Busted Halo

In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.


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January 5th, 2011

Out recently from Gallup:

Americans are three times more likely to describe the current state of moral values in the United States as “poor” than as “excellent” or “good.” Americans’ assessment of U.S. morality has never been positive, but the current ratings rank among the worst Gallup has measured over the past nine years.

The vast majority of Americans think that our morals are slipping, and in open-ended questions, respondents told Gallup it was because people were increasingly disrespectful of others, that parents weren’t raising their children with proper values or spending enough time taking care of them, corruption and dishonesty among business leaders was on the rise, and that folks are moving away from God and the church. (Interestingly, Democrats think that things aren’t going to the dogs as much as Republicans.)

But before you freak out, here’s an alternative view:

When respondents tell Gallup they are concerned about morals, it’s the data-based version of the “kids these days…” trope:

Kids these days need to learn some manners. Kids these days need to learn how to respect their elders. We always think that previous generations – or back in our day – had more character and moral …

December 31st, 2010

delayvirtue-flashHow much does this statement describe you?

“I usually make decisions as soon as possible.”

Is that extremely or moderately characteristic of your behavior? Or extremely or moderately uncharacteristic of your behavior?

If you delay on making decisions, you’ll get points toward a higher procrastination score on the Lay Procrastination inventory (PDF). But according to a new study, procrastinating on a decision might not be such a bad thing… in certain circumstances.

According to a series of experiments recently published in Psychological Science, when participants were given two choices-a default choice and an alternative-82% opted for the default when making the choice immediately, but when delayed this dropped to 56%.

Summarizes PsyBlog

And so the answer to whether delaying a choice leads to a better decision is: it depends what the default decisions is. When the default is better, the decision will be worse; whereas if the alternative is better, it will be an improvement.

So if (to borrow a scenario from last year’s final season of “24″, which I watched in its entirety for some unknown reason, if President Taylor had been given a bit more time to ponder her decision to cover up Russian …

December 29th, 2010

In a terrific post on one of my favorite sites, Sociological Images, we learn that our assumptions of American individualism aren’t really that accurate.

If you define individualism as “gives priority to personal liberty” then, Claude Fischer, at Made in America, concludes

“There is considerable evidence, ” he writes, “that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples.”

According to surveys conducted in America, Great Britian and several European nations, when it comes to questions like “Right or wrong should be a matter of personal conscience,” and “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong,” Americans are at or near the bottom of the charts: We’re “less” individualistic than the French, Germans or British.

Check out all the charts here. Does this mess with your head? It should.…

December 23rd, 2010

urbanprep-goldtie-flashUrban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, Chicago’s only all-male charter school, graduated its first senior class this year–and sending every young man to a four-year college. NPR’s Allison Keyes interviewed Tim King, the founder and CEO of Urban Prep and told the inspirational story. For a school that draws its students via lottery from underprivileged communities, this is a major accomplishment: More than half of black male students drop out of Chicago Public Schools. At his academy, things are
different. Why? Says King,

People ask all the time, how do we do it? And I always go back to the point of creating a positive
school culture that is laser-focused on preparing our students to go to college. And a piece of creating that positive school culture – obviously, we want to create a supportive environment where the students feel like they are supported and they are being nurtured. We want to create a rigorous curriculum and a rigorous program.

But in addition to that, we need to create an environment in which students feel safe and they feel respected. And part of the way we do that is through our code of conduct and that embodies or

December 21st, 2010

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a tough situation, I’ll delay taking a shower — so that when it’s resolved, I can shower and wash it all away. After a trying time, I’m more likely to open a fresh bottle of shampoo or a new razor. And I never really gave a lot of thought to why, except that it was a way of making a fresh start, a psychological reminder that I can be cleansed and move on.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my quirkiness — but I should probably take that shower or wash my hands before making tough decisions, not afterward.

According to a study published recently in Science, the simple act of washing your hands can ease your mind — and help you second-guess your choices less.

Says study author Spike Lee, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in an interview with NPR washing your hands

not only distracts you a little bit, I think that it does have this feeling of removing past concerns, and it allows you to sort of move on, and the reason is metaphorical connection.

Now, think back …

December 17th, 2010

lying-for-love-flash2I’ve blogged about how it’s easier to lie via email than it is when writing an old-fashioned paper-and-pen note, so it’s probably not surprising that, when you want to attract a mate in online dating, people fudge a bit to make themselves look more appealing. But according to a new study, some 90% of people lie in their profiles. Man, I’m glad I’m married.

