Spirituality and “skeptuality”

Is “rational” spirituality a contradiction in terms? In the latest episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Massimo and I try to pin down what people mean when they call themselves “spiritual,” what inspires spiritual experiences and attitudes, and whether spirituality can be compatible with a naturalist view of the world.

Are there benefits that skeptics and other secular people could possibly get from incorporating some variants on traditional spiritual practices — like prayer, ritual, song, communal worship, and so on — into their own lives?

We xamine a variety of attempts to do so, and ask: how well have such attempts worked, and do they come with any potential pitfalls for our rationality?

http://www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs55-spirituality.html

A rational view of tradition

In my latest video blog I answer a listener’s question about why rationalists are more likely to abandon social norms like marriage, monogamy, standard gender roles, having children, and so on. And then I weigh in on whether that’s a rational attitude to take:

Basking in Reflected Glory: Football, Self Esteem, and Pronoun Choice

Sports fan? This might describe you. Not a sports fan? This will help you make fun of the sports fans! Everyone else who just doesn’t care either way, here’s a neat psychology study for you.

You’ve probably noticed that when a team wins, their fans are more likely to wear their jerseys around. Since the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots 21-17 in the Superbowl last night, I’ve seen a bunch of proud Giants fans gloating on Facebook. But it’s not just the bragging, it’s the way they brag.

It turns out that sports fans will actually change the words they use based on whether their favorite team won or lost. Once again, I turn to the impeccable Mitchell and Webb to illustrate the tendency:



I love that retort: “Remember when we were chasing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Movies don’t inspire the same tribal attitudes that sports do, but Mitchell’s rant does highlight the absurdity of using the word “we” in this context.

It’s not just anecdotal. Mitchell and Webb are describing an actual social phenomenon: Even if they have nothing to do with the results, fans are more likely to use “we” pronouns when their favorite team is doing well.

Robert Cialdini called it Basking in Reflected Glory. In an attempt to gain social standing, we try to associate ourselves with success.

Basking in Reflected Glory

Conducting a creative study (pdf), Cialdini and his researchers called college students and asked them how their school’s team had done in a particular game. When describing victories, 32% of the students referred to the team as “we” – “We won,” “We beat them,” etc. In contrast, only 18% used the word “we” when talking about their school’s team losing.

Makes sense, right? People wanted to be seen as part of a winning group. But it gets better.

Cialdini added a twist to his study: before asking about the football game, he asked the students six quick, factual questions. Regardless of their answers, they were either told that they’d done well (gotten five correct) or poorly (gotten only one out of six correct). He hypothesized that the students who were told they’d failed would be more likely to grasp at straws to regain social status.

When the numbers were separated out, the tendency was clear: Almost all the increase in “we” pronouns was from the students who lost prestige by being told they’d failed.

Likelihood of using “we” pronoun(%)

“Succeeded” on Test “Failed” on Test Mean
Describing Win 24% (11/45) 40% (16/40) 32% (27/85)
Describing Loss 22% (9/41) 14% (6/42) 18% (15/83)

Students who were given a dose of self-esteem didn’t change their language based on whether their team won or lost.

But students who felt embarrassed? They were much more likely to latch onto a winning team and distance themselves from a losing team.

So you know all those Giants fans posting status updates on Facebook saying “We won!” or “We’re number one”? Ask them why their self-esteem is so low that they need to Bask in Reflected Glory.

That’ll show ‘em.

[Title changed after posting from "How Football Scores Actually Change The Way We Talk"]

Nerdy Romance Mistakes

As much as I hate the stereotype that nerds are hopeless at romance (and social life in general) today’s SMBC comic cracked me up:

At first it seemed like an example of the conjunction fallacy, in which people think the general conditions are less likely than a more specific example of the conditions.  (That’s mathematically impossible.)  But the comic isn’t about probability, it’s about utility.  And you know, it’s not just a GIVEN that owning the world has net positive utility!  It would be extraordinarily time-consuming to rule the world.

Yeah, I know, it’s a stretch.

And I’m forced to plead guilty to a similar situation.  A number of years back, a girl I was dating told me she worried sometimes that she liked me more than I liked her.  My unthinking response at the time was, “Well, it’s unlikely to be exactly equal.  Someone has to like the other more.”

I’ve gotten much better since then.

If only I’d heard of the Maxims of Conversation earlier:

Quantity:

  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.

Quality:

  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.

Manner:

  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.

