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?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Imaginary Friends

Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert on imaginary friends. She read my August 27 post at the blog Daddy Dialectic on my son's imaginary characters, in which I describe how he adopts roles that range from Frank Lloyd Wright to Spider-Man to the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Mostly what your son is doing is not having an imaginary friend," she told me in an interview. "It’s having a pretend identity. There’s usually a gender difference there. Boys and girls are similar in that they create imaginary characters, but there is a gender difference in what they tend to do with those characters. So, the little boys tend to put on superhero capes and run around. They take on the characteristics of the character and act it out. Whereas little girls, at least during the preschool period, are more likely to invent this other person that they’re interacting with. By the time they get to be about seven or eight, though, little boys are just as likely as little girls to have an imaginary friend rather than a pretend identity."

Taylor's research into imagination and pretend play is fascinating--and I found that it illuminated quite a lot about my son's behavior and propensities. Liko--who has imaginary friends as well as pretend identities--is a very sociable, verbal, empathic little boy who is prone to flights of elaborate fantasy. (Incidentally, in the photo above, Liko is pretending to be a fireman in a real-life fire engine.) In her research, Taylor has found a strong correlation between those qualities and the prevalence of imaginary companions.

"Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person," she said. "We’ve been able to show that in our work." But she cautions us against believing that one causes the other: researchers still don't know if empathic instincts cause kids to make up imaginary friends or if imaginary friends help kids to learn to take another person's perspective.

Whatever triggers these qualities, it appears early in life. "Children who go on to develop imaginary friends really show an interest in fantasy from a very early age," she told me. "So even before the first year, they tend to be the kids who really like puppets and stuffed animals, rather than building blocks or things that are more reality-oriented. Those are the kids who go on at [a later age] to have imaginary friends."

One of the interesting implications of the gender difference Taylor found is that little boys appear to be more wrapped up in projecting themselves into roles of power, while girls from early on are developing characters outside themselves who demand attention and empathy. This plays to certain gender stereotypes, but her research also implies that boys and girls alike can develop empathy and caregiving behavior by developing their imaginations.

Once in place, it seems that imaginary friends can take on a life of their own, becoming characters with autonomous motivations and unique feelings. "Part of the fun of imaginary friends is that they don’t always think like you do," said Taylor. "In fact, it surprised us at first that with a lot of imaginary friends, there is a lot of arguing going on and a lot of negativity, even. An imaginary friend will be mean, hit you on the head, put yogurt in your hair, and so on."

Does this mean that imaginary friends ought to all be all locked up in imaginary jails? Taylor says no. "Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation [in real life]. If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That’s a way of developing emotional mastery. Pretend is something children have available to them, that is a coping mechanism they can use in their lives. And they don’t have a lot of other ones, really. They’re pretty helpless and small and have to depend on others, but they do have their imaginations, and they use them to cope."

Thus pretend play and imaginary characters are often a healthy sign of resilience and creativity. Taylor is routinely contacted by parents who are concerned about what the imaginary friends are doing, fearing that imaginary play might point to something wrong in real life. “We see lots of negativity and difficult stuff going on in the pretend play of kids who are healthy and doing just fine," says Taylor. "That can make parents uncomfortable."

But Taylor found that "children just like to think about being bad. Why not have an imaginary friend who is like that, to explore what it means to be bad? You have to think of it as exploring emotional space. There’s a lot to think through about behavior. Kids use pretend to try it on, they do [bad things] in their pretend play so that they have some control over it.”

One parent came to Taylor because her child’s imaginary friend was always sick. "The child didn’t want to leave home because she didn’t want to leave the imaginary friend because [the friend] was so sick," said Taylor. "We put our heads together and thought about how to work within the pretend play. So we had the mother invent a new imaginary friend who could stay home with the sick one. And then the child was totally happy to go! Children like it when parents pretend along. Some people say, 'Well, the imaginary friend is a private thing that [the child doesn’t] want to share.' But that’s just not true. Kids love it when adults participate in their pretend worlds."

Friday, August 17, 2007

Altruistic birds vs. altruistic humans

Reports the Washington Post:

A just-published study of birds reports new insights into the evolution of altruistic behavior. It suggests that sometimes the greatest beneficiaries are neither those giving or receiving alms, but those whose main job is the care and feeding of the neediest members of the population.

It is believed that about 10 percent of bird species show "cooperative breeding" behavior, in which one or more mated pairs produce chicks, which are then fed not only by the parents but by other birds sharing their territory. The helpers are usually nonbreeding males from the female's broods of the previous year - the brothers of the hatchlings they are helping to feed...

To find out what motivates this behavior, a team at the University of Cambridge in England "looked at what happened before the baby birds hatched. They compared the eggs laid by females that had helpers with those laid by solo females":

They found that fairy-wrens with helpers produce eggs with less fat, protein and carbohydrate than eggs produced by females that do not have helpers. The hatchlings of those "lite" eggs are smaller than normal chicks, but their initial scrawniness is quickly overcome by the extra food brought by the nonbreeding helpers.

The one who benefits is the mother.

Cooperatively breeding females have a 1-in-5 chance of dying over the next year, compared with a 1-in-3 chance for females without helpers. This is presumably because they are slightly healthier and stronger, having expended less energy to produce their eggs and feed their young. Their longer life span, in turn, gives them a chance to leave more offspring behind, the ultimate measure of evolutionary success.

"The mothers are stealing child care from their current young and spending it on their future young," Kilner said.

What might this say about humans? Maybe nothing. It's simply another clue in solving the mystery of why altruism exists in nature and how cooperation emerges among members of a species.

However, there are parallels with human behavior. The anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has pointed out how cooperative child rearing has been essential at certain points in human history--for example, in hunter-gatherer societies--when fathers and adults besides the parents had to take a strong role in the care and feeding of young children. In an essay that will appear in the September issue of Greater Good, I speculate that cooperative child rearing (or alloparenting) is making a comeback in American cities, driven by the geographic and social isolation of new families, rough economic parity between men and women, and the hight cost of quality childcare.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Way We Were vs. The Way We Are

This photo depicts the J. Bates home in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 1800s. Note the size of the family and the size of the porch they share. Families of this period were large, both because extended family stayed together and because children were still an economic necessity: more of them meant more hands to work in farms and shopfloors. Fathers and sons often worked side by side, and so did mothers and daughters. The economic and domestic were not separate spheres; though in the process of being eclipsed by large-scale enterprise, at this time the home economy was still America's fundamental economic unit.

As a consequence, marriage was primarily a business decision--as it had been throughout the world for thousands of years. For the lower, middle, and upper classes, people had little choice about whom to marry. Once married, they could divorce only in special or extreme circumstances. Fathers were the undisputed heads and masters of households, by both law and custom. Marital rape and wife-beating were, in most cases, perfectly legal.

Another thing to note about the J. Bates family: it is monoracial and was almost certainly monocultural. Though interracial marriage was more common than we might suppose--see Randall Kennedy's 2003 Interracial Intimacies--it was still widely condemned and illegal in many states. Nineteenth century families had more in common with previous generations than they might have with families today, but society was changing. The family as an economic unit declined; as a consequence, love rose in importance. Young people began to feel that when love dissolved, so should the marriage. Between 1880 and 1890 the divorce rate soared 70 percent.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, people left farms and small towns for cities. Extended families fragmented and the nuclear family emerged as the dominant family form. Children became more of an economic liability than an asset; as a result, sentimental attachment to them intensified. As the century wore on, child labor was abolished and universal schooling was made mandatory. Government programs like the GI Bill educated millions of American men and increased their social mobility.

By the middle of the century, postwar prosperity made the male breadwinner and female homemaker family possible. Most men worked in offices and factories far from home; they did not take care of children. The vast majority of mothers did not work and raised kids far from from extended family. Thus mothers were isolated and many children grew up without fathers, grandparents, aunts, or uncles as stable, regular presences. By the late 1950s, middle-class women--and their children--started to rebel against isolated, retricted lives. "It took more than 150 years to establish the love-based, male breadwinner marriage," writes family historian Stephanie Coontz. "It took less than 25 years to dismantle it."

At the beginning of the 21st century, families are egalitarian, diverse, isolated, and voluntary. Where once there was no choice at all, today we have too many choices. Take a look at this 2004 photo of Brian Brantner and Matt Fuller holding their 2-month-old adopted daughter, Audrey, in San Francisco. Their family could not have co-existed with the J. Bates family in 19th century Minnesota. The gay family is, in fact, something totally new under the sun, blossoming side by side with stepfamilies, female breadwinner/male homemaker families, multiracial families, and so on. Today, only 7 percent of families fit the 1950s mold of breadwinning father and homemaking mother.

At the same time, the American economy is far less stable and social mobility has declined dramatically; class barriers are much more rigid than they are anywhere else in the developed world. This means that family is more important than ever in determining a child's chances in life. Poor children are falling behind richer counterparts, a process that starts before they even enter school. Educated parents are investing large amounts of time and money in their small number of offspring; both husbands and wives are spending more time with kids and at work, and less time with each other or in the community, which puts tremendous strain on love-based marriages.

Surveying decades of research, the sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen writes, "What is now becoming clear is that the seeds of inequality are sown prior to school age on a host of crucial attributes such as health, cognitive and noncognitive abilities, motivation to learn, and, more generally, school preparedness." As marriages become more egalitarian, society becomes less so. We should celebrate the gains made in women's economic empowerment and male participation in domestic labor. At the same time, we should do what we can to resist rising inequality and social under-development.

Most of the photos above illustrate an article by Stephanie Coontz that will appear in the September issue of Greater Good magazine, which will focus on the relationship between the diversification of family types and the well-being of parents and children. I'm happy to provide a free copy to any blogger who promises to write about the issue. Send me an email at jeremyadamsmith (at)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Divorce and Reverse Traditional Families

Stop the presses: Breadwinning moms are divorcing their stay-at- home husbands!

Not really--there's absolutely no evidence that this is happening-- but you wouldn't know it from a recent wave of essays, articles, and blog entries by and about moms who are disappointed with their marriages to caregiving spouses.

Two of the most recent examples: an instantly notorious blog entry by career coach Penelope Trunk on why her stay-at-home husband doesn't love her anymore and an article in the UK Daily Mail on a "househusband backlash" trend that the reporter seems to have invented.

Reports the Daily Mail: "Divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd-Platt says that in her experience, the decision to allow the wife to be the main wage earner will have a detrimental effect on as many as half of these relationships, and that divorce statistics in these cases have risen by at least five percent in the past two years."

I can't attest to Ms. Lloyd-Platt's experience, but I do know that the vast majority of all marriages are troubled for the first three years after a baby is born--the Gottman Institute puts the number at 67 percent for more-or-less traditional marriages. So if only half of the reverse-traditional marriages Ms. Lloyd-Platt encounters are having problems, then they're actually doing pretty good.

But about that divorce stat she mentions--"five percent." The article doesn't compare the divorce rate of reverse-traditional families to traditional or dual-income families, so we have no idea what "five percent" means. We do know that the number of "househusbands" (as they're called) in the U.K. has risen by 83 percent since 1993. If the divorce rate for that group (and I'm impressed that someone in the UK is keeping track of it) has only risen five percent--and again, we have no idea what's happening with other family groups--then I'd say that's not too bad.

Some historical perspective: Non-traditional family forms are always entail some degree of internal and external conflict during their period of emergence--that is, until they become traditional, i.e., widespread and normal. This was, for example, the case when people left farms and extended families and moved to the big city and into small nuclear families -- a period of tremendous stress and conflict, and, incidentally, high rates of divorce and abandonment. Then all of a sudden (around WWII), the nuclear family was considered ideal. Family configurations aligned with the economy, and thus a post-war culture was born. In 1957, J.M. Mogey of the University of Oxford predicted that "the divorce rate should continue to decline for some years to come.”

Ha! History is cruel. That very same year, divorce rates started to once again rise, after a thirty-year decline. One in three couples married in the 1950s would ultimately divorce. Today the divorce rate stands at about 50 percent, and guess what: according to many studies, today's egalitarian marriages are the most stable. "Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework," reports psychotherapist Joshua Coleman in Unconventional Wisdom. "Wives are more sexually interested in husbands who do more housework. And children appear to be better socially adjusted when they regularly participate in doing chores with Dad."

Today, traditional families have their own problems--most of them will fail. And so the question isn't, Are reverse-traditional families more unstable? That's a dumb question, given the context. Instead, the question should be (to adapt a phrase from Stephanie Coontz), What can we do to help reverse-traditional families minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths?

I'm not saying that the stories of unhappy breadwinning moms aren't interesting and important, only that they are not as representative as they pretend to be. Some of these moms explicitly blame at-home daddyhood for their problems -- they seem to feel that the arrangement robs their men of masculine authority and self-respect. This is true of Trunk's blog entry, in which she reports being shocked and dismayed to discover that her husband describes himself as a "stay-at-home dad" in an online professional networking profile. "Surely writing stay-at-home dad on a LinkedIn profile cannot be good," she writes, clearly ashamed of her husband.

It's a digital variation of an image that keeps recurring in these stories: the public moment when a coworker or old school friend asks the breadwinning mom what her husband does for a living, and she feels a deep sense of shame. She marks that as the moment when the marriage declined.

