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227 Posts authored by: David Myers Expert

You surely know why you chose your town, your partner, and your vocation—all for good reasons, no doubt.

 

But might other unknown reasons—operating below the level of your conscious awareness–also have nudged your choices? Such is the implication of some clever studies of implicit egotisman automatic tendency to like things we associate with ourselves. For example, we like better a politician or stranger whose face has been morphed with some features of our own (see here and here).

 

I see you yawning: “You needed research to know that we love ourselves and things that resemble us?” The surprise—astonishment, really—comes with the subtle ways in which this phenomenon has been documented. Consider:

  • The name–letter effect. People of varied nationalities, languages, and ages prefer the letters that appear in their own name. People also tend to marry someone whose first or last name resembles our own.
  • The birthdate–number effect. People likewise prefer the numbers that appear in their birthdate. For example, people tend to be attracted to people whose laboratory participant number resembles their birth date.
  • The name–residence effect. Philadelphia, having many more people than Jacksonville, has also had (no surprise) 2.2 times more men named Jack . . . but also 10.4 times more named Philip. Ditto Virginia Beach, which has a disproportionate number of women named Virginia, and St. Louis which, compared to the national average, has 49 percent more men named Louis. Likewise, folks named Park, Hill, Beach, Rock, or Lake are disproportionately likely to live in cities (for example, Park City) that include their names.

 

If that last finding—offered by implicit egotism researchers Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg, and John Jones—doesn’t surprise you, consider an even weirder phenomenon they uncovered: People seem to gravitate to careers identified with their names. In the United States, Dennis, Jerry, and Walter have been equally popular names. But dentists have twice as often been named Dennis as Jerry or Walter, and 2.5 times more often named Denise than the equally popular Beverly or Tammy. Among geoscientists (geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists) people named George and Geoffrey are similarly overrepresented.

 

The phenomenon extends to surname–occupation matching. In 1940 U.S. Census data, people named Baker, Barber, Butcher, and Butler were all 40 percent more likely than expected to work in occupations with their names.

 

Ah, but do Pelham and colleagues have cause-and-effect reversed? For example, aren’t towns often named after people whose descendants stick around? And are people in Virginia more likely to name girls with the state name? Are Georgians more likely to christen their babies Georgia or George? Wasn’t the long-ago village baker—thus so-named—likely to have descendants carrying on the ancestral work?

 

Likely so, grants Pelham. But could that, he asks, explain why states have an excess of people sharing a last-name similarity? California, for example, has an excess of people whose names begin with Cali (as in Califano). Moreover, he reports, people are more likely to move to states and cities with name resemblances—Virginia to Virginia, for example.

 

If the Pelham team is right to think that implicit egotism, though modest, is nonetheless a real unconscious influence on our preferences, might that explain why, with long-ago job offers from three states, I felt drawn to Michigan? And why it was Suzie who sold seashells by the seashore?

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, including a 2016 essay on much of this implicit egotism research, visit TalkPsych.com.)

David Myers

The Joy of Being Wrong

Posted by David Myers Expert May 28, 2019

What virtue is more needed in today’s contentious and polarized world than humility? We need deep-rooted convictions to fuel our passions, but also humility to restrain bull-headed fanaticism.

 

Along with curiosity and skepticism, humility forms the foundation of all science. Humility enables critical thinking, which holds one’s untested beliefs tentatively while assessing others’ ideas with a skeptical but open mind. To accept everything is to be gullible; to deny everything is to be a cynic.

 

In religion and literature, hubris (pride) is first and foundational among the seven deadly sins. When rooted in theism—the assumption that “There is a God, but it’s not me”—humility reminds us of our surest conviction: Some of our beliefs err. We are finite and fallible. We have dignity but not deity. So there’s no great threat when one of our beliefs is overturned or refined—it’s to be expected.  In this spirit, we can, as St. Paul advised, “test everything, hold fast to what is good.”

 

Humility also underlies healthy human relations. In one of his eighteenth-century Sermons, Samuel Johnson recognized the corrosive perils of pride and narcissism: “He that overvalues himself will undervalue others, and he that undervalues others will oppress them.” Even Dale Carnegie, the positive thinking apostle, foresaw the danger: “Each nation feels superior to other nations. That breeds patriotism—and wars.”

 

Unlike pride and narcissism, humility contributes to human flourishing. It opens us to others. Show social psychologists a situation where humility abounds—with accurate self-awareness + modest self-presentation + a focus on others—and they will show you civil discourse, happy marriages, effective leadership, and mental health. And that is the gist of this new 3.5 minute animated Freethink video, “The Joy of Being Wrong.”

 

Note: The video was supported by the Templeton Foundation (which I serve as a trustee) as an expression of its founder’s science-friendly motto: “How little we know, how eager to learn.” The Foundation is also supporting a University of Connecticut initiative on “Humility and Conviction in Public Life,” including blog essays, a monthly newsletter, podcast interviews, and videos of forums and lectures.

 

 

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

“Self-consciousness [exists] in contrast with

an ‘other,’ a something which is not the self.”

——C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940

 

We are, always and everywhere, self-conscious of how we differ. Search your memory for a social situation in which you were the only person of your gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or body type. Perhaps you were the only woman in a group of men, or the only straight person at an LGBTQ gathering.

