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2018
David Myers

The Malleability of Mind

Posted by David Myers Expert May 31, 2018

How many of us have felt dismay over a friend or family member’s stubborn resistance to our arguments or evidence showing (we believe) that Donald Trump is (or isn’t) making America great again, or that immigrants are (or aren’t) a threat to our way of life? Sometimes, it seems, people just stubbornly resist change.

 

Recently, however, I’ve also been struck by the pliability of the human mind. We are adaptive creatures, with malleable minds.

 

Over time, the power of social influence is remarkable. Generations change. And attitudes change. They follow our behavior, adjust to our tribal norms, or simply become informed by education.

 

The power of social influence appears in current attitudes toward free trade, as the moderate-conservative columnist David Brooks illustrates: “As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade. Now they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.”

 

Those who love history can point out many other such shifts. After Pearl Harbor, Japan and Japanese people became, in many American minds surveyed by Gallup, untrustworthy and disliked. But then after the war, they soon transformed into our “intelligent, hard-working, self-disciplined, resourceful allies.”  Likewise, Germans across two wars were hated then admired then hated again then once again admired.

 

Or consider within thin slices of recent human history the transformational changes in our thinking about race, gender, and sexual orientation:

  • Race. In 1958, only 4 percent of Americans approved of “marriage between Blacks and Whites.” In 2013, 87 percent approved.
  • Gender. In 1967, two-thirds of first-year American college students agreed that “the activities of married women are best confined to the home and family.” Today, the question, which would offend many, is no longer asked.
  • Gay marriage. In Gallup surveys, same-sex marriage—approved by only 27 percent of Americans in 1996—is now welcomed by nearly two-thirds.

 

Consider also, from within the evangelical culture that I know well, the astonishing results of two Public Religion Research Institute polls. The first, in 2011, asked voters if “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Only 30 percent of White evangelical Protestants agreed. By July of 2017, with President Trump in office, 70 percent of White evangelicals said they would be willing to separate public and personal conduct.

 

An April 22, 2018, Doonesbury satirized this “head-spinning reversal” (quoting the pollster). A cartoon pastor announces to his congregation the revised definition of sin:

“To clarify, we now condone the following conduct: lewdness, vulgarity, profanity, adultery, and sexual assault. Exemptions to Christian values also include greed, bullying, conspiring, boasting, lying, cheating, sloth, envy, wrath, gluttony, and pride. Others TBA. Lastly we’re willing to overlook biblical illiteracy, church nonattendance, and no credible sign of faith.”

 

In a recent essay, I reflected (as a person of faith) on the shift among self-described “evangelicals”: The great temptation is to invoke “God” to justify one’s politics. “Piety is the mask,” observed William James.

 

This tendency to make God in our own image was strikingly evident in a provocative study by social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his colleagues.  Most people, they reported, believe that God agrees with whatever they believe. No surprise there. But consider: When the researchers persuaded people to change their minds about affirmative action or the death penalty, the people then assumed that God now believed their new view. As I am, the thinking goes, so is God.

 

But the mind is malleable in both directions. Many one-time evangelicals—for whom evangelicalism historically has meant a “good news” message of God’s accepting grace—are now changing their identity in the age of Trump (with Trump’s support having been greatest among “evangelicals” who are religiously inactive—and for whom the term has been co-opted to mean “cultural right”). Despite my roots in evangelicalism, I now disavow the mutated label (not wanting to be associated with the right’s intolerance toward gays and Muslims). Many others, such as the moderate Republican writer Peter Wehner, are similarly repulsed by the right-wing takeover of evangelicalism and disavowing today’s tarnished evangelical brand.

 

Times change, and with it our minds.

The British, American, and Australian press—and hundreds of millions of royal wedding viewers—were unexpectedly enthralled by Bishop Michael Curry’s 13.5 minutes of fame:

  • “Stole the show” (Telegraph and Vox).
  • “Electrifying” (New York Times).
  • “Wholly un-British, amazing, and necessary” (Esquire).
  • “Will go down in history” (Guardian).
  • “His star turn is set to impact the Most Reverend Michael Curry’s life for years to come” (news.com.au)

 

His gist: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love,” God’s love. “And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.” A positive message—and an appealing synopsis of authentic Christianity—but why was it so effective? Why did it connect so well and capture media coverage? What persuasion principles did he illustrate that others—preachers, teachers, students, all speakers—might want to emulate?

