Something smells. Did you ever walk into a room with a fairly strong smell, but then after a while you fail to notice the odor? Your sense of smell comes from a combination of your nose and brain working in unison. The receptors in your nose fire, which ones fire depends on the specific smell, and sends signals, which are interpreted by your brain. A human can become acclimated to a constant smell after it has been detected by the nose, and analyzed by the brain, a process called sensory adaptation.
A recent study by Neil Garrett and Tali Sharot at the University College of London shows that small lies can become big lies in a somewhat similar fashion. In a nutshell, people were induced to lie (in a self-motivated scenario – meaning they did not have to lie) and as they lied they underwent a functional MRI, which monitored their brain activity. As people lied, the MRI showed a reduction in brain activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is an ancient part of our brain, near the base of the brain and is the center of our emotions. As brain activity went down, people lied more. The researchers found that it was possible to predict whether the subject would tell another whopper by their level of brain activity. In other words, there was less cognitive emotional load (the brain had to work less) when lying and that lower levels of brain activity resulted in more and larger lies.
This disconnection between the amygdala, where our emotions come from, and the higher thinking centers of our brain is also evident in psychopaths. Psychopathy is defined when a person exhibits antisocial behavior alongside emotional impairment, such as the inability to apologize, to show remorse, and a lack of guilty feelings for negative behaviors against others (Hare & Hare 1996). The anti-social behavior of the psychopath tends to be, “goal-directed towards achieving money, sexual opportunities or increased status” (Cornell et al, 1996). Neuroimaging studies have confirmed that amygdala dysfunction is associated with psychopathy (Tiihonen et al, 2000; Kiehl et al, 2001). They found that high levels of psychopathy were associated with reduced amygdala function. At this time there is no effective treatment for psychopathy.
A good overview of this mental illness can be found in the book by Hare, Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths go to Work. Psychopaths can be charming, and persuasive. They can do great damage to others and yet are incapable of feeling guilt. Charles Manson, the well-studied psychopathic mass murderer, was able to convince others to participate in his crimes, others who were not necessarily psychopaths. How is that possible? The process is similar to how the Nazis in Germany got seemingly normal people to participate in horrific crimes against humanity. There is a long list of what makes people do horrific acts, believe in lies (even when they know they are lies) and take action based on those lies. Countless millions of lives have been taken over millennia because of our human failings and foibles with respect to what we believe and what we don’t. Books can be written, and have been on this topic, but here is some summaries on this topic that I have written:
- Adherence to authority figures – Stanley Milgram
- Role compliance – Phillip Zimbardo
- WYSIATI – What you see is all there is – Daniel Kahneman
- Confirmation bias
- Vilification of the “other”
- Desire for power and the “inner ring” – C.S. Lewis
- Wishful and magical thinking
An example of how one notorious episode of unsubstantiated accusations was stopped comes from the Senate trials on how communists and homosexuals had infiltrated our government and society in the 1950’s. Senator Joe McCarthy, a US Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957, was unmasked for the fraud that he was, telling lie after lie and pressuring others to do the same. Finally, his witch hunts came to an end, for a variety of reasons, but prominent among them was when the lying bully was stood up to by Mr. Welch, a lawyer who was asked to “unmask” and testify against others within his firm, during a Senate hearing. Mr. Welch famously stated: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Joe McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the story goes, as his prominence and power faded, drank himself to death not long afterwards.
Episodic periods of public and political lying, and the dissemination of fake news, seem to occur on a regular basis in our societies. One difference today is how easy it is for these lies to achieve wide-spread dissemination through social media avenues. But we, as humans, have always been susceptible to and in many respects are primed to believe in false information – until we say “enough!”
Can a leopard change it’s spots? Can people change? What about fish? This one was first written in 2006.
