Category Archives: personality

Understanding minds

Who and what do you think has a mind? Research provides fascinating insights.

The mind is where we experience the world and how we take action in relation to the world — or at least so it seems. Although every person’s mind is, in a sense, the most intimate part of their being, there is much that we don’t know about our own minds, and those of others.

Psychologists have been busy doing all sorts of studies about minds, including our assumptions about minds other than our own. If you’d like to read an engaging treatment in this area, I recommend The Mind Club by Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray. The subtitle is informative: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters.

You may know your own mind, but how can you be sure that other people have minds? They might be zombies! This leads to deep philosophical issues, but Wegner and Gray are more interested in practicalities. The easiest assumption is that most human adults think and have experiences. This part is easy. But what about the less obvious possibilities for having a mind?

Non-human animals: do they have minds? Your dog or cat for sure, but amoeba surely not. Then there are machines, including robots. Does your smartphone have a mind? Presumably not, but sometimes it seems convenient to think it does, especially when it starts giving trouble. Another challenging case involves people in a persistent vegetative state (a long-term coma), unable to communicate. It’s uncertain whether they are thinking.

Thinking doers and vulnerable feelers

To help understand these different categories, Wegner and Gray introduce two categories, agency and experience. A capable adult has agency, namely the capacity to initiate action, and can experience sensations and feelings, such as pain and elation. However, others may be classified as having only agency or only experience.

A baby, for example, has little capacity for agency but can certainly have experiences. On the other hand, most people think a robot can act but is unlikely to have feelings. It turns out, based on many experiments, that there is a basic dichotomy in the way most people think about other minds: they are perceived as either thinking doers or vulnerable feelers. This dichotomy has many ramifications.

Those seen as vulnerable feelers are usually treated with sympathy, even when they do bad things. Non-human animals such as kittens and puppies are usually treated as vulnerable feelers, so when they cause harm by biting or scratching they are seldom blamed, except when it is done to someone even more vulnerable, like a baby. On the other hand, some animals are seen as doers, like sharks.


A vulnerable feeler

“Our compassion for vulnerable moral patients translates into rage when they are harmed. People care when adults are injured, but they are incensed when children or animals suffer.” (p. 104)

One of the consequences of this dichotomy is that people who are either villains or heroes are perceived as less sensitive to pain. This can help to explain why so many people think it is acceptable to punish criminals severely, with long prison sentences and torture via extended isolation, even though criminologists have shown this is neither rehabilitative nor protective of the community.

Heroes are also seen as relatively imperious to pain. One study asked subjects whether pain should be inflicted on either a bank teller or Mother Teresa. Most said neither but, when forced to choose, selected Mother Teresa because she had more capacity to take it. She was seen as a thinking doer and hence less vulnerable to pain.

Whistleblowing and nonviolent action

Wendy Addison has pointed out the implications for whistleblowers, those people who speak out in the public interest. Employers commonly see whistleblowers as villains and subject them to reprisals. Members of the public, on the other hand, often see whistleblowers as heroes, but the trouble is that this makes them see more capable of handling the reprisals. Seeing whistleblowers as either villains or heroes may be a factor in the resistance to giving them financial rewards.

People who are disadvantaged due to disability, illness, harassment or assault can gain sympathy by being seen as vulnerable feelers. However, this has a disadvantage: they can be assumed not to have agency to respond to their situation, leading others to think of them in as objects of charity rather than having the capacity to take action.

Another possible application of the doer-feeler dichotomy is in relation to nonviolent action. When peaceful protesters come under attack by police, this can be seen as unfair and generate outrage. A video of students sitting in a protest and being pepper-sprayed by police became famous. The students were not threatening anyone, so to many viewers harming them seemed outrageous.

However, sometimes protesters are seen as heroes, especially when they undertake more energetic actions such as chaining themselves to bulldozers or swimming in front of ships. This can turn them from vulnerable feelers to thinking doers and make it seem like they are better able to endure pain and bad treatment.


Robots are seen as doers, with little feeling

Wegner and Gray introduce a sequence of possible minds: animals, machines, patients (vulnerable feelers, without agency), enemies, the silent (people who cannot communicate), groups, the dead, God and the self. Each one of these topics, comprising the chapters in the book, provides fascinating insights.

Dyadic completion

One of the psychological processes that helps explain how people think about minds is called dyadic completion. If there is an injustice, people believe someone must be responsible. Pure randomness is not satisfying psychologically. Wegner and Gray describe a case from 1457 in France in which a pig ate a baby, and the pig was put on trial. Something terrible had happened and so the pig was attributed agency and responsibility.

Dyadic completion is also involved in many conspiracy theories. When something bad happens, the normal explanation may seem inadequate. For many in the US, the 9/11 attacks were so horrific and traumatic that it wasn’t enough to blame only the 19 individuals who piloted the aeroplanes. They assumed something bigger and more sinister must be involved.

Your own mind

Of all the minds in the world, the one we think we know the most is our own self. Yet psychologists have carried out numerous experiments showing that self-knowledge is often quite limited. People do things but often misconceive the reasons why they do them. Pioneering studies by Benjamin Libet showed that when people make a decision, for example to push a button, the brain is activated a fraction of a second before the intention enters the conscious mind. The implication is that the conscious feeling that you are making a decision is an illusion: it is a rationalisation for what the unconscious mind has already decided.

The Mind Club is written in an entertaining fashion and is filled with all sorts of observations about minds. You can learn a lot even if you don’t agree with every point raised by the authors. The book is a highly successful popularisation. I can recommend it to you knowing that whether you decide to read it is not necessarily something you can consciously control!


Daniel Wegner

“Trying to perceive your dead mind is paradoxical, because you have to perceive a state that is incapable of perception – which is impossible while you are currently perceiving.” (p. 243)


Kurt Gray

“Despite the ultimate uncertainty surrounding the question of other minds, it is likely that everyone you know has the same powerful emotions and deep thoughts as you do. Unfortunately, your own collection of memories, thoughts, and feelings – your mind – prevents you from truly appreciating that fact. Being one mind prevents you from truly appreciating the minds of others.” (p. 321)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Subtle prejudice

Many people sincerely believe they are not prejudiced. Research shows, though, that subtle prejudice is quite common. Furthermore, getting rid of it is very difficult.