Relevance:

  • Be relevant.

We tend to assume that people are following these maxims in conversation.  While my reply is true in a strict sense, it implied a whole lot more.

Ah well, live and learn.

Why this Meme Exploded

[cross-posted on Friendly Atheist]

Somehow, it went viral. In just 24 hours, the Secular Student Alliance (my organization)’s Facebook page exploded from 6,500 supporters’ “likes” to 18,000. I found myself thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” And then thinking, “Hmm… how can we do it again?”

The whole thing started with Kenny Flagg, one of our group leaders with the Freethinkers of UND. After noticing that the SSA’s Facebook presence was much smaller than Campus Crusade for Christ’s, he wanted to make a difference. He “grabbed both profile pictures for the groups, added the stats from each page, and threw in a quick meme for good measure.” Then he posted it on Reddit. That was it. Take a look – would you would expect it to inspire a frenzy of activity?


Yes, this is the image that launched a thousand clicks. Well, several thousand, actually.

I had to figure out why a simple picture like this inspired such a big reaction. The more I thought about it, the more psychology and rhetorical communication techniques I saw present. Kenny:

  1. Demonstrated insider status
  2. Invoked tribal/patriotic feelings, and
  3. Gave people direction.

Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Kenny’s Insider Status (Ethos)

Kenny was a perfect person for the task. If my coworkers or I had been the ones to post, we would seem self-serving. Kenny, not being an SSA employee, comes across as a more objective voice. Do you trust the used car salesman or the blue book to tell you a car’s value? We tend to trust people more if they share our interest – and we trust them less if we suspect they’re looking out for themselves.

A great way to gain people’s trust is by proving that you’re a member of their community. Sharing group identity acts as a proxy for sharing values. The “Challenge accepted” meme accomplished that beautifully. It’s like using slang – it reinforces your status as an insider. Redditors heard the message: “I’m one of you.” He put that to good use.

Our Tribal Emotions (Pathos)

After establishing his credibility as an insider, Kenny appealed to an incredibly powerful emotion to get them to act: group loyalty. When groups of people get compared to their rivals, it creates an us-versus-them mentality. The competition angle rallied atheists on Reddit into a stronger, more unified group.

And the more atheist redditors rallied together, the stronger the social proof dynamic became. When we’re in a group, we tend to watch other people for cues about how to behave. As redditors saw other people commenting, upvoting the post, and liking the SSA’s page, it influenced their behavior. People got the impression: “This is what it atheists on Reddit are doing.” As part of that group, they felt moved to behave the same way.

Kenny’s post inspired group pride, anger at cultural opponents, and the desire to fit in – emotions that motivate us to act. But that motivation needed direction.

Giving a Direction (Logos)

Have you ever felt that you wanted to make a difference, but just didn’t know how to do it? Without direction, all that energy just sputters out. Telling people to “eat healthier” is overwhelming and vague, but saying “switch to 1% milk” is specific and helpful.

Kenny gave everyone a simple, concrete task: go click “like” on the Secular Student Alliance’s page. He had everyone share his big vision: to get the Secular Student Alliance as many “likes” as the Campus Crusade for Christ page. He even provided a link to the SSA’s Facebook page. The direction was clear.

It all fit together.

Can we do this again?

We never know for sure whether a meme will explode.

But we’ll be more likely to go viral if we pay attention to what works. If you’re interested, I recommend Chip and Dan Heath’s books Made to Stick and Switch. Kenny managed to use psychology techniques without meaning to, but we can be more deliberate with our efforts. (Be careful fostering us-versus-them feelings. Competition is all well and good, but actual hostility is dangerous.)

There might seem like a lot of it boils down to luck. But as Richard Wiseman found, capitalizing on “luck” is really a skill. The Secular Student Alliance prepared by generating student leaders who were enthusiastic to help us out. When we spotted the opportunity we posted like madmen, and even  hosted an “Ask Us Anything” to interact with the community. And yes, Kenny did a fantastic job.

For such a quick image, it had a lot going for it. It’s not exactly Cicero orating in the Roman Senate, but it was damn good rhetoric in its own way. Forget a thousand words, that picture was worth 12,000 Facebook fans.

What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?

I was pleased to discover that one of my favorite bloggers, Luke Muehlhauser, had recently tackled a topic that’s been on my mind too: what do people mean when they talk about men “objectifying” women, and why exactly is it a bad thing? As per usual with Luke’s posts, it’s a clear-headed and thoughtful analysis, and it’s obvious that he isn’t trying to attack anyone — just genuinely trying to parse the concept and determine the degree to which it makes sense.

