Tag Archives: Psychology

The “Attention Singularity” and cultural psychosis

Have you ever wondered what a culture’s collective psychosis feels like? I think this is it. I think that’s what we’re going through now

The Singularity is already here, Our consciousnesses have been uploaded to the cloud via social media as our world is now governed by invisible automated systems – and we’ve only just noticed, and by noticing have stared into the abyss.

We respond by screaming at each other about a presidential election that makes less sense than the plot of a Saturday morning kids cartoon. We don’t really believe this can possibly be happening, but we’re afraid to laugh and we can’t get away and nothing we do changes anything. We vacillate between learned helplessness and explosive rage but we’re afraid to disconnect because we might miss something.

Continue reading The “Attention Singularity” and cultural psychosis

It’s not so much “identity theft” as “authenticity theft”

Paper mapMany years ago while visiting Texas during an election season, I caught a lot of local television.

A pattern emerged: local news anchors who sounded like they were from the Midwest would toss to business commercials where people spoke with no discernible accent, which in turn transitioned into political adds where people spoke with Texas twangs so deep they sounded like they were coming out of oil wells.

The people of Texas (at least in this region) sounded almost entirely like everybody else in America. But the politicians of Texas were going out of their way to sound like they’d never gone north of highway 20.

This was one of the great impacts of radio and TV on language: the flattening of accents and the development of “standard American” English across regions. By the late 20th century it had reached the point where sounding like where you were from was an affectation.

The internet is having a similar impact, according to a recent article in Quartz: “Everybody has the same personality online.”

“Even larger-than-life personalities, such as Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer, lose their idiosyncrasies on Twitter,” Olivia Goldhill writes. “They might write clever jokes that fit into the 140-character word limit, but there’s no silliness or slapstick. I can’t tell who’s goofy, who’s thoughtful, and who’s anxious from online profiles alone.”

Continue reading It’s not so much “identity theft” as “authenticity theft”

The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

What if the medium is the message is the zietgiest?

There may be no odder quirk of fate – or sign of the times – than the fact that both the Movement Conservatives on the right and the student activist movement on the left are demanding safe spaces in which they need not be confronted by opposing views.

This is not to conflate the two movements, or suggest they are fundamentally the same – but the trend of ideological polarization that demographers have been noting in America for decades (Blue States get bluer, Red States get redder, and people of identical incomes are increasingly clustered) is having an impact on the way debate is conceptualized in this country.

Given both increasing demographic segregation, and the increasing segmentation of the (social) media into targeted niches, should it really be a surprise that the nature of debate has gone from trying to win arguments to demanding freedom from the existence of opposing arguments?


Continue reading The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

Love in the time of “Gameification”

There is a fascinating article in the current SF Weekly about the way App designers are trying to improve your romantic life.  Members of the Smart Phone Set are all so busy, you see, and romance tends to lose its fizzle, so they turn Apps that schedule them to do nice things for their significant others:  make romantic gestures, offer sacrifices, fill up your “love tank” – and offers points and rewards to make it easy and fun.

“It’s basically gamification of your relationships,” says Sonja Poole, a 43-year-old associate professor at the University of San Francisco (who uses the App).”

This could work, the article goes on, because:

“(F)rom a psychological perspective, human relationships “are inherently game-like,” saysProfessor Andrew Colman, a psychologist and game theory expert at University of Leicester in the U.K. According to a 2009 study that analyzes dating in terms of game theory, humans assess potential mates according to investments, risk-reward behaviors, and other factors that mirror the way we analyze a game. Game theory, for instance, explains why we love “the chase.” “A male’s willingness to court for a long time is a signal that he is likely to be a good male,” study author Robert Seymour writes.

Or a stalker.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that in the 21st century the way to a man’s heart is through his phone.  Got it?

Do you really?  And does it make your skin crawl?  Because it does mine. Continue reading Love in the time of “Gameification”

The pseudo-modern death wish

In the magnificent opening essay of his 1912 masterpiece “The Tragic Sense of Life,” Miguel de Unamuno follows Spinoza to hold that the essence of any being that can be reasonably called such is the will to continue being ourselves.  For all that we change – from moment to moment, from year to year, decade to decade – that is the one thing about us that holds steady.  And should this vanish, so do we.

He is walking a path well trodden by Buddhism (which he knew of second hand, at the very least, through Schopenhauer), but where Buddhism views this as the cause of life’s suffering, Unamuno exalts in it.  Revels in it.  Uses our will to be as the trumpet note in a stirring call to life.  The only reason life is worth living, he suggests, is because we want to be ourselves.

Yet as I recently wrote, the social media manifesto for our new era moves us in the other direction:   who we are is no longer a matter for exploration or development – no longer an active process – but a passive one.  Our social media will tell us who we are, allowing us to “outsource the production of one’s own subjectivity” to our friends and the algorithms that organize our networks.  Continue reading The pseudo-modern death wish

Wait, we cured depression?

Charles Barber writes in Salon that we now live in the Age of Trauma.

Every era has a particular mental disorder, you see, and for 21st century America that disorder is PTSD.  He writes:

“(T)he appropriate diagnosis of the last decade — since Sept. 11, 2001, to be exact — may be PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course legions of American soldiers have received the diagnosis, and enormous resources, appropriately, have gone into its treatment. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 30 percent of the more than 800,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated in veterans’ hospitals and clinics are diagnosed with PTSD.

