How do people determine right from wrong?

“How do people determine right from wrong?”  How do you determine right from wrong?

Do you follow a moral code that came from your parents?  A religious leader?  Something you learned in school?  From a book that you read or speech that you heard?

Social science research “suggests that people, to a significant degree, derive their sense of right and wrong from social cues.”  “People form their own morality … according, in part, to what they think the people around them believe.”

One piece of relevant research focused on school bullying; “how middle school students determine whether bullying is or is not morally acceptable.”

The researchers found that individual students used “social referrents” as a shortcut to make their decision about bullying behavior–that is, “people to whom they paid special attention in determining right or wrong.”  Students focused “on a few individuals whom [they] perceive to be influential.”  And, those people, like it or not, then become influential.  Those people are often other students but could also be teachers, administrators, coaches, or anyone in the students’ environment.

The researchers then focused on “interventions”–something that individuals who were not the social referrents could do to alter the situation.  In the case of the school bullying, the social networks in the schools were “mapped out” and then shuffled around in order to change the people serving as the social referrents.

Did this work?  Yes, “disciplinary reports of student conflict at treatment schools were reduced by 30% over 1 year.”  “Rearranging an existing bunch of kids can change where those kids look to set their internal rules for behavior–which can, in turn, change the social norms in their school.”

There are many studies like this one–looking at setting norms for behavior in many situations, not just with kids in school.

So, what does this mean for social media and morality?  Social media replaces “our traditional person-to-person social networks with artificial, algorithm-driven networks” focused on profit.  Is social media better or worse as a way for people to test their social referrents as a barometer for determining internal morality?  Could Facebook, Twitter, etc. “disrupt the processes by which we determine right from wrong?”  “How would that change our morality?”

No firm answers yet; research is ongoing.  Meanwhile, all of us who use social media are, like it or not, part of a great unintended, uncontrolled social experiment.  Think about that …

Read the article (Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, New York Times, August 3, 2018).

Smoke from wildfires causes health problems.

As the number, size, and explosiveness of wildfires increases in the U.S. and other countries, it brings danger not only due to the destructiveness of fire but also due to the widespread exposure to wildfire smoke.

“A big wildfire event not only impacts local communities but also people hundreds of miles away.”  The smoke contains gases and microscopic particles.  These can cause symptoms like “coughing, burning eyes and shortness of breath.”  “More seriously, the smoke can trigger asthma attacks or, more chronically, lead to heart problems and has even been linked to the development of cancer.”

The number of large wildfires in the western U.S. has increased from around 140 each year in the 1980’s to at least 250 per year in the 2000’s.  The wildfire season has lengthened by over 2 months since the 1970’s (see the infographic).  The area being burned may increase in places over 600% as average temperatures increase.

Research indicates that “wildfire-prone states in the northwest are a glaring exception” to an overall improvement in air quality in the United States over the past 30 years.  There is a link between wildfire smoke and illness or death especially in that the smoke “exacerbates a range of conditions that cause the sickness.”  “Almost every place in the U.S. … could be impacted by upwind smoke” from wildfires.

“Wildfires are a growing problem and climate change is making them worse.”  “There have been a lot of predictions that if we don’t get ahead of climate change that crazy things will happen.  Well, crazy things are happening.  This is what climate change looks like.”

Read the article (Oliver Milman, The Guardian, August 2, 2018).


Spread some happiness …

All we seem to hear these days is bad news–wild fires, heat waves, droughts, politics, greed, corruption, discrimination, low wages, stress, unhappiness …

So, make a little bit of an effort today and make someone happy.

A recent study looking at the reasons “why so few people actually send thank yous” found “that many people totally miscalibrate the effect of an appreciative email.  They underestimate the positive feelings it will bring.”  People “also overestimate how insincere the note may appear and how uncomfortable it will make the recipient feel.”  People are also concerned about the quality of their writing being judged.

In the study, participants wrote a short “gratitude letter” that, in most cases, took less than 5 minutes to write.  The people receiving the letters then filled out a questionnaire about how it felt to receive the note.

