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Psychology

Look at Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest. We collect our favorite things in one spot for anyone who’s interested: the era of the curator. Rather than write about ourselves directly, our personalities manifest in collections of our commercial desires, aesthetic attractions. We are what we “like,” not what we do.

–Jacob Axelrad, “Longform 

A very interesting offhand observation embedded in a great essay on Longform Reads. ‘Curator’ might feel like too self-aggrandizing a term though. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we are in the era of ‘glorified virtual scrapbookers’. Or maybe we should just call ourselves digital magpies. Depends on how cynical I’m feeling, I guess. Still, a phrase worth pondering.

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…Across the world, it seems, wealthier people are much more likely to complain — or kvetch, if you will — about being busy than the poor. It’s not simply that the well-to-do work more, although that’s part of it, says Daniel Hamermesh, the University of Texas economist who co-authored the 2005 study with a former graduate student. It turns out that if you hold the hours people spend at their jobs and on household chores constant, individuals who bring home bigger paychecks still feel more stressed for time. Increase a husband’s income, and his wife begins to feel busier.

Hamermesh reached his conclusions by analyzing time-use surveys from the United States, Germany, Australia, and South Korea. The results were fairly consistent across international borders, although they varied a bit in South Korea, he says. In general, the richer a survey taker was, the more they kvetched about their lack of time. Women, meanwhile, kvetched more than men. And although Hamermish is hesitant to make cross cultural comparisons, he says that Americans appeared to be the “world champions” of kvetching.

All of this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one of the perks of being rich is that you can afford to pay people to take care of life’s necessities in order to free up more time for life’s pleasures. A nurse and a Google engineer might work the same hours. But the engineer can afford a babysitter and maid.

Nice in theory. But in practice, hiring help only makes a marginal difference, Hamermesh says. “You can’t pay somebody to sleep for you,” he explains. “You can’t pay somebody to read Proust for you. Or go to the opera, or go to the movies, or go to a ballgame.” And that’s where a bit of psychology comes into play.

We all live on two things: time and money. And people who have extra income don’t get much, if any, extra time to spend it. As a result, Hamermesh argues, each of their hours seems more valuable, and they feel the clock ticking away more acutely. Much the way it’s more stressful to order dinner from a menu with 100 items than 10, choosing between a night at the symphony, seats at the hot new play, or tickets to Woody Allen’s latest flick is in some senses more stressful than knowing you’ll have to save money by staying in for the evening. There’s a lot the rich could be doing and too few hours to do it all. 

That isn’t to say the rich are necessarily more stressed overall. While the poor are less likely to complain about a lack of time, they are much more likely to complain about a lack of money. “One of them is always going to be scarce for you. If you’re rich, it’s time that’s scarce. If you’re poor, it’s the money that’s scarce,” Hamermesh says.

So should we all feel guilty about our kvetching? Not necessarily — as long as you remember that, in the scheme of things, being busy is a nice problem to afford.

–Jordan Weissman, “Why Only Yuppies Feel Busy: An Economic Theory

Philosophers and psychoanalysts have long debated the lure of the morbid – but the current dominant explanation, from evolutionary psychology, is rather deflating, lacking any reference to Freudian “death drives” or the like. We’re compelled by horrible things, this argument goes, because it pays to scrutinise dangers that could threaten one’s survival. Such tendencies evolved before mass media, of course – so these days, we see celebrity self-destruction and far-off tsunamis, and they grip us as hazards that might befall us, too.

But Wilson’s conversations with psychologists lead him to another, more uplifting conclusion: that “our attraction to the macabre is, on some level, a desire to experience someone else’s suffering.” We yearn to empathise – a yearning that is, incidentally, perfectly compatible with the evolutionary argument, since empathy helps us forge close bonds, which are essential for survival. Striving to feel what it might be like to be caught in the tsunami, or the pile-up, may be fundamentally healthy. Perhaps even “the itch to touch a corpse,” Wilson writes, recalling his behaviour at his grandmother’s open-coffin funeral, “is normal [and] noble.

–Oliver Burkeman, “Morbid Curiosity: Can gawping at disaster be good for us?

A connection between fascination with things associated with morbidness and human desire for empathy? My gut says yes–and actually, such an argument would provide a socially acceptable explanation for why on earth I end up studying topics associated with the grim.

But the ideas gotta fester longer before I have more to say.

The American Dream is really two dreams. There’s the Horatio Alger myth, in which a person with grit, ingenuity, and hard work succeeds and prospers. And there’s the firehouse dinner, the Fourth of July picnic, the common green, in which everyone gives a little so the group can get a lot. Markus’s work seems to suggest the emergence of a dream apartheid, wherein the upper class continues to chase a vision of personal success and everyone else lingers at a potluck complaining that the system is broken. (Research shows that the rich tend to blame individuals for their own failure and likewise credit themselves for their own success, whereas those in the lower classes find explanations for inequality in circumstances and events outside their control.) But the truth is much more nuanced. Every American, rich and poor, bounces back and forth between these two ideals of self, calibrating ambitions and adjusting behaviors accordingly.

–Lisa Miller, “The Money-Empathy Gap“, pg 6 (bolding mine)

In the cover story for New York Magazine, Miller brings light to a new group of psychology studies trying to understand the role socio-economic class has on personality, from interpersonal relations to physiological response. Turns out, despite our cultural denial about the significance of class in America, money matters. And you can see it all over our confused little minds.

[Also, super clever to use dogs to visualise class and power dynamics in the pics accompanying the article.]

So much interesting in this burgeoning field. Definitely an area to watch out for.

Happy 4th of July, folks.