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?