Category Archives: Human behavior

Charts of the day: How we get, act on online news


Two charts from How Americans Encounter, Recall and Act Upon Digital News, a new report from the Pew Research Center.

The first chart reveals how we get to online news sources:

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And the second chart shows which of those avenues are more likely to lead us to act, and on which topics:

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Map of the day: Genetic geography patterns


A look at the patterns of ancestrally linked genes reveals population links in the U.S., as well as a map of migrations past. From “Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America” [open access], a new report in Nature Communications co-authored by researchers from Ancestry.com and faculty from Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon University.  We have darkened the graphic from the original because some of type was too pale to read otherwise.

Click on the image to enlarge:

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Chart of the day: The potent impacts of algorithms


Click on the image to enlarge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

From Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age, a new report from the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and based on responses from “ technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders” who were asked this question: “Will the net overall effect of algorithms be positive for individuals and society or negative for individuals and society?.”

Algorithms are programs designed to identify and respond to inputs, and are the basis for all machine learning and so-called artificial intelligence. As Merriam-Webster notes, the word “was formed from algorism ‘the system of Arabic numerals,’ a word that goes back to Middle English and ultimately stems from the name of a 9th-century Persian mathematician, abu-Jafar Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khuwarizmi, who did important work in the fields of algebra and numeric systems.”

Algorithms are ubiquitous in a wired world, used to track us and sell us on products and ideas, yet they themselves remain hidden from view as they harvest data about our likes and dislikes, habits, hobbies, driving patterns, and much, much more.

Here are some of the responses we think are particularly telling:

Chris Showell, an independent health informatics researcher based in Australia, said, “The organisation developing the algorithm has significant capacity to influence or moderate the behaviour of those who rely on the algorithm’s output. Two current examples: manipulation of the process displayed in online marketplaces, and use of ‘secret’ algorithms in evaluating social welfare recipients. There will be many others in years to come. It will be challenging for even well-educated users to understand how an algorithm might assess them, or manipulate their behaviour. Disadvantaged and poorly educated users are likely to be left completely unprotected.”

Writer James Hinton commented, “The fact the internet can, through algorithms, be used to almost read our minds, means those who have access to the algorithms and their databases have a vast opportunity to manipulate large population groups. The much-talked-about ‘experiment’ conducted by Facebook to determine if it could manipulate people emotionally through deliberate tampering with news feeds is but one example of both the power, and the lack of ethics, that can be displayed.”

An anonymous president of a consulting firm said, “LinkedIn tries to manipulate me to benefit from my contacts’ contacts and much more. If everyone is intentionally using or manipulating each other, is it acceptable? We need to see more-honest, trust-building innovations and fewer snarky corporate manipulative design tricks. Someone told me that someday only rich people will not have smartphones, suggesting that buying back the time in our day will soon become the key to quality lifestyles in our age of information overload. At what cost, and with what ‘best practices’ for the use of our recovered time per day? The overall question is whether good or bad behaviors will predominate globally.”

This consultant suggested: “Once people understand which algorithms manipulate them to build corporate revenues without benefiting users, they will be looking for more-honest algorithm systems that share the benefits as fairly as possible. When everyone globally is online, another 4 billion young and poor learners will be coming online. A system could go viral to win trillions in annual revenues based on micropayments due to sheer volume.

Example: The Facebook denumerator app removes the manipulative aspects of Facebook, allowing users to return to more typically social behavior.”

Several respondents expressed concerns about a particular industry – insurers. An anonymous respondent commented, “The increasing migration of health data into the realm of ‘big data’ has potential for the nightmare scenario of Gattaca writ real.”

An executive director for an open source software organization commented, “Most people will simply lose agency as they don’t understand how choices are being made for them.”

One respondent said, “Everything will be ‘custom’-tailored based on the groupthink of the algorithms; the destruction of free thought and critical thinking will ensure the best generation is totally subordinate to the ruling class.”

Another respondent wrote, “Current systems are designed to emphasize the collection, concentration and use of data and algorithms by relatively few large institutions that are not accountable to anyone, and/or if they are theoretically accountable are so hard to hold accountable that they are practically unaccountable to anyone. This concentration of data and knowledge creates a new form of surveillance and oppression (writ large). It is antithetical to and undermines the entire underlying fabric of the erstwhile social form enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and our current political-economic-legal system. Just because people don’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not, or that it’s not undermining our social structures. It is. It will only get worse because there’s no ‘crisis’ to respond to, and hence, not only no motivation to change, but every reason to keep it going – especially by the powerful interests involved. We are heading for a nightmare.”

