Skip navigation
All Places > The Psychology Community > Blog > Authors David Myers
1 2 3 4 5 Previous Next

The Psychology Community

209 Posts authored by: David Myers Expert

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).

 

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.]

The Syrian slaughter. North Korea nuclear warheads. ISIS attacks. School shootings. Social media-fed teen depression. Thugs victimizing people of color and women. Inequality increasing. Online privacy invaded. Climate change accelerating. Democracy flagging as autocrats control Turkey, Hungary, China, and Russia, and as big money, voter suppression, and Russian influence undermine American elections. U.S. violent crime and illegal immigration soaring.

 

For news junkies, it’s depressing. We know that bad news predominates: If it bleeds, it leads. But we can nevertheless take heart from underreported encouraging trends. Consider, for example, the supposed increases in crime and illegal immigration.

 

Is it true, as President Trump has said, that “crime is rising” and in inner cities “is at levels that nobody has seen”? Seven in 10 Americans appeared to agree, when reporting to Gallup in each recent year that violent crime was higher than in the previous year. Actually, crime data aggregated by the FBI (shown below) reveals that violent (and property) crime have dramatically fallen since the early 1990s.

 

And is the U.S. being flooded with immigrants across its Mexican border—“evil, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes,” as a 2018 DonaldJTrump.com campaign ad declared? In reality, the influx has subsided to a point where, Politifact confirms, “more illegal Mexican immigrants are leaving the United States than entering it.” (Should we build a wall to keep them in?)

 

But what about immigrant crime—fact or fiction? “Americans are five times more likely to say immigrants make the [crime] situation worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively),” reports Gallup. Not so. Multiple studies find that, as the National Academy of Sciences reports, “immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit crimes” and are underrepresented in American prisons.

 

For more good news, consider other heartening long-term trends:

  • World hunger is retreating.
  • Child labor is less common.
  • Literacy is increasing.
  • Wars are becoming less frequent.
  • Explicit racial prejudice (as in opposition to interracial marriage) has plummeted.
  • Gay, lesbian, and transgender folks are becoming more accepted.
  • Infant mortality is rarer and life expectancy is increasing.

 

Such trends are amply documented in Steven Pinker’s recent books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, and in Johan Norber’s Progress, and Gregg Easterbrooks, It’s Better Than It Looks. As President Obama observed, if you had to choose when to live, “you’d choose now.”

 

Yes, in some ways, these are dark times. But these are also the times of committed Parkland teens. Mobilized citizens. Machine learning. Immune therapies. #MeToo. #BlackLivesMatter. Low inflation. Near full employment. Digital streaming. Smart cars. Wearable technologies. Year-round fresh fruit. And Post-It notes.

 

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the worst of times, it is the best of times. It is an age of foolishness, it is an age of wisdom. It is a season of darkness, it is a season of light. It is the winter of despair, it is the spring of hope.

The teen years are, for many, a time of rewarding friendships, noble idealism (think Parkland), and an expanding vision for life’s possibilities. But for others, especially those who vary from teen norms, life can be a challenge. Nonheterosexual teens, for example, sometimes face contempt, harassment, or family rejection. And that may explain their having scored higher than other teens on measures of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and attempts (see here, here, here, and here).

 

But many of these findings are based on older data and don’t reflect the increasing support of gay partnerships among North Americans and Western Europeans. In U.S. Gallup polls, for example, support for “marriages between same-sex couples” soared from 27 percent in 1996 to 64 percent in 2017. So, have the emotional challenges of being teen and gay persisted? If so, to what extent?

 

I’ve wondered, and recently discovered, an answer in the 2015 data from the annual UCLA/Higher Education Research Institute American Freshman survey (of 141,189 entering full-time students at a cross-section of U.S. colleges and universities). The news is mixed:

  • Most gay/lesbian/bisexual frosh report not having struggled with depression.
  • Being gay or lesbian in a predominantly heterosexual world remains, for a significant minority of older teens, an emotional challenge.

 

Can we hope that, if attitudes continue to change, this depression gap will shrink? In the meantime, the American Psychological Association offers youth, parents, and educators these helpful resources for understanding sexual orientation and gender identity, including suggestions for how “to be supportive” of youth whose sexual orientation or gender identity differs from most others.