Luke lists several typical ways people define “objectification,” most of which center around the idea of treating another person as a means to an end, without being conscious of their feelings and goals and preferences. I’ve always felt this is an odd definition for two reasons, both of which Luke raises: First, it seems like an incomplete definition, in that there are many cases that match that definition perfectly but which no one would call instances of objectification (Luke has a clever photographic example).

And second, if objectification is “using someone as a means to an end,” it isn’t clear why objectification is inherently bad, even though the word typically carries a strong connotation of condemnation. After all, we all use each other as means to an end all the time! When I buy a cup of coffee, I’m treating the barista as a means to the end of getting a cup of coffee. I’m not really thinking about his feelings or goals — and I don’t think he expects or particularly wants me to be.

Of course, if not-thinking about someone’s feelings means that you harm him (like if I were rude to the barista) then it’s easy to see why that’s bad. But the proper conclusion from that fact is “harming people is bad,” not “objectification is bad.” It’s certainly possible to use someone as a means to an end without harming him, and so it’s still not clear why objectification per se is bad.

At least, that’s the form my argument typically took until yesterday. I thought about it a bit more after reading Luke’s analysis, and concluded that I had been missing part of the picture. So to the extent that I’m now sympathetic to arguments against objectification, it’s for this reason:

Objectification’s not necessarily a problem at the individual level. When Person A uses Person B as a means to an end, as long as B’s not being harmed, then it’s ethically unproblematic (at least for us utilitarian-minded folks). The tricky thing is that when you have a lot of A’s systematically treating a lot of B’s as a means to an end in the same kind of way, it can start to become a problem. Because at that scale, it can affect the way A’s and B’s think about each other — people’s attitudes are influenced by the way the people around them think and act. So it can have this self-reinforcing ripple effect that ends up stifling other kinds of interactions and relationships that many A’s and B’s would’ve found fulfilling.

So, that’s my current theory. It’s the best I can do at reconciling the facts that (1) I’m not at all bothered by the idea of a particular man being interested in a particular woman only for sex, and (2) I hate the idea of a society in which most men are only interested in women for sex (and I think such a society would be seriously sub-optimal for both men and women).*

I think this is a very under-appreciated aspect of the objectification debate. I also think it poses interesting problems for utilitarian ethics; how do you assign blame in situations where any single person doing X is harmless, but many people doing X is harmful? It’s somewhat akin to problems like pollution, where each individual actor can truthfully argue, “Given that everyone else is polluting, it’s not going to make any difference if I do it too.”

And with objectification, not only do you have the fact that no single person’s actions are going to measurably change the overall culture, you also have the fact that the overall culture is partly to blame for each individual’s actions. And all of the individuals’ actions, in turn, are to blame for the overall culture. The circularity makes it especially tricky to figure out the degree to which any individual actor deserves blame for his actions.

*Of course, men objectifying women isn’t the only kind of objectification; you could fill in any gender in place of either “men” or “women.” I just used that pairing because it’s the typical one in these discussions, but my argument isn’t actually gender-dependent.

Being a Dick is not Binary

(crossposted at Friendly Atheist)

“Should we be offensive?” is a common question in the secular movement. It’s also the wrong question.

The title of this post comes from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM 8, which sparked conversation about the wisdom of offending people in the cause of critical thinking. Though it generated the most attention, it’s not the first time we’ve asked these questions: Should we condemn people for opposing LGBT rights? Mock people for believing in creationism? Call religion a delusion? Sometimes it seems like everything we do offends people – even the simple act of advertising our existence offended Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

In the face of that, it’s almost liberating, isn’t it? If everything we do is offensive, it doesn’t matter anymore – we can stop worrying about it. In fact, I used to argue that myself! When confronted with accusations that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was offensive, I’d point to the bus ads and billboards and say, “People get offended at the most mundane things. We can’t let that hold us back.”

But offensiveness not a simple yes-or-no issue. Like Julia wrote a few months ago, it’s tempting to treat belief as a black and white matter. It’s not – we can hold beliefs with differing degrees of confidence, and if we treat it otherwise we lose a lot of power to make distinctions, see nuance, and chart the best course of action. It’s the same with asking whether or not to be offensive. We need to add nuance.

