Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Altruism and the bystander effect

Suppose that you’re at the local convenience store buying the usual—chips, soda, and, if it’s a good day, some Ben & Jerry’s, and there, in the middle of the aisle, is a body. Someone is lying unconscious, bleeding profusely.

What would you do?

According to social psychologists, there’s a good chance that you would simply step over the person and go on your way.

Don’t believe that anyone would do this? Well, that’s exactly what happened in Wichita, Kansas. On July 4th, LaShanda Calloway was stabbed during a robbery, and as she lay there bleeding to death, five shoppers just stepped right over her and kept on going. One of the people actually stopped to take a picture with a cell phone!

How could this happen? When this story was posted on the web, a number of readers wrote comments along the lines of “what is the world coming to?” and “people these days!” The police chief of Wichita exclaimed, “what happened to our respect for life?" But people weren’t always helpful in the past, either.

In 1964, late at night in Queens, New York, Kitty Genovese parked her car and started to walk to her apartment when she was attacked and stabbed not once, not twice, but three times by the same assailant over a half-an-hour period. During that time she screamed for help on numerous occasions, and a total of 38 people heard her—some even watched the events outside their windows. Not a single person even called the police, let alone helped her, until it was too late and she was killed.

Social psychologists term this behavior the “bystander effect:” The more people present in an emergency situation, the less likely any given individual is to help. So, if you see someone in need, whether you help depends on if there are other people around. The more people nearby, the less likely you are to help.

This happens for two reasons. First, having other people around in an emergency creates a diffusion of responsibility. We might assume that others will help, so we don’t need to. They may even be better qualified to help, we may presume, so we should let them intervene. Maybe they are closer to the victim or saw the victim before we did, so somehow they have more responsibility than we do.

Second, having bystanders around changes our definition of the situation. According to one of sociology’s core theoretical perspectives, symbolic interactionism, we make sense of our daily situations through our interactions with others. Especially when we’re in an ambiguous situation, we look to others to figure out how we should understand the situation and what we should do (and they’re looking to us to figure things out too). If in an emergency situation we see that nobody else is helping, we might think that we shouldn’t either. Maybe it’s not really an emergency, or maybe there is nothing that can be done.
At this point you might be thinking that this is interesting, but it would never happen to you. Well, guess again. The bystander effect happens even when you’re aware of it. I know because it happened to me.

Two weeks ago some friends came over to go swimming. We have an in-ground pool, and two weeks ago a friend and her four-year-old daughter came over to go swimming. The couldn’t swim, so her mother put her in a life vest. But the life vest was too small, and it didn’t keep her head completely out of the water. After about paddling around for a while, the started to get tired, and, in the middle of the pool, she could no longer get her mouth above water. She couldn’t breathe and started to panic.

As this was happening, I was talking with the mother on the pool deck, and we turned to watch the . Now, if I had been alone, I would have just jumped in and pulled the out. Instead, I turned to the mother to see what she was doing. She looked calm (though I later found out that she wasn’t), and I thought maybe she was going to take care of the situation. So, we both stood there--for a very long 10 or 15 seconds before the mother jumped in. The was fine, though a little shaken. Afterwards I wondered why in the world I didn’t help, and then I realized what had happened: I gave responsibility to the mother, and I thought that maybe I was reading the situation wrong. Classic bystander effect.

The bystander effect also applies to bigger problems. Why have people been so slow to deal with global warming? Why have people ignored the AIDS pandemic in Africa for so long? Why do so few people care about stores selling products made in exploitive manufacturing conditions? We might think that the bigger a problem, the more likely we will be to do something about it, but, ironically, the exact opposite is true. If a problem affects many others, we’ll likely think that someone else should or will take care of it, or maybe we’ll see no one else doing anything and decide it’s not really a problem after all.

What then should we do? The next time you’re a bystander when someone needs help, don’t just stand by.
(An essay from Norton's everydaysociologyblog.com.)

Monday, July 30, 2007

The hypocrisy of Christian leaders as a social construction

In March, ABC's newshow, 20/20, ran a story about a Southern California pastor, K.C. Price, and it showed a film clip of Price saying:

"I live in a 25-room mansion, I have my own $6-million yacht, I have my own private jet and I have my own helicopter and I have seven luxury automobiles."

