Monday, February 26, 2007

Early Parenthood and Politics Don’t Mix

Most everyone did little things as a teenager that happily had no lasting consequences later in life. But what are the impacts of more fundamental teen choices? Recent research says that major life transitions in adolescence can have lasting effects on later political participation.

Julianna Sandell Pacheco and Eric Plutzer analyzed the effects of three important teen life transitions—adolescent parenthood, early marriage, and dropping out of high school—on later political engagement. In a paper published in American Politics Research, Pacheco and Plutzer report that the three transitions “can contribute to a pattern of cumulative disadvantage because experiencing one teen transition often leads to another.” Teen parents are much more likely to drop out of school, which in turn sets of other chains of events that dampen political participation, making it unlikely they’ll be able to advocate effectively for their needs and opinions.

Interestingly, the scholars find that the effects of these life transitions on voter turnout differ across racial and ethnic lines, with the impact of teen parenthood applying more to Whites than to Blacks or Hispanics. They suggest that the differences across racial groups may reflect divergent norms about educational achievement and early parenthood and marriage. This hints that providing the right kinds of social support to teens could offset the negative impacts of their life transitions. Further sociological research into the effects of varying sets of cultural practices could have very practical implications for helping adolescents cope with their choices.

The authors demonstrate that supposedly “nonpolitical” life events can have an influence on political behavior. From a harm reduction viewpoint, it may be possible to cut into the causal chain to prevent one bad choice from leading to another. Their results suggest that efforts to help teen parents in a way that makes it easier for them to stay in school could carry great benefits—both for their immediate educational success and their lifelong political engagement.

Reference: Julianna Sandell Pacheco and Eric Plutzer. “Stay in School, Don’t Become a Parent: Teen Life Transitions and Cumulative Disadvantages for Voter Turnout” American Politics Research 35(1), January 2007: 32-56.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Explaining Environmental Concern

Why do some people take it upon themselves to care for the environment – whether by recycling, cutting back on driving, or other methods – while others don’t seem to care at all? A recent study by Swedish researchers Anna Olofsson and Susanna Öhman, published in Environment and Behavior, finds that a host of factors are associated with environmental concern among North Americans and Scandinavians – especially their levels of education, political affiliation, and their general beliefs and values.

The researchers’ large scale questionnaire and system of categorization involved nearly 5,000 adults from the United States, Canada, Norway, and Sweden. Respondents were categorized according to their gender, age, education, residence type, and political affiliation, as well as their individual beliefs about materialism and individualism vs. social collectivism.

When the results were tabulated, women were shown to have higher environmental concern than men, as were younger adults and those who leaned toward the left politically. Individualists, of which there were more in the U.S. and Canada, expressed less environmental concern than collectivists.

Interestingly, education was found to be the most stable predictor of environmental concern, with a higher education level corresponding to greater concern in all four countries. The gender and age trends were weaker, and left-leaning political affiliation correlated significantly with environmental concern only in Scandinavia.

Taken on their own, these results are mostly what you’d expect. But there’s more. As the old adage says, actions speak louder than words – and feeling or expressing concern about the environment doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will act on that concern in a concrete way. Olofsson and Öhman noted this distinction and addressed it by adding a measure of environmental behavior to their study. While younger people felt more concern about the environment, questions about the financial sacrifices they would make to benefit the environment and relevant political behavior revealed that older adults were more likely to actually do something about their concern.

Of course, a general increase in financial stability during the life course explains part of this finding. However, there seems to be a strong bystander effect as well. One portion of the study asked participants about their level of resignation toward the environment. The same groups that expressed more environmental concern and behavior – women, collectivists, and those with more education – expressed less resigned attitudes.

Perhaps, then, the secret to saving our environment lies not just in solar powered houses or electric cars, but rather in something psychological: our own level of self-efficacy. While new technologies have the potential to make a difference, they are powerless if we don’t use them, and we won’t use them if we don’t believe in our personal ability to make a difference.


Olofsson, Anna and Öhman, Susanna. General Beliefs and Environmental Concern: Transatlantic Comparisons. Environment and Behavior. November 2006. Vol. 38. Pages 768-791.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Human Nature Redux, Redux

Following up on Jeremy Smith's post (below) about David Brooks's recent column in The New York Times, he and I, along with Greater Good co-editor Dacher Keltner, sent this letter to the Times:

To the Editor:

In his Feb. 18 column, “Human Nature Redux,” David Brooks would have us believe that there's no such thing as "natural human goodness"--that human genes condemn us to lives of evil and nastiness. Yet cutting edge research supports the opposite conclusion: that we are wired to be good.

