Tears in the Wayback
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine

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July 2006 Archive

July 24, 2006: Tears in the Wayback

I’m always a bit surprised when people write hateful things to me (or about me) simply because we hold different opinions on some issue. My LA Times essay on global warming (click here) brought more than the usual amount of obscene mail from…well, what do you call someone who refuses to believe that the sky is falling? Chicken Big?

But my favorite ad hominem attack of the week came from a blogger who read my Time essay on children and happiness (click here) and wrote: “Dr. Gilbert is a very bitter and misguided man who needs to experience fatherhood before he again attempts to write with authority on the subject.” Yes, it was painful for me to learn that I am bitter and misguided. But it was even more painful to learn that I am not a father. I called my 30 year old son to give him the bad news, and he too was chagrined to find that we are unrelated.

Any time I publish an essay I get email from people who disagree. Some are polite and thoughtful, and they give me faith in the power of civil discourse to educate and enlighten. But some are just shamelessly vulgar, vitriolic, and vituperative. I find myself wondering why these folks are so damned angry, and why they think it is okay to lash out at a perfect stranger.

These thoughts were in mind last week as I watched news coverage of the situation in the Middle East. Like so many other commentators, I am struck by the intractable nature of this conflict—-by the seemingly endless cycles of attack and retaliation. No one knows what it takes to break this kind of recursive loop, but psychologists have learned a few things about loops and cycles that I thought might be worth sharing. So I wrote the following essay, which appeared in today’s New York Times.

I hope you find it interesting—-but if not, please don’t write to tell me that I should experience brotherhood before writing about it. I’m getting pretty low on relatives as it is.

He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t
New York Times, July 24, 2006

Long before seat belts or common sense were particularly widespread, my family made annual trips to New York in our 1963 Valiant station wagon. Mom and Dad took the front seat, my infant sister sat in my mother’s lap and my brother and I had what we called “the wayback” all to ourselves.

In the wayback, we’d lounge around doing puzzles, reading comics and counting license plates. Eventually we’d fight. When our fight had finally escalated to the point of tears, our mother would turn around to chastise us, and my brother and I would start to plead our cases. “But he hit me first,” one of us would say, to which the other would inevitably add, “But he hit me harder.”

It turns out that my brother and I were not alone in believing that these two claims can get a puncher off the hook. In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral —- unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words —- like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” —- whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first. That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts —- from Ireland to the Middle East —- offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves —- but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation.

If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.

Research shows that people have as much trouble applying the second principle as the first. In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others —- and to start trusting others themselves —- there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback

Here are references for the research described in this essay:

• Swann Jr. W. B., Pelham, B. W., & Roberts, D. C. (1987). Causal chunking: Memory and inference in ongoing interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 858-865.

• Shergill, S. S., Bays, P. M., Frith, C. D., & Wolpert, D. M. (2003). Two eyes for an eye: The neuroscience of force escalation. Science, 301, 187.

Posted by Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006 | E-mail this post

July 2, 2006: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine

Next time I’m in the Bay area I’m going to stop by Kepler’s Bookstore (click here) and kiss all the clerks because Stumbling on Happiness is now their bestselling hardcover nonfiction title. Although I was delighted to have found a store where I outsold Ann Coulter and several fine books about pets, I was not pleased to see that I also outsold Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (click here). But more about that in a moment.

Let me first thank some readers who took time to alert me to errors in Stumbling on Happiness. Matt Denio pointed out two places in the book in which I refer to the pupils of the eye contracting when, in fact, I meant dilating. Yikes. This error will be fixed in the next printing, which is just about to happen. By the way, the new cover will have a quote from Malcolm Gladwell’s review on, so if you own a copy of the first printing, you now own a rare book that is probably worth two to five cents more than you paid for it.

I was also delighted to receive an email from Moss Kaplan, who taught me about the circus. In Stumbling, I cheekily suggest that we experience an illusion when we see a large numbers of clowns exit a very small car. Moss writes:

As it happens, I was a circus clown with Ringling Brothers almost two decades ago, and I laughed at your mention of the “illusion” of the merry clowns piling out of the tiny car. On this one point you are actually quite mistaken. There is no illusion. The clowns really do all “fit” in the car. I know this because for more than a year, as the new clown on the road, I had the miserable privilege of being the first to climb in and the last to get out. Thirteen times a week. Limbs contorted and squashed, a clown nicknamed Nasty and his putrid breath an inch from my face, all eighteen-plus clowns sat there until it was time to pile out with happy faces plastered on. The only ‘trick” is that the car has had its seats removed and little holes drilled into the body so we wouldn’t suffocate.

I stand corrected, and apologize to squished and beleaguered clowns worldwide. Live and learn.

Speaking of living and learning, it seems to me that we will soon be doing a lot less of the former unless we do a lot more of the latter. An editor from the Los Angeles Times called me recently with a very good question that went something like this: “If global warming is the devastating threat that Al Gore says it is, then why aren’t people freaking out about it? And don’t tell me that people just don’t care about the future because people do all sorts of things with the future in mind, such as quitting smoking and saving for retirement. But for some reason they don’t seem to get bent out of shape over global warming. What can psychology tell us about that?”

I don’t know if I’d ever thought about this question consciously before, but I must have been thinking about it unconsciously for quite some time because once the question was posed, the answers came quickly. The resulting essay was published today in the Los Angeles Times, and I reproduce it for you here. I keep having the odd thought that I will someday look back on this and realize that it was the only important thing I ever wrote.

If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming
Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2006

No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won’t involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.

Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features —- features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to —- what they know and want, what they are doing and planning —- has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That’s why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn’t. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn’t trying to kill us, and that’s a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation’s top priority.

The second reason why global warming doesn’t put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn’t cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn’t force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain’s call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn’t make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don’t feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.

The third reason why global warming doesn’t trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures —- not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That’s what brains did for several hundred million years —- and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain’s most stunning innovations, and we wouldn’t have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

We haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we’ve only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.

There is a fourth reason why we just can’t seem to get worked up about global warming. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn’t happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he’d return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem..

The human brain is a remarkable device that was designed to rise to special occasions. We are the progeny of people who hunted and gathered, whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a stick. When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm resolve, just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.

It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.

Posted by Dan Gilbert on July 2, 2006 | E-mail this post