On the Edge of knowledge

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? It's the annual Edge question, with lots of psychologist contributors. Ella Rhodes reports.

There were more than a few veiled warnings against the danger of mindless political support and dwelling solely in self-serving echo chambers in the answers to this year’s Edge question: What scientific term or concept ought be more widely known? Among the 206 eminent academics, artists, journalists and scientists who answered, many psychologists highlighted concepts and theories to make us question ourselves, and those around us.

Adam Waytz, psychologist and Associate Professor of Management and Organizations (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University) pointed to the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IOED), or the fact most people believe they understand the world in greater depth than they actually do. While many people say they know how a refrigerator works, in reality very few can produce a step-by-step guide. Waytz points out this doesn’t just apply to objects, but also scientific fields, mental illnesses, economic markets and virtually anything we are capable of misunderstanding. This phenomenon, he continued, is particularly pervasive in an era of access to mind-boggling amounts of information that is too-often consumed in a superficial way.

He wrote: ‘Understanding the IOED allows us to combat political extremism. In 2013, Philip Fernbach and colleagues demonstrated that the IOED underlies people’s policy positions on issues like single-payer health care, a national flat tax, and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions… Fernbach and colleagues first asked people to rate how well they understood these issues, and then asked them to explain how each issue works and subsequently re-rate their understanding of each issue. In addition, participants rated the extremity of their attitudes on these issues both before and after offering an explanation. Both self-reported understanding of the issue and attitude extremity dropped significantly after explaining the issue – people who strongly supported or opposed an issue became more moderate.’ 

The IOED, Waytz said, gives us some much-needed humility: ‘At a time where political polarization, income inequality, and urban–rural separation have deeply fractured us over social and economic issues, recognizing our only modest understanding of these issues is a first step to bridging these divides.’ 

In the 1750s Adam Smith, and later Charles Darwin, pointed out the amazing contagious properties of emotion, and the fact that this may be fundamental to human survival in transmitting information among group members. More recent findings have demonstrated the mechanisms by which we’re affected by, and affect, the emotions of others. June Gruber, Assistant Professor of Psychology (University of Colorado, Boulder), wrote of her choice: ‘emotion contagion matters: it is in the service of critical processes such as empathy, social connection, and relationship maintenance between close partners… With the rapid proliferation of online social networks as a main forum for emotion expression, we know too that emotion contagion can occur without direct interaction between people or when nonverbal emotional cues in the face and body are altogether absent.’

Gruber and her colleagues have been trailblazing in the lesser-studied area of positive emotional contagion. ‘Given the vital role positive emotions play in our wellbeing and physical health, it is critical to better understand the features of how we transmit these pleasant states within and across social groups. Like waves, emotions cascade across time and geographical space. Yet their ability to cascade across psychological minds is unique and warrants wider recognition.’ 

Alison Gopnik (University of California, Berkeley) pointed to an often-ignored trait of human beings, our life history. Asking readers to imagine a scientist visiting earth from Alpha Centauran 150,000 years ago, she wrote: ‘She might note, in passing, that the newly evolved Homo sapiens were just a little better at tool use, cooperation, and communication than their primate relatives. But, as a well-trained evolutionary biologist, she would be far more impressed by their remarkable and unique “life history”.’

'Life history' is the term biologists use to describe how organisms change over time – how long an animal lives, how long a childhood it has, how it nurtures its young, how it grows old. As Gopnik points out, human life history is particularly weird. We have a childhood twice as long as any primate, we also developed pair bonding and alloparenting to care for these children – unlike many other species, she wrote, fathers and unrelated kin help to care for human children. Another oddity is the fact women live past the menopause, the killer whale being the only other animal we know of that outlives fertility. So we have both an extended childhood, and an (increasingly) extended old age. Gopnik wrote: ‘In fact, anthropologists have argued that those grandmothers were a key to the evolution of learning and culture. They were crucial for the survival of those helpless children and they also could pass on two generations’ worth of knowledge.’

This unique journey through life in humans has led to huge differences in the way we live and behave, Gopnik said: ‘One hundred and fifty thousand years ago the Alpha Centauran biologist wouldn’t have seen much difference between adult humans and our closest primate relatives – art, trade, religious ritual, and complex tools were still far in the future, not to mention agriculture and technology. Our long childhood, and our extended investment in our children, allowed those changes to happen… Each human generation had a chance to learn a little more about the world from their caregivers, and to change the world a little more themselves. If the Alpha Centauran biologist made a return visit now, she would record the startling human achievements that have come from this long process of cultural evolution.’

As Gopnik points out, evolutionary psychologists tend to focus on adult men, but what of the many children and grandmothers involved with our eventual development to the humans we are today? Gopnik wrote that new studies suggest that both the young and old may be adapted for the purpose of transmitting and receiving wisdom: ‘We may have a wider focus and a greater openness to experience when we are young or old than we do in the hurly-burly of feeding, fighting and reproduction that preoccupies our middle years… A human being isn't just a collection of fixed traits, but part of an unfolding and dynamic story. And that isn’t just the story of our own lives, caregiving and culture link us both to the grandparents who were there before we were born and the grandchildren who will carry on after we die.’

Matthew D. Lieberman (Professor of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles) put forward naive realism as a term that should be much better known. He opened with a quote from comedian George Carlin who noted that: ‘Anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac’ – naive realism is our propensity to see other people as unintelligent or crazy. While this term, which dates back to at least the 1880s, was once used to suggest people take the world at face value, it actually represents an important error in thinking that often causes conflict. 

While people generally perceive the physical world in the same way, when we move into the social world things become much more complex. Lieberman wrote: ‘When confronted with trees, shoes, and gummy bears, our brains construct these things for us in similar enough ways that we can agree on which to climb, which to wear, and which to eat. But when we move to the social domain of understanding people and their interactions, our “seeing” is driven less by external input and more by expectation and motivation… In short, we are just as confident in our assessment of Donald Trump’s temperament and Hillary Clinton’s dishonesty as we are in our assessment of trees, shoes, and gummy bears. In both cases, we are quite certain that we are seeing reality for what it is.’

And therein lies the issue: if we believe our perception of the world is reality, and someone disagrees, we’re likely to think their reality is somehow broken, that they are crazy, or biased. Lieberman wrote: ‘Although there are real differences that separate groups of people, naïve realism might be the most pernicious undetected source of conflicts and their durability. From Israel vs. Palestinians, to the American political left and right, to the fight over vaccines and autism – in each case our inability to appreciate our own miraculous construction of reality is preventing us from appreciating the miraculous construction of reality happening all around us.’



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