But in the past 10 years, even non-veterans have been engaged in an ongoing narrative of American trauma. After 9/11 came Katrina, then the economic meltdown and the recession that never seems to end. This past year saw Sandy followed by Newtown. Along the way there’s been the mass killings at Virginia Tech, at Northern Illinois University, and in a Colorado movie theater. There also seems to be a deepening sense that one can never fully escape from potential catastrophe, not on a Boston street on a promising spring day or in a Connecticut elementary school a few weeks before Christmas.

In the popular perception, the locus, both psychologically and geographically, of the tragedies has shifted. They’ve gone from being “out there” — in, say, the remote parts of the South or West, or the inner cities — to “right here,” in respectable, suburban America. The latest chapter is the bombing in Boston, with its indelible images — the 70-year-old runner laid out on the ground; the impossibly innocent smiling face of the 8-year-old boy who was killed. And it further cements post-traumatic stress in the popular psyche and lexicon in a similar way in which depression, bipolar disorder and ADD — and the drugs to treat them — were popularized in earlier eras.”

I’m quite sympathetic to the idea that every era can be known by its particular form of mental disorder – although for my money we’re still in the “Age of Anxiety.”  While Barber is right to say that trauma is being “normalized” in America, I still see far, far, more people experiencing existential anxiety than I do even mild forms of PTSD.  We want to know if we’re doing the right thing, and how we’d know that.  We want to know if we’ll hold on to our economic life and our social capital far more than we want to know we’ll live to see next year.  The question America wants answered isn’t “Am I safe,” but “Am I okay?”  That’s anxiety.

But the thing that really astonishes me is what comes next, where Barber writes:  “Yes, PTSD is the reigning diagnosis of the day. But unlike other diagnoses in other eras, there is no clear drug and no definitive way of treating PTSD.”

Wait … we had a definitive cure for depression?  And nobody told me? Continue reading Wait, we cured depression?

Let’s map the cracks in reality!

William Eggington has an essay in the New York Times’ “The Stone” blog about the way in which Borges and Kant(among others) prefigured the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Now that’s not supposed to happen.  You’re not supposed to be able to predict the world through theory, philosophy, and imagination – but Kant and others clearly did it, and it’s been commented many times (so many as to be an unfortunate trope) that quantum mechanics is predicted to a startling detail by Buddhist and Hindu epistemology.

He quotes Borges:  “(W)e have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it resistant, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and firm in time; but we have left in its architecture tenuous and eternal interstices of unreason, so that we know it is false.”

We are always observing the world, Eggington notes, as subjective beings who piece together evidence that we pick-and-choose – and this creates cracks in the world, ones that philosophers and artists are often far ahead of scientists at mapping.

The problem of accurately observing the world is one that science has profitably ignored in order to make advances – but it has also mistakenly come to believe that those very advances have also solved the problem of accurately observing the world.  Yet nothing could be less true.  Continue reading Let’s map the cracks in reality!

Absurd research suggests that atheists aren’t really atheists

To say that modern psychology is ill-suited to studying the religious mind is much like acknowledging that an ape can play the accordion, but that you wouldn’t want him to be the only entertainment at your Bar Mitsvah.

Religion generally involves the search for the transcendent, while most contemporary psychology is searching for an easily diagnosable symptom.  The actual thoughts and feelings of believers usually count for nothing in this approach, because what do they know?  They’re only subjects.

Normally this means a great deal of stupid research is published about the religious, but bad research mindsets are a two-way street.  This week it’s atheists getting run over.

According to research published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, atheists actually don’t know how much they really believe in God.  Their thoughts and feelings on the matter, of course, are not considered evidence. Continue reading Absurd research suggests that atheists aren’t really atheists

Kids reveal the dardnest epistomological assumptions

The research on comparative cultural parenting is fascinating – and humbling, once you realize just how deeply your assumptions about the world can color what you see of it.

Let me quote at some length (bobbing in and out of paragraphs) from a great blot post in Slate about the work of researcher Sara Harkness:

If you look just at the words parents use to describe their children, you can almost always predict where you are in the world. In other words, your most personal observations of your child are actually cultural constructions. In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as “cognitively advanced.” (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and “simpatico.” So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence. The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different.

The Dutch liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.) The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness. And the Americans talked a lot about intelligence. Intelligence is Americans’ answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment—to give their children a developmental boost. From deep inside the belly of American parenthood, this is so obvious it isn’t even an observation. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is.

All this worries Harkness. “We’re on the verge of trying to export very ethnocentric ideas about what competencies children need to develop at a very early age, which is really unfortunate,” she says. “The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.” Continue reading Kids reveal the dardnest epistomological assumptions

A billion people shouldn’t have this much trouble settling in love

Read The Atlantic Article about “Budget Wives” in China just after reading  Anne Lamott’s review of a year on Match.com if you want to get a sense for what “settling” for a relationship means in the modern world.

To set your sights too high is not to dream big but to dream stupidly, according to what The Atlantic says is a growing movement in China:

The word “budget husband” originates from the word “budget housing” (jingji shiyong fang), government subsidized public housing for low-income households. As the name implies, budget husbands’ economic power trails that of “diamond husbands” — intelligent, educated, rich, and well-mannered men from respectable families. Nonetheless, a budget husband is, according to Baidu, the new ideal among Chinese female white-collar workers.

One of the main characteristics of a budget husband is that he be “normal.” Not ugly but not too handsome; neither poor nor rich. In short: mediocre.

But this mediocrity promises stability. Budget husbands are reliable, both financially and emotionally. They will loyally stay at home and take care of the house; they will not go out to bars or have extramarital affairs.

It seems like landing a mediocre spouse who you can tolerate should be an achievable goal.  But instead it’s become the gold standard. Continue reading A billion people shouldn’t have this much trouble settling in love