Category: Psychology Cognition
Ladies of New York , you are free to walk bare-breasted through the city! New York City’s 34,000 police officers have been instructed that, should they encounter a woman in public who is shirtless but obeying the law, they should not arrest her. This is a good step towards gender parity in public spaces.
So, a woman’s bare breast should be treated no differently than a man’s breast under the law. Nonetheless, the fact that this NY law is so contentious (or at least newsworthy), means that a breast is not the same as an arm or a leg, especially a woman’s breast. I explore the existential connotations of breasts here.
There are many limits to human cognition. One of those is limits to levels of intentionality. Mark Kohn explains at Aeon, referring to the work of Robin Dunbar:
As Dunbar has pointed out, Shakespeare’s Othello requires audiences to believe ‘that Iago intends that Othello imagines that Desdemona is in love with Cassio’. That takes them to four levels of ‘intentionality’, or mental representation, but not to an especially compelling story. To bind the narrative spell, Shakespeare has Iago persuade Othello that Cassio reciprocates Desdemona’s feelings. This raises audiences to a fifth level, which is about the natural limit for most people. (In order to tell the tale, Shakespeare himself would have been operating at the sixth level, which is beyond most of us.)
Why would someone invent a god? There are lots of conceivable reasons. One might be lonely, scared or feeling lost, and belief in could provide comfort. Two books I’m reading have provided a different but consistent perspective on this question of why people invent gods. One of the books, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel [...]
In the United States, not all lives lost are equal. If politicians and media pin the word “terrorism” to the lost lives, those deaths garner 1,000 times as much attention as otherwise. That is the topic of an article titled “Why Does America Lose Its Head Over ‘Terror’ But Ignore Its Daily Gun Deaths?”:
What makes US gun violence so particularly horrifying is how routine and mundane it has become. After the massacre of 20 kindergartners in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, millions of Americans began to take greater notice of the threat from gun violence. Yet since then, the daily carnage that guns produce has continued unabated and often unnoticed.
The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. The pregnant Breshauna Jackson was killed in Dallas, allegedly by her boyfriend. In Richmond, California, James Tucker III was shot and killed while riding his bicycle – assailants unknown. Nigel Hardy, a 13-year-old boy in Palmdale, California, who was being bullied in school, took his own life. He used the gun that his father kept at home. And in Brooklyn, New York, an off-duty police officer used her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun to kill herself, her boyfriend and her one-year old child.
At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq. Yet, none of this daily violence was considered urgent enough to motivate Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers.
You would think that a country absolutely saturated with violence through its movies and video games would be able to keep some perspective in order to keep in mind that every lost life is somewhat equal to every other lost life. But to do that would mean that we would need to improve health care, education, our chemically poisoned environment and dilapidated neighborhoods. We rather crank up our military and para-military toys.
Michael Cohen at the UK Guardian makes a similar argument in an article titled, “Why Does America Lose Its Head Over ‘Terror’ But Ignore Its Daily Gun Deaths?” He draws a comparison to America’s refusal to take any steps to require meaningful background checks for those intending to purchase guns:
If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country. There’s something quite fitting and ironic about the fact that the Boston freak-out happened in the same week the Senate blocked consideration of a gun control bill that would have strengthened background checks for potential buyers. Even though this reform is supported by more than 90% of Americans, and even though 56 out of 100 senators voted in favour of it, the Republican minority prevented even a vote from being held on the bill because it would have allegedly violated the second amendment rights of “law-abiding Americans”.
So for those of you keeping score at home – locking down an American city: a proper reaction to the threat from one terrorist. A background check to prevent criminals or those with mental illness from purchasing guns: a dastardly attack on civil liberties. All of this would be almost darkly comic if not for the fact that more Americans will die needlessly as a result. Already, more than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks). What makes US gun violence so particularly horrifying is how routine and mundane it has become.
In his new book, psychologist Matthew Hutson has documented many instances in which all of us latch onto what he terms “magical thinking.” Hutson argues that this is not necessarily a bad thing–we do it to keep our sanity in this crazy dangerous world, in which our final destiny is certain death. Nor is magical thinking aways a good thing. Hutson’s book is an excellent read full of intriguing and often counter-intuitive observations, many of them based on rigorous experiments.
Hutson is also authors a blog at Psychology Today. In a recent post, he notes that even scientists are susceptible to “magical thinking,” which often takes the form of teleological thinking:
Over the years, a number of psychologists have suggested that we are promiscuously teleological. Telos is Greek for end or purpose, and teleology is the belief that an object was created or an event occurred to fulfill some purpose. You believe there’s not just a how but a why to its origin, that there’s a mind with intentions behind it. And when an event seems especially meaningful (such as a hurricane destroying your home) or an object seems especially complex (such as the human body) the prospect of a designer appears all the more likely. Some things really are designed—watches do come from watchmakers—but most of the universe isn’t.
I’m almost finished reading Matthew Hutson’s new book, 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. I’m feeling fully engaged, in that Hutson addresses many of the issues that I’ve been grappling with at this website, and does it insightfully in a book that is easy to understand. There’s no jargon in Hutson’s book, and his main idea is the explosive one often addressed by Friedrich Nietzsche: our understanding of the world is dominated by false ideas that are sometimes useful. Hutson takes this idea to a new level, incorporating modern cognitive science and evolution, as well as many of his own observations: In Hutson’s words,
Most of the world is religious, and millions more are openly superstitious, spiritual, or credulous of the paranormal. But I argue that we all believe in magic—luck, mind over matter, destiny, jinxes, life after death, evil, and heavenly helpers—even when we say we don’t.
I draw on cognitive science, neuroscience, social and evolutionary psychology, and cultural observation to show that we engage in magical thinking all the time—and that it’s not all bad. Supernaturalism leads us to think that we actually have free will. It makes us believe that we have an underlying purpose in the world. It can even protect us from the paralyzing awareness of our own mortality. Irrationality makes our lives make sense.
I’m going to be repeatedly referring to 7 Laws of Magical Thinking in the coming months from a variety of angles. In the meantime, I recommend this video interview of Hutson.
Suspiciously often, those who are most vocally anti-gay turn out to be gay. In this experiment, men who were the most opposed to male homosexuality were shown to have particularly strong homosexual urges for other men. Classic reaction formation.
At Time Magazine, Maia Szalavitz writes that fear “hijacks the brain.”
“Fear short circuits the brain, especially when it hits close to home, experts say— making coping with events like the bombings at the Boston Marathon especially tricky.
. . . This dramatically alters how we think, since the limbic system is deeply engaged with modulating our emotions. [W]hen people are terrorized, [p]roblem solving becomes more categorical, concrete and emotional [and] we become more vulnerable to reactive and short-sighted solutions.”