It's really quite horrible, when you think about it. I think there's two things going on, socially. One is that some women seem unprepared for the pressures of providing, just as some dads must struggle with the demands of caregiving. They weren't raised for these roles, they never imagined themselves doing it, and they have few role models. The second thing is that social support is extremely important -- this is one of the insights that came out of a recent University of Texas study of at-home dads, and it's certainly true in my experience. If you spend all day, every day, walking uphill with the wind in your face, you get tired. Much better to have people behind you, pushing you forward.

But we have tended to focus on social situation of the at-home dad, sometimes at the expense of the breadwinning mom: they need support, community, and role models just as much, if not more. The pressures they face are enormous: all the usual breadwinning pressures, plus sexism, plus the social ambiguities of role reversal.

Despite all that, however, many moms are very happy with their roles; I've interviewed some of them for my book. Their stories also need to be told--and then maybe women like Penelope Trunk won't feel so ashamed.

* * *

A post-script: In an article posted to her old website, Kidding Ourselves (1995) author Rhona Mahony asks: “When the sexual division of labor in the home has melted away, what will divorce mean for children? No one knows for sure. In all likelihood, though, it will be less harmful to children than it is today. I suspect that the average breadwinning mother will be more emotionally attached to her children than the average breadwinning father is today, because of the lingering emotional echoes of her pregnancies and her breastfeeding, if she breastfed. Even if her primary-parent husband catches up with and surpasses her in emotional attachment, she is starting from a higher base than the average father today. Concretely, that means that fewer, absent breadwinning parents will fail to visit, fail to send money, and go AWOL completely. More of them will be mothers. Remember, too, that improvements in child support assurance, and in other programs, will probably be necessary to attract millions of men into primary parenting. Those improvements will also cushion the effects of divorce for children whose fathers are breadwinners, too.”

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dads and Social Capital

Over at the blog Daddy Dialectic, my esteemed colleague "Chicago Pop" meditates on the relationship between caregiving dads and social capital:

Is it worth the time for a dad to get involved with a playground clique of mostly moms?

The idea of social capital would suggest that the answer to [that] question is "yes," because cliques of neighborhood moms are much more than social groups: they are information networks. Without a doubt they are highly gendered, based on forms of sociability that are heavily feminized according to traditional gender constructions. But in a "networked" society, this form of sociability is now where the advantage now lies -- across the board, not just with regard to parenting -- and women therefore have a distinct edge.

It's an interesting observation, and an interesting way to look at stay-at-home parents. Chicago Pop continues:

In an economy in which the general ability to network is now a fundamental survival skill, more and more men are likely to feel comfortable adopting the hitherto strictly feminine practice of kibitzing at the playpark in order to gain access to vital childcare knowledge, support, and healthy camaraderie.

But this means that the issues involved in discussions of reverse-traditional families, or gender equality in childcare, need to expand beyond the core concerns of labor and reward, to include basic practices of sociability that can have tremendous impact on the future prospects of one's child. Blogs about at-home dads are certainly one step in that direction. But because most educational and daycare questions are unavoidably local, nothing beats face-time on the neighborhood mommy beat. The 'strong, silent type' of dad will be a disaster when it comes to setting a child up for academic success, even if he outdoes mom in terms of diapers washed and dishes cleaned. Much of what is most valuable in parenting resides in intangible but significant networks of information and the ability to access the network at different points.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What are you grateful for?

The new issue of Greater Good highlights the physical, psychological, and social benefits of counting your blessings.

So what are you most grateful for?

Monday, July 9, 2007

New issue now online!

The latest issue of Greater Good is now online at!

The Summer 2007 issue explores the new science of gratitude. More than a simple "thank you," studies show gratitude can build physical health, personal happiness, and strong social connections. Our contributors discuss some of the most exciting research on gratitude and suggest how it can apply to everyday life. You can read the full Table of Contents at

We'd love to hear what you think of this new issue. You can comment below, or email us at

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Taxation without Vexation

A new study published in Science suggests that paying your taxes might actually make you feel good. Researchers gave students at the University of Oregon $100, then recorded their brain activity when they were given the chance to make anonymous donations to a food bank with some of that money. When they made their donations, the areas of their brains that lit up were the same as those associated with pleasure and reward. That finding is consistent with similar research, such as that conducted by James Rilling of Emory University, suggesting a link between altruism and positive emotions.

But the researchers here also sometimes levied a tax on the money they'd given out, telling their participants the taxed money would also go to the food bank (which it did). They found that the brain activity was the same, though not as strong, as when people gave money on their own accord.

Reporting on this finding in today's The New York Times, John Tierney writes that the results "bolster the case for 'pure altruism'"--as opposed to altruistic acts performed for selfish motives--"because the student paying the tax could not take personal credit for deciding to feed the hungry." In other words, even though they received nothing in return for their money--not even recognition for their generosity or the personal satisfaction of knowing they'd tried to do something nice for others--the participants still felt good.

Tierney quotes Ulrich Mayr, one of the study's authors, as saying, "The most surprising result is that these basic pleasure centers in the brain don’t respond only to what’s good for yourself. ... They also seem to be tracking what’s good for other people, and this occurs even when the subjects don’t have a say in what happens.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

making the most of our sense of humor

Here's a link to an interesting article from the SF Chronicle that takes a closer look at how scientists are refining their understanding of how humor works, as well as offering some for helpful techniques for the humor-deprived. For more information on what makes us laugh, you might want to attend the upcoming conference of the International Society for Humor Studies.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

And our tagline is...

"The Science of a Meaningful Life"

That's the winner of Greater Good's first (and hopefully last) tagline contest.

We thank all the Greater Good readers who offered their creative tagline suggestions. There were several attractive tagline candidates in the running, but ultimately "The Science of a Meaningful Life" received the strongest support from Greater Good's staff, and it's easy to understand why: The term "meaningful life" seems to encompass compassion, happiness, empathy, social connection--no other single word or phrase works as well to capture what the magazine is all about. Plus, we appreciate the way that "science" and "meaningful life" play off each other: The broad idea of the "meaningful life" is nicely counterbalanced by the emphasis on rigorous "science." And the entire tagline conveys how Greater Good distinguishes itself from other publications: by applying scientific analysis to topics of personal importance to our readers.

Back in March we launched an online contest for readers to propose their own tagline. We were impressed by the range and originality of many of these suggestions. While we didn’t choose any of them verbatim, “The Science of a Meaningful Life” is very close to a tagline proposed by reader Sara Margulis, “Science for Life.” So Sara wins our tagline prize: A one-year subscription (gift or renewal) to Greater Good and a free book selection from our library. Congratulations Sara!

