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2020

Paul Krugman’s Arguing with Zombies (2020) identifies “zombie ideas”—repeatedly refuted ideas that refuse to die. He offers economic zombie ideas that survive to continue eating people’s brains: “Tax cuts pay for themselves.” “The budget deficit is our biggest economic problem.” “Social Security is going broke.” “Climate change is nonexistent or trivial.”

 

That triggered my musing: Does everyday psychology have a similar army of mind-eating, refuse-to-die ideas?  Here are some candidates, and the research-based findings that tell a different story:

  1. People often repress painful experiences, which years later may later reappear as recovered memories or disguised emotions. (In reality, we remember traumas all too well, often as unwanted flashbacks.)
  2. In realms from sports to stock picking, it pays to go with the person who’s had the hot hand. (Actually, the combination of our pattern-seeking mind and the unexpected streakiness of random data guarantees that we will perceive hot hands even amid random outcomes.)
  3. Parental nurture shapes our abilities, personality, and sexual orientation. (The greatest and most oft-replicated surprise of psychological science is the minimal contribution of siblings’ “shared environment.”)
  4. Immigrants are crime-prone. (Contrary to what President Donald Trump has alleged, and contrary to people’s greater fear of immigrants in regions where few immigrants live, immigrants do not have greater-than-average arrest and incarceration rates.)
  5. Big round numbers: The brain has 100 billion neurons. 10 percent of people are gay. We use only 10 percent of our brain. 10,000 daily steps make for health. 10,000 practice hours make an expert. (Psychological science tells us to distrust such big round numbers.)
  6. Psychology’s three most misunderstood concepts are that: “Negative reinforcement” refers to punishment. “Heritability” means how much of a person’s traits are attributable to genes. “Short-term memory” refers to your inability to remember what you experienced yesterday or last week, as opposed to long ago. (These zombie ideas are all false, as I explain here.)
  7. Seasonal affective disorder causes more people to get depressed in winter, especially in cloudy places, and in northern latitudes. (This is still an open debate, but massive new data suggest to me that it just isn’t so.)
  8. To raise healthy children, protect them from stress and other risks. (Actually, children are antifragile. Much as their immune systems develop protective antibodies from being challenged, children’s emotional resilience builds from experiencing normal stresses.)
  9. Teaching should align with individual students’ “learning styles.” (Do students learn best when teaching builds on their responding to, say, auditory versus visual input? Nice-sounding idea, but researchers—here and here—continue to find little support for it.)
  10. Well-intentioned therapies change lives. (Often yes, but sometimes no—as illustrated by the repeated failures of some therapy zombies: Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, D.A.R.E. Drug Abuse Prevention, Scared Straight crime prevention, Conversion Therapy for sexual reorientation, permanent weight-loss training programs.)

 

Association for Psychological Science President Lisa Feldman Barrett, with support from colleagues, has offered additional psychology-relevant zombie ideas:

  • Vaccines cause autism (a zombie idea responsible for the spread of preventable disease).
  • A woman’s waist-to-hip ratio predicts her reproductive success. (For people who advocate this idea about women, says Barrett, “There should be a special place in hell, filled with mirrors.”)
  • A sharp distinction between nature and nurture. (Instead, biology and experience intertwine: “Nature requires nurture, and nurture has its impact via nature.”)
  • “Male” and “female” are genetically fixed, non-overlapping categories. (Neuroscience shows our human gender reality to be more complicated.)
  • People worldwide similarly read emotion in faces. (People do smile when happy, frown when sad, and scowl when angry—but there is variation across context and cultures. Moreover, a wide-eyed gasping face can convey more than one emotion, depending on the context.)

 

Westend61/Getty Images

 

Ergo, when approached by a possible zombie idea, don’t just invite it to become part of your mental family. Apply psychological science by welcoming plausible-sounding ideas, even hunches, and then putting each to the test: Ask does the idea work? Do the data support its predictions?

 

When subjected to skeptical scrutiny, crazy-sounding ideas do sometimes find support. During the 1700s, scientists ridiculed the notion that meteorites had extraterrestrial origins. Thomas Jefferson reportedly scoffed at the idea that “stones fell from heaven.”

 

But more often, as I suggest in Psychology 13th Edition (with Nathan DeWall), “science becomes society’s garbage collector, sending crazy-sounding ideas to the waste heap atop previous claims of perpetual motion machines, miracle cancer cures, and out-of-body travels. To sift reality from fantasy and fact from fiction therefore requires a scientific attitude: being skeptical but not cynical, open-minded but not gullible.”