Would you risk riding to the airport in a self-driving car?

 

If you said no, you aren’t alone. In a 2017 Pew survey, 56 percent of Americans said they would not risk it. That proportion likely has increased in the aftermath of the self-driving Uber car killing a pedestrian on March 19, 2018. Meanwhile, so far this year, around 1200 other pedestrians have been killed by people-driven cars, and few of us have decided not to risk driving (or walking).

 

Time will tell whether, as experts assure us, self-driving cars, without distracted or inebriated drivers, really will be much safer. Even if it’s so, it will be a hard fact to embrace. Why? Because we fear disasters that are vividly “available” in our minds and memories—shark attacks, school shootings, plane crashes—often in settings where we feel little control. “Dramatic outcomes make us gasp,” Nathan DeWall and I conclude in Psychology, 12th Edition, while “probabilities we hardly grasp.”  

 

We do a better job of grasping probabilities in realms where we have lots of experience. If a weather forecaster predicts a mere 30 percent chance of rain for tomorrow, we won’t be shocked if it does indeed rain—as it should about one-third of the time, given such a forecast. We have much less experience with presidential election predictions. Thus many people thought the pollsters and prognosticators had egg on their faces after Donald Trump’s upset win. Statistician and author Nate Silver’s final election forecast gave Trump but a 29 percent chance of victory. Although a 30 percent chance of rain and a 30 percent victory chance are the same odds, an ensuing rain comes as less of a shock.

 

With March Madness basketball games, as with weather forecasts, we fans have more experience. Tweets Silver:

Lesson learned? In domains where we have minimal direct experience, we often don’t get it because the cognitive availability of vivid, rare events may hijack our thinking: “Probabilities we hardly grasp.” But in realms where we do experience life’s uncertainties—as in daily weather variations and sports outcomes—we get it. We appreciate that probabilities calibrate uncertainties. Given enough happenings, anything, however improbable, is sure to occur.

David Myers

Our Perception of Sex

Posted by David Myers Expert Mar 29, 2018

Perceptual illusions are not only great fun, they also remind us of a basic truth: Our perceptions are more than projections of the world into our brain. As our brains assemble sensory inputs they construct our perceptions, based partly on our assumptions. When our brain uses rules that normally give us accurate impressions of the world it can, in some circumstances, fool us. And understanding how we get fooled can teach us how our perceptual system works.

 

A case in point is the famed Müller-Lyer illusion, for which the Italian visual artist Gianni Sarcone gives us two wonderful new examples.

 

Many more informative examples can be found amid the 644 pages of the new Oxford Compendium of Visual Illusions. There I discovered a fascinating phenomenon reported by Gettysburg College psychologist Richard Russell.

 

First (with Professor Russell’s kind permission from his earlier article in Perception) a question:

In the pair of Caucasian faces, below, which looks to be the male, and which the female?

Do you (as did I) perceive the left face as male, the right face as female?

 

Many people do, but in actuality, they are the same androgynous face (created by averaging Caucasian male and female faces), but with one subtle difference: the researchers slightly darkened the skin (but not the lips or the eyes) in the left face and lightened the skin in the right face. Why? Because worldwide and across ethnic groups, Russell and others report, women’s skin around the lips and eyes tends to be lighter than men’s. And that means more contrast between their skin and their lips and eyes.

 

That natural, subtle facial sex difference enabled Russell to recreate what he calls “the illusion of sex” with a second demonstration. This time, he left the skin constant but lightened the lips and eyes of the left face, making it appear male, and he darkened the lips and eyes of the right face, increasing the contrast, making it appear female.

Russell suggests that this helps explain why, in some cultures, women use facial cosmetics. Lipstick and eye shadow amplify the perceived sex difference, he notes, “by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute—facial contrast.”

 

Long ago, I read a jest that most people believe in the shaping power of environmental nurture—until they have their second child.

 

That pretty well sums up the results of a not-yet-published survey of 1000 Americans by an Emily Willoughby-led University of Minnesota team. The researchers report that “educated mothers with multiple children” were particularly cognizant of the heritability of traits, adding: “Parents, after all, have the ability to observe firsthand the results of an empirical experiment on the heritability of human traits in their own home. They can see that their children resemble them along multiple dimensions; furthermore, a parent of multiple children can see how the shared environment does not necessarily make them alike.”

