Practicing music, practicing empathy

Every morning, the first thing I do after checking my email is reading Carolyn Hax’s advice column. I love her sharp sense of humor, and her advice is always sound. This week, two letter writers wondered whether there was something lacking in them – they didn’t think they were feeling strongly enough when a friend was having problems. As one of them put it, “there are plenty of situations where a friend calls me about a problem they’re having and, while I’m happy to talk it out or to listen, I don’t feel their pain.” They wondered if that was abnormal and bad.

Carolyn reassured them that it was fine: “there’s a case to be made that not going through the emotions yourself enhances your ability to listen patiently and provide a shoulder. Some of the best caregivers are the ones who maintain enough detachment to keep their heads, and keep listening through what would be, for others, an exhausting level of duress.”

I was reminded of the work done by psychologist Mark Davis, 40 years ago, when he identified four types of empathy. “Empathic concern,” or sympathy, is a tendency to feel compassion and warmth for those going through negative experiences. “Perspective-taking” is a more cognitive process involved in taking others’ point of view. “Empathic distress” refers to feeling discomfort or anxiety when faced with others’ negative feelings. Finally, his fourth type involved being able to enter into the emotional worlds of fictional characters.

Basically, the first two go hand in hand, when you want to be supportive to someone. Sympathy works best when the person makes the effort to understand what it’s like to be in that situation, while making that effort without sympathy can feel cold and clinical. The third type of empathy generally gets in the way; it ends up making it about you, not them.

The fourth type has always seemed like it didn’t really fit with the first three, but later in the day I started to think about that differently.

I was attending a master class with renowned pianist Michelle Cann. michelle_cannThese master classes are a wonderful feature of our local symphony. Whenever the upcoming concert is going to feature a soloist, Continue reading

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What color is your pandemic?

One of the most interesting studies I’ve done during the help-people-quit-tobacco part of my career was a study of the metaphors people use when they think about quitting. Metaphors are so fundamental to how we understand things – if you’re still thinking of them as an optional and poetic form of self-expression, let me recommend Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They’re everywhere.

In our study, we started with more than 2100 posts that were made in a social support forum for people trying to quit their use of moist snuff (like Copenhagen and Skoal) or chewing tobacco. I marked every metaphor I saw, and my colleague Shari Reyna did the same. (Shari’s so cool – she’s also an anthropologist and dairy-goat-farmer who loves socially creative science fiction by writers like Ursula LeGuin and Sheri Tepper.) Then we compared our notes.

We found that people had five ways of thinking about quitting tobacco: as a journey, a project, a battle, an escape from captivity, and ending a dysfunctional relationship. Why was this useful? When you know what metaphors people are using, you can think through the implications that follow from that way of thinking about things. If quitting is a battle, then you’re always on your guard against cravings, which makes sense for a while, but after a few years this attitude would be stressful. If it’s a journey, what happens after you arrive? Moving to a new community where you learn how to do some things differently could make more sense. And then if you’re designing programs to help people who want to change that part of their life, you have a better idea of what to take into account.

This week, I came across a new study using metaphors, this time about the COVID-19 pandemic. In the study, led by B. Liahnna Stanley, a grad student at Arizona State, they gathered their data in a much more efficient way: They just asked people directly. They interviewed 44 people and asked them, “If COVID-19 had a color, what color would it be and why?” and “If COVID-19 were an animal, what animal would it be and why?”

So what color is the pandemic? Their participants’ answers were fascinating. Along with the Continue reading

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The “make it so” mentality – some thoughts on trust and systems

Q: What do Donald Trump, Elizabeth Holmes, and an alarming fraction of the vaccine “skeptics” have in common?
A: Apparently, a belief in their own personal immunity from the basic laws of cause and effect.

Let’s start with Trump.

Well, first, let’s back up and think for a moment about that unnatural alliance between evangelical Christians and big business. Why do so many members of the white working class vote for policies that take good things away from themselves and people like them and add them to the absurd stockpiles of the ultra-rich? Part of that’s probably aspirational – people tend to vote on behalf of the future selves they hope to be rather than their actual circumstances, and thanks to lotteries, too many people expect to hit the jackpot.

john_calvinBut there’s a cultural reason, too. One trend in evangelical thinking is called the Prosperity Gospel, which has its roots in earlier Calvinism. John Calvin, one of the leaders in early Protestantism, taught that you can’t earn your way into Heaven, but that God tends to reward people on Earth commensurate with their religious merits. It’s a capitalist version of karma – if you’re rich, it’s because God sees the good in you. If you’re poor… maybe you deserve it, or Continue reading

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A story about family and community, for our time

During these polarized times, when even public health has become politicized, it’s extra-important to build bridges between our two “sides,” and to retain and strengthen the dialogues we already have. That’s why I want to talk today about the new novel by Holly Larsen, called Sisters, Plural. Holly was one of my closest friends when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, so of course I’m biased, but… after reading her book as light entertainment, I realized in retrospect that it’s actually rather profound.

