The Floating University


I. Psychology: The Science of the Human Mind

A. Psychology is about

1. human nature/us 

2. language and perception

3. memory

4. dreams

5. love and hate

6. morality

7. depression and anxiety

8. happiness

9. everything that matters to us

 B. Areas of Study

1. Neuroscience: studies the brain

2. Developmental psychology: studies human development

3. Social psychology: studies relationships

4. Cognitive psychology: studies mental processes; how do we understand language, recognize faces, remember facts., etc.

5. Evolutionary psychology: studies the evolution of the mind

6. Clinical psychology: studies mental illness

II. Case Study: Compassion - concern for other people

A. Components of a baby’s brain

1. There are 100 billion neurons in a baby’s brain

2. Neurons: basic cells that process and transmit information

3. Brain works via neuro networks, about 1.8 million connections between neurons per second

4. Jeff Hawkins: the baby’s brain is like filling a football stadium with cooked spaghetti, shrinking it to the size of a soccer ball, then making it really dense

B. Nature vs Nurture

1. One view, that the brain starts out as a blank slate, is what philosopher John Locke called a Tabula Rasa

a. Development is all about learning from the environment

2. Second view: early specialization – extraordinary early understanding

a. Psychologist Leda Cosmides and John Tooby described the brain as a Swiss Army knife with each part specialized for different functions

b. Which theory is right is a big debate in psychology because it affects our views of morality and compassion

C. Morality: Are Children born moral?

1. One idea is that children start off immoral and do not know the difference between good and evil

2. Bloom thinks the data supports another view

a. If babies see other babies cry, or in silent pain, they will cry and be distressed showing that it seems to be part of our nature to suffer at the suffering of others

b. Babies share and soothe, older children help others with their goals

c. Innate compassion: children want to help others without being taught

(1) Experiment done by Felix Warneken and Michale Tomasello showing toddlers in the presence of an adult in mild distress will help the adult without prompting

(2) This shows altruism, kindness, and compassion seem to be natural instinctsd. this innate kindness seems to apply to people that are close to us

3. The extent of our compassion

a. Some say we start off with a broad compassion

b. Evidence seems to show that instead, initially our sense of morality only applies to people close to us

D. Responses to Strangers

1. Stranger anxiety: toward strangers the natural default reaction is a mix of fear and hatred/stranger anxiety

a. Stranger anxiety kicks in around 9 months old

b. Stranger anxiety fades or intensifies in different cultures

(1) Anthropologist Jared Diamond studied small-scale societies in Papua New Guinea and says that to meet people outside of their territory could mean death

(2) Margaret Meade said there was a lot to learn from these “primitive cultures,” but their treatment of strangers wasn’t one of them

2. Disgust

a. Paul Rozin described it as the “body/soul emotion"

b. I t is a human universal

(1) Universally we are disgusted by feces, urine, blood, vomit, rotten flesh, and most meat

(2) Disgust has a characteristic facial response

c. This relates to compassion because we are often disgusted by other people, particularly strange people

d. Any category of human is something you belong to (in-group) or you don’t (out-group)

e. People vary in how easily disgusted they are

f. The more easily disgusted you are the more aversion you have to out-groups (like immigrants, sexual minorities, and in particular male homosexuals)

(1) Experiment: bring people into a lab and ask them questions about their feelings toward groups and policies; a second group gets the same questions but are in a room with a flatulence smell; the group with the flatulence smell will be meaner in their reaction to out-groups

(2) This shows there’s a connection between visceral disgust and our tolerance of out-groups

g. Human compassion is a natural instinct, but it is limited

h. However, we care about people in other countries, from other races, that we have never seen, that we never will see, and we do things like give blood and resources to people we’ve never seen after a natural disaster

i. What forces extend our compassion to strangers?

(1) Self-interested altruism: I care because your fate is linked with mine

(a) Robert Wright: global interconnectedness and interdependence have expanded our moral circle

(b) The more contact you have with people the more you care about them in as part of self-interested altruism

(2) Persuasion: how we expand compassion

(a) We can expand our compassion to strangers by thinking of them as individuals, particularly as our friends and family

(b) Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

(c) Mother Teresa: “If I look at the mass, I will never act.  If I look at the one, I will.”

(d) Psychologist Paul Slovic did experiments where they showed people were more likely to give, and give more, to a charity if they were presented with an individual’s story of suffering than if they were presented with statistics of suffering

E. Compassion & Moral Progress

1. Many argue through history our moral circles are expanding, that we believe we have moral obligations to other races, nationalities, etc

a. Example: the end of slavery was partly due to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which showed slaves as real people and persuaded readers to extend their sympathies

2. So morality, sense of right and wrong, is connected with compassion and our feelings toward others

3. Scholar David Hume argues that a sense of compassion is central to becoming a fully moral being

III. Case Study: Racism

A. Generalizations

1. Cognitive psychologists point out that in order to survive we have to make generalizations 

a. We make generalizations about things and categorize them

b. Example: dog vs. apple vs. chair

c. Without categories and generalizations we wouldn’t know what to eat, how things react, etc.

2. Part of being a successful human is the ability to learn, and part of learning is making statistical generalizations on the basis of limited experience

3. Generalizations are adaptive, rational, reasonable

4. However, some categories we form are of people, on the basis of sex, age, race, profession, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.

