“The Dark Side of Smart” By Diana Fleischman [Nautilus]

“The Dark Side of Smart

Diana Fleischman
Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, writing and living while on sabbatical in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @sentientist.


Manipulative communication surrounds us. With misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, “cheap” and “deep” fakes of elected officials, and targeted ads and emotionally exploitative social media algorithms, it can begin to feel like all communication is manipulation.

Well, as it turns out, this is the thesis of an influential paper by evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and John Krebs. The cynicism behind this statement can make many people uncomfortable. When we think about communicating, we tend to think about our own thoughts and feelings rather than how we might be influencing others. One major reason an evolutionary perspective on our own behavior can be so confronting is that it doesn’t take our word for why we do things. It looks at how what we do influences the two core currencies of life on earth, survival and reproduction.


When minds start to figure out other minds, a lot of cognitive power gets built up that can be used for other things. Consider one of the groundbreaking insights in evolution in the last few decades, the idea of the “extended phenotype.” Evolution isn’t just acting on an individual’s characteristics but the way it interacts with the environment—including other minds. Evolution is selecting not just on the teeth and tail and claws of a beaver, but also on how well its dam keeps out water. Not just the bees’ wings and bodies but also the structure of their hive.


Hold on a minute you might be saying to yourself—you evolutionary people are so cynical—didn’t we also get smart to cooperate? Perhaps, to some degree. But research suggests intelligence has been a lot more important, especially for theory of mind for competition, than for cooperation. Evolutionary models, for example, have shown that competition promotes the ability to think about other minds more strongly than cooperation. And studies have shown that areas of the brain related to thinking about other minds are activated more by competition than cooperation.


Human intelligence is incredibly useful but it doesn’t safeguard you against having false beliefs, because that’s not what intelligence is for. Intelligence is associated with coming up with more convincing bullshit and with being a better liar, but not associated with a better ability to recognize one’s own bias. Unfortunately, intelligence has very little influence on your ability to rationally evaluate your own beliefs, or undermine what’s called “myside bias.”

The dark side of smart is that whenever we do good works, and cooperate, we draw from our manipulative past. The even darker side of smart is that competition doesn’t just select an ability to manipulate but also an adaptive ability to be unpredictable. And one of the best ways to be unpredictable is to not know yourself. So we have evolution to thank for shielding us from complete self-knowledge. As a result, most of our own minds are shrouded in darkness. Perhaps that’s for the best. We might not like what we’d see.”

“Politics is visceral” By Manos Tsakiris [Aeon]

“Politics is visceral

In an age thick with anger and fear, we might dream of a purely rational politics but it would be a denial of our humanity

Manos Tsakiris

is professor of psychology at Royal Holloway University of London. His research investigates the neural and cognitive mechanisms of self-awareness and social cognition. He is the co-editor with Helena De Preester of The Interoceptive Mind: From Homeostasis to Awareness (2018).


We live in bodies that feel increasingly unsafe. Pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, systemic racism, the pressures of gig-economy jobs, the crisis of liberal democracy – these phenomena create feelings of vulnerability that are, quite literally, visceral. They’re visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs – from our guts and lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.


The answer from what I call ‘visceral politics’ emerges out of a historically novel scientific understanding of the human being, not so much as a rational creature, but as a primarily embodied and affective one. Visceral politics lies at the intersection of the body’s physiology and political behaviour. It’s informed by aligning the life sciences, social sciences and humanities to provide insights into how human emotions are created and experienced. It takes on board the visceral underpinnings of human nature, their importance for our physical and mental wellbeing, and the interdependence between the individual and society. It also captures the ways in which our emotions shape our needs and decisions and, in turn, how sociopolitical forces recruit or exploit physiology to influence behaviour.


But while feelings are key drivers of human behaviour, democratic political theory has focused on reason and rationality as means of taming emotions. The present conditions therefore offer new possibilities for understanding the sociopolitical significance of visceral states, and showing how emotions and their physiological origins are as essential to decision-making as logical reasoning. Looking at the specific ways in which human physiology interacts with contemporary politics might help to account for why the world now feels the way it does.

We live in bodies that feel increasingly unsafe. Pandemics, climate change, sexual assault, systemic racism, the pressures of gig-economy jobs, the crisis of liberal democracy – these phenomena create feelings of vulnerability that are, quite literally, visceral. They’re visceral in the sense that emotional experience arises from how our physiological organs – from our guts and lungs to our hearts and hormonal systems – respond to an everchanging world. They’re also political, in that our feelings affect and are affected by political decisions and behaviour.

It’s not surprising, then, that political language has become saturated with emotion. Whether one calls the present era a time of anxiety, fear or anger, visceral states and feelings appear at the forefront of the political conversation. This is hard to square with Aristotle’s claim that human beings are ‘naturally rational’ creatures – ‘political animals’ who could flourish only within a political community or ‘polis’. The polis, as Aristotle wrote in Politics, ‘comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life’. The different ways of organising the polis to promote the good life, and disagreements about the best way to do so, create the concept of politics as we know it. So, in the 21st century of ‘emo-cratic’ politics, what does it mean to be a ‘political animal’, and what counts as a ‘good life’?

The answer from what I call ‘visceral politics’ emerges out of a historically novel scientific understanding of the human being, not so much as a rational creature, but as a primarily embodied and affective one. Visceral politics lies at the intersection of the body’s physiology and political behaviour. It’s informed by aligning the life sciences, social sciences and humanities to provide insights into how human emotions are created and experienced. It takes on board the visceral underpinnings of human nature, their importance for our physical and mental wellbeing, and the interdependence between the individual and society. It also captures the ways in which our emotions shape our needs and decisions and, in turn, how sociopolitical forces recruit or exploit physiology to influence behaviour.

None of this means that visceral politics is new; in some sense, politics has always been visceral. Our bodily states and the way we regulate them explain much about why political and social structures look the way they do. The Hobbesian idea that government exists in order to keep citizens safe from their own worst impulses, for example, can be read as a response to the extremes of how humans express their emotions. But while feelings are key drivers of human behaviour, democratic political theory has focused on reason and rationality as means of taming emotions. The present conditions therefore offer new possibilities for understanding the sociopolitical significance of visceral states, and showing how emotions and their physiological origins are as essential to decision-making as logical reasoning. Looking at the specific ways in which human physiology interacts with contemporary politics might help to account for why the world now feels the way it does.

Humans are biological organisms that first and foremost have to deal with the problem of survival. The key way that organisms stay alive is by homeostasis – the maintenance of stability by keeping the body’s processes within a ‘margin of safety’ that sustains life and wellbeing. For example, homeostasis involves the regulation of temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, as well as hunger and satiety. But it’s inefficient and dangerous for the brain to simply wait around passively for these physical cycles to drop into the danger zone. Rather, it tries to predict the future states of the body, with the aim of achieving dynamic regulation. For example, in anticipation of a stressful situation, the body will change its blood pressure, metabolism and hormonal levels to meet those needs before they arise. In other words, the brain strives to predictively adjust bodily states in response to actual and expected demands. This constant calibration is known as allostasis, the process of achieving stability (homeostasis) through physiological or behavioural change.


Where do emotions fit into this picture? As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggested, they serve as mental representations of bodily states, which allow us to perform feats of self-regulation. Emotions are a kind of inference, prediction or ‘best guess’ about how and why the world makes us feel the way it does. They are often much quicker and more effective at helping us achieve allostasis than laborious, consciously ‘rational’ calculations. For example, an event such as a shouting voice will elicit physiological arousal, which we might interpret mentally as a feeling of fear or a feeling of anger. The experience of fear or anger is what then pushes us to act, perhaps by running away or attacking, which should restore a sense of safety.


The social world is a key part of an organism’s environment and has a significant effect on its cognitive function and wellbeing. Human newborns are incapable of maintaining homeostasis by themselves, and must rely on carers to do so on their behalf. Even as we grow into independence, allostatic regulation remains dependent on social relations throughout our lives. On an even more radical view, the brain evolved not just to keep our body safely ‘within budget’, but primarily in order to regulate it within a social context. By becoming aware of our feelings, we are able to communicate them to one another – and through shared experience, to regulate ourselves as a society.

One way of looking at 20th-century politics, then, is to see it as a way of creating conditions in which people’s bodies and minds could remain within a ‘margin of safety’. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the welfare state and the judicial system, institutions and norms socially regulate human behaviour. They allow people to infer how the social world will make them and others feel, and so predict how to act themselves. Strikingly, the notion that human health involves a constant challenge to preserve the body’s equilibrium and integrity re-emerged after the tumult of the First World War, when Western policymakers revived the ancient ‘body politic’ metaphor, as the historian Stefanos Geroulanos and the anthropologist Todd Meyers have explained.

The view that state or polity is a kind of organic entity, whose members themselves have bodily needs, had a marked influence on social sciences and the development of welfare states. The Beveridge Report (1942), which set the foundations for the social welfare system in the United Kingdom, described ‘a new alliance of the state and the individual where each cared for the other’s body’, as Geroulanos and Meyers write. Western societies, as they recovered from two world wars, made the maintenance of bodily health an object of state action via the vehicle of the welfare state. The German physician and anthropologist Rudolf Virchow, one of the fathers of social medicine, had anticipated this when he observed in 1848 that ‘medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale’.

Modern life is at risk of rolling back these advances to human wellbeing, which were already unevenly distributed. Since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the United States and the UK have shown stagnating or declining life expectancy, partly attributed to premature deaths caused by ‘diseases of despair’ such as suicidal depression and substance addiction. In parallel, the worldwide burden of mental disorders has increased by 31.6 per cent between 1990 and 2007, and by a further 13.5 per cent between 2007 and 2017. Depression remains one of the three leading causes of the global burden of disease. In 2017, eight in 10 Americans said that they often encounter stress in their daily lives. Six in 10 find the current political climate to be a source of stress, and seven in 10 identify the cost of healthcare as a significant source of stress. Decreases in social trust and cohesion, increases in political polarisation, as well as uncertainty about financial stability and health, have all contributed to rising levels of chronic stress and ill health.