Unconscious-Bias-Part-5

There are all sorts of prejudice, on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, occupation and various other characteristics. Some people are overtly prejudiced, for example expressing antagonism towards gays or refusing to say hello to neighbours of another nationality. However, many types of prejudice are less acceptable than before. In some circles, racist language will alienate listeners.

But can you be prejudiced even if you think you’re not? There’s a way to find out whether you have this sort of subtle, unconscious prejudice. Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT). But let me warn you. If you like to think of yourself as unbiased, be prepared for a possible shock when you take the IAT.

Implicit_association_test

Actually, there are many versions of the IAT, covering race, gender, age and other dimensions. Let’s say you take the age IAT. You look at faces of people and, as quickly as possible, classify them as young or old. You look at words and, as quickly as possible, classify them as good or bad. Then you look at interwoven sequences of faces and words, and classify them the same way. The online IAT calculates how long it takes you to do these tasks. If it takes you longer to respond to certain sequences, the implication is that you have an implicit bias against old people. It’s very common, and worldwide.

If you want to learn more about subtle prejudice, read the book Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It’s about the IAT and much more. Greenwald developed the IAT; Banaji was his student and has collaborated with him for many years.

Blindspot

The disturbing finding is that most people who believe they are unprejudiced are actually biased, unconsciously. Greenwald and Banaji admit they are too, even though they wish they weren’t.

Banaji is from India and was dismayed to discover, via the IAT, that she had an unconscious bias against non-whites. The IAT reveals that many women hold, unconsciously, the gender stereotype of male = work, female = family. Many US blacks have an unconscious bias against blacks, and so forth.

Mahzarin Banaji
Mahzarin Banaji

How could this be? The two-minds model of human mental functioning  helps explain. According to a standard view in psychology, humans have two minds, in other words two independent mental systems. One is the rational mind, used for much conscious thinking. It is slow, careful and requires effort. The other system is the intuitive mind, which operates rapidly, automatically and usually out of consciousness.

When you meet someone new, your intuitive mind rapidly classifies the person in terms of categories, including sex, ethnicity, age and social status. This happens out of conscious awareness. This automatic classification process can also result in judgements and changes in behaviour.

The IAT, by requiring rapid responses, taps into the intuitive mind and its biases. Conscious effort by the rational mind is required to overcome automatic responses, and the more effort that is required, the slower your response. The slower response is detectable and used to assess your level of bias, perhaps none but perhaps more than you expect.

As Blindspot‘s subtitle – Hidden Biases of Good People – suggests, Banaji and Greenwald are concerned about people who want to be unbiased, and who usually believe they are unbiased, but who actually have subtle prejudices.

You might want to dismiss your results on the IAT as not reflecting anything serious. Countering this, Banaji and Greenwald report on a large amount of psychological research showing that IAT scores correlate with prejudicial behaviours. But the bias in behaviour is subtle, so people – “good people” in Banaji and Greenwald’s terms – do not realise it is occurring.

Some experiments involved white students being approached by an interviewer, either a black or a white woman, on a neutral topic. A videocamera covertly recorded each interaction. Nonverbal indicators of the subject’s friendliness or discomfort were judged by independent assessors. A typical finding is that most white US subjects respond more positively to white interviewers.

African American woman taking an interview of a woman
African American woman taking an interview of a woman

Another experiment involved leaving a stamped, addressed and unsealed envelope in an airport phone box. On looking inside at the contents, a photo of the writer is hard to miss. White subjects are more likely to seal and post the envelope if the writer is white rather than black. The differences in response are not all that great, but enough to show a correlation between IAT scores and behaviour.

Dozens of clever studies of this sort show that subtle bias is common and that it affects behaviour, often with drastic effects. Banaji and Greenwald say that today subtle, unconscious bias may be the prime source of unfair discrimination in the US, overshadowing overt prejudice in its effects. Subtle bias is all the more potent because it is unconscious and hence unrecognised.

One of the issues addressed by Banaji and Greenwald is support in the US for measures to make up for historical disadvantage. Although a majority of whites disavow racial prejudice, a majority also thinks the playing field is now level, so extra support for disadvantaged groups is not needed. This can be interpreted as the expression of unconscious prejudice.

Because of the attention to the rights of minorities in recent decades, many US whites now believe they are suffering from adverse discrimination. Because their own prejudice is unconscious, their views about social injustice are opposite to what is shown by the evidence. Banaji and Greenwald provide a detailed appendix about black disadvantage in the US, giving ample evidence that it is real and significant.

Anthony Greenwald
Anthony Greenwald

Why unconscious prejudice exists

You might imagine that good intentions, or personal experience, would be enough to overcome unconscious bias. How could a career woman like Banaji hold an unconscious stereotype of female being associated with family rather than career? Why would a capable older person unconsciously accept negative stereotyping about old people? The answer is in cultural stereotypes that we imbibe from many sources.

In studying history, we read a lot about leaders, especially heads of state. Most of them are men, and a large proportion are white, at least for US people studying US history.

Mount Rushmore
No black or female faces on Mount Rushmore

In US television news, most reporting is about the US, and hardly any is about sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, it is easy for the intuitive mind to become attuned to white faces and not easily differentiate black ones.

In Hollywood productions, there are embedded assumptions about gender, age, social class, crime and a host of other social dimensions. Though not all shows have the same implicit message, the overall effect of watching thousands of hours of Hollywood entertainment is to implant associations and assumptions into many viewers’ minds.

The result is that stereotypes become deeply embedded. Think “surgeon” or “soldier” and the mental image of a white man may be automatic.

The messages of culture, including media, buildings, textbooks, ceremonies and much else, shape the unconscious, intuitive mind. The IAT probes the prejudices of this mind.

What to do

In Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald devote considerable attention to the challenge of overcoming unconscious prejudice. They assume that “good people” would prefer to be unbiased and, if they knew about their unconscious prejudices, would like to change them.

However, changing the intuitive mind is not easy, especially when culture is continually fostering and reinforcing unconscious stereotypes. Banaji and Greenwald are not optimistic about trying to change intuitive responses. So they pursue a different approach: avoiding or sidestepping unconscious prejudice.