Consider these empirical findings: When people perform altruistic acts, the same regions of their brain light up as when they receive rewards or experience pleasure; humans are equipped with specialized "mirror neurons" that enable us to empathize with others; we produce the hormone oxytocin, which promotes social bonding, trust, and generosity; and activation of our vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves near the spinal cord, increases compassion and cooperation.

Indeed, contrary to Mr. Brooks's ill-informed column, these scientific findings reveal the deep biological roots of human goodness—which promote the kindness and cooperation vital to human survival and progress.

Dacher Keltner, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley;
Co-editor, Greater Good magazine

Jason Marsh
Co-editor, Greater Good magazine

Jeremy Adam Smith
Managing Editor, Greater Good magazine

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cyber Social Intelligence

Daniel Goleman has a nice piece in today's Science section of The New York Times, applying his theory of social intelligence to email and other forms of electronic communication. It's bascially about "flaming" (which researchers call “online disinhibition effect,” a term I hadn't heard before). Flaming's nothing new, but Goleman offers a neuroscientific explanation for flaming that helps us better understand its causes, and possibly even suggests how we can curtail it.

New research, writes Goleman,

points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy.... But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

So what can we do to reduce flaming, restore some civility to online conversations, and save a lot of people from unwanted embarassment? Goleman cites one proposal to replace typed messages with video chats. That would probably be effective, but cost will prevent it from catching on anytime soon--not to mention the fact that people prefer the anonymity that the web affords them, it's why many of them spend time online in the first place, for better or worse.

More effective, it seems (as Goleman suggests), would be doing more to teach good old-fashioned social intelligence. If more people can learn to reflect on their emotions, and the consequences of their actions, before saying or doing something that might hurt others (and reflect badly on themselves), I'd guess that rates of flaming would drop, as would many other forms of incivility and cruelty. I'd also surmise that incidences of flaming would still be higher than those other forms of incivility, for all the neuroscientific reasons Goleman cites.

But wouldn't it be fascinating to do a content analysis of emails sent by people who score high in empathy and other forms of social intelligence? I wonder how much their real-world social skills hold up online, and how frequently those skills begin to break down when mediated through a screen and keyboard. Research like that would truly help us gauge the uninhibiting effects of online anonymity.

Human Nature Redux?

In his Feb. 17 New York Times column, "Human Nature Redux," David Brooks argues that belief in human goodness is nearly extinct--and that science is responsible:

Sometimes a big idea fades so imperceptibly from public consciousness you don’t even notice until it has almost disappeared. Such is the fate of the belief in natural human goodness.

This belief, most often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, begins with the notion that “everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Human beings are virtuous and free in their natural state. It is only corrupt institutions that make them venal...

This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years. It led, first of all, to the belief that bourgeois social conventions are repressive and soul-destroying... It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves...

Let's pause here and ask ourselves if what Brooks writes is true.

Perhaps belief in goodness led people to hit the road and launch communes, but drugs? Does a belief in human goodness compel the believer to take drugs? Are crack addicts and pot smokers united in their faith that men and women are born good?

I wasn't able to find an empirical study (I looked) that says so, and I doubt very much that Brooks found one. Most of the studies I found pointed to histories of abuse, stress, and so on that fuel patterns of addiction--I didn't see anything about Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mr. Brooks continues:

In the realm of foreign policy, it led to a sort of global doctrine of the noble savage — the belief that societies in the colonial world were fundamentally innocent, and once the chains of their oppression were lifted something wonderful would flower.

Whose belief? When? Obviously Brooks is referring to the anticolonial struggles of the middle of the twentieth century, when European empires collapsed under their own weight and the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America gained some degree of independence--leading, in many cases, to wars and civil wars, dictatorships, and border disputes. To be sure, such struggles produced armies of disappointed idealists, few of whom, I think it's safe to say, saw themselves as "noble savages."

But more seriously, it is false to claim that simple belief in human goodness is what lifted "the chains of their oppression." If only that had been the case. No, I think if Brooks bothered to research the anticolonial struggles of the era, he'd find that it was a combination of economic failure and guerrilla warfare that drove Europeans out of their colonies. In the end, they didn't have much choice in the matter.

Brooks continues:

Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has been discarded.

The past 30 years? Here's a quote I found from a 1932 issue of Time Magazine: "Simple human goodness is out of style. To modern eyes it appears too simple to be good, too good to be true." And so it seems that for newspaper and magazine columnists, simple human goodness is continuously going out of style; for the rest of us, however, it somehow persists. This lack of perspective does not stop him from continuing:

It began to lose favor because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up. But the big blow came at the hands of science.

