Category Archives: Morality

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Power Increases Risk of Infidelity Among Both Men and Women

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The seemingly endless stream of sex scandals by powerful politicians in the United States raises a question: Does this say something about men, or does it say something about power?

New research suggests that power, not being a guy, is the corrupting factor. Powerful people tend to see themselves as more attractive than they really are and, more importantly, tend to believe that others see them as more attractive than others really do. Power also seems to change how people think about risk — power gets people to focus on potential rewards and ignore the potential downside. Add it all up and you get a far higher propensity for infidelity among both powerful men and powerful women.

In the latest Hidden Brain Puzzle, posted as always on the Facebook page, I asked:

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Having power increases the odds that

A) Both men and women engage in infidelity
B) Men engage in infidelity
C) Women engage in infidelity
D) Neither men nor women engage in infidelity

The correct answer is A. For a fuller explanation, listen to this piece I just did — my first for NPR.

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 39: Having power increases the odds that
A) Both men and women engage in infidelity
B) Men engage in infidelity
C) Women engage in infidelity
D) Neither men nor women engage in infidelity

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 37: Corruption tied to "collective responsibility" ethic

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Corruption is more likely in countries where people have a “collective responsibility” ethic as opposed to an individualistic ethic, according to new research.

Poverty matters too — poor countries are likely to see more corruption than rich countries — but this squares with common sense. I can more easily imagine a cop in a poor country taking a bribe (when he may have had to pay a bribe to get his job in the first place) than in a country where cops make a living wage.

The new research looked at both correlational and causational evidence. Countries where business executives expressed greater levels of pride in collective enterprises — workplaces, communities, family etc — were also countries where more corruption is documented.

In an interesting laboratory experiment, researchers Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal at the University of Toronto found that volunteers who were unconsciously primed to prize collective responsibility as opposed to individual responsibility were more likely to say they would offer a bribe to win a contract that would provide them with a lucrative commission. These volunteers felt less accountable for their corruption.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s facebook page, I asked:

Bribery is more likely in countries where
A) Individualism is prized (we’re all on our own)
B) Shared responsibility is prized (we’re in this together)
C) Individualism and shared responsibility are both prized
D) None of the above

The correct answer is B.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 31: Tragedy Increases Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior

By | Blog, Business, Cool Findings, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Morality, Puzzle | No Comments Tragedy tends to bring out the best in people, according to new research into cooperative behavior. The more people are affected by tragedy, the more they cooperate and engage in “prosocial” behavior.

In a study of 2,447 residents in five provinces at the epicenter of a 2008 earthquake in China, researchers found that residents who were hardest hit were more generous with their help than people who were slightly affected or not affected at all. The study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, was co-authored by Li-Lin Rao, Ru Han, Xiao-Peng Ren, Xin-Wen Bai, Rui Zheng, Huan Liu, Zuo-Jun Wang, Jin-Zhen Li, Kan Zhang and Shu Li.

In a puzzle posted on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page, where all puzzles get posted first, I asked:

After a natural disaster, the people most likely to behave in prosocial (cooperative) ways are
A) Those worst affected
B) Those least affected
C) Those in the middle

The correct answer is A.

The researchers wrote, “residents in more devastated areas demonstrated more prosocial behavior, but the degree of prosocial behavior declined with the passage of time. These findings suggest that prosocial behavior can be induced in individuals by being at a disadvantage. Indirect evidence for our claim includes the fact that commitment works best under harsh conditions: the more individuals are challenged by nature to survive, the more compelled they are to cooperate with each other in durable relationships.”

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Why Juan Williams Fears Muslims at Airports

By | Blog, Diversity, Evolution, Group Behavior, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Politics, Prejudice, Terrorism | No Comments

Ever hear of the phenomenon called an “illusory correlation”? It explains why commentator Williams, who was recently fired from NPR, associates Muslims at airports with terrorists.

I am going to be writing my next column for Slate about this issue. To whet your appetite, here’s a radio interview about illusory correlations and other biases with Steve Fast of WJBC. 

Hidden Brain Puzzle # 16: Family Status Affects Whether U.S. Men and Women Receive Prison Sentences

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A host of extraneous factors have been known to affect the sentencing decisions of judges in the United States. New research shows that having children and being seen to be good providers for them benefits most defendants and earns them lighter prison sentences.

I recently posted this puzzle on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page.

Which of the following statements are true?
A. Men are less likely to receive jail time from a suburban judge than a rural judge
B. Women are less likely to receive jail time from a black judge than a white judge
C. Black men are less likely to receive jail time if they have fathered children
D. White men are less likely to receive long sentences iif they are “family men”

The answer is … ALL of the above.

I based this puzzle on new research by Tina L. Freiburger, who found in a paper she published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law that “defendants who were depicted as performing caretaker roles had a significantly decreased likelihood of incarceration. Further analysis found that the reduction in likelihood of incarceration for being a caretaker was larger for males than for females. Examination of the interaction of familial role with race found that familial role equally reduced the likelihood of incarceration for black and white females.”

