In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…

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Fairness Which Strikes the Eye

Sometimes it seems we cannot help ourselves –the pull of the tide is just too strong to resist. And sometimes an argument, when considered too quickly, too uncritically, captures us with its ostensibly intuitive wisdom. We have no need to question it. No need to probe the basis of its logic.

The rhetoricians of old were well versed in this form of argument –the art of persuasion and how to best achieve it. Aristotle, for example, suggested three essential features of a convincing argument: ethos –the credibility of the contention; pathos –understanding the needs and emotions of the audience; and logos –the patterns of reasoning and the words chosen. His wisdom, although modified and woven into the contemporary tapestry, has not been lost in modern times.

What could provoke a greater sense of outrage in a population than the 1% contention? That is to say, in at least one of the iterations fostered by the Occupy Movement, that in the United States, 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth. And to many, that unequal distribution of wealth, is symptomatic of what is wrong with Capitalism. It certainly resonates with those of us in the 99% who hear it. It begs for remonstrance; it demands rectification.

And yet there are usually many sides to a story –or at least this one, at any rate. There are times  when we need to move back a step or two in order to appreciate the different perspectives. Even so, I have to admit that an article in the BBC Future series came as an intriguing surprise: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170706-theres-a-problem-with-the-way-we-define-inequality It allowed me to entertain an alternative that I had not even considered.

As they tease at the beginning, ‘Some researchers argue that income disparity itself may not be the main problem. The issue, they say, is not the existence of a gap between rich and poor, but the existence of unfairness. Some people are treated preferentially and others unjustly – and acknowledging that both poverty and unfairness are related may be the challenge that matters more […] While many people may already view inequality as unfairness, making the distinction much clearer is important.’

They go on to say that ‘In a paper published in April in the journal Nature Human Behaviour called ‘Why people prefer unequal societies’, a team of researchers from Yale University argue that humans – even as young children and babies – actually prefer living in a world in which inequality exists. […] Because if people find themselves in a situation where everyone is equal, studies suggest that many become angry or bitter if people who work hard aren’t rewarded, or if slackers are over-rewarded.

‘“We argue that the public perception of wealth inequality itself being aversive to most people is incorrect, and that instead, what people are truly concerned about is unfairness,” says Christina Starmans, a psychology post-doc at Yale who worked on the paper.

“In the present-day US, and much of the world, these two issues are confounded, because there is so much inequality that the assumption is that it must be unfair. But this has led to an incorrect focus on wealth inequality itself as the problem that needs addressing, rather than the more central issue of fairness.” And as Mark Sheskin, one of the co-authors remarks, ‘“People typically prefer fair inequality to unfair equality”’.

In a way, a lot of the argument hinges on definitions. There are, after all, several ways to look at inequality: equality of opportunity, equality of distribution of benefits, and of course, equality of outcome. Must all of them be addressed, or is there a priority? Is the existence of a super-rich 1% the problem, or would it be more helpful ‘ to concentrate more on helping those less fortunate, who via a lack of fairness, are unable to improve their situation’?

‘Harry G Frankfurt is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. In his book On Inequality, he argues that the moral obligation should be on eliminating poverty, not achieving equality, and striving to make sure everyone has the means to lead a good life.’ Poverty, in other words, is the problem; it is unfair…

I suppose, when considered practically, it would be unrealistic and unduly Utopian, to think that we could ever dispense with at least some degree of income disparity. People ‘don’t typically work, create or strive without the motivation to do so’. It seems to me that the unfairness does not lie in the money fairly accumulated for work done, so much as in the fact that ‘not everyone is afforded the same opportunities to succeed, even if they put in that hard work.’

But, on the other hand, it’s not all simply a matter of the equality of opportunity, nor even of equality, per se. Fairness is something different. The issue of fairness is in a different Magisterium altogether. I’m Canadian, and I believe that no one should have to live in poverty. Not everyone has the skills, or indeed, the capacity to hold a job, even if an opportunity presents itself. Some are disadvantaged by appearance, or gender; some are discriminated against by virtue of their origins, or life-style; some, even, have succumbed to past failures and have given up trying… It is unfair to give up on them –any of them- simply because of the lotteries of birth or circumstance.

Fairness, it seems to me, is universally available and accessible health care. It is a living wage that allows even the poorest to feed their family. It is safe and obtainable shelter. It is the respect afforded even to those we do not understand. It is toleration of difference, even when the rest of us may not understand, or agree with it.

It seems to me that inequality, by itself, is not what drives revolutions. Inequality is not what causes societies to weaken and their moral fabric to unweave. Inequality is just the chipped and discoloured veneer most easily visible on the surface. What festers directly underneath, sometimes only detectable when the surface weakens or is pulled asunder, is inequity. Injustice. Unfairness… Poverty, unlike wealth, offers little protection. And that is the iniquitous thing.

For some reason, I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s King Lear: Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Prove me wrong…

 

The Unheard Problem with Noise

Life in the city can be noisy. That’s not where I live, so I find my occasionally unavoidable forays into its bowels almost unbearable.