 

The power of repetition. Experiments leave no doubt: Repetition strengthens memory and increases belief. Repeated statements—whether neutral (“The Louvre is the largest museum in Paris”), pernicious (“Crooked Hillary”), or prosocial (“I have a dream”)—tend to stick to the mind like peanut butter. They are remembered, and they are more likely to be believed (sometimes even when repeated in efforts to discount them).

 

Few will forget that Curry spoke of “love” (66 times, in fact—5 per minute). We would all benefit from emulating Curry’s example: Frame a single, simple message with a pithy phrase (“the power of love”). From this unifying trunk, the illustrative branches can grow.

 

The power of speaking from the heart. A message rings authentic when it emanates from one’s own life experience and identity—when it has enough self-disclosure to be genuine, but not so much as to be self-focused. Curry, a slave descendant, speaking in an epicenter of White privilege, began and ended with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he told how his ancestors, “even in the midst of their captivity” embraced a faith that saw “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”


The power of speaking to the heart. My wife—an Episcopalian who has heard Curry’s preaching—has told me that his presence lends power beyond his written words. Curry was well prepared. But rather than safely reading his polished manuscript, he made eye contact with his audience, especially Prince Harry and Ms. Markle. He spoke with passion. His words aroused emotion. They spoke to troubled hearts in a polarized world.

 

The power of vivid, concrete examples. The behavioral scientist in me wishes it weren’t true, but, alas, compelling stories and vivid metaphors have, in study after study, more persuasive power than truth-bearing statistics. No wonder each year, 7 in 10 Americans, their minds filled with images of school shootings and local murders, say there is more crime than a year ago—even while crime statistics have plummeted.

 

William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic, The Elements of Style, grasped the idea: “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars.”

 

And Curry, too, offered particulars, with simplicity, repetition, and rhythmic cadence:

 

When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.


When love is the way, there’s plenty good room—plenty good room—for all of God’s children. When love is the way, we actually treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all. We are brothers and sisters, children of God.


Brothers and sisters: that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.

 

With such repeated, heart-filled, concrete words, perhaps all preachers and speakers could spare listeners the fate of Eutychus, who, on hearing St. Paul’s preaching, “sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead” (Acts 20:9).

 

Earlier this week, the Internet blew up when an ambiguous audio clip from Roland Szabo of Lawrenceville, GA was posted to Reddit (Salam & Victor, 2018).

 

 

Some people hear yanny, others hear laurel, and others hear something a little in between, like geary. And a lot of people sometimes hear one and sometimes hear the other.

 

If it feels like The Dress all over again, you are on the mark. (Side note. I have an image of the The Dress in my course materials that students can access before class. A student who had never seen the image scrolled through these materials and saw a gold/white dress. A few hours later when he came back into those materials he saw it as blue/black. He said, “It completely freaked me out!”)

 

Just as the colors in The Dress are ambiguous – the blue/white band is neither blue nor white, but in between – the pitches in the Yanny/Laurel clip are ambiguous; more accurately, both high and low pitches are present. The colors you see in the dress depend on the assumptions your brain is making about the color. The word you hear in the Yanny/Laurel clip depends on what your brain does with those pitches.

 

If you’re more tuned into the higher pitch, you hear yanny. If you’re more tuned into the lower pitch, you hear laurel. The New York Times has created a tool that will let you hear both (Katz, Corum, & Huang, 2018). If you find the sweet spot, the words may alternate for you.

 

When your students ask about this next term, that’s the simple answer.

 

But your more astute students will ask, “But what makes one more tuned into a higher or a lower pitch?” That’s a harder question to answer. 

 

While we’re not entirely sure what those factors are just yet, here are some possibilities (Morris, 2018).

  • Degree and type of hearing loss – if you’ve lost hearing for high-pitched sounds, you’ll be more likely to hear laurel.
  • Perceptual set – what word you’re expecting can influence what word you hear. Using the New York Times tool, start in the middle, and slide in the direction of the word you are not hearing. (I hear yanny at the middle, so I slide toward laurel.) Note where the word changes. Now start the slider on the far end for that word (the laurel end) and slide back toward the middle and note where the word changes. You’ll probably need to go beyond where the word changed for you the first time to get it to change back again.
  • Speaker quality – if your speakers or headphones emit more treble than bass, you are more likely to hear yanny.