Did progressive education fail? I will put that question aside; it's beyond the scope of a single blog entry. Instead I am going to focus on the alleged "big blow" science delivered to belief in human goodness. Writes Brooks:

From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest. Humanity did not come before status contests. Status contests came before humanity, and are embedded deep in human relations. People in hunter-gatherer societies were deadly warriors, not sexually liberated pacifists...

Moreover, human beings are not as pliable as the social engineers imagined. Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups...

Where to begin? On nearly every point, Brooks proves himself to be wrong or ill-informed or out-of-date.

Far from believing that "human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules," today neuroscientists (and scientists in many other disciplines) are discovering that brain structures are more "plastic"--that is, "subject to changes brought about by environmental input"--than previously supposed. "Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest," writes UC Berkeley Social Psychologist (and Greater Good editor) Dacher Keltner. "These studies support a view of emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive--a view which has its origins in Darwin's Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated."

In his introduction to Douglas P. Fry's new book Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine, demolishes the case Brooks tries to make in his column. Sapolsky is worth quoting at length:

One of the truly well-entrenched realms of It-Is-Inevitable-That is that it is inevitable that humans will be violent and that human societies will wage warfare... Anyone noticing the blood-drenched world we live in would have to take that idea seriously. And academics of various stripes have as well.

Students of primatology and human evolution sure thought this. The 1960s saw the rise of the Robert Ardrey / man-the-territorial-hunter / big-cojones school of human evolution. Drawing upon the social system of the savanna baboon as a surrogate for our formative history in the savanna, the conclusion was that we are by nature a violent, stratified, male-dominated species...

[Meanwhile, the] game theorists were awash in the inevitability of violence and noncooperation as well... Neuroendocrinolosts weighed in also. Testosterone increases aggression, as it increases the excitability of parts of the brain relevant to aggression...

And, naturally, none of this is true.

Even those violent chimps and baboons can reconcile after fights, have cooperative, altruistic relationships, can even establish and transmit cultures of low aggression. Then there are the bonobo chimps, a separate species that is as genetically related to us as are chimps, a species that is female-dominated, has remarkably low rates of aggression, and solves every conceivable social problem with every conceivable type of sex. The game theorists, meanwhile, have spent recent years revealing the numerous circumstances that select for cooperation rather than competition even in competitive games...And normal levels of testosterone turn out not to cause aggression as much as exaggerate preexisting social tendencies...

Thus Brooks is quite wrong to write that science has dealt "a big blow" to belief in human goodness. The opposite is true. If his column proves anything, it's that belief that humans are born evil goes hand in hand with shoddy and superficial thinking.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Maslow's Theory Revisited

What motivates people to choose their career, to choose their mate, to treat other people in the way that they do? According to legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow, people are motivated by their needs. Indeed, most scholars of psychology recognize Maslow by his famous pyramid, termed the hierarchy of needs.

The base of Maslow’s pyramid contains our most basic biological needs, while safety, love, and self-esteem form the next three levels, respectively. The textbook capstone of the pyramid is a desire for self-actualization, or self-fulfillment. Without meeting one’s basic needs at the bottom, said Maslow, one cannot have those more evolved, uniquely human needs at the top. Thus self-actualization, according to Maslow’s first model, is what all people ultimately strive toward—it’s the purpose of life.

But a new article in the Review of General Psychology revisits Maslow’s theory. According to its author, Mark Koltko-Rivera, Maslow’s reasoning shifted over the course of his career. The shift occurred while he was studying peak experiences, which are “mystical experiences, aesthetic experiences, [and] emotional experiences involving nature.” Maslow posited that a separate cognitive activity occurs during these experiences. Unlike the egocentrism of everyday thought patterns, the cognitive activity experienced during peak experience “[goes] beyond or above selfhood;” he called this “Being-cognition.”

At first, Maslow assumed “Being-cognition” was a characteristic of the self-actualized individual. He reasoned that as an individual becomes self-actualized, “he is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formally not-self.” However, Maslow soon found his attempt to conflate self-actualization with Being-cognition presented a paradox. Many people he earlier described as being self-actualized, like President Eisenhower, clearly do not engage in “Being-cognition.” Others, like Mother Teresa, do.

In order to account for people like Mother Teresa, who were clearly self-actualized but also held an apparent desire to “identify with something greater than the individual self,” Maslow set a higher motivational level above self-actualization. He named this motivational level “self-transcendence.”

