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The Things We Do

The things we do: How we might address political polarization by looking inward

Roxanne Bauer's picture

If there’s one common theme that resonates across Western democracies this past year, it’s a rejection of the status quo. Some outsider politicians have ridden this wave of populism to political office or to strong second-place finishes, stretching the boundaries of political expression. Frustration, anger with the status quo, globalization and the tradeoffs that come with it, and inequality are all basic concerns of the voters catapulting these politicians to power.

Globally, it also seems that fault lines have been erected between cultures, religions, genders, and so on.

Regardless of where the frustration comes from, though, polarization along ideological lines and negative rhetoric are pervasive. While polarization is a complex issue (and not something we can explain in its entirety in a blog post), how people process information is a significant factor.
 
If people are not open to other viewpoints or do not think critically about the negative rhetoric they encounter— which often involves self-reflection— then how can change really be achieved?  How can the frustration fueling the polarization be addressed if we cannot compromise?

The things we do: Can computer games contribute to HIV prevention?

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Also available in: Español

Preventing and controlling HIV is essential to ensuring that everyone can lead healthy, productive lives. It is essential to address this disease if everyone is to share in global prosperity.  The international community has made significant gains in fighting the spread of HIV as well as in increasing the survival rate of those already infected.

However, women- and in particular young women- remain vulnerable to contracting the disease.  According to The Gap Report from UNAIDS, adolescent girls and young women account for one in four new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa.  Globally, there are about 16 million women aged 15 years and older who are living with HIV, and 80% of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.  Within this region, women acquire HIV infections at least 5–7 years earlier than men, primarily through heterosexual transmission. While there is some research that younger women are more physiologically vulnerable to HIV, the evidence also points to several non-physiological factors that help account for gender inequalities, including inequalities in education and economic opportunities, vulnerability to intimate partner violence, and women having sex with older men.

The things we do: What the World Humanitarian Summit says about human nature

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Discussions of who mankind is usually begin with stories of small bands of hunter-gatherers roaming the savannah and struggling for survival under the African sun, of great feats of strength at the Olympics, or of monumental hurdles overcome to land on the moon.  They do not usually start like this: hundreds gather in a Mediterranean city to schmooze and discuss the fate of millions of others.  But this event is a quintessential story of who we are as human beings.  The World Humanitarian Summit demonstrates the very human characteristics of cooperation and competition.

Michael Tomasello, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and author of Why We Cooperate, has explored the distinctiveness of human nature for decades.  He and his colleagues suggest that one of the defining characteristics of humans is that we cooperate.  Many species, from ants to dolphins and primates, cooperate in the wild, but Tomasello has identified a special form of cooperation that is truly human. In his view, humans alone are capable of shared intentionality—the ability to intuitively understand what another person is thinking and act toward a common goal.

The things we do: Why people hate Uber’s surge pricing so much

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Globally, citizens from Guadalajara to Chengdu both love and loath ride sharing app, Uber. 

We love it for the convenience, the ease with which we can pay, and the ability to avoid intemperate weather conditions— all though a few taps on our mobile phone. 
But… we loath it when surge pricing is in effect.  “Surge pricing” increases the cost of rides by many times the normal fare when demand is swelling, most commonly at rush hour, during inclement weather, or on a public holiday.  In these cases, the supply of drivers is constant or even low, creating a shortage of available rides.  By raising the price of each ride, Uber encourages more drivers to pick up passengers and rations the available supply of rides to the customers who value the service the most (those who are willing to pay more).
 
Nevertheless, while surge pricing may make economic sense, it feels like price gouging for many customers.  The recent clampdown on surge pricing by the Delhi and Karnataka governments illustrates the intense debate over Uber’s policies that has been circulating worldwide. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal even called surge pricing “daylight robbery”.
 
The debate has polarized opinion not just in India, but also in cities as diverse as Sydney, Paris, New York and Budapest. The reaction is even more severe when there is an emergency, such as during the December 2014 hostage crisis in Sydney, where a masked gunman held people captive in a café. As the central business district was cleared out by police, surge pricing automatically kicked in. Customers were appalled by Uber’s apparent insensitivity to the situation. The outrage grew so intense that Uber was forced it to suspend surge pricing and offer free rides.

The things we do: Why those who see the world differently are always wrong

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Have you ever been in an argument that ended badly, after which you expected to receive an apology? Did the apology come or was the other side also expecting one?  Have you ever done an audit or technical assessment and wondered how a team of professionals could have come to such seemingly erroneous conclusions?  How can that be?  How is that people can have such different views of the same thing?  

One reason misunderstandings occur is that people tend to be naïve realists. That is, we believe that we see social interactions as they truly are. Anyone else who has read what we have read or seen what we have seen will naturally perceive them the say way as we do… that is, assuming they’ve pondered the issue as thoughtfully as we have. In short, our own reality is true, so those who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased.
 
However, one of the most enduring contributions of social psychology is the understanding that two people can interpret the same social interaction in very different ways, based on their own personal knowledge and experiences.
 