A good example is marking essays without knowing the identities of the students. In this way, unconscious biases about gender, ethnicity, appearance and personality are avoided. The same approach is used by editors of some scholarly journals when soliciting peer reviews: the author’s name and other identifying information are removed from the paper. Though reviewers sometimes can figure out the identity of the writer, the intention is to reduce the influence of conscious or unconscious bias.

peer-review-clipart-1

However, this sort of blinding has limited applicability. In the workplace, a person’s gender and ethnicity cannot easily be disguised.

An initial step is for more people to become aware of their own unconscious biases. It can be disconcerting, even distressing, for a consciously fair-minded person to discover prejudice lurking in their intuitive mind, shaping their behaviour without revealing any trace to consciousness. Accepting that this can occur, though, can unleash creativity and energy in redressing culturally induced blindspots.

Recognising that it is difficult for individuals to overcome their own unconscious biases, there may be better prospects for groups of concerned individuals working together with a shared intent of developing ways of reducing prejudice.

A radical alternative

Prejudice is damaging psychologically, and also when it affects people’s job opportunities, promotions, housing options and other material aspects of life. It seems difficult to deal with hidden prejudice because judgements by others are so central to success in life.

This can be seen as a flaw in the connected systems of meritocracy and inequality. The usual idea of meritocracy is that people rise or fall in their station in life depending on their capacities and achievements: those who do better on tests get better grades and advance further through formal education; those who are more qualified and experienced get better jobs; those who do better work are promoted; those who generate new ideas receive recognition. Inequality in society is justified by belief in the merit principle: those who earn more money or become famous deserve their privileges because of what they’ve done.

The problem is that meritocracy is a myth. People often get ahead because of having wealthy parents, good luck, social advantage such as knowing the right people – and prejudice. Inequality due to birth, luck, connections or prejudice is simply unfair, and not justified by merit.

take-the-same-test

One way to nullify the impact of prejudice (and the role of birth, luck and connections) is to move to a more egalitarian society. At the workplace, instead of having huge pay differentials, most workers could receive the same pay. Or, more generally, everyone in society could be guaranteed the same basic income. With such a system, the impact of prejudice on income would be greatly reduced.

The existence of subtle prejudice can be used to motivate thought experiments. If we imagine that unconscious bias is widespread and virtually impossible to overcome at the psychological level, then the question becomes, how should society be organised so this unconscious bias has minimal consequences? There are some radical possibilities. For example, instead of electing politicians, members of decision-making groups could be chosen randomly.

Banaji and Greenwald say that figuring out how to overcome unconscious bias “may require some thought.” That thought needs to include radical alternatives.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Emma Barkus, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Trent Brown, Rae Campbell, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao and Alfie Herrero de Haro for useful comments on drafts.

What’s on your mind?

People have the capacity to be able to figure out what others are thinking. But there are lots of traps involved, according to research reported in Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise.

Personality-icon

For most of my life, I thought I was no good at guessing what other people were feeling. I marvelled at the capacity of friends who, through their powers of intuition, could understand other people.

Then a few years ago I was a subject in a research project on “personality coaching.” After taking a comprehensive psychological test, I met with a coach, had a look at my personality profile and decided what if any aspect of my personality I would like to change. Many other subjects chose to reduce their anxiety or depression, but I scored very low on “neuroticism.” Instead, I chose understanding others’ feelings, something I thought I was poor at. Over ten weeks of coaching, I was encouraged to think about and practise some ways to improve.

I’m not sure whether I actually improved, but I discovered I was better than I had thought at picking up on the emotions of people I knew, for example when talking on the telephone to my PhD students.

Mindwise

Now I’ve read Nicholas Epley’s illuminating book Mindwise (Penguin, 2014) and learned that my original view was probably more accurate, namely I’m not that great at deciphering others’ emotions. However, my view of others’ skills was skewed. Most of them are probably not very good either. Epley reports that those who are poorest at understanding others are the most overconfident in their abilities.

Epley is a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago and does research on what he calls “mind-reading.” This is not extra-sensory perception but rather using our senses to understand — in the words of the subtitle of his book — “what others think, believe, feel, and want.”

Mindwise is an engaging treatment of research findings in the area. Epley uses a variety of examples, including from his own life, to illustrate insights. He has packaged this material into a logical framework, progressing through various dimensions of mind-reading. The book is the best sort of popularisation: it conveys key ideas in an understandable, engaging way while being faithful to the original research.

Knowing yourself

Compared to understanding others, it should be far easier to know our own thoughts. But actually it’s not.

strangers-to-ourselves

A book that greatly changed my thinking is Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wilson reported on research showing that there are parts of our minds that we cannot consciously access. He recounts a famous experiment in which young men acted on the basis of an incorrect assessment of their own emotions. Wilson concluded that, in some circumstances, the person sitting next to you knows as much about what you are feeling as you do yourself! It’s hard to believe, but the research is convincing.

Epley, covering some of the same ground, devotes a chapter to “What you can and cannot know about your own mind,” offering numerous fascinating observations about a key shortcoming of the mind. When you feel happy, for example, you usually know, but you seldom know why you’re happy, and systematically make incorrect assumptions about the reasons. Epley says we know what mental products are like as completed products but don’t have a clue about how they were created. Therefore, to make sense of our thoughts and emotions, we manufacture a plausible story and “we’re left with the illusion that we know more about own minds than we actually do.” (p. 30).

When pollsters ring to ask about your voting intentions, they now ask who you would vote for if the election were held today. In doing this, pollsters draw on psychological research. They don’t ask who you would vote for in a few weeks or months, because most people do not know their own minds well enough to accurately predict their future preferences.

Then there is the issue of bias. People assume that others are biased, not themselves, and hold fast to their own illusions. Not understanding one’s own mind in this case leads to mistakes in reading the minds of others.

adam-goodes
Adam Goodes

Take the case of Adam Goodes, Australian rules football star and former Australian of the Year. For the past two years he has been subject to booing by spectators every time he has the ball, something unprecedented in persistence. Many commentators attribute this to Goodes being an Aborigine and, furthermore, outspoken in opposition to racism. Those who boo or otherwise criticise Goodes say they aren’t racist. However, it’s quite possible that they do not understand their own motivations. To justify their beliefs and behaviours, they come up with rationalisations, such as that Goodes has been playing unfairly, a view that conveniently ignores the dozens of other footballers who play the same way. Hardly anyone these days admits being a racist. In this case, others may be able to read the minds of those who defend booing better than they can themselves.