At the first level, it’s probably more helpful to phrase the question “How many people are my actions likely to offend?” Not all offensive statements are equal. Sure, saying “People can be good without god” offends people, but not as many people as “Religion is a myth.”

We can go further. Asking how many people we expect to offend still treats the issue as a binary: they’re either offended or they’re not. A better phrasing would be “How offended will people be?” Billboards reading “Religion is a myth” and “Jesus was a bastard” would both upset a lot of people – but not to the same extent.

But even this isn’t what we want to be asking. To take the final step, we need to dissolve the question away into what we actually want to know. Each time we ask “Should we be a dick in this situation?” we’re really wondering a lot of things, like:

  • Do we like the short-term and long-term reactions this will elicit?
  • Would it attract attention for our message?
  • Would it reduce the chance of persuading the target?
  • Would it help push the boundaries of the national conversation?
  • Would it damage a helpful relationship?

There isn’t an inherent property “being offensive” or “being a dick” – that’s just a heuristic, and it’s not very precise. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say just a heuristic – labeling a message as ‘offensive’ is a helpful way to talk about expected reactions. But we need to be able to step back and refocus our attention when the heuristic causes confusion.

And the heuristic IS causing confusion. Treating it as a single, inherent property leads people to miss the strategic benefits – and drawbacks – of getting people upset in different ways and contexts. Treating it as a binary question leads people to wield anger indiscriminately rather than tactically.

What we should be asking ourselves, when choosing a message, is this: “How offended do we want people to be, and offended how?”

For example, I still stand behind my support of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – it did cause a lot of offense, but it offended people in the right way: by intentionally disregarding the Islamic demand that we respect their prophet. That was the goal – shocking people into paying more attention to a dogma which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist. When we’re trying to educate someone, a small amount of offense is useful to catch their attention – say, by openly disagreeing. But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about whether or not to offend people.  But we can be so much more precise thinking about it in terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, disagreement.

They say the devil’s in the details – so we should feel right at home.

Sarcasm, Hidden Meanings, and Politeness

So much of communication is not about what we say directly, but about the implications of how we choose to convey the information. Most of my day job revolves around crafting a sentence’s literal content so that the audience/readers will most likely understand my intended, implied message.

What fascinates me is how easily we can understand a person’s intended message from even drastically different literal content.

Take the sentence “Your dog is very happy right now.” The literal meaning is obvious: the dog is happy! But what if it came right after you ask your friend, “What happened to my roast beef sandwich?” Suddenly, the intended message changes: the treacherous dog ate your sandwich! We’re able to draw the correct implication, but how?

More: Grice’s Conversation Maxims, implied meanings, & comments:

“More like OKStupid, amirite?”

That was the subject line of an email my friend James sent me yesterday. His email contained a link to this post by OK Cupid’s blog, where the OKC team sifts through their massive amounts of data to find interesting facts about people’s dating habits.

This latest post is called “The Mathematics of Beauty” and it purports to reveal a startling finding: women whose looks inspire a lot of disagreement among men (i.e., with some men rating them hot and others rating them ugly) get more messages. And the number of messages you receive is positively correlated with the number of men rating you a “5 out of 5,” but is negatively correlated with the number of men rating you a “4 out of 5.”  OK Cupid says, “This is a pretty crazy result, but every time we ran the numbers—changing the constraints, trying different data samples, and so on—it came back to stare us in the face.”

To explain these odd results, the OKCupid bloggers came up with two game theoretic stories: First, men who see a woman and think “She’s a 4″ will also think “That’s cute enough for plenty of other men to be into her, so I’ll have lots of competition… but that’s not hot enough for it to be worth it for me to try anyway.” And second, if men think, “She’s really hot to me, but I bet other men will disagree,” they’ll be more likely to message her, because they expect less competition. So women with a polarizing look will turn off some men, but the men who are turned on will be even more likely to message her knowing that other men are turned off.

Based on these stories, OKCupid offers the following advice to its female users who want to get more messages from men:

“We now have mathematical evidence that minimizing your “flaws” is the opposite of what you should do. If you’re a little chubby, play it up. If you have a big nose, play it up. If you have a weird snaggletooth, play it up: statistically, the guys who don’t like it can only help you, and the ones who do like it will be all the more excited.”

Oh my. That sounds like really bad advice. Before people start enthusiastically pointing the camera at their fat rolls, maybe we should check and make sure this analysis is sound. Because my opinion is that OKCupid’s crazy results can easily be explained by much less counterintuitive stories than the ones they concoct.

