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Fear Itself…

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In 1933, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address delivered a solemn message to the American public.

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

His concern was that the fear the American public was suffering through was paralyzing the efforts needed to emerge from the economic chasm into which we had fallen.

“In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things.” 

He asserted in that speech that the values of the American public were in fact intact and strong and where we were falling short was only on the material front. There can be a good deal of debate about that point, but he lay blame for those conditions on the bankers and money lenders for incompetence, stubbornness and for abdicating their responsibilities to society. FDR was certainly not an unblemished figure and in his speech he fell victim to the lure of scapegoating, assigning problems to others, as a way to rally the population.

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.”

In his address he spoke, as he said, frankly and boldly. Today, we are again facing fear, but this time the fear has been purposely induced, it has been foisted upon the American public to gain power, to control, to bring forth behaviors that were held in check by our values. The behaviors that have been brought forth induce divisiveness and discord and attack the most vulnerable in our society as the “other”, to blame them for our problems. The discord and divisiveness in our society is cheered on, nurtured and sometimes orchestrated by our adversaries, for while they can’t stand against us as a strong democracy, as our rule of law and our democratic institutions weaken they see a path to victory over us.

The threat we are under today is the opposite of the threat America faced during the Great Depression. Economically we are strong, but morally, from a values standpoint, our government and part of our population has lost its way. It can creep up on you and each little cut can be brushed off, until it is too late and you realize you have hemorrhaged and lost a fatal amount of blood. It is time to heal our wounds and to regain our footing. Our government was of course elected by the people, in this case a minority of the population, but there are real grievances that led us to where we are and those must be address if we are to ever move forward.

What we are experiencing right now should be a wake-up call to just how fragile our democracy, any democracy is, how easy it is to imperil our freedoms, to corrupt our values and how we must safeguard them all. Democracy along with strong values, can’t be taken for granted. They must constantly be nurtured in order to survive and the public can’t give into its fears when faced with a fear inducing challenge. We have been far from perfect, but we were on the right path.

Societal culture, just like organizational culture, can enter periods where it is more fluid, more able to change. Kurt Lewin described these periods as unfreeze events. We have been in an unfreeze event and the various elements in our society have been pushing this way and that to change the culture to the point of view they desire. The risk is that the culture will refreeze into a culture that is inherently undemocratic, based on autocratic policy. That is not who we are, that is not the country the founding fathers envisioned and it must be resisted at all costs.

Those who are attracted to this autocratic orientation are a varied lot. It does no one any good to paint with a broad brush when you describe their motivations. There are those who have been speaking out but it is time, way past time, for those within our government, those with a platform and those with an understanding of just what is happening, who have been quiet to join in and speak out and to speak out frankly and boldly, for we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 13, 2018 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Ethics

Authoritarianism

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In the aftermath of WWII there was a great deal of research interest in how the atrocities of that war could have taken place. How could regular German citizens simply follow orders to willingly participate in the Holocaust or simply look the other way and pretend they did not know it was happening? Of course, the behaviors that occurred during WWII were not isolated events in history. Humans have been very capable, both prior to and after that war, of continuing to carry out atrocities. Armenia, Rwanda, Ukraine, Greece, Cambodia, USA, Bosnia, Syria, and many others have all seen their share of death and genocidal attacks carried out by one group who first dehumanizes and then tries to exterminate the other. These are not isolated events and it is not limited to any one geography or culture. It is something dark and deep inside of the human inner core that allows these events to occur over and over. Yet, not all of us succumb and get caught up in these atrocities. Resistance can be found, even though it is often less than successful.

But what exactly are people resisting? What urges affect humanity that must be overcome to prevent a continuing string of atrocities from occurring?

One line of research examined the makeup and prevalence of the Authoritarian personality type as a possible explanation. The Authoritarian personality has “a desire for security, order, power, and status, with a desire for structured lines of authority, a conventional set of values or outlook, a demand for unquestioning obedience, and a tendency to be hostile toward or use as scapegoats individuals of minority or nontraditional groups.”

In the aftermath of WWII, in 1947, Theodor W. Adorno created the “F-Scale” or Fascism Scale.  The characteristics the F-Scale measured included: Conformity to traditional societal norms, submission to authoritarian figures, aggression to “others” who don’t fit the pattern, belief in fundamentalist religious notions, belief in superstitions, tendency towards power and toughness, a rejection of introspection, self-criticism, and tender-mindedness. The F-Scale was widely popular for a time but had some psychometric issues with reliability and faking. Since then others have created scales to measure similar characteristics with better psychometric properties. What is striking about the F-Scale from 1947, is how many of the issues you continue to hear today (similar to “these kids today”, kind of argument that happens over and over with each generation). Here are the original 30 items (http://www.anesi.com/fscale.htm) that made up the F-Scale (on a 6-point strongly agree to strongly disagree scale):