The study raises some interesting questions. You could make the argument that it makes societal sense to give reduced jail time to defendants who are family caregivers, because otherwise, the state will end up bearing the burden of some or all of that caregiving (and likely do a worse job.) On the other hand, you could make the argument that it is unfair to reduce a defendant’s prison sentence merely because he or she happened to be a parent. Why should the childless defendant be treated more harshly than the defendant who is a mom or a dad?

Which view do you espouse — and why?

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defendants who were depicted as performing caretaker roles had a significantly decreased likelihood of incarceration. Further analysis found that the reduction in likelihood of incarceration for being a caretaker was larger for males than for females. Examination of the interaction of familial role with race found that familial role equally reduced the likelihood of incarceration for black and white females.

Hidden Brain Puzzle #9 (Answer): Disgust, not anger or sadness, prompts people to reject unfair deals

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 9: You are buying a new home, and dealing with an unethical realtor. At the last minute, the realtor tells you about a hefty fee he had not mentioned earlier. This is very unfair. You notice the TV is on. You are most likely to walk away from the unfair deal if
a) The TV show is violent
b) The TV show is sad
c) The TV show is a sports program
d) The TV show is disgusting

The correct answer is D — disgust, not anger or sadness, prompts people to walk away from unfair deals.

I based this puzzle on research by Laura Moretti and Giuseppe di Pellegrino, who found that when they activated different emotions among volunteers asked to accept or reject an unfair deal, disgust prompted many more people to walk away from the deal. The experiment clearly shows the hidden brain at work, because the volunteers were all offered the same scenario, except that different volunteers were prompted to feel sad, disgusted etc.

A particularly interesting facet of the experiment, which was published in the journal Emotion, was that the reaction was limited to situations where volunteers believed they were interacting with another person. When the volunteers felt that they were dealing with a computer which handed them an unfair deal (presumably because of random choice), prompting the volunteers to feel disgusted had no effect on their walking away from the deal.

At a certain level, the experiment confirms what many of us understand intuitively: Disgust prompts people to move away from something that offends their sensibilities — we may seek to fight with the driver who makes us angry by rear-ending our car, but when we are confronted by someone who does something we perceive as disgusting, we want to put distance between that person and ourselves.

They wrote, “disgust is associated with … being too close to something revolting, or to an indigestible object or idea, and it is characterized by the desire to expel current objects and refuse contact with the offending agent. Sadness, on the other hand, revolves around the theme of irrevocable loss and helplessness, and the action tendency typically linked with it is passivity, inertia, and withdrawal, or preference for options that provide greater reward, comfort, or indulgence.”

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 8 (Answer): Workers who get paid by the hour become more conscious of time spent volunteering

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Puzzle: Four people have a free hour on weekends. One is a lawyer who bills clients at the rate of $295/hour. The second is an accountant who bills clients at $100/hour. The third is a schoolteacher who gets paid $45,000/year. The fourth is a parking attendant who gets paid $10/hour. Knowing nothing else about these people, but assuming they have similar temperaments, who would you guess will be the most generous with their free weekend hour — and donate it to volunteer work? Bonus points if you can also say why — using a “hidden brain” explanation, of course!

Answer: C

The teacher, who gets paid an annual salary, is least likely to grudge the hour spent volunteering. I based this puzzle on some very interesting new research by Sanford E. DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer, who found that as new lawyers start to get accustomed to the practice of billing clients per hour, they become less willing to donate their time for volunteer work. The researchers experimentally tested the finding by varying the billing time of lawyers, and found that this experimental manipulation produced differences in people’s willingness to volunteer their time. Lawyers who were less materialistic and did not care as much about money as their peers were less affected by this, suggesting that being paid for the hour encourages people to think about their time in pecuniary terms. The person who gets billed $100 an hour thinks of their volunteer time as more valuable than the person who bills $50 an hour.

I’ve found examples of this phenomenon in everyday life, when I hear people fret about how time is money. Time certainly has value, but converting it into a metric of value becomes problematic in the many domains of life (volunteering included) where we are not delivering professional services. It’s an example of how once we teach our hidden brains a certain rule — in the case of the wealthy lawyer, “my time is worth $300/hour” — then the hidden brain remembers that rule even in situations where the rule no longer applies (the lawyer is playing with his kids while looking at his watch, or cuts back his volunteering time to half an hour since he only wishes to make a donation of $150.)

I’d be the first to say this isn’t the most cleanly constructed puzzle, because there are probably different answers that are at least as legitimate as the one I’ve suggested. The fact the four people in my example were all from different professions muddies the issue right off, as does the fact that some people likely have more leisure time than others that they can contribute to volunteer work.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 6 Answer: Anti gay-marriage laws associated with increase in mental disorders/distress among gays & lesbians

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Gays & lesbians in 16 U.S. states suffered steep increases in depression, anxiety & addictions between 2001-05. The states were Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

What happened in those states in that time period that may have caused such distress? Those states all passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in that time period, according to new research by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Katie A. McLaughlin, Katherine M. Keyes and Deborah S. Hasin. Heterosexuals in those states did not show the same increase in mental disorders/distress, and gays and lesbians living in the other 34 U.S. states (that did not pass such constitutional bans) also did not see such increases in distress and disorder.