A scientific editor observed, “The system will win; people will lose. Call it ‘The Selfish Algorithm’; algorithms will naturally find and exploit our built-in behavioral compulsions for their own purposes. We’re not even consumers anymore. As if that wasn’t already degrading enough, it’s commonplace to observe that these days people are the product. The increasing use of ‘algorithms’ will only – very rapidly – accelerate that trend. Web 1.0 was actually pretty exciting. Web 2.0 provides more convenience for citizens who need to get a ride home, but at the same time – and it’s naive to think this is a coincidence – it’s also a monetized, corporatized, disempowering, cannibalizing harbinger of the End Times. (I exaggerate for effect. But not by much.)”

Map of the day: LGBT self-identification


We begin with a density map from Gallup:

blog-mapFrom the accompanying report:

Vermont tops a new ranking of states by the portion of adults in 2015 and 2016 who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) at 5.3%. Massachusetts (4.9%), California (4.9%), Oregon (4.9%) and Nevada (4.8%) round out the top five.

The District of Columbia’s 8.6% LGBT exceeds that of any of the states. States with the lowest percentage of LGBT-identifying residents include South Dakota (2.0%), North Dakota (2.7%), Idaho (2.8%), South Carolina (3.0%) and Montana (3.0%).

>snip<

At 4.9%, the Pacific region, which includes the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii, has the highest portion of LGBT-identifying adults among eight regions in the U.S. The Pacific region also had the largest percentage-point increase (0.7 points) from 2012/2013 to 2015/2016. This change nudged it ahead of New England (4.5%), which reported a more modest 0.2-point increase.

The Middle Atlantic and Rocky Mountain regions also reported large increases (each 0.5 points) in the portion of adults identifying as LGBT. Among all regions, the West Central region continues to have the lowest percentage who identify as LGBT, but also showed a relatively large gain from 2.9% to 3.4%.

Quote of the day: Trump’s style replaces substance


From Corey Robin, professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writing in Jacobin:

[I]t was the singular insight of Trump and Bannon to recognize that waning power of conservatism and to act on it. That’s what prompted their critique of the Republican Party; that’s what enabled them to take it over; and that is what remains, to this day, the premise of their rule. While much of the bravado and commotion of the past two weeks, I continue to believe, is more the product of incompetence and artlessness than design, there’s little doubt that a winging-it improvisational style is something Trump has always prized. As he says in the second paragraph of The Art of the Deal — the only passage in this 367-page book in which I could find anything resembling a coherent idea —

Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.

With that chaotic style, which Trump and Bannon mistake for substance, they’re hoping to turn weakness into strength. I have my doubts that they can do that, as I’ve said many times, but the more important point is that this was the best the Republican Party could do.

In other words, in some very fundamental and palpable way, the Republican Party had no other choice but to nominate Trump. This — this last-ditch gamble of his — was their only hope.

Melissa McCarthy captures Sean Spicer


Saturday Night Live made an inspired casting choice when they picked comedian Melissa McCarthy to play the White House Press Secretary.

She nails Spicer’s combative relationship with the press with precision.

Enjoy:

Sean Spicer Press Conference – SNL


Program note:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer [Melissa McCarthy] and secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos [Kate McKinnon] take questions from the press ]Bobby Moynihan, Kristen Stewart, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Alex Moffat, Mikey Day].

Chart of the day: Nativism across U.S. cultures


From a new report from the Pew Research Center:

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School shootings link to high unemployment rates


Two charts from the report [open access] featuring [top] the monthly number of shooting events categorized based on number of fatalities [green 0–1, orange 2–5 and red >5] and [below], national unemployment rate peaks [black line] and how they qualitatively align with periods of elevated rates of school shootings [blue bars].

Two charts from the report [open access] featuring [top] the monthly number of shooting events categorized based on number of fatalities [green 0–1, orange 2–5 and red >5] and [below], national unemployment rate peaks [black line] and how they qualitatively align with periods of elevated rates of school shootings [blue bars].

While there are other facts at work in individual cases, ranging from psychopathology and poor home relationships to immediate provocations, could high jobless rates play a key role in America’s school shootings?

That’s the conclusion of a just-published major study from Northwestern University:

A rigorous Northwestern University study of a quarter-century of data has found that economic insecurity is related to the rate of gun violence at K-12 and postsecondary schools in the United States. When it becomes more difficult for people coming out of school to find jobs, the rate of gun violence at schools increases.