By renaming self-transcendence as the new capstone, Maslow revered the profound human capacity to “[go] beyond or above self-hood.” The implication of Maslow’s revision is eloquently stated in Koltko-Rivera’s final analysis:
At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential [whereas] at the level of transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others... Certainly the image of the best developed human being that emerges from Maslow’s hierarchy is very different depending on which of these two stages is placed at the top of the motivational hierarchy.

Indeed, according to Maslow’s final theory, the purpose of life is not to perfect oneself, but to transcend oneself by connecting with others. This is a radical new understanding of one of the dominant theories in modern psychology.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

See Something/Do Something Day

We've already blogged about the heroic altruism of Wesley Autrey (aka the NYC "Subway Superman") as a perfect example of someone who has transcended "the psychology of the bystander"--the theme of the latest issue of Greater Good.

Now a group of people, inspired by Autrey, have launched a new holiday called See Something/Do Something Day.

Mark your calendars: The first ever See Something/Do Something Day is this Saturday, February 17th. Here's how the folks behind SSDS Day describe their idea:

"You see something in distress, do the right thing. You know? Help out." Wesley Autrey, the New York City resident who leapt to the aid of a young man in the path of an oncoming train, said that. He saw someone in need. He did something. He saved a life. On February 17, we hope you will do something, too. See Something/Do Something Day is an effort to open all of our eyes to the needs we sometimes choose not to see: the homeless man with no breakfast. The schoolyard with no kickball. The elderly neighbor with no ride to the grocery store. The block where no one stops to clean the littered sidewalks. On See Something/Do Something Day, we hope you will see what you want your world to be. And then we hope you will do something to help create it. For more ideas on what you might see and do, talk to your friends, neighbors, and community members, and see the ideas posted at Feb. 17. See Something? Do Something.

In an email, the group's founder, Betsy O'Donovan, added,

We're actively soliciting stories about SSDS activities (and supporting photos or similar) to share ideas and progress. We're in this for the long haul and hope to see the idea gain ground as the years go by.

The concept is simple, but that's part of what makes the whole premise so radical: It's a grassroots effort to induce other people to overcome the powerful bystander effect. That's especially appropriate given how the bystander effect feeds on itself. The more people who witness a crisis, the less likely any one of them will respond to it, as they assume someone else will take action. So SSDS Day runs that kind of social influence in reverse, turning potential bystanders into real-world heroes--and (hopefully) inspiring more of us to follow their example.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Social entrepreneurs at Davos and in the streets

In the current issue of Greater Good, Marc Ian Barasch, talks about the motivating force of social entrepreneurs like Zen roshi Bernie Glassman, who has integrated spiritual practice with compassionate social action. Sojourners Magazine recently posted a copy of Nicholas Kristof's New York Times Jan. 30th editorial, "Do-gooders with Spreadsheets" about social entrepreneurs, including Sojo's own Executive Director Jim Wallis, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:
"the most remarkable people to attend aren’t the world leaders or other bigwigs. Rather, they are the social entrepreneurs. Davos, which has always been uncanny in peeking just ahead of the curve to reflect the zeitgeist of the moment, swarmed with them."
According to Kristof, social entrepreneurship is
"one of the most hopeful and helpful trends around. These folks aren’t famous, and they didn’t fly to Davos in first-class cabins or private jets, but they are showing that what it really takes to change the world isn’t so much wealth or power as creativity, determination and passion."
Other recent and upcoming North American convenings of social entrepreneurs were at the Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise in Vancouver BC at the end of January, and the Social Enterprise Alliance in Long Beach CA in April 2007.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Outside Room 15: Teaching Emotional Intelligence

Six months ago a newspaper columnist and a sociologist met outside their daughters' kindergarten classroom and started talking about things vital to any parent: their families, their careers, and their desires to raise happy kids. Today their conversation is still going strong. Kelly Corrigan (the columnist) and Christine Carter McLaughlin (the sociologist) are posting their ongoing dialogue here on Greater Good's website, covering scientific research on children and happiness--and discussing how it all applies to life inside and outside of Room 15. This conversation continues last week's conversation about social connections.

Kelly: My daughter can read my face like an emotion monitor -- the pre-explosion lip tightening, the shocked hand-over-mouth, the frustrated teeth-grinding. Does that mean she is a prodigy of emotional literacy?

Carter: She just may be -- the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a big part of emotional intelligence. Emotionally literate children are good at reading social cues, which in turn helps them form strong social bonds.

