Our Aversion to A/B Testing on Humans Is Dangerous

Facebook once teamed up with scientists at Cornell to conduct a now-infamous experiment on emotional contagion. Researchers randomly assigned 700,000 users to see on their News Feeds, for one week, a slight uptick in either positive or negative language or no change at all, to determine whether exposure to certain emotions could, in turn, cause a user to express certain emotions. The answer, as revealed in a 2014 paper, was yes: The emotions we see expressed online can change the emotions that we express, albeit slightly. Conversations about emotional contagion were quickly shelved, however, as the public disclosure of the study sparked an intense backlash against what many perceived to be an unjust and underhanded manipulation of people’s feelings. Facebook would later apologize for fiddling with users’ emotions and pledge to revise its internal review practices.

Read the full article on Nautilus

Avoiding the “Busy Trap” in Graduate School

One of the first things I noticed when I started my PhD — and something that you’ve surely noticed by now if you’re also a graduate student — is that people in academia tend to be really busy. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise; constant busyness seemed a logical and necessary response to the high demands of academic life. But as I stumbled through my first year in graduate school, I came to understand in a frustrating, firsthand way that not all kinds of “busy” are created equal.

Read the full article in the APS Observer

The Case for Being Skeptical of Moral Outrage

The episode last month at the Lincoln Memorial involving the boys from Covington Catholic High School, like so many internet-borne controversies before it, spawned vituperative reactions, reactions to the reactions, and sweeping meta-analysesof the reactions to the reactions. Altogether it was exactly the type of politically-charged commotion that nobody could seem to resist weighing in on (myself included). Yet at the heart of it was a misinterpreted, arguably meaningless event driven by an emotion that social media is making more and more familiar to all of us: moral outrage.

Read the full article on Nautilus

I can has self-awareness?

What cats, cucumbers, and psychedelic drugs tell us about the nature of consciousness


About three years ago, cat owners around the world stumbled upon a strange phenomenon: their beloved pets appeared to be deathly afraid of cucumbers. This discovery quickly grew into an entire genre of viral video, and in case you aren’t familiar, a typical upload features a cat being scared witless—often stumbling backward wide-eyed or even springing into the air in panic—after finding a cucumber that its owner had covertly placed nearby.

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Twitter Triggers

The push and pull between social media and our moral emotions


A version of this article has been published by Nautilus

In December 2013, Justine Sacco, then the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, sent out a string of tweets over the course of a long, multi-leg journey from New York to South Africa. She started with sardonic observations about the minor trials of travel—one about a smelly passenger at JFK Airport, another about London’s peculiar food and predictably inclement weather. Then came this one, which she sent shortly before boarding her plane for the final, 11-hour flight to Cape Town:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

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Peed Us Not Into Temptation

Bladders and Willpower in King Louis XIV’s France


King Louis XIV, according to some historical accounts, had an extraordinarily resilient bladder. That is, he had a nearly superhuman ability to postpone his trips to the chamberpot whenever he found it strategically advantageous. And it turns out that as the most powerful leader of an entire continent, as a monarch who regularly hosted and negotiated with foreign dignitaries at his opulent palace at Versailles, he was given many opportunities to leverage his unique physiological gift.

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Why don’t we like virtuous people?

 We want those around us to be good—but not too good.


A version of this article has been published by Nautilus

At the beginning of the final debate of the 1988 presidential election, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment, was asked whether he would support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. He quickly and coolly said no.

It was a surprising, deeply personal, and arguably inappropriate question, but in demonstrating an unwavering commitment to his principles, Dukakis had handled it well. Or so he thought.

Continue reading “Why don’t we like virtuous people?”