Sounds terrible, doesn't it. Yet another instance of Christian leaders gone bad! Why, Diane Sawyer even expressed shock that a preacher would have this kind of wealth.

There's only one problem... it's not true. Price prefaced this statement by saying he was hypothetically "quoting a hypothetical person with great material wealth who failed to follow a righteous path."

So, 20/20 was dead wrong; they've issued retractions, and now they are being sued. (Story from the LA Times).

This raises an interesting issue: Why does the media so frequently portray Christian leaders as hypocrites?

One reason is that it's interesting.
A fundamental motivation for the media is increasing viewership, so any story that would broadly appeal will be prominently featured. This is why they carry endless stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

It's also why we think crime is always getting worse when in fact it has mostly gotten better over the past two decades--murder and crime makes for a good story.

It's also why so many people think that flying in commercial airlines is so dangerous. As I understand it, it's safer than driving, but plane wrecks make good copy.

Stories about the many, many Christian leaders acting like Christians would be boring. Instead, let's find the stories of leaders doing wrong.

Another reason is a different standard of wrong-doing.

Is it newsworthy for a man separated from his wife to with another women? Not unless its Jim Baker, then it's front-page material.

Is it right for a man to hire a ? No, but it probably won't be nationwide, interrupt-this-program-bring-you-breaking-news important unless its Ted Haggard.

Is it wrong for a CEO to have an extravagant house? No way... we would normally celebrate it, unless of course it's KC Price. (At least what we think he has, according to 20/20).

This constitutes a form of status offense. Things that are acceptable, or at least not a big deal, for most people are grievous offenses for Christian leaders.

As such, the media disproportionately emphasizes Christian leaders as hypocrites when in fact I would imagine they are among the most ually chaste, financially prudent and overall moral people in society.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting an anti-religious bias, per se, rather this is how the media works. It's the same reason that the media so often portrays blacks as criminals and Muslims as terrorists.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Saturday stuff

We spent yesterday at Lake Compounce... a mid-sized amusement/ water park. Both boys brought friends, and we had such a good time that I doubt that anyone (other than me) will get out of bed this morning before noon.

The Pope on the coexistence of faith and evolution. I'm not sure how creationism got to be a marker of Christianity for some people, but I sure don't get it.

I read the book Leviathan: Whaling in the United States. One of those random topics that was really fun to learn about, especially living here in New England. By the mid-1800s, there were sailing everywhere in the world for years at a time just to get their quota of waling oil. What a tough life.

I printed out a schedule for some upcoming family things, and we talked about it as a family. (Each with our own copy...). After talking for about 20 minutes I asked if we all agreed on the schedule. Cathy and Joshua said yes, but my youngest, Floyd, let out a little wimper and said "but Daddy I can't read."

Cathy and I went to see the movie Ghosts of Cite Soleil. The film maker was given complete access to some gang leaders in the slums of Port-of-Prince Haiti. The people and setting were phenomenonally interesting (though the quality of film making was so-so).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cognitive biases

One of my favorite topics in social psychology is cognitive heuristics/ biases. Here's a list that my brother John linked to on his blog, and it's a useful survey of them....
It would be interesting to think through how they come into play in discussions of religion and faith, by both the believer and non-believer.

A cognitive bias is something that our minds commonly do to distort our own view of reality. Here are the 26 most studied and widely accepted cognitive biases.
Bandwagon effect - the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink, herd behaviour, and manias. Carl Jung pioneered the idea of the collective unconscious which is considered by Jungian psychologists to be responsible for this cognitive bias.
Bias blind spot - the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases.
Choice-supportive bias - the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.
Confirmation bias - the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
Congruence bias - the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing.
Contrast effect - the enhancement or diminishment of a weight or other measurement when compared with recently observed contrasting object.
Déformation professionnelle - the tendency to look at things according to the conventions of one’s own profession, forgetting any broader point of view.
Disconfirmation bias - the tendency for people to extend critical scrutiny to information which contradicts their prior beliefs and uncritically accept information that is congruent with their prior beliefs.
Endowment effect - the tendency for people to value something more as soon as they own it.
Focusing effect - prediction bias occurring when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event; causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.
Hyperbolic discounting - the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs, the closer to the present both payoffs are.
Illusion of control - the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes which they clearly cannot.
Impact bias - the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states.
Information bias - the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action.
Loss aversion - the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains (see also sunk cost effects)
Neglect of probability - the tendency to completely disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.
Mere exposure effect - the tendency for people to express undue liking for things merely because they are familiar with them.
Omission bias - The tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral, than equally harmful omissions (inactions).
Outcome bias - the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.
Planning fallacy - the tendency to underestimate task-completion times.
Post-purchase rationalization - the tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value.
Pseudocertainty effect - the tendency to make risk-averse choices if the expected outcome is positive, but make risk-seeking choices to avoid negative outcomes.
Selective perception - the tendency for expectations to affect perception.
Status quo bias - the tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same.
Von Restorff effect - the tendency for an item that “stands out like a sore thumb” to be more likely to be remembered than other items.
Zero-risk bias - preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a greater reduction in a larger risk.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Measuring the effect of Christianity