Holly is a liberal, educated, cosmopolitan woman from a Mormon family, and if that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not – I’ve known several. She’s also a gifted writer with strong connections to her family, and in her first novel she chose to tell the story of her great-grandmother’s unusual courtship, nicely fictionalized, with a parallel story that she invented for her great-grandmother’s sister.

The story is set in 1910, in St Johns, Arizona, which the map tells me is midway between Phoenix and Albuquerque. Betsy Harris is heartbroken because the lovely young man she’s got a crush on, Heber Orchard, has become engaged while off in Los Angeles on his mission. (All Mormon young men go on a mission, a religious rite of passage.)

Her sister, Eliza, has relationship complications of her own – everyone thinks she’s involved with her best friend, Frank, because they keep wandering off together, but really it’s a cover. She and Frank have an “understanding,” and she’s actually meeting a handsome young Mexican, Raymond. She fantasizes (naively) about converting Raymond to her church, but when his family finds out about her, they ship him off to Los Angeles to work for his uncle.

Suddenly, though, Heber’s fiancée Virginia dies. Betsy feels so guilty – what if it was her prayers that caused this? When he returns to St Johns, though, he finds that Betsy is the best person to talk to about how he feels, and soon he’s falling in love with her too.

Eliza becomes determined to follow Raymond to Los Angeles, and she starts raising money for her trip, which will have to be a secret. She tells only Frank, who also wants to move to the big city.

The story alternates between the perspectives of the two young women. Betsy is obviously a very kind person, while Eliza… can be. She’s also self-centered to a humorous degree.

And all of this is taking place in the two-building household formed by three adults: Eliza’s mother, Betsy’s mother, and the husband they share in a “plural marriage,” along with their other six children. One of the gifts of fiction is that after a chapter or two, this all feels perfectly natural.

(And what about Frank, anyway? Why this “understanding”? Is he really not interested in Eliza, or maybe he doesn’t think he could aspire to the local girls because he’s apparently somewhat funny-looking? Or is there more going on?)

After I’d finished the book, which resolves all their stories most satisfactorily, I kept thinking about the two women. In our lab discussions of worldview psychology, we’ve often discussed the sociological ideas of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – the former refers to communities Continue reading

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Empirical and conceptual science: a vital partnership

It’s great fun to be an interdisciplinary thinker. It’s exciting to make connections that shed new light on old problems. I love the world “outside the box.” Or rather, here’s the graphic on my ironic Halloween t-shirt:

think_inside_the_box

Even though it’s amazing to work in this world, it’s also frustrating, because you can do careful, precise work and still run into the square-peg-round-hole problem. What I’m referring to here is the distinction between empirical and conceptual science.

Empirical science works like this. You make observations. You notice patterns in your observations. You come up with an idea that would account for those patterns. But before you can have confidence in your idea, you need to test it – to compare it with other ideas that could also account for those patterns. You follow the standards of rigorous testing, you get your results, and you compare it with your original idea. Maybe it supports your idea, or maybe you need to tweak your idea a bit, or start over. If it supports your idea, great – now you test it again under different conditions to see whether your findings “generalize” more broadly. And so on. This is a world of methods, findings, rigor, and validity.

Empirical science is very important. Without empirical science, we don’t get medicine or advanced technology. (Like effective vaccines for a worldwide pandemic!)

But empirical research isn’t all there is to science. There’s also the conceptual part, the framework that helps us make sense of the world. This is the part of science I most enjoy – coming up with a new way to look at a situation, then exploring its implications. Or, to be more precise, bringing together existing ideas into a model that gives us new tools for thinking about important problems.

That’s what I’ve been doing in my research on meta-narratives. The idea that there are Continue reading

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How the War on Terror gave us Donald Trump

Twenty years ago, the United States began waging a “war” on terror, and now we learn that it was War on Terror ideas that fueled Trump’s rise to power.

Today, the NYT’s Ezra Klein interviewed his colleague, Spencer Ackerman, about his a new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. In the book, Ackerman talks about how all of Donald Trump’s most egregious campaign themes were actually War on Terror themes, and how Obama missed vital opportunities to repair the situation. You can read the transcript of Klein’s interview here, or listen to the podcast here.

Klein starts right off by laying out the War on Terror meta-narrative. Here it is:

“America faces an existential threat from an undefined, though implicitly brown immigrant Muslim enemy that must be defeated at all costs. America is innocent in this threat. They hate us for our freedom. They hate us for what makes America America. And they are not just trying to defeat us. They are trying to change us. We are in a war of values, a civilizational conflict.”

