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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August 12th, 2010

courageunderpressure-flashIf the pilot of your plane has a heart attack mid-air, could you land the plane? With the help of some calm, fast-thinking air traffic controllers, Doug White of Archibald, La., was able to land the plane — saving both his own life and the life of his family.

You probably didn’t hear about this story–from more than a year ago–or the brief media mentions of the Archie League Medal of Safety Award that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association gave Brian Norton and Lisa Grimm for talking Mr. White through a harrowing situation on Easter Sunday 2009. But when I come across stories of courage like this, I think it’s important to highlight them, no matter when they happened.

Mr. White knew how to fly a smaller, less complex type of aircraft, so that helped, but in the audio tapes of the event, you can hear the fear in his voice. 

According to CBS News, the controllers on the ground stayed calm, instructing

GRIMM: “We’re going to have you hand-fly the plane…Hold the yoke level and disengage the autopilot.”
WHITE: “Alright, I disengaged it. I’m flying the airplane by hand… You find me the …

August 10th, 2010

Beerbelly-flashHere’s some visual amusement — to make you laugh or cry.

Check out this map, from the good folks at Sociological Images. The red parts of the map are locations where there are more bars than grocery stores. The yellow parts of the map are where grocery stores outnumber bars.

Hmmmm.

After nearly three years at the University of Iowa, this map seems about accurate: Midwestern college towns must have bars outnumbering grocery stores by a margin of 10 to 1. Indeed, it’s fitting that this research comes out of the University of Wisconsin:

beerbelly-mapAccording to my totally unscientific online research, La Crosse, Wisconsin is home to more than 360 bars and holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the most bars per capita and most bars on one street. In Medford, Wisconsin, apparently there’s one bar for every 455 people.

And I see a little cluster around what might be my current hometown in Pittsburgh. Indeed, given how hard it is to buy alcohol outside of a bar in Pennsylvania, I’d expect to see the whole state light up red.

While you might think that places with more grocery stores than bars would be more virtuous, …

August 5th, 2010

help-flashIn the last year, at least six Cornell University students have committed suicide, with the most recent death in March. Back in the late 1990s, there was a similar wave of suicides, giving the university a reputation as a “suicide school.” While that’s a little bit unfair–yes, it’s cold and dark and dreary in Ithaca during the winters–Cornell has developed an admirably open and proactive mental health approach to its problem.

Suicides are awful — and suicides among young, bright students with so much potential? It’s that much more heart-wrenching. Yet somehow, news of these deaths has sparked excellent conversations about recognizing depression in teens.

Amid these recent tragedies, Cornell president David Skorton wrote a beautiful letter to his community, reminding them:

If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are about 7 suicides for every 100,000 college students each year. As a college professor, I try to be open and available to my students if they want to talk about personal problems-and in my classes, we discuss the encouraging social change toward open discussion of …

August 3rd, 2010

morality-research-flashShould economists be concerned with morals?

In a post recently on the Freakonomics blog, Stephen J. Dubner writes

economists – academic economists in particular – are generally free from the political and moral boundaries that restrict most people, and are therefore able to offer analysis or recommendations that politicians, e.g., wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot pole.

I’m all for rigorous academic research and presentations of findings, even if we disagree with them. I find the research on the rise in premarital sex that Dubner highlights fascinating. And I’m a huge fan of the whole Freakanomics approach generally. But I’m stuck on the implication in this post that to be a good academic means to have no morals.

There are Institutional Review Boards at every major research University in the country that would disagree with this, I’d imagine.

My hope is that what Dubner meant to say was that economists work with the data and numbers and report what they find, regardless of whether it goes against conventional wisdom or tells us something negative about our culture. But taken at face value, the post does raise some interesting questions:

Do we need to be freed from morality to do good …

July 29th, 2010

gameofdeath-flashA French documentary, which aired this spring, argues that we’d do anything to win a reality television show — even kill another human being.

The film, called “The Game of Death,” features players in a fake television game shocking fellow contestants if they answer a question incorrectly. The directors of the film found some 80 contestants and auditioned them to take part in a game-show called “Zone Xtreme,” where other “contestants” (actually actors) were asked questions while strapped to an electrified chair. If the actor gave an incorrect answer, the contestant was encouraged to administer an electric shock as punishment, while the crowd roared approval.

Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary, told the BBC that 82% of the participants shocked the actor-contestant.

“They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to.”

gameofdeath-inside1The idea for this show comes from the Milgram experiments from the 1960s, which demonstrated people will do horrible things if someone in a position of authority tells them to do it. Mr. Nick, the documentary’s producer, said his results outstripped even Milgram’s findings, with 4 out of 5 contestants going against …

July 27th, 2010

Ok, look at this ad quickly…

barbie ad

Looks normal right?

Yeah, these aren’t human beings, they are Barbie dolls.

Thanks to the blog Sociological Images, for highlighting the find from Sarah Barnes at Uplift, an online magazine.

Honesty is a virtue — as is beauty, arguably. But wow, are these two ideas in conflict here. What’s freaking me out (and other women) is that at first glance we don’t even notice that the women are fake. We’re that used to seeing airbrushed models that we just see this as yet another display ad for some fashion show or product.

This is problematic. While I don’t need to see rolls of fat on models either, it’s probably time to acknowledge that, in the quest for “perfection,” we’ve lost touch with reality.…

July 22nd, 2010

obesity-flashDr Jason Halford tells MedicalNewsToday

Anti-obesity drugs haven’t successfully tackled the wider issues of obesity because they’ve been focused predominantly on weight loss. Obesity is the result of many motivational factors that have evolved to encourage us to eat, not least our susceptibility to the attractions of food and the pleasures of eating energy rich foods – factors which are, of course, all too effectively exploited by food manufacturers.

He continued:

As psychological factors are critical to the development of obesity, drug companies should take them into consideration when designing new drug therapies. We’ve learned a great deal about the neurochemical systems that govern processes like the wanting and liking of food, and it’s time to exploit that knowledge to help people manage their eating behaviour.

We all know that to lose weight we’ve got to eat less and exercise more: Calories in, calories out. But we’ve still got to eat something, and that’s where things get tricky. Psychologist George Ainslie has told us for years that it’s easier to control things when you can implement bright lines: Don’t smoke even one cigarette. Don’t drink even one alcoholic beverage. This is why the Atkins diet and other “bright line” …

July 20th, 2010

ambition-flashI’m fascinated with ambition–and people’s reaction to other folks who want to succeed. Remember a few months back when Kate Gosselin was being criticized for leaving her eight children with nannies to appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” Media reports asked whether her ambitions of fame getting in the way of being a good Mom.

While it’s unlike me to defend the overly dramatic, in-the-spotlight poor parenting of Jon & Kate, that  hubbub got me simmering once more on a fascinating — and thorny — question about ambition: Is it a vice or a virtue?

Asks Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

If Kate is being criticized for her ambition does that mean other moms should be criticized to for wanting to be successful at their jobs? Should moms be criticized for wanting to make more money, be recognized within their industry or overall being successful in their jobs? Is ambition in a mom a bad thing?

Clearly, there’s a gender double-standard about ambition at play, says Margot Magowan in the San Francisco Chronicle blog. And this idea isn’t new: Debra Condren wrote a terrific book, AmBITCHous, addressing this very issue of women being criticized for ambition.…

July 15th, 2010

If Joe the Camel cigarette ads were geared toward the guys, Camel’s recent ads are targeted straight at teenage girls, say anti-smoking activists. I mean, they’re pink, for heaven’s sake. And a clear play on Chanel’s perfume. Camel No 9 Ad1

So that’s bad. But what seems even crazier to me is that, at the same time as the tobacco companies are marketing a dangerous product to young women, there are other young women who are fighting against what seems to be a much safer substitute: e-cigarettes.

Mara Zrzavy, a 16-year-old high-school student joined with other activists to encourage New Hampshire to ban the use of e-cigarettes by minors. Her argument is that kids who wouldn’t otherwise smoke will start with e-cigs, because they are cool gadgets, and then move on to the real thing when they get hooked.

