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.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Happiness, Inc.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Steven Winn had a piece yesterday about the recent boom in the study and the marketing of happiness, citing everything from last year's film Happyness (with Will Smith) to the international Happiness Foundation:

As the field fills with social scientists, pharmaceutical breakthroughs and brain scans, the happiness quest grows more complicated and fraught. Philosopher Sissela Bok, in a 2003 address on the subject, argued that "it's in times of high danger and turmoil that concerns for happiness are voiced most strikingly and seen as most indispensable." That's what made the "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" language in the Declaration of Independence so ompelling. It almost might explain why sales of those smiley-face buttons boomed during the Vietnam War (50 million in 1971). And why, in our own anxious and unsettled times, happiness is once again a growth industry.

And, Winn writes, "the converse may also be true. In times of relative peace and prosperity, happiness seems self-evident and therefore a little shrill and vulgar to acknowledge." He refers to Todd Solondz's bleak and cynical 1998 film Happiness as an example of how the subject was treated when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal seemed to be our greatest threat to national security.

I can agree with Winn's premise, but only to a point. Part of the happiness boom today is surely motivated by scientific breakthroughs, particularly in neuroscience, that just didn't happen until recently. If they were made in 1998, I think the same amount of ink would have been spilled about them then. Indeed, many of the "pharmaceutical breakthroughs" he refers to were made in the mid-90s, and they generated an entire literary sub-genre of books with the word "Prozac" in the title (Prozac Nation and Listening to Prozac both came out in 1997). And it would be misleading to imply, as Winn does, that many of today's happiness scientists embrace the concept uncritically--see Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, which Winn does mention--just as some of those Prozac books were skeptical about the whole idea of happiness ten years ago.

All that said, there's definitely a booming happiness industry, at least in the research and publishing worlds. I only wonder whether this happiness boom is truly sui generis, the product of this particular cultural moment, as Winn suggests--or if it's just a movement that's been escalating for the last 200+ years.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Measure of a Father

From the Guardian in the UK:

Children are more likely to suffer development problems if their fathers do not take paternity leave or spend enough time with them when they are very young, according to an analysis of thousands of babies born around the turn of the millennium.

A report published today by the Equal Opportunities Commission and based on research tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 found emotional and behavioural problems were more common by the time youngsters reached the age of three if their fathers had not taken time off work when they were born, or had not used flexible working to have a more positive role in their upbringing.

Previous research has highlighted the importance of a mother's involvement when a child is small, but the EOC says this is the first study to confirm that the close involvement of a father also has a significant impact on a child's future...

The EOC points to a "social revolution in fatherhood", in which fathers are increasingly involved with their children's upbringing and feel confident as carers, yet 63% felt they did not spend enough time with their new baby.

That fathers are being studied at all is part of the revolution. I recently interviewed UC Riverside Sociologist Scott Coltrane, author of many studies and books on fatherhood. In the past, says Coltrane, researchers looked only at whether the father was present and married to the mother. They might also have looked at demographic or economic information about the fathers. But they did not study how fathers interacted with their children or what impact fathers had on children's development. Until the 1970s, it was (unconsciously?) assumed that mothers were solely responsible for child outcomes.

Coltrane describes how "in the late Seventies researchers started saying, 'Wait a minute, why don’t we measure what the fathers are actually doing? How do they parent? What do they do?'" Today scholars "tend to include father variables in their studies, so we are doing a better job of tracking the father participation that is occurring. And we are considering that men might be doing housework beyond taking out the trash and mowing the lawn. And because women are more likely to be employed and earn good wages, more families are sharing more of the family work - so when we look we see shifts." Applying the same measures of mothers and fathers, says Coltrane, is still "relatively novel, as simple an idea as that is."

The Guardian article concludes: "The government last night pointed to moves including the introduction of paid paternity leave and more than doubling of maternity pay as evidence of commitment to helping families balance work and caring responsibilities."

Ah, sounds lovely.

U.S. & UK: "Worst places to be a child"

UNICEF released a study last month that ranked more than 20 developed nations in six categories: material wealth, health, education, relationships, risky behaviors, and children’s subjective well-being. The result? “The United States and Britain ranked as the worst places to be a child,” reported the LA Times. The U.S. and Britain placed in the bottom third in all six categories, except for education, in which the U.S. ranked 12th. The Netherlands ranked highest on an average of all categories, followed by Sweden and Denmark.

Call it hindsight bias, but it wasn’t too shocking to find that America and Britain are not the optimal places to raise children. This study merely lends more support to the conclusion (backed up by lots of research) that money does not buy happiness; that is, although the U.S. and Britain are among the most developed countries in the world, well-being does not automatically result. In fact, it seems that what money is buying actually blinds us from non-material capital, such as friends and kin.

“The findings that we got,” says Jonathan Bradshaw, one of the report’s authors and a professor of social policy at York University in England, “are a consequence of long-term underinvestment in children.” It seems that falling ill to capitalism’s main objective of monetary gain has unfortunately blindsighted parents to the developmental impact of children’s social needs. With the desire to accumulate financial capital comes the obligation to spend more time at work and essentially leave children to occupy their time with activities and toys that do not require parent-child interaction. For example, the U.S. and Britain have higher per capita income than the Czech Republic, but according to the study, the Czech Republic has a more equitable distribution of wealth and higher educational and public health investment.

This report supports the idea that well-being involves more than money. More research should try to provide a better sense of how different developed countries actually do or don't cultivate well-being in their citizens. "All countries have weaknesses to be addressed," says UNICEF's Marta Santos Pais, the study's director.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Happiness is a Flaming Lip

I was initially skeptical when I heard that NPR was launching the series This I Believe, based on the old Edward R. Murrow program of the same name. But I'm always impressed when I catch a segment, which consists of someone explaining his or her worldview in three to five minutes, often zeroing in on a defining experience, hobby, or belief. They manage to sound polished and professional while still conveying the distinct personality of each essayist--some famous, some not. I usually find that I like each contributor, even if I don't agree with them.

I was jolted out of Monday-morning grogginess a few days back when the host (the esteemed public radio host/producer Jay Allison) introduced this week's This I Believer: Wayne Coyne, the singer/guitarist for the band The Flaming Lips. I'm a big fan. Then I got really excited when Coyne proceded to expound on a topic relevant to Greater Good, essentially offering his own theory on the nature of happiness.

His piece had a curious approach to the psychology of happiness--kind of a cross between Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale. Check it out:

Try to be happy within the context of the life we are acutally living. Happiness is not a situation to be longed for or a convergence of lucky happenstance. Through the power of our own minds, we can help ourselves.
To back himself up, he pointed to his own 11-year(!) stint as a fry cook at Long John Silver's, which could have seemed like a dead-end job, but which he came to appreciate as a chance to get paid to daydream and nurture other ambitions. (Plus, "at least I had a job," he says.)

At first, part of me was taken aback by what could be construed as a rather conservative message, encouraging people to embrace the status quo. But I was also impressed by how Coyne's essay resonated with a major theme of positive psychology research: Gratitude. Robert Emmons, probably the leading researcher of gratitude in the world, has described gratitude as
a conscious, rational choice to focus on life's blessings rather than on its shortcomings... a universal human experience that can be either a random occurrence of grace or an attitude chosen to create a better life.
And, in line with Coyne's theory of happiness, Emmons (and many others) have found that boosting one's feelings of gratitude result in better health, increased positive emotions, a significantly rosier outlook on life, greater progress toward achieving personal goals, and maybe even more helpful behavior toward others.

So can anyone cultivate gratitude, or just those people who are capable of winning a few Grammies and producing some of the best albums of the 90s and the 21st Century? Or is gratitude what helped Coyne ascend from fast-food fry cook to indie-rock demi-god? So far, research suggests that, with the right kinds of practice, almost anyone is capable of reaping at least some of the short-term benefits of gratitude. But the jury's still out. I'd love to see Emmons and Coyne get together to discuss this further.