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Hype Aversion: the curmudgeon’s guide to the #IceBucketChallenge

“But it’s all in good fun! And it’s for a great cause!”

If you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of these rationalizations, you are not alone.  If your Facebook feed is filled with shocked-but-not-shocked faces beneath cataracts of chilly water – celebrities great and small, politicians and friends – and it leaves you with even less reason to check Facebook, you are not alone.

What you may be experiencing is a phenomenon sometimes called “Hype Aversion.” It is the idea that it is the social promotion of an idea, more than the idea itself, that you find repellent. The social pressure, the constant discussion, the inescapable nature of a ubiquitous social event makes you ill. If you’re like me, you might feel it better to be anti-social than get swept under what feels like an ever-widening storm. Because most shockingly of all, your friends seem to be having such a moonishly lovely time as they succumb.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

Credit where credit is due: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has done amazing things for the fight against a somewhat obscure and oft-overlooked issue, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In a world overflowing with worthy causes, this worthy cause is getting the attention it deserves. At last check, the ALS Association has raised as much as $40m from folks taking an icy bath on camera.

“They’re brilliant,” says Professor Melissa Brown of the College at Brockport, “I’m not sure they thought about it like this, but humans are a pack animal. And we tend to look first to our alphas for direction.”

And so, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started with Kennedys, Jimmy Fallon and a host of alpha-celebs taking their respective plunges first. And in our everyone-is-a-celebrity social networking culture, the tide moved rather rapidly down the scale until it finally hit me.

I’ll admit that, after a couple cocktails, the vanity of being called out by Jennae Moran was almost too much to resist. Jennae is Rochester’s resident lioness of Autism awareness, and a friendly voice on social. In fact, she knows me only because of the work I’ve done on social media. Out of any number of people she could have picked, she picked me. How could I possibly say “no,” to that?

Because it was for a good cause. Because it was all in good fun. Because vanity. For giving to a charity, I’m to be given a little squirt of endorphins. The Ice Bucket Challenge really does work.

Conformity, Cognitive Dissonance and Justification

Ultimately, I did say no. A well-placed, disapproving eye-roll shocked me out of my revery.

But before you and I go sulking into our selfish little uncaring corners, my dear fellow curmudgeon, consider what we already know about what social pressure does to the mind. Professor Brown referred me to the Asch Paradigm.

Back in the 1950’s, researcher Solomon Asch put subjects into a room with what those subjects believed were fellow participants in a study. But those fellow participants turned out to be stand-ins whose role was to uniformly answer a simple set of questions. Sometimes they answered correctly, sometimes incorrectly. But always in unison.

When researchers allowed everyone in the room to answer honestly, the rate of incorrect answers among subjects was less than 1%. However, when the stooges intentionally answered incorrectly, that rate jumped to one-in-three.

In fact, 75% of test subjects answered at least one question incorrectly in concert with the stooges. The conclusion being that social pressure can over-power one’s own ability to decide for themselves.

… none of which is to say that donating to a worthy charity is an incorrect decision. What I am asking, is whether those who choose to take part in the Challenge actually chose at all? Or did the group choose for them?

It’s just sociology: the study of humans acting in groups. But it is one that our culture is instinctually hostile too. We’re all fiercely independent souls, and none of us fall for peer pressure.

It’s a nice vanity that we all aspire too, but it is fundamentally untrue. And that dichotomy sets into motion another instinct we see repeatedly in the Ice Bucket Challenge: Cognitive Dissonance. Our brains need to rectify the dissonance between our self-image and our actions, so we justify, excuse and defend that glaring logical error away.

You may find your friends unwilling or unable to be satisfied with your answer to the challenge. You and I, dear curmudgeon? We’re just uncomfortable with being dared to follow the leader. Surely, people understand that?

Instead, they’ll point out repeatedly that the Ice Bucket Challenge is “for a good cause,” as though the ends justified the means. And it’s “all in good fun,” as though if you’re not having fun, there must be something wrong with you. And “of course,” dumping a bucket of water on your head is necessary, because everybody else is. Even complete strangers can be openly belligerent with any curmudgeon so bold as to raise any objection.

If some people are having fun, I say, “great!!” If the ALS Association is making money for a good cause, awesome! Have at it.

But before too many more people go pressuring too many more friends into the “fun” of the Ice Bucket Challenge or STFU, it’s worth demanding a Naked Lunch moment. It’s worth our time, fellow curmudgeon, to strip away the justifications and ask them to just look at what’s at the end of their forks. Is it really what they want to eat, just because it’s “for a good cause?”