  1. Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
  2. A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.
  3. If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off.
  4. The business man and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and the professor.
  5. Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.
  6. Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.
  7. Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but as they grow up they ought to get over them and settle down.
  8. What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, is a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.
  9. No sane, normal, decent person could ever think of hurting a close friend or relative.
  10. Nobody ever learned anything really important except through suffering.
  11. What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country.
  12. An insult to our honor should always be punished.
  13. Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped, or worse.
  14. There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
  15. Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, and feebleminded people.
  16. Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.
  17. When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.
  18. Nowadays more and more people are prying into matters that should remain personal and private.
  19. Some people are born with an urge to jump from high places.
  20. People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong.
  21. Some day it will probably be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.
  22. Wars and social troubles may someday be ended by an earthquake or flood that will destroy the whole world.
  23. No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough will power.
  24. It is best to use some prewar authorities in Germany to keep order and prevent chaos. [You’ll have to pretend it is 1946 when you answer this one.]
  25. Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places
  26. Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict.
  27. Familiarity breeds contempt.
  28. Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching an infection or disease from them.
  29. The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared to some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.
  30. The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it.

If you complete the F-Scale at the link provided above, your responses will be scored and an interpretation provided. A higher score on the F-Scale was supposed to be predictive of and indicative of the person having fascist anti-democratic leanings and an attraction towards authoritarian figures and political systems. Recent work by political scientist Mathew MacWilliams, implies that somewhere between 18 to 30 percent of Americans fit the definition and that number goes higher when people feel under threat. (There is no reason to assume those numbers would be any different in other countries.) He found from a large sample of likely voters, that a tendency towards authoritarianism predicted support for Trump in the last election more reliably than other any other factors.

The question has been raised repeatedly about why certain groups such as evangelicals, or voters with low income levels would vote for and continue to support Trump, whose personal behaviors and actions are in contrast to either their stated values and whose aid-cutting, tax cuts for the wealthy agenda is so clearly against their personal self-interest or professed morals. What has been less examined is the percent of those people who are attracted to the authoritarian style of leadership or because they are feeling threatened on other fronts are willing to put up with it.

And in reference to how the morally centered religious right puts up with Trump’s atrocities, racism, misogynism, xenophobia and prejudices, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(4), 432-443 by Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967) found that the average churchgoers are more prejudiced than nonchurchgoers; that people with an extrinsic (externally focused) religious orientation are significantly more prejudiced than people with an intrinsic (internally focused) religious orientation; and that people who are indiscriminately proreligious are the most prejudiced of all. Remember religious fundamentalism is often found as a marker of attractiveness to an authoritarian style of leadership.

More recent research on authoritarianism shows that it is not a single personality type, but a set of characteristics that in combination lead to a particular pattern of behavior. Using the Big-5 categorization of personality type Phillip Chen and Carl Palmer (The Prejudiced Personality, Using the Big Five to Predict Susceptibility to Stereotyping Behavior, American Politics Research, Vol 46, Issue 2, pp. 276 – 307, August 4, 2017)   found that people who scored lower on Openness to Experience (an appreciation of things like intellectual complexity, artistic expression, etc.) and higher on Conscientiousness (organization, dependability, and self-reliance) are consistent predictors of authoritarian tendencies. Ryan Perry & Chris Sibley (2012) found similar patterns in an article titled “Big-Five personality prospectively predicts Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. (Personality and Individual Differences. 52. 3–8. 10.1016).

People with these personality characteristics would show more of a willingness to follow an authoritarian leader, even one who is expressing clinical or sub-clinical levels of mental illness, including malevolent narcissism or the Dark Triad, a combination of the often co-morbid factors of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

The incidence of the Dark Triad and its relationship to prejudice was examined by Gordon Hodson, Sarah Hogg and Cara MacInnis (Journal of Research in Personality (Volume 43, Issue 4, August 2009, Pages 686-690). They found that the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) personality traits were positively related to threat perceptions of those not part of the “in-group” and with an anti-immigrant prejudice, a desire for social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism. It is a short jump to assume that words used to describe others by those so afflicted with this illness would include streams of insults, pejoratives and ominous warnings, none of which would necessarily be based in reality.

It is a relatively new concept to use personality characteristics to predict political orientations or how someone might vote, which leaders they would follow, or their views towards differing societal activities, but Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, in their extensive research, simultaneously came to the conclusion that the polarization evident in American politics today was largely generated by authoritarian personality type people.

MacWilliams, describes authoritarians as “not supporting a lot of things that are basic to Madisonian democracy”, such as protecting minority rights, or maintaining religious freedom, they would have no issue with separating children from parents in asylum seeking families, as they respond aggressively to outsiders who are cast in the role of “other” or “enemy”. In one study of Republican voters MacWilliams found “that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing” on their preferred candidate. “Only two variables stood out as statistically significant: authoritarianism, with ‘fear of terrorism’ trailing as a distant second.”

All of these leaves one feeling unease that the USA is traveling down a precarious path. A path that can lead to horrors that must not be repeated and that must be completely and vigorously rejected.   We must turn from the path that has been set upon by those currently in power. How can we begin?

