Category Archives: Politics

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

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. 

Supreme Court Fight: The Unconscious Power of Frames

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President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court highlights the power of frames in politics. In recent years, conservative presidents have appointed conservative justices, whereas liberal presidents have appointed moderates.

Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan herself once noted the irony inherent in this process. In the University of Chicago Law Review, she noted, “Herein lies one of the mysteries of modern confirmation politics: The Republican Party has an ambitious judicial agenda and the Democratic Party has next to none, why is the former labeled the party of judicial restraint and the latter the party of judicial activism?”

Why does this happen? It has to do with the power of framing an issue. Once the issue has been framed as “judicial activism” (as opposed to, say, “judicial passivity”) the frame determines how much leeway presidents from both political parties have. Republican presidents appoint ever more conservative justices on the grounds that they will back the status quo and avoid activism, and Democratic presidents appoint ever more moderate justices, to avoid being tarred with the “judicial activist” brush.

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Elections: Who Are The Real Kingmakers? The Rules

By | Group Behavior, News and Topical Issues, Politics | No Comments

The recent British elections highlight why the rules — not candidates, parties, issues or ideologies — are the real kingmakers in democracies. The graphic shows the percentage of votes and percentage of seats won by the three major British parties. Look at the disparities! If the Tories and Labour had stuffed ballot boxes so they won more seats than British voters actually intended, everyone would have cried foul. If ballot boxes filled with votes for the Liberal Democrats were stolen from election booths, there would be calls for a re-election monitored by U.N. observers. But because the rules say the party with the largest share of votes in each parliamentary constituency wins the entire constituency, it looks like democracy even though large numbers of voters were effectively disenfranchised.

Regardless of your political views, winner-take-all rules are an abomination only slightly better than outright electoral corruption. (The United States has several variations of the British rules: See my Washington Post column about the Republican and Democratic primaries, for example.) Proportional representation, where parties are awarded seats in parliament commensurate with their overall vote share, encourage a greater diversity of political views in a country (because groups that have only small amounts of support are not entirely shut out of the conversation). Proportional representation also keeps one or two major parties, which are often responsible for writing the original election rules in the first place, from effectively silencing everyone else.

You want a hidden brain connection? We are unconsciously predisposed to see theft perpetrated at gunpoint as being worse than theft perpetrated by clever bureaucracies and scheming constitutional architects.

U.S. Census: List Your Race as BLACK, since all humans are descended from African ancestors

By | Cool Findings, Diversity, Evolution, Politics | No Comments

The Southern Legal Resource Center wants people to list their race as “Confederate Southern American” on their U.S. Census form. I think all Americans should list their race as BLACK — because humans are all descended from African ancestors.

If you agree, TELL YOUR FRIENDS about this idea. Census workers are currently visiting the homes of millions of people who have not yet completed their census forms.

There is strong scientific evidence that all humans have African ancestors. See, for example, this article in Science. Some of the best evidence comes from research biologists, who study how genes spread through the human population. Rebecca Cann, Mark Stoneking and Allan Wilson studied the DNA of people from five disparate geographical regions in the world. The researchers found that all the people had mitochondrial DNA that could be traced back to a single woman in Africa who lived 200,000 years ago.

The Southern Legal Resource Center wants you to list your race as Confederate Southern American. Wouldn’t you rather trust the science?

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Hidden Brain Puzzle # 11: Controversial Oswald photo in JFK assassination ruled genuine

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For years, people who don’t believe the official version of the Kennedy assassination have wondered about a photo showing Lee Harvey Oswald in his backyard holding a rifle. One of the central concerns raised by doubters is that the shadows on Oswald’s face do not match the shadows on the ground. The shadow beneath his nose runs straight down, indicating the sun is right above him, for example, but Oswald’s shadow on the grass behind him runs off to his right, suggesting the sun was to his left. Oswald himself maintained the photo had been manipulated to implicate him. So, is the photo a fake?

Answer: New research by Dartmouth College scientist Hany Farid suggests that at least in terms of concerns about the shadows in the photo, the image is NOT a fake.

It turns out that the hidden brain is extremely poor at predicting the shape of shadows (and this probably explains why many optical illusions work.) Farid not only showed this was the case in general by conducting experiments asking people to predict how light sources would create shadows, he actually constructed a life-size model of Oswald. A single light source produced the seemingly contradictory shadows. If the photo was a fake, then those would have been part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy would have had to artificially create a photo that looked fake, in the hope that in a few decades or so, someone would come along and explain why something that looked fake was actually consistent with the physics of light. If the photo was a fake, wouldn’t it make much more sense for the fakers to create an image that looked real?

