Archive for June, 2015


Lethal Absurdity

June 26, 2015
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind. H. L. Mencken

We seem to have an epidemic of absurd thinking. Discussions based on empirical evidence and rational arguments still occur, but they are drowned out by the disputes in which one side has adopted an absurd position—that is, an intransigent stand on an issue in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It is absurd, for example, to avoid giving life-saving vaccines to your children. It is also absurd to defend a health care system with per capita costs that are roughly twice that of any other country, yet give results that are inferior to most other developed countries.

It is absurd to claim that unlimited amounts of political donations will not debauch our elections. It is absurd to claim that giving the super-wealthy tax breaks will result in trickle-down to the middle class.

It is absurd to promote gun policies that allow purchase of assault rifles, guns in bars (guns and alcohol… what could possibly go wrong?), and high-capacity magazines. It is absurd to promote a death penalty that does not act as a deterrent, regularly kills innocent people, and costs substantially more than life in prison without parole.

And probably the most chilling absurdity of all is denying the compelling evidence that climate change is largely caused by human activity, and that it represents an existential threat to every person on the planet… including, ironically, the billionaires who are desperately trying to obfuscate the scientific evidence.

We thus have a cadre of state and national politicians who have allowed their self-interest and willful ignorance to distort or deny the empirical evidence on a wide range of issues. They constitute a confederacy of dunces and knaves in a theater of the absurd who are fighting against rational and evidence-based solutions to serious problems.

In the case of climate change they are sabotaging energy policies that are needed to reduce the risk of an unfathomable catastrophe to the human race, one in which the worst-case (but plausible) scenarios suggest that billions of people may perish. Blaise Pascal aptly called humankind the “mindless worm of the earth.” Ironically, by the time we are done destroying the earth, worms may be one of the few life forms left.

What all of these absurdities have in common is that they are on the wrong side of empirical evidence and rational thought. Unfortunately, absurd positions often have the backing of powerful interests or—as with the vaccine avoiders and supporters of capital punishment—they emanate from the pervasive intellectual indolence of the American public.

quoteMere opinions are not inherently misguided, of course. It may be my opinion that chocolate ice cream tastes better than strawberry, and even some moral opinions do not necessarily have an objective and rational basis. I can be for or against gay marriage, for example, without being asked to present any facts about the matter.

But the central question is seldom considered: is absurd thinking immoral? Sometimes not. I think we can give a pass to the person who put rectangular (not square) pants on SpongeBob SquarePants or who painted the trucks of the Yellow Truck Company orange (not yellow). I would argue, however, that absurd thinking can indeed be immoral for those in a position to influence public policy. Most of the absurdities discussed above result in a net increase in the deaths of innocent human beings. People who promote public policy based on these absurd positions are no doubt sincere, and consider themselves moral creatures. But I think Pascal was right when he said in his Pensées, “So Let us work on thinking well. That is the principle of morality.” Irrational and counterfactual thinking leading to deaths of our fellow humans is not “thinking well” and it is not moral, no matter how much spin they apply.

One could, therefore, divide public policy debates into three categories: 1) moral questions that do not require much consideration of evidence (e.g., gay marriage, abortion), 2) policy questions that have at least some legitimate arguments and evidence on opposing sides (e.g., education, economic policy), and 3) issues where the empirical evidence has clearly reached the threshold for action, but absurd positions prevail due to predatory self-interest (e.g., climate change) or ignorance (e.g., death penalty). There is hope for correcting absurd positions if they derive from ignorance, such as the death penalty issue, because there is little money supporting the absurd side. For many absurd positions such as those on health care, gun control, and climate change, however, lasting solutions depend on minimizing the overpowering effect of money in politics. It will not be easy, but our very survival may depend on it.


The Worm at the Core

June 12, 2015
Michael Baumgardner

Michael Baumgardner

Of Recent Interest… is the new book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski (Random House 2015). In his brilliant multidisciplinary synthesis, The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker recognized the overwhelming significance of the impossible paradox that death presents to us and posited that “…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity”. (DOD, p. ix) The 1973 Pulitzer Prize winner for General Non-Fiction, Becker’s work also inspired a group of social psychologists, the authors of The Worm at the Core, to see if they could use the tools of social psychology to find evidence consistent with Becker’s ideas. If death is indeed a mainspring of human activity, then perhaps experiments inducing a group of people to focus on death could produce measurable behavioral effects consistent with Becker’s ideas. This book presents their formal theory, which they call Terror Management Theory (TMT), based on some of Becker’s ideas on our struggle to cope with the reality of death. This is accompanied by the description and results from an array of experimental studies conducted under TMT, and ending with some general observations on living with death.