 

Recalling that situation . . .

  • Were you self-conscious about your identity?
  • How did others respond to you?
  • How did your perceptions of their responses affect your behavior?

 

Differences determine our “spontaneous self-concepts." If you recalled being very aware of your differences, you are not alone. As social psychologist William McGuire long ago noted, we are conscious of ourselves “insofar as, and in the ways that” we differ. When he and his co-workers invited children to “tell us about yourself,” they mostly mentioned their distinctive attributes. Redheads volunteered their hair color, foreign-born their birthplace, minority children their ethnicity. Spontaneous self-concepts often adapt to a changing group. A Black woman among White women will think of herself as Black, McGuire observed. When moving to a group of Black men, she will become more conscious of being a woman.

 

This identity-shaping phenomenon affects us all. When serving on an American Psychological Association professional task with 10 others—all women—I immediately was aware of my gender. But it was only on the second day, when I joked to the woman next to me that the bathroom break line would be short for me, that she noticed the group’s gender make-up. In my daily life, surrounded by mostly White colleagues and neighbors, I seldom am cognizant of my race—which becomes a prominent part of my identity when visiting my daughter in South Africa, where I become part of a 9 percent minority. In the U.S., by contrast, a new Pew survey finds that 74 percent of Blacks but only 15 percent of Whites see their race as “being extremely or very important to how they think of themselves.”

 

Our differences may influence how others respond to us. Researchers have also noted a related phenomenon: Our differences, though mostly salient to ourselves, may also affect how others treat us. Being the “different” or “solo” person—a Black person in an otherwise White group, a woman in a male group, or an adult in a group of children—can make a person more visible and seem more influential. Their good and bad qualities also tend to be more noticed (see here and here).

 

If we differ from others around us, it therefore makes adaptive sense for us to be a bit wary. It makes sense for a salient person—a minority race person, a gay person, or a corpulent person—to be alert and sensitive to how they are being treated by an interviewer, a police officer, or a neighbor. Although subsiding, explicit prejudices and implicit biases are real, and stereotypes of a difference can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Sometimes our perceived differences not only influence how others treat us, but also how we, in turn, respond to them. In one classic experiment, men students conversed by phone with women they mistakenly presumed (from having been shown a fake picture) were either unattractive or attractive. The presumed attractive women (unaware of the picture manipulation) spoke more warmly to the men than did the presumed unattractive women. The researchers’ conclusion: The men’s expectations had led them to act in a way that influenced the women to fulfill the belief that beautiful women are desirable. A stereotype of a difference can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Our acute self-consciousness of our differences can cause us to exaggerate or misinterpret others’ reactions. At times, our acute self-consciousness of our difference may have funny consequences. Consider of my favorite social psychology experiments demonstrating the influence of personal perception of differences. In the first, which showed the “spotlight effect,” Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky asked university students to don a Barry Manilow T-shirt before entering a room with other students. Feeling self-conscious about their difference, those wearing the dorky T-shirt guessed that nearly half of their peers would notice the shirt. Actually, only 23 percent did. The lesson: Our differences—our bad hair day, our hearing loss, our dropping the cafeteria plate—often get noticed and remembered less than we imagine.

 

In another favorite experiment—one of social psychology’s most creative and poignant studies—Robert Kleck and Angelo Strenta used theatrical makeup to place an ear-to-mouth facial scar on college women—supposedly to see how others would react. After each woman checked the real-looking scar in a hand mirror, the experimenter applied “moisturizer” to “keep the makeup from cracking”—but which actually removed the scar.

 

So the scene was set: A woman, feeling terribly self-conscious about her supposedly disfigured face, talks with another woman who knows nothing of all this. Feeling acutely sensitive to how their conversational partner was looking at them, the “disfigured” women saw the partner as more tense, patronizing, and distant than did women in a control condition. Their acute self-consciousness about their presumed difference led them to misinterpret normal mannerisms and comments.

 

The bottom line: Differences define us. We are self-conscious of how we differ. To a lesser extent, others notice how we differ and categorize us according to their own beliefs, which may include stereotypes or unrealistic expectations. And sometimes, thanks to our acute sensitivity to how we differ, we overestimate others’ noticing and reacting. But we can reassure ourselves: if we’re having a bad hair day, others are unlikely to notice and even less likely to remember.

 

 

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

It’s a core lesson of introductory psychology: Intergroup contact reduces prejudice (especially friendly, equal-status contact). As hundreds of studies show, attitudes—of White folks toward Black folks, of straight folks toward gay folks, and of natives toward immigrants—are influenced not just by what we know but also by whom we know. Prejudice lessens when straight people have gay friends or family, and native-born citizens know immigrants.

 

As I write these words from the place of my childhood—Bainbridge Island, Washington—I am moved to offer a family example of the power of social contact. First, consider a large social experiment—the World War II internment and return of Japanese Americans from (a) California, and (b) Bainbridge, a Manhattan-sized island across Puget Sound from Seattle.

 

In minimal-contact California, Japanese-Americans lived mostly in separate enclaves—meaning few Caucasians had Japanese-descent friends. When the California internment ensued, the Hearst newspapers, having long warned of “the yellow peril” celebrated, and few bid the internees goodbye. On their return, resistance and “No Japs Here” signs greeted them. Minimal contact enabled maximal prejudice.