Men inflate their height, women deflate their weight. From this graph, (read the whole study here-PDF) though, you can see people aren’t lying by much. Just a hair poof here and a Spanx-suction there. The worst bit, of course, is that online dating makes these things really matter-i.e. a partner might use height or body type as a search criteria while, if you met that person in at a party, you’d be more likely to gloss over the difference of an inch here and there.

I’m all for honesty, but this may be one area where it’s OK to fib… a bit. Just get offline as soon as you can and meet in person.…

December 15th, 2010

materialgirlthrifty-flashThe Great Recession has made young women thrifty, according to a telephone poll commissioned by Citi.

Young women are more likely than older women to have changed their spending habits: Nearly half of women aged 18-39 years old told pollsters they are increasing the amount of money they save or invest, compared to 29 percent of those over 40. And young men are less likely to be thrifty on big-ticket items than the ladies.

Reports The New York Post:

The national telephone survey of 2,002 men and women, conducted in March by Hart Research Associates, also found that more than 40 percent of women ages 18-39 said that the economic downturn taught them to value “family, friends and quality of life over material goods.”

Maybe it’s because girls have learned one of my favorite (crass) spins on personal finance: Don’t break the seal.

You know the saying about not “breaking the seal” when you’re drinking — because you’ll be going to the bathroom all night long after that? Well, research shows that it’s actually true with spending: Buying one thing — even one small thing — tends to open the floodgates for more purchases. Now there’s some old-fashioned …

December 10th, 2010

mba-oath-flashBack in the spring, Nitin Nohria, 48, was named dean of the Harvard Business School. At a time when MBA has come to stand for “masters of the business apocalypse” this is an important show of support for an ethics-focused approach to capitalism. Nohria, a professor of business administration, has been a proponent of the MBA Oath, a voluntary pledge for graduating MBAs and business leaders to return to old-fashioned business ethics and core virtues like stewardship and responsibility.

It was also good timing for Max Anderson and Peter Escher, whose book, The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders, came out around then. But the messages of the MBA Oath are timeless:

Anderson and Escher are recent Harvard MBAs who, along with the help of Prof. Nohria and others, created this businessperson’s Hippocratic oath in the months leading up to their 2009 graduation. Read the full oath here. In essence, it calls on business leaders to be “stewards of a trust to create value responsibly” – while also making money.

Business schools contribute to the Great Forgetfulness of who you are and what you stand for, the authors worry. And while the …

December 8th, 2010

smile-flashAccording to a new study, humans are pretty good lie-detectors when it comes to figuring out a fake smile from a real one. Yes, people are studying the good old smile. Turns out that holding a smile for at least 15 seconds-even when you feel down-can lift you mood considerably. Yes, we smile when we’re happy… but the reverse seems to be true as well: When we smile, we become happier.

But before there was any lab-tested proof of the power of a smile, the advice industry had grasped the power of this costless technique. A simple smile was among the top principles Dale Carnegie would teach the young men and women who came to his career and public speaking workshops in the 1930s. Even if you don’t feel like smiling, he said in his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, force yourself to do it. “Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy.”…

December 3rd, 2010

lookingtolie-flashPeople lie more via email than when using good old pen-and-paper, a new study finds. (Wait, people still write with paper and pen? Now we’re getting at the core of the real lie…)

OK, but it seems that lying increased by 50% between the pen-and-paper experimental condition and the email condition. So, why? It’s social disengagement theory in action: We’re more likely to feel OK about deviating from our usual ethical standards when we can tell ourselves that, in this situation, it’s not so bad, and when we’ve got some psychological distance from any bad consequences of our actions.

Writes PsyBlog:

Both of these are encouraged by three characteristics of email:

Less permanent: people think of it as a substitute for conversation rather than a letter. People feel they are ‘chatting’ more over email, rather than writing to each other. The impermanence of email is emphasised by a GMail feature which allows users to ‘unsend’ a message within 5 seconds of sending (instructions here).
Less restrained: as mentioned in this previous post on social networking profiles…, people behave in a more disinhibited way online. Online exchanges show less conformity to social norms, people display much less restraint

December 1st, 2010

diverging-demographics-flashFor years, economists have found that richer, better-educated people live longer than poorer, less-educated people. Indeed, a 2008 Robert Wood Johnson report found that education and income of the single- or dual-parent household that a child is born into plays a larger role in determining that child’s future health than having (or not having) health insurance.