The Worm at the Core is written in a very readable format, with “little academic jargon” or “cumbersome technical details”, and with “enlivened accounts” (WC, p. x-xi) of key participants from various experiments. There are plenty of light anecdotes, wit, and colorful, figurative language. The book appears targeted to an audience of undergraduate level or educated lay readers. Many will like this style, though specialists may find the presentation a little too loose for serious scientific discourse (since it can create some ambiguity in terms and weak links in the chain of argument). With those caveats, the book is entertaining and well written, which many readers will appreciate and enjoy.

The central tenants of TMT are that we deal with the fact of death by sustaining “faith in our cultural worldview, which imbues our sense of reality with order, meaning, and permanence(p.9), which in turn fosters the ability to maintain a “feeling of personal significance commonly known as self-esteem… [that] shield us against rumblings of dread… [and] enables us to believe we are enduring significant beings(WC, p. 9). This is enough to provide a logical springboard for explaining why bringing death to the forefront of consciousness could drive us to cling even harder to both our worldview and our self-esteem. With these two concepts, the authors claim they have “…formalized Becker’s analysis of the human condition into terror management theory(WC, p. 211). This, I believe, is very much an overstatement. TMT simply does not get to a sufficient depth to allow a reader to fully appreciate Becker’s complex analysis. The Denial of Death is a magnificent interdisciplinary tapestry of the human condition, brilliantly presented and tying together the thoughts of diverse lay, religious, and scientific luminaries (Rank, Freud, James, Brown, Chesterton, Jung, Perls, Kierkegaard, May, Maslow, Fromm, Tillich, to name just a few). The result is a majestic and compelling picture of the human existential paradox. As just one example with TMT, the absence alone of a thorough integration with psychoanalytic concepts such as anxiety, repression, and transference leads to a greatly restricted picture when compared to Becker. Those well-versed in Becker’s works will easily notice other examples. TMT, as presented in The Worm at the Core, is simply not an adequate substitute for Becker’s analysis; it is much less than a “formalized” presentation of Becker’s analysis. I’ll have more to say about this below.

TMT has generated a lot of research in social psychology (over 500 studies according to the authors) and some of these studies are presented in narrative form throughout the book. On the whole, there is consistent support to demonstrate that a “mortality salience” manipulation (giving death reminders to experimental subjects) does produce behavioral results consistent with protective defense of cultural world views and self-esteem. While details of these studies require access to the sources listed in the references, TMT studies have been widely published in some of the most respected journals of social psychology and the reader can generally have faith in their reliability. In terms of empirical support, the only glitch is a study that finds that mortality salience works as predicted only if we expose people to a short exposure to death reminders and not too long. This led the authors to postulate proximal and distal defenses, which are plausible but also come across as a bit of a post hoc stretch.

On the whole, I am very pleased to see this book published and I hope that it is widely read. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski are to be commended for formulating some of Becker’s ideas in a manner that allows for experimental outcomes, and for launching a successful research program that brings these ideas to an audience that may be far removed from Becker’s original works. However, I do have clear reservations as well. I have a real concern that TMT is becoming more or less synonymous with “Ernest Becker’s analysis” in the eyes of the academic community, or at least to those who may read this book. They are not synonymous formulations. At best TMT is an over-simplification. Becker’s work, and especially The Denial of Death, is a timeless masterpiece of tremendous integrated depth. It needs to retain its own identity, and TMT alone is not a surrogate.