The increases were striking: Generalized anxiety disorders among gays and lesbians in those 16 states rose 248.2%, alcoholism increased by 41.9 percent and mood disorders (including depression) increased by 36.6% according to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers themselves note the appropriate caveats that their data could not address: It’s possible, for example, that gays and lesbians who were healthier to begin with (or privileged in other ways) moved to states with more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, leaving behind those who were sicker to begin with. It’s unclear whether the new laws were themselves responsible for the change, or if the general climate surrounding these laws were to blame. It’s also unclear whether liberal policies toward gays and lesbians would result in decreases in disorders. Such questions cannot be addressed without conducting randomized experiments, and such experiments (which would involve randomly assigning gays and lesbians to different states, for example) would be both impractical and unethical.

It’s good to keep the caveats in mind, but I think this study raises profoundly important questions about the effects that our national conversation about homosexuality has on the mental health of gays and lesbians. It’s never been a secret or surprise that there are human beings at the receiving end of these policies and debates, but this research brings home clearly the effects that laws and institutional actions can have on the personal well being of individuals.

In making what is essentially a civil rights argument against constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, the researchers write, “although the constitutional amendments largely codified policies that existed de facto, the sociocultural environment surrounding the approval of these amendments made them no less psychologically harmful. Creating constitutional amendments banning gay marriage reinforced the marginalized and socially devalued status of lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals. Moreover, the negative political campaigns against gays and lesbians by proponents of these amendments, which were well-circulated in the media, further promulgated the stigma associated with homosexuality.”

Since the time the study was completed other states, including California, have passed similar bans. Research is ongoing about whether the same changes in mental health among gays and lesbians is occurring in those states.

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 5 — Answer: Does Being Happy Tend to Make Us Selfish or Unselfish?

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In the Dictator Game, a volunteer is given a certain goodie — raffle tickets, lottery tickets, money etc — and asked to divide it among a group of people that includes himself or herself. No one in the rest of the group has recourse to discussion or appeal, so the volunteer effectively plays “dictator.”

In this Hidden Brain Puzzle, you were given 100 lottery tickets and asked to share them with three other people. You could decide to keep all 100 — and improve your odds of winning the raffle — or divide the tickets equitably. No one would know what you did, so this was entirely between you and your conscience. You were then asked whether being happy or sad made it more likely for you to make a selfish decision.

I based this puzzle on an interesting experiment recently conducted by Hui Bing Tan and Joseph P. Forgas involving the Dictator Game. They measured whether volunteers reported feeling happy or sad and asked them to play the dictator game with 10 raffle tickets. They found that happy people tended to be far more selfish than sad people. Happy people were much more likely to hog the raffle tickets, rather than share them with others, whereas sad people were far more likely to think about the feelings of others. The result meshes with a growing body of work that suggests that while happiness feels great for us individually, it seems to have less than salutory effects on the hidden brain when it comes to thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers write, ” The kind of mood effects on selfishness demonstrated here may have important implications for real-life behaviors in romantic relationships, organizational decisions, and many other everyday situations where decisions by one person have incontestable consequences for others. Interestingly, our results further challenge the common assumption in much of applied, organisational, clinical and health psychology that positive affect has universally desirable social consequences. Together with other recent experimental studies, our findings confirm that negative affect often produces adaptive and more socially sensitive outcomes.”

How does this research square with your own experience? Are you a more generous person when you are a sadder person?

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Hidden Brain Puzzle (and answer): How does the use of Native American mascots for sports teams affect stereotypes about other groups?

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American Indian mascots are a popular choice for sports teams. Controversy has raged, however, about whether such mascots encourage stereotypes about native Americans. New research suggests that there may be a problem of another sort entirely — the use of these mascots seems to increase stereotyping of other groups. The implications of the research are still not clear, but it is almost as though once your hidden brain is encouraged to use mental shortcuts such as “American Indian chief = sports warrior” it more easily comes up with other kinds of mental shortcuts that have nothing to do with American Indians. Sloppy thinking begets sloppy thinking.

Boosters point out the mascots are much loved and used respectfully. Recently, however, Chu Kim-Prieto, Lizabeth A. Goldstein, Sumie Okazaki and Blake Kirschner tested how the use of a University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek, affected the tendency of volunteers to stereotype an unrelated group — Asians. They randomized volunteers into groups — one read about or was shown materials depicting the athletics program and Chief Illiniwek and the other was given materials about a university arts center. All the depictions about Chief Illiniwek were exactly as boosters of American Indian sports mascots described — respectful and admiring. The researchers found that volunteers shown the American Indian mascot were quicker to come up with stereotypes about Asians that suggested Asians were socially inept, overly competitive, and not fun-loving.

The University of Illinois retired the mascot after reviewing these findings. Read more about the controversy here.

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PS: What do you think these data mean for the famous logos of these professional sports teams?