In my last post, I argued that comparing the moral behavior of Christians to members of other religions or the non-religiously affiliated is problematic. What comparisions should be made?

I would think that within-person change should be the most sensible way to approach, and this can take place at the individual or community level.

What happens when someone becomes a Christian? How do they change in the coming years? How do they not? Christianity should change the person in tangible, measurable ways.

This gets a little tricky to measure, though, because it's not random who becomes a Christian, so maybe people who would have been different anyway become Christians. Also, people always change anyway, e.g., with age, so we'd have to figure out how to control for that.

We can apply the same logic at the community level. What has happened, historically, when communities have converted to Christianity? Does the well-being of the community members change? The moral behavior? This is problematic for various reasons because it's probably not just the faith the changes but also exposure to different cultures and economic resources.

This approach, of comparing a person or group before and after Christianity seems promising.

For the sociologist... I'm somewhat new to the sociology of religion, so I don't know the literature that well, but are there such studies already conducted?

For the Christian... what do you think changes most rapidly with Christianity?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Does the relative morality of Christians validate their faith?

I want to develop an issue that came up in yesterday's blog post & comments. In particular, I think I was off the mark with something.

One of the comment--as part of an astute reaction to my post--asked the following question: "As a whole, looking at the Christian movement over the last 1,500 years, is there really evidence that Christians are more loving, more altruistic, less self centered, more concerned about their "neighbors" than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists? I don't think so."

My answer was: "I guess I would say probably yes, at least in regards to those who have no religious affiliation."

In retrospect, I think that I had the answer right, but the question wrong. Here's what I mean...

I've analyzed/ summarized other people's analysis of data on divorce rates, sexual behavior, and crime (the latter in a published article), and with each topic, the behavior of Christians, especially those who are active, more closely approximates Christian morals than does the behavior of people with no religious affiliation. Christians had lower levels of divorce, sexual immorality (as defined by Christianity), and crime. Christian vs. other religion comparisons are trickier because of definitional and sampling problems, but I haven't found consistent compelling differences across religion.

Upon reflection, this may not be the right question to be asking if we want to use the moral behavior of Christians to gauge its validity for several reasons.

1) Many morals are relative to the group. So, premarital sex is frowned upon in Christianity but not for other groups, so with some behaviors it really is apples and oranges. Immoral for one group is moral for another.

2) If we find that Christians are more moral on "big" things (things that most people agree are immoral) this could mean that Christianity makes people more moral. Or... it could mean that a) it attracts more moral people or b) rejects less moral people. Neither of these would support the validity of Christianity.

3) If we find that Christians have similar moral behavior as others, at least here in the US perhaps Christianity has sufficiently infused the culture that its effects are widespread... so even people who don't profess it would adopt many of its assumptions. So this would *not* be evidence against the effectiveness of Christianity.

4) If we find that Christians are *less* moral, it could be explained by the type of people become Christian.

5) There's something of a reductionist fallacy here, that a group/ belief system is the sum of its individuals. I get lost rather easily when I try to get philosophical, but I think this is right. Sort of the reverse of the ecological fallacy.

6) Finally this question seems to lead to a "my religion is better than your religion" type discussion that I just can't see as productive for anyone. Sort of like the Yankees vs. Red Sox discussions that pop up at most social events I attend... Oh, wait, in that case there is clear good (Red Sox) and evil (Yankees).
Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that empirical data are useless for understanding and examining the effectiveness of Christianity.

What do you think would be more useful questions? (I have some ideas, which I'll post tomorrow.)