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

 

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Many cartoonists are excellent observers of the human condition. One of the best is Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame. With 50 years of comic strips, that’s 17,897 individual strips—drawn by him and him alone—Schulz’s characters can be a rich source of psychology examples.

 

In this strip that ran most recently on May 5, 2019, Schulz gifts us with a beautiful example of classical conditioning. Students don’t need to be familiar with the characters to see the classical conditioning. If they are familiar with Charlie Brown and Lucy and the relationship these characters have with each other, they’ll better appreciate the humor.

 

The characters are playing baseball. From the outfield, Lucy yells, “Hey, manager!” Charlie Brown, standing on the pitcher’s mound, looks at us with a queasy expression. He explains that hearing her say “Hey, manager!” is enough to give him a stomachache because every time she yells that, she follows it up with a stupid/dumb/sarcastic remark. In this particular case, she surprises him (and long-time Peanuts readers) by saying something else. In the last panel, though, Lucy reveals that she knows exactly what’s going on.

 

I ask my students these questions about the strip:

 

  1. In this example, identify the unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned response, conditioned stimulus, and conditioned response. 
  2. Use this example to explain generalization and discrimination.
  3. What would need to happen in order to bring about extinction? What would spontaneous recovery look like?

 

While I do this as part of a larger homework assignment, it also works as an in-class discussion topic or as a lecture example.

 

Through this example, I have learned that many of my students are not familiar with the Peanuts comic strip. I know who is and who is not familiar based on what they call Charlie Brown. Students who know it call him Charlie Brown. Students who don’t know it simply call him Charlie—which is jarring to my 52-year-old, US-born ears.

In the Intro Psych sensation and perception chapter, we often cover monocular cues. While it’s fine to think about how monocular cues help us perceive depth, I had never given much thought to what we would perceive if we lacked several monocular cues.

 

In Your Inner Fish, the author, paleontologist and anatomy professor Neil Shubin, writes

 

There is no field manual for Arctic paleontology. We received gear recommendations from friends and colleagues, and we read books-only to realize that nothing could prepare us for the experience itself. At no time is this more sharply felt than when the helicopter drops one off for the first time in some godforsaken part of the Arctic totally alone. The first thought is of polar bears. I can't tell you how many times I've scanned the landscape looking for white specks that move. This anxiety can make you see things. In our first week in the Arctic, one of the crew saw a moving white speck. It looked like a polar bear about a quarter mile away. We scrambled like Keystone Kops for our guns, flares, and whistles until we discovered that our bear was a white Arctic hare two hundred feet away. With no trees or houses by which to judge distance, you lose perspective in the Arctic (pg. 17). 

 

This photo of Arctic Alaska can help you picture what Shubin and his colleagues were seeing—or not seeing. The caption says that those dark dots are caribou.

 

Looking at this tundra is not unlike looking at the sky, and the sky also frequently lacks monocular cues. When I see a speck with the sky as the background, if I perceive that speck as really close, then it’s a gnat. If I perceive it a little farther away, it’s a bird. If I perceive it really far away, it’s a plane. If I perceive the speck as being someplace between the bird and the plane, it’s Superman.

 

In Shubin’s case, the Arctic tundra didn’t give him many monocular cues to work with. Without a solid sense of distance, it’s difficult to determine the size of the object or critter.

 

After covering monocular cues, share with students the Arctic Alaska photo. Drag your browser so the description of the caribou is off the screen. Ask students to identify the dots in the photo. After all of the guesses are in, tell students that the dots are caribou. Ask students which of the monocular cues you covered can be seen in the photo, such as relative height. Ask students which ones are missing, such as linear perspective. The fewer distance cues we have, the harder it is to determine distance.

 

To close the activity, read students Shubin’s hare/bear paragraph. That will give you a leaping off point to talk about the ways in which our expectations can affect our perceptions. Shubin and his colleagues could have perceived the critter as a hare from the very beginning, but because polar bears were very much on their minds, a polar bear is what they all perceived. That is, until further evidence proved them wrong.

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Ingroups can be pretty powerful. We tend to like people in our ingroups more than people in our outgroups (ingroup bias), and we tend to see people in our outgroups as being more like each other than people in our ingroups (outgroup homogeneity bias), for example.