What matters here is not just the fact that we inhabit a world in crisis. It’s that we ‘live in a world where the language of crisis has become the most common way of representing a series of situations we face’, as the French anthropologist Didier Fassin has observed. The ubiquity of this language, he says, ‘tells us something about the actuality and the imaginary of contemporary societies’. The way we subjectively experience these feelings of uncertainty and crisis has a tangible effect on political animals of the 21st century. It places us in a state of ‘allostatic load’ – a constant state of accumulated high stress that comes from desperately trying to keep the body within its homeostatic safe zone. This exposure to chronic or repeated challenges, which the individual experiences as stressful, eventually wears out the body and brain. If one of the key functions of the brain is to serve the body by maintaining a healthy body budget, then chronic stress burns through cash. Without a healthy balance sheet, our options narrow as our organism can no longer rely on its increasingly depleted reserves. As a consequence, we lose our ability to flexibly regulate our bodies, and this loss contributes to poor health, emotional dysregulation and cognitive decline – a vicious cycle that exacerbates the conditions that promoted allostatic load in the first place. The strikingly increased prevalence of hypertension among African Americans compared with other Americans can’t be accounted for by genetic differences; instead, they reflect the sociopolitical tensions that such groups experience.

The fact that the human body and the body politic are intertwined means that systematically depleting our body budget has far-reaching consequences. For example, insufficient sleep isn’t just a private matter, but also affects political engagement such as citizens’ willingness to vote, to sign petitions and to donate to charities. Relatedly, a major study spanning 170 countries between 1980 and 2016 showed that the presence of democratic governance explains more than does GDP the variations in mortality for cardiovascular diseases, transport injuries, cancers, cirrhosis and other non-communicable diseases. Several empirical studies also show that population-level epidemiological profiles of infectious diseases can structure individual-level psychological preferences for authoritarianism as well as authoritarian governance.

The political animals of 21st-century Western democracies seem ever more homeostatically and affectively dysregulated. Concerns about healthcare and financial stability consistently rank among the highest causes of stress. Our world is also one of increased informational uncertainty, driven by an ecosystem of 24/7 informational overdose and pervasive social media platforms that often breed fake news and belief polarisation. Under such conditions, our visceral states come to the forefront, and manifest themselves as powerful but dysregulated emotions. It’s against this background that we must understand how our affective needs and visceral expressions have come to dominate sociopolitical life.

Crucially, we can now account for the dynamics of visceral politics because of three important parallel developments in the study of history, political science and neuroscience. Historians in recent years have placed a fresh emphasis on the study of the emotions, where these are not cast as mere consequences or byproducts of historical events, but as active drivers or causes in their own right. Similarly, after a long period of inattention towards emotions, there has been an increased interest within the political sciences in how emotions influence political behaviour. Finally, advances in social and affective neuroscience now allow us to study emotion from the ‘inside-out’, in that we can attend directly to the physiological and neural processes that are correlated with particular feelings.


It’s vital to understand how physiological states, coupled with individual differences in political attitudes, might predispose some people to experience anger in a given sociopolitical context, while others might experience fear or anxiety. Moreover, the very question of what precise emotions people are actually experiencing remains empirically underinvestigated or, at best, naively researched. There is an unwritten assumption in political life that people know what they want, or at least that politicians can persuade people about what they want. How would a political life play out that includes the idea that people might not know what they want, because they might not know what they feel? What would politics look like if it encompassed this emotional, affective domain?”


 Thus, the emotion we use to interpret a physiological state of anxiety, and so to make inferences, can have distinct effects on political behaviour. Fear might lead people to seek a less dominant and more trustworthy leader, while anger might result in the opposite pattern. Therefore, social processes of affect-labelling, which catalyse the social construction of emotion, can influence the meaning we ascribe to our physiological states – and possibly explain the emotional microclimates of different social groups.


Politics is visceral in at least two ways. It is visceral in the sense that our unsafe bodies drive our politics. The rise of visceral politics of this kind might reflect the failure of our socioeconomic system to take care of our brittle bodies, and its failure to enable us to accurately infer our physiological states and how the world makes us feel. But there is also another way in which we can think of visceral politics. They are visceral in the sense that our politics should make our bodies feel safe, and empower us to tolerate and explore the inherent uncertainty of the human condition. We witness the dominance of the former, but we should strive for the rise of the latter.”

Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory By Daniel C. Dennett [On The WEIRDest People in the World By Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)]

“Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory

According to Joseph Henrich’s book, it was the advent of Protestantism, aided by the invention of the printing press, that brought along the spread of literacy and altered the workings of our brains.

By Daniel C. Dennett

Sept. 12, 2020

How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
By Joseph Henrich


The world today has billions of inhabitants who have minds strikingly different from ours. Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically, believe in free will, take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed. Right? They (the non-WEIRD majority) identify more strongly with family, tribe, clan and ethnic group, think more “holistically,” take responsibility for what their group does (and publicly punish those who besmirch the group’s honor), feel shame — not guilt — when they misbehave and think nepotism is a natural duty.


WEIRD folk are the more recent development, growing out of the innovation of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the birth of states and organized religions about 3,000 years ago, then becoming “proto-WEIRD” over the last 1,500 years (thanks to the prohibition on marrying one’s cousin), culminating in the biologically sudden arrival of science, industry and the “modern” world during the last 500 years or so. WEIRD minds evolved by natural selection, but not by genetic selection; they evolved by the natural selection of cultural practices and other culturally transmitted items.

Henrich is an anthropologist at Harvard. He and his colleagues first described the WEIRD mind in a critique of all the work in human psychology (and the social sciences more generally) built on experimental subjects almost exclusively composed of undergraduates — or the children of academics and others who live near universities. The results obtained drawing on this conveniently available set of “normal” people were assumed by almost all researchers to be universal features of human nature, the human brain, the human emotional system. But when attempts were made to replicate the experiments with people in other countries, not just illiterate hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but the elites in Asian countries, for instance, it was shown in many cases that the subject pool of the original work had been hugely biased from the outset.

One of the first lessons that must be learned from this important book is that the WEIRD mind is real; all future investigation of “human nature” must be complicated by casting a wider net for subjects, and we must stop assuming that our ways are “universal.” Offhand, I cannot think of many researchers who haven’t tacitly adopted some dubious universalist assumptions. I certainly have. We will all have to change our perspective.


This is an extraordinarily ambitious book, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which gets a brief and respectful mention, but going much farther, and bolstering the argument at every point with evidence gathered by Henrich’s “lab,” with dozens of collaborators, and wielding data points from world history, anthropology, economics, game theory, psychology and biology, all knit together with “statistical razzle-dazzle” when everyday statistics is unable to distinguish signal from noise. The endnotes and bibliography take up over 150 pages and include a fascinating range of discussions.


This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.”

“What’s Behind Humanity’s Love-Hate Relationship With Exercise?” – By Marina Krakovsky [Sapiens]

What’s Behind Humanity’s Love-Hate Relationship With Exercise?

Evolutionary history can help resolve the question of why so many people desire a physical break even when their bodies need movement.

By Marina Krakovsky



“What is it about human nature that pulls people to the chair or the couch when they’d be better off moving on their feet? The resolution to this paradox lies in evolutionary history, says David Raichlen, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California.

Raichlen is one of several anthropologists studying how the evolutionary history of the human body shapes health today. In 2012, for example, he and his colleagues published findings from an experimental examination of the runner’s high, the experience of euphoria that some people report during aerobic exercise.

The experiments compared levels of particular feel-good chemicals—called endocannabinoids—in the brains of humans and two other species before and after treadmill exercise. Raichlen and his colleagues found significantly higher endocannabinoid levels in humans and dogs—but not ferrets—following this high-intensity activity. This finding is revealing because humans and dogs evolved to need endurance for hunting food and ferrets did not. The runner’s high could therefore be evolutionarily advantageous to some species, helping creatures run for longer distances to hunt for food despite the high energy costs of running.

In his quest to understand human health, Raichlen also does fieldwork with Tanzania’s Hadza people, a contemporary hunter-gatherer tribe. This community attracts scholars in part because the Hadza way of life resembles that of hunter-gatherers who lived prior to the development of agriculture in many societies some 10,000 years ago. The Hadza, Raichlen notes with affection, are “super-wonderful people,” and studying them could offer clues to what life was like for hunter-gatherers in the past.


Research on the Hadza certainly supports the idea that physical activity benefits health. For example, Hadza are more susceptible to deadly infections than people in industrialized societies because of differences in hygiene and medical care. Yet those Hadza who survive these dangers tend to live long and healthy lives because they are far less prone than people in industrialized societies to what public health experts call “lifestyle diseases,” such as obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. In fact, research shows that increasing one’s physical activity reduces the risk of developing these chronic diseases.


Like the sweet tooth at a time when calories are abundant, the need for much more physical activity than many people get is an evolutionary mismatch between human physiology and the present environment.


“The whole point of life is turning energy into kids—that’s evolution,” says Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who frequently collaborates with Raichlen, including on the study of rest.

“Natural selection favors any strategy that makes you better at turning energy in your environment into offspring,” Pontzer says. Resting is part of such a strategy: In an energy-scarce environment, a strong drive to burn calories when you didn’t have to would have died out through natural selection.


Though not through conscious choice, sedentary Americans and physically active Hadza both follow this rule. “Our desire to rest is as strong as it’s ever been,” Raichlen says. This desire, he adds, often overcomes the choice to exercise. When you take away the need to move and make exercise a choice, as our current environment has done, he adds, “it takes a lot of motivation to do it.”


Unfortunately, people who live more sedentary lives can’t expect their bodies to adapt to that new mode any time soon. For one thing, in the time scale of human evolutionary history, “even a thousand years is the blink of an eye,” Pontzer says. “The other thing to understand,” he adds, “is that a lot of [lifestyle] diseases don’t kick in until after you’ve had your kids.”

