Tag Archives: psychology

Monday’s Mtg: Is technology ruining our attention spans?

I know, I know. You thought ruining attention spans was my job. Information technology’s effect on human attention spans is just one of those how-info-tech-is-changing-the-world topics we dip into occasionally.  We’ve done porn’s effect on sexuality, cyber security, and Facebook’s influence on friendship.  I remember linking to at least one article for some meeting that said the internet is changing the hardwiring of our brains.

The attention span angle is a new one for us but it is a topic of both general and academic interest.  I don’t know about you, but everybody I know complains the internet has ruined their ability to focus for any length of time on just one thing.  They’ve all but stopped reading books, can’t finish articles they start reading on-line, stop watching videos on-line after 34 minutes, etc.  Academic work on the issue got a short burst of media attention (is there any other kind of media attention?) a few years ago after a major study claimed technology has reduced average human attention span to a mere eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. I don’t know if the study was any good or how it defined “attention span,” but I’ve linked to an article about it, below.

So, on Monday we can discuss the readings and anything else people have read or seen on our allegedly disappearing ability to pay attention. Also, this would be an especially good meeting, I think, to share some personal experiences. Most CivCon regulars grew up before the internet existed at all, and the full-on social media age is new to everybody, everywhere. What has happened to your attention span and those of people you know?  How do you fight it?

We also could get into related issues. For example, how has the information technology revolution affected our memories, how and how much we learn, the capacity for empathy, and openness to opposing points of view?  What about our intimate relationships and social lives?

I’ll see you Monday at 7pm.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is rural versus urban America’s worst political divide?

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Monday’s Mtg: What Should Americans Be Nostalgic For?

Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.

Who’s laughing now?  More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.

I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis.  But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities.  The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common.  It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days.  Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.

But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners.  It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it.  Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism.  I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones.  Maybe using these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
  2. Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
  3. What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
  4. Who and what do they blame?
  5. How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
  6. Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.

Monday’s Mtg: Which beliefs have you changed since you were young and why?

Gale came up with this idea. I like it partly because it lets us get off the hamster wheel of reading and intellectualizing over politics, philosophy, history, and the like. But, I also like the topic because it basically asks each of us how much of what we have experienced and learned has really mattered – enough to make us change our opinions.

What people learn from experience is heavily influenced by what they want to believe a priori, of course. Still, as this week’s handful of background readings discuss, our beliefs do evolve throughout our lives as we gain experience and perspective. About what have you changed your opinion? God/religion, politics, personal ethics, marriage and children? What did it for you? Marriage and kids, church, school, career choices?  How hard was it to evolve?

After my 45 minute opening lecture (Note: KIDDING), I am really interested in hearing what you all, with all of your decades and decades and decades (sorry) of wisdom have to say. Have a nice weekend and I’ll see you on Monday evening.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: What is a “fair” burden of taxation?

Monday’s Mtg: Are There Any Universal Religious Principles?

Let’s call this one another “David bites off more than he can chew” topic. I got the idea from reading a wonderful little book – Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World. The American Buddhist author gently defends religion from both fundamentalists and atheists by arguing that the world’s major religions are compatible with modernity. She says that, stripped of their archaic baggage and recent fundamentalism, the major global religions have plenty of room for tolerance, human rights, social justice, and democracy. Great book.

Still, upon further reflection, I think we have to be a little careful here, for two reasons. First, “Are there any universal religious principles,” begs a lot of questions. When is a principle a religious one? When people or doctrines say it is? How do we know a value or principle isn’t a product of something else, say, evolutionary biology or psychology or socialization? Similarly, how much universality is enough? When a principle is common to all/most/many/certain faiths? What about modern or still-contested ideas, like church/state separation or human and LGBT rights? Can they be both recent and controversial and justifiable by ancient religions?

Finally, the idea I originally had in mind would ask: Universal principles about what? About God’s existence and nature? About whether some truths are revealed rather than empirically-verifiable? About how to lead a moral life, or treat other people (ethics)? About sex and family, murder and war?  Do any of us know enough about world religions to compare them so?  Not eye.

A second reason to be cautious in the way we generalize about universal religious values is that a lot of people are not very cautious when they do this. We are all aware of the “Islam is inherently evil” tidal wave being surfed by Donald Trump and religious Right’s insistence that upholding LGBT civil rights violates their religious freedom. But, progressives can be lazy, too, like when they say all religions are deep down the same. I agree with the scholar I linked to below tat says this trivializes religion. Also and as Jim Z. can attest, whether human rights principles are universal values or a Western invention being imposed on developing countries is a big issue these days in its own right.

Anyway, below are a few articles that make claims about the universality of religious values, plus some simple statements of faith from a few well-known religions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Universal Moral Values?

Universal Religious Principles?

Some specific (but simple) faith statements –

Next Week: Fixing our juvenile criminal justice system.

Monday’s Mtg: Fear-Mongering As a Political Strategy.