 

Bainbridge was a contrasting high-contact condition—and was also the place where (at its ferry dock on March 30, 1942) the internment began. As an island community, all islanders intermingled as school classmates. Their strawberry farms and stores were dispersed throughout the island. The local paper (whose owners later won awards for journalistic courage) editorialized against the internment and then published internee news from the camps for their friends back home. The internees’ fellow islanders watched over their property. And when more than half the internees returned after the war, they were greeted with food and assistance. A history of cooperative contact enabled minimal prejudice.

 

I can personalize this. One of those saying a tearful goodbye on the dock that 1942 day was my father, the insurance agent and friend of many of them. After maintaining their property insurance during the internment, and then writing “the first auto policy on a Japanese American after the war,” his support was remembered decades later—with a tribute at his death by the island’s Japanese American Community president (a former internee):

 

 

My father provides a case example of the contact effect. His support did not stem from his being socially progressive. (He was a conservative Republican businessperson who chaired the Washington State Nixon for President campaign.) His opposition to the internment of his fellow islanders was simply because he knew them. He therefore believed it was colossally unjust to deem them—his friends and neighbors—a threat. As he later wrote, “We became good friends … and it was heartbreaking for us when the war started and the Japanese people on Bainbridge Island were ordered into concentration camps.”

 

This great and sad experiment on the outcomes of racial separation versus integration is being replicated in our own time. People in states with the least contact with immigrants express most hostility toward them. Meanwhile, those who know and benefit from immigrants—as co-workers, employees, businesspeople, health-care workers, students—know to appreciate them.

 

It’s a lesson worth remembering: Cordial and cooperative contact advances acceptance.

 

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

There’s bad news and good news about Americans’ race relations and attitudes.

 

The bad news:

  • People perceive race relations as worsening. In a 2019 Pew survey of 6637 Americans, 58 percent said that U.S. race relations are now “generally bad,” and 69 percent of those folks saw race relations as “getting worse.”
  • The Trump effect? In the same survey, most (65 percent) said it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Donald Trump’s election.
  • Hate groups are proliferating. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 1,020 hate groups—up 30 percent in four years. Such groups feed off dehumanizing views of other races (see here, here, and here).
  • Hate crimes are rising. Although some criticize the SPLC’s hate-group definition, their report coincides with the FBI’s reported 17 percent increase in hate crimes just in 2017. Widely publicized hate crimes, such as the burning of three Louisiana Black churches in March and April of 2019, not to mention the recent synagogue attacks, will surely sustain the perception that Trump-era race relations are worsening.

 

But there is also good news: You likely already know that since the mid-twentieth  century, support for school desegregation, equal employment opportunity, and interracial dating and marriage has soared to near-consensus—enabling a 2008 presidential election that Abraham Lincoln probably never imagined. Although most metropolitan areas remain substantially segregated, neighborhood integration has modestly increased since the century’s turn. But the even better news is that both explicit and implicit race prejudice have continued to decline.

 

This good news is reflected in Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji’s new report of nearly 2 million U.S. adults’ explicit and implicit racial attitudes. Since 2007, people’s explicit race attitudes—the extent to which they acknowledged preferring White to Black people—“moved toward neutrality by approximately 37 percent.” Implicit race attitudes—people’s faster speed when pairing negative words with Black faces (and positive words with White faces)—also moved toward neutrality, but with a slower 17 percent shift. (Charlesworth and Banaji also reported changed attitudes toward other social groups: Attitudes toward gay people made the swiftest progress toward neutrality, while negative implicit attitudes toward overweight people have actually increased.)

 

 

Are these hate-up, prejudice-down findings paradoxical—or even contradictory? Not necessarily. Much as extremes of income—both crushing poverty and excessive wealth—can rise even while average income is stable, so also can extremist racial attitudes increase while overall prejudice does not. Even within healthy communities, a viral disease can spread.

 

Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, was prescient: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 

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

David Myers

Showerthoughts

Posted by David Myers Expert Apr 19, 2019

Part of my text-writing pleasure is interjecting playful thoughts and tongue-in-cheek one-liners that students seem to enjoy: “Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?” (If I don’t enjoy writing—assuming psychology teaching can offer both wisdom and wit—then who will enjoy reading?)

 

As part of my, um, “executive time,” I occasionally visit Reddit’s Showerthoughts—first for delight but also for inspiration. To quote the website, a showerthought is a spontaneous “miniature epiphany that makes the mundane more interesting. . . . Showerthoughts can be funny, poignant, thought-provoking, or even just silly, but they should always prompt people to say ‘Huh, I’ve never thought about it that way before!’”

 

Some Showerthought examples:

  • Your stomach thinks all potato is mashed.
  • We don’t wash our hands, our hands wash each other.
  • Someone coined the term “coin the term.”
  • If you are the best barber in town, you know you can't get the best haircut.
  • The "b" in subtle is subtle.
  • In a nutshell, an acorn is an oak tree.
  • A lot of people die in their living rooms.
  • The two worst prison sentences are life and death.
  • If you swap the W’s in Where? What? and When? with T’s, you end up with their answers.
  • Tea is just a fancy way of saying leaf soup.
  • Everything in the entire universe either is or isn't a potato.