Poor diet, smoking and insufficient preventative medicine are among the prime causes of this disparity. For example, parents with lower incomes and educational levels are more likely than higher-paid, better-educated parents to have teenage children who smoke.

And out today is more proof that demographics continue to diverge when it comes to health and well-being in the U.S.: A new Gallup poll finds that among Americans aged 30 to 64, those with lower household incomes and lower education levels are considerably more likely to say that they have health problems than their counterparts further up the socioeconomic ladder.

It’s not a small difference: When you combine income and education, it’s a four-fold difference in reports of health problems.

Writes Gallup:

Insurance companies taking on millions of previously uninsured customers over the next few years will invest considerable resources in revising actuarial models …

November 26th, 2010

millenials-arent-all-narcisisitisIt’s the end of a semester-long course on Social Change at the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout the course, students mentioned the volunteer and social action groups that they were leading or participating in. So I gave them an opportunity to tell the class about their work.

It was inspiring.

We think American young-adults are too busy texting about the minutia of their lives to care about others? Yes, many are. But there are others that are making a difference:

A young woman helping food service employees push for better working conditions
A young man spear-heading a community service month for his classmates to help in their own town
A young woman gathering college students to mentor kids at a local public school
A young man creating interracial dialogue by recruiting membership in an “intercultural house”
A young man encouraging his classmates to register to vote for crucial midterm elections

And the list goes on.

These are the times when it’s a joy to teach.…

November 19th, 2010

thrivinggap-flashIt’s nearly impossible for most Americans to separate out what they need from what they want. Why? Because our wants are turned into needs by advertising, the desire to “keep up with the Joneses” and a constantly changing consumer culture. But in their Well-Being survey, the good folks at Gallup attempt to separate the two – asking Americans if they feel they have enough money for the things they need, for the things that they want to do, and then cross-tabulating those responses with a question asking the respondent to rate his or her current and future life on a 0-to-10 scale, with higher satisfaction reports categorized as descriptions of “thriving.”

Some 60% of Americans who say they have enough money for their needs rate their lives well enough to be considered “thriving.” By contrast, 27% of those who can’t meet their needs are thriving. Obviously, that’s a concerning gap.

Gallup concludes:

The data suggest the contentment that comes from being able to pay one’s bills, buy groceries, put gas in the car, and possibly have a few dollars leftover…

This would certainly make sense, but even if the pollsters outline their definition of needs vs. …

November 17th, 2010

advancedwomen-flashNew from the Census: Among young Americans, women hold nearly 60% of advanced degrees.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported today more women than men are expected to occupy professions such as doctors, lawyers and college professors as they represent approximately 58 percent of young adults, age 25 to 29, who hold an advanced degree. In addition, among all adults 25 and older, more women than men had high school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees.

Study highlights:

We’re getting more educated as a population in general: Overall, 87% of adults 25 and older had a high school diploma or more in 2009, and 30% of those hold at least a bachelor’s degree, continuing the steady rise for the 60 million Americans who have a college degree.
Among young adults, ages 25 – 29, the girls are pulling way ahead of the guys in terms of education: 35 percent of women and 27 percent of men possessed a bachelor’s degree or more in 2009, a gap that continues to widen.
The success penalty for highly educated women is a thing of the past…: Among women 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or more, 65% were married with a

November 12th, 2010

tough-marriage-mkt-flashInteresting (and depressing) piece in a recent issue of the EconomistSex and the single black woman:How the mass incarceration of black men hurts black women — reminds us that between 1970 and 2007, the proportion of married black women aged 30-44 dropped from 62% to 33%.

Why? From the Economist:

Jail is a big part of the problem, argue Kerwin Kofi Charles, now at the University of Chicago, and Ming Ching Luoh of National Taiwan University. They divided America up into geographical and racial “marriage markets”, to take account of the fact that most people marry someone of the same race who lives relatively close to them. Then, after crunching the census numbers, they found that a one percentage point increase in the male incarceration rate was associated with a 2.4-point reduction in the proportion of women who ever marry.