No matter what else happens in this train wreck of an election, experts will spend years trying to understand what happened and why. There are a lot of causes and culprits. But, the causes and consequences of political fear-mongering might be subject number one. How big a role has Donald Trump’s appeals to plain old fear of foreign and domestic enemies (immigrants, foreigners, traitorous U.S. elites, etc.) played in his rise, and why have his incitements worked so well?

The answers, in my view, are complex and go well beyond Trump to some core issues warping our politics. Yes, Trump fear-mongers a lot, it’s ugly, and it’s working. But, two things. First, fear is not the only basis of the man’s appeal. Polls reveal that his supporters are not just mindlessly seeking a strongman to crush our enemies, although support for Trump does correlate strongly with authoritarian personality traits. Trumpistas are more pessimistic in general about their own future and the country’s future than any other group of voters. They express zero trust in our political or corporate elites. Many seem to harbor deep resentments of recent cultural/demographic changes in our country and feel that “political correctness” has delegitimized their fears. None of these beliefs are likely to disappear when Trump does. The Donald is the punishment, not the problem.

Second, it’s not just Trump! His fearmongering has fallen on fertile ground because the Republican Party’s leaders at all levels has spent years priming its own voters to be paranoid. Especially lately, from ISIS to Ebola to China to our disloyalmuslimkenyantraitor president, the GOP – and the conservative news media – has become The Party of Fear. Democrats are starting to use some scare-mongering tactics of their own, IMO, arguably including some of the stuff that Bernie Sanders says. (Our democracy is “dead?” Really?)

My point is that a high level of fear and fear-mongering is a loaded gun in politics. Eventually, somebody will pick it up and, deviously or innocently, start blasting away at the fabric of our democracy. Trump is just really good at it.

As for us, I think a discussion of fear-mongering has to ask the right questions to be useful. I propose we start on Monday night by asking the first couple of discussion questions, below: What does and does not constitute political fear-mongering, and under what conditions is it effective? Then, I’m sure we’ll have ample time to debate how one of our political parties – and maybe, eventually, the other – came to use fear-mongering as a central pillar of its existence.

I will be brief in my little opening remarks, summarizing the 3-4 main theories of why appeals to voter anxieties (which are used in every election, obviously) are so much more prominent/prevalent in today’s political environment. I definitely will give a few jaw-dropping, sky-is-falling quotes from the Republican presidential candidates this year. They are amazing to behold; they’re just not the whole story or the only thing to worry about.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. WHAT: What is fear-mongering? Is it about (a) fake/exaggerated threats, (b) scapegoated culprits, or (c) phony solutions?
  2. WHAT NOT: How does fear-mongering differ from what politicians should do: Raise awareness of our problems, criticize the other side’s failures, and proposing solutions?
  3. WHO/WHEN: When does fear-mongering work and on whom?
    1. When: Foreign threats/war? Rapid social change, in times of rapid social change and economic stagnation?
    2. Who: A vulnerable psychological type? People on the botto of our society? On the top but losing their privileged status?
  4. TODAY:
    1. What are people afraid of? Legit fears?
    2. Who is doing the fear-mongering? Why?
  5. ON/OFF: Is fear-mongering controllable? Can politicians turn it on an off at will, or is it like riding a tiger? Does it make our politics hostage to events?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Political Correctness – A serious problem, an excuse, or a little of both?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Is Americans’ Trust In Each Other Declining?

“Social trust” is a term sociologists use for the confidence we all have in each other within the social networks that comprise our everyday lives. Social trust is the lubricant that allows communities to function and thus one of the glues that holds societies together. If we trust other members of our social networks we’ll do business with them, respect their interests, work with them to maintain our community, join civic organizations with them, and trust them when they hold cultural and political power over us. Social trust is vital in developing our “social capital,” the good will, sympathy, and connections in our communities that we can (reciprocally! use to our advantage.  High levels of social trust/social capital leads to better lives, stronger communities and a more united nation.

Okay, maybe I’ve been reading too much Sociology for Dummies. Still, a lot of observers are really worried that Americans’ trust in each other is falling apart. The political polarization that we talk about a lot is just one part of it. On Monday I will explain in a little more detail what I mean. I’ll lay out why experts think social trust is so important and whether/why we may be losing ours.

Here are some targeted discussion questions to ponder and a little basic reading on social trust.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. CONCEPTS: What is social trust? What are its components and how is its level measured? How does it relate to social capital?
  2. IMPORTANCE: Why does social trust matter? Historically, who has had high/low levels of it in America? What do individuals and societies lack when social trust is low?
  3. DECLINED? Has our social trust fallen? Evidence?
  4. WHY? What caused the fall? Is it rational or irrational (are people less trustworthy?), cause or effect (of other problems like rising inequality or higher immigration), temporary or enduring?
  5. EFFECTS:
    1. INSTITUTIONS: Trust in most major U.S. institutions (govt, big biz, news media, etc.) has collapsed. Is this related to falling social trust?
    2. POLITICS: Is falling trust a cause or effect of our political polarization and paralysis?
  6. FUTURE: Will social trust keep declining? Could the internet reverse that?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Would a female president govern differently?

