Thursday Reads: Psychological Approaches to the Current Political Situation

Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

Good Morning!

Today I’m going to focus on some psychological studies and psychological ideas that relate to the news of the day.

A recent study by two social psychologists at The New School in NYC, found that reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind, or the “ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions” as well as the “capacity for empathy.”

From Scientific American:

Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, along with PhD candidate David Kidd conducted five studies in which they divided a varying number of participants (ranging from 86 to 356) and gave them different reading assignments: excerpts from genre (or popular) fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing. After they finished the excerpts the participants took a test that measured their ability to infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. The researchers found, to their surprise, a significant difference between the literary- and genre-fiction readers.

When study participants read non-fiction or nothing, their results were unimpressive. When they read excerpts of genre fiction, such as Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother, their test results were dually insignificant. However, when they read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved markedly—and, by implication, so did their capacity for empathy. The study was published October 4 in Science….

The results suggest that reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence. The study data couldinform debates over how much fiction should be included in educational curricula and whether reading programs should be implemented in prisons, where reading literary fiction might improve inmates’ social functioning and empathy. Castano also hopes the finding will encourage autistic people to engage in more literary fiction, in the hope it could improve their ability to empathize without the side effects of medication.

There’s a little more detail on the study at the Guardian books blog:

“What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others,” said Kidd.

Kidd and Castano, who have published their paper in Science, make a similar distinction between “writerly” writing and “readerly” writing to that made by Roland Barthes in his book on literary theory, The Pleasure of the Text. Mindful of the difficulties of determining what is literary fiction and what is not, certain of the literary extracts were chosen from the PEN/O Henry prize 2012 winners’ anthology and the US National book awards finalists.

“Some writing is what you call ‘writerly’, you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is ‘readerly’, and you’re entertained. We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way,” Kidd said.

As the authors admit, one problem with this study is determining what is “literary fiction” and what is “genre fiction.” In some cases, there is quite a bit of crossover in the selections they used. For example, they classify Louise Erdrich’s The Round House as “literary,” and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, as “genre” fiction. But The Round House has characteristics of a “thriller,” in that its subject is crime; and Flynn is a fine writer, and Gone Girl is in many ways a “writerly” work with a heavy focus on characters’ thinking processes and internal dialogues.

The Guardian quotes a psychologist who objects to Kidd and Castano’s use of Theory of Mind tests to measure the effects of reading different types of fiction.

Philip Davies, a professor of psychological sciences at Liverpool University, whose work with the Reader Organisation connects prisoners with literature, said they were “a bit odd”.

“Testing people’s ability to read faces is a bit odd. The thing about novels is that they give you a view of an inner world that’s not on show. Often what you learn from novels is to be a bit baffled … a novel tells you not to judge,” Davies said.

“In Great Expectations, Pip is embarrassed by Joe, because he’s crude and Pip is on the way up. Reading it, you ask yourself, what is it like to be Pip and what’s it like to be Joe? Would I behave better than Pip in his situation? It’s the spaces which emerge between the two characters where empathy occurs.”

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting study. Now if we could only get the Tea Party folks and super-rich Wall Street types to read more literary fiction!

Harvard Bookstore, Harvard Square

Harvard Bookstore, Harvard Square

The results of another social psychological study, this one at Duke University, showed that people with “extreme” political views have a sense of superiority over people with different views. From Psych Central:

Duke University investigators examined whether one end of the American political spectrum believes more strongly than the other in the superiority of its principles and positions.

They found both sides have elements of “belief superiority,” depending on the issue.

When asked about nine hot-button issues, conservatives feel most superior about their views on voter identification laws, taxes and affirmative action. Liberals feel most superior about their views on government aid for the needy, torture and not basing laws on religion.

The study is found in the online edition of Psychological Science.

Investigators questioned 527 adults, (289 men, 238 women), ages 18-67, about the issues. They then examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.

The study asked participants to not only report their attitudes on the nine topics, but also how superior they feel about their viewpoint for each issue.

According to Diana Reese at the Washington Post, 

The study was inspired by the 2012 presidential election campaign. “We were looking at things like comments on blogs and pundits and politicians on TV,” Dr. Kaitlin Toner said in a phone interview. “It seemed like there were a lot of people who felt very certain that their views were correct but they contradicted one another and there’s no way that everyone could be 100 percent correct all the time.” Toner, the lead author on the study, did the research while a graduate student at Duke….

Don’t confuse belief superiority with dogmatism, though. The latter is “a personality trait,” Toner explained. “It’s a measure of inflexibility….You’re holding a belief rigidly and won’t change.”

In other words, you can hold “superior” beliefs that you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong about a particular issue, but still be able to change your mind, unless you’re dogmatic about your viewpoint.

Previous research has shown that conservatives tend to be more dogmatic, and Toner said their study found the same results, with dogmatism increasing as views moved to the right of the political spectrum.

Another social psychologist from Duke University has a post at HuffPo called The Psychology of Being Online, in which he discusses several studies of the ways in which people react to being in virtual world. You can check them out at the link.