My point is not that “some people” are cruel. It is that we do fall along these statistical borders every day. I’m not always on one side, you’re not always on the other. It isn’t a reflection on one’s character, but it is a reflection on what will and won’t cause discomfort. It seems strange and disconcerting that so many people ignore others’ discomfort, “all in good fun.”

And if our friends cannot see all this, then my dear fellow curmudgeon, I say we’re fine to “Harumph,” all we like.


God is head? If religion is hardwired, why don’t we all have our own gods?

An interesting article out of the Department of Psychology in Yale University made itself known to me, via the outstanding Why Evolution is True. The question being discussed is: do our religious beliefs stem from an intrinsic desire on the part of human beings to explain the world religiously? Or do they come from our cultural backgrounds? In other words, are our spiritual lives cognitive adaptations or social imperatives?

The conversation is not a new one. The article notes that many cognitive scientists view the pervasive existence of religion in human culture to be an outcrop of a biological need. For example, fearing an angry god may provide the moral guidance that allows for social bonding in the absence of instinct. If this concept sounds familiar, that’s because the same basic idea is echoed by many religious leaders seeking to legitimize spirituality as the only source of morality.

But the most interesting question raised in the article is: if belief in a god is biologically necessary, why don’t we all believe in our own individual gods?:

Consider belief in a divine creator. Young children are prone to generate purpose-based explanations of the origins of natural objects and biological kinds. They believe, for example, that clouds are ‘for raining’ and animals are ‘to go in the zoo’…

However, these older children do not spontaneously propose novel divine creators. Instead, they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies. This might be a singular God or multiple gods; it might be alien visitors or Mother Earth. If children are not exposed to such cultural beliefs, the explicit notion of an intentional creator might never arise.

So, a predisposition to think in terms of purpose certainly lends itself to a spiritual understanding of the world. But it does not automatically mean that the child will believe in god, much less create a god out of whole cloth which his peers will also recognize and respond to. That is for religion to do, and religion is an entirely cultural affair.

Both sides of the argument, I think, miss the point. The research on childhood development that shows kids reaching for existential and epidemiological answers demonstrates that it is the question not the answer that defines human cognition. Whether we seek those answers though faith, or through science or, as I suspect is the most common choice, a bit from Column A and a bit from Column B, is a matter of preference.


U of R study weighs the costs of being in the “in crowd.”

We all put up with it in high school. And even if we don’t like to admit it and the game is slightly less obvious, many of us have experienced the peer pressure to exclude people from our social circles. If you felt bad about that, but did it anyway, you’re not alone.

And new research from the University of Rochester shows that going along with the group in these cases really does have a negative impact on you. Much beyond the hurt inflicted on the one ostracized from the group, the group itself pays a price:

Consistent with earlier research on ostracism, the study found that being shunned, even by faceless strangers in a computer game, was upsetting and lowered participant’s mood. “Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain,” says Ryan. But complying with instructions to exclude others was equally disheartening, the data shows, albeit for different reasons. This study suggests that the psychological costs of rejecting others is linked primarily to the thwarting of autonomy and relatedness.

So, based on their research, this social ostracism pain is two-pronged. The first is the natural impulse of human animals to be connected to one another, and the second is the lack of autonomy that happens when we bend our will to meet social demands.

This research has important implications for a variety of social situations, but in particular, it bears on bullying. Because a bully never bullies in private. They never bully just the victim. As many of us have experienced in our past, this study now proves: the bully also beats on his “friends” who join in or do nothing.


Are you ready for your phone to reach out and psychoanalyze you?

Let’s face it: going to the shrink is expensive. And especially in these days of “high deductible” health insurance policies, it may not be the most affordable option for your basic anxiety-prone individual.

But that may not necessarily matter for very much longer, as scientists including psychologists at the University of Rochester are working on voice recognition software that can detect your mood. And you can have it on your phone.

Mood recognition is for computers the same as it is for humans: a learned response to individual input. You know when your friend is pissed off not because they act like everybody else, but because they have a specific set of visual and auditory queues. Their voice might go up in pitch or may even go monotone. Researchers are finding that mood recognition software can be 81% accurate with a trained ear, but the same software applied to another voice might drop to 30% accuracy.

Of course, the applications of such software would obviously not end at your phone. Imagine a voice recognition political poll that can detect sarcasm and irritation even when you answer questions contrarily?

