Friday, October 12, 2007

New and improved Greater Good blog!

The UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center has re-launched its website and added a new and improved blog--this one is now obsolete. Thanks so much for visiting, and we'll see you at our new cyber-home:

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Is Violence on the Decline?

Last March, noted psychologist Steven Pinker delivered a talk in which he argued that violence is, and for long has been, declining in human societies. Presenting archaeological, ethnographic, and historical evidence that the "ancestors [of modern humans] were far more violent" than their descendants, Pinker vigorously concluded that "today we are living in one of the most peaceful times in our species' existence."

He offered multiple hypotheses as to how such a situation might have arisen. Notably, Pinker presents the argument set forth by philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Expanding Circle that perhaps, evolution itself has

"bequeath[ed] humans with a sense of empathy - an ability to treat other people's interests as comparable to one's own. Unfortunately, by default we apply it only to a very narrow circle of friends and family. People outside that circle were treated as subhuman and can be exploited with impunity. But over history the circle has expanded . . . from village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to other races to other sexes and . . . other species."

If this line of argument were validated and if the process it describes would continue, surely we might be led to believe that world is a much better place than it was just a couple of centuries ago. Although that observation is probably true, Pinker may be over-stating the case - although severe physical punishment in Medieval Europe could often result from crimes that would in modern times merit no more than an infraction (as Pinker points out,) is it truly the case that such violence was characteristic of day-to-day life in Medieval Europe for the majority of its population? And what about other cultures? Has violence declined in non-Western societies? Pinker does not offer an explicit answer to that question in this talk.

Nevertheless, Pinker is entirely correct in encouraging us to focus not only on what we are "doing wrong but also on what we are doing right." In spite of the seemingly endless series of misfortunes in this world, much is right and for us to ignore what is right is undoubtedly wrong.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Arguing from the Heart

According to some new research, it seems that the way married couples argue is more important than the content of those arguments. In today’s New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports on a few studies that have found a link between the way spouses argue and their risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) and other illnesses.

Parker-Pope cites a recent study led by Elaine D. Eaker, an epidemiologist in Maryland, who surveyed nearly 4,000 men and women about how they act when they argue with their spouse. Did they vent their feelings or keep them bottled up (known as self-silencing)? Thirty-two percent of the men reported bottling up their feelings in a fight, while only 23 percent of women reported the same.

Then Eaker and her colleagues monitored the study participants for the next ten years. They found that women who self-silenced were four times as likely to die during that period than their more verbal counterparts. Keeping quiet for men, however, showed no apparent connection to their health.

Parker-Pope also mentions a similar study conducted by Timothy W. Smith and his colleagues at the University of Utah. In that study, the researchers videotaped married couples’ interactions in order to see how the emotional tone of their discussions was associated with their risk of coronary heart disease. After being given stressful topics to discuss, such as finances, the couples’ remarks were coded according to how warm or hostile they were. The results showed that among both men and women, arguing style proved to be a strong predictor of their risk for heart disease—even more than cholesterol levels or smoking.

Even more interesting is the way different arguing styles affected men and women differently. Parker-Pope explains:

The level of warmth or hostility had no effect on a man’s heart health. For a man, heart risk increased if disagreements with his wife involved a battle for control. And it didn’t matter whether he or his wife was the one making the controlling comments. An example of a controlling argument style showed up in one video of a man arguing with his wife about money. “You really should just listen to me on this,” he told her.

Also notable is that both studies found that responses about personal satisfaction with the marriage did not correlate with any health risks. So that makes me wonder: Can these unhealthy habits be changed if spouses don’t even recognize that something’s wrong?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Happiness Gap

A column by David Leonhardt in yesterday's New York Times reports on two new studies that have reached the same finding: Men today say they're happier than women do. This is the opposite of what research found in the 1970s.