Dehumanising others

One of the most serious flaws in the human mind-reading system is caused by proximity. The part of the brain engaged by the system is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). People close to us stimulate greater activity in our mPFC: they are seen as having minds. By the same token, those who do not trigger mPFC activity are seen to be mindless and hence less than human. This psychological distancing is the source of mistaken judgements and underlies many crimes and atrocities.

mPFC

People from other cultures are harder to understand and are candidates for dehumanisation. Have you ever gotten to know a terrorist? Those who haven’t are prone to systematically misinterpreting their thinking and motivations. Epley says that terrorists are not psychopaths, but rather have an overwhelming empathy for their own group, connected with a contempt for other groups. “They act out of parochial altruism, a strong commitment to benefit one’s own group or cause without regard for the consequences for oneself” (p. 53).

When dehumanisation can be countered, the benefits can be enormous. Epley recounts the well-known story about a General Motors plant in California that was closed in 1982 due to abysmal productivity and quality control. Then GM entered a partnership with Toyota. The new Japanese management reopened the plant, rehired most of the same workers and started treating them as mindful humans with intrinsic motivations rather than as mindless ones interested only in money. Before long, the plant became a top performer. Despite this well-tested insight about the value of intrinsic motivation, bosses in workplaces around the world continue to treat workers as mindless drones who can only be motivated by fear or financial rewards.

Nummi-plant
Nimmi auto plant in Fresno, California

Because of inadequate understanding of the minds of others, most people are apprehensive of striking up conversations with strangers. Have you ever sat on a bus or train and noticed how people will space themselves out, avoiding sitting next to strangers? In one experiment, commuters were asked whether they would prefer to sit alone or talk to a stranger, and nearly all said sitting alone. Then they were asked to talk with strangers and nearly all found it more enjoyable. This shows that people are mistaken about the likely responsiveness of strangers and about their own emotional responses.

Minds when there are none

The capacity of humans to understand the minds of others can sometimes be deployed when it’s not appropriate, in what is called anthropomorphising, namely seeing things as having human qualities. Have you ever seen someone berating their computer, saying “Why do you keep causing me trouble?” This is anthropomorphising: the computer is attributed will or motivation.

cuckoo

Epley reports that inanimate objects are more likely to be seen as human when they are unpredictable. The computer that sporadically plays up is seen as more wilful than the one that always works – or never does. When something needs to be explained, we are more likely to infer the existence of a mind.

Another reason for attributing minds is appearance, for example a face. The animated feature film Cars is more engaging because the cars have big eyes and mouths, so the fiction that they can think and talk is less jarring. A feature titled Rocks showing expressionless rocks would be less likely to attract audiences.

Cars_2006

Epley writes that the process of anthropomorphising is not mysterious: “Forming a connection requires you to consider another person’s mind, to adopt his or her perspective, to do your best to get into his or her head” (pp. 78-79), and this can occur with non-humans. He notes that musicians often form a personal bond with their instruments, even giving them names. I guess my mind-reading sense is unlikely to be triggered in this way. I’ve been playing the same clarinet for 50 years and never thought of giving it a name.

clarinet
Someone else’s clarinet

It’s all about you

When trying to figure out what others are thinking, one of the biggest challenges is getting over egocentrism, in particular the assumption that others think the way we do. People were asked their views on a range of ethical choices, for example “Is it ethical to call in sick to get a day off?” Then they were asked how they thought others would answer, namely to estimate the percentage of others who would agree with them. On this question, 71% answered that it is ethical, and these subjects estimated 66% of others would answer the same way. So far, so good: 66% is close to 71%, so mind-reading seems to work. However, 29% answered that it is unethical, and these subjects incorrectly estimated 64% of others would answer the same way. On a whole set of questions, people thought the majority of others agreed with their answer, even when they were in minorities as low as 10%. This illustrates that, in the absence of specific knowledge about others, the usual assumption is that they think the same way we do.

self-centered-300x300

Most people overestimate their own contributions to shared tasks, for example housework. They also overestimate their role in negative interactions, taking more than their share of responsibility for starting arguments. An excess of self-centredness leads to paranoia.

Another aspect of self-centredness is that most people think they feel emotions more strongly than others. This is because we feel our own emotions very strongly but have only indirect information about others’ emotions. On this particular aspect of self-centredness I can plead not guilty, because for most of my life I’ve assumed I don’t feel emotions as strongly as others (which, of course, could be true).

Another aspect of a self-centred bias is called the “curse of knowledge”: once you know something, it is very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it. The result is that highly knowledgeable people are sometimes poor teachers. Studies show that someone who has just learned how to use a mobile phone can teach a beginner more quickly than can an experienced user. The curse of knowledge is especially relevant to me as a university teacher. I try to counter it by setting up conditions for students to learn from each other. One of the counter-intuitive implications of the curse of knowledge is that I may be better at helping students learn when I haven’t previously taught a subject.

Stereotypes

stereotype_map_by_pokemonarenaart-d6kp9vb

When you don’t know much about a person, it’s convenient to assume they fit a stereotype, about being a woman, an Egyptian, a plumber or a redhead. Epley describes research showing both the strengths and weaknesses of stereotypes. Most stereotypes accurately portray differences between groups. For example, those on the political right are more likely to support bosses against workers than those on the left. The shortcoming of stereotypes is that they give an exaggerated idea of how great the differences between groups are. The differences between right and left on many issues actually are fairly small, maybe 1/10 as great as the stereotypes might suggest.

Stereotypes thus can lead to clashes between groups that don’t really differ very much, because each group operates on the basis of its exaggerated idea of the views of the other group.

This is one reason why deliberative democracy has more potential than you might imagine. Put together a randomly selected group of 12 citizens (a so-called citizens jury), give them information about some subject, say genetic engineering or climate change, and have them try to reach consensus on a policy. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but hundreds of actual citizens juries show that it usually does. When people are brought together, get to know each other and exchange ideas, stereotypes give way to more realistic perceptions, and usually there is more commonality than initially imagined.