 

That has been my wife’s and my experience as parents of three children who share some of our traits, but who were distinct individuals right out of the womb. And perhaps your experience, too, as you compare your children, or observe your own or other siblings?

 

These researchers noted another interesting finding, related to political leanings: When asked about the relative gene and environment contributions to various traits, liberals more than conservatives saw genetics having a strong influence on psychiatric disorders and sexual orientation. As a result, liberals tended not to view sexual orientation as a choice, and they tended to have more compassionate views of those with psychiatric disorders. Conservatives more often saw a strong genetic influence on intelligence and musical ability, thus suggesting that those with these strengths had been largely “born that way” rather than advantaged by opportunity.

In an earlier post, I offered my nominee for psychology’s most misunderstood concept: negative reinforcement (which is not a punishing, but a rewarding event—withdrawing or reducing something aversive, as when taking ibuprofen leads to relief from a headache). 

 

Second place on the most-misunderstood list went to heritability. Students often wrongly think that if intelligence is 50 percent heritable then “half of our intelligence is due to our genes.” Actually, 50 percent heritability would mean that, within the population studied, half of the variation among individuals is attributable to genes.

 

Now my bronze medal award in the most-misunderstood competition: short-term memory. The misuse of the word appeared repeatedly in an otherwise excellent talk I recently heard on care for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. For example, we were told that “They often have good long-term memory for their earlier life, but have lost their short-term memory for what they did yesterday.”

 

The presenter, in very good company, didn’t understand that psychologists define short-term memory as the seconds-long memory of, for example, the phone number we’re about to enter in our phone, or of an experience we’ve just had and are processing for long-term storage. The dementia-related memory problem described was not the result of short-term memory loss. Rather, it demonstrated an inability to transfer short-term memories into long-term storage, from which the person could retrieve the experience an hour or a day later. (Our memory of yesterday is a long-term memory.)

 

Negative reinforcement, heritability, and short-term memory are my gold, silver, and bronze medal winners among psychology’s popularly misunderstood concepts. Perhaps you have other nominees from your experience?

On most subjective and socially desirable dimensions, we tend to exhibit self-serving bias. We perceive ourselves as more moral than most others, healthier than others, more productive at work, better able to get along with others, and even better drivers. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love me? Let me count the ways.”

 

But most of us also experience a different sort of social misperception that’s biased in the opposite direction. First, a question: Who goes to more parties—you or others?

 

Across 11 studies, Cornell University’s Sebastian Deri and his colleagues found that university students, mall shoppers, and online respondents perceived others’ social lives to be more active than their own duller life. Other folks, it seems, party more, dine out more, and have more friends and fun.

 

Can you imagine why most people perceive their social lives as comparatively inactive?    

 

Our social perceptions, according to the Deri team, suffer from biased information availability. We compare ourselves not to social reality but to what’s mentally accessible. We hear more about our friends’ activities than we do about the nonevents of their lives. If Alexis goes to a party, we’re more likely to hear about that than if she sits home looking over her toes at the TV.

 

Social media amplifies our sense of social disadvantage. People post selfies while out having fun—which we may browse while sitting home alone. Thus, our normal self-serving perceptions are overcome by a powerful social exposure bias.

 

The others-are-having-more-fun finding joins reports by Jean Twenge and her collaborators that the spread of smart phones and social media have precisely paralleled a recent increase in teen loneliness, depression, and suicide. Twenge reports that

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.”

 

Does your life seem pallid compared to all the fun others seem to be having?  Do you believe you are not one of the socially active “cool” people? Does your romantic life seem comparatively unexciting? Do you wish you could have as many friends as others seem to?

 

Well, be consoled: most of your friends feel the same way.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt long ago surmised, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

My colleague, Lindsay Root Luna, has new data showing that virtues correlate. People’s scores intercorrelate on scales assessing humility, justice, wisdom, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, and patience. Show her a forgiving person and she will likely show you a humble, grateful person.

 

Root Luna’s observations triggered my thinking about other human dispositions that come bundled. First, there are the anti-virtues.

