For most of us it feels as if we are independent agents that control the choices in our lives. It feels like there’s a “me” that’s in charge. From a scientific perspective, however, the self may be illusory, since objective investigations reveal no agent or homunculus in the brain, no fixed self-entity, no “me.” Instead we experience a sense of self, which is generated...
Why Smart People Make Foolhardy Decisions
Meera Lee ,
There are lots of ways to think about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who’s currently on the lam after leaking information about top-secret U.S. and U.K. government surveillance programs to the media. But whether you tend to see Snowden as a whistleblower or a traitor, there’s no denying the great personal risks he took—first to do what he did, and then to deliberately reveal his identity. Why would a seemingly rational, highly intelligent person perform such a dramatically rash act?
With the first hint of a crisp cool autumn breeze, couples everywhere begin pairing off in a seemingly magical phenomenon known as cuffing season. Cuffing season, as defined by UbranDictionary.com, is a yearly occurrence around the fall and winter months when normally promiscuous singles begin to look for serious relationships (becoming “cuffed” or tied down) due in part to colder weather creating a high propensity for canoodling indoors. Cuffing behavior is likely influenced by the weather and perhaps the dramatic increase in sappy, love-saturated jewelry commercials aired ad nauseam around the holidays. However whimsical cuffing season may seem, true evolutionary and neurobiological causes underpin the many reasons why people enter into monogamous relationships.
Monogamy is not something that comes naturally to mammals. Mammalian males do not often take it upon themselves to stick around during long gestational periods and breast-feeding when they could be out-and-about looking for their next available mate to further propagate their genomic line. This notion of promiscuity is in congruence with Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” evolutionary theory where the more seed you spread, the more likely you will have offspring to carry on your genes. But scientists think that despite the inclination for mammals to engage in casual sexual relationships, the evolutionary foundation of monogamy in human beings is likely based on protection, care, and survival of children.
“Started from the bottom, now we here” is more than just a catchy Drake hook that youth twerk to in the club; it is a sentiment echoed throughout rap and hip-hop culture. From The Notorious B.I.G. to Eminem, rap music celebrates rags-to-riches stories that trace a persons ascent from crushing poverty to enormous wealth and icon status.
While the majority of rap songs focus on money, these recording artists may actually be improving more than their financial situation as they climb the rungs of the social class ladder—they may actually be improving their health. Research conducted with rhesus monkeys suggests that music moguls and laypeople alike may enhance their long-term health by moving up in the socioeconomic hierarchy, which alters regulation and expression of immune system-related genes.
We've known for a while that health is irrevocably tethered to socioeconomic status. The well-known Whitehall study was the first of its kind to definitively demonstrate this link. Surveying 18,000 British civil servants ranging in occupations from messengers to high-ranking government officials, the study concluded that men in the lowest grades of employment have higher mortality rates compared to those working at the top of the career totem pole. Additional studies have shown that lower social classes are more vulnerable to asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and infectious diseases.
We evolved to cooperate with just one tribe—but we live in a world of many
Meera Lee ,
If you’re like most people, chances are you ignore most of the buttons on your digital camera most of the time. Sure, you could make careful decisions about aperture size, shutter speed, focal point, and ISO each time you took a picture. But you’ve probably got a pretty smart little machine on your hands, so no one could blame you for leaving your camera on automatic mode and letting it make quick and dirty choices. And if you’re dealing with a particularly tricky circumstance—low light, or a moving subject—why, then you can always switch over to doing all that manually.
Our brains, says neuroscientist Joshua Greene, have two similar modes of thinking. In the automatic mode we use most of the time, behavior is dictated by gut-level instincts that don’t cost much in the way of processing power. In the more resource-consuming manual mode, we make decisions based on slower, higher-level cognitive operations.
What would life be like if you lacked a Theory of Mind (ToM) ? For one thing, it would be a lot more serious. Take this scene from a British sitcom about an elderly lady who overhears her family discussing an ailing dog—the humor in it relies entirely on the audience’s ability to infer that the woman mistakenly believes they’re talking about her, and to understand how this would make her feel. Human beings aren’t the only species to possess at least some form of ToM , which some psychologists refer to as “mind-reading”—but we may the only one that can learn to enhance it.A new Science study suggests that reading literature—at least a certain kind—may strengthen the skills that underlie ToM. In the study, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano—social science researchers at New York City’s New School—conducted a series of experiments using the same basic format. In each, volunteers were randomly assigned either to a group that read a short excerpt the researchers considered emblematic of “literary fiction,” or to a comparison group. For example, participants in the fiction group might read a passage from the Chekhov short story Chameleon, about a hypocritical police inspector whose ideas about justice change and change again, depending on the mood of the crowd surrounding him. At the same time, readers in the comparison group might be given a passage from a fact-based article—something like a Smithsonian magazine piece entitled "How the Potato Changed the World”—a passage from what the researchers considered “popular fiction”—something like a best-selling Danielle Steele novel—or nothing at all.
The pitfall of studying (only) success
Meera Lee ,
Imagine a coin-tossing tournament. The last man standing—the ultimate survivor—will have won every single one of his coin tosses in a row. Should we ask him what his secret was?
Don’t laugh; it’s a good bet that at some point in your life you’ve fallen prey to some version of the survivorship bias, an incredibly pervasive cognitive illusion that makes an appearance whenever failures disappear or become hidden from view. Have you ever marveled at the purring engine of a classic car, run your fingers down the smooth seams of a vintage coat, or tested the steel on your grandfather’s old hunting knife? Maybe you thought, “They just don’t make things like they used to!” It’s a romantic idea—that people in some hazy, nostalgic past really valued workmanship and quality; that old objects have a kind of inherent staying power.
What you probably didn’t think about, in those moments, were all the classic cars that ended up broken down in junkyards. You didn’t consider the coats whose seams had already fallen apart. All you saw were the things that survived to tell their stories. In the context of antique shopping, its effects are fairly innocuous—but David McRaney offers an intuitive example of survivorship bias and a matter of life and death at his blog You Are Not So Smart. During World War II, McRaney explains, military engineers wanted to figure out how to make bomber planes safer for the pilots who risked their lives to fly them. When the engineers looked at returned planes, they saw that bullet damage clustered in three main places: the wings, the body, and the rear gunner. These, then were the places they suggested be reinforced with extra armor.
Helen Fisher is an anthropologist specializing in the study of interpersonal romantic attraction. Her research into love and behavior leads her to the conclusion that the desire for love is a universal human drive, stronger than even the drive for sex. She has conducted extensive research into the evolution of sex, love, marriage, gender differences, and how your personality...