Actions

Most people are susceptible to “correspondence bias.” When someone acts violently, we may assume they are angry or aggressive. Many people in the US assume that the 9/11 terrorists hated America and wanted to destroy the American way of life, despite explicit al Qaeda statements about their real motivations.

why-do-people-hate-america

Correspondence bias can reflect an assumption that other people’s actions are internally motivated rather than conditioned by the environment. If your friend Lauren walks by without saying hello, you may assume she is unhappy with you when actually she was just preoccupied and didn’t see you. Epley notes that people in collectivist cultures, such as in Japan, are more attuned to the existence of environmental influences and are less likely to be subject to correspondence bias.

Correspondence bias can have serious consequences. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans in 2005, officials assumed that those who had not been evacuated didn’t want to leave. The officials didn’t take into account the factors that constrained the desires of residents. Epley says “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus” (p. 151).

How to read minds

When someone looks to the side while talking to you, does this mean they’re lying? When they fold their arms and keep their distance, does this mean they’re resisting your views? A lot has been written about body language and how to interpret it. Despite reading several books on the topic, I have always thought I was poor at interpreting body language. According to Epley, I’m not unusual: it’s very difficult to learn a lot from it. If you’re going to try, it’s better to listen to someone’s voice rather than watch them.

Then there is perspective-taking: imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and thereby gaining insight into what they think and how they feel. I always thought this was valuable, but Epley cites many studies showing it is subject to serious shortcomings. We can imagine ourselves in someone else’s circumstances, but often this isn’t accurate at all.

There’s one method for figuring out what other people are thinking that is usually pretty helpful: ask them, and carefully listen to what they say. It seems obvious but, as Epley notes, in many cases people are overconfident in thinking they already know the answer, so they don’t bother to ask. A boss assumes a worker needs higher pay to work harder, or arrives late due to being slack, and doesn’t ask for the worker’s explanation.

The key to getting an honest answer is to reduce the threat of repercussions. Epley tells how he used this approach with his son. Performance appraisals at work are useless when employees fear reprisals for being honest.

Nicholas-Epley
Nicholas Epley

Mindwise is filled with insights. If figuring out what others are thinking is important to you, it could be one of the most useful books you’ll ever read. An important message is that most people are overconfident about their mind-reading abilities. As Epley concludes, “Sometimes a sense of humility is the best our wise minds can offer, recognizing that there’s more to the mind of another person than we may ever imagine” (p. 184).

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for useful comments.

The story-editing solution

The way people think about their lives can have profound effects on the way they behave. Timothy Wilson explains how to reap the benefits of story-editing.

Stereotype-threat

Two groups of US students sit down to take a maths test. The groups are similar and the questions they are asked are identical, but there is one difference between the groups. At the top of the test, students in one group are asked to indicate their sex, male or female; the students in the other group are not.

It seems like a trivial difference, but it’s not. Boys aren’t affected, but girls are: the girls who are asked to indicate their sex before the test do worse. This is an example of a stereotype threat: bringing to consciousness a stereotype, in this case that girls aren’t good at maths, harms their performance.

What is going on? Being reminded of being female stimulates mental effort to deal with the stereotype, and this is mental energy that can’t be used to focus on the maths problems.

This is one of numerous examples of how beliefs about ourselves can affect how we behave and perform. There’s a large amount of social and psychological research about this phenomenon. A really valuable overview of the research and its implications for policy and practice is Timothy D. Wilson’s book Redirect.

Redirect

Wilson makes two main points. The first is that social interventions need to be carefully tested, preferably with a design in which individuals are randomly assigned to a control group and an experimental group. It is not good enough to undertake interventions that seem like they should work because they are obvious and sensible.

Wilson’s second main point is that the story-editing approach, namely getting people to change the narratives they use to understand themselves, can be far more powerful than other methods.

Scaring kids

There is a popular programme in the US to discourage teenage delinquency. At-risk youngsters are brought together to hear lectures from prisoners, who tell them about what is in store for them should they make the wrong decisions about their lives. This programme is well-meaning and seems plausible: scare these kids with warnings about their possible fate and they’ll be more likely to go straight. There’s one major problem: it doesn’t work.

scared-straight-kenan1

Wilson uses this example as one of many in which a well-meaning intervention was rolled out across the US before it had been adequately tested. When controlled trials were finally undertaken, it turned out that the lectures intended to scare the kids out of trouble were actually making things worse. These kids were more likely to drop out of school, be arrested and go to prison. Wilson provides example after example of plausible interventions that have no benefit or even make things worse. He assigns the “bloodletting” award to counterproductive interventions: doctors used to treat many illnesses by drawing blood, thereby making the patient more likely to die.

What was wrong with the scaring-kids intervention? Thinking in terms of stories people tell about themselves, an explanation goes like this. Some supposedly at-risk kids previously thought of themselves as regular, honest and well-intentioned. They did the right thing because that is how they thought of themselves. But then they were put into a group labelled “at risk” and given lectures about the dangers of crime. Some of them started thinking their reason for avoiding crime was to avoid the consequences: their motivation, previously internal, became external, and this is not as effective a deterrent when the circumstances are less favourable. Furthermore, these kids were put in a group of others considered at risk, and this is truly a risk, because they are influenced by peers setting a bad example.

Timothy-D-Wilson
Timothy D Wilson

            Wilson’s main attention is on interventions to address social problems in the US including poverty, low education, crime, sexism and racism. The bottom line is that all interventions should be tested before being used on a wide scale, and that story-editing approaches are often extremely effective.

It’s possible to use the insights from the story-editing approach to look at some other sorts of issues, including ones where interventions cannot be readily tested.

Whistleblowing

When a worker speaks out about a problem in their workplace, such as corruption or hazards to the public, they often suffer reprisals such as ostracism, petty harassment, reprimands, referral to psychiatrists, demotion and dismissal. This seems a harsh response to someone who is concerned about problems. What are the stories told about this common scenario?

From the employer’s point of view, the worker is out of line, challenging management and threatening the viability of the enterprise (not to mention seeking to expose management involvement in unethical and criminal activities). The worker is labelled a traitor, malcontent, snitch or dobber. The story provided is that the worker is in the wrong, due to personal failings. Rumours may be spread that the worker is a poor performer, has a mental illness or is involved in unsavoury sexual practices. Quite separately from the labels applied, the actions taken against the worker suggest their own meanings. Being referred to a psychiatrist is demeaning and signals to others that the worker is mentally unstable.