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A journalist's deconversion from Christianity

I am currently working on a research project regarding deconversion from Christianity. Several colleagues and I are looking at stories/interviews of 50 people who had professed Christianity but now reject this.

In this context, I was very interested by this story about William Lobdell--an evangelical Christian who took the religion beat for the LA Times and not believing in the existence of a God.

As he tells it, and I encourage you to read the story, he was overwhelmed by the wrong things Christians were doing. In particular, he was shaken by the Catholic priest ual scandals but also by Christian televangelists' mismanagement of money.

This story raises an interesting question--what did he, and others, expect? Yes, Christians have done despicable things, but does this mean that an Christian so doing is evidence against God? Must all Christians be perfect, or at least pretty good, for Lobdell to believe?

Various posts that I have published (plus plenty by others) make a pretty good case that Christians have less ual "immorality" than others + they use money more responsibly. But, there are exceptions of Christians doing very badly at both.

As such, why would these exceptions matter?

To take another angle, why not gauge the irreligious by the same standard? I would assume that plenty of child molesters and white-collar criminals have no active religious faith.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Map of world religions

Here's a very well-done map of the world's religion.

In looking it over, do you find anything that you didn't expect?

Some of the things that surprised me...
* How few atheists there are
* Which regions do *not* have a dominant religion
* How far down into Africa Islam extends

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Homer Simpson in religious mythology

(Reprinted story)

Homer Simpson vs. Cerne Abbas Giant: Pagans Pray for Rain

Located on a hill near the village of Cerne Abbas, north of Dorchester, England, is a giant chalk drawing of a naked man. Measuring 55 meters high and 51 meters wide, it is thought to be ancient but the oldest records of it only go back to the 17th century. Next to it, though, someone has created an equally large image of Homer Simpson raising high a donut. This publicity stunt for the Simpsons movie has produced outrage among British pagans who continue to regard the Cerne Abbas Giant as a sacred image.

Ann Bryn-Evans, joint Wessex district manager for The Pagan Federation, said: “It’s very disrespectful and not at all aesthetically pleasing.

“We were hoping for some dry weather but I think I have changed my mind. We’ll be doing some rain magic to bring the rain and wash it away.”

She added: “I’m amazed they got permission to do something so ridiculous. It’s an area of scientific interest.”

She also expressed fears that the painting of Homer, from the animated television series The Simpsons, would cause a mess as it washed away.



Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saturday stuff

Joshua and Cathy went to buy the latest Harry Potter book last night at midnight, read it till 2:30 am., and he's been in bed all morning reading it. Not many books can grab people like that.

I had a lot of fun with the boys while Cathy was gone (yes, she did return). I'm not great at remembering to feed them properly. About every other week I'll put Gabriel down for bed at night and he'll remind me that I forgot to feed him dinner. Oops. One meal was actually ice cream and bacon...

When driving by a church with a castle turret on top, Floyd looked up and shouted, "A castle! Knights are near." I don't know where he got that phrase, but it's now a family tag line.

But what about us guys who are married to women who are both smart and sassy? Double happiness?

Stephen Barry, a friend who is also a worship leader at our church, just started a blog about music, arts, and the church... should be interesting.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Grace tax

My brother John, who recently started blogging, posted this gem about a "John Wright" tax. John does a lot of things right in the world, but he does manage to bang up his cars on a regular basis. Rather than getting worked up about it, he's decided to just accept that about himself and set aside some money every year to fix them up.

This is a form of grace, and I've been thinking about how it applies to others as well.

What if we just assumed that everyone does or says dumb things on a regular basis. Rather than getting upset about it, just figure that that person will always require an extra some percentage of our time, money, attention, etc...., and we just plan ahead of time on giving it to them.

The idea of a tax works well here. I got my biweekly paycheck last week, and, as usual, Uncle Sam, insurance companies, and the rest take about one-third of it. I'm so used to it that I don't even notice it anymore; in fact, I can't even tell you what my biweekly gross income is (but I know, and sadly spend, the net down to the dollar).

Here's an example. Somebody that I know very well is married to a wonderful women (who, by the way, doesn't read this blog...). She does many more things right that does the husband, but she has her quirks. For example, if she sweeps the floor, there's a good chance she'll end up leaving a pile of dirt in the corner rather than using a dustpan. Rather than getting upset about this, her husband can just count it as a small tax for the privledge of being married to her. That means, just finishing the job for her without thinking about it.