How is she at managing her own emotions? That's the other big part of emotional intelligence. John Gottman's research shows that children who can regulate their emotions are better at soothing themselves when they are upset, which means that they experience negative emotions for a shorter period of time. They have fewer infectious illnesses and are better at focusing their attention (a skill needed to find flow). Such children understand and relate to people better, and form stronger friendships.

Kelly: I encourage my kids to be outgoing, to share and be fair. Sometimes I feel like I’m making progress, other times it seems like I’ve never encouraged them to make eye contact, take turns, or be inclusive.

Carter: Those are good habits to teach kids, but I’m really talking more about the emotional fundamentals rather than ettiquette. Emotional intelligence is rooted in the parent-child bond. Researchers have paid a great deal of attention to how secure attachments with parents contribute to social competence. Infants and toddlers who are securely attached to their mothers or their daytime caregivers are more mature and positive in their interactions with others. Children who have secure attachments with BOTH their mothers and their caregivers are the most socially skilled of all.

Kelly: So the name of the game is a strong bond. I try to achieve that by listening to my girls, delighting in them, and showing affection. Is that gonna get me there?

Carter: You're on the right track. Bonds are made when parents are consistent, dependable, and sensitive to children's intentions and needs. When parents and caregivers pay close attention and respond to the emotional cues expressed by their children, children learn to regulate their emotions better.

Beyond the bond, parents need to "emotion coach" children by offering them empathy and helping them cope with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Parents who are effective emotion coaches are more than just aware of their children's emotions. They actually consider their children’s outbursts as opportunities to connect with and teach them.

Kelly: Hmm. I can’t say the words “golden opportunity” popped into my head this morning when Claire decided she didn't want to wear her raincoat.

Carter: I hear you. I find it incredibly hard to control my emotions when my kids are melting down, even though I fully understand how important it is to do so. But the true masters are able listen to their children empathetically, helping to explore and validate their feelings.

And they don't stop there. First they help their children verbally label the emotions they are feeling, and then they set limits (e.g, in my house: "it is NOT okay to hit your sister") while helping them problem solve (“if you feel angry, what else can you do besides hitting?”).

Kelly: Oh dear. That sounds exhausting, simple but exhausting. I have never been known for great patience.

Carter: Changing our habits is exhausting, but once you’ve got emotion-coaching down it is probably far LESS exhausting than losing your cool. Just think:

Option A: Scream and yell and otherwise escalate emotions.

Option B: Really listen and try to understand what is happening with your kids.

Often for me, that is enough to get me on the emotion coaching path – I hate for my kids to be feeling badly, and I know I can help them start to feel better by helping them understand what they are feeling, to help them understand that there are limits in our household (which makes them feel secure), and to facilitate their problem solving.

Kelly: So there's losing your cool, which I need to work on, and then there's the matter of expectations. It's hard for me to gauge whether my expectations are reasonable. I would hate to think I am putting too much pressure on my kids. I heard a speaker recently, Madeline Levine, and she struck fear in my heart.

Carter: Let's save a discussion about pressure and The Price of Privelege for next week.

If you liked this "blogversation," check out our previous Outside Room 15 posts:

"flow"and happiness

social connections

Further Reading and References

Two great books about emotion coaching:
Gottman, J. M. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Healy, E. D. (2005) EQ and Your Child: 8 proven skills to increase your child’s emotional intelligence. San Carlos, CA: Familypedia Publishing. (Fiona and I are on the cover of this book – Eileen is a friend.)

Belsky, J. (1999). Interactional and Contextual Determinants of Attachment Security. Handbook of Attachment : Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver. New York, Guilford Press: 249-264.

Gottman, J. M., L. F. Katz, et al. (1997). Meta-Emotion : How Families Communicate Emotionally. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hartup, W. W. and B. Laursen (1993). Conflict and Context in Peer Relations. Children on Playgrounds : Research Perspectives and Applications. C. H. Hart. Albany, State University of New York Press: 44-84.

Howes, C. (1988). "Peer Interaction in Young Children." Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Serial No. 217) 53(1).

Howes, C., C. Rodning, et al. (1988). "Attachment and Child Care: Relationships with Mother and Caregiver." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 3: 403-416.

Shonkoff, J. P., D. Phillips, et al. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods : The Science of Early Child Development. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Influence of Dreams

Why do we dream? And why do we have different kinds of dreams at different times?

Many researchers propose that dreams serve to alleviate emotional distress. So by this logic, dreams present distressing scenarios that symbolize similar life events and help dreamers heal from those events while they sleep.