Monday’s Mtg: Is God a Human Invention and a Still-Needed One?

This is Filip’s first topic idea and he will run the meeting if I can’t make it back in time from out of town. We have discussed atheism several times in the past. (Here, for example.) But, I like Fil’s wording because it cuts to the heart of atheism’s challenge to religion: That people believe in God because they want to, based on some psychological or biological need.

Many of you all are practicing atheists, if that’s not an oxymoron. So, no need for me to set up the topic idea, either here or on Monday. Instead, I’m taking this week off after all of the recent long, complex topics and weekly intro posts lately. I’m sure it will be a great meeting,, like all of our religious-themed ones are.

Still, out of habit, here are a few readings on the subject of the basic arguments for and against God’s existence, plus a few dealing with one author’s idea of what needs a human-created God might fulfill for society. It’s a pretty good read, IMO.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Who is to blame for Iraq and Syria?

Monday’s Mtg: What Is Intelligence?

Bruce will moderate this meeting. I think it is a good topic for integrating science with our personal experiences. So many libraries have been filled with books on what intelligence is that I wasn’t sure where t start. So, some of the links below are via Bruce and others are ones I found. My impression is that Bruce is particularly interested in some theories of concerning intelligence that some of us might find controversial. Politics is everywhere.

I’ll see you all Monday night

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the major theories of intelligence? Are there different kinds of intelligence? Or, is there just one intelligence (a G factor) and we see different aspects of it?
  2. How do they measure intelligence? How accurate are the tests? What are they really measuring?
  3. Variability: How does intelligence vary between people and across cultures?   Why do IQ levels in a society tend to rise over time (the Flynn effect)?
  4. How does intelligence change as we age?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Bill Clinton: How good a president was he?

Monday’s Mtg: How Should We Talk To the “Other Side” About Politics?

We all know a bit about why it’s gotten so hard to talk to the other side politically, having discussed polarization and its causes a number of times. I’ll list a few of the main culprits to open the meeting. We’ve also discussed how people are naturally resistant to being persuaded about politics. We’re all predisposed to “bias reinforcement;” i.e., to seek out opinions and facts we already agree with and to avoid or rationalize away any that cause us the trouble and psychic pain of self-examination. Hell, studies show that, among political partisans and those with well-formed ideologies, being exposed to contrary facts actually reinforces their opinions. How screwed does that make our politics?

Still, talking politics with someone from “The Other Side” politically can’t be totally, always futile, can it? I mean, an entire industry exists devoted to finding which rhetoric works best to persuade people in political advertising and in politicians’ speeches. Could we learn from their work and apply their techniques in our personal lives, when we’re in the situation and the mood to do so? Or, does talking politics with the other side just require using basic social skills and common courtesy that our political betters have forgotten in their rush to polarize us?

I’ve had to think about this topic a lot in recent years, from running Civilized Conversation and appearing in the San Diego Debate Club and (as Aaron does) on this ultra-conservative political TV show. So, indulge me for a few minutes on Monday and I’ll start us off with a few insights I think I’ve gathered. Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if you’re one of those dim-witted, evil, ridiculous idiots on the other side.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. WHY talk to someone on the other side; i.e., for what purpose? What should one’s goals be when engaging such a person? Like:  Persuasion, Defend your values, Find common ground, Censure or use them as a foil to persuade others within earshot?  How about to learn something about why they think what they think?
  2. What kind of arguments/appeals work in such settings? Like: Facts or logic, Personal stories, Appeals to authority, Appeals to community or patriotism, Citing your/their moral values, Citing public support , Cursing and screaming?
  3. How do the pros do it? Any lessons from politicians or political campaigners (Reagan/FDR, Atwater/Carville) or social scientists (Lakoff, Haight)
  4. Specific issues: Any ideas for talking with an opponent on, say, climate change, Obamacare, taxes, abortion, etc.?
  5. Specific settings: Dealing with family members, colleagues, strangers, very well-informed opponents, etc.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  How did the West “beat the rest?”  Was it culturally superior?

Monday’s Mtg: Is There a Universal Human Nature?

This week we have a great crosscutting topic, suggested a while back by Aaron. Whether there is a universal human nature involves philosophy, neuroscience, biology, psychology, and nearly every other -ology I can think of. Politics is wrapped up in there, too. Believing in a particular variant of a universal human nature is the stepping stone to believing in a universal human morality, which leads to political philosophy and political principles.

I’m under the weather this weekend. So, here are some readings on some of the things selected philosophers and modern scientists think about the universality of human nature. If I had more time and felt better, I would try to summarize the works of major philosophers of human nature, particularly Hume and Aristotle. But, since my knowledge is slight on some of them, I’ll just open with something and then we can discuss.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READINGS –

Next Week: How Should We Talk to the “Other Side” About Politics?