  • The coalition that elected Trump is a varied group. But what they seem to have in common is a tendency to find strong-man authoritarianism attractive. The percent who leans that way directly increases with their sense of threat. That sense of threat must be reduced and the inflammatory rhetoric used to increase that sense of threat must be clearly shown to be the hollow canard that it is.
  • Some of those who put us on this dangerous path did so because they have felt ignored by those in power and that their future (and the future of their children) is bleak. Coal miners, mid-west farmers, steel workers, fishermen, manufacturing workers, etc., we must not leave carcasses in our path as change comes to our society. And if nothing else our society has been in a state of constant change. We must protect and bring along those who will be most ill-affected by that change.
  • From years of research on workers it is very clear that one fundamental that everyone on this planet wants is to feel valued. We must make it clear that we value everyone, giving them a voice and letting them know that will not be forgotten, that they and their children have a positive and exciting future.
  • Respect & Dignity are also fundamental characteristics that people desire. Dignity is a relational factor. In other words, whether someone feels that are being treated with dignity is determined by how the see others being treated. If their treatment is perceived to be less they view it as undignified. If no one has electricity, I am not being treated with less dignity if I don’t have electricity. If everyone else has electricity and I don’t, my treatment is less dignified. If I don’t have clean water and others do, that is not dignified treatment. Respect is not a relational factor. I can feel disrespected regardless of how others are being treated. Everyone should be treated with Respect and Dignity.
  • We must protect the institutions that our society was built upon, the institutions which up to this point have allowed us to create the most successful human society this planet has seen so far. Checks and balances in our government must be restored. A free press must be protected. We must cherish and protect our planet as there is no planet B. We are caretakers of this world for our children and grandchild, we must pass to them a world in which they can thrive and live healthy lives. We must reassume our leadership position in the world, setting moral standards and leading in education, technology and scientific discovery. We must build bridges to others on this planet not walls to isolate ourselves. We must lead towards global success for everyone. And, the most vulnerable in our society must be protected.
  • It is time to define what we are going to be as a society, and not through fear-mongering, who we are going to protect ourselves from. We need to look forward not backwards.

This is just the start of how we begin to change the path we are on, away from the seduction that some feel towards authoritarianism. An authoritarianism which has led to unspeakable horrors time after time throughout history. It is time, more than time, to redefine ourselves in a manner that lets all of us thrive and live life to its fullest potential.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 1, 2018 at 4:46 pm

One

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Supposed you had an organization that made a product that was extremely valuable to society as a whole. Now suppose there was a problem with this product. The problem was during the manufacture of this product, one individual had to carry out a task, that over the space of six months was lethal to that person. In other words, one-person in the manufacturing process was going to die every six months in order for this organization to keep producing this very valuable product, this would occur even if they did the job just once. No matter what research was carried out, this manufacturing problem could not be fixed, and the price for this organization’s success was one death every six months. Should that organization continue to manufacture that product? What if the organization was ten people? In other words, every six months, in order for that organization of ten to thrive one of them had to volunteer to conduct that lethal manufacturing step so the other nine could continue to do their jobs. One-in-ten, doesn’t sound very good, does it?

What if instead of ten workers, the organization had 100,000. Every six months one of the 100,000 had to volunteer to conduct that lethal step so that the others could continue their work. What if the organization was 10,000,000? What if it was 400,000,000? At what point do the numbers make sense for it to be ok for one person to sacrifice their life every six months? Do the numbers ever make any sense, is it ever justifiable? At any of those organizational sizes that one person who dies is still just as dead, their life cut short, their ability to experience joy, love, other emotions and experiences cut short. Was it worth it to them?  What if instead of volunteering they were unaware that the job was lethal. Does that make a difference?

This dilemma has long been discussed and argued about and has appeared in books and movies. In Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan (1982), as Spock is sacrificing himself to save the ship he and Kirk have this exchange.

“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” – Spock

“Or the one.”  – Kirk

But in the sequel in 1984, The Search for Spock, when Kirk disobeys orders and puts the ship at risk for Spock to be reborn he justifies his action by saying,

“…the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” – Kirk

Has Kirk evolved his thinking? When the USA was founded the government was set up to be slow and ponderous, to be deliberative in it’s decision-making. The reason for that was not that the founding fathers wanted to be inefficient, but rather they wanted decisions, and their impacts, to be carefully weighed before implementation. They set up a multi-step system, with three co-equal branches of government each having their roles to play and without too much power being able to be gathered under one branch. The role of the government, as they envisioned it, was not majority rule, but rather the protection of rights for those who may not be well-represented in society or in the legislative bodies creating laws. That drove, for instance, the separation of church and state, so that no one religion could impose it’s will on others simply because they had the most number of adherents.  The needs of the one, outweigh the needs or the desires of the many. The passage in the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal” is a nod to this. Even if it is just one person who is different than all others, they are equal in the eyes of our founding fathers, each life just as valuable as any other. This of course was aspirational and in practice we have often fallen and still do fall far short of that ideal, but at least the aspiration is there and it is something we should all work towards together.

When attempts are made to deprogram members of cults or adherents to terrorist groups one method is to show that often the leadership does not behave in the manner that they state their members should be behaving. For instance, you show the leaders, who state that personal possessions are evil and should be turned over, wearing expensive watches, driving fancy cars or flying in personal jets, in other words you point out their hypocrisy. And you point it out over and over. Sometimes it works but often people are very good at accepting only the information that comports to what they already believe and reject those facts that contradict beliefs.