 

As the concept of ethnocentricism conveys, prejudices often coexist: anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-women sentiments often live inside the same epidermis. People intuitively know this. Thus, as Diana Sanchez and colleagues have observed, White women often feel threatened by someone who displays racism, and men of color by sexism.

 

Likewise, people’s tendencies on the “dark triad”—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—are “substantially intercorrelated.” Show Peter Muris and colleagues a narcissist (perhaps your least favorite politician?), and they’ll show you a likely Machiavellian and amoral person.

 

On the brighter side, some good things, in addition to the virtues, also tend to come wrapped in the same skin. Charles Spearman recognized this long ago with the concept of general intelligence (g). Those who score high in one cognitive domain have some tendency to score higher than average in other areas such as reasoning or spatial ability, or even perceptual speed.

 

Athleticism offers another example of packaged gifts. The ability to run fast is distinct from muscular strength or the eye-hand coordination involved in the precise pitching of a ball. Yet there remains some tendency for athletic excellence in one domain to correlate with that in another. Good tennis players may also be better than average basketball players.

 

Surely this does not exhaust the list. Can you think of other examples of correlated good things and bad things?

In the aftermath of the mass murder at a Florida high school, gun safety advocates reminded us that countries and states with the most guns (which are also the places with the most “good guys with guns”) have the most homicidal and suicidal gun deaths. The United States, for example, has more than 300 million guns and a firearm death rate that is, per person, 46 times that of the largely gun-free UK. Unless we’re to assume that Americans are simply more malevolent, surely this has something to do with gun availability. If so, perhaps, to put this as gently as possible, some new gun safety legislation might be appropriate?

 

President Trump offered an alternative idea—opening more mental hospitals that could house would-be mass murders: “When you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution.”

 

Florida Governor Rick Scott concurred about the implied feasibility of identifying high-risk people: “I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun. I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun.”

 

Although we psychologists might appreciate these extremely high estimations of our discipline’s powers of discernment, the reality is that these aggressors, though harboring anger, have mostly not had distinct psychiatric disorders and their acts are extremely difficult to predict. As one review of 73 studies of nearly 25,000 people concluded, psychology’s “risk assessment tools” have “low to moderate” predictive power. Thus, their “use as sole determinants of detention, sentencing, and release is not supported by the current evidence.”

 

The Florida mass murderer, Nikolas Cruz, is a case in point. Although, in hindsight, it seems obvious that Cruz was a ticking time bomb, a mental health center had deemed him not a threat. True, he was angry and seemingly isolated and depressed, but so are a million or more other teen males—for whom the late psychologist David Lykken in his The Antisocial Personalities offers a tongue-in-cheek solution: “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.”

 

The impossibility of identifying, in advance, high-risk people with mental illness is compounded by the unfairness of a gun ban targeted at “mentally ill” people but not others. Who is mentally ill? A person with a phobia for heights? Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder? An eating disorder? Obviously, society will need to look beyond psychology for gun violence remedies.

[A growing body of research suggests that true humility helps us grow intellectually and to learn from and connect with each other.]

 

In his recent essay, “You’re Wrong! I’m Right!,” Nicholas Kristof notes that our polarized culture would benefit from a willingness to engage those who challenge our own thinking and “to hear out the other side.” In a word, our civic life needs a greater spirit of humility. In his recent European Psychologist review of evidence on wise thinking, Igor Grossmann concurs with Kristof: Wisdom, he argues, grows from the integration of “intellectual humility, recognition of uncertainty [and] consideration of different perspectives.”

 

Humility was the animating idea of John Templeton in founding his science-supportive foundation, which declares: “In keeping with the Foundation’s motto, ‘How little we know, how eager to learn,’ we value proposals that exhibit intellectual humility and open-mindedness.” Thanks partly to support from the Templeton Foundation (which—full disclosure—I serve as a trustee), we have a new generation of humility studies with titles such as “Awe and Humility,” “Humility as a Relational Virtue,” and “Intellectual Humility.” From 2000 to 2017, the annual number of PsycINFO-indexed titles mentioning “humility” has increased from one to 85:

 

 

Psychology has a deep history in studying the powers and perils of humility’s antithesis: pride. We have, for example, documented:

  • self-serving bias. We tend to see ourselves (on subjective, socially desirable dimensions) as better than most others—as more ethical, less prejudiced, and better able to get along with people.
  • self-enhancing attributions. We willingly accept responsibility for our successes and good deeds, while shifting the blame elsewhere for our failures and misdeeds.
  • cognitive conceit. We tend to display excessive confidence in the accuracy of our judgments and beliefs.