“Non-partisan brains differ from those of partisans | Non-partisans are real, and their lack of partisanship has a cognitive element” [Big Think]

“Non-partisan brains differ from those of partisans

Non-partisans are real, and their lack of partisanship has a cognitive element.

21 August, 2020


A new study suggests that the brains of non-partisans function differently than those of partisans.
Blood flow to regions associated with problem solving differed between the two groups.
The findings may lead to further research in how differences in brain activity affect personality.
Despite the repeated claims of those without party affiliations, the belief that non-partisans don’t actually exist is widespread. Proponents of this stance argue that those who claim to be non-partisans are merely partisans who don’t want to be outed.

A new study offers a strong counterpoint to these commentators; it suggests that the brains of non-partisans function differently than the brains of partisans.

Some people just really don’t want to join political clubs. Go figure.

The study, published in The Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties as “Neural Nonpartisans,” looked at blood flow in the brains of partisans and non-partisans as they played a betting game. The test subjects, all of which were from San Diego County, had their brains scanned as they decided between options with guaranteed payoffs or ones with the chance to lose or gain money. The results were later compared to their voter registrations to confirm their partisanship or lack thereof.

The brain scans demonstrated that blood flow to the right medial temporal pole, orbitofrontal/medial prefrontal cortex, and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex differs between partisans and non-partisans as they made decisions in the previously mentioned game. These regions are associated with socially relevant memory, decision making, and goal-related responses. Previous studies have also shown them to be essential for social connections.

This demonstrates that the brains of non-partisans approach non-political problems differently than the brains of partisans. Future studies may go further, and see if other brain functions differ between the two groups.

The study is not without limitations; there were a mere 110 test subjects overall. However, given the general lack of research on non-partisans, the study is still an excellent starting point for further research.

What does this mean for politics?

Lead author Dr. Darren Schreiber laid out his interpretation of the data and offered takeaways:

“There is skepticism about the existence of non-partisan voters, that they are just people who don’t want to state their preferences. But we have shown their brain activity is different, even aside from politics. We think this has important implications for political campaigning – non-partisans need to be considered a third voter group. In the USA 40 percent of people are thought to be non-partisan voters. Previous research shows negative campaigning deters them from voting. This exploratory study suggests US politicians need to treat swing voters differently, and positive campaigning may be important in winning their support. While heated rhetoric may appeal to a party’s base, it can drive non-partisans away from politics all together.”

He references a variety of studies on the effects of negative campaigning. It is widely agreed that it drives down turnout.

A variety of studies suggest that differences in political opinion relate to the differences in the brain. While these studies can’t tell us how to solve our various political problems, they can offer us ways to help bridge the gap. People who don’t leap at the opportunity to join political clubs must be interreacted with differently than those who do to encourage their involvement. While this may come as a shock to seasoned political junkies, it may also come with benefits to our political discourse.”

“Our Big Fight Over Nothing: The Political Spectrum Does Not Exist” By Hyrum Lewis

“Our Big Fight Over Nothing: The Political Spectrum Does Not Exist

Hyrum Lewis

Hyrum Lewis is a professor of history at Brigham Young University-Idaho and has held visiting positions at Stanford University and Skidmore College. He has previously published books and articles on the history of ideology and the philosophy of religion.

June 12, 2020


One of the real tragedies of contemporary politics is that our most bitter disagreements are about something that doesn’t even exist—the political spectrum. Left and right are entirely tribal designations and have no unifying philosophy or principle behind them that can be represented on a unidimensional spectrum.

This may sound like an absurd claim, but before rejecting out of hand, consider that the political spectrum rests on an essentialist theory of ideology that has been soundly falsified. The essentialist theory says that, although it may seem that there are many distinct political issues in politics, there is actually just one big issue—an underlying essence that ties them all together (e.g., change vs. preservation, equality vs. freedom, order vs. liberty, realism vs. idealism, etc.). If politics is unidimensional (about one essential issue), then a unidimensional political spectrum is adequate to represent politics.

An alternative to this essentialist theory is the “social theory” of ideology, which says that distinct political positions correlate because they are bound by a unifying tribe. If the right-wing team is currently in favor of tax cuts and opposed to abortion, then those who identify with that team will adopt those positions as a matter of social conformity, not because both are expressions of some underlying principle. If the social theory is correct, the political spectrum is of little use because there is no single essence; instead there are many unrelated political issues and therefore many political dimensions.


I understand why so many of us want to believe in the political spectrum—it makes politics simple and gives us the illusion that our party’s beliefs have an underlying (and righteous) philosophical coherence—but it’s time to face up to the facts. “Right-wing” and “left-wing” are little more than tribal designations. Shedding our jerseys might help us become more rational, more humble, less tribal, and ultimately, more open-minded when it comes to public issues.”

“Estudo mostra que pessoas com viés político são mais suscetíveis a fake news” [O Globo]

“Estudo mostra que pessoas com viés político são mais suscetíveis a fake news

05/07/2020 • 07:00


Suzana Correa

Um estudo brasileiro inédito que será publicado no Journal of American Politics, a partir de experimento realizado nas eleições presidenciais de 2018, pode acabar com o mito de que quem acredita em fake news é a “tia do zap”. Os pesquisadores mostram que quem mais confia em boato falso são os que já têm time definido no jogo político. E o desejo de eleitores de concluir aquilo que é sugerido por suas filiações partidárias reduz a eficácia da checagem de informações.

— Escolaridade, nível intelectual, sexo e idade não têm relação com o quanto se acredita em fake news. Mais que mexer com eleitor médio, elas reforçam crenças de quem já tem posição política e intensificam preconceitos, opiniões e valores — diz Felipe Nunes, um dos autores da pesquisa, professor da Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) e diretor da consultoria Quaest.

O experimento indica que expor os eleitores a esclarecimentos da própria vítima do falso rumor não funciona. Apresentar a checagem de veículo de grande porte é mais eficaz. O estudo, chamado “Raciocínio motivado sem partidarismo? Fake news nas eleições brasileiras de 2018”, mostrou petistas e anti-petistas como os mais suscetíveis a acreditarem em fake news sobre o PT, negativas ou positivas.

A boa notícia é que apenas cerca de 30% dos entrevistados no experimento brasileiro acreditavam nas fake news. A proporção é menor do que os 43% observados em estudos nos Estados Unidos e outros países. Os pesquisadores acreditam que a identificação partidária no Brasil, considerada fraca e instável, pode contribuir para limitar a disseminação de fake news no país.

— Esse é o principal efeito que produzem numa eleição. É também um mecanismo de reforço da coesão e de mobilização daquele próprio grupo — diz Nunes.

O estudo confirma os impactos do já conhecido “viés de confirmação”, segundo o qual interpretamos ou pesquisamos informações para confirmar crenças e hipóteses que já temos. O fenômeno é investigado pela psicologia social e ciência política desde 1970, mas voltou à moda com o surgimento das redes sociais e fake news.

É este viés que forma nas redes o que os estudiosos chamam de “bolhas” ou “câmaras de eco” partidárias: ao seguir e curtir apenas conteúdo que confirma suas preferências políticas ou morais, o usuário de redes sociais como Facebook ou Twitter “treina”, involuntariamente, os algoritmos da rede a mostrarem cada vez mais informações que corroboram suas crenças.

Nestes ambientes, as fake news são mais aceitas como verdade e compartilhadas, porque confirmam a visão positiva sobre o partido do usuário — ou negativa sobre aquele que odeia — e que se torna predominante ali.

— O experimento mostra que o senso comum de que os menos escolarizados seriam os mais propensos a serem afetados por fake news é mentira. O que realmente afeta é a posição política da pessoa e isso só acontece porque hoje quase ninguém usa informação para atualizar o que sabe, mas para confirmar o que já acredita — conclui Nunes.”

“Neuroscience has much to learn from Hume’s philosophy of emotions” By Richard C. Shais [Psyche]

“Neuroscience has much to learn from Hume’s philosophy of emotions


Richard C. Shais professor of literature and an affiliate professor of philosophy, as well as an affiliate of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, all at the American University in Washington, DC. His books include Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1830 (2009) and Imagination and Science in Romanticism (2018).

We are in the midst of a second Humean revolution. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that: ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions …’ By ‘passions’, Hume meant what we now call emotions. What gave him such faith in the passions that he could accept reason’s enslavement to them? Hume understood reason to be incapable of producing any action, and the passions to be the source of our motivations. So he insisted that we must attend to the passions if we want to understand how anything gets done. Much recent neuroscience has found that human rationality is weaker than is commonly presumed, and the emotions make it possible to make decisions by granting certain objects salience. Why does this second Humean revolution matter and what, if anything, can the second revolution learn from the first?

By and large, scientists until recently avoided the emotions as too subjective, too imprecisely defined. Yet once Darwinian evolution and neuroscience supported the link of emotion to action, emotions began to gain more attention from scientists. In his book The Strange Order of Things (2018), Antonio Damasio, one of the most influential neuroscientists today, defines the affects and emotions as ‘action programmes’, and by this he connects emotions to homeostasis, the process by which we keep ourselves alive. How better to grant the emotions scientific weight than to make them the key to human survival? Neuroscience also supports a growing recognition of the connections between the brain’s perceptual and motor systems; this has led scholars such as Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, Andy Clark and Shaun Gallagher – ‘enactivists’ who argue that human thought is not brainbound but stems from connections between the mind and body and its environment – to conclude, to varying degrees, that human perceptions are for the purpose of action. Sometimes, however, I just want to look at something, not reduce it to a tool.