Thanks again to everyone who submitted an idea to Greater Good’s tagline contest.


The Greater Good staff

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Teaching The Levees

Ted Jackson, staff photographer on the New Orleans Times-Picayune, contributed The Eye of the Storm photo essay in the Fall/Winter 2006-07 issue of Greater Good that illustrates how he responded to the scenes before him during the first day that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Since then Spike Lee has produced a movie about the disaster, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” from HBO Documentary Films, and now "Teaching The Levees" a curriculum package is currently being developed at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Through the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, free copies will be made available to teachers, schools, libraries, and community groups in late summer 2007. The package will include copies of the “When the Levees Broke” DVDs and the curriculum book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

increasing the human capacity for empathic curiosity

UCB bio-ethicist and friend of Greater Good, Dr. Jodi Halpern, addresses the dilemma of doctors who experience a range of negative emotions when confronted with patients who refuse necessary treatment or are angry, in an article, "Empathy and Patient-Physician Conflicts," appearing in the May issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Her work was featured recently in a UCB newsstory:
"Caregivers who can learn to sustain their genuine curiosity about and receptivity to patients' perspectives, even in the midst of emotionally charged interactions, not only reduce levels of anger and frustration for both parties, they can significantly improve decision-making on both ends and increase the effectiveness of treatment."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Interview with Family Historian Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz is a professor of history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She is widely recognized as one of the leading authorities on the history of the American family.

Coontz has authored numerous books and articles, including,
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are. In 2005 Viking-Penguin published, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage—a tremendously important book that's just been released in paperback.

Marriage, A History argues that marriage has evolved from the economic and political alliance of two or more family groups, to an individual love-match, which over the past thirty years has catalyzed the creation of new family forms like gay and lesbian families and helped dissolve the division of labor between husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker. The result, says Coontz, is not the end of the family as we know it, but instead its revitalization as a more just and equitable institution.

I sat down to talk to Coontz at the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, an organization she helped to found.

In your books, you’ve demonstrated how the family is constantly evolving. But have you identified any traits shared by all families that successfully cultivate the health and well being of their members?

In the broadest sense, there are some universals. For example, helping members to go outside the family – I think there’s been an incest taboo for a good reason, for thousands of years. We even find a primitive version of it in chimpanzees. It’s important to create individuals who not only can build successful relations within the group, but that are not so physically or emotionally incestuous. The good family teaches its members to reach out and form bonds with others.

So the family is a facilitator of human diversity.

Or rather, of social connection. The healthiest families are those families that don’t try to be everything and do everything. But I do think that what makes a family work really depends on social circumstances.

Let’s take the question of marriage. I think that in the 1950s you could build a successful marriage and rear kids who were going to do pretty well on the basis of a union of two gender stereotypes. And it wasn’t really necessary to have the depth of intimacy and friendship that is required now. That could lead to all sorts of abuses, and did. But on the whole, it could produce pretty decent people in the context of that time.

Today, that doesn’t work. When you have two people coming together at an older age, they are both economically and emotionally independent in very important ways. Men don’t require women to do their housekeeping services, women don’t require men to support them. In that circumstance, the level of friendship has to be much deeper and the level of intimacy needs to be much deeper. You can’t raise your kids with the same degree of authoritativeness—or especially, with the same level of authoritarianism—that they could, many years ago.

And each of these changes, I think, creates new problems. We solve old problems but create new ones. A good example is parenting. We have solved so many old problems in parenting. There is so much less child abuse, both emotional and physical, than there used to be in the past. There is a real interest in developing the child’s individuality—not necessarily individualism.

But, some parents go too far in the opposite direction and forget the need to establish generational boundaries and not be their kid’s best friend. So over and over again, what families need changes with the social and historical context and we create new challenges in the process of solving old problems.

As new family forms are emerging—and I mean the whole range, including reverse traditional families, gay and lesbian families, stepfamilies, and so on—how might that evolution contribute to the well-being of family members and society as a whole? How does the evolution hurt well-being?

Well, it’s another one of those trade-offs. Families have always been diverse, but that diversity was swept under the rug, and they were made to be ashamed of it. They were not helped, nobody analyzed their potential strengths and helped address their absolutely clear weaknesses. So as we’ve brought this diversity into visibility and increasingly legitimized that diversity, we’ve opened the way for all sorts of positive things. For example, preventing people from being forced to stay in a heterosexual marriage when, in fact, their impulses go the other way, or forcing people to stay in an unfair or unsatisfying marriage, which has been a huge relief for many people, I mean, literally a life saver. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, the next five years saw twenty-percent declines in the suicide rates of wives.

But again, it certainly opened up more opportunities for people to make more bad choices, more opportunities for failure. It’s opened new opportunities to misjudge how much work it takes to build a new family form in an environment where the economy, the work practices, the school schedules, and the emotional expectations favor—privilege—one family form. So you have some people being overly optimistic about how easy it is to carve out a new life – they might say, “Oh, I can be a single mom, no problem,” and they’re not prepared for the difficulties they’ll encounter.

So I think that it does have some negative effects, but I would emphasize that these changes are not going back underground. They’ve had tremendous positive effects by rescuing people from very difficult situations and they pose us the challenge of helping people make more informed choices.

In Marriage, A History, you show love and intimacy have become more important to marriages. How has that evolution contributed to the rise in male caregiving?

This is one of the real, unambiguous good news stories that we’re finding. When the women’s movement first encouraged women to make these demands on their husbands, to spend more time at home, it caused a lot of conflict in families. And I think the conservatives are quite right to say that women’s liberation destabilized marriage.

But as men made adjustments—and they really have—the result has been tremendous good news, that, first of all, these adjustments have strengthened marriage. Men who do more caregiving have more satisfying marriages, they are less likely to have their wives leave them, and their kids do better. It’s a win-win situation, because if the parents do divorce, men who have been involved in such caregiving are much less likely to walk away from their kids. They have developed an independent relationship with the kids that is no longer mediated through the mom, and they don’t have that old-fashioned idea that, “Since I no longer get the mom’s services, so I can’t relate to the kids either.”

So I think that there are all sorts of positive things about it. There’s a myth in sociology and among many feminists that there’s been a stalled revolution, that there’s been a lagged one, but the fact is that men are changing very rapidly. In fact, as a historian, I have to say that they are changing, in a period of thirty years, in ways that took most women 150 years of thinking and activism. Every cohort of men is doing more in the house, and if you look within a cohort, the longer a man’s wife has worked, the more likely he is to do caregiving and housework. This is a huge change.

How has the rising importance of love in marriage contributed to the emergence of gay and lesbian families?