 

There is much rhetoric about Democrats vs. Republicans, immigrants/refugees vs. native born, the wealthy vs. the middle class vs. the working poor, people with homes vs. people who are homeless. Depending on where you live, the groups may be different than these, but the groups are there.

 

The next time you cover ingroups/outgroups, ask your students what groups are most salient to them – on your campus or in your town/city. If you’re in a small college town, it may be the townies vs. those at the college. Write down the names of the groups where students can see them.

 

If time allows, ask your students to work in pairs or small groups to generate examples of how ingroup bias or outgroup homogeneity bias has affected or could affect how each group sees themselves and sees the other.

 

Next, show this 3-minute TV2 Denmark ad that aired in 2017.

 

 

Ask students to share their reactions to the video. If they could get their-previously-identified groups together, what questions would they ask? Who likes pizza? Who likes dogs? Who likes cats? Who likes to drive?  

 

Close this activity by pointing out ingroups/outgroups shift depending on context. When one context—politics, for example—is continually salient, it’s easy to forget that we have plenty in common with members of our—say, politicaloutgroup. What strategies might your students use to help them remember that they may have a lot in common with an outgroup member, and to remember that, in a different context, that person is probably a member of their ingroup?

In a long-ago experiment by Columbia University social psychologist Stanley Schachter, groups discussed how to deal with fictional juvenile delinquent “Johnny Rocco.” One “modal” group member (actually Schachter’s accomplice) concurred with the others in arguing for leniency and became well liked. A second accomplice, the “deviate,” stood alone in arguing for harsh discipline. At first, the study participants argued with the nonconforming deviate, but eventually they ignored him and then reported disliking him.

 

Recent experiments with children and adults confirm the lesson: Groups respond harshly to members who deviate from group norms and threaten their group identity. Other studies show how agonizingly difficult it can be to publicly state truths after hearing consensus falsehoods from one’s peers, and how “groupthink” suppresses dissent. After President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, his adviser Arthur Schlesinger, having self-censored his misgivings, reproached himself “for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions.”

 

To dissent from one’s group—one’s fraternity, one’s religion, one’s friends—can be painful, especially when a minority of one.

 

Mitt Romney understands. For being a minority of one in voting for President Trump’s removal, he anticipated being “vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters.”

 

And so he has. “I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” vented the President, before ridiculing Romney for “one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.” Donald Trump, Jr. went further, calling for Romney to “be expelled” from the GOP. Romney, some Congressional colleagues derided, was a “sore loser” who acted “to appease the left” and was “not very collegial.”

 

The rewards of conformity, and the rejection of dissenters, are no secret. As President Kennedy recalled in Profiles in Courage (1955), “‘The way to get along,’ I was told when I entered Congress, ‘is to go along.’” It is a temptation we all face.  When feeling alone, we may silence our voice. We may join a standing ovation for something we do not inwardly applaud. We may succumb to the power of our herd and its leader.

 

And then, feeling some dissonance over conforming, we rationalize. Observing our own silence and our false witness, our mind mutates, and we begin to believe what we reluctantly stood up for. Our attitudes follow our actions, which grow their own self-justifying legs. As C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”

 

For those who endure the distress of dissent, there are compensations.

 

First, minorities of one can matter. “All history,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a record of the power of minorities, and of minorities of one.” Think of Copernicus and Galileo, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony, of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. In the short term, these heroes, and the conformity-resisting former senators whom Kennedy later celebrated in Profiles in Courage, were scorned for flouting team play and resisting expectations. It was only later that historians and filmmakers honored their heroism. Mitt Romney can take the long view.

 

Second, experiments on “minority influence” show how a minority of one can matter; When such individuals, despite ridicule, persist with consistency, they can sway their laboratory group, or even change history. Being a persistent dissenting voice may get you disliked and even ignored, but it can also, eventually, stimulate rethinking. It punctures the illusion of unanimity and can enable others to express their doubts. That voice is especially potent when it represents a defection from the ingroup rather than a voice from the opposition. A Republican Mitt Romney is harder for Republicans to dismiss than a Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

 

Ergo, those who dissent—who deviate from group norms and threaten a group’s identity—are often scorned. Yet a persistent, consistent, cogent voice sometimes moves the needle. “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide,” said Emerson, “the huge world will come round to him.”

