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Why Gloom Trumps Glad

The psychology of political pessimism
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“If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn’t know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be,” what time would you choose? Paleolithic? Neolithic? Ancient Greece or Rome? Medieval times? Elizabethan England? Colonial America? The 1950s? “You’d choose today,” answered the man who posed this question in an April 2016 speech, President Barack Obama. “We are fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” he opined, adding “that it’s been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We’re wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.”

If these facts are true—and they are (see, for example, economist Max Roser’s ourworldindata.org and the data at human progress.org aggregated from the World Bank, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Development, and Eurostat)—then why the doom and gloom heaped on us by politicians and pundits on both sides of the political aisle? First, news media outlets are far more likely to report bad news than good, simply because that is what they have been tasked to do. Another day in Turkey without a coup goes unreported, but just try and take over a country without the world’s media covering it. Second, as psychologist Roy F. Baumeister explained it in the title of a now classic 2001 paper he co-authored in the journal Review of General Psychology, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” Reviewing a wide range of evidence across many domains of life, the authors found that “bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” Why? (continue reading…)

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The Alpinists of Evil

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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Extrasensory Pornception

Does new research prove paranormal precognition or normal postcognition?
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PSI, OR THE PARANORMAL, denotes anomalous psychological effects that are currently unexplained by normal causes. Historically such phenomena eventually are either accounted for by normal means, or else they disappear under controlled conditions. But now renowned psychologist Daryl J. Bem claims experimental proof of precognition (conscious cognitive awareness) and premonition (affective apprehension) “of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process,” as he wrote recently in “Feeling the Future” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Bem sat subjects in front of a computer screen that displayed two curtains, behind one of which would appear a photograph that was neutral, negative or erotic. Through 36 trials the subjects were to preselect which screen they thought the image would appear behind, after which the computer randomly chose the window to project the image onto. When the images were neutral, the subjects did no better than 50–50. But when the images were erotic, the subjects preselected the correct screen 53.1 percent of the time, which Bem reports as statistically significant. (continue reading…)

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Kool-Aid Psychology

How optimism trumped realism in the positive-psychology movement
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I am, by nature, an optimist. I almost always think things will turn out well, and even when they break I am confident that I can fix them. My optimism, however, has not always served me well. Twice I have been hit by cars while cycling— full-on, through-the-windshield impacts that were entirely the result of my blissful attitude that the street corners I had successfully negotiated hundreds of times before would not suddenly materialize an automobile in my path. Such high-impact, unpredictable and rare events are what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans.” Given enough time, no upward sloping trend line is immune from dramatic collapse.

A bike crash as a black swan is, in fact, an apt metaphor for what the investigative journalist and natural-born skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich believes happened to America as a result of the positive-thinking movement. In her engaging and tightly reasoned book Bright-Sided (order on DVD Ehrenreich’s lecture at Caltech), she shows how the positive-psychology movement was born in the halcyon days of the 1990s when the economy was soaring, housing prices were skyrocketing, and positive-thinking gurus were cashing in on the motivation business. Academic psychologists, armed with a veneer of scientific jargon, wanted in on the action. (continue reading…)

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Political Science

Psychological research reveals how
and why liberals and conservatives differ
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Humans are, by nature, tribal and never more so than in politics. In the culture wars we all know the tribal stereotypes of what liberals think of conservatives: Conservatives are a bunch of Hummer-driving, meat-eating, gun-toting, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white- thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally hypocritical blowhards. And what conservatives think of liberals: Liberals are a bunch of hybrid-driving, tofu-eating, tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, bottled-water-drinking, ACLU-supporting, flip-flopping, wishy-washy, namby-pamby bed wetters.

Like many other stereotypes, each of these contains an element of truth that reflects an emphasis on different moral values. Jonathan Haidt, who is a psychologist at the University of Virginia, explains such stereotypes in terms of his Moral Foundations Theory (see www.moralfoundations.org), which he developed “to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.” Haidt proposes that the foundations of our sense of right and wrong rest within “five innate and universally available psychological systems” that might be summarized as follows: (continue reading…)

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