Category Archives: Motivation

New research finds altruism and cooperation among humans may have emerged from prehistoric warfare

The New York Times reports:

Compared with other species, humans are highly cooperative and altruistic, at least toward members of their own group. Evolutionary biologists have been hard pressed to account for this self-sacrificing behavior, given that an altruist who works for the benefit of others will have less time for his family’s interests and leave fewer surviving children. Genes for altruistic behavior should therefore disappear…

Warfare “may have contributed to the spread of human altruism,” [economist Samuel Bowles] and his colleague Herbert Gintis write in their new book, “A Cooperative Species”(Princeton, 2011). “We initially recoiled at this unpleasant and surprising conclusion. But the simulations and the data on prehistoric warfare tell a convincing story.”

Archaeology lends some support to the idea. “Groups that successfully organize themselves to raid others will acquire external resources and, in the long run, will be at a selective advantage against groups that are less well organized,” [archeologists Charles Stanish and Abigail Levine] write of their findings in the Central Andes.

Study finds exposure to image of U. S. flag affected subjects’ political affiliation

Discover Magazine reports:

the star-spangled banner is more than a symbol; it can also influence minds in unexpected ways. Travis Carter from the University of Chicago has found that when people think about voting decisions, the mere sight of the American flag can subtly shift their political views… towards Republicanism.  It’s an effect that holds in both Democrats and Republicans, it affects actual votes, and it lasts for at least 8 months.

Interpersonal aggression seems to be a function of one’s social status, new study finds

The Los Angeles Times reports:

A paper released Tuesday in the American Sociological Review [found] that the more central you are to your school’s social network, the more aggressive you are as well — unless you’re at the top of the heap, in which case you’re more likely to give your peers a break.

“By and large, status increases aggression, until you get to the very top,” said the study’s lead author, UC Davis sociologist Robert Faris. “When kids become more popular, later on they become more aggressive.”

Faris’ article is available online here (PDF).

Women find happy men less attractive, new study suggests

Science Daily reports:

Women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men, according to a new University of British Columbia study that helps to explain the enduring allure of “bad boys” and other iconic gender types…

Very few studies have explored the relationship between emotions and attraction, and this is the first to report a significant gender difference in the attractiveness of smiles…

The article, by Tracy & Beall, is available online here (PDF).

Classic book: “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger

Recently, a self-described evangelical preacher named Harold Camping received much media attention after predicting that, in line with his interpretation of the Christian Bible, the world would end on May 21. (As far as I can tell, the world’s still here). I’ve long had an interest in apocalyptic cults because of the incredible complexity with which members of such social groups look at the world – psychologically speaking, they’re fascinating.

It’s no surprise, then, that such group have received much scholarly attention over the years. One work stands out – When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. First published in 1956, When Prophecy Fails tells the story of Dorothy Martin, a Chicago homemaker who claimed to receive telepathic messages from the alien planet Clarion warning that the Earth would end on December 21, 1954. Led by Martin, a group of followers gave up their possessions, jobs, and family ties to follow Martin, who told her group that ‘true believers’ in the aliens’ warning would be evacuated from Earth a few hours before the end via flying saucer.

Festinger, the lead researcher and a social psychologist at the U. of Minnesota (later, he moved on to Stanford), used the Martin group as a case study of his theory of cognitive dissonance, which argued that humans tend to generate belief systems and worldviews that conform to their actual behaviors in order to reduce the dissonance – or conflict – caused by holding incompatible beliefs simultaneously. In the case of the Martin UFO group, after the world did not end (and they were not saved by a flying saucer), only some members of the group abandoned Martin. Others came to believe that their actions (spreading the word about the impending end of the world) actually caused the end to NOT happen – that is, rather than concluding that they had accepted a mistaken belief, many of Martin’s followers instead concluded that the end would have happened but for their actions.

When Prophecy Fails was recently reprinted and is available from various booksellers, including Amazon.

The “science of self-delusion”


Update: My original post omitted the link to Mother Jones’ article. Sorry for any confusion. —MGS

Mother Jones Magazine reports:

An array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

Teenagers in a group are more prone to risk-taking

The New York Times reports:

In studies at Temple University, psychologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there are differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone versus with their friends. The findings suggest that teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.