We as a country are currently separating children from their parents on our southern border. In some cases parents are told that the children are being taken for showers or baths and then never returned. It is a scene that is eerily and horrifically reminiscent of Nazi’s telling concentration camp victims that they were going for showers as they were led into the gas chambers. It makes my skin crawl and brings tears to my eyes. Scenes of young children crying for their parents are occurring over and over. These are the facts and they are right before our eyes.

Many of our most senior leaders today are awash in vast oceans of hypocrisy and they want the American public to believe them as they use us simply as a means for political and financial gain. Groups that traditionally proclaim themselves as “pro-family” are strangely quiet on this issue and their hypocrisy grows, as they look to cling to power and influence. This is not what the USA is supposed to be, it is not who I am. We are supposed to be protecting the vulnerable, not inflicting suffering upon them. Each and every one of the children and each and every one of their parents should be protected and they should not be separated. They are not numbers, they are not statistics, they are not pawns in some evil conception of political maneuvering. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many and one separated child is one too many.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 19, 2018 at 9:04 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

Privacy, Persuasion and Fundamental Rights

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Perhaps, not surprisingly, it started with a lie. In 1957, James Vicary, on a hot summer day, in a Fort Lee, NJ movie theater, claimed to have run an experiment where he said he inserted frames into a movie and flashed on the screen the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola”. He claimed this subliminal (meaning literally below threshold) advertising resulted in huge increases in the sales of popcorn (up 58%) and Coca Cola (up 18%).  Vicary stated that subliminal communication was so powerful and had such potentially dangerous uses that he suggested warning the public when subliminal techniques were in use, and even seemed to think that some sort of governmental regulation might be needed.

Congress held hearings, legislation was proposed, but not passed. The public felt they were being manipulated. Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review, warned his readers about subliminal communications. Among the uses his article warned about was the potential to manipulate voting patterns for political candidates and influence the outcome of an election.

On the fifth anniversary of his “experiment”, Vicary admitted that it was a hoax, a ruse and that his goal was to revive his failing consulting practice (Advertising Age, Sept 17, 1962). Apparently, his thinking was it did not matter if his findings were real or not, just that his potential clients believed that they were real. By this time, he was the director of survey research for Dun & Bradstreet as he attempted to resurrect his career as a psychologist.  Some question whether the insertion of the words ever took place.

So, is subliminal perception and its ability to influence people pure bunk? Thijs Verwijmeren, et.al.  (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2011) came to a conclusion that subliminal advertising can have some limited effect, but it is not all that powerful. Subliminal ads, for instance, can’t make you do something you don’t want to do. Others question the very concept. If something can’t be perceived, because it is subliminal, how can it possibly affect behavior? The notion is that you can affect the subconscious mind without the conscious mind being aware of the affect. Regardless of the efficacy of this particular technique, the temptation to influence people, to change their behaviors continues, through various other avenues and methods.

Classical economic theory states that humans are rational thinkers and make decisions that are in their best economic interest after considering all the facts. Much economic policy over the years has been based on this concept and of course it is wrong, for humans are anything but cool, rational thinkers as they work through their decisions. We all take short-cuts in our decision-making using bias, heuristics or rules-of-thumb to get through the day (these are decisions or judgements we make without necessarily being conscious we are making them). Without them the number of decisions you would be required to make would simply paralyze you. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists, drove those points home with a substantial body of research that gave rise to the field of Behavioral Economics. One cornerstone of their work was their definition and description of System 1 and System 2 type of thinking that humans use to make decisions.

System 1 thinking is automatic decision-making. It is quick and easy, requiring little to no effort when making a decision or passing judgement. System 1 thinking speeds decision-making and allows you to make thousands of unthinking decisions each and every day. The path you will drive to work, what you are likely to order in your morning coffee, do you put butter or cream cheese on your English muffin are all quick, ponderless, System 1 decisions you make. System 2 is when you use deliberative thought in order to make a decision. For instance, if you are ordering a new PC or Mac, if you are like most people, you methodically work through your options and the associated costs, prior to making a decision on what equipment to buy and how to configure it. You may check with friends and read reviews, part of your decision may be based on brand loyalty or a “coolness” factor that you perhaps can’t quite articulate, or one of our many human biases, such as WYSIATI, which stands for “What you see is all there is”, may come into play. Meaning you choose from the options before you and tend not to look for less obvious or unseen options. And you can be assured that the manufacturers of these devices are doing their best to influence your decision.

The speed limit sign says “30 MPH”, the sign on the escalator says “Stand Right, Walk Left”, in the parking garage there are signs that say “small cars only”, the express checkout line at the grocery store says “8 items or less”. We are informed that in order to enroll our kindergarten-aged child into school that we have to show proof of vaccination. All around us, every day there are attempts to influence our behavior, to modify what we are doing or to inform us what is allowable and what is not. While not perfectly so, these rules tend to be imposed when your behavior has the potential to negatively impact others around you, either directly or indirectly. The reason you are not trained to drive with a “use your best judgement on what your speed should be”, is 1. You may not be familiar with the road you are on, 2. If left to their own devices, some people’s judgement (especially younger or inexperienced drivers) might not be that good, 3. There is a tremendous potential for harm occurring to others if you make a poor decision. So, a sign is posted that informs you what is an appropriate speed for that road (and there are consequences to violating that sign’s speed limit). Your child’s ability to spread disease and contribute to epidemics (not in a good way) is the reason for the vaccination (and it does not matter if what you personally believe about vaccinations and autism goes against all the known science – no vaccination, no school – another penalty).