 

For your further pleasure, here are some psychology-relevant examples, each from Showerthoughts or inspired by one-liners that I encountered there. Perhaps (after my editors trim the merely silly) some of these musings will leaven our future editions?

 

Sleep: To fall asleep, fake it till you make it.

 

Loneliness: The world is full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.

 

Relationships: All of your friends you made by talking to strangers.

 

Implicit cognition: The unconscious mind is like the wind: You don’t see it, but you can see its effects.

 

Aging: To age is to shift from a life of “no limits” to “know limits.”

 

Relationships: Marrying someone because they're attractive is like buying a watermelon because it's a really nice shade of green.

 

Memory via acronyms: The acronym of "The Only Day After Yesterday" is TODAY.

 

Eating behavior: When you're “biting down" on something, you're actually biting up.

 

Sensory adaptation: Nobody realizes how much noise their air conditioning is making until it abruptly shuts off.

 

Psychokinesis claims: More spoons have been bent by ice cream than by psychics.

 

Mind and brain: When you're thinking about your brain, your brain is just thinking about itself.

 

Death: You will be the last person to die in your lifetime.

 

 

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

“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as

a household laughing together over a meal.”

~C. S. Lewis, “Membership,” 1949

 

It’s one of life’s curiosities: Taking in food is, everywhere, a common communal activity. For families and friends, eating together is a social event. For creatures with a need to belong, group meals provide the pleasures of both food and friendship.

 

Eating eases meeting. When people share an eating pleasure, such as tasting chocolates, they find food more flavorful. When families sit down for a shared dinner, they eat not only healthier but happier—their lives pausing for connection. And when workers come together for a meal, team-building friendships grow. Such is my experience, as when my psychology text publishing team gathers over a meal (shown here from our recent book-planning meeting in New York City).

Yale psychologist Irving Janis and his colleagues observed long ago that persuasive messages associated with good feelings—such as experienced while eating snacks—are more convincing. Fund solicitors and salespeople understand that when they treat us to a meal, good feelings often generalize to the host. The bonding power of a shared meal is especially great, report Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, when people—whether friends or strangers—eat from shared bowls. After eating chips and salsa from shared rather than separate bowls, people in their experiments became more cooperative in negotiating wages.

 

Their findings remind me of the convivial spirit I experienced when treated to group dinners with my Chinese hosts on visits to Beijing and Shanghai—with each of us sampling from shared dishes placed around a center-table Lazy Susan (or as the Chinese would say, in translation, a “dinner-table turntable”).

 

      Free image from Pixaby.

Those of us who are North Americans have our own family-style-dinner counterparts —shared fondue pots, tapas dinners, and communal hors d'oeuvres. As Woolley and Fishbach conclude, shared plates → shared minds. Such is the social power of shared meals.

 

Food matters. Perhaps the rapport-building power of breaking bread together can nudge us to prioritize time for sharing more family meals, for offering hospitality to our friends and colleagues, and for welcoming new acquaintances.

 

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

Consider two facts:

 

  1. Worldwide, smartphones and easier social media access exploded starting in 2010. Consider U.S. smartphone-use (and its projected future):
  2. Simultaneously—and coincidentally?—teen girls’ rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide have mushroomed (for Canadian, American, and British sample data see here, here, and here).

     

So, is there a causal connection? If so, is it big enough to matter?

 

Should parents give (or deny) their middle schoolers smartphones with Instagram or Snapchat accounts? And does amount of daily screen time matter?

 

In quest of answers, my esteemed social psychologist colleague Jonathan Haidt is assembling the available evidence using (and illustrating) three psychological methods. His tentative conclusions:

 

  • Correlational studies ask: Is social media use associated with teen mental health? Study outcomes vary, but overall, there is at least a small correlation between adolescents’ social media hours and their risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. The screen time–disorder association is stronger for social media use than for TV and gaming time, and the link is greater for females who are heavy social media users.
  • Longitudinal studies ask: Does today’s social media use predict future mental health? In six of eight studies, the answer is yes.
  • Experiments ask: Do volunteers randomly assigned to restricted social media use fare better than those not assigned on outcomes such as loneliness and depression? On balance, yes, says Haidt, but the few such studies have produced mixed results.

 

Haidt’s provisional conclusion can be seen in his tweet:

 

In a Time essay, researcher Jean Twenge (my Social Psychology co-author) offers kindred advice for parents concerned about their children’s social media use:

  • “No phone or tablets in the bedroom at night.”
  • “No using devices within an hour of bedtime.”
  • “Limit device time to less than two hours of leisure time a day.”

 

Haidt also provides us a much-needed model of intellectual humility. In his continuing search for answers, he posts his tentative conclusions and accumulating evidence online, and he welcomes other researchers’ evidence and criticism. He writes,

I am not unbiased. I came to the conclusion that there is a link, and I said so in my book (The Coddling of the American Mind, with Greg Lukianoff). . . . Like all people, I suffer from confirmation bias. [Thus] I need help from critics to improve my thinking and get closer to the truth. If you are a researcher and would like to notify me about other studies, or add comments or counterpoints to this document, please request edit access to the Google Doc, or contact me directly.