Tim Harford, the Undercover economist at the Financial Times, recently wrote about naïve realism, calling it the, “seductive sense that we’re seeing the world as it truly is, free of bias.”  He goes on to say that this is such an attractive illusion that whenever we meet someone that contradicts our own view, we instinctively believe we’ve met someone who is deluded rather than question our own rationale.

The things we do: What happened when the London Underground challenged social norms

Roxanne Bauer's picture

London  Underground stationGlobally, 157 cities around the world now have a metro system in operation.  These underground trains shuttle people back and forth from work, make weekend escapes possible, and allow tourists to get around without the hassle of human communication. 

The sheer number of people using metro systems has inspired quite a few rules of etiquette. In Japan it’s considered polite to switch your phone to “Manner Mode” (also known as “silent” mode) when using the metro so that other passengers aren’t subjected to ringtones as they travel. Eating durian, considered the world’s smelliest fruit, is not permitted on Singapore’s MRT, and “No durian” signs have been posted around the network. It’s also considered bad manners to sit in priority seats in Seoul subway cars at any time, regardless of whether there’s anyone around who needs them. 

But perhaps the stickiest, most sincerely held rule of etiquette is that when using an escalator to enter or exit a metro station, one should stand on the right and walk on the left. This way, those who want to climb the stairs can do so on the left, without having the say “excuse me” every 5 seconds.  This rule is especially important to follow at rush hour if you want to avoid grumpy remarks.  Those who have forgotten to follow it can probably speak to how sanctimonious some people feel about it.

On 4 December last year, the London Underground carried 4,821,000 passengers— setting a new record for a single day. However, something else was also afoot that day.

On that particular Friday, 11,000 passengers got off at Holborn Station between 8.30 and 9.30am and faced an unusually upsetting provocation. As they turned into the concourse and looked up to the station’s escalators, they saw something truly horrifying: dozens of people were standing on the left.

The things we do: Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Don't Think sign, LondonA colleague of mine recently told me a story about a friend of hers with a very long beard who was asked one day, “How do you sleep with all that hair?”  The man, who had never given it much thought, shrugged at the question. However, he later confessed to my colleague that since the question was posed he was losing a lot of sleep.
 
This man has fallen into a common mental trap: once a thought occurs to you, it’s very difficult to suppress it, and trying to suppress it may make the thought stronger.
 
This mental trap has a long-running history in our social consciousness.  Leo Tolstoy once said he tried to play a game in which he would, “get into a corner and endeavor, but could not possibly manage, not to think of the white bear.”  This was later echoed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky who lamented that “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. So how is it to be done?  There is no way it can be done…"
 
These observations would later inspire social psychologist Daniel Wegner, PhD at Harvard University. Wegner is considered to be the founding father of thought suppression research, and was inspired to look into thought suppression after reading Dostoyevsky's quote more than 25 years ago.

The things we do: Why (some) women are less competitive than men

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Students arriving for first classes of the day at a high-school, CasablancaWhy do women tend to make less money and occupy fewer management positions than men? Do social influences affect the competitive spirits – or lack thereof – women?  Or could it be that women are simply less competitive than men?

With support from the National Science Foundation, Uri Gneezy Kenneth L. Leonard, and John A. List, set out to test assumptions about biologically based competitiveness in two of the most culturally different places on the planet: the ultra-patriarchal Masai tribe of Tanzania and the matrilineal Khasi people of northeast India.  The researchers conducted experiments in both environments to see what they could unearth regarding the competitive spirit of women across extremely different societies that held women in diametrically opposite roles.  

The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

The things we do: The high price of cheating a little

Roxanne Bauer's picture

"A Fool and His Money" by David Goehring Dishonesty is usually something we think about at the individual level.  Lies are errant, definite actions that individuals perform at specific moments. 

But lies are also important in aggregate because the effect of many small lies taken together can be devastating.

Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and his collaborators, starting in 2002, conducted a series of studies called “The Matrix Experiments”. In this experiment, the team gave participants, men and women from different age groups, 20 simple math questions. They asked them to solve as many questions as they can in five minutes and promised to reward the participants $1 for each problem solved. After five minutes, the participants are instructed to count how many problems they solved, insert their answer sheets into paper shredder machines, and report their results to one of the test supervisors to receive their cash. They did not need to show their answers as a proof. What the test takers did not know was that Ariely’s team programmed the shredders in such a way that they only shredded the margins of the papers while the main body of the page remained intact.

In the end, Ariely and his colleagues found that very few people lie a lot, but almost everyone lies a little.  They tested over 40,000 people and found that only a few dozen were “big cheaters” who claimed to have completed many more problems than they did.  Conversely, more than 28,000 people, or nearly 70 percent, were “small cheaters” who, on average, solved four problems but reported to have solved six.

What is interesting to note is that the sum of the team’s losses to so-called big cheaters was a total of $400.  Compare this to the few dollars each that “small cheaters” stole. Together, these small transgressions added up to a whopping $50,000, causing a much higher impact than the few bad apples.

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