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

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A recent Templeton World Charity Foundation conference, Character, Social Connections and Flourishing in the 21st Century, expanded my mind, thanks to a lecture by famed evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. This much about him I had known: His multilevel selection theory argues that evolution favors survival-enhancing group as well as individual behaviors. Within groups, selfishness beats altruism. Yet altruistic groups triumph over selfish groups.

 

What I learned from his lecture and our ensuing dinner conversation was that his passion has shifted to understanding and enabling effective real-world groups—from nonprofit organizations to schools to faith communities to businesses. How might people in such groups more effectively work together to accomplish goals?

 

To enhance work team effectiveness, Wilson and his colleagues suggest implementing a group of basic principles. They point out that groups that effectively manage shared resources, such as irrigation, forests, and fisheries, follow principles that (a) integrate evolutionary principles of group selection with (b) “core design principles” identified by political scientist and economics Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, seasoned with (c) behavior-change insights articulated by psychologist Steven Hayes. The resulting eight principles for success:

  1. Strong group identity and purpose. Groups know who they are and what sets them apart from other groups.
  2. Fair sharing of benefits and costs. Proportional sharing (without some members benefiting at the expense of others) advances group over individual advancement.
  3. Fair and inclusive decisions. Consensus decision-making, with uncensored input, enables smart decisions, and, again, safeguards against some benefiting at others’ expense.
  4. Tracking results ensures that agreements are honored.
  5. Graduated sanctions. Accountability for misbehaviors ranges from gentle reminders to expulsion.
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms. When disagreements occur, the group implements fair and fast resolution procedures.
  7. Authority to self-govern. In larger societies and organizations, subgroups are empowered to organize and operate.
  8. Appropriate coordination with other groups. In larger social systems, operating subgroups must integrate with other subgroups.

 

How striking it is, notes Wilson, that the principles Ostrom identified from successful commons resource-managing groups are so similar to “the conditions that caused us to evolve into such a cooperative species.” These principles—when implemented by effective leaders—build a group’s moral foundation, protect it against self-serving behaviors, and allow its members to freely express themselves.

 

To assist groups in implementing the core design principles drawn from evolutionary, political, and psychological science, Wilson and colleagues have authored a book (Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups), developed a websitethat offers training and resources, and produced an online magazine that tells implementation stories.

 

Wilson’s life journey—from son of a famous author (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) to science theorist to social entrepreneur—is unique. Yet in other ways, his professional pilgrimage is similar to our own . . . as our lives have unfolded in unanticipated ways—sometimes with false starts leading to brick walls, sometimes with gratifying new directions. Little did I expect, when first encountering Wilson’s work, that it would later produce practical resources for helping groups “learn about and adopt design principles to improve their efficacy.”

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

If you are about to cover or have recently covered the availability heuristic in Intro Psych, ask your students this question.

 

Which are you more concerned about: the coronavirus or the flu virus?

 

Alternatively,

How concerned are you about the coronavirus? (1 not at all concerned to 7 very concerned)

How concerned are you about the flu virus? (1 not at all concerned to 7 very concerned)

 

Here are the statistics.

 

Coronavirus

As of Monday, February 3, 2020, CBS News reports that “there were more than 20,000 confirmed cases [of coronavirus infection] in more than two dozen countries, the vast majority of them in China, according to the World Health Organization. There have been at least 425 deaths in China, and one in the Philippines.”

 

Flu virus

In contrast, in the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports as of January 25, 2020 that 19 million to 26 million people have contracted the flu resulting in 180,000 to 310,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 to 25,000 deaths.

This year isn’t so bad. The CDC estimates that the flu virus killed 61,000 people during the 2017-2018 flu season, again, just in the United States.

 

If your students are using the availability heuristic here, they are much more likely to be concerned about the coronavirus than the flu virus. The coverage of the coronavirus in mass media and social media is, well, substantial. The coverage of the flu virus is almost nil.

 

This is an excellent opportunity to talk with students about how the information we take in can influence how we see the world, a perception that can cause us to put our fears in the wrong place.

 

Ask students to take a few minutes to generate some strategies for increasing their own awareness of when they may be under the influence of the availability heuristic as well as some strategies for countering it. It may be as simple as realizing that we’re feeling frightened and saying, “Wait. Do I have reason to be frightened? Let me do some research into this.”

 

Of course, this does not mean that your students should be freaked out by the flu instead. Encourage your students to do some research on who is most at risk for dying from the flu. For those who aren’t at risk from dying from the flu, getting the flu vaccine can help prevent them from passing the flu on to someone else who is at risk from dying from it.