Not only do we not expect people to be perfect, we plan ahead of time to allow for it.

What do you think? Is there any moral value in this idea?

(I write as someone who needs and gets *tons* of grace)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What, I get paid for this?

W.W. Norton Publishers have put together a sociology blog at www.everydaysociologyblog.com, and I was asked to be one of the contributors.

My first thought was "wow, I get paid for blogging?!" Heck, half the time I'm ready to pay somebody to read what I say.

Once I got over the surprise, I've enjoyed having some (smallish) value put on my creating stuff. I've always admired and been impressed by artists, who can take a lump of clay or paint and create something of beauty and value. (Maybe that's why I enjoy Sarah Stone's blog). This is my little version of that in that someone has put a monetary value on something I've written. I know that writing articles got me a job, tenure, merit pay, etc... but to have a direct write an essay-get a check relationship feels different.

I have a better sense of why people work so hard to get into the arts--to nurture the creative spirit. Not that I'm ready to become a waiter/writer, but still it's a fun thing for now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My wife has left me and fled the country

Somewhere along the line Cathy and I got into the habit of occasionally taking separate vacations. I suppose it was easier than always packing up the kids or getting a multi-day baby sitter.

This week Cathy is in Montreal for five days, staying at a friend's place and seeing the sites. Apparently Montreal is even more cosmopolitan than Storrs, Connecticut!

The boys and I have enjoyed spending more time together and being in a different routine. Lots of yard work, swimming, X-box, and general goofing around. Today we're going to go visit a WWII submarine.

Still, it will be nice to have Cathy back in 2 days, four hours, and 23 minutes.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sin as addiction

I've been reading through the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book these past several months, and I am struck by its general wisdom as well as its applicability to many aspects of Christianity. Here it uses the metaphor to describe alcoholism, and I am struck by how it also describes many forms of sin.

“Our behavior is as absurd and incomprehensible, with respect to the first drink, as that of an individual with a passion, say, for jay-walking. He gets a thrill out of skipping in front of fast-moving vehicles. He enjoys himself for a few years in spite of friendly warnings. Up to this point you would label him as a foolish chap having queer ideas of fun. Luck then deserts him, and he is slightly injured several times in succession. You would expect him, if he were normal, to cut it out. Presently he is hit again, and this time has a fractured skull. Within a week after leaving the hospital a fast-moving trolley car breaks his arm. He tells you he has decided to stop jaywalking for good, but in a few weeks he breaks both legs.”

“On through the years this conduct continues, accompanied by his continual promises to be careful or to keep off the streets altogether. Finally, he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he is held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to get the jaywalking idea out of his head. He shuts himself up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the day he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which breaks his back. Such a man would be crazy, wouldn’t he? (p. 37-38).”

If we think of God as the source of light and good, then turning away from Him, i.e., sin, is equally destructive and futile as this jaywalking.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Saturday stuff

One of the good things of rural living (though I'm only a block away from UConn) are the animals. Last week, I saw in our yard a fox, 4 bluebirds, and bats in several hour period.

The pastor at our church, St. Paul's, is a remarkably gifted leader. As I've posted before, he's trying to get a service going at the mall, and he's hit a corporate-brick wall. (Probably religious discrimination... let everything else in the mall, but not a church). Ben is fighting back and looking for other options. Here's what's going on. Also here.

Latest sign that my oldest son Joshua (now that he's in high school, I'll use his real name) is getting a better education than I did: He and his friend were laughing at a comic strip that his friend wrote... and it was in Latin. (Which I still think is the language spoken in Latvia).

I think that Joshua is growing again. The other night he made a huge sandwhich, ate it all, and then had seconds at dinner 30 minutes later.

This is one of our favorite movies. I can't believe that it's 20 years old.

My latest athletic endeavor: I did a triathalon last week. 24 mile bicycle ride, 1 mile walk in the middle of it to a gas station to fix a flat tire, 30 soak in pool on raft after it. Sweet!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Christian paintball

An ongoing issue in thinking about and trying to act out Christianity is its relationship with culture. While Christianity claims timeless truths, culture constantly changes, and so the appropriate cultural expression of Christianity is, well, a challenge.

In this context, what are we to make of Christian paintball?