Once you’ve spelled it all out like that, it’s easy to pick holes in it, especially when you remember that every time terrorists have attacked Americans, they’ve told us why. It’s not that Continue reading

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George Packer’s four warring visions

Are we really “Four Americas,” as George Packer’s recent Atlantic article tells us? Does this really mean, as he says, that “competing visions of the country’s purpose and meaning are tearing it apart”?

I haven’t yet read his new book, from which the article is drawn, but I did hear him give a talk on this very topic, back in 2018. I tried chatting with him a bit afterwards, during the book-signing, but he seemed very tired and not much receptive to conversation. I also listened to the talk again online a couple of times after, so I’ve given his ideas a lot of consideration over the past three years. My conclusion is that although I really like his ideas overall, there’s also some value to examining them a bit more analytically, and I may not end up agreeing with all of his conclusions.

First, Packer reminds us that for much of the 20th century, the two major political parties “had clear identities and told distinct stories. The Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake.” Now, though, Packer tells us there are four main stories: “Free America,” a libertarian vision of personal freedoms and property rights; “Smart America,” a more cosmopolitan vision in which everyone deserves opportunities, but merit will determine rewards; “Real America,” a nationalist story of America’s common people, who work with their hands and take pride in being superior both to a “parasitic elite” and a “shiftless underclass”; and “Just America,” or rather, “Unjust America,” which insists on including all Americans as equal citizens and reminds us that we have yet to do so. In his article (and I assume the corresponding chapter of his book), Packer covers a lot of recent history, telling us how each of these stories took hold and so far, how it’s played out. (Caveat – Packer isn’t splitting America into four groups, each of which has one of these beliefs; he’s just pointing out that four main beliefs about groups are circulating, but individual Americans may embrace more than one, or none, of them.)

Packer calls each of these worldviews “narratives,” but since none of them has a defining story (an account of particular events that led to how things are, which everyone uses to support their beliefs), I’m going to assume that instead he’s really talking about meta-narratives. Let’s see what meta-narrative science can tell us about them.

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“Happily ever after!” The new GOP storyline

On the one hand, it’s heartening that Republicans recently voted to make Juneteenth a new federal holiday. On the other hand, with all the Lost Cause handwringing during the Trump years, one wonders why.

In a recent Slate interview, historian Matt Karp explains his theory. (Thanks, W.H., for the link!) Karp thinks it’s the latest episode in a strategic meta-narrative shift on the part of Republicans. Quoting Karp,

“The right’s support for Juneteenth signifies that they are investing more energy in claiming credit for emancipation. Rather than downplaying or diminishing or cynically undermining, decentering the importance of slavery altogether, they’re saying, Yes, it was terrible—and we fixed it.

This strategy is not so new for America – we’ve embraced our history as a succession of Triumphs all along. “We” beat the British to establish a new nation, “conceived in liberty.” “We” achieved our Manifest Destiny by claiming all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “We” helped our allies in Western Europe win two world wars, and then won the Cold War, establishing the U.S. of A. as the world’s only Superpower.

As Karp summarizes: “We beat Nazism, we beat communism, we beat slavery.”

And much of this is non-partisan, but there are partisan Triumphs too, as when some white liberals thought Obama’s election as president marked an end to racism. (Oops.)

The Triumph genre is especially powerful. It’s structured as a Mission (progress toward a goal), followed by a decisive achievement. We won! Just like with any work of fiction, it’s that closure at the end that feels so satisfying. So there are two emotional payoffs: We get to feel good Continue reading

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The ‘agile dolphin’ plan: Boris Johnson’s meta-narrative vision for Britain

Say what you will about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the man clearly grasps the political power of meta-narratives. Tom McTague profiled Johnson in the latest issue of The Atlantic, and concluded that to Johnson, “the point of politics – and life – is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in. In the prime minister’s view, those who wanted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum didn’t have the courage to tell the real story at the heart of their vision: a story of the beauty of European unity and collective identity. Instead, they offered claims of impending disaster were Britain to leave, most of which haven’t come to pass, at least not yet. The story voters believed in was fundamentally different—in Johnson’s words, “that this is a great and remarkable and interesting country in its own right.” “People live by narrative,” he told me. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”

Johnson is right about several things.
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There are storms, and then there are “storms” — reassurance from the world of survey science

In yesterday’s Washington Post, columnist Karen Tumulty described her concerns about the Republicans’ failure to endorse the January 6 investigation for which they’d helped set the terms. Some of her worries are based on recent non-partisan polling. As she put it:
“Fully 20 percent of more than 5,500 adults questioned in all 50 states — and 28 percent of Republicans among them — said they agreed with the statement that ‘there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.’”

Without questioning Tumulty’s conclusions, or the accuracy of the polling, I do want to reassure all of you reading this that it’s probably not quite that bad. Years of experience in designing and conducting surveys about worldview beliefs have taught me something not obvious — when people are answering questions like that, they’re often not describing their thoughts and beliefs up to that point, but instead, just their emotional reaction to the question. And in this case, the question was emotionally loaded.

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