The interdisciplinary study by data scientists Adam R. Pah and Luís Amaral and sociologist John L. Hagan reveals a persistent connection over time between unemployment and the occurrence of school shootings in the country as a whole, across various regions of the country and within affected cities, including Chicago and New York City.

“The link between education and work is central to our expectations about economic opportunity and upward mobility in America,” said Hagan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Our study indicates that increases in gun violence in our schools can result from disappointment and despair during periods of increased unemployment, when getting an education does not necessarily lead to finding work.”

Frequent school shootings have been a major concern in American society for decades, but the causes have defied understanding. The Northwestern researchers used data from 1990 to 2013 on both gun violence in U.S. schools and economic metrics, including unemployment, to get some answers.

“Our findings highlight the importance of economic opportunity for the next generation and suggest there are proactive actions we could take as a society to help decrease the frequency of gun violence,” said Pah, clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.

Other key findings include:

  • While Chicago is singled out in the study as one of the six cities with the most incidents from 1990 to 2013, Chicago schools are not any more dangerous than schools in other large cities.
  • Gun violence at schools has not become more deadly over time.
  • Most shootings are targeted, with the shooter intending to harm a specific person.
  • Gang-related violence and lone mass shooters comprise only small fractions of the gun violence that occurs at U.S. schools. Gang-related violence constitutes 6.6% of all incidents.
  • The results suggest that during periods of heightened unemployment, increased gun violence may be a growing risk in American college and university settings.

The study, Economic Insecurity and the Rise in Gun Violence at US Schools, [open access] was published Monday by the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The research team also found the rate of gun violence at schools has changed over time. The most recent period studied (2007-2013) has a higher frequency of incidents than the preceding one (1994-2007), contradicting previous work in this area. This is a unique contribution made possible because of the researchers’ backgrounds in data science and modeling.

Continue reading

One word to describe Donald Trump: Bullshitter


As we’ve noted before, Donald Trump is a textbook narcissist.

Here are the diagnostic criteria from the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. We opted for it rather than the subsequent fifth edition, which uses a lot more words to say the same things:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

One consequence of the disorder, which typically proves intractable to treatment, is a never-ending stream of hastily improvised statements designed to buttress the narcissist’s delusions of grandeur and bearing only tangential relationship to the truth.

In other words, an endless stream of bullshit.

But what does it mean to have a narcissist in the White House?

For a partial answer we turn to University of Florida sociologist and journalist , writing in The Conversation, an academic journal written in conversational English:

If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past week or so, you know that over the weekend America was introduced to the concept of “alternative facts.” After Trump administration Press Secretary Sean Spicer rebuked the media for accurately reporting the relatively small crowds at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Spicer wasn’t lying; he was simply using “alternative facts.”

News outlets are still working through the process of figuring out what to call these mischaracterizations of reality. (“Alternative facts” seems to have been swiftly rejected.) Many outlets have upped their fact-checking game. The Washington Post, for instance, released a browser extension that fact-checks tweets by the president in near real-time.

Other outlets have resisted labeling Trump’s misstatements as lies. Earlier this year, for instance, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief Gerard Baker insisted that the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t label Trump’s false statements “lies.”

Baker argued that lying requires a “deliberate intention to mislead,” which couldn’t be proven in the case of Trump. Baker’s critics pushed back, raising valid and important points about the duty of the press to report what is true.

As important as discussions about the role of the press as fact-checkers are, in this case Baker’s critics are missing the point. Baker is right. Trump isn’t lying. He’s bullshitting. And that’s an important distinction to make.

Bullshitter-in-chief?

Bullshitters, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote in his 1986 essay “On Bullshit,” don’t care whether what they are saying is factually correct or not. Instead, bullshit is characterized by a “lack of connection to a concern with truth [and] indifference to how things really are.” Frankfurt explains that a bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

In addition to being unconcerned about the truth (which liars do care about, since they are trying to conceal it), Frankfurt suggests that bullshitters don’t really care whether their audience believes what they are saying. Indeed, getting the audience to believe something is false isn’t the goal of bullshitting. Rather, bullshitters say what they do in an effort to change how the audience sees them, “to convey a certain impression” of themselves.

In Trump’s case, much of his rhetoric and speech seems designed to inflate his own grand persona. Hence the tweets about improving the record sales of artists performing at his inauguration and his claims that he “alone can fix” the problems in the country.