Writing in Scientific American (March 30, 2018), Marcello Lenca and Effy Vayena, describe Cognitive Liberty as “the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses.” This was written in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal where, in an attempt to influence the last presidential election, at least 87 million Facebook users, unbeknown to them, were targeted for customized digital ads and other manipulative information in a manner that “circumvents user’s awareness of such influence”. And that is the key difference between a speed limit sign, a vaccination requirement and subliminally trying to get you to drink more Coca Cola.  One approach is direct and in-your-face, it is transparent, while the other tries to influence you without you realizing you are being influenced. They continue, “most of the current online ecosystem, is an arm’s race to the unconscious mind: notifications, microtargeted ads, autoplay plugins, are all strategies to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate”.

The Cambridge Analytica CEO in an undercover interview with Channel 4 News in the UK stated, that it did not matter whether something was real and factual, just that people believed that it was. People, of course, are more inclined to believe information that supports their existing viewpoint, whether it is real or not. Remember Pizzagate – the falsehood spread by certain websites that specialize in spreading falsehoods and the alt-right during the election, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a Pizza Parlor, except she wasn’t and the accused Pizza Parlor did not even have a basement. But never-the-less, a true believer went to that Pizza Parlor with his gun and started firing in a System 1 thinking pattern. He never paused to consider the information he was receiving in a rational manner. The shooter viewed himself as a “good guy with a gun” going to stop bad people, except it was all a delusion meant to influence behavior. A delusion that was crafted by the inappropriate use of big data to find people’s fears, to manipulate them and to capitalize on them. So here you have potentially deadly consequences to falsehoods spread on social media, for which there is no penalty.

It wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last time that occurs.  And to underscore that this wasn’t some accident, during the last presidential election you also had Republican operatives making statements on TV interviews such as “we are not going to let facts determine the outcome of this election”, or we are presenting “alternative facts”, in other words just like James Vicary’s “Drink Coca Cola” ruse, it did not matter whether it was real or not, just that a population critical to your success, potential customers or in the case of an election, potential voters, believed that it was real.  And because of that orientation and the lack of regulation or penalties around it, the spread of disinformation, enabled by social media and Russia attacking our democracy, reached unprecedented levels.

Our technology, once again, is much more advanced than the social structures we surround it with, at least at first.  Partly that is due to pace of innovation being quite a bit faster than the pace of social structure change. But this is nothing new. For instance, when we, as a species, starting writing down our stories, our gurus at that time were those who could read. They assumed a special elevated status within society and because of their skill set they were the bearers of the “word” and able to manipulate and persuade the masses, for who could argue with someone about a text that you could not read? The priests of today are those who can create and harness the technology that can influence the masses and those who can build smart systems to enable that to happen more effectively.  In a special section on AI appearing in The Economist (March 31st-April 6th, 2018), it was estimated that for each capable AI tech person in a company today, the value of that company increases by 5 to 10 million dollars, so it is no wonder that sophisticated AI talent today draw 6- and 7- figure salaries.

Sander van der Linden in Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion, (Scientific American, April 10th 2018), quotes a study covering 3.5 million people which “found that psychologically tailored advertising, i.e. matching the content of a persuasive message to an individual’s broad psychographic profile, resulted in 40% more clicks and 50% more online purchases than mismatched or unpersonalized messages”.  We have come a long way, with the help of our technology, from flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola” on a screen. And more importantly he states that these messages when carried over into a political environment can have the ability to either suppress voting for the candidate these messages are targeted against or can swing some potential voters to switch candidates. When elections are often decided by a percentage point or two, that small effect can have a large impact. In addition to the USA presidential election, it now appears that Britain’s EU exit vote was influenced using the same techniques.

So yes, we are at risk, in an unregulated, wild-west of a technology world, elections can be affected, Cognitive Liberty, our very democracy can be undermined, autocrats/dictators or would-be tin-pot dictators with effective social media disinformation and targeted voting campaigns can be voted in. What can we do?

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, stated in a recent townhall meeting in Chicago that “privacy is a human right”.  That aligns him with his predecessor, Steve Jobs, who in 2010 stated, “”Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly.” “I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

The European Union has just enacted GDPR or General Data Protection Regulations, which does align with the sentiments of both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. In a nutshell, among the GDPR requirements are that individuals give permission for their data to be collected, be informed regarding what data is being collected, how it will be used, how and for how long it will be stored, and at any time they can see what data you have on them and they can demand that they be erased from your systems. There are many other requirements as well and violations result in large fines. In an editorial, The Economist recently called for the USA to adopt the EU data protection regulations.