 

In our college and AP psychology texts, Nathan DeWall and I commend “a scientific attitude that combines curiosity, skepticism, and humility.” We note that, when combined with the scientific method, the result is a self-correcting road toward truth. By embracing this spirit, Haidt exemplifies psychological science at its best—exploring an important question by all available methods . . . drawing initial conclusions . . . yet holding them tentatively, while welcoming skeptical scrutiny and further evidence. As he mused (when I shared a draft of this essay), “It is amazing how much I have learned, and refined my views, just by asking people to make me smarter.”

 

How true for us all. The pack is greater than the wolf.

 

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

David Myers

Out of Many, One

Posted by David Myers Expert Mar 28, 2019

Perhaps you, too, feel it like never before—intense contempt for your political opposites. National Election Surveys reveal that U.S. Republicans and Democrats who hate the other party each soared from 20% in 2000 to near 50% in 2016. Small wonder, given that 42 percent in both parties agree that those in the other party “are downright evil.”

 

Should the government “do more to help the needy”? Is racial discrimination a main reason “why many Black people can’t get ahead these days”? Do immigrants “strengthen the country with their hard work and talents”? The partisan divergence in response to such questions has never been greater, reports the Pew Research Center. The overlap between conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans has never been less. And fewer folks than ever hold a mix of conservative and liberal views.

 

Americans are polarized. There seems no bridge between Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, between MAGA red-hatters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admirers. We are a nation of opposing hidden tribes. “Some people’s situations are so challenging that no amount of work will allow them to find success,” agree 95 percent of “progressive activists.” But no, say “devoted conservatives,” who are 92 percent agreed that “people who work hard can find success no matter what situation they were born into.”

Do we exaggerate?

But I overstate. Although the political extremes are inverses, studies (here and here) show that most liberals and conservatives exaggerate their differences. On issues such as immigration, trade, and taxes, they overestimate the extremity of a “typical” member of the other party. And for some ideas—higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy, Medicare negotiation of lower drug prices, background checks on gun sales—there is bipartisan supermajority support.

 

Differences, we notice; similarities, we neglect
It’s a universal truth: Differences draw our attention. As individuals, we’re keenly aware of how we differ from others. Asked to describe themselves, redheads are more likely to mention their hair color; the foreign-born, their birthplace; and the left-handed, their handedness. Living in Scotland, I become conscious of my American identity and accent. Visiting my daughter in South Africa, I am mindful of my race. As the sole male on a professional committee of females, I was aware of my gender. One is “conscious of oneself insofar as, and in the ways that, one is different,” observed the late social psychologist William McGuire.

 

Likewise, when the people of two cultures are similar, they nevertheless will attend to their differences—even if those differences are small. Rivalries often are most intense with another group that most resembles one’s own. My college has what is widely acclaimed (by ESPN and others) as the greatest small college sports rivalry with a nearby college that shares its Protestant Dutch history…rather like (in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) the war between the Little-Endians who preferred to break their eggs on the small end, and the Big-Endians who did so on the big end.

 

Our similarities exceed our differences

As members of one human family, we share not only our biology—cut us and we bleed—but our behaviors. We all wake and sleep, prefer sweet tastes to sour, fear snakes more than snails, and know how to read smiles and frowns. An alien anthropologist could land anywhere on Earth and find people laughing and crying, singing and worshiping, and fearing strangers while favoring their own family and neighbors. Although differences hijack our attention, we are all kin beneath the skin.

 

Nearly two decades ago, the communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni identified “core values” that are “embraced by most Americans of all races and ethnic groups.” Eight in ten Americans—with agreement across races—desired “fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination.” More than 8 in 10 in every demographic group agreed that freedom must be tempered by personal responsibility, and that it was “extremely important” to spend tax dollars on “reducing crime” and “reducing illegal drug use” among youth. A more recent study of nearly 90,000 people across world cultures and of varying gender, age, education, income, and religiosity confirmed that “similarities between groups of people are large and important.” 

 

Believing that there is common ground, the nonprofit Better Angels movement aims “to unite red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.” They do this in several ways:

  • “We try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it.”
  • “We engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.”
  • “We support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.” 

 

We will still disagree. We do have real differences, including the social identities and values that define us. Nevertheless, our challenge now is to affirm both our diversity and our unifying ideals, and thus to renew the founding idea of America: diversity within unity. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

 

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

In the aftermath of the New Zealand massacre of Muslims at worship, American pundits have wondered: While the perpetrator alone is responsible for the slaughter, do the expressed attitudes of nationalist, anti-immigrant world leaders increase White nationalism—and thus the risk of such violence?

 

Consider Donald Trump’s rhetoric against supposed rapist, drug-dealing immigrants; his retweeting of anti-Muslim rhetoric; his saying that the Charlottesville White nationalists included some “very fine people”; or his condoning violence at his rallies and against the media. Do these actions serve to normalize such attitudes and behavior? Is the Southern Poverty Law Center right to suppose that hatemongering is “emboldened [and] energized” by such rhetoric? Is the New Zealand gunman’s reportedly lauding Trump as “a symbol of White supremacy” something more than a murderer’s misguided rantings?

 

In response, many people—particularly those close to Trump—attributed responsibility to the gunman. The President’s acting chief of staff argued that the shooter was a “disturbed individual” and that it is “absurd” to link one national leader’s rhetoric to an “evil person’s” behavior. We social psychologists call this a “dispositional attribution” rather than a “situational attribution.”