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Likewise, his inaugural address contained much rhetoric about the “decayed” state of the country and rampant unemployment (a verifiably false statement). Trump then proceeded to claim that he was going to rid the country of these ailments. The image of Trump as a larger-than-life figure who will repair a broken country resonates with his audience, and it doesn’t work without first priming them with notions of widespread “carnage.”

A stinky, slippery slope

There are several problems with Trump adopting the bullshit style of communication.

First, misinformation is notoriously hard to correct once it’s out there, and social media, in particular, has a reputation for spreading factually inaccurate statements and conspiracy theories.

Continue reading

For Donald Trump, size really, really matters


As we promised earlier, in light of The Donald’s gross exaggeration of the size of his inaugural audience and his fury at the press for pointing out his prevarication, here’s a look at that other issue of magnitude, one that grabbed the public’s attention during the primary campaign.

For, anything concern his person or his affairs must always be the Biggest, Grandest, Most Fabuolous, and Tremendous. . .UUGE!

And to hint other wise is an act of lese majestie.

Rubio tries the hands-on approach

From CBS, reported on Leap Year Day 2016:

Marco Rubio escalated his slate of recent attacks on Donald Trump’s looks Sunday, telling supporters at an event Sunday night that Trump can’t be trusted because he has “small hands.”

He was responding to Trump’s habit of calling him “Little Marco.” And while Rubio freely admitted he’s the shorter one of the two, he said he was baffled by the size of Trump’s hands.

“He’s like 6’2’’ which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’2″. Have you seen his hands?” Rubio said during a rally in Roanoke, Virgina. “You know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them. You can’t trust them.”

Rubio’s insult appears to stem from an argument between Trump and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Carter once called Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian” in an article in Spy magazine.

And The Donald responds

Five days later, CNN reported the response in a story headlined Donald Trump defends size of his penis:

Donald Trump assured American voters Thursday night that despite what Marco Rubio had suggested, there was “no problem” with the size of his hands — or anything else.

“Look at those hands, are they small hands?” the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination said, raising them for viewers to see. “And, he referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”

Rubio in recent days revived a decades-old old insult, mocking Trump for having relatively slight hands.

“He’s always calling me Little Marco. And I’ll admit he’s taller than me. He’s like 6’2, which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’2,” Rubio said in Virginia on Sunday. “And you know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them.”

The New York billionaire has heard similar comments about his hands or, more precisely, his fingers, for years.

History behind the dick-measuring contest

A bit of revealing background from the Atlantic Monthly written back in June 2016:

Author and radio host Kurt Andersen, who—along with Graydon Carter—came up with the first iteration of this epithet, short fingered vulgarian, offered this explanation for its staying power: “There are literally a thousand things we could say about Trump. The attraction of talking about his short fingers is that it’s just this one stupid thing that everyone can get around. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, sort of like, Let’s just focus on this because it makes him [respond] and he hates it. You could say he doesn’t understand NATO, but he doesn’t care that he doesn’t understand NATO! At least he cares about this.”

For the record, Andersen is adamant that it’s Trump’s short fingers—and not his ostensibly small hands—that were always the intended object of derision. “And it never, ever had anything to do with the size of his dick,” says Andersen. “It was just literally just, ‘Look, the guy has short fingers!’ Rubio and Trump turned it into a genital-measuring-stick thing.”

Apart from the ease with which Trump can be frothed into a foam of discontent via the mere mention of his hand/finger-length ratio, the epithet is revealing mostly because it demonstrates how humiliation lies at the core of Trump’s campaign.

And, yes, his fingers really are shorties

Finally, via Vanity Fair, the truth the grasping digits in question:

The Hollywood Reporter obtained a verified copy of Trump’s handprint, cast from his own hands by the expert sculptors at Madame Tussauds. The famed waxworks museum had measured Trump for a life-sized sculpture, which was removed from their New York City location in 2011. But Trump’s handprint itself, which was cast in bronze, has for the entirety of the presidential election been displayed prominently in front of the Tussauds museum in Times Square.

Their official discovery: measured from wrist to the tip of his middle finger, Trump’s hands are 7.25 inches in length.

According to several scientific studies, this is a definitively below-average hand length for a man, especially for his height of 6 feet 2 inches. A 1980 study commissioned by the U.S. Army indicates that Trump’s hand length of 7.25 inches hovers around the 25th percentile of hand length among military men. A meta-analysis of studies from the Georgia Tech Research Institute places Trump’s hands below the 50th percentile. And the 1988 Anthropomorphic Survey of U.S. Personnel, used frequently by the Ergonomic Center of North Carolina, places Trump’s hands at the 15th percentile. Trump is, medically speaking, short-fingered.

