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Friend or Foe?

Homeless man If you're like most people, just seeing the photo to the left elicited almost immediate feelings of disgust and avoidance.

Don't beat yourself up. According to Princeton University professor, Susan Fiske, that feeling is hardwired into all of us.

When our primordial ancestors dropped from the trees and started walking across the African savannah on two legs, survival favored those who had an innate ability to work in small groups, as well as a deep hostility towards anyone not of the group.

Those characteristics were so critical that, over a number of generations, reinforced by tribal warfare, they became the norm. And they survive to this day in the biases that we all feel.

Fiske and other researchers have seen their tracks in surveys and fMRI studies around the world. Tons of research shows that bias operates unconsciously and automatically in almost everyone. That's the bad news.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.  Research also shows that our prejudices are not inevitable; they are actually quite malleable, shaped by an ever-changing mix of cultural beliefs and social circumstances.

For example, when Fiske asked people to imagine that they were running a soup kitchen and had to decide what the homeless man above might like to eat, their feelings toward him changed. They began to see him an an individual, rather than as an exemplar of the "homeless." 

"While we may be hardwired to harbor prejudices against those who seem different or unfamil­iar to us," Fiske says, "it’s possible to override our worst impulses and reduce these prejudices. Doing so requires more than just good intentions; it requires broad social efforts to challenge stereotypes and get people to work together across group lines. But a vital first step is learning about the biological and psycho­logical roots of prejudice."

An article she wrote for The Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley is a terrific primer on the subject.  



I contain multitudes, so do you

Whitman W
alt Whitman celebrated what all people have in common in the paradoxically titled poem, "Song of Myself." 

Turns out that we're even more intimately entwined that he suspected.

Nicholas Christakis explored that idea in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

 Duncan Watts has plowed the same ground even more thoroughly in his new book, Everything Is Obvious Once You Know The Answer.    

I mention both books because they make essentially the same point -- as Christakis put it in a review of Watt's book, social systems sometimes trump our individual common sense through processes like "self-reinforcing cascades in which outcomes feedback on themselves, or non-linear dynamics, in which small changes in input can lead to large changes in output."  

In other words, the groups we belong to play a larger role in what we think and how we behave than we realize.  That's especially true when dealing with people who are clearly outsiders, the so-called "Other." 

Evolutionary psychologists have come to the conclusion that human beings are hard-wired to live and work in groups. An important corollary to that tendency is that we're also hard-wired to be suspicious -- and even hostile -- towards people who are not in the group.

Understanding both those instincts is key to understanding what may superficially appear as personal and individual thoughts, actions and intentions. 

Only then, are we capable of recognizing ourselves in the Other and the Other in ourselves.





News literacy

Richard Richard Edelman is CEO of the largest independent PR agency in the world with offices in more than 50 cities from NY to Beijing.

Nevertheless, he finds time to write an always interesting blog. (Note: I'm semi-retired and I still have trouble finding time to blog.)

Edelman's blog is called 6 a.m., which may be a sly reference to the hour when it's written, nearly every Monday or Tuesday, depending, I suspect, on where he is in the world.  

This week's entry -- "What to Believe?" -- is especially worth reading.  It concerns the most popular course at Stony Brook University, "News Literacy," which tries to give students what one professor calls a "BS detector."  

That would be laudible in its own right, except that the course's creators go well beyond media bias to tackle the personal biases that blind us to anything inconsistent with our pre-existing attitudes and beliefs.

As discussed in my new book, Otherwise, those personal filters are the biggest roadblock to understanding other people, especially those who are unlike ourselves. Something like "News Literacy" should be a required course in every college.

As usual, Edelman doesn't content himself with a pithy description of the course. He concludes with cogent recommendations for corporations, NGOs, and governments.

One he doesn't mention: find a senior PR counselor with the intellectual curiosity to find and interview the kind of people who develop courses like "News Literacy."





? S
o does anyone know when people started sentences (and emails) with the word "so," with no obvious antecedent?

I began noticing it about a year ago and now it seems to everywhere.  

An interviewer on NPR asks someone "What's your new book about?"  

And the author replies, "So, I began writing this book about a year ago..."

So what's the deal?

My theory -- it's the English equivalent of the French "alors," which is a generalized exclamation, used to interject a hard stop between whatever came before and what follows. 

(During my vacation in Italy, I noticed that shopkeepers used the Italian allora-- literally, "so" -- the same way.)

A good example of the French usage is the music video of a 2009 song by the Belgian singer Stromae, Alors on danse! ("So we dance!").  A businessman has a lousy day and, in reaction to a final indignity, throws up his hands and proclaims, "So we dance!"

You can view the original music video, in French, here.  And Stromae's English-language version is here. Several American rappers released covers of the song in 2010. Kanye West's version (really a remix) is here.

One problem: as far as I can tell, none of these versions use English for the title words, but keep Alors on danse!   

Second problem: once you play all three versions, you won't be able to get the infectious beat out of your head.






Empathy quotient

Test paper S
peaking of empathy, I happend across an online test that will estimate your "empathy quotient."

So if you've ever wondered just how empathetic you are, here's the chance to find out.

The test is the brainchild of a Canadian physicist, Glenn Rowe, who is pursuing a number of interests unrelated to his formal profession in what he calls his "intellectual afterlife."  

Unfortunately, he seems to have swallowed the notion that the brains of men and women are wired differently.  I'm not so sure about that. But the test he devised is interesting (and, I assume, anonymous).




Empathy I
took some time off after delivering the manuscript for Otherwise. 
But I've never been far from the topic.

Whether jockeying for space on a vaporetto in Venice or dodging mountain bikers on a hiking trail in the Italian lake district, I've been keenly aware of the need to develop my sense of empathy.

Empathy may be the key to getting along with people who are not like ourselves.

So when I got back, I was pleased to see an article in the New York Times about a Ridgefield, NJ, high school program designed to promote empathy amongst kids whose natural tribe is usually a hard-shelled clique.  

The program, sponsored by a non-profit called Positive Exposure, will be expanded to five more high schools in the fall.  The project is the brainchild of fashion photographer Rick Guidotti. "Our goal is to provide opportunities for students to see beyond differences and embrace our shared humanity," he says.

That's a man who is truly Otherwise.