July 23, 2014

frankes:openclipartWhite Lies Can Be Good for Society
A group of computational scientists developed a mathematical model of how groups of people grow and change over time, and then added in a new variable: the occurrence of lies. Big antisocial lies—like lying about theft or injuring someone—led to the complete disintegration of communities, with each person in the model eventually looking out only for themselves. But smaller white lies—even at a high rate of occurrence—had a different effect on the model. People formed small, tight cliques with occasional links between groups. And these connections, it turned out, were facilitated by people who told the most white lies, the researchers report. (Sarah C.P. Williams, ScienceShots, Science)

Rituals That Work And Why
Tania Lombrozo: Rituals are sometimes dismissed as superstitious nonsense. But sometimes they work. (And not just by making us feel better, though they can do that, too.) Different rituals work for different reasons and the reasons may not be what you think. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

The Vital Role Oceans Play in the Habitability of Planets
Researchers from the University of East Anglia arrived at their conclusion after creating computer models of alien planets. They simulated different planetary conditions to see which would be most likely to produce life. Oceans, it turned out, were key. The result is a departure from previous findings that indicated that a planet’s distance from its star could make or break its ability to support life. (Rachel Nuwer, Smithsonian.com)

Stephen Eric Bronner

As Stephen Eric Bronner argues in his new book, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists, the bigot is even more driven by self-pity and the need for self-exculpation than by hatred or fear. “To elude his real condition,” writes Bronner, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, “to put his prejudices beyond criticism and change, is the purpose behind his presentation of self … . But he is always anxious. The bigot has the nagging intuition that he is not making sense, or, at least, that he cannot convince his critics that he is. And this leaves him prone to violence.” (Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed)

The Science of Creativity

Scott Barry Kaufman from the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania says talent and creativity are not just things you’re born with or not, that science shows there are ways to develop imagination and creativity in all of us. (National, Radio New Zealand)

July 22, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationAversion to Happiness
Moshen Joshanloo and Dan Weijers point out that many people, including in Western cultures, deliberately dampen their positive moods. Moreover, in many nations, including Iran and New Zealand, many people are actually fearful of happiness, tending to agree with questionnaire items like “I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness.” Looking into the reasons for happiness aversion, Joshanloo and Weijers identify four: believing that being happy will provoke bad things to happen, that happiness will make you a worse person, that expressing happiness is bad for you and others, and that pursuing happiness is bad for you and others. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Materialism and Well-Being
The longest ever study on this topic finds that becoming less materialistic leads to more contentment in life—and suggests ways to get to that happy place. Four related experiments investigated how changes in materialism affect well-being. The first three studies surveyed natural changes in materialistic values over six months, two years, and 12 years in adults in the U.S. and Iceland. At all three junctures, a decreasing focus on acquiring money and things led to more joy and contentment in life. Fortunately, materialism can be purposefully altered, as the team discovered in the fourth study—the first ever to use a randomized, controlled design to try to change materialistic beliefs. (Tori Rodriguez, Scientific American)

Beyond Energy, Matter, Time, and Space
George Johnson: It is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time. There are skeptics who suspect we may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Recently, I’ve been struck by two books exploring that possibility in very different ways. There is no reason why, in this particular century, Homo sapiens should have gathered all the pieces needed for a theory of everything. (Raw Data, The New York Times)

Examining the Growth of the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’

Mark Oppenheimer: S.B.N.R.s, as this growing group is often called, are attracting a lot of attention. Four recent books offer perspectives on these Americans who seem to want some connection to the divine, but who don’t feel affiliated with traditional religion. There’s the minister who wants to woo them, two scholars who want to understand them, and the psychotherapist who wants to help them. (The New York Times)

Art of Science 2014

Feast your eyes on aesthetically pleasing scientific images from Princeton University’s annual Art of Science exhibition. (NBC News)

July 21, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationHow Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds Differentiate Between Reality and Fiction
Results from a study published in the latest issue of Cognitive Science suggest that 5- and 6-year-old kids from religious backgrounds judge fact from fiction differently than those with nonreligious upbringings. Unsurprisingly, when children were presented stories that depicted “ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention,” kids who either went to church or were enrolled in parochial school (or both) judged the protagonists to be real people, whereas secular children judged them to be fictional. But according to BU psychologist Kathleen Corriveau, first author of the study, the same was shown to be true of nonreligious stories of a fantastical vein. (Robert T. Gonzalez, io9)

“Green Altruism”
In two experiments, pedestrians who had just strolled through a beautiful park were more likely to come to the aid of a stranger who had just dropped a glove. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Nick Spencer

How did we get from Nietzsche to Richard Dawkins, from intellectual engagement to sensational dismissal? This is an issue Nick Spencer raises in his new book Atheists: The Origin of the Species. Spencer, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of London’s Faiths and Civil Society Unit, and Research Director of the London-based Theos Think Tank, wanted to shed some new light on the historical context of atheism, and its various trajectories over the years. (Brandon Ambrosino, Vox)

Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think

Behavioral economist Paul Dolan gives a comprehensive overview of the science of happiness and useful tips to achieve it. In his quest to explain what makes us happy, Dolan touches on a powerful idea: happiness need not be pursued, simply rediscovered. In other words, sources of pleasure and purpose are all around us, if only one knows where to look. (Daisy Yuhas, Scientific American)

Are You Resilient?

Matthew Hutson: It’s handy to know how resilient you are before turbulent times hit so that you can learn how to recover faster. We’ve put together a research-informed but non-diagnostic quiz to help. As you answer each question, the next one comes into view. Read on after the test for tips on how to develop and enhance traits associated with people who function well despite adversity. (Nautilus)

July 18, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationDo Some Countries Have a Genetic Advantage in Well-Being?
The residents of Denmark regularly report the highest levels of life satisfaction in the world. Economists Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick cautiously submit that there is a genetic component to this high level of contentment. “We find that the closer a nation is to the genetic makeup of Denmark … the happier is that country,” they write in a working paper. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Attractiveness and Risk-Taking
A willingness to take risks enhances men’s sex appeal. This much we know from past research. What’s not clear is whether this is because of cultural beliefs about traditional gender roles, or if it’s an evolutionary hang-over (or perhaps both). John Petraitis and his colleagues have put these two explanations to the test by drawing a distinction between risk-taking behaviors that reflect the challenges faced by our ancestors, and contemporary risks based around modern technology. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Our Robot Future
Whether you find it exhilarating or terrifying (or both), progress in robotics and related fields like AI is raising new ethical quandaries and challenging legal codes that were created for a world in which a sharp line separates man from machine. Last week, roboticists, legal scholars, and other experts met at the University of California, Berkeley law school to talk through some of the social, moral, and legal hazards that are likely to arise as that line starts to blur. (Greg Miller, Wired)

Gene Drive
A powerful new technology could be used to manipulate nature by “editing” the genes of organisms in the wild, enabling researchers to block mosquitoes’ ability to spread malaria, for example, or to make weeds more vulnerable to pesticides, Harvard scientists said Thursday. In an unusual step, however, the Boston team called for a public debate on the wisdom of its audacious idea, which the scientists say could lead to inadvertent species extinctions, new genes spreading through the environment in unexpected ways, and unforeseen ecological ripple effects. (Carolyn Y. Johnson, The Boston Globe)

The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice

The astonishing first-person account of an American boy raised on dogma and hate—a boy presumed to follow in his father’s footsteps—and the man who chose a different path. The idea that reverberates through the prose: Everyone has a choice. Even if you’re raised to hate, you can choose tolerance. You can choose empathy. (TED Books)

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