Now a recent study by researchers from the University of Alberta, published in the journal Dreaming, compares the short-term effects of nightmares, which the authors define as primarily containing fear and harm; existential dreams, “in which sadness and separation are salient”; and transcendent dreams, which focus on “awe and magical accomplishment.” The results of the study indicate that existential dreams are most strongly related to “self-perceptual depth,” meaning that they address weighty topics such as spiritual conviction, life’s meaning, and so forth.

Transcendent dreams were most likely to be followed by reports of spiritual release—i.e., the dreamer experienced “refreshing—even ecstatic—freedom from life’s entanglements.” And contrary to general beliefs about the effects of nightmares, the results of this study indicate that nightmares neither have an impact on waking thoughts and feelings nor are they related to dream-induced self-perceptual depth. This study clearly affirms that different dream effects are attributable to different types of dream, which raises an important question about how we think about dreams:

Most commonly, dream researchers have developed linear adaptive models that describe how certain events (e.g., trauma) influence dreaming (e.g., by causing nightmares) and then how dreaming (e.g., nightmares) causes ”adaptive“ dream effects (e.g., by facilitating defensive reactions to similarly traumatic events). However, if different dream types have contrasting short-term functions, it may be useful to construe long-term dream function as the capacity of a complex self-organizing system that depends upon the integration of several simpler capacities (Cummins, 1983). From this perspective, the short-term functions of each impactful dream type, when coordinated according to the system’s superordinate integrative principles, may subserve a long-term function that is irreducible to the function of any particular dream type. Such a decompositional analysis may help to coordinate evidence of temporal relations between the various dream types.

So a sequence of different types of dreams might be more significant than the effects of any one dream. For example, the authors explain, after a significant loss, dreamers reported more nightmares at first, followed by existential dreams, and eventually transcendent dreams, as though the function of each dream type has a psychological priority corresponding to its chronological order. Thinking about dreams in this way could truly change how we understand how our mind works while we sleep.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Benefit for the Green World Campaign

Greater Good contributor and best-selling author Marc Ian Barasch (author of the incredible Field Notes on the Compassionate Life -- is hosting a benefit this Sunday for a new nonprofit he has started, the Green World Campaign ( Here's Marc's invitation:

The benefit will be at the e3rd Lounge, a cool new downtown LA restaurant. It's our "soft launch" to kick off what I think will be an effective and fun way to help the world.

4-6 music and mingle, talk, drink and eat great hors d'oeuvres by Master Chef Sean Ahn
6-6:30 short presentation, film clip
7-9 music and dance

Feel free to send this invite to anyone else you think might enjoy it. ($20 at the door, tax-deductible, with the money going to tree-planting in Ethiopia and our website development).

Location: e3rd Lounge, 734 E. 3rd St., L.A. 90013 (in the Arts District, near JapanTown).
Tel: 213.680.3003

Hope to see you there!
Marc Ian Barasch

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Outside Room 15: Social Connections

Once upon a time there was a newspaper columnist who spent most of her time trying to figure out how to live happily. One day, while watching her daughter rub her palms raw on the monkey bars, she met a PhD candidate who was doing the very same thing. That is, watching her daughter rub her palms raw while trying to figure out how to live happily. While the columnist had been relying mostly on anecdotal evidence to support her theories, the PhD candidate had been pulling all nighters for six years, forced, as academics are, to pin her theories to studies and statistics. The writer ran an idea past the researcher and a conversation started that, six months later, is still going strong every weekday outside Room 15.

This conversation is continued from last week.

Kelly: So about connection. You know how there's this prevailing desire for space and privacy? People dream of a home with a long driveway on five acres but if and when they get there, it's too quiet, too isolated, too removed from the comforting sounds of a neighborhood. At least for me, the thing I like most about my home is seeing people walk by as I do my dishes or bumping into friends as I walk my kids to school.

Carter: This is what sociologists call social integration, and the upshot of all the research on it is that social connectedness is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated. Robert Putnam wrote a really interesting book, Bowling Alone, about how we Americans are becoming less and less connected to one another.

Countless studies document the link between society and psyche: people who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping…The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections (Putnam 2000, p. 332).

Kelly: That’s huge. We could stop right there. The sum of 50 years of research is that social connections create happiness? Wow.

Carter: Seriously, think about that again and how we spend our time: our happiness is best predicted by the quantity and quality of our relationships with others. So proximity to neighbors and friends is an advantage to be valued, not a hardship to be tolerated.