Finally, I want to elucidate another point of differentiation I see between Becker and TMT, specifically, concerning conclusions about what death denial means for mankind. The authors conclude that “…we hope that knowing death thoughts instigate a host of unfortunate psychological and behavioral defenses enables you to monitor and alter such reactions(WC, p. 225). Becker, in contrast, warns of the man who “buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems” (DOD, p. 284). It isn’t. Becker concludes The Denial of Death by stating, “There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone. The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism(DOD, p. ix). Becker had no illusions that science has the answers we seek. In his dialog with Sam Keen shortly before his death, Becker concluded that “it is impossible to continue living without massive anxiety” without a power source outside ourselves.  “One’s existence is a question which must be answered. And the answer can never come from oneself. A life can only be validated by some kind of ‘beyond’ which explains it and in which it is immersed(Spectrum of Loneliness, 1974). The direction Becker points us to is ultimately theological rather than scientific. This is absent in TMT and one of the reasons Becker cautioned about science. In fact, Becker’s analysis ultimately ends at a hopeful faith that “beyond this world of accident and contingency and terror and death there is a meaning that redeems(Psychology Today, 1974).


Michael Baumgardner, Ph.D., is an Experimental Social Psychologist from Ohio State University (1978) where he was a student of Anthony Greenwald, developer of the widely known Implicit-association test. After a post- doctoral year with Dr. Greenwald, Dr. Baumgardner worked with the FDA in Washington, D.C. as a Research Scientist. In 1980, Dr. Baumgardner joined Burke, Inc., applying social science skills to a commercial marketing research setting and teaching those skills to others. After a highly successful 30 years, he retired as President, CEO and Chairman of the Board at Burke. He has been on the Board of the EBF since 2008.


Don’t Be Fooled by Arresting Logic: Using the Psychology of Abandon to Decode Scare Tactics

June 10, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

It was bound to happen. Protests against police killings have triggered a propaganda backlash. In the Wall Street Journal—now part of the Fox news empire—Heather MacDonald, author of Are Cops Racist?, warns that protests against police killings in cities such as Baltimore have unleashed “A New Nationwide Crime Wave.”

In a world of ads and rant screaming for attention, it makes sense to study the tools used to manipulate us. MacDonald’s argument uses what the psychology of abandon calls “berserk style.” Protests against police violence, she implies, have created a crisis, which presumably calls for emergency force to suppress protests and crime.

The psychology of abandon studies styles of thinking that disguise or rationalize behavior that is—or seems to be—out of control. In this instance, MacDonald equates demands for justice with an “onslaught” of “anti-cop rhetoric,” looting, and a “crime wave.” Protesters have run amok. But even as she inflates crime to crisis proportions, she ignores the real crisis mentality that leads hair-trigger cops to kill unarmed “suspects,” especially black “suspects.”

MacDonald’s creates her crisis out of inflammatory clichés:

This incessant drumbeat against the police has resulted in what St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson last November called the “Ferguson effect.” Cops are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity and the “criminal element is feeling empowered,” Mr. Dotson reported. Arrests in St. Louis city and county by that point had dropped a third since the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Not surprisingly, homicides in the city surged 47% by early November and robberies in the county were up 82%.  Similar “Ferguson effects” are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014.

This is the language of abandon. The “incessant drumbeat” evokes an invading army or dark-skinned jungle savages. Rather than blame protesters for a national crime wave, MacDonald alleges only that a situation “has resulted,” as if Zeus or gravity caused it. Poor blacks protest because they need to be empowered, but in the WSJ, only “the criminal element is feeling empowered.” The idea of being “empowered” is being poisoned in this negative use the way rant media have corrupted terms such as “entitlement.” Criminals are not actual people but an “element” alien as insects or atoms.

The official-sounding social science jargon clashes with the hysterical melodrama of protesters attacking police in an “onslaught.” Meanwhile the police aren’t disobeying orders, they’re “disengaging” and “scaling back” like businessmen or generals in a battle for civilization. If cops feel unhappy, MacDonald implies, they’re free to ignore orders and make their own policy. This is a vigilante fantasy.

Among cops, “proactive” enforcement is known as “broken windows” policing. It challenges indications of disorder before any actual crime can take place. If you’re black in a rough neighborhood in Philly, say, that means cops have “discretionary” power to put you down on the sidewalk and look for signs of crime. No matter how innocent you are, they can hassle, humiliate, and sometimes arrest you on phony charges.[1] The strategy sometimes works, but there is a tradeoff, sometimes a tragic tradeoff.

