Monday, January 23, 2017

Prejudicial Perceptions

Why is it that we humans so easily develop negative images of people unlike us? We seem to be predisposed to have prejudicial perceptions of the other: people of a different color, religion, politics, etc. We seem to be quite ready to believe the worst about “those people.” With minimal information about them we leap to conclusions that they are “bad guys,” and then require mountains of positive data to turn our impressions around, in order to look upon them favorably.
This propensity for negative stereotyping is a serious problem in society, especially as social media and biased websites feed us prejudicial beliefs. Society has become increasingly polarized, as people become swayed by these negative images. Why can't we be kinder to each other?
Some recent research sheds a little light on the issue. The findings of sophisticated brain scans conclusively show that our brain responds more strongly and quickly to information about groups who are portrayed unfavorably, than it does about people we like and view favorably. The researchers were not trying to examine existing built-in prejudices of the subjects tested, but instead created new negative feelings about some previously neutral object and then watched what happened in the brain, in order to gain knowledge of what is going on in there.
What they found is that activity in the anterior temporal pole (ATP) occurred when subjects were fed prejudiced information about an object or person. As the negative information was repeated, ATP activity gradually increased—reinforcing the created bias. In contrast, when a test subject was informed that a “bad person” had done something good, the ATP was quiet. Similarly, when the subject was given information about “good people,” the ATP was also quiet.
Interestingly, for these two latter situations—while the ATP was inactive—the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the subject became activated. This is the part of the brain where higher-level cognitive functioning occurs. So, while the ATP seems to be involved in knee-jerk prejudicial thinking, when we respond more positively, we seem to use the analyzing skills of the PFC to counter our bias. It seems that we need to consciously work on seeing the positive.
This research, as is true for much scientific research, does a neat job of answering the “How?” question. But why do we react so intolerably? It seems that the reason is most likely the result of evolution. Here's the process: Our brain uses many tricks to simplify its job. Every second, our senses bombard the brain with mountains of information. In order not to become swamped, the brain cleverly simplifies and abbreviates this information. One of the simplifying tricks the brain does is to cluster people into groups, since it cuts down on the amount of data that the brain must process. Long ago, when we lived in small bands, it was advantageous for us to automatically lean toward classifying the “other” (say, someone in another tribe) negatively—it was safer to do so. Better to think that that guy I meet out in the bush means harm to me—especially if he looks weird—and take defensive action. To do so, I might live another day, especially if he is threatening.
This predilection to look unfavorably on the “other” may have been once useful for survival in that simple world. It's not so useful today, when we have societal mechanisms in place to better insure that people behave and that the “other” may turn out to be a pretty good guy after all. Maybe it's time we exercised our introspective prefrontal cortex more and let our knee-jerk anterior temporal pole relax. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Butterfly Weed

A well-named wildflower. It attracts many gorgeous butterflies. Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

René's Response (1/17/17)

There have been countless words strung together in response to René Descartes' cryptic quote; “Cogito ergo sum”. This Latin phrase of his is usually translated as “I think, therefore I am.” For most of us who can't read or speak Latin or who are not steeped in Enlightenment philosophy, Descartes' quip sounds very erudite, but what the hell did he mean? Is its significance of any relevance to the average modern mind?
I confess to feeling rather confused when I ponder René's response. I've read numerous interpretations over the years, but comprehension of “Cogito ergo sum” still pretty much escapes me. Then I recently read an article in the New Yorker magazine that helped me get a much better handle on the meaning of this phrase, in an article by Adam Kirsch, who is on the faculty of Columbia University. What really helped me was to get some background on 17th century thinking in Europe, to see the context in which Descartes was pondering the weighty quandaries of existence.
As the Enlightenment unfolded, the West was the world's economic, military, and intellectual leader. Western science was flowering and, in the process, was refuting much of Christianity's long-established dogma. As people's minds were being freed to open to new realities, their old truths were having to be abandoned. No, the Earth is not at the center of the universe. No, many of the supernatural explanations you've counted on for ages are now seen to be false. No, the paths of the planets are not determined by the perfection of God's “harmony of the spheres,” but by simple physical laws discovered by Isaac Newton. The list goes on.
In short, much of the old certainty was being cast aside, and it rattled many people. There were so many new facts and verities flooding the Western mind that people felt cast adrift. Where were they now supposed to anchor their convictions? Many of their previous ways of thinking were being trashed. What was reality? What was truth? What was illusion? Is there anything people could count on?
Descartes was a philosopher and many people at the time turned to philosophers—if only because these thinkers had been pondering these same questions for centuries. One of the unique qualities of philosophy is that there are no final answers to the big questions of life. Humans may have found a definitive answer in the 17th century as to why the planets did their dance, but the same philosophical questions that had puzzled Socrates and his fellow Greek sages 2000 years earlier were still being examined and debated by Enlightenment thinkers; as they are today.
One crucial thing that science did in the Enlightenment period was that, as it led to truths, it helped people understand that our human senses give us but a partial understanding of reality. So what can I believe in? What can I count on? Descartes pondered these questions. He decided to go back to the beginning, to doubt everything, to strip one's existence to the bare bone. After doing so, he wondered if there is anything one can be certain of? Is the world real? Do my senses tell me anything about the actual world? Do I even exist?
His conclusion: the only thing I can believe in is the fact that I'm thinking; that I'm conscious. My mind—being the only thing I can experience—must be real. Without my mind, there's no me. So I am thinking, thus I must exist. He stripped it back to the basics; back to the only thing we can count on and experience: the workings of our mind. With that fundamental reality, I can then conclude that I must be. Then, with that grounding, one could rebuild one's worldview.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Monday, January 9, 2017