And that’s why we call him Littlefingers.

Quote of the day: Dangerous political nostalgia


A resurgent far right is gaining power not just in the U.S. but in other nations as well, promising a return to a past golden age.

Samuel Earle, freelance writer and recent masters graduate from the London School of Economics, writes about the dangers of that nostalgia in an essay for Jacobin:

On the surface, conjuring up a happier past may seem benign. But much of today’s nostalgia comes with its own set of noxious side effects. The bonds between those who belong to the remembered time are strengthened — they all feel at home — while for those who do not, their separation becomes all the more pronounced.

Only through the marginalization of others — foreigners, immigrants, LGBTQ people, all those who “don’t belong” — can the reactionary nostalgists turn their remembered past into a site of empowerment. To turn back the clock, others must be turned out. With little else to latch on to, excluding others makes their past feel all the more precious, a thing that can truly be claimed as their own.

This is the dark irony beneath the nativist’s angry refrain to the immigrant “Go back to where you came from”: it is the xenophobe who, more than anyone, wants to go back to where they came from — to an imagined, pure point of origin, a moment in history where their country was a homogenous mass. The racist, like all great nostalgists, is homesick for a home they never had.

This nostalgia, and its dark underbelly, will be a difficult beast to reckon with. While the future can be fought over and the present is there to take or leave, the past can be — may always be — whatever we want it to be.

Quote of the day: The rush to kiss Trump’s ass


The day Littlefingers became president of the united States also brought down the curtain on the 2017 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, the gathering of 2,500 leading corporate moguls, banksters, elected officials, economists, celebrities [George Clooney attended this year], and media figures in the elite Swiss resort town of Davos.

One of those in attendance was former World Bank Chief Economist, U.S. Treasury Secretary, and Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, a man who played a central role in the deregulation of American banking and the unleashing of the derivatives market.

In of the other words, he bears much of the responsibility for bringing on the Crash of 2008 and the ongoing global Great Recession.

But even he abhors the rush to embrace President Pussygrabber by his fellow Davos elites, as he writes in Financial Times [subscription only]:

I am disturbed by (i) the spectacle of financiers who three months ago were telling anyone who would listen that they would never do business with a Trump company rushing to praise the new administration; (ii) the unwillingness of business leaders who rightly take pride in their corporate efforts to promote women and minorities to say anything about presidentially sanctioned intolerance; (iii) the failure of the leaders of global companies to say a critical word about US efforts to encourage the breakup of European unity and more generally to step away from underwriting an open global system; (iv) the reluctance of business leaders who have a huge stake in the current global order to criticise provocative rhetoric with regard to China, Mexico or the Middle East; (v) the willingness of too many to praise Trump nominees who advocate blatant protection merely because they have a business background.

>snip<

My objection is not to disagreements over economic policy. It is to enabling if not encouraging immoral and reckless policies in other spheres that ultimately bear on our prosperity. Burke was right. It is a lesson of human experience whether the issue is playground bullying, Enron or Europe in the 1930s that the worst outcomes occur when good people find reasons to accommodate themselves to what they know is wrong. That is what I think happened much too often in Davos this week.

Charts of the day: The global migrant death toll


From the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project:

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Caution: Selfies may be hazardous to your health


Not just hazardous, but lethal, as two new stories reveal.

We’ve noted before the sometimes calamitous nature of our indulgence in digital narcissism, with selfie-snapping stupidity now listed as a cause of more deaths than shark attacks.

Wikipedia even maintains a list of selfie-related deaths and injuries.

And now we have two more tragedies to add to the list.

We start with a fatality

First from the Press Trust of India:

A 21-year-old engineering student died when he was hit by a speeding train while trying to take a selfie here in the wee hours today, police said. The incident occurred past midnight when the student was returning after celebrating New Year, they said.

Gunasekharan, a resident of Dindigul district studying at a private college in the city’s outskirt, died on the spot when he was trying to take a selfie with the train in the background using his mobile phone, police said.

The victim was hit by the train and hurled at a distance of around 100 feet, they said.

And a near-lethal bite from a crocodile

And while the consequences of the second selfie disaster weren’t lethal, they could’ve been.