Social conservatives claim, as James Dobson put it, that gay and lesbian marriage is turning 5,000 years of tradition on its head. I actually believe that 5,000 years of tradition has been turned on its head, but it was heterosexuals who did it, and they changed marriage in ways that encouraged gays and lesbians to say, now this institution applies to us – after, in fact, having rejected that institution, because of its rigidity and inequality. I think this is good evidence that the institution has been evolving in a way that means it is not inherently oppressive.

Now I have gotten attacked by a couple of feminist authors for saying that. They want me to keep arguing that there’s something inherent in the institution of marriage. I think, in fact, we’ve transformed it and discovered that it’s not inherently oppressive, except in so far as it is put forward as the only way to honor long-term obligations. But if it is not, then I think marriage has become much fairer through the ages and much more capable of really being equal, and I think that’s why many gays and lesbians have started to embrace marriage.

You describe a lot of change. What hasn’t changed?

There are still a lot of rigid gender roles. It’s a lot worse around the world, where women still face incredible amounts of domestic violence. There are massive gender inequities on a global scale to be addressed, and there is the residue, and a serious residue, of inequality at home, too. But the biggest problem we need to address is the peculiarly American assumption that individuals can learn individual responsibility without any social responsibility. We ask individuals to keep commitments that we don’t ask corporations or politicians to keep, and that needs to change.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Unconventional Wisdom

I just got back from the tenth anniversary conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, a network of family researchers that I recently joined. There they released a new report entitled "Unconventional Wisdom" that summarizes recent research and clinical findings by CCF members. Some highlights:

In contrast to the media focus on gender differences, a new consensus challenging this view is emerging from the research literature. Many well-designed studies find no significant gender differences with respect to such cognitive and social behaviors as nurturance, sexuality, aggression, self-esteem, and math and verbal abilities. The big story is that there is far greater within-gender variability on such behaviors than there is between-gender difference. For example, when young boys act up and get physical we are accustomed to hearing their behavior explained away by their high levels of testosterone. In fact, boys’ and girls’ testosterone levels are virtually identical during the preschool years when rough-and-tumble play is at its peak.

When we compare the work-day hours that Gen-X and Boomer fathers spend caring for and doing things with their children in 2002, we find that Gen-X fathers spend significantly more time with their children, an average of 3.4 hours per workday versus an average of 2.2 hours for Boomer fathers -- a difference of more than 1 hour. Because Gen-X fathers typically have younger children than Boomer fathers, we adjusted for the age of youngest child and still found the same significant difference favoring Gen-X.

Numerous studies reveal the benefits to a relationship and family when a father participates in housework. Women are more prone to depression and to fantasize about divorce when they do a disproportionate share of the housework. Wives are more sexually interested in husbands who do more housework. And children appear to be better socially adjusted when they regularly participate in doing chores with Dad. In my clinical experience, men do more in homes when they have stronger egalitarian attitudes, and when their wives are willing to negotiate standards, act assertively, prioritize the marital friendship, and avoid gatekeeping.

People often think that women whose husbands make “good money” stay home when they have children. But it takes being married to men in the top 5th percentile (men earning more than $120,000 a year) to seriously reduce women’s employment -- only 54 percent of mothers with husbands with these top earnings worked for pay. Among married women whose husbands were in the top 25 to 5 percent of all earners (making salaries ranging from about $60,000 to $120,000), 72 percent of mothers worked outside the home, almost identical to the 71 percent work participation figures among married moms whose husbands' earnings were in the lowest 25 percent of men’s wages. Women’s own education has a much bigger effect on her likelihood of working than her husband’s earnings; highly-educated women who can earn a lot typically don’t become stay-at-home mothers.

Despite concerns of policy makers that children are not receiving sufficient parental time, married parents’ time with children is higher now than during the “golden era” of the nuclear family in 1965: Married mothers increased their time in childcare by 21% (from 10.6 to 12.9 hours per week between 1965 and 2000) and fathers have more than doubled their time in childcare (from 2.6 to 6.5 hours per week). How have they done this? Mothers in particular have shed large quantities of housework in order to accommodate their increased time with children. Married parents of today’s era also spend more time multitasking, and less time with their spouse and friends and extended family. Although parent-child time has increased over the years, almost half of American parents continue to feel they spend too little time with their children, particularly married fathers who spend less time overall with children than married mothers. Married mothers also long for more time for themselves and both mothers and fathers feel they have too little time for each other.

In a study of 130 couples from wedding until their first babies were three years old, John and Julie Gottman found that 67% of couples had a big drop in relationship happiness and a big increase in hostility in the first 3 years of the baby's life. In addition, the parents' hostility during pregnancy was associated with baby's responsiveness at three months. Based on this, they designed and tested an intervention to help new parents: the workshop reversed the drop in couple happiness and the increasing hostility. They also found a reduction in postpartum depression. At three years old, the babies whose parents had been to a workshop were more advanced in terms of emotional and language development. Part of this was due to father's involvement: the workshops improved father's involvement.

A nationally representative study of more than 1000 young people in the 3rd through the 12th grades asked children: “If you were granted one wish that would change the way that your mother’s/your father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?” In a parallel study, more than 600 employed mothers and fathers were asked to guess what their children would wish. Most parents (56%) guessed that their children would wish for more time with them. But more time was not at the top of children’s wish list. Only 10% of children made that wish about their mothers and 15.5% made that wish about their fathers. Most children wished that their mothers (34%) and their fathers (27.5%) would be less stressed and tired.

Men and women who were married or had children were asked in 1977 and again in 2002, “How much do your job and family life interfere with each other?” In 1977, 41 percent of women, but just 34 percent of men, reported experiencing some or a lot of work-family interference. By 2002, however, more men (46 percent) than women (41 percent) reported experiencing work-family stress. Fathers in dual-earner families are no more likely to experience some or a lot of work-family interference (53%) as fathers who are in single earner families (52%).

Based on a representative sample of a major metropolitan area, almost eight out of ten young adults who grew up in a home with a work-committed mother believe that this was the best option. In contrast, those who lived in homes where mothers did not work in a committed way are more divided in their outlooks, with close to half wishing their moms had pursued a different path. Those who lived in a single-parent home are similarly divided. While a slight majority wished that their biological parents had stayed together, close to half concluded that, while not ideal, a parental separation provided a better alternative than living in a conflict-ridden or silently unhappy home. Conversely, among children who grew up in an intact home, most agreed that this was the best arrangement, but four out of ten felt their parents might have been better off apart. In all these family arrangements, sustained parental support and economic security are more important than family form in shaping young adults’ satisfaction with their childhood experiences.

