Monthly Archives: March 2013

Higher social class predicts unethical behavior

What? How crazy is that?! In a paper published in January 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), seven studies were conducted that revealed that upper class individuals behaved more unethically than lower class ones. Apparently, the better off you are the more likely you are to lie, cheat and steal, due to your more positive attitude towards greed. According to the paper, the upper class value their own welfare above that of others, and greed leads to reduced concern of how their behavior affects others.

I have long heard that poorer families give a greater percentage of their income to charity than their wealthier counterparts, and now it turns out that richer you are, the more Scrooge-like you are. With all apologies to Mr. Scrooge. But why are upper-class individuals more prone to unethical behavior, from violating traffic codes to taking public goods to lying? And what would be the results, I wonder, if the study were conducted in a different country? Is it just Americans or does society’s nobility behave boorishly across cultures? I find this to be distressing on many levels, and I’m not sure what can be done to reverse this trend.

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March is Women’s History Month

Womens History MonthMarch is when we celebrate the achievements of women around the world, the famous and the not-so-famous. Even “just a mom” is a chauffeur, research assistant, psychologist, nutritionist, referee, teacher, chief financial consultant and more. What moms do cannot be measured simply in terms of financial compensation–they provide loving homes and unmitigated support, not only to their immediate families, but also to those that come into their orbit. Moms are simply amazing, and they deserve to be recognized as much as those women renowned for some other achievement.

Tell the women in your life how grateful you are that they’re there. And don’t forget that behind every great man there is an equally great woman.

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Think you’re great at multi-tasking? Think again.

Do you listen to music as you do your homework? Watch TV while on your iPhone? Talk on your cell phone while driving? Conversely, can you focus on just one task at a time? Is it really possible to actually multi-task, that is, complete two or more tasks at the same time? According to a study published on PLOS One (a peer-reviewed, open access journal), the answer isn’t as cut and dried as you might think. Turns out that perceived ability differs significantly from actual ability, and that people multi-task because they’re not able to block out distractions. The study indicates that overall performance may suffer, as multi-tasking can be physically and mentally challenging. Also, it turns out that the people most able to multi-task are those that also have the ability to not multi-task; in other words, being able to selectively focus on a single task was an indicator that the individual would also be able to complete more than one job at a time.

Interesting. People that rate themselves high in ability to multi-task turn out to be not so good at it, and the ability to focus exclusively on one task indicates that you’d be good at multi-tasking. What kind of an effect will this have on how people present themselves during job interviews? The ability to multi-task is seen as very desirable, but when people over-state their competence what then? I think that the old-fashioned adage of doing one thing and doing it well is a is still a good lesson to teach and model, one which will serve our students in good stead well into the future.

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How reading literature affects your brain

I have more ammunition now, thanks to a study by humanities scholar Natalie Phillips at Stanford university. She mapped the relationship between reading, attention and distraction by placing volunteers into an MRI, hooking them up to eye-tracking equipment, then having them read passages from Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” The student volunteers were asked to read at two speeds, recreational, and critically and analytically, as though they were reading for an assignment. A computer program tracked their eye movements, breathing and heart rates.

The results were more extensive than she’d imagined: areas of the brain normally used for physical activity and movement were engaged, the part that we use to place ourselves spatially in the world; it was as though the readers placed themselves physically in the story.

Concentrated, close reading “activated unbelievably widespread parts of the brain that are immensely cognitively complex, on a par with doing hard math problems or working through computer code,” she said.

At a time when the value of a liberal arts and humanities education at publicly funded colleges is under fire from cost-cutting governors and nervous university presidents, this research, she hopes, might lead toward validating literary study as a critical learning tool. The complex congitive brain patterns of the brain scans “show us that we have really no idea of the complexity involved in literary analysis.”

I think this is fascinating! Who knew that reading analytically could be such good exercise for your brain? Even though this is only one study and it’s still early days, I’m hopeful that with more studies it will show how beneficial it is to read. I’ve long been a proponent of fluent reading being a strong indicator of scholarly success, and now there seems to be scientific evidence corroborating the statement. I firmly believe that the more you read, the better you will do in all subjects; if you can’t read, how can you expect to comprehend the erstwhile gobbledegook that is a chemistry or calculus text book?

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