First of all, the “attractiveness” ratings they’re using aren’t really attractiveness ratings. They come from a feature on the site called Quickmatch, which presents you with the profile pictures of a succession of people for you to rate from 1 to 5. But you’re free to click through to each person’s full profile. And if you like the way they present themselves through the written part of the profile, you might well rate them highly on Quickmatch; conversely, if you don’t like their written profiles, you might well rate them poorly. Treating those scores as pure “attractiveness” ratings is way off the mark.

Second of all, the way Quickmatch works is that if you rate someone a 4 or 5 and they similarly rate you a 4 or 5, then you both receive emails informing you of each other’s interest. So this data is even more tainted, because people are not simply thinking “How attractive is this person?” — they’re thinking “Do I want this person to contact me?” If you think someone’s not that attractive but you’d still want to date her, you might well rate her a 4 just in case she’s also interested in you.

In fact, I strongly suspect there are a lot of guys who just rate every single girl a 4 or 5, giving 5′s to the girls they think are good-looking and 4′s to everyone else. It’s a carpet-bombing strategy — why rule anyone out off the bat? (My suspicion is grounded in some results from a speed-dating study I worked on in college, with a psychology professor at Columbia; I got to look at the ratings sheets after each speed dating session, and there were plenty of guys who just circled the entire row of “YES” rather than circling YES or NO to each girl individually.)

And as you can imagine, if a lot of guys are using “4″ to mean “anyone who’s not a 5,” then of course 4′s are going to be negatively correlated with the number of messages a girl gets, because many or most of those 4′s actually indicate 1′s, 2′s, and 3′s.

What I think the OKCupid blog post illustrates is how easy it is to come up with a story to explain any result, whether or not the result is real. To paraphrase my friend James for a minute: if you find yourself saying “I know this is crazy, but numbers don’t lie,” you should really calm down and check to see if you’ve made a mistake, because chances are, you have.

Policing our language

I got together with some friends to play a game of Fiasco the other night. As the game-coordinator was explaining the rules, he said, “Okay, so half the dice are black and half the dice are white. During a scene, any one of you has the option to decide whether the scene concludes well or poorly for the central character — just indicate your choice by placing one of the dice in front of that character. A white die means the scene turns out well, and a black die means it turns out poorly.”

One of the other players interjected: “Could we please not use that color-coding system, where white means good, and black means bad?” The game coordinator quickly replied, “Oh, sure. Let’s switch it around.”

I understood what she was getting at, and it struck me as a case of political correctness carried to an extreme. People’s associations of white/good, black/bad pre-date any intermingling of white people and black people, so it seems absurd to attribute those associations to racism. A more plausible explanation is that the associations with white and black originated in the fact that the blackness of nighttime means we are colder and more vulnerable to danger than we are in the light of day. So this girl’s suggestion that the color coding system was offensive struck me, at the time, as overreaching.

But talking about it later with a friend I re-considered. Even if I’m right about the origins of the white/good black/bad associations, isn’t it still possible that those associations have a subtle impact on how we view white people vs. black people? If we’re used to associating white-the-color with goodness and black-the-color with badness, then is it so implausible to think we might unconsciously apply some of those associations to white-the-race and black-the-race, too?

The question also reminds me of the debate over gender-neutral pronouns. The idea of using “he” as the generic pronoun, to refer to a person of unspecified gender, has been accused of being sexist. Attempts to coin a new pronoun for use in such cases have so far been a failure (en? hir? hesh? hizer? hirm? sheehy?).

And my initial inclination is just to say, look, everyone understands that when we say “mankind” we mean all men AND women, and that when we say “fireman” we mean a firefighter of either gender. Right? I mean, why change the way we speak?

But now I’m a little more willing to believe that there could be a small effect of our language on the way we think. If the mental picture you get when you say “mankind” is of men, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think of women as incidental to the course of history? If your mental picture of a firemanr is always a man, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think men make better firefighters? Or to think it’s unfeminine to fight fires because you associate that activity with men (due to our language)?

I’m not even making the argument that this effect does exist, only that it’s a reasonable hypothesis. And I’m also not making the argument that it would be worth the trouble to rewire our language in the hopes of rewiring our brains. But I am acknowledging that it’s not entirely ludicrous, politically-correct histrionics to say that there could be a causal relationship between these words and our perceptions of the world.

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