“Discretionary” policing takes place on the shadowy edge of the law. Police on Staten Island were being proactive when they arrested Eric Garner for selling loose (untaxed) cigarettes (July 17, 2014). He protested and they took him down, choking him to death. (Police excused.) Just as MacDonald’s polemic strips out references to actual people, so ordinary racial prejudice strips out individuality, seeing groups or stereotypes. It would be harder to kill Eric Garner if you knew him as a 43 year old father of six kids—including a 3-month infant—with a bum heart. The police knew him as a rap sheet of minor offenses: a black guy who had filed a complaint about being strip-searched on a public street.

In the WSJ op-ed, Garner is buried in unmarked numbers. Even if we try to take the statistics seriously, they’re inflammatory. How many murders does a spike of 100% entail? 2 instead of 1?  2,000 instead of 1,000?  Last year US cops killed about 467 people enforcing the law, twice as many unarmed blacks as unarmed whites.[2]  In Europe, the casualties are close to zero. And if statistics are so persuasive, they should reassure hair-trigger police, since according to OSHA, construction workers are 400% more likely than cops to die on the job, and police fatalities include traffic and other mishaps.

Actually it should be no surprise if crime rates spike around protests. In the 1960s when LBJ’s Great Society programs acknowledged the injustice and misery of poverty—really for the first time in US history—riots followed. In Detroit and Watts, frustrated young blacks saw that the public effort to help was indirectly an admission of past injustice, as if that justified retaliation. This is the vindictiveness of victim psychology. Feeling painfully victimized after 9/11, Americans felt justified in destroying thousands of innocent lives in Iraq, and in a  war as berserk as any riot.

Police killing involves another form of abandon that’s crucial to understand. Police help maintain society in many ways. In “fighting” crime, however, they are akin to warriors, playing a heroic role by risking death. Arresting criminals is especially dangerous in the US, where gun culture has a hair trigger. Human terror of death disposes us to admire heroes whose courage can master it. It goes without saying that our need to believe in that courage disposes us to overlook or deny the survival panic in police killing.

At the bottom of society, by contrast, many blacks live on the edge of social death, some surviving through crime. Just as we inflate super-heroes, so we’re apt to exaggerate the failings of the poor, associating them with crime, laziness, brutishness, and other markers of social death. Putting down scapegoats gives self-regard a boost.

Confrontation with a poor “suspect,” then, presents two kinds of abandon.  One kind is the moment when unrealistic assumptions, emergency physiology, and guns overcome judgment. The other is the danger, for the cop, of losing heroic self-esteem in a (possibly fatal) moment of panic. The cop fears death, but also the fantasy qualities he’s attributed to the “suspect.” If the suspect escapes or otherwise “wins” the contest of wills, the cop loses his heroic confidence. In officer Wilson’s fatal tangle in Ferguson, he described Michael Brown as the superhuman Hulk and himself as a helpless child. As in battle, the instant of total danger trumps inhibitions and our foundational sense of “what’s right,” triggering survival rage: berserk abandon.

“Fighting” crime, the cop feels heroic. Defying poverty and social death, the criminal feels heroic. In each case heroism offers the sensation, like a drug rush, of being a bigshot, invincibly lucky, safe from death. You don’t have to plan the moment of crisis. It can happen by chance or by “chance.” Prejudice can guide the outcome if, say, you assume that all black men are likely to be criminals. In any event, guns create their own hair-trigger mentality. To ignore this psychological dimension is as callous as it absurd:

“‘Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,’ a New York City officer tells me.”

Hmm. What about the black guy who has to worry every day about a cop’s trigger finger? What about Eric Garner’s family?

In this regard, Heather MacDonald is a hired gun for comfortable people who read theWall Street Journal. As in Vietnam and the “war on terror,” her backlash says: Shoot first and ask questions afterward.

Do I need to add that of course not all police are killers?  But even one killer can spoil your welcome home.

That’s why we need justice as well as law.

1.…(link is external)…(link is external)

2. The US government doesn’t publish a tally of police deaths. For useful data, see:…(link is external)

Also:…(link is external)

Also in this series, “Who Can You Trust?” (September 15, 2014); “The Child and the Monster” (November 29); and “Guilty Games” (December 5).

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Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse

When behavior becomes a cultural style, berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring. It promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

“This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.”

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.