"According to the site: "Promised Land Paintball is America's Best Christian Paintball Park! Our Purpose is to help grow God's Kingdom with this Unique Ministry! Promised Land Paintball is used by churches to Strengthen Relationships between Teens in Youth Groups and between Teens and Youth Group Leaders! We are also used as a Great Outreach! Paintball is an Absolute Blast! Play Paintball with Your Youth Group at Promised Land Paintball!"

(Note, all exclamation marks are original to the text!)

At first I just rolled my eyes, but then as I thought about it I couldn't come up with any particular reason not to do it.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Here's a map of the percentage of Europeans who believe in a God, and it's becoming unclear why people charactertize Christianity as a European religion.

Source (via reddit.com)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Saturday stuff

We're thinking of getting a new car (actually a new used car), so one day, on a whim, I went by myself to the Honda dealership. We like Hondas so much that our decision is "which" Honda rather than which car. After test driving a used CR-V, which I really liked, the salesman suggested that I park it at in front of the dealership--in case I wanted to drive it home that day. Now, I was there by myself, without my wife and family. I looked at him with complete befuddlement, and told him that the only good thing about me buying the car by myself is that I would have a nice car to drive to the hospital when I got home and my family beat me.

Related, here's a video demonstrating how to be the perfect husband.

Last week, I gave the boys some jobs to do outside. Floyd's, my youngest, job was to weed a bank about three feet high and twenty feet wide. After about 20 minutes he found me to say that he was all done. I was skeptical, figuring it would take him at least an hour, so I went and checked. Sure enough it looked great. After talking to him a bit more I figured out what happened. Several high school kids, who live in the neighborhood, were walking by, and Floyd got them to help him weed! I was in part impressed and part a bit scared. Tom Sawyer?

My brother John has started a blog. It's really enjoyable. Check out this post... brilliant.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Deindividualization and the Monster within Us

Norton Publishing has put together a sociology blog for college students, entitled everydaysociologyblog.com, and they kindly asked (and are paying me) to contribute.

Here's my first post for them:

Right now, the Weekly Shopper sits on my coffee table. It’s a free weekly newspaper that contains advertisements for local businesses, usually with accompanying photographs of the smiling owners. It also has slice-of-life news stories with edgy headlines such as “families enjoy fishing derby” and “high school class graduates” and “new exhibit at library.”

What I like, however, is the section called “Speak Out.” Here people write in to express themselves about just about anything—from speed bumps to the war in Iraq.

What’s interesting about this section is that what people write can be, well, rather . A common theme is: “I am right and you’re an idiot,” as people write things they would not say in person.

Several weeks ago, someone wrote in suggesting that people should be required to pass a hearing test in order to receive a driver’s license (to make sure that they could hear sirens and horns honking). This week, however, a hearing impaired person wrote in to angrily denounce this suggestion. After citing his clean driving record, he scolded the previous writer: “How dare you… next time think before you make another comment that may offend someone.”
Another writer told of going to a local restaurant with her three-year old-son, who is autistic. When the child started to act out, the family next to them moved to a different table. How did the mother react? She didn’t say anything at the time, but instead she wrote in to “Speak Out” to castigate the family, concluding “you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Another writer complained about her boyfriend spending too much time playing on his X-box. As she put it, “my boyfriend is sweet and everything, but if he gets his hands on that controller, forget it. It’s an all-night thing. What happened to spending quality time together?” What does she do? Instead of talking to him directly, she writes to “Speak Out” to warn him, and all men, that if they play too much X-Box that they will probably “lose their women.”

These types of no-holds-barred comments don’t appear only in small-town newspapers. A similar thing happens with student evaluations of professors. Now, I’m luck because I my evaluations are usually positive (and hopefully not just because I serve cookies during tests). However, some professors are hit pretty hard. Various websites, such as ratemyprofessor.com and myprofessorsucks.com, allow college students to rage against their professors. When students don’t like a professor—watch out, because they will say some wicked things. Here are some actual examples.

"If there is no way to get out of taking him I suggest that you bring a coloring book for something to do that is worthwhile. May I suggest a Spider-Man one."
"I swear, she must have gotten her degree out of a vending machine."
"Made about as much sense as a dissertation about world peace written by a chipmunk on speed."
"Avoid her like a hippy would a war."
And the comments don’t stop with teaching ability. They often address the professor’s personal characteristics:
"His facial hair makes him resemble the wolf dad in the movie Teen Wolf starring Michael J. Fox."
"His insanely colored polo shirts will blind you."