In some cases, the worker starts believing what is said about them, thinking “There must be something wrong with me.” The late Jean Lennane, former president of Whistleblowers Australia, worked as a psychiatrist, and treated quite a few such workers. After hearing their stories, she would say, “You’re not insane. You’re a whistleblower.” This is a story-editing intervention. Jean changed her patient’s script from “There’s something wrong with me” to “There’s something wrong with the organisation.” She changed the label from “dobber” to “whistleblower.”

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?

Back in the 1990s, the NSW branch of Whistleblowers Australia held weekly meetings. Some people who attended for the first time said, “I’m not a whistleblower, but …” and went on to describe experiences that perfectly fitted the usual idea of a whistleblower. At that time, the term “whistleblower” had a negative connotation and many workers were reluctant to accept the label.

In the following years, the label “whistleblower” gained in status in Australia, in part through media stories that used the term in stories portraying gallant individuals challenging abuses of power. Workers were less likely to acquiesce in labels applied by bosses and more likely to take pride in calling themselves whistleblowers. Employers are more often losing the story-editing struggle, though reprisals against whistleblowers remain all too common.

War

Another arena for story-editing struggles is war. A familiar example is what to call a fighter challenging a repressive government: a terrorist or a freedom fighter. Governments have far more power to label than do their opponents, as shown by the ubiquity of the label “terrorism” applied solely to challengers, not to governments themselves, even though many government actions fit standard definitions of terrorism.

terrorist-or-freedom-fighter

By labelling opponents as terrorists, governments might in some cases actually be assisting their enemies in recruitment, especially when entire groups are stigmatised. It is useful to remember that the South African apartheid government called its armed opponents “terrorists,” that the US government, during the Vietnam war, called the National Liberation Front “terrorists,” and the Philippines government calls armed opponents “terrorists.” Commentators in the US have called some environmentalists “eco-terrorists.” The aim in such labelling is to stigmatise, but is this effective? It is possible that it may cause some activists — even ones who had not considered the use of violence in resistance — to identify with the government’s opponents.

A related story-editing struggle concerns what to call those who refuse to fight, by refusing conscription or by deserting from the army. Military leaders typically call them “traitors” or “cowards.” Within the peace movement, they might be called conscientious objectors or war resisters and be seen courageous or even as true patriots.

Vaccination

What should a parent be called who has reservations about vaccination, or who declines some or all vaccinations for their children? They can be called conscientious objectors or, more pejoratively, vaccination refusers or deniers. Some campaigners who raise concerns about vaccination are called baby-killers.

Does this sort of labelling help promote vaccination? From a story-editing perspective, derogatory labelling of people with concerns about vaccination could be ineffective or even counterproductive, by alienating some parents who had cautiously expressed concerns and found themselves grouped with more vociferous critics. In addition, hostile labelling may drive some parents towards vaccine-critical groups as a source of identity.

vaccine-cover-detail

A different approach to vaccination critics is to label them concerned parents and to provide information about how their concerns relate to vaccination. The story promoted with this sort of intervention is that it is legitimate for parents to have concerns about their children’s health and that choosing to vaccinate is one possible resolution for their concerns.

In this case, the story-editing struggle occurs mainly between advocates of vaccination, namely between those who stigmatise parents reluctant to vaccinate and those who respond to their concerns with sensitivity and sympathy. From a story-editing perspective, the latter approach is more likely to be effective, though designing a way to rigorously compare the two approaches would be extremely difficult.

Conclusion

Redirect provides a powerful summary of a body of research showing that the way people think about themselves makes an enormous difference to their behaviour. Seemingly trivial interventions that change self-perspectives can have long-lasting impacts.

Wilson has two main aims in Redirect. The first is to show the power of story-editing and the second is to emphasise the importance of careful studies of social interventions. Research shows that all too many well-intentioned interventions appear to be ineffective or, even worse, counterproductive.

Yet in some areas it can be difficult or almost impossible to carry out controlled tests. I’ve outlined three areas where story-editing struggles take place: whistleblowing, war and vaccination. Based on the evidence provided in Redirect, the preliminary hypothesis in each case is that a key in such struggles is changing the way people think about themselves. It might even be possible that derogatory labelling is ineffective or counterproductive. Read Redirect and decide for yourself.

 ***

Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect: changing the stories we live by (Penguin, 2013)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Jørgen Johansen and Cynthia Kardell for useful comments on a draft.

We’re being analysed

A new era of data analysis is dawning, and it’s because people are sharing so much information about themselves.

okcupid-logo

Christian Rudder is one of the founders of the popular online dating site OkCupid. People under 50 can go to the site, enter information about themselves and then make contact with prospective dates and mates according to suggestions made by the site’s algorithms. Rudder realised he was sitting on a mine of data that can reveal new insights about the human condition. He’s written a book about it, titled Dataclysm (London: Fourth Estate, 2014).

At OkCupid, users make judgements about various things, including the looks of other people. Examining only the judgements of self-declared heterosexuals, Rudder plots the age of the member of the opposite sex who is rated most attractive. For women up to the age of 30, the most attractive man is slightly older; thereafter, the most attractive man is slightly younger than they are. Rudder shows this on this graph.

women-prefer-men-by-age

Then he does the same thing with men, and comes up with a very different sort of graph.

 men-prefer-women-by-age

The men, overwhelmingly, see 20 to 23-year old women as most attractive. Not too surprising, perhaps, but here is the bonus. This sort of data enables research that overcomes many of the shortcomings of conventional psychological research, for which the experimental subjects are mostly university undergraduates in artificial conditions. On OkCupid, a broader cross-section of the population is included, and the conditions are real-life.

There are methodological obstacles to be sure. One of them is that people lie, for example about their own attributes. But there’s something more in the data that people are unlikely to lie about: their behaviour. Subscribers at OkCupid, after obtaining the address of a possible match, can choose to contact the person, or not, and the recipient of a message can choose to respond, or not. Given the information collected by OkCupid, it is possible to look for correlations between this behaviour and any number of attributes, for example age, looks, ethnicity and sexuality.