 

I know that the sensation and perception researchers are on this and will have some more information for us before fall term starts.

 

#TeamYanny

 

References

 

Katz, J., Corum, J., & Huang, J. (2018). We made a tool so you can hear both yanny and laurel. Retrieved May 17, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/16/upshot/audio-clip-yanny-laurel-debate.html 

 

Morris, A. (2018). Hearing both yanny and laurel? Retrieved May 17, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/andreamorris/2018/05/16/hearing-both-yanny-and-laurel/#4d3c524d1635 

 

Salam, M., & Victor, D. (2018). Laurel or yanny? What we heard from the experts. Retrieved May 17, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/science/yanny-laurel.html 

Gratitude works. A genuinely positive and repeated observation of positive psychology is that keeping a gratitude journal (literally counting one’s blessings), or writing a gratitude letter, benefits the giver as well as the receiver. For the gratitude recipient, there is joy and a warmed heart. For the gratitude giver, the frequent result—as shown in studies by Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, Martin Seligman, and others—is increased physical and psychological well-being and prosociality.

 

Having appreciated and reported on this lesson, I couldn’t resist sharing with my friends Emmons, McCullough, and Seligman (and with you, my readers) a little case example of how right they are.

 

A representative of the University of Iowa (my PhD alma mater) recently dropped by to share information on their campaign to fund a new psychology building. In response, Carol Myers (my wife) and I agreed that our family foundation might support this endeavor.  I initially proposed a certain amount; Carol, reminding me how much I owed them, suggested doubling that amount.

 

I concurred, and the next day, while writing our letter of response, I spontaneously explained our gratitude to the Iowa psychology department for

  • inviting me (an undergraduate chemistry major with little psychology background) to enter its PhD program,
  • supporting my graduate work (including nominating me for an NSF fellowship, which supported me after the first year),
  • introducing me to a research program that—quite to my surprise—turned me into a researcher (enabling NSF grants for my work here at Hope College, and which ultimately led to invitations to communicate psychological science through textbooks and other media).

 

Writing those words had an unexpected effect—it caused me to feel my gratitude more deeply, with a flush of positive emotion—whereupon I suggested to Carol (and she immediately agreed) that we redouble the doubled gift amount. (Only later did I realize how my writing a “gratitude letter” had affected me.)

 

I can hear my gratitude-intervention scholar-friends say, “Of course, gratitude expressions boost good feelings and prosociality.” Gratitude, “the queen of the virtues,” says Emmons, “heals, energizes, and transforms lives in a myriad of ways consistent with the notion that virtue is both its own reward and produces other rewards.” Gratitude works.

David Myers

Implicit Bias at Starbucks

Posted by David Myers Expert May 10, 2018

On April 12, 2018, a Philadelphia Starbucks manager called police on two African American men for doing nothing (not buying coffee while awaiting a friend). Was this but “an isolated incident”—as 48 percent of White and 10 percent of Black Americans presume? Or did the arrests reflect “a broader pattern” of bias? Starbucks’ CEO later apologized for the incident, said the manager was no longer with the company, and announced that on May 29, the company would close 8000 domestic stores to enable employee racial bias training.

 

The Starbucks fiasco drew national attention to implicit bias. It also illustrates what we social psychologists agree on, what we disagree about, and what can be usefully done:

 

Agreement: Bias exists. When one study sent out 5000 resumes in response to job ads, applicants with names such as Lakisha and Jamal received one callback for every 15 sent, while names such as Emily and Greg received one callback for every 10 sent. Similar racial disparities have been found in Airbnb inquiry responses, Uber and Lyft pickup requests, and descriptions of driver treatment during police traffic stops.

 

Agreement: Unconscious (implicit) biases underlie many racial disparities. Such biases are modestly revealed by the famed Implicit Association Test (IAT).  Likely the Starbucks manager never consciously thought “those two men are Black rather than White, so I’ll call the police.”

 

Disagreement: How effective is the IAT at predicting everyday behavior? Its creators remind us it enables study of a real phenomenon, but was never intended to assess and compare individuals and predict their discrete behaviors.