Predictably analogs exist between the natural world and the organizational world. Lessons drawn from nature, when applied correctly, hold potentially great benefits for organizations. One has only to determine how these natural patterns are shared by humans or exist within our “human” environment. Some that immediately spring to mind include the Intentional Stance, an animal’s innate tendency and survival aid to ascribe deliberate intent to movement, rustling noises or other sounds even though those sounds may be no more than the wind or other random event; the development of superstitious behavior in animals, displaying repetitious but inconsequential behavior patterns that animals (an humans) believe will help find food, shelter or a mate (or in the case of baseball players, get a hit or score a run); The science of chaos which can mathematically describe the shape of a leaf and movements within the stock market.
Sometimes what humans develop to…
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I feel the need to write this open letter to express my thoughts given the current situation in our country. I am not a political person. That does not mean I don’t have strong political opinions, it means that I don’t get involved in politics and don’t enjoy the machinations necessary to succeed in politics. Up until last weekend, the only protest march I have ever been in was against the Vietnam War, a march that my older sisters took me to since I must have been only 7 or 8 years old. I wonder if they remember. Last weekend I marched from Queens to Manhattan, along with about 1000 others, to protest the positions that Mr. Trump has taken and the values he appears to hold. The people of Queens, where I was born, wanted to make a statement that while Mr. Trump may also have been from Queens, where he was born, he is not of Queens anymore and doesn’t represent the values they hold. As I am sure you know, Queens is likely the most diverse place in the country with something like 169 languages being spoken and every culture you can imagine, and some that you can’t, being represented there. It is a wonderful place, a place where people roll up their sleeves and get it done. Melting pot doesn’t really describe what it is like there, it is more like an enjoyable cacophony.
Now, I am not one who likes to paint swaths of people with a broad brush as that is never accurate, but broadly the supporters of Mr. Trump have me very worried about the future of this country that I so love. I spent a good deal of my childhood in upstate New York, the Southern Tier as it is called, a piece of New York that shoots out west along the Pennsylvania border. For virtually as far back as I can remember it has been an economic basket case. Endicott Johnson, which was the shoemaker to the world, and shod nearly every WWII solider, is a distant memory. It was a company whose workforce was largely powered by immigrants and there are local stories told that when an immigrant from certain parts of Europe got off the boat in New York, the only English they knew was “Which way EJ?” Singer Link, which started by making sewing machines and rose to become a technology powerhouse, was destroyed by corporate raider Paul Bilzerian, who bought up the company and then sold it piecemeal to make a profit. (He later served prison time for fraud). IBM, whose hometown is Endicott, and which seemed to have whole neighborhoods of employees at one point, is now and has been for a long time nothing more than a ghostly presence. Other companies, such as Corning, Lockheed and BAE still form valuable economic anchors in the region as do several major Universities. I remember as a kid riding my bike down the main street, past empty factory building after empty building, buildings which used to house economic powerhouses for the region and storefront after boarded-up storefront. I understand in my core what economic uncertainty looks like, I grew up with it, and I have seen its effects on an entire region. While it was deeply frustrating to me, and I recognize has shaped me to some degree, I don’t hate immigrants or minorities, I don’t hate government, I don’t hate businesspeople, I don’t hate because of it.
It is of course impossible to completely walk in someone else’s shoes. John Rawls, the noted philosopher on Justice described his veil of ignorance, a method to help put you into someone else’s shoes, but thought experiments only go so far. The coal miners in Appalachia? I think I get it. The factory workers in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois? I am pretty sure I understand. Family farms displaced by factory farms in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Indiana? Yes, I understand the pain. It is painful not only for those directly affected, but also for the entire communities those jobs and people supported. The shops and restaurants, the dentists, doctors, school teachers and other professionals who see their neighbors, customers, clients and patients at first suffering, then disappearing. Towns become places where there are only old people left with few children and young families. Once thriving communities are filled with empty homes.
Today Trump supporters are using this tale, which is the tale of late 20th century middle America, to point fingers at the “other”, whether the other are immigrants, minorities, government, cheap labor or weak environmental and other regulations abroad, or Wall Street to say they are the source of our problems. They are saying, if only we didn’t have these immigrants, regulation, or vocal minorities, if only we could go back to the way it was, when times were “good”, they would be “good” again.