Kelly: Thank God! Acreage in California is a non-starter. And it’s what my children gravitate towards – more kids, more noise, more chaos. It is their natural inclination.

Carter: I do think we are hard-wired to want to be together, and kids tend to show us that. Unfortunately, the average American household is getting smaller and smaller.

Kelly: So what do I do? Me with my tiny household? How can I compensate?

Carter: We’re lucky—our neighborhood is perfect for building social connections because it is safe, and we have sidewalks, and lots of reason to use them since we’re all walking our kids to and from school. So let’s take advantage of that: be invested in our schools and connected to our neighbors.

Kelly: That means building in extra time to connect throughout the day. If our schedule is too tight, I find we have no time to stop and have a chat, or pet a dog, or see my neighbor’s new deck—whatever interactive opportunities present themselves. I want my kids to see me prioritize friendship over the day’s To Do list.

Carter: Well, you’ve hit on something critical there. For kids to have and be good friends, they need more than time to stop and chat. They need to be emotionally literate, and it is incredibly important for us to teach this—emotional literacy—to our children. Let’s talk about that tomorrow!

Further Reading:
Myers, D. G. (2000). The American Paradox : Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. New Haven Conn., Yale University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

What's Your Jen Ratio?

My work as a psychologist—and my life as a father—has led me to believe that a simple fraction can tell us whether or not we’re truly happy. Put aside your justified suspicions for a moment and consider the following ratio--we’ll call it the jen ratio, in honor of the Confucian concept jen, which refers to a multilayered mixture of humanity, benevolence, and kindness not well captured by any word or phrase in the English language. A person of jen, Confucius observes, “wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others,” and “brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion.”

In the denominator of the jen ratio place recent actions in which someone has behaved in selfish, malevolent fashion, bringing the bad in others to completion -- the aggressive driver who flips you off as he roars in front of you, pealing away; the disdainful diner in a pricey restaurant who sneers at less well heeled passersby. Above this, in the numerator of the ratio, list recent benevolent acts of others, which brought the good in others to completion – a kind hand on your back in a crowded subway car; the woman who laughs melodiously as a stranger accidentally steps on her foot. The greater the value of the jen ratio, the more humane your world. The smaller the number becomes, the clearer it is that you are living in a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog world, bloody in tooth and claw.

Let’s take the jen ratio for a test drive. An after school moment at my daughters’ playground yields the following: In the numerator, two boys laugh, giving each other noogies on the head; girls do handstands and cartwheels, giggling at their butt-thumping mistakes; on a grassy field, laughing kids dog pile on a young boy deliriously clasping the football to his chest. In the denominator, a boy calls a smaller boy baboon breath, in measured, low tones; two girls whisper, heads askance, about another girl who tries to enter into their game of unicorn. This minute of playground life yields a jen ratio of 3/2, or 1.5. A pretty good scene.

Let’s compare that with… in an interminable, eight minute line to buy stamps. I see 24 varieties of exasperation, from sighs to glares to threatening groans of the bureaucratically imprisoned, and one guy laugh 3 times. 3/24 = .125. Not such an uplifting time. And then how about two minutes of a video game? That’s easy: 38 heads explode/0; it’s infinitely malevolent.

One can apply the jen ratio to any realm -- our interior life, the esprit of a family in a photograph, the face of a loved one at a poignant moment in time, the tenor of a dinner party or family reunion, the ebbs and flows of intimacy in the life long relations of two sisters, the rhetoric of presidents, the spirit of historical eras, the good will of a neighborhood, more satisfying and more trying periods of a marriage.

Of course, a high jen ratio does not define what is right or good. Sitcoms, cheerleaders, servers at fastfood restaurants, and beauty pageant contestants, on the surface, yield higher jen ratios than any page of Dostoevsky, most paintings of Van Gogh, and the films of Scorscese. Think of the jen ratio as a snapshot, though, of the state of your life as you perceive it, and as it truly is.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Bystanders in the News, Pt. 2

In the 1960s, the late Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted one of psychology's most famous and controversial experiments. He wanted to test how willing the average person would be to obey an authority figure, even when instructed to perform morally dubious acts that violated his or her conscience. Inspired by recent revelations of Nazi war crimes--his first study began around the time that Adolf Eichman went on trial--Milgram wanted to test the idea that, if placed in certain situations, many seemingly good people would be capable of evil deeds.

