum
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Believe it or not—and I suspect most readers will not—there’s a liberal war on science. Say what?

We are well aware of the Republican war on science from the eponymous 2006 book (Basic Books) by Chris Mooney, and I have castigated conservatives myself in my 2006 book Why Darwin Matters (Holt) for their erroneous belief that the theory of evolution leads to a breakdown of morality. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that “58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” compared with 41 percent of Democrats. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81 percent of Democrats but only 49 percent of Republicans believe that Earth is getting warmer. Many conservatives seem to grant early-stage embryos a moral standing that is higher than that of adults suffering from debilitating diseases potentially curable through stem cells. And most recently, Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin gaffed on the ability of women’s bodies to avoid pregnancy in the event of a “legitimate rape.” It gets worse. (continue reading…)

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Logic-Tight Compartments

published January 2013 | comments (21)
How our modular brains lead us to deny
and distort evidence
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IF YOU HAVE PONDERED how intelligent and educated people can, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, believe that that evolution is a myth, that global warming is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism and asthma, that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration, conjecture no more. The explanation is in what I call logic-tight compartments—modules in the brain analogous to watertight compartments in a ship.

The concept of compartmentalized brain functions acting either in concert or in conflict has been a core idea of evolutionary psychology since the early 1990s. According to University of Pennsylvania evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (Princeton University Press, 2010), the brain evolved as a modular, multitasking problem-solving organ—a Swiss Army knife of practical tools in the old metaphor or an app-loaded iPhone in Kurzban’s upgrade. There is no unified “self” that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. Instead we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules often at odds with one another. The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short term is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the one for competition, as are the modules for altruism and avarice or the modules for truth telling and lying. (continue reading…)

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The Alpinists of Evil

published December 2012 | comments (4)
Nazis did not just blindly follow orders
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IN LAST MONTH’S COLUMN I recounted how my replication of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments revealed that although most people can be inveigled to obey authorities if they are asked to hurt others, they do so reluctantly and with much moral conflict. Milgram’s explanation was an “agentic state,” or “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes.” As agents in an experiment, subjects shift from being moral agents in society to obedient agents in a hierarchy. “I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.” (continue reading…)

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Shock and Awe

published November 2012 | comments (9)
Replicating Milgram’s shock experiments
leads to a different interpretation
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IN 2010 I WORKED on a Dateline NBC television special replicating classic psychology experiments, one of which was Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiments from the 1960s. We followed Milgram’s protocols precisely: subjects read a list of paired words to a “learner” (an actor named Tyler), then presented the first word of each pair again. Each time Tyler gave an incorrect matched word, our subjects were instructed by an authority figure (an actor named Jeremy) to deliver an electric shock from a box with toggle switches that ranged in 15-volt increments up to 450 volts (no shocks were actually delivered). In Milgram’s original experiments, 65 percent of subjects went all the way to the end. We had only two days to film this segment of the show (you can see all our experiments on NBCNews.com), so there was time for just six subjects, who thought they were auditioning for a new reality show called What a Pain!

Contrary to Milgram’s conclusion that people blindly obey authorities to the point of committing evil deeds because we are so susceptible to environmental conditions, I saw in our subjects a great behavioral reluctance and moral disquietude every step of the way. Our first subject, Emily, quit the moment she was told the protocol. “This isn’t really my thing,” she said with a nervous laugh. When our second subject, Julie, got to 75 volts and heard Tyler groan, she protested: “I don’t think I want to keep doing this.” Jeremy insisted: “You really have no other choice. I need you to continue until the end of the test.” Despite our actor’s stone-cold authoritative commands, Julie held her moral ground: “No. I’m sorry. I can just see where this is going, and I just—I don’t—I think I’m good. I think I’m good to go.” When the show’s host Chris Hansen asked what was going through her mind, Julie offered this moral insight on the resistance to authority: “I didn’t want to hurt Tyler. And then I just wanted to get out. And I’m mad that I let it even go five [wrong answers]. I’m sorry, Tyler.” (continue reading…)

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