Studies That Offer Hope

For the new year, here are some positive perspectives based on recent studies.

I’ll offer an excerpt about how racial bias can be lessened, but the article also discusses other issues such as empathy and altruism. This goes against what cynics and determinists are always arguing. We aren’t naturally racists. Like so many other attitudes and behaviors, racial bias or its opposite are dependent on many factors, both factors we control individually and factors we control as a society.

We aren’t fated to ignorance and mindlessness. We aren’t mere puppets of genetics and culture. We always have a choice. We always have the opportunity to learn and improve. Being realistic can mean being optimistic, depending on the reality we choose to create.

Can Empathy for Birds Make Us Happier? Ten Breakthroughs in the Science of a Meaningful Life
by Jeremy Adam Smith, Bianca Lorenz, Kira M. Newman, Lauren Klein, Lisa Bennett, Jason Marsh, Jill Suttie

Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of our national news. So it was heartening this year to see a study that found bias could be reduced through training in mindfulness—the nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.

Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people.

Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate. This ability to be more discerning may explain why another study this year found that people who were high in mindfulness were less likely to sink into depression following experiences of discrimination.

As we reported back in 2009, numerous programs have successfully helped officers become aware of their own unconscious biases. But by specifically looking at the effects of mindfulness training—even just 10 minutes’ worth—these new studies point to innovative techniques that might help prevent fatal mistakes from being made in the future.

Altruism: Human Nature and Society

Below is an article about how psychological research is disproving traditional Christian theology.  Humans aren’t born sinners.  Humans are born altruistic or rather humans are born with a sense of self that includes others.  The ideology of the sinner combined with the Enlightenment ideal of individuality led to our modern capitalistic model of democracy which is particularly favored by conservatives.  Sadly, this model that has been forced on humans for so long turns out to be wrong.

Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand’s libertarianism, admitted that he misunderstood human nature.  Humans aren’t rational in the Randian ideological sense, but more importantly they’re not selfishly rational.   Human nature, however, is perfectly rational when you look at it from the perspectives of psychology, biology, and evolution.  When human nature doesn’t conform to your “rational” expectations, it’s your expectations that aren’t rational and not human nature.

Another problem to early scientific understanding of human nature is the species we compared ourselves to.  Chimpanzees became the model of human nature and Chimpanzees are a fairly violent species.  The problem is that genetically we’re closer to Bonobos which are a very peaceful species.  Comparing ourselves to a violent species was a mere convenience for those who ideologically believed in violent worldview.  Also, comparing ourselves to any of these primate species may not tell us much about natural and hence non-deviant behaviors for these species have suffered greatly themselves from human violence and environmental destruction.

Some have noted the way modern capitalism is understood.  Through a manipulated legal fluke, corporations gained precedence as being treated as humans.  However, as they’re not actually persons, they’re not treated according to social norms.  The description of how a corporation is expected to behave most cloesly resembles that of a psycopath.  In defining corporations this way, we set up a standard by which humans also should strive towards in being successful.

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help  By NICHOLAS WADE (NYT)

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

[…]   “We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.

11.  Steve R.

While we may be born with the urge to help, it gets squashed out of existence. Today, the Times published Open Source as a Model for Business Is Elusive. This article appears pretty much mundane, but anecdotally it is simply one more unfortunate example that highlights the fact that those who wish to contribute to society through volunteerism are vilified when it comes to competing with business interests. The people who volunteer to help develop MySQL or Wikipedia should be celebrated.

13.  D Z

No doubt Dr. Tomasello’s work uses recent findings, but to those interested in this article (and to Mr. Wade), I would recommend Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue” – published in 1997!! – which present similar arguments with a combination of outstanding examples from biology, anthropology, economics, and supported by mathematics.

20. Rael64

Read Mencius. One should have a proper _xin_. Then read MacIntyre; intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in regards to ethics. Then, ponder the possibility that if this is the case, then what, or who, ruins us, eh?

As said in the article, “the only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.” Well, maybe, in a strict sense (i.e. no internal reaction whatsoever), yet people are taught, are encouraged to be immune to the plight of others. And many of us buy it, whether we’ve ‘no time’, ‘not my business’, ‘nothing in it for me’, or simply ‘don’t care’.

Yes, we teach our children well: consume, hoard, and ignore; get yours while you can; it’s only wrong if you get caught; winning is everything.

Phffffft.