From Radio France International:

A French tourist has been bitten by a crocodile in a Thai national park as whe tried to take a selfie with the beast. She was taken to hopsital and is expected to recover.

The crocodile bit 47-year-old Muriel Benetulier on the leg when she ignored warning signs and approached it to take a selfie, park officials said.

The incident took place at the Khao Yai national park, three hours north of Bangkok.

Local media posted pictures of park rangers dressed in camouflage carrying the victim strapped to a stretcher, a thick bandage around her knee. Another photo showed a ranger pointing to a pool of blood close to a sign saying in Thai and English “Danger Crocodile No Swimming”.

Quote of the day: Call him President Bubble Boy


From a long, fascinating story by Washington Post reporter David Farenthold on his long efforts to find out about Trump’s claims to have given millions to charities:

By the end of the election, I felt I’d done my job. My last big story about Trump started with an amazing anecdote, which came from a tip from a reader. In 1996, Trump had crashed a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a charity opening a nursery school for children with AIDS. Trump, who had never donated to the charity, stole a seat onstage that had been saved for a big contributor.

He sat there through the whole ceremony, singing along with the choir of children as cameras snapped, and then left without giving a dime.

“All of this is completely consistent with who Trump is,” Tony Schwartz, Trump’s co-author on his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” told me. “He’s a man who operates inside a tiny bubble that never extends beyond what he believes is his self-interest.”

“If your worldview is only you — if all you’re seeing is a mirror — then there’s nobody to give money to,” Schwartz said. “Except yourself.”

Mexican company introduces “digital detox” resorts


From CCTV America, the inevitable next step in capitalizing on distraction:

Program notes:

When it comes to work, being connected to the internet 24 hours a day has its benefits. But some people need help disconnecting when they’re on vacation. One business thinks it has the answer. A so-called digital detox program was started at two of Mexico’s beach resorts, but it’s still struggling to get people to unplug.CCTV America’s Martin Markovits reports.

Why millions believe Trump’s idiotic tweeter-twaddle


As anyone who pays attentions to the utterances, tweeted and otherwise, of our President-elect, Donald Trump is, at best, the source of profoundly absurd declarations of nonsense, gleaned from sources that regularly write about a cabal of lizard people ruling the world, rampant voter fraud, a secret fluoride mind control program, and other blatant twaddle.

While the rational among us would at first glance reject such absurdities, they gain traction, eventually forming part of the core belief systems of millions.

The question, then, is why?

A perceptive analysis by Lisa Fazio Assistant Professor of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, writing in the open source [Creative Commons] academic journal The Conversation, offers some key insights:

In the weeks since the U.S. election, concerns have been raised about the prominence and popularity of false news stories spread on platforms such as Facebook. A BuzzFeed analysis found that the top 20 false election stories generated more shares, likes, reactions and comments than the top 20 election stories from major news organizations in the months immediately preceding the election. For example, the fake article “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” was engaged with 960,000 times in the three months prior to the election.

Facebook has discounted the analysis, saying that these top stories are only a tiny fraction of the content people are exposed to on the site. In fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said, “Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way – I think is a pretty crazy idea.” However, psychological science suggests that exposure to false news would have an impact on people’s opinions and beliefs. It may not have changed the outcome of the election, but false news stories almost definitely affected people’s opinions of the candidates.

Psychological research, including my own, shows that repeated exposure to false information can change people’s beliefs that is it true. This phenomenon is called the “illusory truth effect.”

This effect happens to us all – including people who know the truth. Our research suggests that even people who knew Pope Francis made no presidential endorsement would be susceptible to believing a “Pope endorses Trump” headline when they had seen it multiple times.

Repetition leads to belief

People think that statements they have heard twice are more true than those they have encountered only once. That is, simply repeating false information makes it seem more true.

In a typical study, participants read a series of true statements (“French horn players get cash bonuses to stay in the U.S. Army”) and false ones (“Zachary Taylor was the first president to die in office”) and rate how interesting they find each sentence. Then, they are presented with a number of statements and asked to rate how true each one is. This second round includes both the statements from the first round and entirely new statements, both true and false. The outcome: Participants reliably rate the repeated statements as being more true than the new statements.

In a recent study, I and other researchers found that this effect is not limited to obscure or unknown statements, like those about French horn players and Zachary Taylor. Repetition can also bolster belief in statements that contradict participants’ prior knowledge.