This follows some 2004 research out of Princeton University, which found that the crime-suppressing benefits of incarceration are offset by the negative impact it has on marriage and social stability within the black community. [PDF] Among high-achieving black women, the problems are similarly dire, although income helps, according to research by Megan Sweeney. Still, …

November 10th, 2010

futureoflearning-flashThe way we think about learning environments is changing, argue the authors of a new report about how to better use technology in education. According to the K-12 Horizon Project Advisory Board report

More and more, the notion of the school as the seat of educational practice is changing as learners avail themselves of learning opportunities from other sources. There is a tremendous opportunity for schools to work hand-in-hand with alternate sources, to examine traditional approaches, and to reevaluate the content and experiences they are able to offer.

Translation: Game-based learning should be in our future. Classroom learning may soon be replaced by mentoring, online learning and independent study.

But schools also socialize children, teaching them (ideally) core values for life. I’m all for more technology in schools, as long as we make sure the useful elements of socialization don’t get lost along the way.…

November 5th, 2010

fastfood-flashAh, efficiency.

A new study finds that fast-food makes college students more likely to make myopic choices.

Say the University of Toronto researchers, who published their results in the journal Psychological Science:

These findings suggest some ironic implications. Although time-saving goals can certainly increase time efficiency, the activation and pursuit of these goals upon exposure to fast-food concepts are automatic and not contingent on the context.

Thus, exposure to fast food may increase reading speed whether one is at work, where time efficiency matters, or relaxing at home.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not hating on fast-food. And these are small studies. And the opinions of college kids should not necessarily be generalized on the public at large.

Indeed, this plays right into the McDonaldization phenominon theories — “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world” – coined by Prof. George Ritzer, author of a sociology textbook by the same name.

You’d think nice, liberal Canadian college students might embrace the slow food movement instead.…

November 3rd, 2010

honesty-v-fakingit-flashI came across an interesting — if not a bit confusing — podcast on the Freakonomics site: Stephen J. Dubner argues that between “Sea of Cheating and the valley of Lying, you’d come to the kingdom of Faking It.” A woman who keeps kosher, but loves to nibble on bacon when she’s out for brunch. A man who tells nosy colleagues about a fake desire to have children and a fictional membership in a local church. All for the sake of easing social situations.

Some would call these white lies. Others would call these out-right untruths. But I certainly wouldn’t call it “faking it.” Still, that quibble aside, Dubner writes:

Is all this faking a menace to society? Or do we all benefit from everyone else’s fakery? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

We all know it’s bad to lie, but we do it anyway. According to a 2008 study, the average person tells four lies each day-or nearly 100,000 in a lifetime. The most common lie is “I’m fine.” Other popular lies included “sorry I missed your call,” “our server was down,” “nice to see you,” and “I’ll call you back in a minute.” Also, apparently …

October 28th, 2010

year-of-giving-flashHave you heard the story of Reed Sandridge, who, after getting laid off from his job, embarked on a Year of Giving? He goes out in search of perfect strangers, hands them $10 and asks for their personal story–which he posts on his blog.

I used to write a blog called “Character Sketches,” but this gives the phrase new meaning.

About 30% of the recipients of the $10 used it for food or beverages — like a latte. But the next most common use for the cash was to give it away to someone in need.

And if you read a story that moves you — someone who you might hire, someone whom you could introduce to a contact — Mr. Sandridge has a page for followup, where readers can lend a hand.

Says his brother, Ryan, to the Washington Post:

“He forces attention to people who are usually ignored… I hope others maybe slow their life down just a little bit and see that there’s more than just the daily grind. I don’t know if that’s part of his message or not — but that’s one of the things I take out of it. Look …

October 26th, 2010

future-oriented-flashA Gallup poll finds that those without a high-school diploma are 50% more likely to be underemployed than those with more education. Among those without a high-school diploma 36% are unemployed or working part-time but wanting full-time work, compared with about 20% of all Americans.

A focus on education, the Gallup folks conclude, is the answer:

The existence of such a large pool of less-educated workers who are underemployed presents the U.S. with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to find a way to re-create job opportunities more rapidly than now projected so the nation doesn’t create a permanent underclass of willing, but less-educated workers who can’t find a job. The opportunity is for government and industry to find a way to use this lack of job options to help Americans become better educated now — when the opportunity cost is low — so better-educated workers are available when the economy needs them going forward. Perhaps the best jobs program would be an educational opportunity program.

In a general sense, I agree — education (especially early childhood educational opportunities) is the solution to so many problems. But we’re also looking at diverging demographics of Americans-some of whom …

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