Drawing on studies by Alan Krueger at Princeton University and Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the University of Pennsylvania, Leonhardt offers this explanation for the gender role reversal:

Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more. Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

He notes that women aren't actually working more than they did 30 or 40 years ago; they're doing different kinds of work. They're spending more time on paid work, yet they still have most of the same responsibilities they did a generation ago: cooking, cleaning, caring for their kids and (more and more)
their parents. As Leonhardt writes,

What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short. ...

[These findings] show just how incomplete the gender revolution has been. Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn't fully come to grips with the change. The United States still doesn't have universal preschool, and, in contrast to other industrialized countries, there is no guaranteed paid leave for new parents.

Historian Stephanie Coontz makes a very similar argument in her essay in the new issue of Greater Good, which features a series of essays on "The 21st Century Family." Subscribers have received this issue and it's currently on newsstands; some articles from it will be on our website soon. You can also receive a no-risk sample copy when you start a subscription to Greater Good here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

(Same-sex) marriage and families

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders had made a point in his election campaign that he would veto any City Council resolutions backing a constitutional challenge to California's 2000 voter initiative making marriage possible only between a man and a woman. The Republican ex-cop had long said he believed civil unions were sufficient for gays, but when the resolution came to his desk, he recently had a change of heart that reflects his concerns, not only for his own family members and staff who are gay or lesbian, but also about the state of marriage in the U.S. of A.

Click here for a link to the YouTube video.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moral Intuition

The New York Times reported yesterday on some of Jonathan Haidt's work on the evolutionary roots of human morality. Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote about some of his research in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Greater Good.

The Times piece discusses Haidt's interest in "the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding--when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why."
Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.

In exploring our moral intuitions, Haidt has identified five components of morality that are common to most cultures. Two--preventing harm to others and reciprocity/fairness--concern treatment of individuals. The other three promote behaviors geared toward strengthening one's group: loyalty to the in-group, respect for authority and hierarchy, and a sense of purity or sanctity. The article goes on to explain the political dimension of some of the research Haidt has conducted with a grad student, Jesse Graham:
They found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals — those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity. Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective
of individuals.

Haidt makes some pretty provocative claims about the relationship between moral intuitions and political beliefs. I'd be curious to see how he gauged people's opinions of these different moral systems. It seems to me there's a chance that liberals might actually "attach greater weight to moral systems protective of individuals," and assign less importance to group interests like respect for authority, simply because they self-identify as liberals. That is, as liberals, they know they're supposed to demonstrate a preference for individual rights and have a knee-jerk reaction against words or concepts (like "loyalty" and "authority" ) that are associated with conservatives, especially with the current administration). Real-world political allegiences might bias their responses and misrepresent these people's true moral beliefs and behaviors.

Either way, the Times piece, and Haidt's website, are worth checking out. For more on the evolutionary basis of our moral judgments, check out the work of Joshua Greene at Harvard, which I blogged about a few months back.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Winning and Losing's story on Jack Whittaker, 2002 Powerball jackpot winner, is another example of the truism that "money doesn't buy happiness." Described as "bad luck", Whittaker recounts his post-jackpot days to the AP, highlighting how his wife left him, his 17-year-old granddaughter died battling a drug addiction, and over 400 legal actions have been taken against him since he won big.

Whittaker was relatively affluent before even winning the lottery. He describes his and his family's life as "lavish", living off his prospering $17-million pipeline company. What seems to stand out in Whittaker's story, however, is the way his interactions with others have changed.

"I don't have any friends," says the multi-millionaire. "Every friend that I've had, practically, has wanted to borrow money or something and of course, once they borrow money from you, you can't be friends anymore." There was also mention on how cautious he had to be when meeting women and straying from those interested in his wallet, not him.

So Whittaker's case is unique in the sense that he seemingly had everything before striking it rich(er). According to past research, money seems to buy happiness when the individual is getting the financial boost out of poverty. For others, there seems to be no effect. Whittaker didn't need any more money for material things; his winnings instead resulted in a loss of social capital. From this particular story, we are limited to say how much of Whittaker's unfortunate outcomes can be attributed to him, but the story is telling of how impactful others can become in reacting to large sums of money. Where does one strike the balance between accumulating social versus financial capital?