 

Disagreement: How effective is implicit bias training? Skeptics argue that “blame and shame” diversity training can backfire, triggering anger and resistance.  Or it may seem to normalize bias (“Everybody is biased”). Or it may lead to a temporary improvement in questionnaire responses, but without any lasting benefits. Even Anthony Greenwald and Brian Nosek, social psychologists and two of the IAT co-creators, echo some of these concerns. Greenwald notes that “implicit bias training . . . has not been shown to be effective, and it can even be counterproductive.” And Nosek warns that “diversity trainings are filled with good intentions and poor evidence.” 

 

Greenwald and Nosek doubt the likely effectiveness of Starbucks’ planned training day. Nosek believes the company would be better advised to pilot and assess their intervention in a few stores and then scale it up.

 

But some research offers more hopeful results. As part of their research on automatic prejudice, Patricia Devine and her colleagues trained willing volunteers to replace biased with unbiased knee-jerk responses. Throughout the two-year study follow-up period, participants in their experimental intervention condition displayed reduced implicit prejudice. Another team of 24 researchers held a “research contest” that compared 17 interventions for reducing unintended prejudice among more than 17,000 individuals. Eight of the interventions proved effective. Some gave people experiences with vivid, positive examples of Black people who countered stereotypes.

 

Recently, Nosek and Devine have collaborated with Patrick Forscher and others on a meta-analysis (statistical summary) of 494 efforts to change implicit bias. Their conclusion meets in the middle: “Implicit bias can be changed, but the effects are often weak” and may not carry over to behavior.

 

So, what should we do? And what can we—and Starbucks and other well-intentioned organizations—do to counteract implicit bias?

 

First, let’s not despair. Reacting with knee-jerk presumptions or feelings is  not unusual—it’s what we do with that awareness that matters. Do we let those feelings hijack our behavior? Or do we learn to monitor and correct our behavior in future situations? Neuroscience evidence shows that, for people who intend no prejudice, the brain can inhibit a momentary flash of unconscious bias in but half a second.

 

Second, we can aim toward an all-inclusive multiculturalism. As race-expert Charles Green explains, “Working for racial justice in your organization is not about ‘going after’ those in the majority. It’s about addressing unequal power distribution and creating opportunity for all. It is structural, not personal.”

 

Third, we can articulate clear policies—behavior norms—for how people (all people) should be treated in specific situations. Organizations can train employees to enact expected behaviors in various scenarios—dealing with customers in a coffee shop, with drivers  at a traffic stop, with reservation inquiries at a rental unit. Happily, as people act without discrimination they come to think with less prejudice. Attitudes follow behavior.

David Myers

The Power of Habit

Posted by David Myers Expert May 3, 2018

On the same day last week, two kind colleagues sent unsolicited photos. In one, taken 21 years ago at Furman University, I am with my esteemed friend/encourager/adviser, Charles Brewer (who sadly died recently).  The others were from a talk just given at Moraine Valley Community College.

 

I was a little embarrassed to see that in both I’m wearing, 21 years apart, the same Scottish green plaid tie and blue blazer with brass buttons (well, not the exact same blazer—I wore the first one out, but its replacement is identical).

How boring is that? And how boring is the life of this professor who, when not traveling, arises at 7:00 each morning, dresses (often with the same sweater from the day before) while watching the first ten minutes of the Today Show; bikes to work the same 3 blocks every day of the year (no matter the weather); begins the office day with prayer, email, and downloading political news for reading over breakfast in the campus dining hall; works till noontime exercise in the campus gym and . . .  (enough of this). I know: very boring.

 

But consider the wisdom of mathematician/philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in his 1911 An Introduction to Mathematics

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. . . . By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and in effect increases the mental power of the race.

 

Mark Zuckerberg follows Whitehead’s wisdom (and that of Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit)—by not wasting time deciding what shirt to wear each day. As I concluded a previous essay on the same theme, “Amid today’s applause for ‘mindfulness,’ let’s put in a word for mindlessness. Mindless, habitual living frees our minds to work on more important things than which pants to wear or what breakfast to order.” Or so I’d like to believe.

 

[Note to positive psych geeks: The 2018 version of my “Scientific Pursuit of Happiness” talk (given more than 200 times over the past 28 years) is available, courtesy of Moraine Valley, at tinyurl.com/MyersHappiness.]