 

Humility, by contrast, entails

  • an accurate self-understanding. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, humility is not clever people believing they are fools. Humility allows us to recognize both our own talents and others’.
  • modest self-presentation. When we share and accept credit without seeking attention, we are not (to again paraphrase Lewis) thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less.
  • an orientation toward others. Prioritizing others’ needs helps us regulate our own impulses. With a spirit of humility we can engage others with the anticipation that, on some matters, the other is our superior—thus giving us an opportunity to learn.

 

True humility can be distinguished from pseudo-humility, which comes to us in two forms. One is the pretense of humility: “I am humbled to accept this award . . . to serve as your president . . . to have scored the winning goal.” No, actually, you are proud of your accomplishment—and deservedly so.

 

The other is the delightful new research by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton on “the humblebrag.” Humblebragging is boasting disguised as complaining or humility: “I’ve got to stop saying yes to every interview request.” “I can’t believe I was the one who got the job over 300 other applicants!” “No makeup and I still get hit on!” But such self-promotion usually backfires, they report, by failing to convey humility or impress others.

 

Although religious dogmatism can feed “You’re wrong, I’m right!” attitudes, theism actually offers a deep rationale for the humility that underlies science, critical thinking, and an “ever-reforming” open mind. Across their differences, most faith traditions assume two things: 1) there is a God, and 2) it’s not you or me.

 

As fallible creatures, we should hold our own beliefs tentatively. And we should assess others’ ideas with openness, using observation and experiments (where appropriate) to winnow truth from error—both in our own thinking and that of others. In a spirit of humility, we can “Test everything, hold fast to what is good” (St. Paul).

My daughter—a socio-behavioural scientist at the University of Cape Town’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation—alerted me last April to a possible crisis. Cape Town’s reservoirs were perilously low. Without replenishment from June-to-August winter rains the city could, reports indicated, “really run dry.”

 

Alas, in this new era of climate change, the hoped-for rains never came. Cape Town, with its nearly 4 million residents, was at risk of becoming the world’s first major city to run dry.

 

In September, with reservoirs at one-third their capacity, residents were asked to limit their water use to 23 gallons per day per person. But in a real life demonstration of the Tragedy of the Commons, fewer than half met the goal—each reasoning that their comparatively minuscule water use didn’t noticeably affect the whole city.

To heighten motivation, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille attempted fear-based persuasion. “Despite our urging for months, 60 per cent of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day,” she explained at a January press briefing. “We have reached a point of no return. Day Zero is now very likely.” After the initially predicted Day Zero, April 11th, water taps would continue to flow only in the impoverished informal settlements (which use little water per person), in certain vital facilities, and via public taps in 200 designated locations where residents could line up with jugs. Yikes! What would this mean for life, work, and civic order?

 

With fears of the looming threat aroused, conservation norms became more salient. (My daughter recycles her laundry water for her very occasional toilet flushes, adhering to the new Cape Town norm: “If it’s yellow let it mellow.”) To activate and empower conservation norms, Capetonians have used all available media to share water conservation strategies (as if mindful of Robert Cialdini’s research on the power of positive conservation modeling). On a Facebook “Water Shedding Western Cape” group, 132,000 people are sharing tips. Even in workplace and restaurant bathrooms, signs now encourage not-flushing.

 

And to reduce “diffusion of responsibility” (as in the famed bystander nonintervention experiments), the city has posted an online “City Water Map” that can zoom down to individual households and reveal whether their water usage is within the water restriction limit (dark green dot). The effort is not intended to “name and shame,” but rather “to publicize households that are saving water and to motivate others to do the same.” Let’s “paint the town green,” urges Cape Town’s mayor.

 

Will this social influence campaign—combining fear arousal, social norms, and accountability—work? Time will tell. Recent declining domestic and agricultural water consumption enabled Day Zero to be pushed out to June 4th, by which time we can hope that winter rains will be replenishing those thirsty reservoirs . . . and that, thereafter, continuing water conservation can prevent future Day Zeros.