Or for that matter, imagine your girlfriend’s phone being trained to listen to you. You think she nags you about your attitude now?

Oh, boy. The future looks bright.


Did Facebook just talk you into voting for a psychopath?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You think your vote comes after careful deliberation and analysis. You think your vote is an intelligent one. You studied the candidates, you know the issues, you made the right choice.

Bullshit. You probably voted straight across the ballot, Democrat or Republican.

Moreover, we’re finding out more and more that our political identities are very much governed by forces that are quite beyond our control. Genetics, for example, affect our psychology  and predispose us to becoming liberal. Scientists also studied twins – including those separated at birth – and found that while many broad-strokes political concepts might be informed by their parenting and social interactions, many more seemed to be genetically linked.

Everyone is pissed at CNN’s gutless, sloppy reporting about studies linking women’s menstrual cycles to their voting preferences, but really? At the end of the day, we’re all just bundles of synapses to be tickled, poked and prodded in ways that will make us do shit. Our genetic code says so; our FourSquare checkins confirm it. Why would something as repetitive as a menstrual cycle not affect one’s voting habits?

And speaking of the remote control of our nominally free will: Facebook.

In the last midterm election of 2010, scientists conducted a study on Facebook, wherein groups of people got nags to go vote in what are typically low turnout elections. The result was higher turnout among those who were actively asked to vote, especially those who also had friends who said they voted as well. Voting, it appears, may be every bit as viral as cat videos.

Let us not speak falsely, now.

And just who is it you think you voted for? The most reasonable candidate? The one with the best handle on the economy? Foreign policy?

Nope. Turns out that the traits most often attributed to successful politicians are also common sign posts for… psychotic behavior. That’s right. In particular, the social trait of “fearless dominance,” or being a huge dick, is quite common among both groups. The leader of the study helpfully stresses the following:

“Most psychopaths end up being pretty unsuccessful and maladaptive, and they end up in prison, which is usually where psychologists study them,” Lilienfeld said. “Even though the psychopathic personality as a whole shebang is not a good thing to have, this study raises the interesting possibility that at least some traits of this condition — especially those linked to lack of social and physical apprehensiveness, immunity to stress, and resilience — might be adaptive in real-world settings.”

Ah, yes. Because who has ever heard of a politician going to jail?

So, I’m really glad you voted. Honestly. But now that you have, you can sit back and relax, because you never really had a choice in whom you voted for. The universe is a rigged game of controlled explosions and we are merely the flotsam of inter galactic collisions. Our opinions are statistical, our lives artifice and our impressions of ourselves merely the deluded ramblings of monkeys on drugs in cages. Happy Election Day!

Rochester Science

U of R redesign of the Marshmallow Experiment proves kids are hip to your bullshit.

Who remembers the famous Marshmallow Study of the late 60s? Maybe it sounds vaguely familiar, but for those of you who recount the 60s with a distinct haze, weren’t born yet, or don’t actively study psychology, I’ll give you a refresher.

The experiment went like this: a group of preschool age children were monitored separately, each being placed directly in front of a fluffy, tasty marshmallow with the promise that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow now, they would receive two marshmallows later. Over the course of the past four decades, this study has been regarded as a classic experimental measure of children’s self control (or lack thereof).  As time progressed, researchers found that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification with the marshmallow correlated strongly with success in later life, including higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and better social skills.

Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has revisited this study and taken it a step further, finding that the ability to delay gratification is influenced just as much by the environment as by innate ability – meaning that nature as well as nurture are playing equal hands.

Kidd and her research team set up two contrasting environments to split between 28 preschoolers: a reliable environment, and an unreliable environment. In both settings, the children were told twice to wait for something better; first for art supplies, and second for stickers. The difference was the promises were delivered in the reliable environment, while the unreliable environment came up empty-handed both times.  The third promise followed the same steps as the original marshmallow study: wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, and then receive two marshmallows instead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, children who experienced reliable interactions immediately before the marshmallow task were able to hold out longer – by a lot. The children in the reliable environment were able to wait an average of four times longer than the children in the unreliable environment.  Additionally, only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

Previous studies that explored the effect of teaching children waiting strategies showed much smaller effects. This large result provides evidence that wait times do reflect rational decision-making about the probability of a reward.  According to Kidd,

“Being able to delay gratification—in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow—not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting. Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay. If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice.”

However, don’t worry if you try this trick at home with your own kids and they gobble up the marshmallow immediately. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed at being reliable. It just means things are different when you’re the person they’re with day in and day out. And besides – maybe it’s just snack time.