The full report is well worth a read.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tony Deifell: helping others see beyond themselves

Tony Deifell, photographer, documentarian and Chief Strategist for the nonprofit playground builder Kaboom! delivered the opening keynote address at the recent Social Enterprise Alliance Gathering in Long Beach. He spoke about his work teaching blind teens to use photography as a tool for communication and expression and what he had learned from these children:
Refraction--how we mistake fragments of the world for the whole.

Transparence--breaking down the walls that divide us and overcoming our blindness to our moral senses.

Illuminance--how we create opportunities to help others see their own blind spots and piece our fragmented world back together.
The photographs are featured in Tony's new book Seeing Beyond Sight. Check out the SBS web site for photo exhibits and events in the SF Bay Area.

Monday, April 16, 2007

passionate philanthropy or rational investing

Kevin Jones, proprietor at, recently posted an entry about the origins and implications of the fronto–mesolimbic networks that guide decisions about charitable donations:
"giving activates the same brain centers as sex, drugs, food and greed. Even more interesting, they actually got a picture of the brain at work in giving, through the magic of FMRI. glow.jpgYou know what they found? When you feel a warm glow from giving, that’s because your brain is warm and glowing."

Social fund managers may want to connect to the philanthropists' passions for giving rather than focusing on the rational computations of an SROI (social return on investment).

motivating power of the greater good

An inspiring example from the journals of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, leader of the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-1916:

"The thought of those fellows on Elephant Island kept us going all the time. It might have been different if we'd had only ourselves to think about. You can get so tired in the snow, particularly if you're hungry, that sleep seems the best thing life has to give. But if you're a leader, a fellow that other fellows look to, you've got to keep going. That was the thought which sailed us through the hurricane and tugged us up and down those mountains [of South Georgia Island]... and when we got to the whaling station, it was the thought of those comrades which made us so mad with joy that the reaction beats all effort to describe it. We didn't so much feel that we were safe as that they were saved."

Here's a link to the James Caird Society, named after the small lifeboat that carried Shackleton and five others 800 miles across Drakes Passage to South Georgia Island in the depths of an Antarctic winter.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes

I rolled out of bed at 5:30, my wife and baby still sleeping. I pulled on some clothes and went out the door in search of coffee. Walking down 24th St., hunched over, hands in pockets, I glanced at a newspaper box and saw a headline that stopped me cold: "Kurt Vonnegut dead at 84."

Until I was roughly 12 or 13 years old, I was a voracious reader, but I read only comic books, trashy spy thrillers, and bad science fiction. I don't remember why I plucked Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five from the shelf of my school library (a book that conservative moralists have repeatedly fought to ban from library shelves). I was probably drawn to the science fictional premises -- time travel! aliens! -- but I do vividly remember how absorbed I was by the end of the first chapter. Slaughterhouse Five, which depicts the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, was my first true introduction to literature, and it served as a gateway to deeper reading.

Why did that strange novel grab me? When I flip through my junior high yearbook, I see bleak, snowy Michigan fields, girls with feathered hair, boys in members-only jackets, and pictures of teachers who seemed ancient at the time, but were probably much younger than I am today. I was a sad, confused kid, but not having a language or avenue to express it, I drove the sadness and confusion underground. I felt sorry for my parents, my classmates, my teachers, my town, and myself, because we all seemed to be locked into schedules, obligations, and values that we did not create and did not want.

During the next year, I read all of Vonnegut's novels and short-story collections that had been published up until that point. I did not understand most of what I read (and today I still get something new out of Vonnegut, every time I re-read one of his stories), but I knew that he seemed to perfectly capture the world I saw around me, giving voice to feelings that I didn't have the language or maturity to express. I see now that sometimes his sadness shaded over into pure depression and that there is a very fine line between his universal pity, which caused him to prescribe kindness as the best basis of human relations, and his own private self-pity, which derailed his more autobiographical work and seemed to cut him off from his readers.

Was it healthy for so young a kid to be exposed to Vonnegut's adult experience with war, death, and depression? In 1988, the psychologists N. T. Termine and C. E. Izard studied the effect of mothers' sadness on their infants. They found that expressions of sorrow through face and voice slowed the exploratory play of the babies; additional studies show that sadness slows cognitive processes and enables deliberate scrutiny of self and situations. Though we might see happiness as the apotheosis of human existence, sadness has its place in helping us to slow down and reflect upon our lives and the lives of the people around us. Whether we want to or not, we teach our children to be sad, and it's a good thing, too. Vonnegut (and others, of course) taught me how that sadness is something to cultivate alongside happiness. Both help us to get through our days.

Slaughterhouse Five also gave me my first glimpse at the real-world consequences of war and violence, something that American media and popular culture conceal from us. I gradually turned away from books, movies, and TV that portrayed killing as easy for the killers, war as a glorious endeavour, and aggression as a desirable trait. "God damn it," writes Vonnegut in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, "you've got to be kind."

I haven't always lived up to that advice, but I've tried. Thanks, Kurt, for the books.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Cooperation: Humans' Evolutionary Legacy

Sharon Begley wrote a fascinating story for Newsweek last week about recent discoveries in the science of human evolution. She explains how technological advances are giving researchers a more precise understanding of when, how, and why humans diverged from the evolutionary path of other species.

It seems that what truly set humans from other species may have been changes in the architecture of their brains, which made them more skilled at reasoning, learning, and memory. Begley considers this finding along with the fact that humans five to six million years ago were small and had teeth suitable for fruits and nuts, but not meat. These facts, Begley writes, suggest "that early humans were more often prey than predators," an argument made by Washington University anthropologist Robert Sussman. And this conclusion has some profound implications for our understanding of human nature.

The realization that early humans were the hunted and not hunters has upended traditional ideas about what it takes for a species to thrive. For decades the reigning view had been that hunting prowess and the ability to vanquish competitors was the key to our ancestors' evolutionary success (an idea fostered, critics now say, by the male domination of anthropology during most of the 20th century). But prey species do not owe their survival to anything of the sort, argues Sussman. Instead, they rely on their wits and, especially, social skills to survive. Being hunted brought evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to cooperate and live in cohesive groups. That, more than aggression and warfare, is our evolutionary legacy.

Both genetics and paleoneurology back that up. A hormone called oxytocin, best-known for inducing labor and lactation in women, also operates in the brain (of both sexes). There, it promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus the cooperative behavior that lets groups of people live together for the common good. By comparing the chimp genome with the human, scientists infer that oxytocin existed in the ancestor of both. But it has undergone changes since then, perhaps in how strongly the brain responds to it and in how much is produced. The research is still underway, but one possibility is that the changes occurred around the time our ancestors settled into a system based on enduring bonds between men and women, about 1.7 million years ago.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why We Should All Care About Day Care

Over the last two days, a new report on the effects of child care in America has gotten a lot of press. It found that a year or more spent in day care increased the chances that a child would later have behavioral problems in school. The researchers, working under the federally financed Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, controlled for children's sex, family income, and the quality of the day care center they attended.