Study participants were instructed to give a shock to someone in another room each time that person failed to get an answer right on a memory test. (The shocks weren't real, but the participants didn't know that.) The "shocks" supposedly got more intense with every wrong answer; when participants would hesitate, someone in a lab coat would instruct them to proceed. Before the experiment, Milgram's colleagues guessed that 1-2 percent of participants would go all the way to administer the most lethal shocks. His actual results were, well, shocking: 62.5 percent of the participants were willing to keep giving shocks until there were no more shocks to give, even after the shock recipient begged, pleaded, and then become eerily silent.

Milgram's experiment is very relevant to our latest issue of Greater Good, with its focus on "the psychology of the bystander." We wanted to explore why moral people, often influenced by group dynamics, often don't take moral action when it's called for, especially when it involves coming to the aid of someone in distress; we also wanted to try to understand the psychological and social factors that do induce some people to perform altruistically and even heroically when put to the test.

Of course, we were curious to see how we'd hold up in many of the scenarios described in our issue--like seeing people beaten, bullied, or just in need of some spare change--and we also wondered whether people today would in general fare any better than Milgram's subjects did in the '60s.

ABC News took it one step further: They worked with a psychologist at Santa Clara University to recreate Milgram's methods, albeit in a slightly more ethical fashion.

They ran their story about the results last month, just as our bystander issue was coming out. Read their story to check out their results. But in a nutshell: not much as changed.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Moral Monkeys

From today's Boston Globe:

Morality, [Marc Hauser] argues, is influenced by cultural teachings but is also so deep and universal an aspect of human existence that it is effectively "hard-wired" into the brain, much like the instinct for language...

A psychologist, evolutionary biologist, and anthropologist, Hauser has felt students grow restless as he talks about the underpinnings of morality. In one class, he said, a student complained, "I know where you're going: Because it's universal, it's biological, and therefore there's no role for religion."

Hauser recalls responding: "I'm not saying you shouldn't derive meaning from religion. I'm just telling you that at some level, the nature of the moral judgments that you make and I make are the same, even though I don't go to church and you do..."

In general, Hauser's morality work is part of a growing movement called experimental philosophy that has philosophers rising from their armchairs and seeking to gather hard evidence on the deep moral workings of the mind: "evidence from evolutionary theory, from comparing humans to other animals, and other methods to derive constraints on the nature of these principles, constraints we couldn't just derive by reasoning alone," said Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at UNC.

I found the student's objection curious. Why can't religion be a formalized, ritualized expression of innate biological instincts? Why couldn't Hauser's research point us to a divine, conscious design for humanity? From this perspective, organized religion is not the font of morality--that lies elsewhere--but it does retain an important role in operationalizing morality in everyday life, helping people to navigate ethical choices, and joining with others in a mutually supportive community. Of course, I suspect the student's complaint has more to do with power than morality.

People interested in these issues might want to read this dialogue at the Daddy Dialectic blog, about the role of religion in raising moral kids.

Bystanders In the News

Our latest issue of Greater Good magazine came out this month, featuring several essays about "the psychology of the bystander." We look at the factors that do--and don't--induce people to come to the aid of others in a crisis situation.

Just before this issue came off the press, the front page of The New York Times told the story of Wesley Autrey, a man who leapt onto the NYC subway tracks to save a stranger who was having a seizure... while a train was approaching the station... while Autrey's two little daughters stood on the platform. A few days later, the Times's Week in Review section included an article that discussed research on the bystander phenomenon, interviewing many of the same people featured in our issue. (Autrey was later honored in President Bush's State of the Union address.)

I won't go until all the factors that may or may not contribute to bystander action or inaction--for that you'll have to read the issue--but one thing I found notable was that Autrey served in the Navy. In an article my co-editor, Dacher Keltner, and I wrote for this issue of Greater Good, psychologist John Darley mentioned how a person's past experiences might determine whether or not they come to someone's aid in the future--i.e., someone accustomed to making snap decisions in a crisis might be more likely to intervene rather than remain a bystander. Darley remembered how one particular participant in one of his studies reacted when Darley and his colleagues pumped (benign) smoke into the room where this guy was sitting, to see how he (and other participants) would react to that sign of danger.

Darley recalled how the guy "got the hell out [of the room] and did something, because of his past experiences." And what "past experiences" was Darley referring to? The man's stint in the Navy, where his ship once caught on fire.

So is military service the key to not acting the bystander? No, but I don't think this should necessarily be dismissed as coincidence, either. Do people who are prone to risk their lives for others join the Navy, or does the Navy make people more willing to risk their lives for others? I don't know that either is true, but I don't doubt there's some connection--do you?