Habits consolidate what control we can have of our passions. Hume gives habit pride of place in his moral accounting, but the key here is to continually assess whether we have the right habits, not to passively accept existing habits. ‘Nothing can be more laudable,’ he writes, ‘than to have a value for ourselves, where we really have qualities that are valuable.’ In other words, he asks for empirical evidence of value, not just for our feeling of it. Habits, after all, make it possible to contain violent passions such as anger. Hume insists that ‘when a passion has once become a settled principle of action, and is the predominant inclination of the soul, it commonly produces no longer any sensible agitation’. In this view, habit reduces passion’s agitations, making them manageable.

Hume’s idea that reason serves the passions has in important ways found scientific support. Our rationality serves our passions, and we have less control over the passions than is commonly presumed. By stipulating that reason is the slave of the passions, Hume warns us of the consequences of not having the right habits. When neuroscientists equate emotion and action, it narrows emotion to survival and underestimates the ways in which the emotions can foster deliberation. While neuroscientists set the timescale of the emotions to no more than a few minutes, Hume insists that it will take nothing less than a lifetime to get our emotions right.”

“A Neuroscientist’s Theory of Everything | Karl Friston takes us on a safari of his free-energy principle” [Nautilus]

“A Neuroscientist’s Theory of Everything

Karl Friston takes us on a safari of his free-energy principle.

By Brian Gallagher

June 10, 2020



In “The Free-Energy Principle,” you write the world is uncertain and full of surprises. Action and human perception, you argue, are all about minimizing surprise. Why is it important that things—including us—minimize surprise?

If we minimize surprise now, then on average over time, we’re minimizing the average surprise, which is the average entropy. If a thermostat could have beliefs about what its world is—it might say, “My world is living at 22 degrees centigrade”—so any sensory information from its thermal receptors that departs from that is surprising. It will then act on the world to try and minimize that surprise and bring that prediction error back to zero. Your body’s homeostasis is doing exactly the same thing.

Does the brain minimize surprise in order to conserve energy?

You could certainly say that. But I wouldn’t quite put it like that. It’s not that the brain has a goal to exist. It just exists. It looks as if it has a goal to exist. What does existing mean? It’s always found in that configuration. The brain has to sample the world in a way that it knows what’s going to happen next. If it didn’t, you’d be full of surprises and you’d die.


The Markov blanket helps explain how things can exist—but what is it, exactly?

The Markov blanket is a permeable interface between the inside and the outside, a two-way exchange. Stuff on the outside—the environment, the universe, the heat bath—impacts what’s going on on the inside via the sensory part of the Markov blanket. The Markov blanket has sensory and active states. Stuff on the outside, the external states, influence the blanket’s sensory states, what the blanket senses. And stuff on the inside of the blanket, the internal states, influence the blanket’s active states. The active states close that circle of causality, or, if you like, they disclose what’s going on on the inside by acting on the outside state. With that mathematical construct in place, you can go a lot further than 20th-century physics, which was all about equilibrium statistics and thermodynamics, the kind of physics that you would have been taught in school. Implicit in that is the notion that you’ve got an isolated or a closed system. That implicitly assumed the Markov blanket.


How do Markov blankets help make sense of our inner life?

I have to be clear that I’m speaking as a physicist would, because I’m not a philosopher. That said, there is a representationalist interpretation of the internal states of something with a Markov blanket. You could say that all that matters in terms of sentience, perception, and active inference, is just on the inside. It’s our neuronal activity, say, the internal states that are negotiating dependent upon and influencing the blanket states that comprise our sensory states, our sensory receptors—our sensorium if you like—and ways of changing that sensorium through acting. Like my eyes palpating, sampling the world to get new sensory information. That would mean that it is never going to be the case that you’re going to be able to transparently sample—or know—what is out there, generating those sensory blanket states. You could actually adopt an anti-realist position about external reality. You will never know the difference.


This brings you back to this notion that anything you talk about is really just an explanation for your lived world. It’s the simplest explanation for all of these sensations that I’m getting, in all the modalities that I possess. And it doesn’t have to be true or false. As long as it’s a good-enough explanation that keeps your surprise down and self-evidence nice and high—that’s all it’s required to do. Selfhood in itself now becomes just another explanation. Anything that a philosopher says also succumbs to exactly the same argument, including qualia. These are now reifications of the best explanation for my understanding of my sensory data and my internal view in this inner life. The highest form of consciousness is the philosopher’s brain.


Is the self an illusion?

Well, say you’re a feral child who’s never seen another mammal. There would be no need to have a notion of self. You and the universe would just be one thing. But as soon as you start to notice other things that look like you, a question has to be resolved, “Did you do that or did I do that?” Now you need to have, as part of your generative model, the hypothesis of fantasy, the illusion—which may be absolutely right—that there are other things like me out there, and I need to resolve that. I think the theory of mind on the necessity of encultured brains provides a simple answer as to why we have self. But to come back to your question, I think, yes, selfhood is another really plausible hypothesis for my generative model that provides the best explanation for your sensory exchanges.”

“Social status helped and hindered by the same behaviors and traits worldwide” [University of Texas at Austin/Medical Xpress]

“Social status helped and hindered by the same behaviors and traits worldwide

by University of Texas at Austin



“Humans live in a social world in which relative rank matters for nearly everything—your access to resources, your ability to attract mates, and even how long you live,” said UT Austin evolutionary psychologist David Buss, one of the study’s lead authors. “From an evolutionary perspective, reproductively relevant resources flow to those high in status and trickle slowly, if at all, to those lower on the social totem pole.”

The researchers compared people’s impressions of 240 factors—including acts, characteristics and events—to determine what increased and impaired a person’s esteem in the eyes of others. They found that certain qualities such as being honest, hard-working, kind, intelligent, having a wide range of knowledge, making sacrifices for others, and having a good sense of humor increased a person’s social value.

“From the Gypsies in Romania to the native islanders of Guam, people displaying intelligence, bravery and leadership rise in rank in the eyes of their peers,” said UT Austin psychology graduate student Patrick Durkee, who led the study with Buss. “But possessing qualities that inflict costs on others will cause your status to plummet, whether you live in Russia or Eritrea.”

Being known as a thief, as dirty or unclean, as mean or nasty, acquiring a sexually transmitted disease, and bringing shame on one’s family decreased a person’s social status or value. These status-harming actions can also lead to a person being ostracized from the group—”an action that would have meant near-certain death in ancestral environments,” the researchers said.

“Although this study was conducted prior to the current pandemic, it’s interesting that being a disease vector is universally detrimental to a person’s status,” Buss said. “Socially transmitted diseases are evolutionarily ancient challenges to human survival, so humans have psychological adaptations to avoid them. Lowering a person’s social status is an evolutionarily ancient method of social distancing from disease vectors.”


David M. Buss et al, Human status criteria: Sex differences and similarities across 14 nations., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2020).  

DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000206

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


“Trump, the politics of fear and racism: How our brains can be manipulated to tribalism” by Arash Javanbakht [The Conversation]

“Trump, the politics of fear and racism: How our brains can be manipulated to tribalism

by Arash Javanbakht
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University

The Conversation



Fear is arguably as old as life. It is deeply ingrained in the living organisms that have survived extinction through billions of years of evolution. Its roots are deep in our core psychological and biological being, and it is one of our most intimate feelings. Danger and war are as old as human history, and so are politics and religion.

I am a psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in fear and trauma, and I have some thoughts on how politics, fear and tribalism are intertwined in the current events.

We learn fear from tribe mates

Like other animals, humans can learn fear from experience, such as being attacked by a predator, or witnessing a predator attacking another human. Furthermore, we learn fear by instructions, such as being told there is a predator nearby.

Learning from our tribe mates is an evolutionary advantage that has prevented us from repeating dangerous experiences of other humans. We have a tendency to trust our tribe mates and authorities, especially when it comes to danger. It is adaptive: Parents and wise old men told us not to eat a special plant, or not to go to an area in the woods, or we would be hurt. By trusting them, we would not die like a great-grandfather who died eating that plant. This way, we accumulated knowledge.

Tribalism has been an inherent part of human history, and is closely linked with fear. There has always been competition between groups of humans in different ways and with different faces, from brutal wartime nationalism to a strong loyalty to a football team. Evidence from cultural neuroscience shows that our brains even respond differently at an unconscious level simply to the view of faces from other races or cultures.

At a tribal level, people are more emotional and consequently less logical: Fans of both teams pray for their team to win, hoping God will take sides in a game. On the other hand, we regress to tribalism when afraid. This is an evolutionary advantage that would lead to the group cohesion and help us fight the other tribes to survive.

Tribalism is the biological loophole that many politicians have banked on for a long time: tapping into our fears and tribal instincts. Abuse of fear has killed in many faces: extreme nationalism, Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan and religious tribalism have all led to heartless killing of millions.

The typical pattern is to give the other humans a different label than us, perceive them as less than us, who are going to harm us or our resources, and to turn the other group into a concept. It does not have to necessarily be race or nationality. It can be any real or imaginary difference: liberals, conservatives, Middle Easterners, white men, the right, the left, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sikhs. The list goes on and on.


Fear is uninformed, illogical and often dumb

Very often my patients with phobias start with: “I know it is stupid, but I am afraid of spiders.” Or it may be dogs or cats, or something else. And I always reply: “It is not stupid, it is illogical.” We humans have different functions in the brain, and fear oftentimes bypasses logic. In situations of danger, we ought to be fast: First run or kill, then think.

This human tendency is meat to the politicians who want to exploit fear: If you grew up only around people who look like you, only listened to one media outlet and heard from the old uncle that those who look or think differently hate you and are dangerous, the inherent fear and hatred toward those unseen people is an understandable (but flawed) result.


By scaring us, the demagogues turn on our aggression toward “the others,” whether in the form of vandalizing their temples, harassing them on the social media, of killing them in cold blood.

When demagogues manage to get hold of our fear circuitry, we often regress to illogical, tribal and aggressive human animals, becoming weapons ourselves—weapons that politicians use for their own agenda.