Rochester Science

High temps and alcohol: the key to a car-punching good time at Darien Lake.

It’s concert tailgating season at Darien Lake, and you know what that means – rowdy underage drunks getting arrested! This past Saturday, however, a new transgression was thrown into the mix: punching cars and security guards. Oh, good. At least we’re keeping it classy.

I’m sure for most readers, this offense is written off as nothing more than underagers not knowing their limits and being unable to hold their alcohol, but as it turns out, the alcohol wasn’t acting alone in this recipe for violence. Temperatures skyrocketed this past weekend, Saturday’s soaring well into 90- degree heat. It’s no secret that heat + alcohol = dehydration, but can the combination actually contribute to aggressive behavior, too?

According to Nancy Molitor, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University, yes.

“Hot, and especially humid, weather is associated with increased aggression and violence as well as a generally lower mood.”

Consuming alcohol, as we know, contributes to lower inhibitions, poor judgment calls, and in some cases, anger. Mix a day of drinking with Saturday’s scorching heat, and what have you got? A summer weekend at Darien Lake – where I just happen to be heading this upcoming weekend! Until next summer – let’s keep our heat to alcohol ratio in check, shall we?


Lonely hearts club: Cornell study links loneliness, premature aging, heart disease today reports still more reason to keep that profile up to date. When studying the responses to social stressors and comparing the results, Cornell boffins discovered that the responses of lonely young adults mimicked those of non-lonely older adults. In other words: the lonely don’t act their age, but are in the process of growing older before their time.

The study found that, while older adults had predictably higher resting blood pressures and longer recovery times – normal effects of aging, but ones that put the subject at greater risk of heart troubles – the lonelier younger adults increased these measures beyond what is considered normal. In fact, cardiovascular recovery times in lonely younger persons stretched into two-hour periods.

So don’t wonder why those backed-up, lonely people in your life get so pissed off so quickly and smolder for so long! Give ’em a little latitude and once they’re getting laid steady, they’ll be all set.

Science Technology

Is Space Age technology promoting Stone Age thinking?

Nick Carr delivers keynote at the Roberts Wesleyan 2012 Biennial Academic Conference, reflects on how society has adapted to ubiquitous information.


Is the Internet altering our attention spans? (I’ll keep this short)

Give a chimpanzee a simple tool, such as a hammer, and observe how his brain processes its use. At first, EEG patterns show the chimp is processing the tool as a separate object from his body. But slowly, over time, as he or she becomes more familiar with the tool, scientists have observed that in fact the chimp begins to recognise the tool – on a neurological level – as an extension of his own body.

This is but one illustration in Nicholas Carr’s newest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, used to demonstrate the way brains change and evolve constantly throughout our lives. The old maxim that we get but one brain and one collection of neurons for our entire lives is laid bare and the wonder of a constantly-changing, constantly-adapting brain is revealed. This is a concept known among the neuroscience community as neuroplasticity, and it’s a concept we will be returning to quite a bit on DragonFlyEye this week.

There is, as the title of this article suggests, a down side to all this constant evolution: as we sharpen our minds for the things we need to be able to do, this sharpening comes at an expense to those processes our brains perceive as having become less important. Mr. Carr suggests that the always-on, always-connected nature of the Internet is creating a species reliant on the Internet for knowledge, rather than on our individual capacity to learn and retain knowledge.

Carr further states that this shifting of processing priority is making us impatient and our attention spans shorter. There is ample evidence that, at the very least, what Carr observes is happening, though whether he’s correctly identified the cause is another matter. For example, those of us old enough to remember not having cell phones are also old enough to appreciate that we no longer rely on our memories to store phone numbers, now that our phones do it for us. And as for retaining knowledge or having the patience to read long works? Well, there’s even an Internet running joke about how we obtain our information, “Here, let me Google that for you.”

The book reads something like a water-colour painting: each chapter is like another stroke of a different primary colour. Starting at another edge of our history, he draws his brush toward his central thesis in ever-deepening colour, with a new observation from our history. I would not have imagined that Plato’s Republic would bear on the modern Internet, yet one of its more important dialogues plays directly into the concept of this knowledge-store transfer away from individuals. In this case, Plato refers to books versus spoken-word recount. This perhaps is a nod to the enduring struggle of man over his inventions, rather than the novel rewiring of the brain Mr. Carr is discussing.