For example, even among people who can identify the skirt that Scottish men wear as a kilt, the statement “A sari is the skirt that Scottish men wear” is rated as more true when it is read twice versus only once. On a six-point scale, the participants’ truth ratings increased by half a point when the known falsehoods were repeated. The statements were still rated as false, but participants were much less certain, rating the statements as “possibly false” rather than closer to “probably false.”

This means that having relevant prior knowledge does not protect people from the illusory truth effect. Repeated information feels more true, even if it goes against what you already know.

Even debunking could make things worse

Facebook is looking at ways to combat fake news on the site, but some of the proposed solutions are unlikely to fix the problem. According to a Facebook post by Zuckerberg, the site is considering labeling stories that have been flagged as false with a warning message. While this is a commonsense suggestion, and may help to reduce the sharing of false stories, psychological research suggests that it will do little to prevent people from believing that the articles are true.

People tend to remember false information, but forget that it was labeled as false. A 2011 study gave participants statements from sources described as either “reliable” or “unreliable.” Two weeks later, the participants were asked to rate the truth of several statements – the reliable and unreliable statements from before, and new statements as well. They tended to rate the repeated statements as more true, even if they were originally labeled as unreliable.

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Is granny sparking up? More seniors tokin’ away


The Boomers are bongin’.

Not all, but a growing segment of older Americans are discovering the pleasures of the herb, according to a new study from New York University:

The recent legalization of recreational marijuana (cannabis) use in California, Colorado, and Washington reflect the sweeping changes in the attitudes and perceptions towards marijuana use in the United States. Eight states have voted in favor of legal recreational marijuana and 26 states in total allow medicinal marijuana.

There is a common misperception that widespread marijuana use is limited to younger generations. However, the Baby Boomer generation has reported higher rates of substance use than any preceding generation.

“Given the unprecedented aging of the U.S. population, we are facing a never before seen cohort of older adults who use recreational drugs,” says Benjamin Han, MD, MPH, a geriatrician and health services researcher at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR) and in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care at NYU Langone Medical Center (NYULMC).

“With the increased availability of legalized marijuana, there is an urgent need to understand the prevalence of its use and also its effects among older generations,” continued Dr. Han. “The paucity of knowledge in this area constrains the care for a changing demographic of older adults with higher rates of substance use.”

To address this, Dr. Han and his team led a study, “Demographic Trends among Older Cannabis Users in the United States, 2006-2013” [$38 to read]. Published in Addiction, the study sought to determine the trends in the prevalence and patterns of cannabis use, attitudes towards cannabis use, and determine correlates of use among adults over the age of 50.

The researchers evaluated responses from 47,140 adults aged 50 and older in the United States through a secondary analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2006 to 2013. The NSDUH provides national data on the use of tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs and mental health in the United States.

The authors found a 71% increase in marijuana use among adults aged 50 and older between 2006 and 2013. Adults ages 65 and older had a significantly lower prevalence of marijuana use compared to those ages 50-64, but prevalence of use increased two and a half times over eight years. Overall, prevalence was higher among men than women through all years.

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Trump’s tweet addiction linked to narcissism


While this new academic study doesn’t mention Trump by name, the behaviors described fit no one better.

From the University of Georgia [emphases added]:

A new statistical review of 62 studies with over 13,000 individuals found that narcissism has a modest but reliable positive relationship with a range of social media behaviors. The largest effects were with the number of friends/followers narcissists had and frequency of status updates, followed by selfie postings, according to University of Georgia psychology researchers.

The two strains of narcissistic behavior — grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism — showed different relationships to social media use. Grandiose narcissism, the more extroverted, callous form, positively related to time spent on social media, the frequency of updates, number of friends/followers, and the frequency of posting selfies. Vulnerable narcissism, the more insecure form, did not show any relationship to social media, but there was relatively little research on this form of narcissism.

“The stories you have heard about grandiose narcissism on social media are probably true,” said the study’s senior author, Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Campbell, co-author of the best-selling “The Narcissism Epidemic,” notes that “when you engage with social media, you will be engaging with more narcissism than might really exist in the world. This might distort your view of the world as being more narcissistic than it is.”

“It is important to remember that these are only correlations, however,” said the study’s lead author, Jessica McCain, a graduate student in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences Program in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology. “This is not evidence that social media causes narcissism or vice versa. Theoretically, we suspect that individuals with pre-existing narcissism are drawn to social media, but the present evidence only establishes that the two are related.”

“Networks on social media aren’t designed by people in Silicon Valley,” Campbell said. “They are built one link at a time by users. And narcissists seem to be central to this build-out.”