There is an old Russian saying, “You cannot cross the same river twice”. Things change, whether it is technology, the economy, the workforce, or the water flowing in a river, things change. Going back to the good-old-days is a fantasy, for the good-old-days never really did exist for many. Those coal miners? They had good paying jobs, but they also had high death rates on dangerous jobs and ended up with diseases like black lung and cancer. After relatively short careers in physically demanding jobs they retired, and then struggled to get by, supported by various government programs. Generation after generation felt that they had no choice other than to work the mines. People felt trapped. The technology of strip mining, which required many fewer workers, accounted for the majority of the lost jobs, not the often cited regulation or labor costs. The factory workers? Automation and efficiency gains did away with many of their jobs. America today manufactures something like 3x what we did in 1985, but we do it with 1/3 fewer workers. This is not to say that the workers of today should not be fully employed with livable wage jobs. It is to say that specifically what those jobs are will change, hopefully for the better, and the workforce needs to adapt and be ready if they want to hold those jobs. As a society we need to help people adapt, not hold out false promises that things can return to a time that never was. This is a lesson that we might have to learn the hard way at this point.
A good portion of the Republican animus towards President Obama is pure racism, recognized or not, and we are still a long ways away from minorities being protected as they should be and having the rights that everyone deserves. Black Live do Matter, not because other lives don’t matter, but because for so long, and today still, the day-to-day treatment of blacks indicates that many don’t feel that they do. And in terms of walking in someone else’s shoes, it is impossible for those flying the Confederate flag on their cars, in their homes or over their state houses to know the pain that the flag causes those whose ancestors were enslaved or whose civil rights were abused under that very flag. Just as Trump’s white supremacist supporters may not know the significance of, or the pain caused by the Nazi salute they give in their meetings. Yet again, they might.
Everyone needs to be given the opportunity to fulfill their humanity, to have a dignified existence with a level playing field, let’s call that pro-lifespan. Any babies being born into this world, regardless of their skin color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orietation must be given the life-long tools that they need to prosper. Benjamin Franklin knew for instance that education for all was a key for having a successful democracy and he knew that the availability of high quality public education was an absolute requirement. That now seems to be in jeopardy. School vouchers which promote private and religious schools in the place of public education will be a significant step backwards. And going backwards to a time of Jim Crowe or when LGBTQI folks needed to hide is an abhorrent thought, but one that we may now face or have to face down. Just the other day on CNN one Trump supporter wondered out loud, on the air, if Jews were people, or perhaps they were simply soulless golems. A golem being a fairy tale creature whose existence rose out of some of the darkest moments for Jews in eastern European history as a protector of children, now cast by a neo-Nazi on CNN as a Jewish source of evil. Why is this person on CNN? The American public was fed a continuous stream of false news, surrounded and amplified by false hopes, false promises and outright lies by the Republican candidate. Mr. Trump knew that people are rarely searching for the truth, but rather they are searching for information that supports their existing point of view. Whether it is truthful or not matters less.
Mr. Trump’s personal issues also seem to mean nothing to the electorate, whether those issues are ethical, behavioral or mental. Not being a clinical psychologist I will let others speak to his mental state, but from what I can see I am truly alarmed.
As an organizational psychologist, it is quite clear to me that resorting to blaming the “other”, people who are somehow “different” from us, a group either internal or external to “us”, or tribalism has been a method that has been repeatedly employed through millennium for certain people to seize or retain power and control. Putin of course is a regular user of blaming the “other” and so were figures like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, al-Assad, Pol Pot, and Osama bin Laden. The fighting between the Shia and Sunni at its core is about power, and each blames the other as being “other”. The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades were powered by the same principles. The list is endless and now we can add Donald Trump and his supporters to that list. His whole campaign was based on playing to people’s fears about the “others” and then denying his statements through the use of slight nuance. A pattern is evident at the beginning of in-human times, excuses are made, appeasement attempted Chamberlin-like, apologist spokespeople appear explaining how we misunderstand them, denials are made, but then the full-throated horror becomes evident, usually too late to stop without great cost.