The irony of evolution is that while those attached to tribal ideologies of racism and nationalism perceive themselves as superior to others, in reality they are acting on a more primitive, less evolved and more animal level.”

“How Our Ancient Brains Are Coping in the Age of Digital Distraction” [Discover Magazine]

“How Our Ancient Brains Are Coping in the Age of Digital Distraction

Our species invented the internet. Can we handle the consequences?

By Kenneth Miller

April 20, 2020 10:00 AM



In the public arena, online filters generate bubbles that reinforce our preconceptions and amplify our anger. Brandishing tweets like pitchforks, we’re swept into virtual mobs; some of us move on to violence IRL. Our digitally enhanced tribalism upends political norms and sways elections.


A growing body of research suggests that this conundrum arises from a feature etched into our DNA: our unparalleled hunger to know stuff. “This is an ancient drive that leads to all sorts of complexities in how we interact with the world around us,” says Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.


Yet this wonder’s origins were strikingly humble. About 7 million years ago, hominins — our branch of the primate family tree — began the long transition to walking upright. Bipedalism, or walking on two legs, freed our hands for making and manipulating tools. It also allowed us to walk longer distances, key to our spread beyond Africa’s forests and savannas. “If you look at nonhuman primates, it’s like they have another set of hands down there,” notes Dean Falk, a professor of anthropology at Florida State University and senior scholar at Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research, who specializes in brain evolution. “When our feet became weight-bearing instruments, that kicked everything off — no pun intended.”

Not that the effects were immediate. More than 3 million years ago, the braincase of Australopithecus afarensis, likely the first fully bipedal hominin, was only slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s. But by the time Homo sapiens emerged at least 300,000 years ago, brain volume had tripled. Our brain-to-body ratio is six times that of other mammals, and the neurons in our cerebral cortex (the brain’s outer layer, responsible for cognition) are more densely packed than those of any other creature on Earth.

In recent years, scientists have identified about two dozen genetic changes that might have helped make our brains not only bigger but incomparably capable. “It’s not just one quantum leap,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoanthropologist John Hawks. “A lot of adaptations are at play, from metabolic regulation to neuron formation to timing of development.” A stretch of gene-regulating DNA called HARE5, for example, differs slightly between chimps and humans; when a team at Duke University introduced both versions into mouse embryos, the ones that got the human type developed brains that were 12 percent larger. Meanwhile, mutations in a gene called NOTCH2 increase our production of neural stem cells and delay their maturation into cortical neurons, which may be part of the reason our brains keep growing far longer than those of other primates. The FOXP2 gene, crucial for verbal communication in many species, diverges by two base pairs in humans and our nearest living ape relatives. Our mutation may explain why we can talk and chimps can’t.

Our brains were also shaped by external forces, which increased the odds of smarter hominins passing on their genes. Experts debate which factors mattered most. Falk, for one, hypothesizes that the loss of grasping feet was crucial: When infants could no longer cling to their mothers, as nonhuman primates do, the need to soothe them from a distance led to the development of language, which revolutionized our neural organization. Other researchers believe that dietary shifts, such as eating meat or cooking food in general, enabled us to get by with a shorter digestive tract, which freed up more energy for a calorie-hogging brain. Still others credit our cerebral evolution to growing social complexity or intensifying environmental challenges.

What’s clear is that our neural hardware took shape under conditions radically different from those it must contend with today. For millennia, we had to be on the alert for dangerous predators, hostile clans, potential sources of food and shelter — and that was about it. As McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin put it in his book The Organized Mind: “Our brains evolved to focus on one thing at a time.”

Our digital devices, by design, make that almost impossible.

Tech vs. Brain

The part of the brain that enables us to make elaborate plans and carry them through — the part, arguably, that makes us most human — is the prefrontal cortex. This region is only slightly larger in H. sapiens than in chimps or gorillas, but its connections with other brain regions are more extensive and intricate. Despite this advanced network, our planning ability is far stronger than our ability to remain focused on a given task.

One reason is that, like all animals, we evolved to switch attention instantly when we sense danger: the snapping twig that might signal an approaching predator, the shadow that could indicate an enemy behind a tree. Our goal-directed, or top-down, mental activities stand little chance against these bottom-up forces of novelty and saliency — stimuli that are unexpected, sudden or dramatic, or that evoke memories of important experiences.


When the animal finds a ripe mango in the jungle — or solves a problem in the lab — brain cells in what’s called the dopaminergic system light up, creating a sensation of pleasure. These cells also build durable connections with the brain circuits that helped earn the reward. By triggering positive feelings whenever these circuits are activated, the system promotes learning.

Humans, of course, forage for data more voraciously than any other animal. And, like most foragers, we follow instinctive strategies for optimizing our search. Behavioral ecologists who study animals seeking nourishment have developed various models to predict their likely course of action. One of these, the marginal value theorem (MVT), applies to foragers in areas where food is found in patches, with resource-poor areas in between. The MVT can predict, for example, when a squirrel will quit gathering acorns in one tree and move on to the next, based on a formula assessing the costs and benefits of staying put — the number of nuts acquired per minute versus the time required for travel, and so on. Gazzaley sees the digital landscape as a similar environment, in which the patches are sources of information — a website, a smartphone, an email program. He believes an MVT-like formula may govern our online foraging: Each data patch provides diminishing returns over time as we use up information available there, or as we start to worry that better data might be available elsewhere.

The call of the next data patch may keep us hopping from Facebook to Twitter to Google to YouTube; it can also interfere with the fulfillment of goals — meeting a work deadline, paying attention in class, connecting face-to-face with a loved one. It does this, Gazzaley says, in two basic ways. One is distraction, which he defines as “pieces of goal-irrelevant information that we either encounter in our external surroundings or generate internally within our own minds.” We try to ignore our phone’s pings and buzzes (or our fear of missing out on the data they signify), only to find our focus undermined by the effort.

The other goal-killer is interruption: We take a break from top-down activity to feed our information munchies. The common term for this is multitasking, which sounds as if we’re accomplishing several things at once — working on the quarterly report, answering client emails, staying on top of the politician’s gaffe count, taking a peek at that aardvark. In truth, it means we’re doing nothing well.


It also wreaks havoc on working memory, the function that allows us to hold a few key bits of data in our heads just long enough to apply them to a task. Multiple studies have shown that “media multitasking” (the scientific term for toggling between digital data sources) overloads this mental compartment, making us less focused and more prone to mistakes. In 2012, for instance, Canadian researchers found that multitasking on a laptop hindered classroom learning not only for the user but for students sitting nearby. Heavy media multitasking has been associated with diminished cognitive control, higher levels of impulsivity and reduced volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region linked with error detection and emotional regulation.

Us vs. Them

Emotional regulation is central to another of tech’s disruptive effects on our ancient brains: exacerbation of tribal tendencies. Our distant ancestors lived in small nomadic bands, the basic social unit for most of human history. “Groups that were competing for resources and space didn’t always do so peacefully,” says paleoanthropologist Hawks. “We’re a product of that process.”

These days, many analysts see tribalism asserting itself in the resurgence of nationalist movements worldwide and the sharp rise in political polarization in the U.S., with both trends playing out prominently online. A study published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015 found that party affiliation had become a basic component of identity for Republicans and Democrats. Social media, which spurs us to publicly declare our passions and convictions, helps fuel what the authors call “the gradual encroachment of party preference into nonpolitical and hitherto personal domains.”

And we’re hardwired to excel at telling “us” from “them.” When we interact with in-group members, a release of dopamine gives us a rush of pleasure, while out-group members may trigger a negative response. Getting online “likes” only intensifies the experience.

Our retreat into tribal mode may also be a reaction to the data explosion that the web has ignited. In 2018, in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychologist Thomas T. Hills reviewed an array of earlier studies on the proliferation of information. He found that the upsurge in digitally mediated extremism and polarization may be a response to cognitive overload. Amid the onslaught, he suggested, we rely on ingrained biases to decide which data deserve our attention (see “Tribal Tech” sidebar). The result: herd thinking, echo chambers and conspiracy theories. “Finding information that’s consistent with what I already believe makes me a better member of my in-group,” Hills says. “I can go to my allies and say, ‘Look, here’s the evidence that we’re right!’ ”


For example, when Red Sox and Yankees fans watch their rival team fail to score, even against a third team, they show heightened activity in the ventral striatum, a brain region associated with reward response.

It’s surely no coincidence that during the 2016 presidential election, Russian hackers focused largely on convincing various groups of Americans that another group was out to get them. But foreign agents are hardly the top promoters of tribalism online. As anyone who’s spent time on social media knows, there’s plenty of homegrown schadenfreude on the web.


Faced with tech’s cognitive overload, humans determine what’s worthy of attention by relying on biases shaped by evolution, says Thomas T. Hills, a professor of psychology at England’s University of Warwick. Those tendencies may have helped our ancestors survive, but they’re not always in our best interests today, Hills says. He identifies four types of “cognitive selection” that fuel digital tribalism.

Selection for belief-consistent information. Also called confirmation bias, it inclines us to prefer data that align with what we already think. In prehistoric times, this might have led people to see a rainstorm as proof of a shaman’s power over the weather — an interpretation that strengthened social cohesion, even if it was wrong. Today, confirmation bias can lead to more consequential errors, such as seeing a cold snap as proof that climate change is a hoax.

Selection for negative information. This tendency, also known as negativity bias, primed our ancestors’ brains to prioritize alertness for predators over other, less threatening types of attention. Today, it can lead us to privilege bad news over good — for example, by taking a single horrific crime by an out-group member more seriously than data showing that the group as a whole is law-abiding.

Selection for predictive information. Pattern-recognition bias, as it’s often called, helps us discern order in chaos. Noticing that large prey animals tended to arrive in the savanna after the first summer rains would have given early humans an evolutionary advantage. Today, however, a predilection for patterns can lead us to detect conspiracies where none exist.