But in addition to protecting the data we can work towards making people savvier about what they see on social media and how to determine reality from delusion or disinformation. For instance, some possibilities include (and I am sure if a group put their minds to it, many more possibilities would emerge):

  • Transparency can be increased, for instance, just like restaurants in NYC get cleanliness ratings, social media sites can get ratings regarding the veracity of the information they carry. Is the information verified in any fashion or is it just put out there?
  • Sites that label themselves as news, or TV stations that label themselves as news should adhere to certain news worthy standards in order to keep that designation. Each program should be clearly labeled as meeting “news standards” or should be clearly labeled “opinion” not just at the start of the show, but the whole time the show is on.
  • News organizations used to adhere to a separation of church and state. Meaning the news side of the business should not be influenced by the business side of the business. To achieve a certain news rating this standard would have to be met.
  • One method towards getting people to become better consumers of information is to educate them on how humans consume information and make decisions. It is a first step towards taking them out of System 1 thinking when appropriate and having them activate System 2 thinking.
  • Penalties can be implemented for knowingly spreading false information.

Social media now has the power to cause great harm to others and to our society. As the saying goes with great power comes great responsibility, but so far social media has not proven itself capably of operating in that responsible fashion. We are in a variation of the “Tragedy of the Commons” moment when it comes to social media. The tragedy of the commons describes a situation where individuals acting independently put their own self-interest above a common interest in a shared resource. Because each is only concerned about their own interest, they each use the resource until it is despoiled and of no use to anyone. Collective action is needed to save the resource so it can be used by all to mutual benefit. While originally the concept of the commons was based on shared unregulated grazing ground over the years it has morphed to mean “any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator”. While social media is an unlimited resource, it too will be despoiled if it is only used by individuals for their own self-interest without regard to the harm it is causing others and to society.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 15, 2018 at 4:28 pm

The Fifth Question

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Over the last two days we gathered around the family table for the Passover Seder, the meal where the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is retold each year. One role for the children present is to ask the four questions at the appropriate time during the Seder. The questions revolve around why this meal, this Seder, is different from the other meals typically eaten during the rest of the year. And around those differences the story of Passover is told.

This year I added a fifth question for the family present. “Do we live in evil times”? To me, emotionally, this year feels like the spring flowers will curl up, turn black and shrivel, that the grass will stay brown, the blue sky will stay obscured by clouds, that the trees will remain bare. In addition to the darkness settling over the land, I expect cattle to perish, locusts to decimate crops, waters to run red, boils, disease, hail and death. Yes, I have a nagging feeling that we can all expect various plagues to continue, at least for the short term. What brings me to this state of pessimism?

The United States has seemingly, willingly, thrown away its somewhat exceptionalism role. We have thrown away our morality, our leadership, our values, aspirational as they were, but at least the aspirations were there. The aspirations of our current federal leaders include greed, corruption, abuse, racism and worse, all of which can only be achieved by denigrating the pillars of society that has made our country great, science, a free press, a fair judiciary, and a congress with actual oversite powers. Corruption, fiscal abuse, nepotism, blatant racism, intimidation of the most vulnerable among us, the thirst for power at any cost now run rampant. As a country we have embraced the worst fears, the worst instincts of tribal, primitive mankind.

ICE, it is now hard to imagine them as anything more than thugs, grabs people off the streets, separating mothers and fathers from their children and dumps them without money, without identification, without a method of communication and without due process in foreign lands.  Who is attracted to work like this? Here is a passage about one person who was so treated with the name altered. “…attorney worked very hard to file all the necessary papers and reach out to the ICE officer to make a case for a stay of XYZ’s deportation. The officer took a few days to get back to the attorney and before the process was complete, ICE had already approved his removal from the country.” “XYZ was not allowed to gather his belongings, to say goodbye to his family, to make a phone call to them and the family was not notified by ICE that this would be happening. The only way they knew was because the attorney called the ICE officer who said that XYZ was already in transit to Mexico. Last night they received a call from XYZ for the first time since he left New York. ICE brought him over the border into Mexico and left him. XYZ has no ID, no cell phone, no bank cards and no money. When I spoke to XYZ’s child last night he was not sure how his father was going to get to the village he is originally from.” This person has worked as a janitor for the last 20 years, putting two American children through college. He has paid all of his taxes and has had a clean record. What ever happened to only going after bad people? Another lie.

The EPA, the agency that is supposed to protect our environment, to protect our health has now officially sworn off science. After all who would want to know if a chemical is carcinogenic, before you decide if it needs regulation. Clean air emissions are about to be loosened as are standards for cars. Not to mention that the head of the EPA and his daughter accept a very fancy apartment in a tony part of Washington for $50 per night from an energy industry lobbyist.  Corruption and greed is rampant, ignorance is celebrated.

The interior department is destroying our national monuments, our national parks, our heritage for the sake of mining companies and for drilling opportunities. The head of the interior department has sworn off of diversity, after all his logic goes, just hire the best and diversity will take care of itself, expect that it never has. Just today an opponent of the endangered species act has been given oversite of that very act. That is like having war mongers running the State Department – wait, that is happening as well.

The education department is pushing for vouchers in a plan that completely flies in the face of what the founding fathers wanted public education to be. Public education that they knew was critical to the long-term success of our democracy. Benjamin Franklin is turning over in his grave.