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Why Are Tea Partiers Disproportionately Likely to Believe Prez Obama Favors Blacks Over Whites?

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More than twice as many members of the Tea Party Movement (compared to the general public) believe President Obama favors blacks over whites. The stats: 25 percent of tea Partiers versus 11 percent of the general public believe the Obama White House disproportionately favors blacks over whites. This according to a New York Times poll.

The link between political outlook and racial views is a correlation — we cannot say for sure whether concerns about benefits accruing disproportionately to blacks drives the Tea Partiers’ opposition to President Obama, or whether opposition to President Obama drives concerns about benefits accruing disproportionately to blacks. It is also possible that some other factor drives both phenomena. (When it rains, people wear rainboots and carry umbrellas. It would be absurd to conclude that wearing rainboots causes people to hold umbrellas. Both rainboots and umbrellas are triggered by a third factor — the rain.)

The striking size of the correlation, however, reminds me about the disparate threads that have been shown to link racial outlook and political orientation in the United States. I describe these at length in Chapter 9 of The Hidden Brain — Disarming The Bomb — and also talk about ways conscious and unconscious racial bias can be neutralized in politics.

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

By | Diversity, Group Behavior, Law, Morality, Politics, Prejudice, Puzzle | No Comments

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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Shankar Vedantam on The Tavis Smiley Show Tues, Mar 23, 2010: Should President Obama have a Black Agenda?

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Tavis Smiley’s interview with me about The Hidden Brain is scheduled to air tonight — Tuesday, March 23 — on public television stations nationwide on The Tavis Smiley Show. Please tune in.

The interview took place last week in Los Angeles on the eve of a meeting Tavis Smiley convened over the weekend in Chicago to debate whether President Obama should have a “black agenda” to focus on the problems faced by African-Americans. We talked at length about the chapter of The Hidden Brain that focuses on unconscious racial bias in politics. Watch a short video introduction to the chapter, called Disarming The Bomb, here.

The empirical evidence on whether the White House needs a black agenda seems pretty clear cut: African-Americans are about 400 percent more likely to be imprisoned than whites, about 500 percent more likely to be murdered, begin life with a 1-5 disparity in family wealth, have an infant mortality rate that is about 50 percent higher than the white infant mortality rate, have an unemployment rate that is about double the white unemployment rate and so on.

The fact Obama happens to be  black is completely beside the point: Regardless of who occupies the White House, it seems pretty obvious that special help needs to be directed toward a group of people who are disproportionately suffering. We would think it absurd if anyone asked whether a President was from the Gulf Coast in order to determine whether the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina entitled the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area for special federal resources and rebuilding efforts.

But as I explain in Disarming the Bomb, race and the controversies swirling around it are never far from our unconscious minds when it comes to politics, even when the issues being discussed ostensibly have nothing to do with race. Obama is severely constrained when it comes to talking openly about race, and his top advisor David Axelrod has helped to get a number of African Americans elected to public office by studiously getting issues of race and/or gender off the table. During the 2008 presidential election, for example, Obama and his team repeatedly suggested America had moved beyond race — even in the face of explicit statements by sizable numbers of voters who said they would never vote for a black man. The media uncritically accepted theories about a “post-racial” America — theories implicitly endorsed by the Obama campaign — because that narrative fit with the fact that Obama got elected.

As I told Tavis Smiley on the show, there is at least one person in the United States who knows for certain that we do not live in a post-racial America — and that person is President Barack Obama. If he did think we lived in a post-racial America, he would have no trouble talking about race because, well, race would no longer matter.  I note in The Hidden Brain that Obama never once mentioned the words “race,” civil rights” or “Martin Luther King” during his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2008 — and the convention happened to be held on the 45th anniversary of the famous 1963 march on Washington that was led by Rev. King. Think about the irony there: It was the first time an African-American man was on the presidential ticket of a major party, and that man had to be mute when it came to the very issue that made his campaign historic.

The fact that a canny politician such as Obama feels the need to be silent about race — or risk losing credibility and support — says less about Obama than it does about the United States. Black leaders such as Tavis Smiley who believe we need to have a “black agenda” in order to help the tens of thousands of African-Americans in dire straits are obviously right. But the sad fact of the matter is that pressing Obama to come out with an explicit policy toward blacks could alienate a sizable number of voters not just on that one issue, but on a raft of issues. This isn’t my opinion — please read the “Disarming the Bomb” chapter in The Hidden Brain for the empirical evidence into the role that unconscious racial bias plays in politics.

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