One interesting story concerns the dawn of “artificial intelligence” and our first trip to the Uncanny Valley in the form of a simple program that scientists once enthused would replace psychotherapy. This time, a program which simply takes the user’s input “I feel sad today,” and translates it into “why do you feel sad today?” suddenly has the scientific community in an uproar.

Mr. Carr will be giving the keynote address at Roberts Wesleyan College’s upcoming Biennial Academic Conference. DragonFlyEye.Net has been asked to cover the event, which will include a live-tweeting of his address and extensive coverage on this site of the concepts and meaning of this bold new understanding of neuroscience throughout the week. Keep an eye on the Neurplasticity tag on this site and the #nickcarr hash tag on Twitter for more information!

Buy the book?


The Mating Game: RIT boffin explores what is “desirable” in the long term.

Boobs help. Money helps. But there must be more to it than just that, right?

Actually, that may be very nearly all there is according to one researcher at RIT. Professor John Edlund has been studying, not so much what attracts people to each other, but what makes for enduring relationships. And that magical ingredient seems to be similarity in “meaningful characteristics,” thus those who are most commonly seen as desirable end up with people who are similarly desirable.

In addition to physical attractiveness, similarities in upbringing and socio-economic status are also helpful in maintaining a long-term relationship. So, pro tip for you gold diggers: find an old dude, ’cause its not gonna last.

RIT Professor Studies ‘Mate Value’: Do You Possess Qualities That Are Desirable in a Mate? – RIT News.


Hey, Jealousy- Can We Control a Physiological Effect?

It’s a typical, boring day. Nothing particularly special about it, but nothing exceptionally terrible, either. You’ve just filled up your first cup of coffee for the day and have just sat down to check your email – then, you hear him. You know. Him. That guy you work with that no matter what he does, finds some way to crawl beneath your skin and ruffle up your day to an alarming degree.  He’s young, friendly, hardworking and everyone seems to really like and respect him. There’s not really anything bad you can say about him but, ugh. Him. Why can’t he come down with the flu or something?

It’s Friday night and you’ve had a long week. You’re out unwinding at a local wine bar with your man of interest, laughing, and having a great time forgetting the troubles of the work week. All of a sudden, you hear a high-pitched laugh, followed by an “Oh, I can’t believe I’m running into you here!”– you turn around and it’s her. Look at the way she bats her eyelashes, and did she really need to douse herself in that musky perfume? All of a sudden, a perfectly enjoyable evening is ruined – all because of her. Who does she think she is exchanging pleasantries like that anyway?

It sounds silly and over the top, but we’ve all been there at some point.  Out of the vast assortment of emotions humans experience, jealousy is one of the most common and unsettling. It brings out the absolute worst in us, even if we know we are acting irrationally or should otherwise “know better”.  It’s a phenomenon that has been chronicled back to biblical times and has even been observed in other species including elephants and chimpanzees.

So what exactly causes these negative feelings of jealousy, and since they are so distasteful, why can’t we just turn them off? Well, have you ever tried to speed up your circulatory system when it’s cold so that you become warmer quicker? Chances are, you probably haven’t, and if you have, I’m willing to bet you weren’t very successful. Much like other involuntary bodily functions, jealousy comes down to a physiological, chemical reaction inside us – so while we can control the fashion in which we handle it, we can’t necessarily control it from creeping its ugly, unwanted little head into our lives from time to time.

Because people express jealousy through many diverse behaviors, it has been extremely difficult for scientists to devise a clear-cut definition for jealousy that can be universally agreed upon, but rather, have settled on a basic theme of a perceived threat of loss to a supposed third-party or rival- not to be confused with envy, which results from the desire to have something another has.  However, while the chemicals causing jealousy in all humans is essentially the same, the actions that trigger them in males and females differ in almost every case studied. While males tend to feel jealousy most intensely during a situation in which something that can physically be experienced by our senses occurs, females statistically respond more strongly to feelings of jealousy towards occurrences that are perceived – women’s intuition? Possibly. However, the effects of jealousy negatively impact both genders equally, resulting in restless sleep, weight loss or gain, skin breaking out into rashes, or stomach ulcers – if jealousy isn’t enough of a stress factor on its own, there you go!

So we know what jealousy is, what causes it, and its many impacts. Well, that’s all fine and good, but how exactly do we go about coping with jealousy when it’s bringing us down? If you find a good answer, I’m sure Doctor Phil would love to interview you.  In the meantime, try channeling your jealousy into motivation. What is it you’re worried about losing – and why? Finding that one important piece of information can help you gain control over your feelings of jealousy and make it work to your advantage.