Camel No 9 Ad2Don’t get me wrong. Kids shouldn’t be smoking anything. And we don’t want to encourage kids who would otherwise not smoke to start. (Although they are: Check out this study about how preteens are more likely to abuse household products as drugs than anything else.) But since we know that kids are going to at least try it anyway, let’s be realistic:

Shouldn’t …

July 13th, 2010

commitmentstrategies-flashRecently I blogged about myopic choice–and how, just like Wall Street traders, we’re all pulled into making short-sighted decisions that compromise our future interests. And I think I left everyone feeling a bit depressed about our inability to make good choices. So, I’m back with some good news, borrowed once again from behavioral economics and psychology: We can prevent those myopic choices from ruling our lives. How? By setting up commitment strategies.

A commitment strategy is one way in which we trick ourselves into overriding our urge to make myopic choices.

A simple example is the alarm clock: When you set your alarm clock at 11 p.m. as you go to bed, you do it because you know you have to get up at 6 a.m. You also know that at 6 a.m. the last thing you’ll want to do is wake up, and if you don’t set an alarm you’ll sleep too late.

Another commitment strategy is to make a public announcement of your intentions. Want to lose weight? If you tell everyone about your goals, and ask for help sticking to it, you’re more likely to achieve.

We employ a commitment strategy when we know that …

July 8th, 2010

I don’t know a lot about finance. Indeed, my brain usually turns off when I hear about structured finance or BBB-rated bonds. But after the market crashed in 2007-8 because of … well… bad things, I knew I needed to learn more.
myopic-flash-1
If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’s new book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, get yourself a copy and get to it. It’s the best explanation for the Great Recession — and the various vices and virtues at play — that I’ve read.

Lewis makes the argument that traders and Wall Street executives – smart men and women – were being rewarded with fast, big money for making short-sighted decisions that, had they studied the data a bit more, they might have realized would be disastrous in the long run. The immediate upside to the gamble of trading sub-prime mortgages certificates was just too tempting for most.

It’s classic myopic choice in action–and something I discuss with my students in every sociology class I teach.

If we call a person myopic that means we are saying that they are shortsighted, or that they are unable or unwilling to act prudently. It’s just like when you go …

June 19th, 2010

VV-fathersday100-flashMan-bashing has become a sport.  And in recent weeks, one study even questioned whether fathers are necessary for raising kids at all.  So perhaps it’s no surprise that fewer people think celebrating Father’s Day is as important as celebrating Mother’s Day, according to a Rasmussen poll.

June 20, 2010 is the 100th anniversary of Father’s Day. Let’s take a moment to celebrate fathers — and men who act with self-control and responsibility generally.

There are nearly 70 million fathers in the U.S., and more than 30 million have kids under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Census.
Mr. Mom is a reality for a quarter of all families with young children: Some 24 percent of the nation’s 11.2 million preschool-age children with a working mom are regularly cared for by dad during mom’s working hours, according to the Census. An estimated 158,000 men are stay-at-home dads whose wives support the family financially.
Dads are spending more time with their kids (although still not as much as Mom)…:Fathers with children aged 3 to 5 in the home read to them 6 times a week on average, compared to almost 7 times per week

June 17th, 2010

VV-contagious-virtues-flashWe generally understand how a virus or flu spreads: I’m sick and I shake hands with you. Then, you touch your nose and… oops, now you’re sick, too. Then you kiss your husband and… oops, now he’s sick, too. And so on. But in recent years, social scientists have begun to consider whether behaviors and character traits can spread in a similar way. Are vices and virtues socially contagious?

A while back, we learned that obesity is contagious: Researchers Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist, and James Fowler, a political science professor, found that we’re more likely to gain weight ourselves if our family and friends gain weight. Similarly, we’re more likely to succeed in losing weight if others are trying to do the same.

Then, the same team of researchers found that loneliness might be similarly socially contagious, as could happiness.

The latest from this pair is the finding that acts of kindness can spread rapidly through society, too, giving new power to the idea of “paying it forward” in generosity.

According to WiredScience:

In a game where selfishness made more sense than cooperation, acts of giving were “tripled over the course of the experiment by …

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