Selection for social information. This “herd bias” prompts us, in uncertain environments, to follow the crowd. Back in the day, “if everyone else in your tribe was running toward the river, they probably had a good reason,” says Hills. But if everyone in your Reddit community says a famous politician is running a child-sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria, well, it would be wise to visit a fact-checking website before making up your mind.”

“Heightened disgust sensitivity is associated with greater fear of sin and fear of God” [PsyPost]

“Heightened disgust sensitivity is associated with greater fear of sin and fear of God


MAY 14, 2020




“This started my interest in politics. As an outsider, I was in a position to see and experience things differently, especially how individuals used religion to increase their personal wealth and power. I was also able to see religion, with its organization of humans and rules regarding correct behavior, as distinct from faith, which is personal and seen in one’s behavior. The questions became: ‘Why is this the case?’ and ‘how does it benefit group members enough to put their self-interest aside?’”

“Studying the adaptive qualities of emotional response, both predispositions and contextual influences, has long been my focus; disgust – which is connected with many discriminatory behaviors – is one of those key emotions for understanding human behavior,” Stewart explained.

Stewart and his colleagues examined the relationship between disgust sensitivity and the fear of God using a scientific survey and an experiment.

The survey assessed religious fear, disgust sensitivity, anger, and anxiety in 523 participants who were recruited from a large southern American university. The researchers found that sexual disgust and pathogen disgust were associated with fear of sin and fear of God, respectively.

In other words, people who reported being more disgusted by the thought of casual sex or hearing strangers having sex were more likely to agree with statements such as “I am afraid of having immoral thoughts.” People who reported being more disgusted by stepping in dog poop or seeing mold were more likely to agree with statements such as “I worry that God is upset with me.”


Stewart told PsyPost he hopes the findings highlight the importance of the concept of the human behavioral immune system (HBIS), which “refers to a variety of psychological processes that serve to protect us as individuals and society from real or perceived pathogens.”


“Chief amongst these is the emotion of disgust, which helps to prevent the contact with and ingestion of things that might make us ill. Importantly, the human behavioral immune system influences a variety of social and political behaviors, including – as demonstrated in our paper – religious behaviors.”


“Religion is behind some of most beneficial actions humans have engaged in to help their fellow human; it is also behind some truly horrific behaviors. Understanding the roots of these behaviors, and what might lead to both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of religion is important for those who want individuals to live their best lives.”

“Perhaps most important for right now, we live in a time where, as more people become sick with coronavirus, higher levels of disgust will likely be prevalent; understand the actions through the human behavioral immune system will be important in avoiding political predations such as those occurring in the wake of the Spanish flu in 1918 (e.g., the spread of fascism and communism – both authoritarian governing institutions),” Stewart said.”


Frontiers in Psychology

29 January 2020  



The Effect of Trait and State Disgust on Fear of God and Sin

Patrick A. Stewart [1], Thomas G. Adams Jr.[2] and Carl Senior [3]

[1] Department of Political Science, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, United States
[2] Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, United States
[3] School of Life & Health Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom

There is a growing literature suggesting disgust plays a major role in religiosity. However, the relationships between specific domains of disgust sensitivity and general religious fundamentalism or religious scrupulosity remains unknown and a lack of experimental data prevents the drawing of causal inferences about the potential effects of disgust on religiosity. Two studies are reported that examined the relationship between specific types of disgust sensitivity (i.e., pathogen, sexual, and moral disgust) and specific religious beliefs (i.e., fear of sin and fear of God). In the first study it was found that sexual disgust and pathogen disgust were significantly correlated with fear of sin and fear of God, respectively. In the second study the experimental induction of disgust led to greater fear of sin but not to the fear of God. These findings suggest that pathogen and sexual disgust sensitivities may serve as effective mechanisms for inflated scrupulosity. Taken together the outcomes from both studies converge on a greater understanding of the ‘Human Behavioral Immune System’ model that can account for social behavior with the evolution of adaptive benefit and perhaps more importantly highlights the possible drivers of specific religious behavior.

“Hydroxychloroquine and the Political Polarization of Science” by Cailin O’Connor & James Owen Weatherall [Boston Review]

“Hydroxychloroquine and the Political Polarization of Science

How a drug became an object lesson in political tribalism.




In particular, people become misinformed because they tend to trust those they identify with, meaning they are more likely to listen to those who share their social and political identities. When public figures such as Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh make claims about hydroxychloroquine, Republicans are more likely to be swayed, while Democrats are not. The two groups then start sharing different sorts of information about hydroxychloroquine, and stop trusting what they see from the other side.

People also like to conform with those in their social networks. It is often psychologically uncomfortable to disagree with our closest friends and family members. But different clusters or cliques can end up conforming to different claims. Some people fit in by rolling their eyes about hydroxychloroquine, while others fit in by praising Trump for supporting it.

These social factors can lead to belief factions: groups of people who share a number of polarized beliefs. As philosophers of science, we’ve used models to argue that when these factions form, there need not be any underlying logic to the beliefs that get lumped together. Beliefs about the safety of gun ownership, for example, can start to correlate with beliefs about whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When this happens, beliefs can become signals of group membership—even for something as dangerous as an emerging pandemic. One person might show which tribe they belong to by sewing their own face mask. Another by throwing a barbeque, despite stay at home orders.

And yet another might signal group membership by posting a screed about hydroxychloroquine.  There is nothing about hydroxychloroquine in particular that makes it a natural talking point for Republicans. It could just as easily have been remdesivir, or one of a half dozen other potential miracle drugs, that was picked up by Fox News, and then by Trump. The process by which Trump settled on hydroxychloroquine was essentially random—and yet, once he began touting it, it became associated with political identity in just the way we have described. (That is not to say that Trump and his media defenders were not on the lookout for an easy out from a growing crisis. Political leaders around the world would love to see this all disappear, irrespective of ideology.)


This bias toward extremes means that once opposing camps have formed, there is a lot of fodder for each side to appeal to as evidence of bias. Furthermore, with COVID-19, it is often the case that the different groups only trust one of the extremes. Extremity bias can thus amplify polarization, especially in an already factionalized environment.

The end result is that even without misinformation, or with relatively little of it, we can end up misinformed. And misinformed decision makers—from patients, to physicians, to public health experts and politicians—will not be able to act judiciously. In the present crisis, this is a matter of life and death.”

“Covid-19, and Our Tribal Identities | When Our Moral Psychology Turns on Itself” by Hector Garcia [Psychology Today]

“Covid-19, and Our Tribal Identities

When Our Moral Psychology Turns on Itself

Hector A Garcia Psy.D.
Hector Garcia, Ph.D., is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. [Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression; Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide]

Posted Apr 27, 2020



As examples, golf courses around the nation were allowed to remain open, along with beaches in Florida. Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbot decreed that religious services are allowable, despite the obvious risks (churches were already defying previous restrictions). With emboldening tweets from Donald Trump, anti-lockdown rallies have proliferated, touting the pandemic as a liberal media conspiracy, and containment efforts as anti-freedom—one protestor’s sign read “Social Distancing is Communism!,” another, “Liberate America!”. Notably, these are gatherings of potentially infectious people in close contact with one another, and perhaps unsurprisingly the virus has begun to kill protestors. While the common thread of churches, Trump, Texas governance, and even golf courses may be political conservatism, how do we make sense of this dangerously irrational behavior?

It is ironic that our sensible, science-based efforts to remove ourselves from corona’s onslaught push against ancient instincts designed to help us survive infectious disease. In other words, our pathogen-survival instincts may have outlived their utility, and today may be helping to actually spread COVID-19 rather than contain it. It may be surprising to learn that these very instincts drive our political behaviors. Given that our strategic responses to infectious disease are utterly dependent on political processes, understanding our evolved responses to germs is now literally a matter of life and death. To ensure our future, we may start with a look to our past.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew nothing about what diseases really were. The microbiologic world was invisible to them. They had no vaccines. They had no antibiotics. But they were (as we are now) equipped with what is known in the evolutionary sciences as a behavioral immune system—a set of emotional responses such as disgust, fear, and hostility that helped them withdraw from potential pathogens. Given that humans were the biggest vectors of disease, that immune system included a prejudicial psychology against outsiders; strangers potentially carried pathogens for which the tribe had no immunity. We already know the devastating impact that contact between distal peoples has had on human populations—that is, before the advent of vaccines, and an understanding of physical distancing. As one crushing example, diseases brought by the European invasion of the “New World” sent up to 90% of Native Americans to their graves.

Fear of germs, like so many other traits, falls on the natural curve. Just as there were advantages to xenophobia in our ancestral environments, there were advantages to xenophilia (an attraction to outsiders), which afforded our ancestors greater access to new technologies, and mates outside their gene pool.  One of the most robust findings in the science of our political psychology is that those who are more germ-and-xenophobic tend to be more politically conservative. It makes sense, then, that today those with greater xenophobia would be drawn to politics that are hawkish in their foreign policy, take tough stances on border security, and posture against affirmative action (which helps people who may be seen as outsiders).

Interestingly, those on the conservative end (on average) tend to be not only more fearful of germs and outsiders, but to be generally more fearful. Imaging studies even find conservatives tend to have larger amygdalae, a brain structure that generates our fear responses.2 Yet, those protesting on the streets, violating isolation orders, putting not only others but also themselves in mortal danger, tend to be overwhelmingly far right. The explanation to this stunning contradiction—tribalism.


Sometimes the signals are visual. Think of aboriginal tribes that wear similar regalia to signify belonging—similar headdresses, similar colors, or even tribal scarring or tattoos. Today’s maga-hats, protest signs, political bumper stickers, and T-shirts, tell other members of the group that you’re with them. At other times the signal is showing agreement, and an alarming degree of this kind of conformity happens below the level of conscious awareness.  There is important research on this tendency worth pondering.


Indeed, that tendency to mentally suppress information that runs contrary to group consensus appears to be related to the fact that humans are exquisitely talented at detecting liars, cheaters, or even insincerity. And so, the capacity to self-deceive may have developed to conceal our true beliefs. Indeed, if Wrangham is right, this ability to self-deceive may have kept our ancestors from getting murdered by their peers.