The study, “Narcissism and Social Media Use: A Meta-Analytic Review,” was published in the early online edition of Psychology of Popular Media Culture and is available here [$11.95 to download].

The diagnostic criteria for grandiose narcissism

So what is grandiose narcissism?

Here are the diagnostic criteria from the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference for psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. We opted for it rather than the subsequent fifth edition, which uses a lot more words to say the same things:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

And something to help you with the diagnosis

From a fascinating collection of Trumpisms assembled by author Eliot Weinberger for the London Review of Books:

  • ‘My entire life, I’ve watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were. And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn’t the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office. How smart can they be? They’re morons.’
  • ‘The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.’
  • ‘I fully think apologising’s a great thing – but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologise sometime in the hopefully distant future if I am ever wrong.’
  • ‘I love women. They’ve come into my life. They’ve gone out of my life. Even those who have exited somewhat ungracefully still have a place in my heart. I only have one regret in the women department – that I never had the opportunity to court Lady Diana Spencer.’
  • [On daughter Ivanka]: ‘She does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.’ ‘Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father…’
  • ‘My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.’
  • ‘My IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.’
  • ‘We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.’
  • ‘With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.’
  • ‘Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is a man who is certain about what he wants and sets out to get it, no holds barred. Women find his power almost as much of a turn-on as his money.’
  • ‘When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.’
  • [When confronted by the father of a Muslim U.S. army captain killed in Afghanistan angry over Trump;’s virulent anti-Muslim rhetoricm, who asked the Donald what sacrifices he had made for his country] ‘I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.’

Psilocybin cuts cancer patient anxiety, depression


Psilocybin, a mind-altering chemical found in “magic mushrooms,” once again proves the most powerful treatment yet for anxiety and depression, this time in cancer patients.

Two parallel studies have demonstrated remarkable effects from the drug, one which also also been shown in other studies to be the most potent pharmacological treatment ever found for alleviating major depression [here, here and here], social isolation, and spousal abuse, as well as in reducing tobacco smoking.

Gee, guess those ‘shrooms really are magic.

We include reports on both of the latest studies, first from the New York University Langone Medical Center:

When combined with psychological counseling, a single dose of a mind-altering compound contained in psychedelic mushrooms significantly lessens mental anguish in distressed cancer patients for months at a time, according to results of a clinical trial led by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology [access free for the article] online December 1, the study showed that one-time treatment with the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin—whose use required federal waivers because it is a banned substance—quickly brought relief from distress that then lasted for more than 6 months in 80 percent of the 29 study subjects monitored, based on clinical evaluation scores for anxiety and depression.

The NYU Langone-led study was published side by side with a similar study from Johns Hopkins University. Study results were also endorsed in 11 accompanying editorials from leading experts in psychiatry, addiction, and palliative care.

“Our results represent the strongest evidence to date of a clinical benefit from psilocybin therapy, with the potential to transform care for patients with cancer-related psychological distress,” says study lead investigator Stephen Ross, MD, director of substance abuse services in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone.

“If larger clinical trials prove successful, then we could ultimately have available a safe, effective, and inexpensive medication—dispensed under strict control—to alleviate the distress that increases suicide rates among cancer patients,” says Ross, also an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.

Study co-investigator Jeffrey Guss, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone, notes that psilocybin has been studied for decades and has an established safety profile. Study participants, he says, experienced no serious negative effects, such as hospitalization or more serious mental health conditions.

Although the neurological benefits of psilocybin are not completely understood, it has been proven to activate parts of the brain also impacted by the signaling chemical serotonin, which is known to control mood and anxiety. Serotonin imbalances have also been linked to depression.

For the study, half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive a 0.3 milligrams per kilogram dose of psilocybin while the rest received a vitamin placebo of 250 milligrams of niacin, known to produce a “rush” that mimics a hallucinogenic drug experience.

Approximately halfway through the study’s monitoring period (after seven weeks), all participants switched treatments. Those who initially received psilocybin took a single dose of placebo, and those who first took niacin, then received psilocybin. Neither patients nor researchers knew who had first received psilocybin or placebo. Guss says, “The randomization, placebo control, and double-blind procedures maximized the validity of the study results.”

One of the key findings was that improvements in clinical evaluation scores for anxiety and depression lasted for the remainder of the study’s extended monitoring period—specifically, eight months for those who took psilocybin first.

Much, much more after the jump: Continue reading