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Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Our cerebral struggles are often intertwined with other anxieties. What we identify as intellectual barriers are sometimes manifestations of emotional blocks. We pride ourselves on being rational but then miss the biases and blind spots that constitute our rationality (a feature of the human condition confirmed by recent developments in behavioral economics). We decide that something “doesn’t make any sense” when we no longer want to be associated with the people who believe it, or a “light goes on” and we “see” something after we’ve spent time hanging around people who believe it. Rationality turns out to be more malleable than we’d guess.

Sometimes plausibility is pegged to a person. The turning point for Augustine was not an argument; it was Ambrose. What Ambrose said, what he taught and preached, was not insignificant. But what made a dent on Augustine’s imagination was Ambrose’s very being—what he represented in his way of life. Ambrose was a living icon of someone who integrated assiduous learning with ardent Christian faith. If to that point, based on his childhood experience, Augustine had concluded that Christians were simple, backward, and naive, the encounter with Ambrose was the destabilizing experience of meeting someone with intellectual firepower who was also following Jesus. Even more than that, it was Ambrose’s hospitality that prompted Augustine to reconsider the faith he’d rejected as unenlightened. What ultimately shifted Augustine’s plausibility structures? Love. His recollection is warm and speaks to a hunger even more fundamental than the intellectual: “That man of God took me up as a father takes a newborn baby in his arms, and in the best tradition of bishops, he prized me as a foreign sojourner.” More than arguments or proofs, Ambrose offered the seeker Augustine something he’d been hungering for: a home, sanctuary, rest.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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Hate is as all-absorbing as love, as irrational, and in its own way as satisfying. As lovers thrive on the presence of the beloved, haters revel in encounters with the ones they hate. They confirm them in all their darkest suspicions. They add fuel to all their most burning animosities. The anticipation of them makes the hating heart pound. The memory of them can be as sweet as young love.

The major difference between hating and loving is perhaps that, whereas to love somebody is to be fulfilled and enriched by the experience, to hate somebody is to be diminished and drained by it. Lovers, by losing themselves in their loving, find themselves, become themselves. Haters simply lose themselves. Theirs is the ultimately consuming passion.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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The effects of play deprivation and oversupervision may extend far beyond college. Steven Horwitz, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, took the same research on play that we have reviewed in this chapter and worked out some possible consequences for the future of liberal democracies. He drew on the work of political scientists Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom, both of whom studied how self-governing communities resolve conflicts peacefully. Successful democracies do this by developing a variety of institutions and norms that enable people with different goals and conflicting desires to resolve their problems while rarely appealing to the police or the state to coerce their fellow citizens. This is the “art of association” that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he traveled through the United States in 1831.

Citizens of a democracy don’t suddenly develop this art on their eighteenth birthday. It takes many years to cultivate these skills, which overlap with the ones that Peter Gray maintains are learned during free play. Of greatest importance in free play is that it is always voluntary; anyone can quit at any time and disrupt the activity, so children must pay close attention to the needs and concerns of others if they want to keep the game going. They must work out conflicts over fairness on their own; no adult can be called upon to side with one child against another.

Horwitz points out that when adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association:

Denying children the freedom to explore on their own takes away important learning opportunities that help them to develop not just independence and responsibility, but a whole variety of social skills that are central to living with others in a free society. If this argument is correct, parenting strategies and laws that make it harder for kids to play on their own pose a serious threat to liberal societies by flipping our default setting from “figure out how to solve this conflict on your own” to “invoke force and/or third parties whenever conflict arises.” This is one of the “vulnerabilities of democracies” noted by Vincent Ostrom.