Lest anyone think the researchers were biased, out to undermine women's ascent in the workforce, Benedict Carey's article on the report in The New York Times includes this quote toward the top, from Sharon Landesman Ramey, director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education:
I have accused the study authors of doing everything they could to make this negative finding go away, but they couldn't do it. They knew this would be disturbing news for parents, but at some point, if that's what you're finding, then you have to report it.
Carey does point out, however, that
other experts were quick to question the results. The researchers could not randomly assign children to one kind of care or another; parents chose the kind of care that suited them. That meant there was no control group, so determining cause and effect was not possible. And some said that measures of day care quality left out important things [such as employee turnover].
In the articles I read, the reporters and the experts framed the finding as disconcerting to parents, and I'm sure it must be troubling to many parents, given that roughly 2.3 million American kids under age five are in day care.

But this seems like a narrow and misguided way to consider this finding. It should trouble all of us. It's not as if parents had blithely assumed that child care would be better for their kids than looking after them themselves during the workday. Most kids are in child care because their parents don't have much of a choice: They both need to work to make ends meet, or they're single parents generating their household's only source of income.

The high number of kids in child care seems to be the symptom of larger, structural problems in American society that have impacted the socio-economic stability of many families. This report seems to suggest yet another reason why we need to come up with stronger long-term solutions to social and cultural shifts that have been taking place over two generations. Parents may bear the immediate brunt--and, implicitly, the blame--for this problem, but it really rests on all of our shoulders.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Banality of Evil: the flip-side

Discussion is warming up about the banality of evil at Open Source, a web community that produces a daily hour of radio, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

In the upcoming show airing 3/27 online and on public radio, Dr. Philip Zimbardo will speak about the flip-side of the banality of evil, what he calls the banality of heroism, featured in the current issue of Greater Good.

Empathy vs. Logic vs. Morality

The LA Times reports:

Damage to the part of the brain that controls social emotions changes the way people respond to thorny moral problems, demonstrating the role of empathy and other feelings in life-or-death decisions.

Asked to resolve hypothetical dilemmas -- such as tossing a person from a bridge into the path of a trolley to save five others -- people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex tended to sacrifice one life to save many, according to a study published Wednesday by the journal Nature.

People with intact brains were far less likely to kill or harm someone when confronted with the same scenarios.

The study suggests that an aversion to hurting others is hard-wired into the brain.

"Part of our moral behavior is grounded ... in a specific part of our brains," said Dr. Antonio Damasio, one of the study's lead authors and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California...

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex processes feelings of empathy, shame, compassion and guilt. Damage to this part of the brain, which occupies a small region in the forehead, causes a diminished capacity for social emotions but leaves logical reasoning intact.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Online contest for Greater Good magazine tagline

Please join our online contest to draft a short and memorable slogan for Greater Good magazine. The tagline runs underneath the name of the magazine and conveys what we're all about: practical tools and inspiration for personal and social change, grounded in science (that's too long!)

Examples that we like from other magazines include:
Seed: Science is Culture
Grassroots Fundraising Journal: Fundraising ideas that work!
Utne: Understanding the Next Evolution
Post your suggestions as a comment to this blog entry. If your tagline is chosen you’ll win a free subscription (gift or renewal) to Greater Good and a free book selection from our Editor’s Pick.

We look forward to your contributions!

Thank you,

The Greater Good Staff

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Primal Empathy & The Roots of Morality

The New York Times Science section has a long piece today about the biological and evolutionary roots of human morality. The article features primatologist Frans de Waal's work with chimps and monkeys, which has strongly suggested that these primates possess basic forms of empathy and exhibit emotions and behaviors that provide the building blocks for human morality.

Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.
Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.
Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

De Waal, who's a Greater Good editorial board member, made this argument in more detail in a compelling essay in Greater Good last year.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Essentialist Android

Empathy and sociability are hot topics for the people who build and study robots--although they sometimes seem to miss certain crucial social dynamics when talking about robotic applications.

“The study of human relationships has begun to uncover some of their key features,” writes Billy Lee, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, in the December 2006 issue of Connection Science. “Such relational processes offer insights for the design of people-oriented androids.”

Drawing heavily on recent discoveries about mirror neurons that provide “a neural bridge between the actions of self and of others,” Lee argues understanding empathy is key to building androids who will be capable of “going beyond the self.” An empathic android, he writes, “would qualify as a moral being.”

Lee showed film clips to 70 women and 64 men of actors presenting authentic or fake autobiographical speeches, in order to understand what conditions cultivated empathy, trust, and intimacy. At the end of the clip, the women and men were asked to decide whether the actors were telling the truth or not. Participants were also asked if they would let that person comfort them if they were upset and if they would go to the person if he or she was crying.

The result: He found that for both men and women, female actors were "much more likley to be given comfort and to have comfort accepted from them." From this one experiment, Lee concludes:

Women appear to be the gatekeepers of intimacy...If androids are to substitute for the intimacy function of humans, the android body must be equipped with nurturing features associated with the female form. Some of these are physical, others psychological...

It is perhaps no accident that people are more able to feel connected with women than with men. Every person was once connected physically, via the umbilical cord, to a woman, and every person has been held and incubated by a woman's body...Androids designed for a caregiving role should therefore replicate the female form or be able to invoke the feminine archetype.

If true, Billy Lee’s study raises tough questions about gender roles. He doesn't question existing gender roles or power relations, or how those have been constructed. He implies that women should automatically be assigned to caregiving roles.

But he also raises an issue that I hadn't thought about: Are our machines to be built according to gender stereotypes and inequalities? Of course, they already are, in many respects: look at many of the robotic dolls now being produced for both boys and girls, not to mention countless digital avatars, that push specific messages about gender identity, for example men as warriors and women as dainty princesses.

It's important to note that while many robot builders are investigating the effects of embodiment on human-robot interaction, not everyone buys Lee's logic. “We have seen that people react to robots in similar ways that they do to humans,” says Cory D. Kidd of the Robotics Life Group in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. “For example, the work of Cliff Nass and colleagues at Stanford has repeatedly shown people exhibiting social responses to various forms of technology and showing similar biases to those shown with humans, such as deferring more to a male voice and finding a female voice more reassuring.”

But Kidd doesn't think that a human-like appearance — and, presumably, gender stereotypes — are necessary for machines to interact with humans. “While I believe that we can greatly build on and take advantage of characteristics of human interaction," he told me, "I don't think that our robots need to go so far in being human-like in appearance and action. If you look at the work coming out of our lab at MIT, you'll see that none of the robots are humanoid. Rather they are creature-like or suggestive of a human form in some ways -- anthropomorphizable, but not androids.”

