How the Pandemic Has Tested Behavioral Science

In March the United Kingdom curiously declined to impose significant social distancing measures in response to the global pandemic. The government was taking advice from the so-called “Nudge Unit,” a private company called Behavioral Insights Team, which uses behavioral science to advise U.K. policymakers, among others, on how to “nudge” people toward certain actions. The company, led by experimental psychologist David Halpern, told policymakers to be wary of “behavioral fatigue,” the idea that the public’s commitment to the measures would fade over time. The lax measures sparked fierce backlash not just from epidemiologists concerned about the virus’ spread, but also from a group of 600 behavioral scientists—psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, and more. They signed an open letter doubting the quality of the evidence that led to the government’s decision.

Read the full article on Nautilus.

The Pandemic Is Showing Us How to Live with Uncertainty

During the Spanish flu of 1918, it was Vick’s VapoRub. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it was canned food. Now, as the number of cases of COVID-19 grows worldwide, it’s, among other things, toilet paper. In times of precarity, people often resort to hoarding resources they think are likely to become scarce—panic buying, as it’s sometimes called. And while it’s easy to dismiss as an overreaction, it underscores just how difficult it can be, for both the general public and public health authorities, to choose the right response to a dangerous, rapidly evolving situation.

Read the full article on Nautilus

Should doing good feel good?

A few weeks ago, I made a small donation to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), a nonprofit that works to prevent the spread of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. It was easy; after just a few clicks through their website, two dozen new insecticide-treated mosquito nets started their journey along the e-commerce supply chain toward people in need. Yet this act of charity, encased in the cold, blue light of my computer screen, felt strangely impersonal and calculated. Despite the photos of smiling net recipients and the transcripts of their effusive testimonials, the process failed to deliver the sense of human connection — the warm glow of empathy, the exchange of niceties, the flush of smug self-satisfaction — that I had come to expect from my all-too-rare acts of generosity in the physical world. I began to wonder what my real motivations were.

Read the full article here.

Is the Psychology of Greta Thunberg’s Climate Activism Effective?

Last month, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist, excoriated world leaders for their ongoing failure to address the climate crisis. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said at one point during her speech at the United Nations. Thunberg has been galvanizing public support for climate action since rising to prominence with her school strike about a year ago, and her latest remarks are no exception. They’ve attracted millions of views all around the internet—and nearly as many strong opinions. The praise and scorn she received in the aftermath of her address spotlights not only the power and intricacy of moral language, but also its ability, when articulated in a sound argument, to change public opinion on contentious moral and political issues.

Read the full article on Nautilus

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.

Continue reading “Peed Us Not Into Temptation”