Category Archives: News and Topical Issues

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

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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. 

2010 Nobel Prize in Economics Recognizes Role of the Hidden Brain

By | Cool Findings, News and Topical Issues | No Comments

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The 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics has been awarded to Peter Diamond, a champion of the field of behavioral economics. As I am sure you know, behavioral economics is a discipline which shows how people regularly depart from the rational, self-interested behavior that conventional economics suggests is the universal norm. The reason people regularly fail to behave as the economic models suggest they should, of course, is because of their hidden brains — the myriad biases, heuristics, prejudices and errors that cause us to deviate from the usual rules of predictable rationality and self-interest. While many of these biases produce errors and problems in our daily lives, others can be harmless, funny and even helpful.

In this book edited by Diamond, researchers talk about how adding a photograph of an attractive woman to a loan offer has about the same effect in getting heterosexual men to sign up for the loan as lowering interest rates by a whopping 4.5 percentage points.

Whether you think that is wonderful, dangerous or hilarious depends on whether you are the bank offering the loan, the guy paying more interest than he should, or the woman in the photograph!

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

By | Cool Findings, Law, Morality, News and Topical Issues, Puzzle | No Comments

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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.

Supreme Court Fight: The Unconscious Power of Frames

By | Blog, Law, News and Topical Issues, Politics | No Comments

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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

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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.

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

By | Blog, Cool Findings, News and Topical Issues, Politics, Puzzle | No Comments

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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?

By | News and Topical Issues, Politics, Prejudice | No Comments

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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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Does Autism Spread Through Word of Mouth?

By | Cool Findings, Group Behavior, News and Topical Issues | No Comments

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Some of the skyrocketing increase in autism diagnoses in the United States has to do with sociological forces — people talking to one another about the disorder, sharing information about doctors and providing friends and colleagues with information about educational resources. The research does not imply that autism is “made-up,”  but rather that as information spreads more widely about the disorder, cases of autism get “discovered” that might not have been discovered earlier. Much of this sociologically-driven increase is for cases of autism on the mild side of the autism spectrum.

Researchers at Columbia University say that a child who lives 250 meters from another child who has been diagnosed with autism has a 42 percent increased chance of being diagnosed himself or herself. Children who live between 250 and 500 meters of another child diagnosed with autism have a 22 percent increased chance of being diagnosed themselves. The researchers based this conclusion on a study of more than 300,000 children in California between 1997 and 2003. Children who live further away from another child diagnosed with autism have a lower risk of being diagnosed themselves.

Researchers Peter Bearman, Ka-Yuet Liu and Marissa King found that the disorder spread in the same channels through which information spread — social connections were the key here. Children living in the same school district as a diagnosed child, for example, were more likely to be diagnosed than children merely living proximally to a neighbor’s child with autism. Children exposed to similar environmental conditions but who shared different social networks were less likely to experience the shared diagnosis effect.

Basically, what the study — published in the American Journal of Sociology — suggests is that for clear-cut cases of severe autism, parents seek out help from doctors and educators without needing much input from friends and members of their social network. But in milder cases, the influnce of those social networks can be decisive. Autism cases have surged nationwide in recent years, often by several hundred percent. The new study does not contradict earlier work that has explored various environmental and genetic risk factors for autism, but adds another piece of the puzzle to explain the sudden surge in cases.

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