One revealing study examined how highly partisan liberals and conservatives respond to fabricated newspaper stories on welfare programs.5 One program was exorbitantly generous, the other inflexibly stingy. The researchers then queried which program subjects supported. Given what everyone already knows about our political stances, you might guess which side supported which policy. However, before subjects rated their support, they were told that House Democrats (or Republicans) strongly endorsed each of the two welfare policies, and that the rival partly strongly rejected them. If conservatives believed their party supported the lavish welfare policy, they too supported it, and vice-versa for liberals. This shows us that the impulse to go with the tribe can override our own strongly held principles. Tellingly, subjects reported that their own policy perspectives influenced them most, and that the stances of lawmakers least, despite going with the flow in a way that so blatantly contradicted their own values. In other words, they were blind to their own tribalistic blinders.  And therein lies the problem.


When protestors see each other in their tribal regalia, when they chant in unison, they feel an ancient, emotionally intuitive sense of belonging. And that they’ve identified an outside force (represented by the liberal media, science, etc.) it draws their emotional ties to each other even tighter. Moreover, by cohering to the preposterous idea that the need for physical distancing is a liberal conspiracy, they reaffirm each other of their commitment to the tribe. But this puts everyone, including themselves, at grave risk. It’s antisocial. It’s dangerous. It’s asinine. But it is explainable. We are social animals operating in groups inclined to show commitment to one another through agreement. What we agree on can be like a virus itself. And critical thinking gets swallowed up by our ancients fears of rejection.”

“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch” by Guillaume Dezecache, Chris D. Frith and Ophelia Deroy [Current Biology]

“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch

Guillaume Dezecache, Chris D. Frith and Ophelia Deroy

Current Biology Magazine 30, R1–R3, May 18, 2020



What increases in times of anxiety and threat is not a drive to help the self at all costs, but an intuitive drive to help others. The unfortunate consequence is that, in response to the current threat of infection, we desire social contact, particularly with the loved and the vulnerable.

Pandemics and the ‘breakdown of social order’ narrative

When describing the behaviour of people living in countries affected by the spread of covid-19, the media has rapidly adopted a ‘Hobbesian’ view of human nature [4]. This is the expectation that exposure to threat makes people abandon social niceties and, being naturally rivals, fall back into ‘brutishness and misery’. Major newspapers report panic, with people running to shops to collect masks, hand sanitizers and food. Those behaviours are routinely qualified as irrational: why rush to buy food when we are told that there will be no shortages? We do not doubt that humans can be irrational (we misevaluate large magnitudes; underestimate risks and value shortterm gain [7]). At the individual level, however, it is rational to hoard food and toilet paper when we are told that we will have to stay at home for an indefinite amount of time. It’s not that we do not trust politicians, but we are right to be uncertain about the resilience of institutions, and the social contract in general, in the face of an unprecedented, unknown, and growing threat. Similarly, it is perfectly rational, at the individual level, to run for the exits when the building is on fire. However, these self-oriented rational decisions are the ones on which we have to consciously reflect [8]. Our initial, intuitive responses are, on the contrary, to be cooperative [9].


The coming of covid-19 is being met with inertia and placidity, rather than mass panic. The French population was (and is still being) criticized by their own authorities for their laxity and nonchalance. Some weeks ago, the French continued to gather in bar terraces and break the obvious rules of social distancing. The German state of Bavaria took stricter confinement measures on March 21st, after finding that many individuals, despite the explicit instruction to stay away from others, were still gathering in groups as if nothing had changed. Similar violations of official advice are occurring everywhere.

An alternative to the accusation that people are irrational and irresponsible is the suggestion that people are ignorant of the threat. We are not suggesting that these effects are not in play (more below), but we want to suggest that knowing the threat is perfectly compatible with seeking company of friends and loved ones. Being with others and getting but also providing social support is how we cope with stress [10]. Increasing threat is only likely to reinforce this social inclination.


Contactseeking may be a ‘natural’ drive which is embedded in our physiology. Social touch contributes to the physiological regulation of the body’s responses to acute stressors and other short-term challenges. Close social support is not an extra for getting additional rewards. It constitutes our baseline [15]. Our brains do not respond positively to its presence, but negatively to its loss. People can crave for social cues just like they crave for food [16]. The policy implications of decades of research in social neuroscience are clear, but widely ignored: asking people to renounce social contact is not just asking them to abstain from pleasurable activities; it is asking them to diverge from a point of equilibrium, toward which they normally all gravitate.


One major issue is that diseases are largely invisible, particularly diseases (like covid-19) which remain asymptomatic in a large part of the population. This imperceptibility means that it is not even detected, let alone recognized as a collective threat. Hence, the defensive avoidance mechanisms associated with fear and disgust will not operate. Similarly, our social tendencies simply continue as, in the absence of symptoms, we don’t perceive that we may carry the infection. Even if we believe that the threat is widespread within our own group, the implications for oneself are challenging. Recognizing that one is likely to become a deadly threat to others is incongruent with our self-image, leading to dissonance and denial of the danger.

There is, however, a second issue: a threat stemming from infection, in societies with optimally functioning health systems, may be detected and yet recognized to be severe only for a small fraction of the population. Unless we feel we belong to that fraction, the threat may not be construed as collective: it is them, not us. A threat that remains invisible, and is thought to apply only to some individuals, is unlike other threats (such as predators, enemies or hurricanes) which are clearly menacing everyone in a given location. More than physical proximity and covulnerability is needed for a threat to be recognised as collective. Some actual or potential understanding of aspects of the threat as shared by us all, in a collective ‘we’ [2,19], is also required.


In all likelihood, the mismatch between our misperception of the severity of the threat and its consequences is likely to become even more destructive in dense urban areas in which social isolation is a costly good.


So why don’t we avoid each other in times of infections? It is because our infection-avoidance mechanisms are overwhelmed by a much stronger drive to affiliate and seek close contact.”

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone” [Politics and the Life Sciences]

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone

Amanda Friesen, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
Mike Gruszczynski , Indiana University Bloomington
Kevin B. Smith, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
John R. Alford, Rice University

Politics and the Life Sciences


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/pls.2019.18

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 January 2020


Building on a growing body of research suggesting that political attitudes are part of broader individual and biological orientations, we test whether the detection of the hormone androstenone is predictive of political attitudes. The particular social chemical analyzed in this study is androstenone, a nonandrogenic steroid found in the sweat and saliva of many mammals, including humans. A primary reason for scholarly interest in odor detection is that it varies so dramatically from person to person. Using participants’self-reported perceptions of androstenone intensity, together with a battery of survey items testing social and political preferences and orientations, this research supports the idea that perceptions of androstenone intensity relate to political orientations—most notably, preferences for social order—lending further support to theories positing the influence of underlying biological traits on sociopolitical attitudes and behaviors.

Our understanding of the origins of public opinion has expanded from elite messaging, socialization, and group membership to include the possibility that attitudes toward group life may have some basis in our biology. That is, the social signals humans have generated and interpreted throughout the history of our species may continue to influence complex social behaviors like politics.


The odor of politics? Given the central role that olfaction plays in disgust detection and disgust’s link to politics (Aarøe, Petersen, & Arceneaux, 2017; Balzer & Jacobs, 2011; Inbar et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2011a), we have borrowed its theoretical organizational scheme to think about how olfaction may also connect to political opinions. Recent research has identified three primary functions of disgust: pathogen avoidance, mate choice, and social interaction— sometimes labeled microbes, mating, and morality (Neuberg et al., 2011; Tybur et al., 2009; Tybur et al., 2010). As mentioned, the precursor to olfaction originated as a mechanism for identifying substances that singlecelled organisms should approach or avoid.



We first investigate androstenone detection and political orientations using the aforementioned personality, psychological, and political batteries. In addition to the three measures of political ideology, the survey also tapped cognitive and personality patterns, including the Big Five personality inventory (conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, agreeableness, and extroversion), the BIS/BAS (behavioral inhibition and activation, respectively) scales, preference for literalism, and tendencies to be both disgust and threat sensitive. We have no strong expectations for the nature of the relationship between androstenone detection and these concepts, but we do expect positive relationships for all three of our political batteries and particularly for the “preferences for social order” battery, a finding that would indicate that those with politically conservative and “authority-attuned” positions tend to be more sensitive to androstenone.



In our sample, variations in androstenone detection appear to be relevant to variations in political orientations—specifically, preferences for order—but not psychological orientations. Economic and sexual morality issues appear to be unconnected to sensitivity to androstenone. As we noted earlier, the absence of a relationship with sex items is particularly interesting given that other research has demonstrated that sensitivity to pathogen-relevant disgust is indeed related to issue stances on sexual matters. Sensitivity to the human odorant androstenone appears to manifest itself politically in quite a different fashion than sensitivity to pathogen-indicating odors (e.g., human excrement, vomit, or spoiled food). Certain individuals are sensitive to the odor of androstenone, and they also tend to be the people who are attuuned to and eager to squelch threats to the social order


Psychologists, biologists, and geneticists have demonstrated human variation in every sensory system just as social scientists have been examining differences in social and political orientations and attitudes. Our work seeks to bridge these worlds in the hope of contributing to the understanding of the nature and origins of human political behavior and, broadly, public opinion. Few, if any, disciplines treat biological and behavioral variation as completely unrelated, yet much of the political science research does just that. This is a matter of empiricism. Just as parents, schools, peers, culture, and time periods may influence sociopolitical attitudes and behavior, we posit that the manner in which individuals process these environmental inputs may be just as important as the inputs themselves (Gonzalez et al., 2015). Combined with the growing body of work connecting politics to behavioral genetics and physiology, we demonstrate olfaction should not be ignored in the examination of political attitudes and orientations.”