Humanity survived into a more civilized state after the atrocities of WWII only because the United States, as imperfect as she is, was there as a bulwark. What if that bulwark is now the one threatened by this tribalism? Who will return us and the world to the realm of sanity? I made a promise that I would do my part. I may not be able to affect the whole world, but I will do my best to positively affect the pieces that I touch.
It is no surprise that former white nationalist and former Trump supporter, Derek Black, who had an opinion piece in the New York Times this morning, described how he moved away from white nationalism by being welcomed by, and seeing how “others” were not the demon-like characters as they are portrayed and that he is now a graduate student majoring in history. To understand where we are going you first have to understand where we have been. We can only hope that this episode in our nation’s history is akin to umweg behavior, a concept out of Gestalt psychology which means detour, that in order to achieve a goal you sometimes must first move away from it.
While those of us in the USA are celebrating Thanksgiving, we must remember that, and I can’t believe this is possible here, we have people who are terrified of being rounded-up, potentially held in internment camps, families being torn apart. At this time of Thanksgiving, it is worth asking, as a people, who are we? And as a country, even though we have made mistakes, to what moral standards will we hold ourselves?
Dehumanization. A reference number tattooed on an arm is a powerful method of turning a person into something less. Dehumanization when paired with and justified by vilification eases the gathering and slaughter. Dehumanization is a slippery slope and those who initiate the process count on it being that way in order to help gather and maintain their power. It takes a group and turns them into the “other”, the source of a society’s problems. It takes the causality of problems from being systemic or internally focused and moves it to a sub-group within society or an outside group that can be labeled as threatening to that society. In either case the thinking is that the group needs to be dealt with and cast out. The logic is that if only we dealt with the “other” we could go back to the good old days or the way things should be…
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A method for uncovering election fraud.
Say the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose on average 20% per year (I am not hallucinating, just want to make a point). If the Dow Jones average started at 1000, in order to get to 2000, a 1000 point increase, it would have to rise 100%. That is a very large percentage increase and would require about 5 years (simple growth not compounded). But if the Dow was at 9000 and experienced 20% growth in order to get to 10,000, also a 1000 point increase, it would take about 6.5 months. That means that the number 1, the first digit in the Dow Jones at 1000 would appear as the first digit for about 5 years and the number 9, the first digit in the Dow Jones at 9000 would have the honor of being in that position for about 6 months.
If you mapped out all the…
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In our deeply divided politics and society, and as we get ready for Thanksgiving, where the various members gathered around the table might feel some strains from the election, I thought it would be good to examine the concept of human dignity once more. Here is a piece from a year or so ago on human dignity and what drives it.
Asking an employee population whether they are treated with respect and dignity has been part of employee surveys for a long time. Those two words are so often used in conjunction with one another that they have become joined at the hip as a unified concept not only in the world of surveys but also in our day-to-day conceptual thinking as well. Respect and Dignity. While some argue that it is a double barreled concept, it would be really impossible to treat someone with dignity, but without respect, and likewise if you are being respectful, dignity would, it would seem by necessity, tag along. As a gestalt, respect and dignity are two sides of the same coin.
I will deal with the dignity side of the coin here. The concept of dignity has a long history and interesting origins. As a constitutional right, dignity today is often defined as a…
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During this time of uncertainty, it is worth examining some of our basic underlying assumptions about how the world works and how people interpret that world. This piece is about ethics.
If you review the various major models of leadership out there a glaring hole becomes rapidly evident, and that is the relative lack of ethics as a trait, skill or critical behavior of leadership. In a cross section of studies reviewed by Peter Northouse (2010) on leadership traits and characteristics, only one major review (Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1991) out of six, listed integrity or ethics as an important defining characteristic of leadership. Roughly the same results occur when other leadership models are reviewed including those that focus on leadership skills or style, a situational characteristics approach to leadership, a contingency theory or path-goal theory approach, or exchange based approaches to leadership. Only models describing transformational leadership and authentic leadership seem to have substantial ethical or moral components to them. Since the development of most of these theories is driven by data-based experiments, it leads one to questions why…
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