The list can go on and on. In fact, you can barely go one day without some sort of scandal cropping up with this administration.  Russia attacking our democracy, Saudi princes with undue influence and claiming that senior administration officials are in their pocket (officials who only got their positions through nepotism rather than any kind of ability), collusion, corruption, threats, intimidation, money laundering, the NRA accepting foreign money aimed at determining the outcomes of our elections (a criminal offense), organized crime, lies, propaganda, voter suppression, gerrymandering, the attempt to silence those whose job it is to speak up, it is impossible to keep up with the growing and expanding list, and it feels like the plagues of Passover are raining down on our heads.

The insanity that has gripped our nation is not limited to our shores. It is impacting many other countries. For instance, it now seems that Brexit, which will separate Britain from the EU and weaken Europe was also influenced by Russia. After all, with a weakened USA, where we are at each other’s throats, and a weakened EU who is left to stand in the way of Russia putting the USSR back together? Of course, many of the countries that were part of the USSR have no interest in returning to that system of repression and tyranny – but Vladimir has other ideas.

ENOUGH!

And along come some children. Children who saw 17 of their classmates killed by a semi-automatic weapon which is very similar in design to one designed for the battlefield. Designed for use by the military. A weapon whose only design impetrative was to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. These children, like the children of Passover are asking questions. Their first question seems to be “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” And like the children of Passover, when the answer is not satisfactory for them they continue to ask questions, even as those questions become uncomfortable for those used to “tradition”. The reason the children at Passover are the ones to ask the questions, is because they are the ones that will create the future, the children are the ones that will determine whether Judaism will survive for another generation, just as the children of America will ultimately determine whether our democracy survives as well. Impeachment may or may not happen. Prison sentences may or may not be handed out. It is the children and their questions that ultimately matter the most. The questions must be asked. The questions must be answered to the satisfaction of the next generation.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 1, 2018 at 9:02 pm

Unsupported by Evidence

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These myths continually seem to arise in the workplace. The one that especially attracted me right now is that chaos in an organization is somehow good for productivity and effectiveness. Of course it isn’t. Jeff

Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

I was recently on a panel at a local meeting in NYC of Industrial Organizational Psychologists and after much discussion I made a statement. I said that as a field we have almost completely and utterly failed at bridging the gap between the science and research that we do, the evidence-based and experimental knowledge that we gain and those who are out there in the world writing about people at work or organizations in the lay press, or those in organizations, making day-to-day decisions about them which affect both the organizations and the people within them. After all most of the information about people at work is just “common sense” isn’t it? And I am a person and I work, so I guess that makes me an expert.

Unfortunately, much of that “common sense” is not supported by the facts and in some cases the facts support the opposite conclusion…

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 6, 2018 at 1:08 pm

Outrage Fatigue

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These statements are my personal views and not necessarily the views of any other person at my company.

With another mass murder of children, this time at the Parkland, Florida high school and the response of this administration and many of those in Congress, I have reach the limits of my ability to be polite and to regard other points of view as legitimate. Weapons, designed for warfare and our military, capable of inflicting mass murder within a few seconds simply have no place in society. This should not be a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, this is simply a common-sense and decency issue. The removal of these weapons from our society should have happened a long time ago. The evidence is incontrovertible. Societies with more guns have more gun crime. Period. Households with guns have higher incidences of death, injuries or suicides then households without guns. The idea that you are an exception to that finding is a fantasy. The idea that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun is a fantasy. It is a fantasy, based on a mythology that has been perpetrated upon the American people, by people who have a financial stake in the perpetuation of that hero myth and by those who wish to see our society fall apart. It is more than time to take the gloves off and to stand up for what is right, for the hopes and aspirations of America, for the dreams that America once represented to the world, for what America is supposed to stand for.

Every day in the news we see continue evidence of a Trump administration whose malevolence is moderated only by its complete and sheer incompetence. If the administration had more competent bureaucrats, the speed at which they are damaging people, damaging our institutions, damaging our democracy, damaging our world standing and damaging our planet would be greatly magnified. Luckily the most competent people want nothing to do with this administration and are staying away. I am not the first one to make that statement.

The sheer volume, day-after-day of horrendous news, and the absolute stupidity of the decisions being made, the self-dealing, the self-enrichment, the refusal to deal with Russia that has all but declared open warfare on us, the attempt to decimate the free press and our legal and judicial institutions, the wanton elimination of regulation, the repudiation of science, the refusal to recognize climate change and global warming as a threat (and to work towards mitigating the threat), the repudiation of diplomacy, the repudiation of morality and justice, the embrace of neo-Nazi’s and the extreme right-wing, the kowtowing to the NRA, it simply boggles the imagination, and day after day those of us who care deeply about our country and this planet are feeling more and more outrage fatigue. How much longer can it go on before permanent damage is done? Trump and his ilk have become more than tiresome.

Those who work in this administration seemingly fall into one of four buckets. 1. they are drawn to power and are willing to do anything to be within the inner ring of power, to advance their own agendas, and/or enrich themselves, even if it means abandoning all their previously held principles; 2. some are simply racist, xenophobic/anti-immigrant, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ rights, or anti-Semitic and this administration’s views align with their own; 3. a few seem to see themselves as guardians, hoping to moderate this abomination of an administration and safeguard our democracy. The short-lived CEO panels, which were disbanded, seemingly fell into this latter category; or 4. they are career people who were in place well before this administration and see themselves as being there well after they are gone.