B. Stereotypes - categories of people 

1. Stereotypes are often accurate and positive, particularly about groups we are a part of 
2. Problems with stereotypes

a. Can be based on biased information

(1) Examples: basing your opinion on Italian-Americans solely on The Sopranos, or your opinion of Jews only off of Shakespeare’s character Shylock

b.  Can have a negative effect on the people they apply to

(1) Stereotype threat: risk of subconsciously living up to a negative stereotype

(2) Experiment: female Asians do worse on a math test if they first have to identify their sex and better if they have to identify their race

c. Can have inherent in-group vs out-group biases

(1) When you’re a member of a group you tend to boost it and denigrate groups you’re competing with 

(2) Example: in 1942 Americans described Russians as “brave and hard-working” then after the war, in 1948, they described them as “cruel and conceited”

d. Can have moral implications

(1) Even if stereotypes are accurate we believe that it’s morally wrong to judge individuals based on the group they belong to

(2) Conscious vs. unconscious bias: some evidence shows we can succeed in consciously not letting stereotypes affect our judgments

(3) Example: over the years polls show an increase in Americans that would vote for a qualified African-American to be President; by the mid-90s the statistics show most people would say they would and the election of Barack Obama shows people were being truthful, that they have an honest egalitarian viewpoint

(4) But the conscious is in tension with the unconscious system that is more statistics driven, biased, and less moral

(5) Example: people are shown photos of Tony Blair and Barack Obama and asked who is “more American” and most pick the more fair-skinned Tony Blair

(6) Experiment by Jack Dovidio: given two people of equal, moderate qualifications a white candidate is more likely than a black candidate to be recommended for a job; this experiment has been repeated as recently as 2005

(7) The good news: we can structure our world so that we can diminish the role of unconscious bias

(8) Example: women were perceived as worse musicians than men by symphony orchestras and were underrepresented until orchestras started doing blind auditions where they didn’t know the gender of the musician

(9) We can manipulate our world in order to give our conscious self more control

IV. Case Study: Sex

A. Sex and Evolutionary Biology: Parental Investment

1. Males have smaller sex cells than females

2. Puzzle: why do males have smaller sex cells but are bigger and more aggressive?

3. Answer from Robert Trivers: males have less parental investment than females

4. Parental investment: any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring’s chances of surviving at the expense of the parent’s ability to invest in other offspring

5. Males have less investment because the male can keep having other offspring while a female is pregnant, but a female cannot have other offspring while she’s pregnant

6. Males can basically have unlimited offspring, whereas females can have a very limited number of offspring

7. This makes a difference in the game theoretic structure of human sexuality

8. Therefore males compete for access to females

9. Males can be more into quantity while females can be more into quality. Quality = competition between males

a.Male vs. male manifests itself into aggressive traits, even special organs like giant horns, or the outlandish feathers of a male peacock

10. Relative chooisness – females are more choosy

a. Example: prostitution mostly caters to male customers

11. Pornography – males like images of sexually receptive women

a. Experiments show rhesus monkeys will “pay” to see the behind of a female monkey and high status male Rhesus monkeys = two of the major human vices, pornography and celebrity worship, are not uniquely human

B. Sex and Evolutionary Biology: What is Universal?

1. Sense of beauty

a. Some studies show you evaluate the beauty of a face in 1/10th of a second

b. Beauty differs by culture and time, but there are universals

c. Certain universally attractive traits equate beauty to youth and health and thus signals of fertility: round eyes, full lips, smooth tight skin, absence of deformities, clear eyes, unblemished skin, intact teeth, average faces

d. Averages faces actually look pretty good

e. Human attractiveness has been studied widely, across cultures and ages, and even babies tend to prefer the same faces adults prefer

f. Experiment by Langlois: shows women and men faces of the opposite sex that look overly feminized and masculinized, found that women prefer the more masculinized men when ovulating and the more femininized man when not ovulating, suggesting that our sexual psychologies are linked to our reproductive preferences

2. Attraction to kindness

a. The more you love someone, the better looking you think they are

b. Study by David Buss across 37 different cultures: the number one thing people, both men and women, look for in a mate is kindness

V. The Study of Psychology

A. Review of what was covered in this lecture

1. Studies of a baby’s brain: development of compassion

2. Studies of an adult’s brain: concepts of race, sex, attraction 

3. Developmental psychology: studies development of compassion in children

a. Studies our understanding of groups and the nature of racism

b. Studies development of romance and sexuality pre and post puberty

4. Social psychology: questions about dealing with other people and how we make sense of others

5. Cognitive psychology: studies perception – faces, categories (in- and out-groups), comprehension

6. Evolutionary psychology: studies the development of sexuality, morality, and compassion across species

7. Clinical psychology: studies sexual deviancy, immoral and amoral behavior, and lack of compassion

8. People are particularly interested in the psychopathology in mental illness; in morality, psychopaths and people who don’t have a conscience or feel compassion

B. Psychology and You

1. Psychology is “the perfect liberal arts major” because it connects to many disciplines

2. Philosophers, chemists, literature experts all have in common the study of the mind

3. Every interesting question for psychologists is interesting to scholars outside of psychology     

C. The Future of Psychology

1. Approaching the mind from a serious scientific point of view allows us to appreciate its complexity and uniqueness

2. We have come a long way in our understanding of  mental life but it is still a relatively new field that an individual can have a big impact on; it’s the “wild west of intellectual disciplines”