There is yet another source of information: the words people use to describe themselves. Rudder provides some useful tables of words characteristically used by particular groups on OkCupid, for example white men. He tabulates the words used by white men that most distinguish them from black men, Latinos and Asian men: these include “my blue eyes,” “blonde hair” and “ween.” In contrast, words most distinctively used by black men include “dreads,” “jill scott” and “haitian.” And so on with many more words for each group, and for various other groups, such as Asian women. Then there are the antithetical words, namely the words a group is least likely to use compared to other groups. For Latinos, these include “southern accent,” “from the midwest” and “ann arbor.”

Rudder uses data from OkCupid because he knows it best, but he also draws on data from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites that have far larger user numbers. He provides fascinating insights by looking at people’s locations, political views, sexuality and much else. Who would have thought, for example, that data can be used to show that two people meeting through an online dating site, with no prior information about appearance, would be equally satisfied with the date independently of the difference between their attractiveness ratings. As Rudder notes, “people appear to be heavily preselecting online for something [attractiveness] that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem important to them” (p. 90).

Christian-Rudder-credit-Vic
Christian Rudder

Rudder confirms the widely noted bias in favour of good looking women. He goes beyond this to comment on a perverse result:

Think about how the Shiftgig data changes our understanding of women’s perceived workplace performance. They are evidently being sought out (and exponentially so) for a trait [beauty] that has nothing to do with their ability to do a job well. Meanwhile, men have no such selection imposed. It is therefore simple probability that women’s failure rate, as a whole, will be higher. And, crucially, the criteria are to blame, not the people. Imagine if men, no matter the job, were hired for their physical strength. You would, by design, end up with strong men facing challenges that strength has nothing to do with. In the same way, to hire women based on their looks is to (statistically) guarantee poor performance. It’s either that or you limit their opportunities. Thus Ms. Wolf [Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth]: “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.” She was speaking primarily in a sexual context, but here, we see how it plays out, with mathematical equivalence, in the workplace. (p. 121)

One of Rudder’s key topics is racism. One way to detect racist views using Internet data is by looking at the terms people put into search engines. Using Google data (in particular, the Google Trends tool), Rudder plots the number of searches for the word “nigger” against the months before and after Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008. Several spikes in the graph connect to significant events in the campaign. As Rudder puts it, the graph enables you to “watch the country come to grips with the prospect of a black president” (p. 129). Rudder also uses online data to show that racism in the US is pervasive; biases are widespread rather than restricted to a few open racists. On the other hand, racial biases shown by US data are nearly absent in comparable data about people in Britain and Japan.

Then there is online mobbing, when people gang up against a target. Rudder uses the example of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a poor attempt at humour. She was condemned by thousands for racism, received death threats and lost her job. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was followed by tens of millions of people. Rudder tells about his own effort to inject some sense into the conversation about Sacco, only to be countered by a damaging claim about Sacco — a claim that turned out to be false.

HasJustineLandedYet

Rudder reviews what researchers say about rumours, gossip and human sacrifice, as social phenomena in history and in the Internet age.

So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication — asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority — also makes it frightening. People can act however they want (and say whatever they want) without consequences, a phenomenon first studied by John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University. His name for it is the “online disinhibition effect.” The webcomic Penny Arcade puts it a little better:
Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory
normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad (p. 145)

Reading Dataclysm

Rudder comments that it is strange to be writing a book, in old fashioned hard copy, in the digital age. But what a book it is! It is stylishly laid out, with an elegant font and beautifully crafted diagrams. It is not quite a coffee table book — there are no colour photos — but for an intellectual work it is exceptionally attractive.

Rudder’s writing style is equally striking, with a mixture of colloquial language, wide-ranging cultural references, scholarly citations and astute observations. Referring to the Twitterstorm against Justine Sacco, Rudder muses:

… this, to me, is why the data generated from outrage could ultimately be so important. It embodies (and therefore lets us study) the contradictions inherent in us all. It shows we fight hardest against those who can least fight back. And, above all, it runs to ground our age-old desire to raise ourselves up by putting other people down. Scientists have established that the drive is as old as time, but this doesn’t mean they understand it yet. As Gandhi put it, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”

I invite you to imagine when it will be a mystery no more. That will be the real transformation — to know not just that people are cruel, and in what amounts, and when, but why. Why we search for “nigger jokes” when a black man wins; why inspiration is hollow-eyed, stripped, and above all, #thin; why people scream at each other about the true age of the earth. And why we seem to define ourselves as much by what we hate as by what we love. (pp. 148–149)

Implications

Rudder suggests that a new approach to studying human behaviour is emerging. Rather than relying on studies of undergraduate students in experimental (artificial) conditions, data will become available for examining human behaviour in “natural” conditions, namely when people think no one is looking at them. This is the idea underlying the subtitle of Dataclysm: Who We Are* — with the footnote *When We Think No One’s Looking.

social-analytics

Rudder is quite aware that online data are incomplete. Those who use OkCupid are not a perfect cross-section of the population between 18 and 50. Even Facebook, with its billions of users, does not incorporate everyone. But there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative jump in what it is possible to analyse: the behaviour of millions of people in natural conditions. This requires access to the data and knowledge of quantitative methodologies.

Rudder comments on the disappearance of privacy, and the fact that most people seem not to care too much: they willingly share all sorts of intimate data, for example on Facebook. It is now possible for marketers to predict fairly accurately, on the basis of automated analysis of data and words, whether you are gay, straight, unemployed or pregnant, among other information relevant for marketing. Analysts are working on how to assess a person’s intelligence from their online presence. Few people realise the potential implications for their careers of their casual interactions on social media.

Conclusion

Masses of data about individuals now available can be mined for insights about human behaviour, and many of these insights are fascinating, sometimes confirming conventional ideas and sometimes challenging them. Readers of Dataclysm can obtain a good sense of a future, part of which is already here, in which data obtained about seemingly innocent activities — such as your Facebook likes, the words you use on Twitter or the terms you enter into search engines — can be used to draw inferences about your prejudices, activities and capabilities. Perhaps, like Rudder, you may decide to become a bit more cautious about your online activities.