 

As I noted in a 2017 essay, two recent surveys and an experiment show that dispositions are shaped by social contexts. Hate speech (surprised?) feeds hate. Those frequently exposed to hate speech become desensitized to it, and then to lower evaluations of, and greater prejudice toward, its targets. Prejudice begets prejudice.

 

To be sure, leaders’ words are not a direct cause of individuals’ dastardly actions. Yet presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities do voice and amplify social norms. To paraphrase social psychologists Chris Crandall and Mark White, people express prejudices that are socially acceptable and suppress those that are not. When prejudice toward a particular group seems socially sanctioned, acts of prejudice—from insults to vandalism to violence—increase as well. Norms matter.

 

The FBI reports a 5 percent increase in hate crimes during 2016, and a further 17 percent increase during 2017--and reportedly more than doubled in counties hosting a Trump rally. The Anti-Defamation League reports that 2018 “was a particularly active year for right-wing extremist murders: Every single extremist killing—from Pittsburgh to Parkland—had a link to right-wing extremism.” Again, we ask: Coincidence? Or is there something more at work? If so, is there a mirror-image benevolent effect of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s saying of her nation’s Muslim immigrants, “They are us”?

 

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

With so many trillions of daily happenings, some weird and wonderful events are inevitable—random serendipities that we could never predict in foresight but can savor in hindsight. From sports to relationships to our very existence, chance rules.

 

Sports. I defy you to watch this 7-second basketball clip (of a “double doinked” basketball fan) and not smile (or cringe). Freakish events are commonplace in baseball and basketball—as in astonishing hot and cold hitting and shooting streaks. Even when such streaks approximate mere random sequences, they hardly seem random to fans. That’s because random data are streakier than folks assume. (Coin tosses, too, have more runs of heads and of tails than people expect.) And thus is born the sporting world’s preeminent myth—the “hot hand” (see here and here).

 

Chance encounters. Albert Bandura has documented the lasting significance of chance events that deflect our life course into an unanticipated relationship or career. He recalls the book editor who came to one of his lectures on the “Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths”—and ended up marrying the woman he chanced to sit beside.

 

In 1978, I was invited to a five-day conference in Germany, where I came to know a more senior American colleague who chanced to have an adjacent assigned seat. Six months later, when he was invited to become a social psychology textbook author, he referred an acquisitions editor to me, which led to my writing of textbooks and eventually these TalkPsych.com essays. So, thanks to this happenstance seating assignment (and to the kindness of my distinguished colleague), I gained a meaning-filled new vocation . . . and now you are reading this.

 

Recently I was stranded on a rainy Cambridge, Massachusetts, sidewalk, waiting for a lost Lyft driver. That mix-up led to my sharing a ride with University of California at Santa Barbara professor Ann Taves. Making small talk, I asked her about the California fires, noting that I have a friend whose department at Westmont College (in Santa Barbara) was burned in wildfires some years ago.

 

“Who’s your friend?” she asked.

 

“Ray Paloutzian,” I said.

 

Her reply: “I'm married to him!”

 

But then it got weirder. She said she’d heard that I had a Seattle connection. I told her about family there and mentioned we now own a home in the area.

 

“Where is that?” she asked. When I said Bainbridge Island, she looked a little stunned and said, “Where on Bainbridge?”

 

I explained that it was on a beach called “Yeomalt,” one point north of where the ferry docks.

 

Her mouth dropped open. “You're that David Myers?!” 

 

Wonder of wonders, her uncle was also named David Myers, and she spent time over many summers with Uncle David in our little neighborhood—meaning we surely had crossed paths multiple times. She knew all about the other Yeomalt Myers . . . and her uncle’s name doppelganger.

 

I recalled for her the many times that her uncle and I would row past each other while salmon fishing in the early morning . . . with Dave Myers exchanging a friendly wave with Dave Myers. (That always did feel slightly weird.)

 

The point is not that just the world is weird, but that with so many things happening, some weirdness in our lives is to be expected, and enjoyed, be it double doinks or chance encounters that reveal the unlikeliest of connections. Some happenings are destined not to be explained, but to be savored.

 

Our improbable lives. But surely the unlikeliest aspect of our lives is our very existence. As I explain in Psychology, 12th edition (with Nathan DeWall), conception was “your most fortunate of moments. Among 250 million sperm, the one needed to make you, in combination with that one particular egg, won the race. And so it was for innumerable generations before us. If any one of our ancestors had been conceived with a different sperm or egg, or died before conceiving, or not chanced to meet their partner or . . . The mind boggles at the improbable, unbroken chain of events that produced us.”

 

From womb to tomb, chance matters. And whether you call it chance or providence, your life’s greatest blessing is surely that, against near-infinite odds, you exist.

 

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

What are today’s U.S. teens feeling and doing? And how do they differ from the teens of a decade ago?

 

A new Pew Research Center survey of nearly a thousand 13- to 17-year-olds offers both troubling and encouraging insights (here and here).

 

The Grim News

 

Screen time vs. face-to-face time. Today’s teens spend about half their nearly six daily leisure hours looking at screens—gaming, web-surfing, socializing, or watching shows. Such activity displaces leisure time spent with others, which now averages only an hour and 13 minutes daily (16 minutes less than a decade ago).