The people receiving the notes expressed a noticeably higher rating of happiness than the senders predicted.  Plus, the receivers didn’t care about the quality of the writing, they cared about “warmth.”

“People tend to undervalue the positive effect they can have on others for a tiny investment of time.”  So, send a thank you note, tell someone that you appreciate them.  Make another person–and yourself–feel good.  Spread some happiness …

Read the article (Heather Murphy, New York Times, July 20, 2018).


Climate change is happening now …

Climate change is happening before our eyes.  All over the world–“from Japan to the Middle East, and North America to Europe,” the heat waves, floods, droughts, and wild fires “have clear links to human-caused climate change.”

What’s happening globally this year was predicted decades ago.  What we are seeing now are extremes–heat and rainfall (too much or too little).  This is occurring when Earth has warmed “only” about 1.8 degrees F (or 1 degree C).  What will happen when Earth warms to higher levels?  “We’re on a trajectory to reach [warming of] 3 degrees C or 5.4 degrees F, by 2100.”

A warmer, wetter climate has exerted “its influence on day-to-day weather.”  Researchers have “found a clear link between climate change and extreme heat in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia.”

Heat and drought drive the deadly, explosive wild fires in California, Oregon, Greece, Scandinavia, Siberia, and many other places.

The impacts of a changing climate are and will be variable from region to region.  Some regions are experiencing the changes forcefully already; some areas will experience the changes more in decades to come.

The bottom line though is “that as average global temperatures increase, the impacts of climate change are becoming more visible” and are happening right now impacting places like Tokyo, London, Los Angeles, etc. “where hundreds of millions of people live.”

We need to try to prevent further extreme changes but also mitigate and adapt to the climate changes already happening.  What are you doing individually?  Are you holding decision-makers to account?

Read the article to learn more (Andrew Freedman, Axios, July 27, 2018).


AAP guidelines–avoid certain chemicals that are added to or leach into food

Guidelines recently issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics add to “the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that certain chemicals that enter foods may interfere with the body’s natural hormones in ways that may affect long-term growth and development.”  The chemicals are either used as food additives or leach into foods from packaging and manufacturing.

Chemicals of concern include nitrates and nitrites–preservatives used mainly in meat products; phthalates–used to make plastic packaging; bisphenols–used in the lining of metal cans; and, PFCs and perchlorates–used in packaging.

Many of these chemicals “interfere with normal hormone function” and can affect brain and sex organ development, and “normal metabolic function.”

Developmental disorders in children (like learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism) have increased significantly since 1997.  Childhood obesity “has more than tripled since the 1970’s”, and diabetes in children and teenagers is also on the rise.

The AAP recommends consuming fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables rather than canned, avoiding processed meats, not microwaving food or beverages in plastic containers, using glass or stainless steel rather than plastic, avoiding plastics with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7, and more.

Read the article (Roni Caryn Rabin, New York Times, July 23, 2018).

Increasing heat could drive up the number of suicides

It has long been noted that the number of suicides increases during “warmer months.”  But why?  What is the role of higher temperatures?

Recent research that analyzed “decades of historical data” “concluded that 1 degree C increases in monthly average temperatures increase suicide rates by 0.7 percent in the United States and 2.1 percent in Mexico.”

While these percentages are small, the consequences are large.  With projections of surface temperature increases of 2.1 to 2.5 degrees C by 2050 in North America, this could mean “9,000 to 40,000 additional suicides.”

Why?  One hypothesis is thermoregulation–blood flow in the brain changes “as the body works to maintain its temperature within a certain range.”  That is, high temperatures are tied to mental well-being.

Following this lead, researchers “analyzed data from more than 600 million geotagged Twitter posts” and found that as the monthly average temperature increases, the use of “depressive language in tweets” also increases.  “Mental well-being deteriorates during warmer periods.”

More and more research is finding that “climate change will have wide-ranging impacts on human health and well-being.”  “It appears that heat profoundly affects the human mind and how we decide to inflict harm.”

Read the article (James Temple, MIT Technology Review, July 23, 2018).