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA

Here’s a fascinating article by Justin Fox at the Harvard Business Review. It’s based on behavioral economics–a sort of combination of economic and psychological theories. Fox attempts to explain our current political/economic impasse using game theory. You should read the whole thing, but here an excerpt:

Some portray it as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. Warren Buffett says it’s “extreme idiocy.” I’d like to recommend another way of looking at the government shutdown and the looming battle over the debt ceiling in Washington. It’s a game, played by flawed-but-not-crazy human beings under confusing circumstances. In other words, it’s an interaction among “agents” who “base their decisions on limited information about actions of other agents in the recent past, and they do not always optimize.”

That quote is from economist H. Peyton Young’s “The Evolution of Conventions,” one of several works of game theory I plowed my way through this week in an attempt to find a way to think about the government shutdown and looming debt ceiling fight that didn’t make me want to bang my head against a wall. My reading made the dynamics at work in Congress and at the White House a bit clearer — and thus slightly less maddening, if not less ominous.

The debt-limit game

There are lots of different games being played in Washington at the moment, but the main one I have in mind pits the Democratic White House and Senate against the Republican House of Representatives over the federal budget. The deadlocked players have already landed us in a partial government shutdown, but it’s the 18th since 1976 and thus really not that big a deal. The far bigger stakes involve the federal borrowing limit that is due to be breached in a couple of weeks if Congress doesn’t approve an increase. Without further borrowing, much higher taxes, or draconian spending cuts — none of which may be possible or even legal on short notice — the government might not be able to service its existing debts, leading to a default. Congress has never allowed this to happen, so the consequences are unknowable, but they could be really bad.

Now go read the rest if you’re interested, and see what you think.

Here’s another interesting article that combines economic and psychological approaches by Douglas T. Kenrick of Psychology Today: Cruzonomics: The Problem of Free Market Psychology,

Senator Ted Cruz is a fan of the classic model of economic decision-making: sometimes called the Rational Man* view.   On this view, every one of your decisions is designed to maximize “utility” – which translates loosely into personal satisfaction.  If it feels good now, or will make you feel good later, choose it!  Advocates of this position believe that we are, in general, pretty facile at processing information, and at coming to shrewd self-serving decisions.  If you read the book Freakonomics, the authors explain how even seemingly senseless decisions, like changing one’s occupation from computer technician to prostitute, or living at home if you are a drug dealer, are well explained by economic incentive structures.  We are all, on this view, continuously operating like the high-roller in the movie Wall Street, who, while considering a shady deal, asks: “What’s in it for moi?”

Ask NOT what you can do for your country…

On this view, selfishness is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it is a virtue.  The intellectual patron saint of free-market economics is Adam Smith, who argued that an “invisible hand” moves us toward mutually beneficial arrangements when everyone pursues his self-interest.  For example, if consumers freely compare different fruit vendors at the market place, they will choose the one who charges the lowest price, but the price will not fall below the farmer’s costs of production, or he will go out of business.

But there are a few problems with the Rational Man view.  One is that people often fail to act in ways that economists regard as perfectly rational.  For example, there is a laboratory game called the Ultimatum Game.  Imagine that an experimenter hands you $100 and instructs you to divide it between yourself and a stranger in the next room.  You can divide it any way you want, but there is one stipulation: If the bloke in the next room doesn’t like your offer, nobody gets anything.  What should you offer?

And if you happen to be the bloke on the receiving end of such an ultimatum, how low an offer should you accept?

Again, I hope you’ll read the whole thing and share your views.

The science fiction section at City Lights Bookstore

The science fiction section at City Lights Bookstore

Finally, check out this sociological/psychological essay at Salon, by Michael Lind: Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the “Newest Right.” Again, I can’t really do the piece justice with an excerpt, but here’s a taste:

To judge from the commentary inspired by the shutdown, most progressives and centrists, and even many non-Tea Party conservatives, do not understand the radical force that has captured the Republican Party and paralyzed the federal government. Having grown up in what is rapidly becoming a Tea Party heartland–Texas–I think I do understand it. Allow me to clear away a few misconceptions about what really should be called, not the Tea Party Right, but the Newest Right.

The first misconception that is widespread in the commentariat is that the Newest Right can be thought of as being simply a group of “extremists” who happen to be further on the same political spectrum on which leftists, liberals, centrists and moderate conservatives find their places. But reducing politics to points on a single line is more confusing than enlightening. Most political movements result from the intersection of several axes—ideology, class, occupation, religion, ethnicity and region—of which abstract ideology is seldom the most important.

The second misconception is that the Newest Right or Tea Party Right is populist. The data, however, show that Tea Party activists and leaders on average are more affluent than the average American. The white working class often votes for the Newest Right, but then the white working class has voted for Republicans ever since Nixon. For all its Jacksonian populist rhetoric, the Newest Right is no more a rebellion of the white working class than was the original faux-populist Jacksonian movement, led by rich slaveowners like Andrew Jackson and agents of New York banks like Martin Van Buren.

The third misconception is that the Newest Right is irrational. The American center-left, whose white social base is among highly-educated, credentialed individuals like professors and professionals, repeatedly has committed political suicide by assuming that anyone who disagrees with its views is an ignorant “Neanderthal.” Progressive snobs to the contrary, the leaders of the Newest Right, including Harvard-educated Ted Cruz, like the leaders of any successful political movement, tend to be highly educated and well-off. The self-described members of the Tea Party tend to be more affluent and educated than the general public.

Read the rest at Salon.

I hope you’ll find something useful and/or enlightening among these psychological approaches to our current crazy political environment. Now what stories are you focusing on today. Please share your ideas and links in the comment thread.

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