Why does this happen? While the rest of the Weekly Shopper is filled with small-town, apple-pie optimism, the Speak-Out section can be plain mean. College students may be unfailing polite to their professors in person, but they can take potshots in evaluations.

The answer has to do with the fact that both Speak-Out and the student evaluations are anonymous, and as such they invoke a social-psychological process called “deindividualization.” When we are anonymous, we feel that we can act without social consequences. If no one knows who we are, then we feel as though we are not responsible for what we do. We feel freed from social norms of behavior. We do things that we’d never do otherwise. Deindividualization strips away our social identity and frees us to act out our antisocial desires or to respond solely to situational cues. In fact, we don’t even need to be completely anonymous for deindividualization to work—being part of a group or in a uniform might be enough.

Deindividualization matters because it explains some of society’s most undesirable behaviors. The relative anonymity of driving a car can lead drivers to road rage. Large groups of people in a riot allow the individual to smash property and harm others. Hiding in the dark allows a rapist to assault a woman. Wearing uniforms allows prison guards at Abu Ghraib to abuse prisoners. Wearing costumes enable Ku Klux Klan members to promote racism while hiding their identities.

Deindividualization also shows us the power of groups to regulate behavior. Day-in and day-out we are extraordinarily civilized people. We walk into a classroom and quietly sit where we are supposed to. We buy coffee by standing in line, greet the cashier, and pay for it. We don’t punch people every time someone bothers us. We don’t just grab somebody’s cellphone just because we want it (though we might if it’s the new iPhone).

Why are we so civil? There are lots of reasons—socialization, habits, social control—but one reason is that if people know who we are, we act differently. Take away that recognition, that individualization, and we become a different person. Out comes our inner-monster.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pick your difficulty level for today

As I've written about before, I've learned how to play the X-Box game "Halo"--a shoot-em-up set in the future against aliens--as a way of spending time with my boys. Well, I've decided that my favorite feature of the game is that you get to pick the difficulty level you want to play. Want a challenge? Go for it. Want a cake-walk, you've got it.

I would like to figure out how to select the difficulty level of each day. Some days I'm up for trying something really hard. Other days, like today, I want as easy as possible. Wouldn't it be great if I could pick!

Here are the levels from Halo, which might suggest good levels of calibrating each day.

Easy: Your foes cower and fall before your unstoppable onslaught

: Hordes of enemies vie to destroy you, but your nerves of steel give you a solid chance to prevail.

: Your enemies are as numerous as they are ferocious. Their attacks are devastating. Survival is not guaranteed.

. You face opponents who have never known defeat, who laugh at your efforts to survive. This is certain death.

Many days feel stuck on legendary when I really wanted easy...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Hide the children, I'm blogging

From David Weakliem, here's a site that gives a movie style rating to blogs.

Sadly, my blog is a solid NC-17. This sort of isn't what I was aiming for when I started blogging.

Some other blog ratings, from my blog roll:

Stone Parliament - G
Chris Uggen - R
Michael Kruse - R
Ray Fowler - PG
Dan Myers - G (Come on Dan, you're not trying)
Joe Paskewich - NC-17 (another one!)
Joyce Kendrick - PG (with the right link this time!)
Corey Colyer - no rating given. (Maybe one of those foreign blogs with subtitles?)
Ann Althouse - NC-17 (maybe due to provocative picture of plants?)
St. Paul's Church - G (I have no idea how Ben did it)
Tom Volscho - G (?)

Monday, July 02, 2007

An accidental correlation with race

In class last week, we watched a film about the Weather Underground, and I had the students write an essay about it in which they had to speculate whether or not something like that could happen today (that being the student left & violent war protests of the 60s).

About 2/3 the students said "no" because college students today are too self-centered and lazy & because with the war on terror, the government would crack down on such movements really fast.

About 1/3 said "yes" citing issues of poverty and the on-going war in Iraq.

The students only put their campus id on the essays, so I don't know whose essays I'm reading at the time. However, when I was done, I looked up who said "yes", and it turns out that very few of the white students said "yes" but almost all the African-American students said yes.

So, with this very small sample, there was a clear difference by race in the belief in the possibility of such widespread protests.

I can think of some reason as to why, but nothing very profound, so I thought that I would ask you. Thoughts?