 

Increased depression, self-harm, and suicide. My Social Psychology co-author, Jean Twenge, reports that teen loneliness, depression, and suicide have risen in concert with smart phones and social media use. She notes,

Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.”

Indeed, reports Pew, 3 in 10 teens says they feel tense or nervous every or almost every day, and 7 in 10 see anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers. Other studies confirm that teen happiness and self-esteem have declined, while teen depression, self-harm, and suicide have risen.

 

The Good News

 

Sleeping more. The teens’ time diaries found them sleeping just over 9 hours per night (and 11 hours on weekends). Although other studies have found teens more sleep-deprived, these teens reported sleeping 22 minutes more per night than their decade-ago counterparts.

 

Doing more homework. Teens also are spending more time—16 minutes more per day—on homework, which now averages an hour a day. The increased sleep and homework time is enabled partly by 26 fewer minutes per day in paid employment—fewer teenagers today have jobs.

 

Minimal pressure for self-destructive behaviors. Relatively few teens feel personally pressured to be sexually active (8 percent), to drink alcohol (6 percent), or to use drugs (4 percent)—far fewer than the 61 percent feeling pressure to get good grades.

 

The Gendered News

 

Time use. Do you find it surprising (or not) that girls, compared with boys,

  • average 58 fewer daily minutes of screen time,
  • spend 21 minutes more on homework,
  • average 23 minutes more on grooming and appearance, and
  • spend 14 minutes more on helping around the house?

 

Emotions. Girls (36 percent) are also more likely than boys (23 percent) to report feeling anxious or depressed every or almost every day. But they are more likely each day to feel excited about something studied in school (33 vs. 21 percent). And they are more likely to say they never get in trouble at school (48 vs. 33 percent).

 

Aspirations. Girls are more likely than boys (68 vs. 51 percent) to aspire to attending a four-year college. And they are less materialistic than boys—with 41 percent of girls and 61 percent of boys reporting that it will be very important to have a lot of money when they grow up.

  

To sum up, (1) aspects of teen time use and emotions have changed, sometimes significantly. (2) Gender differences persist, though the differences are not static. (3) In this modern media age, adolescence—the years that teens spend morphing from child to adult—come with new temptations, which increase some dangers and decrease others.

 

What endures is teens’ need to navigate turbulent waters en route to independence and identity, while sustaining the social connections that will support their flourishing.

 

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

In hindsight, almost any finding (or its opposite) can seem like plain old common sense—a phenomenon we know as hindsight bias (a.k.a. the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon). Likewise, the outcomes of most elections, wars, and sporting events seem, in hindsight, explainable and predictable. As Dr. Watson said to Sherlock, “Anything seems commonplace, once explained.”

 

It may therefore seem unsurprising that new studies—reported in a forthcoming article by Florida State psychologists Jessica Maxwell and James McNulty—reveal a “bidirectional relationship” between relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. A loving relationship enhances sex. And good sex, with a lingering “afterglow,” enhances a loving relationship.

 

Even if the love-sex interplay does not, in hindsight, feel surprising, it does seem a lesson worth teaching in an age of sexual hook-ups and delayed marriage. As I explain in an upcoming essay for the Association for Psychological Science Observer,

When a romantic relationship is sealed with a secure commitment—when there is minimal anxiety about performance, and when there is an experience-rooted sensitivity to one another’s desires and responses—intimacy can flourish. “Satisfying relationships [infuse] positive affect into sexual experiences,” say Maxwell and McNulty. And when confident of a partner’s acceptance, low body self-esteem is a diminished barrier to sexual frequency and satisfaction.

 

The researchers’ evidence comes from tracking relationships through time. Higher marital satisfaction today predicts increased sexual satisfaction seven months later. And higher sexual satisfaction today predicts increased marital satisfaction seven months later. Moreover, it’s true for both newlyweds and long-term couples, and for both men and women.

 

Earlier studies found that when sex begins after commitment, couples win twice—with greater relational stability and better sex (see here and here). (In hindsight, we surely could rationalize an opposite finding: Perhaps test-driving sexual compatibility prior to commitment would make for better sex, and thus better relationships? But this does not seem to be the case.) And when sex happens in the context of a committed relationship, there is more pleasure and less morning-after regret (see here).

 

The take-home lesson: Our romantic bonds both enable and feed off sexual intimacy. We humans have what today’s social psychologists call a “need to belong.” We are social creatures, made to connect in close relationships. We flourish when embracing and enjoying secure, enduring, intimate attachments.

 

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

Climate change has arrived. Greenhouse gases are accumulating. The planet and its oceans are warming. Glaciers and Arctic ice are retreating. The seas are rising. Extreme weather is becoming ever costlier—in money and in lives. The warming Arctic and its wavier jet stream even help explain the recent polar vortex. If such threats came from a looming alien invasion, our response would be bipartisan and robust, notes Farhad Manjoo.

 

Even so, the U.S. government has

  • pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change,
  • plans to lift CO2 restrictions on coal-generated power,
  • weakened auto fuel-economy and emissions standards,
  • cut NASA climate monitoring,
  • increased off-shore oil and gas drilling, and
  • reduced clean-energy research and development.

 

So why, given the accumulating science, is the Trump administration apparently unconcerned about climate change as a weapon of mass destruction?