“How can you live like this?” I asked a friend as we sat on the patio of a coffee shop on a downtown street as an ambulance screamed by.

“What do you mean?” she answered, looking at me with puzzled eyes, her coffee on it’s way to her mouth undisturbed.

The noise had been so obviously intrusive and irritating, that words failed me for a moment. I raised my arm and pointed along the busy, cacophonous street.

“All the people, you mean?” She smiled innocently and shrugged. “It’s near lunch time, I guess,” she said, and picked up her coffee for another sip.

I rested my hands on the table to steady them before I made an attempt to lift my own cup. “Don’t you find it rather…” I paused as I searched for the proper word to describe my angst. “… turbulent?” It was probably not the best description, but I still felt agitated.

The smile wavered for a moment as she tried to decipher my question. Then she sighed –or at least seemed to sigh –I couldn’t hear her soft intake of air in the din that vibrated and careened around us as if we were sitting in the middle of a traffic jam at rush hour. “You’ve been away too long, my friend,” she said, shaking her head sadly.

I attempted to return her smile, but I think my lips were quivering too much for it to become the answer she expected. “Doesn’t all the noise bother you Janet?”

She blinked her eyes slowly in reply. It might have been seductive in another setting, but here it only seemed like a rebuke. “You learn to block it out. It’s an urban adaptation…” Her face softened at my obvious discomfort. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I even hear it anymore unless it’s so loud it scares me…”

That seemed counterproductive to me, but I didn’t say so at the time. Warning signals are surely just that: alarms that are meant to alert those in the vicinity to potential risks. They’re supposed to provoke a reaction. In my case it probably heightened my awareness of the risks of signal fatigue. Of crying wolf too often. Perhaps it also sensitized me to research that recognized this and attempted novel technological solutions: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170714-the-brain-hacking-sound-thats-impossible-to-ignore

The alerting signal the article discussed ‘was inspired by neuroscience research on sounds that affect the emotion-processing centres of the brain.’ It was originally used in Malawi, Africa, ‘To alert Malawi locals to HIV tests and health checks from a mobile clinic […].’

The problem there, as here, was the brain’s tendency to adapt to frequently discordant and unpleasant ambient noise –blocking it from conscious awareness, in effect. It ‘was inspired by the neuroscience research of Luc Arnal at the University of Geneva. Arnal had investigated what neural connections are activated when humans hear a sound that is particularly difficult to ignore: screaming. Scans revealed that, when we hear the characteristically rough, distressing sound of a scream, the amygdala – which processes fear reactions – is activated in our brains. “What I found is that this roughness doesn’t go through the same neural pathways used by speech,” he says.

It means that screams don’t just get our attention, they immediately prompt us to react in some way. We’re stimulated to actually do something. […] Arnal had previously suggested that this insight could be used to design better alarms and sirens that don’t just make us freeze when we hear them, but actually invoke a more constructive reaction.’

An American artist, Jake Harper, had previously recorded  the music of a local band in Malawi and edited it into a form that ‘sounds like nothing you’d recognise from a street elsewhere in the world. Strangely unlike a conventional emergency services siren, instead it is a discordant mashup of musical fragments and intermittent white noise.’

‘Harper spent months experimenting with audio software to try and come up with a noise that sounded man-made enough to distinguish it from human or animal voices in the bush, but which was also not overly harsh or distressing. Getting the balance right – appealing to the emotion-processing parts of the brain without inducing fear or shock – was tough. The results were encouraging. Harper says that on average, a mobile clinic would test 40 people per day for HIV. “During the trial we had 160 people come to get tested,” he says.’

For Arnal, ‘that succeeds in meeting the three key goals here: produce a sound that grabs people’s attention; avoid distressing them; make sure it is distinguishable from non-manmade sounds in the environment.’

‘Our understanding of how audio influences human psychology has evolved greatly in recent years, according to Annett Schirmer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For example, studies have shown that people’s neural activity can be co-ordinated with the help of external rhythms. This is exactly the sort of effect you would expect from, say, factory or farm labourers working in time to a song – or the effect of cohesion observed in musicians performing together.

“Music stimulation entrains certain mental processes and aligns them between individuals […]” However, she warns there is also a dark side to using music to alter behaviour.

“Shops use music to make customers stay longer or increase the likelihood that they purchase things,” she notes.’

This is exciting stuff for sure. As Arnal observes, ‘In the future, sound that provokes responses deep in our brains could be more thoughtfully designed into the built environment.’ But we humans are an adaptive lot. We quickly learn to ignore sounds that might have been initially distressing when we first heard them. Apart from the morbid curiosity aroused by it, an ambulance wailing past soon loses its relevance if there is no one nearby who needs it. And if it becomes a too frequent and unwelcome guest, surely the doors to our ears would quickly become unwilling to allow it entrance. I’m not advocating for the Luddites, though, just for an appreciation of Darwin.

Or, perhaps, for the sentiment of Oliver Wendell Holmes as he observed in one of his poems: And silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound.