The ironic power of stereotype
Brent Staples is an editorial writer for the New York Times and a University of Chicago-trained psychologist. He is also African-American, and back in the 70s, when he was doing his graduate studies, he discovered that he could threaten white people simply by walking down the streets of his Hyde Park neighborhood. When white couples saw him coming, especially at night, they would lock arms, stop all conversation, and stare straight ahead. Sometimes they would cross to the other side of the street. The white Chicagoans were obviously being influenced by the stereotype of the dangerous young black man. But the more sinister effects of the stereotype were on Staples himself.
Dog tired: What our hounds can teach us about self-control
We humans have much more self-discipline than other animals. We can and do set goals—losing 25 pounds, going to college—and then go without certain pleasures to achieve those goals. We’re far from perfect at this, but there’s no question that better self-control sets us apart from more lowly beasts. Scientists have long argued that delaying gratification requires a sense of “self.” Having a sense of personal identity allows us to compare what we are today, at this very moment, with what we want to be—an idealized self. Aspiring to this idealized self is what fosters uniquely human self-control powers. Well maybe—or maybe not.
How to read minds like a wizard
Fans of the Harry Potter books will be familiar with the art of Legilimency. Legilimency is an advanced form of wizardry, the supernatural ability to coax thoughts and feelings and memories from another’s mind. It’s a magical skill encompassing mind reading and lie detection—and it’s black magic in the wrong hands. Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, is a master Legilimens, as are the evil Snape and Voldemort. Harry never quite masters the difficult craft. Many of us Muggles wouldn’t mind a touch of telepathy from time to time—though for much more ordinary purposes. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know—to really know—what your colleagues are thinking about that paper you just presented?
Knockoff psychology: I know I’m faking it
Within just a few blocks of my office, street vendors will sell me a Versace t-shirt or a silk tie from Prada, cheap. Or I could get a deal on a Rolex, or a chic pair of Ray Ban shades. These aren’t authentic brand name products, of course. They’re inexpensive replicas. But they make me look and feel good, and I doubt any of my friends can tell the difference. That’s why we buy knockoffs, isn’t it? To polish our self-image—and broadcast that polished version of our personality to the world—at half the price? But does it work? After all, we first have to convince ourselves of our idealized image if we are going to sway anyone else.
Do you really need those eyeglasses?
Most of us use the numbers 20/20 unthinkingly, basically as a synonym for good vision. We take it on faith that 20/20 is an accurate measure of some biological reality. But how straightforward is visual acuity in fact? After all, those eye charts in your optometrist’s office measure not only the sharpness of the image on your eye’s retina, but also your brain’s interpretation of that information. How much liberty does the interpreting mind take with this biological reality? New research is beginning to focus on the psychological dimensions of vision—with some surprising results.
American restlessness, American unhappiness?
Imagine you are a high school basketball player, and a pretty good one. You are a senior, and right now you are the starting point guard for the Rochester Eagles. Last year you started for the Lexington Cougars, in a different state, and the year before that you played the same position for yet another squad, the Flyers of Pottsville. Your family moves a lot because of your father’s work, but you’ve managed to win a spot on the local team wherever you land. So how do you think of yourself at the moment? Do you identify yourself as a proud Rochester Eagle? Or do you think of yourself as simply a talented point guard?