 

Surely the availability heuristic—the coloring of our judgments by mentally available events and images—is partly to blame. Climate change is imperceptibly slow, without a just noticeable difference from one month to the next. What’s cognitively more available is our recent local weather.

 

Thus, hot days increase people’s beliefs in global warming—as Australians understand after their recent scorching hot summer. And cold weather decreases concern—as vividly illustrated when U.S. Senator James Inhofe, during a 2015 cold spell, ridiculed global warming claims by bringing a snowball to the U.S. Senate. (Is it really so hard to grasp the distinction between local weather and global climate? We do manage, when feeling cold air on opening our refrigerator, not to misjudge our whole-house temperature.)

 

 (C-Span [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

President Trump has echoed Inhofe with dozens of tweets that similarly generalize from local weather:

 

 

Such wisdom brings to mind my favorite Stephen Colbert tweet:

 

The availability heuristic’s upside is that extreme weather experiences, as well as climate science, are driving growing public concern. Drought-caused wildfires, floods, and brutal heat waves have a silver lining. After surviving Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey residents expressed increased environmentalism. And today, 74 percent of Americans say that the last five years’ extreme weather has influenced their climate change opinions.

 

Ergo, Americans by a 5-to-1 margin now agree that global warming is happening. By a 3-to-1 margin they believe it is human-caused. Seven in 10 now say that they are at least “somewhat worried” about climate change. And globally, across 26 countries, two-thirds of people see it as a “major threat” to their country. “The evidence the climate is changing is becoming so overwhelming people are seeing it in their regions and in their lives,” says the Obama science advisor, John Holdren. “We are really to the point where we’re seeing bodies in the street from severe flooding and severe wildfires.”

 

With vivid and mentally available weather tragedies occurring more often, more folks are noticing and caring. Last month, 3300 economists—including 27 Nobel laureates and all former Federal Reserve Board chairs—signed a consensus statement supporting a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most effective climate change solution. Although the Green New Deal proposed by progressive Democrats may be more aspirational than achievable, its existence—together with the increasing climate concern of youth and young adults, and the growth in low-carbon energy sources—gives hope for a greener future.

 

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

Democracy presumes civic wisdom. When voters grasp truth, when facts prevail over misinformation, prudence prevails. When the electorate understands what actually advances (and threatens) human flourishing, it can inaugurate sensible policies and elect benevolent leaders. The collective wisdom of the cognizant is more astute than an autocrat’s whims.

 

Alas, as the late Hans Rosling amply documents in Factfulness, too often the crowd is unwise. Ignorance reigns. Even with this forewarning, consider:

  • What percent of the world’s 1-year-olds have had a vaccination?
  • What percent of humanity lives in extreme poverty (<$2/day)?
  • What percent of humanity is literate (able to read and write)?

 

The factual answers—86 percent, 9 percent, and 86 percent, respectively—differ radically from Americans’ perceptions. Their vaccination estimate: 35 percent. And though extreme poverty has plummeted and literacy has soared, most don’t know that. More than people suppose, world health, education, and prosperity have improved (as Steven Pinker further documents in Enlightenment Now).

 

Such public ignorance—compounded by the overconfidence phenomenon (people’s tendency to be more confident than correct)—often undermines civic wisdom. When year after year 7 in 10 adults tell Gallup there has been more crime than in the prior year—despite plummeting violent and property crime rates—then fear-mongering politicians may triumph. Our ignorance matters when horrific but infinitesimally rare incidents of domestic terrorism, school shootings, and air crashes hijack our consciousness. We and our children will not only disproportionately fear the wrong things, we will then risk more lives by extreme public spending to avoid these frightening things—to, say, block the “vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers” supposedly pouring across our southern border, rather than to mitigate climate change and more extreme weather.

 

In the aftermath of anti-immigrant fear-stoking (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”), many people do fear immigrants. Americans are, reports Gallup, “five times more likely to say immigrants make [crime] worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” Roused by anecdotes of vicious immigrant crime, “Build the wall!” becomes a rallying cry—despite, as the conservative Cato Institute freshly documents, a lower crime rate among immigrants than among native-born Americans.

 

 

And what do you think: Is eating genetically modified (GM) food safe? “Yes,” say 37 percent of U.S. adults and 88 percent of American Association for the Advancement of Science members. Moreover, the people most opposed to GM foods are (according to a new study) those who are most ignorant about them.

 

As the famed Dunning-Kruger effect reminds us, ignorance and incompetence can, ironically, feed overconfidence. Ignorant of my ignorance—and thus prone to a smug overconfidence—I am blissfully unaware of all the possible Scrabble words I fail to see . . . which enables me to think myself verbally adept. We are, as Daniel Kahneman has said, often “blind to our blindness.”

 

The result is sometimes a theater of the absurd. A December 2015 Public Policy Polling survey asked Donald Trump supporters if they favored or opposed bombing Agrabah. Among the half with an opinion, there was 4 to 1 support (41 percent to 9 percent) for dropping bombs on Agrabah . . . the fictional country from Aladdin.

 

But ignorance needn’t be permanent. Education can train us to recognize how errors and biases creep into our thinking. Education also makes us less gullible—less vulnerable to belief in conspiracy theories. Teach people to think critically—with a mix of open-minded curiosity, evidence-seeking skepticism, and intellectual humility—and they will think . . . and vote . . . smarter. Ignorance matters. But education works.

 

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