I am not bound by the Goldwater Rule (which prohibits psychiatric diagnosis without personally seeing a patient) for I am not a clinician. (The American Psychoanalytic Association has lifted the Goldwater Rule, the American Psychiatric Association has left it in place and I am a member of neither). I see no patients, but in addition to being the CEO of an organizational consulting company, I teach leadership in an MBA program, and let me be very clear Donald Trump would fail my class. In fact, in addition to his actions being a clear and present danger to the United States, he is a very clear example of how not to lead (and also how not to negotiate) and any of my students would be able to point-by-point describe why this is so.  Now I don’t think the fault is all under his control for I am quite convinced that his mental state has quite a bit to do with it.

Some psychiatrists and psychologists call Trump’s pattern of behavior Malevolent Narcissism, that is narcissism taken to a level that includes psychopathic tendencies and malevolent means that it causes harm to others. Others would use the term the Dark Triad which are a series of illnesses that are often co-morbid, meaning they tend to occur together. The Dark Triad consists of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Why do I think he is a clear and present danger to the United States? Let me take just one of those illnesses, the psychopathy as an example. Psychopaths have been shown to have a weaker or non-existent connection between the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala) and the centers of higher thought processes (the pre-frontal cortex).  Now not all psychopaths fall into a life of crime, but an unusually high percentage of those in prison would be diagnosed as psychopaths (utilizing the Hare checklist). What characteristics of a psychopath lead them to prison? Here are some common characteristics that psychopaths exhibit.

(WARNING: Just because you know someone who has some of these characteristics does not make them a psychopath. A clinician would say that these traits must rise to a level where they interfere with day-to-day functioning to be pathological).

  • Exploitive, opportunistic, can be successful in life, but often that success is short-lived
  • Take credit for others successes, but blame others for failures
  • They can be charismatic and persuasive
  • Pay a lot of attention to their appearance, with a desire to look attractive
  • Aggression, racism, bullying is often evident
  • Assertiveness, dominance, self-importance, self-aggrandizement
  • Limited self-control, higher risk taking, short-duration marriages and multiple spouses or multiple affairs
  • Low scores on honesty and humility with high scores on greediness
  • Psychopaths are notorious for a lack of emotion and empathy, the ability to understand right from wrong or to understand the emotions that someone else is feeling
  • And, those with these traits generally lack self-awareness – the ability to see how their behavior is perceived by others.

With no ability to determine right from wrong, no inherent morality, throw in a lack of self-control and a good dose of greediness and it becomes easy to see how this illness can lead to a life of crime.  It is sometimes difficult for a non-clinical person to really understand a phrase like “no ability to determine right from wrong”. It is not that they choose not to, it is that the psychopath literally can’t. If faced with a clearly moral choice and a clearly immoral choice (and no external clues, or intellectual experience with a similar choice) the psychopath would simply be unable to pick the morally correct thing to do. It just does not compute to them. Psychopaths can be quite smart, or not, but those who are smart can be even more of a danger. As Warren Buffet states when he picks people to work for him (paraphrased), “they have to have integrity and intelligence, and if the don’t have the first the second one will kill you”.

Now, I know quite a few people (clinicians and other psychologists) who feel that we should not label our current president as mentally ill. Some of them feel that mental illness has enough stigma already and to use that as a reason to remove the president would be to simply increase that stigma. Their feeling is that he should be removed for the actions he takes and not his mental state. Those of you who are old enough to remember, just before Nixon resigned, his mental state and his drinking was such that the defense secretary told the military not to carry out any orders for a military or nuclear strike without the approval of the defense secretary, which was unconstitutional, but may have saved us from a nuclear holocaust. Nothing like a good war to take the nation’s mind off of impeachment, in a Wag-the-Dog fashion.

A good portion of people have at some point in their lives short-term mental illness from which they recover. For instance, it is quite normal to be depressed at the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or from some other traumatic event. It can be like having the flu, it can knock you down for a period of time. And at any point in time 6% of the population is suffering from some level of depression. Depression becomes problematic when there is no recovery after a period of time and it interferes ongoing with day-to-day life.  Today most people can recover from depression or anxiety (also 6% incidence), with proper treatment.

The question though, should someone, the most powerful person on this planet, someone who can, at the push of a button, destroy this planet, (as much as I throw-up into my mouth when I think about that), be held to the same standard as anybody on the street? Are the risks simply too high?  To me the answer is “yes” the risks are too high. This current president represents a danger to us all, a danger to our children, a danger to our grandchildren, a danger to life on earth. I am not being dramatic. Clearly a full mental evaluation is in order for a mentally healthy person would simply not act in the manner of this current president.

With incident after incident, with each news cycle bringing more absurdity and each absurdity generating outrage, outrage fatigue sets in easily. My father, though he usually did not want to talk about it, at times told me stories about how during WWII in France and in Germany the level of fatigue he felt was unbearable. But he persevered, because the alternative was even more unbearable.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 18, 2018 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

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