Act Versus Actor

A lesson I learned several years ago is to separate the act from the actor. When someone acts—the impact being either good or bad—I have come to believe that it's crucial to focus on that action, not the actor. An action is a temporary thing; it occurs and then is gone. Actors can stick around.
What this means to me is, if someone commits an act that is problematic for me, it's better for me to focus on that act. If the act is harmful, I can oppose or condemn it, without condemning the actor. I can see the act as wrong and direct my attention toward responding to it.
If, however, I put my focus on the person who committed the spiteful act, it's easy to label him a bad person. Labels stick. Maybe that person was confused and upset when he did that “dastardly” deed. If I label him as defective or wicked, I fix him in my mind as someone who is irredeemable; a “bad guy,” who must be dealt with harshly. The danger is that I do not allow him to change his ways and become a “good guy.” This negative labeling of certain people leads to divisions and wars. It leads to our unforgiving prison system.
By focusing on the act, however, I can avoid stigmatizing offenders and give them space to reform, or for me to develop some compassion for them. This makes forgiveness a far easier thing to do, because it allows people to change.
There's another side—a flip side—to this coin: when someone acts in a good way or a moral way, I think it's still better to focus on the action, rather than the actor, and be thankful for it. Just as we tend to condemn bad actors and conclude they are defective individuals, we elevate those who do good things; and by so doing, we turn them into demigods. Rather than celebrate what they did, we tend to honor their person; we put them on a pedestal, as if they were superior to us normal human beings. We lose sight of the fact that they are just another person who has done something special.
This kind of hero worship can be as insidious as the denunciation of someone who commits a harmful act, because we transform the good actor into someone better than most people. We lose sight of the fact that we should be honoring the act, not the person. We thus feed their ego and transform them into some kind of icon. What's worse, if they don't keep performing good deeds, we often become vindictive and vicious towards them.
I think it's more positive and productive to put attention to the act, rather than the actor. Acts come and go. Acts can be mistakes or graceful behavior. Either oppose them or honor them. Then allow the actor to be just another normal human being who happened—in this one instance—to do something either reprehensible or wonderful. Don't make them into either a scoundrel or a god.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Friday, December 30, 2016

You've Been Profiled

If you do much of anything online these days, you can count on being profiled by some high-tech algorithm written by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, etc. An algorithm—by the dictionary's definition—is “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculation or other problem-solving operations by a computer.” Thus an algorithm is not monitored by humans; it is set up and then it tirelessly collects its information via machine.
Online algorithms appeal to advertisers and authorities, because they automatically and unerringly categorize and compartmentalize people's behaviors, choices, and even beliefs. When Google or Facebook tracks your online choices and surfing behavior, you become profiled. You become compartmentalized into categories and boxes that they've defined. You've become labeled.
This information primarily is used for targeting advertisements at you. If you are an aging baby boomer, for example, why send you ads for rap music or the hottest bungee jumping spots? Wouldn't an ad for the latest pharmaceutical pill for the body's aging infirmities be more appropriate? Profiling can save advertisers from funding such scattershot ads, instead allowing them to focus on receptive audiences. And it can save the consumer from having to push past many irrelevant ads.
So many people are just fine with online profiling; it does not waste their time and screen space with ads they don't want. What many of these folks do not realize, however, is that they've bargained away some of their privacy for convenience. That may seem to be a fair trade to them, but many of them do not realize the depth of the profiling being done on them. They don't realize just how detailed a picture of their private lives are now sitting in some data bank, available to all who pay a small fee for access.
The profiling information gained by these algorithms even allows the Google, Facebook, and Amazon data collectors to predict what things you may want to buy tomorrow. Did you do a search on baby clothes? You will soon be receiving ads for all kinds of things that prospective parents might be looking for. Do a search on marijuana? Maybe the feds have added you to a data base that keeps an eye on possible pot smokers. This may sound a little paranoid, but the personal details willingly and foolishly posted on people's Facebook accounts expose them to the world and can be used against them at some future time.
Possibly the most insidious use of online profiling is the way in which people's points of view adds to our culture's polarization. The algorithms quickly categorize you into distinct and isolated boxes of belief patterns; then you get fed only those ideas and expressions that conform to your predispositions. You get fed things you already know—confirming your existing beliefs and biases. Your feelings and beliefs can then become confirmed and certain in your mind. Your mind is encouraged to close around this isolated pocket of ideas. Your thinking increasingly avoids any alternatives. You become encased in a bubble of narrow thinking that just reinforces your point of view. Nothing challenges your thinking. Polarization grows.
Profiling goes against the value we may achieve from communication and the opening our mind to alternative concepts and ideas. It feeds insular thinking and suspicion of the other. Our society badly needs critical thinking, openness to alternative ideas, and dialog with other viewpoints. Online profiling essentially does just the opposite.