1. A movie released last week, Experimenter, examines the infamous and sick/fascinating “obedience experiments” of 1961, in which ordinary people were asked to send extremely painful electric shocks to a stranger. A staggering 65% of the subjects obeyed. Last week, Nitin Nohria wrote a brilliant opinion for The Washington Post entitled “You’re Not as Virtuous as You Think,” asserting that most of us are confident enough to assume that we would have occupied the 35% with the courage to disobey; addressing this discrepancy, Nohria says:

Back-to-the-FutureI’ve come to refer to this gap between how people believe they would behave and how they actually behave as “moral overconfidence.” In the lab, in the classroom and beyond, we tend to be less virtuous than we think we are. And a little moral humility could benefit us all.

Moral overconfidence is on display in politics, in business, in sports — really, in all aspects of life. There are political candidates who say they won’t use attack ads until, late in the race, they’re behind in the polls and under pressure from donors and advisers, their ads become increasingly negative. There are chief executives who come in promising to build a business for the long-term but then condone questionable accounting gimmickry to satisfy short-term market demands. There are baseball players who shun the use of steroids until they age past their peak performance and start to look for something to slow the decline. These people may be condemned as hypocrites. But they aren’t necessarily bad actors. Often, they’ve overestimated their inherent morality and underestimated the influence of situational factors.

Moral overconfidence is in line with what studies find to be our generally inflated view of ourselves. We rate ourselves as above-average drivers, investors and employees, even though math dictates that can’t be true for all of us. We also tend to believe we are less likely than the typical person to exhibit negative qualities and to experience negative life events: to get divorced, become depressed or have a heart attack. […]

The gap between how we’d expect ourselves to behave and how we actually behave tends to be most evident in high-pressure situations, when there is some inherent ambiguity, when there are competing claims on our sense of right and wrong, and when our moral transgressions are incremental, taking us down a slippery slope.

Experimenter is receiving generally positive reviews; Variety calls it a “heady brew of theories about the essence of human nature.” Sounds good to me! Plus, Winona Ryder always reminds me of Beetlejuice, which is never a bad thing.


2. More experiments! Also from The Washington Post. This week they break down the subconscious logic telling us that if ‘don’t text and drive’ is the law, then hands-free voice-activated in-vehicle entertainment systems must surely be the gospel. Which is not quite the case: research shows that even hands free devices contribute significantly to cognitive distraction:


The New Yorker. 10/22.

Cars are increasingly equipped with technology to keep drivers connected while on the road, but a new study says it can take 27 seconds for a driver using a voice-activated entertainment system to regain full alertness after making a command from behind the wheel. That means a car going 25 mph can travel the length of three football fields before a driver’s brain fully recovers from the act of dialing a phone number or changing music using increasingly popular in-car entertainment systems.

That’s according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which concludes that hands-free technologies used by almost a third of D.C. drivers can create mental distractions even if drivers have their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

“You’ve shifted your attention to interacting with the device, you stop scanning, you don’t anticipate hazards, you don’t notice things that are in your way,” said David Strayer, one of two University of Utah professors who conducted the study.

In other words, we can’t outsmart the law demanding that we give our full attention to the road when driving. The Post goes on to explain that we tend to “exaggerate” our ability to multitask behind the whel, echoing the aforementioned “moral overconfidence.”


3. When Lady Gaga isn’t slitting throats on American Horror Story, she’s weeping at high-brow arts ceremonies and speaking eloquently about passion. This week she said: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become…” And what has Lady Gaga become? I guess ‘successful’ by most accounts, but even she doesn’t put it in those terms. She considers herself in different terms, saying, “…but I always wanted to be extremely brave, and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like.” David Brooks remarked in the NY Times today:

NewfacePeople with passion have the courage to be themselves with abandon. We all care what others think about us. People with passion are just less willing to be ruled by the tyranny of public opinion.

As the saying goes, they somehow get on the other side of fear. They get beyond that fog that is scary to approach. Once through it they have more freedom to navigate. They opt out of things that are repetitive, routine and deadening. There’s even sometimes a certain recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react. Gaga is nothing if not permanently out there; the rare celebrity who is willing to portray herself as a monster, a witch or disturbing cyborg — someone prone to inflicting pain.