“How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature” By Antonio Damasio [Brain World Magazine]

“How Neuroscience Helps Us to Understand Human Nature

April 14, 2020

Antonio Damasio


[This article was originally a lecture given at the Fourth International Brain Education Conference held at the United Nations. It has been edited for length.]

The area that I come from is that of neurology and neuroscience. My work is about trying to understand how the brain works. My hope is that some of the neuroscience that is taking place right now will help those of you who teach, and those of you who want to make each individual and the world as a whole better than they are today.


What has only been happening quite recently is that neuroscience can have a role in our culture. Neuroscience also talks about the fields of economics, moral behavior, politics, aesthetics, and education.


Most of what we know now from neuroscience that has an impact on society and culture actually comes from understanding human emotions, decision-making, and processes of consciousness.


Why such an interest in neuroscience now? Well, Largely for two reasons. One, there is a revolution going on in biology and two, there is an enormous rise in cognitive neuroscience.

The revolution in biology goes all the way back to 150 years ago and what has been learned since the days of Darwin. We now have a very clear idea of the structure of DNA. DNA is a fundamental element in the transmission of traits through genes. We know about the genetic code. We even know how it operates through molecular genetics and we have a fairly good idea of how the human genome is organized.

At the same time we have something very interesting happening in neuroscience: a hybrid of psychology and of large-scale systems neuroscience. New disciplines with funny names like experimental neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropsychology, and last but not least, human neuroimaging, which has allowed us to have a clear view of the human brain in living individuals.


Living a life that has reduced stress and a great amount of happiness and harmony is also related. This is not just my desire to whistle in the dark and tell myself that because I’m active and I’m reasonably happy, I’m not going to have Alzheimer’s disease. Stress is inevitable if you live in a large urban center and have to cope with the reality of life. When you are under stress, you’re engaging a number of brain mechanisms that release certain hormones that are anything but helpful to us in our current cultural and historical situation.

They are the hormones that are connected with fear and with anger and they not only damage, for example, your arteries and the heart — bringing the possibility of hypertension — they also damage receptors that are on the surface of cells — nerve cells, neurons — in this region in particular.


The brain, the source of our memory, our mind, our behavior, and what we consider our self, is nonetheless an organ system that exists within the body. Because we pay so much attention to the brain and the mind, we start talking about brain and mind and behavior as if they were disembodied — as if they existed on some kind of vat and not inside the body. But from the point of view of evolution and biology, we have brains because we have bodies that the brains need to maintain.


The social structure in which the individual is inserted depends on the life of others. There is no such thing as leading an independent, individual life. From the get-go, we are born and are dependent on our parents. We clearly cannot walk out and run our lives, go to school and get to the university. It’s perfectly obvious that dependence is a state for human beings. They depend throughout life on others.

Spinoza was a major philosopher of the 17th century who I believe was one of the great forerunners of modern thinking in biology. The man could not know anything about the brain. Yet in the 1650s he was honing in on ideas that we now find perfectly sensible in terms of our modern understanding of life and of the brain in particular. He clearly identified, as a source of happiness and more importantly as a source of moral systems, the fact that you cannot be happy by yourself if you do not contribute to the happiness of others.

Here’s a man who was writing all this between Amsterdam and the Hague in the 17th century, and he has very interesting philosophies that were not at all connected with the Christian and Jewish roots that were his education. It is much more connected to other parts of the world where such thinking is more accepted. He had an interesting spiritual view of the world in which there was a God that was nature. He actually talked about God or nature as if they were virtually interchangeable.

How one leads one’s life, and the lives of others that surround one, can influence many diseases of the brain, all the way from stroke to Alzheimer’s disease.

I also wanted to say something specifically about emotions and feelings. Emotions and feelings are two different things.  Emotions turn out to be programs in our brain that we inherited through evolution that are devoted to the management of our life. They’re devoted to a process that is known as “homeostasis.”

Emotions are action programs. When you have fear, your face becomes startled, your body posture changes, your heart races, your gut contracts, your pulse races as well, your respiration changes and on and on. All of that is an action program that exists not just in our brain, but in the brains of many other species. Some of these programs go all the way down to invertebrates, to little creatures like a snail that do not even have a skeleton.

These programs achieve something very important. For example, fear allows you to take action, even without thinking, so that you can remove yourself from harm’s way. There are emotion programs that are negative on the surface, such as fear or anger, but that nonetheless are very positive in the outcome that they produced for us. Probably fear has saved more lives than any other emotion.


The very important thing to remember is that feelings are not those action programs. Feelings are what you perceive in your mind as a result of being in a state of emotion. Although in everyday language, we confuse one with the other, it’s important — and you have no idea how important this is for research strategy — it’s important to distinguish between an action program that does not even need to be conscious, that animals as have, from feelings. Feelings are conscious and feed this enormously beautiful edifice that we call culture.


The important thing for you to remember is that emotions are biological processes that are fundamentally about governing life, and administer either punishment or reward. If you’re happy, if you’re leading a great life, then you are administering rewards to yourself.”

“Political Beliefs affect Compliance with COVID-19 Social Distancing Orders” By Marcus Painter & Tian Qiu

“Political Beliefs affect Compliance with COVID-19 Social Distancing Orders

Marcus Painter
Saint Louis University – Department of Finance

Tian Qiu
University of Kentucky – Gatton College of Business and Economics

Date Written: April 8, 2020



Social distancing is vital to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. We use geolocation data to document that political beliefs present a significant limitation to the effectiveness of state-level social distancing orders. Residents in Republican counties are less likely to completely stay at home after a state order has been implemented relative to those in Democratic counties. We also find that Democrats are less likely to respond to a state-level order when it is issued by a Republican governor relative to one issued by a Democratic governor. These results are robust to controlling for other factors including time, geography, local COVID-19 cases and deaths, and other social distancing orders. We conclude that bipartisan support is essential to maximize the effectiveness of social distancing orders.


Potentially due to the recent increase in political polarization in the US (Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro, 2020), there are concerns regarding how political beliefs would heterogeneously affect compliance with social distancing orders. For instance, a pastor from Arkansas told the Washington Post that “in your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.” The same report also documents that people from more liberal areas show more distrust in President Trump’s initial message and are more proactive about social distancing.1 The press has also highlighted that President Trump initially downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting that Republicans may not take social distancing orders seriously.


Next, analyzing differential responses to state policies, we find that Republican counties respond less to social distancing orders relative to Democratic counties. A one standard deviation increase in the county-level share of votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 election is associated with a 3pps lower percentage of people who stay at home after a state social distancing order relative to the average county. This finding is robust to subsample tests designed to adjust for county population and density.

Our final tests focus on whether the political affiliation of the governor announcing a state-level social distancing order affects compliance. If Republican’s lower response to social distancing orders is due to President Trump’s early dismissal of the pandemic, we may likewise find that Democrats’ response to orders may vary based on the political affiliation of who gives the order. We identify “aligned” counties as those with the same political affiliation as the governor and “misaligned” counties as those with conflicting political identities. We find that misaligned counties have a 2.9pps lower response to state policy social distancing orders relative to aligned counties. This difference is driven by misaligned democratic counties. These results suggest that the difference in compliance to social distancing orders based on partisanship is likely due to how credible residents find government officials and not an information transmission channel. Taken together, our results suggest that political polarization is a major roadblock on the path to full compliance with social distance measures. Republicans and misaligned Democrats are less likely to adhere to these orders, suggesting that bipartisan support for social distancing measures is a key factor in how quickly we can mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

“Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals” By Dimitris Xygalatas [Sapiens]

“Explaining the Emergence of Coronavirus Rituals

An anthropologist illuminates how both old and new rituals can provide a sense of comfort during times of uncertainty.

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut.


Responding to the coronavirus pandemic, most American universities have suspended all campus activities. Like millions of people all around the world, the lives of students all over the U.S. has changed overnight.

When I met my students for what was going to be our last in-class meeting of the academic year, I explained the situation and asked whether there were any questions. The first thing my students wanted to know was, “Will we be able to have a graduation ceremony?”

The fact that the answer was no was the most disappointing news for them.

As an anthropologist who studies ritual, hearing that question from so many students did not come as a surprise. The most important moments of our lives—from birthdays and weddings to college graduations and holiday traditions are marked by ceremony.

Rituals provide meaning and make those experiences memorable.


Anthropologists have long observed that people across cultures tend to perform more rituals in times of uncertainty. Stressful events such as warfare, environmental threat, and material insecurity are often linked with spikes in ritual activity.

In a laboratory study in 2015, my colleagues and I found that under conditions of stress people’s behavior tends to become more rigid and repetitive—in other words, more ritualized.

The reason behind this propensity lies in our cognitive makeup. Our brain is wired to make predictions about the state of the world. It uses past knowledge to make sense of current situations. But when everything around us is changing, the ability to make predictions is limited. This causes many of us to experience anxiety.

That is where ritual comes in.

Rituals are highly structured. They require rigidity and must always be performed the “right” way. And they involve repetitition: The same actions are done again and again. In other words, they are predictable.

So even if they have no direct influence over the physical world, rituals provide a sense of control by imposing order on the chaos of everyday life.

It is of little importance whether this sense of control is illusory. What matters is that it is an efficient way of relieving anxiety.


By aligning behavior and creating shared experiences, rituals forge a sense of belonging and common identity that transforms individuals into cohesive communities. As field experiments show, participating in collective rituals increases generosity and even makes people’s heart rates synchronize.


It is not surprising, then, that people around the world are responding to the novel coronavirus crisis by creating new rituals.

Some of those rituals are meant to provide a sense of structure and reclaim the sense of control. For example, comedian Jimmy Kimmel and his wife encouraged those in quarantine to hold formal Fridays, dressing up for dinner even if they were alone.


People are coming up with a host of rituals to maintain a broader sense of human connection. In various European cities, people have started to go to their balconies at the same time every day to applaud health care workers for their tireless service.”