The consequences for democracies could be dire, particularly for a democracy such as the United States, which is already suffering from ever-rising cross-party hostility and declining trust in institutions. Here is what Horwitz fears could be in store:

A society that weakens children’s ability to learn these skills denies them what they need to smooth social interaction. The coarsening of social interaction that will result will create a world of more conflict and violence, and one in which people’s first instinct will be increasingly to invoke coercion by other parties to solve problems they ought to be able to solve themselves.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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This question—of how versus whether—has to do with the attention economy insofar as it offers a useful attitude toward despair, the very stuff the attention economy runs on. It also helps me distinguish what it is I really feel like running away from. I’ve already written that the “doing nothing” I propose is more than a weekend retreat. But that doesn’t mean I propose a permanent retreat either. Understanding the impossibility of a once-and-for-all exit—for most of us, anyway—sets the stage for a different kind of retreat, or refusal-in-place….

Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users‘ themselves. Whipped into a permanent state of frenzy, people create and subject themselves to news cycles, complaining of anxiety at the same time that they check back ever more diligently. The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design, Media companies trying to keep up with each other create a kind of “arms race” of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think. The result is something like the sleep-deprivation tactics the military uses on detainees, but on a larger scale. The years 2017 and 2018 were when I heard so many people say, “It’s just something new every day.”

But the storm is co-created. After the election, I also saw many acquaintances jumping into the melee, pouring out long, emotional, and hastily written diatribes online that inevitably got a lot of attention. I’m no exception; my most-liked Facebook post of all time was an anti-Trump screed. In my opinion, this kind of hyper-accelerated expression on social media is not exactly helpful (not to mention the huge amount of value it produces for Facebook). It’s not a form of communication driven by reflection and reason, but rather a reaction driven by fear and anger. Obviously these feelings are warranted, but their expression on social media so often feels like firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke. Our aimless and desperate expressions on these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quickly outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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In a widely circulated essay in The New York Times in July 2017, the argument that words can be violence was made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a well-respected professor of psychology and emotion researcher at Northeastern University. Barrett offered this syllogism: “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.”

We responded in an essay in The Atlantic, in which we noted that it is a logical error to accept the claim that harm—even physical harm—is the same as violence. Barrett’s syllogism takes the form that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. Therefore, if words can cause stress and stress can cause harm, then words can cause harm, but that does not establish that words are violence. It only establishes that words can result in harm—even physical harm—which we don’t doubt. To see the difference, just rerun the syllogism by swapping in “breaking up with your girlfriend” or “giving students a lot of homework.” Both of these can provoke stress in someone else (including elevated levels of cortisol), and stress can cause harm, so both can cause harm. That doesn’t mean that they are violent acts.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of people who were watching videos of other people’s hands getting pricked by a needle or touched by a Q-tip. When the hand being pricked by a needle was labeled with the participants own religion, the area of the participant’s brain that handles pain showed a larger spike of activity than when the hand was labeled with a different religion. When arbitrary groups were created (such as by flipping a coin) immediately before the subject entered the MRI machine, and the hand being pricked was labeled as belonging to the same arbitrary group as the participant, even though the group hadn’t even existed just moments earlier, the participant’s brain still showed a larger spike. We just don’t feel as much empathy for those we see as “other.”

The bottom line is that the human mind is prepared for tribalism.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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It is vital that people who have survived violence become habituated to ordinary cues and reminders woven into the fabric of daily life. Avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it. According to Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard’s Department of Psychology:

Trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they encourage avoidance of reminders of trauma, and avoidance maintains PTSD. Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome PTSD. These therapies involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until their capacity to trigger distress diminishes.

Cognitive behavioral therapists treat trauma patients by exposing them to the things they find upsetting (at first in small ways, such as imagining them or looking at pictures), activating their fear, and helping them habituate (grow accustomed) to the stimuli. In fact, the reactivation of anxiety is so important to recovery that some therapists advise their patients to avoid using antianxiety medication while undertaking exposure therapy.

For a student who truly suffers from PTSD, appropriate treatment is necessary. But well-meaning friends and professors who work together to hide potential reminders of painful experiences, or who repeatedly warn the student about the possible reminders he or she might encounter, could be impeding the person’s recovery. A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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