Lady Gaga is her own unique creature, whom no one could copy. But she is indisputably a person who lives an amplified life, who throws her contradictions out there, who makes herself a work of art. People like that confront the rest of us with the question a friend of mine perpetually asks: Who would you be and what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

4. Remarkably, there does seem to be some cons to living in a society built on individualism, as evidenced in this comment about the development of social anxiety disorder, in an interview with The Atlantic:

There are interesting differences between cultures, which tells you a little bit about how society also shapes and influences that. We know that [some] Asian cultures, such as Japan and China, report social anxiety disorder less often. In more collectivist cultures, where the individual is not in the center, social anxiety disorder is less of a problem. In individualistic cultures, where it’s important that you are your own, unique person, in those cases social anxiety becomes more of a problem. So Western cultures report the higher prevalence rates of social anxiety disorder. Even within the U.S., Asians report lower rates, whites report the highest rates, and Hispanics and African Americans are in between. So that has to do with the setting, the cultural background, family relationships, and the like.

This might be throwaway skepticism from a young spiritual burnout, but I wonder if this tells us anything about the struggle to maintain (curate?) an individual, personal relationship with God? Regardless, highlighting the values of more community-oriented societies can’t be a bad thing.

5. More importantly, have you seen the new Star Wars trailer?!

6. And here’s a healthy dose of atheism for you on a Friday afternoon (ht SZ): a highly appreciated review of Hector Garcia’s new book, Alpha God, which, despite it’s marvelous aesthetic, nevertheless seems to “undermine” any attempt to build “broad, durable platforms connecting science and humanities.” The book’s thesis is (roughly) that history shows God to be made in the image of the alpha male. In his review entitled, “How Not To Do What We Always Do,” Donovan Schaefer says:

Garcia turns to a dizzying and impressive range of historical and textual case studies, from the lust and violence of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an to the sexual exploits of Pope John XII and the god Krishna to the bloody Spanish conquest of the Americas to the 30 Years War to the tit-for-tat Muslim-Hindu purges in Gujarat to Aztec penis modification.

But there is a serious liability in this approach. In mobilizing such a massive data set, we can tell any story we want….

Schaefer refreshingly (and sympathetically) removes the blame for historical atrocities from religion and onto us, human beings who just can’t get it together.

powerofloveThese [historical catastrophes] are, in fact, “the time-proven side effects of being human.” […] Alpha God takes the entire data set of human history and pulls out a narrative that makes religion the perpetrator of a long list of horrors and atrocities. And he’s right—religion happens to be in the vicinity of all of those crimes. The problem is that religion is in the background of almost everything we do and have done, bad and good. To blame the evil acts of our history on religion is as absurd as blaming them on politics, sex, food, or any other constant of the chronicle of our species. And it’s as absurd as the claim by wide-eyed champions of religion that we can award religion exclusive credit for morality, science, art, or civilization. We could splice together a Zapruder-film narrative that shows religion lurking in the crowd by the grassy knoll for any of these, too. Fundamentally, the semi-scientific criticism of religion creates a reed-thin account of religious history, correlating religion only to its searingly negative aspects and ignoring everything else that what-gets-called-religion has going on, from the admirable and the glorious to the banal, the boring, and the irrelevant.

7. Any young or aspiring pastors out there would do well to check out the latest installment in this humorous spin off of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Donovan Riley’s Withertongue Emails (Christ Hold Fast). It begins,

My dear Filthpit,

That is excellent news…You have gained the advantage. Your client’s relations with the elderly people of the congregation can serve the same purpose as a daily blood draw. Build up between him and them a habit of mutual annoyance. Turn his mind to imagining they are a necessary evil he must endure for his own spiritual growth….


  • Not as good as Scott Larousse‘s take on consensual sex, but at least this article serves as a (discomforting) follow-up, from The Cut.
  • This is pretty cool! A 400-year old church emerges from the abyss.
  • Finally, enjoy listening to Christopher  in honor of the most wonderful time of the year!