Social-Analyst

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Narcissism on the rise

Is society becoming dominated by narcissistic traits?

narcissist

Fred thinks he is one of the greatest leaders in his workplace, though few of his co-workers think so. Fred is always claiming credit for group achievements. He has charisma, and has a small fan club, including a couple of his bosses, who are taken in by his confident self-assertions.

When one of Fred’s co-workers does good work, and seems to Fred to be a competitor, Fred will ignore the achievement, denigrate the co-worker, or sometimes try to take credit for it. When others question Fred’s competence, he flies into a rage. Most co-workers fear his anger and placate him, enabling his delusions of greatness to persist.

Fred fits the profile of a narcissist, a personality type whose basic characteristic is being self-centred. In the pathological version it is called narcissistic personality disorder, characterised by grandiose self-conceptions and a lack of empathy for others.

Narcissism seems to be on the rise in western societies, along with the increase in individualism. Fewer people look to their family, neighbourhood or class solidarity for their sense of identity. More now think that it is everyone for themselves.

There is an increasing amount of research into narcissism, and some excellent popular treatments. If this topic interests you, I recommend Anne Manne’s new book The Life of I as both engaging to read and thought-provoking. It is highly informed and pushes into new territories.

Life-of-I

            Manne cites research showing increases in narcissism in western countries. For example, surveys of US university students reveal that a much larger percentage see fame and fortune as their primary goals in life rather than, as in previous generations, good character and serving others. Self-centredness is being mainstreamed.

Personality has long been the province of psychiatrists and psychologists, and narcissism has been one of their interests. Manne examines the ideas of leading figures in the field, from Freud onwards, and probes the role of upbringing. The most common idea is that narcissism is stimulated by indulgent parents who set no limits and enable an exaggerated sense of entitlement. There are now US 16-year-olds who whine because the car they’ve been given by their parents is not a BMW.

how-to-accurately-measure-narcissism

            Manne also cites studies suggesting a different rearing pattern in narcissists: emotional deprivation, with a parent who is distant and harsh. She thinks that the combination of indulgence and coldness may be a potent brew for cultivating narcissistic personality disorder.

Manne examines the dangerous and damaging aspects of narcissism:

private fantasies of, and a constant hunger for, being admired; a sense of entitlement; a sense of superiority; a willingness to exploit; impulsiveness and a lack of empathy; and, perhaps most importantly of all, a retaliatory aggression when the inflated ego is threatened. (p. 127)

To make these ideas vivid, Manne uses extended case studies, including Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and US cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Lance-Armstrong
Lance Armstrong

Her ideas about two models of upbringing operating together are exemplified in Armstrong’s case, who

would have had two competing internal working models of self and other. One came from his mother, of himself as special, entitled, able to do no wrong and hence be exploitative, with grandiose visions of a world without limits. The other working model came from his two fathers, a profoundly insecure attachment, as a boy not worth loving, not worth hanging around for, not worth caring for or, in the case of his stepfather, so unworthy as to be worthy of a beating (p. 155)

Some narcissists are sexual predators – or perhaps it’s better to say that many sexual predators have narcissistic traits. Certainly they show a sense of entitlement and little empathy for their victims. Manne uses the example of prominent male sports figures who have been exposed for their sexual abuse of women. Such men are vulnerable to exaggerated ideas about their privileges and self-importance, given the adulation they are given by fans, including female groupies. Narcissism fuels striving for fame, and fame in turn fosters some of the worst characteristics of narcissism.

Self-Centered

            Manne next addresses neoliberalism, the economic beliefs and practices built around idolisation of markets and, as a key aspect, glorification of greed. From the 1980s onwards, especially in English-speaking countries, self-interest was unleashed from many previous restraints.

To highlight the narcissistic dimensions of neoliberalism, Manne uses the case of Ayn Rand, an influential advocate of individualism. Rand raised self-interest to a high-order principle, and denigrated concern for others as weakness. Rand was initially seen as so extreme as to be marginal intellectually, but with the rise of neoliberalism her doctrines obtained a much wider following. One of her acolytes was Alan Greenspan, who later became head of the US Federal Reserve. He dismantled long-standing restraints on financial transactions and helped lay the foundation for the global financial crisis.

Ayn-Rand
Ayn Rand

            Manne tells about the beliefs and behaviours of Rand and Greenspan, showing how they fit a narcissistic profile. She also shows how their views clashed with reality. When Rand contracted lung cancer and could not afford private medical care, she accepted the government financial support she had fulminated against all her life.

Neoliberalism may be enabling an increase of narcissism, but it is only a trend, not destiny: there are countervailing pressures. Although individuals are primed by advertisements to think of their own needs, people can also be primed to be concerned about others. Narcissism, in its extreme forms, is not attractive to others, especially those who are exploited or who are attacked in retaliatory rages. Because people benefit from living collectively, and receive satisfaction from helping others, there is bound to be a limit to the expansion of narcissism.

narcissist -test

            Manne’s final case study is climate change. She sees resistance to the implications of climate science for action against global warming as a symptom of rising narcissism. She notes, for example, that conservative older men are most likely to be climate sceptics, reflecting a reluctance to make personal change for the greater good. Some prominent climate sceptics fit this profile.

However, there are other explanations for resistance to measures to restrain global warming, including the vested interests of fossil fuel industries and the apparent lack of immediate consequences of inaction. Indeed, if compared to other environmental issues, such as nuclear power or pesticides, for which the dangers are more immediate and vivid, there has been a remarkable level of global activism on climate change. Narcissism might be playing a role in the debate, but the power of altruism remains strong: activists put huge efforts into campaigning, even though the immediate benefits are few, with the main beneficiaries being future generations.

Manne provides a compelling account of the importance of narcissism in contemporary societies, both at the individual and social level. What can be done to counter the rise of narcissism? At the individual level, there are various advice books – ones for dealing with difficult personalities – that can be used to obtain ideas about handling the narcissists you encounter at work or in your family. Parents, to prevent their children becoming narcissists, can provide a secure environment in which children are praised for effort, not for their innate brilliance.

At the level of society, though, the challenge is deeper, being nothing less than challenging neoliberalism and the associated rise of individualism. Manne has done a service in diagnosing the culture of narcissism. Perhaps what is needed to challenge this culture is a parallel study of great strategists for altruism and the commons.

anne-manne
Anne Manne

Anne Manne, The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2014)

 

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au