What might robotics tell us about human beings?

“It is important to recognize that humans are a profoundly social species,” writes Cynthia Breazeal, director of the MIT Media Lab, where she and her colleagues built Kismet (pictured), the world’s first empathic robot. Kwan Min Lee of the University of Southern California explained to me that the design of MIT Kismet's social brain was influenced by University of Cambridge psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen's work on autism, in which he identified four brain modules—Intentionality Detector, Eye Direction Detector, Shared Attention Mechanism, and Theory of Mind Mechanism—needed for everyday social interaction. “Kismet was a breakthrough in the design of social robots in that unlike previous robots, it was the first robot equipped with those modules needed for normal human social interaction,” says Lee (no relation to Billy Lee).

For now, robotics is drawing on research into human social and emotional intelligence, but Lee believes that one day the knowledge will flow in the other direction. “In the future, I believe studies on social robots will give us many new insights on the nature of our social brain,” says Lee. “Social robots can be used as an excellent simulation tool to investigate the nature of human emotion, empathy, and social interaction.”

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Compassion is Not in the Numbers

Advocates for intervention in cases of genocide work tirelessly to publicize the tragedies suffered by the people upon whom the violence is visited. One of the most common strategies is to talk about the sheer numbers of people who have been killed or displaced, in an attempt to galvanize people into action by emphasizing the magnitude of the horror. But new research in psychology indicates that this may not be the most effective strategy to get good people to intervene against evil.

Paul Slovic questions the conventional wisdom that people are only compelled to act in cases of genocide when the human stakes are very high and made clear through grim statistics. In a short research note on Foreign Policy online, he argues that “it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act.”

Slovic reports on a series of psychology experiments conducted by various researchers on compassion, and concludes that statistics, no matter how big the numbers, do not convey the real meaning of the evil of genocide. This is because cold, hard numbers “fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action.” Rather, in a fascinating cognitive twist, an appeal to reason—through statistics, for example—numbs affect, which is the human ability to know whether something is good or bad. In Slovic’s experiments with another researcher, subjects’ donations to aid a starving African child actually fell sharply when the child’s image was accompanied by details about the millions of other needy children like her.

The good news is that inaction in the face of genocide does not seem to come from any fundamental deficiency in our humanity: people are, after all, often very motivated to exert significant effort to help needy individuals. The bad news is that ‘compassion fatigue’ can set in very quickly, even at the point where one needy individual becomes two. This means that expecting people to be finally galvanized into action in, say, Darfur when some tipping point of genocide has been reached will likely be fruitless. What may be more successful in spurring a response are detailed individual stories that bring the horrors of genocide home, in a way that resonates with the human instinct for compassion.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Social Exclusion Decreases Prosocial Behavior

When I think back to the social drama of high school— cold scowls of indifference, deflecting insults with nervous laughter, the dizziness I felt when an old friend abandoned me—I can still feel the kind of paralysis it induced then. The effect was often disabling: stuttering speech, action, and thought. I always wished I could come up with some quick retort to an insult or rise above it, but instead I felt helpless.

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "Social Exclusion Decreases Prosocial Behavior," helps me—and, I imagine, many others--understand this disabling phenomenon. The authors found that when individuals are excluded from a group they do not respond emotionally, as we may expect. Rather, to cope with exclusion, they may slip into an unemotional state. By disconnecting from their emotions, rejected individuals protect themselves from distress.

Yet however protective this emotional disconnect might be, there are also a few less desirable effects. In addition to helping one adapt to her environment, emotion is “a tool for interpersonal understanding,” write the authors. It’s our emotions that help us connect to another person’s emotional state. Conversely, however, as one disconnects from her emotion while being excluded, she is unable to empathize with other people.

What impact does this empathic disconnection have on the excluded person’s socialization? Surely if one lacks empathic emotion, it seems she will be less concerned with social connection. Indeed, researchers found that socially excluded individuals were less likely to act pro-socially--that is, to positively affect other people through helping behavior or cooperation.

These findings illustrate the effects of exclusion on both a personal and social level, from emotional numbness to social isolation. It provides insight into how, at times, the effects of rejection are often more profound than we can possibly grasp in the moment. From this standpoint, it is not difficult to imagine why many people remain isolated throughout life, not realizing how an early rejection or two could start a vicious cycle of solitude.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hurricane Katrina and the Protestant Work Ethic

The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) – it’s a commitment to painstaking labor and dedication as the means to success. And it’s a cornerstone of the American dream. The idea that it’s always possible to attain success in life, no matter where you start, is a familiar one to most of us. Given how deeply entrenched it is in our culture, we wouldn’t expect Americans’ belief in the PWE to be easily changeable. But a recent study suggests that it can be, especially among people who have had their faith in American ideals shaken—in this case, by Hurricane Katrina.

Sheri R. Levy and colleagues at SUNY Stony Brook and UC Berkeley looked into possible differences in the PWE and how it changed among European-Americans and African-Americans in response to Katrina. As the government responded to the crisis in New Orleans, many people felt that its response was too slow. This response convinced some, such as rapper Kanye West, that “The government doesn’t care about black people.”

One semester before Katrina, three weeks after Katrina, and one semester after Katrina, the researchers measured agreement levels among European-Americans and African-Americans with these premises: “PWE-general,” that if people work hard they can get a good job; and “PWE-equalizer,” that PWE allows members of different groups to be more equal because it takes individual abilities into account.

Soon after Katrina, African-Americans agreed less with PWE-general and PWE-equalizer than European-Americans, but the difference had disappeared by the following semester. The causality between the hurricane and PWE agreement was further confirmed by a third study that reminded half of its subjects of Katrina; African-American members of that group were less likely than their European-American counterparts to agree with PWE-general and PWE-equalizer, but there was no difference for those without the reminder.

Of course, Katrina affected much more than PWE. As the researchers noted:

It remains to be seen how prevalent markers of Katrina will be in people’s everyday environments in the future…the rebuilding of the afflicted areas is still underway and is likely to take years, perhaps a decade. Even after Katrina fades from the headlines, it may have a lasting impact as a cultural talking point.

While it seems that an event like Hurricane Katrina can undermine one’s faith in the PWE, there is a bright side: the shift seemed fairly reversible. Devastating as such events are, the subjects’ fairly quick recovery offers us hope about our own resilience.

Reference: Levy, Sheri R; Freitas, Antonio L; Mendoza-Denton, Rodolfo; Kugelmass, Heather. Hurricane Katrina’s Impact on African Americans’ and European Americans’ Endorsement of the Protestant Work Ethic. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. Vol.6, No.1. 2006. Page 75-85.