Saturday, September 26, 2009

Compassion for everyone

Okay, now onto an empathy-related post. As I may have mentioned, in 2008 I attended a 3-month meditation retreat, loosely modeled after a meditation study known as the Shamatha Project. The goal of the Project was to monitor data along many dimensions of cognitive and physical well-being of subjects practicing attention-focusing and compassion-generating meditation, 8 hours a day, for 12 weeks.

There were no scientific examinations done on me, but I am not surprised by some of the things they found in processing the Project data. One point in particular is relevant to the topic of this blog:
The study hypothesized that training in compassion would reduce the intensity of emotions that cause people to pull back from others who are either suffering or doing things that are unappealing. Consistent with this prediction, preliminary analyses show that after viewing scenes of the Iraq war (in which American soldiers bragged about getting psyched up to shoot Iraqis by listening to heavy metal music), followed by images of suffering Iraqis (including children), the retreat group reported significantly less contempt than the control group.
Did you catch that? The interesting thing isn't how they reacted to seeing victims -- we'd all expect an improvement in that from compassion training. It's how they responded to the tormentors.

If my own intuition is correct, the idea is that their innate tendency to split the world into good and bad, right and wrong, victim and offender, was suppressed. The situation itself could be seen to be detrimental -- most obviously for the children, but also for the soldiers who are training themselves in sociopathy, thereby setting themselves up for a lifetime of maladjustment or worse. Could the soldiers have taken the "moral high ground" and refused reprehensible orders? Sure, but a tremendous corpus of psychological literature, as well as personal introspection, should make it obvious that taking such a stand in the heat of war is... well... not easy to expect of average male youths of any culture.

Viewed as this more complex scenario, it's once again obvious why compassion isn't something to be reserved for those who we see as downtrodden. Those same victimized children, if raised in the same environment as our offenders, could not be expected to act any differently -- at least not without some sort of specific training.

It is this training I hope to persuade you is crucial to our very humanity.

Look out for posts soon on the Fundamental Attribution Error as well as an invention of mine I call "cheat sheets." This is here as a placeholder to remind me to write about them, as well as a promise so that I don't duck out of doing so.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Garcia effect

It's been a while, and to get back into the swing of things, I'm actually going to do a post that's not about empathy at all. Gasp. But it is about psychology, and not entirely tangential to the purposes of this blog.

It's about the "Garcia effect." Although that term can actually be used more broadly, I'm using it in the sense of conditioned taste aversion. It turns out that our sense of taste is particularly good at making us associate stimuli and negative responses.

You've all heard of Pavlov's dogs, one of the earliest studies in "classical conditioning." Normally it takes many trials for dogs to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of food. But for animals, and even humans, the onset of nausea symptoms causes one to quickly associate the sickness with whatever novel taste stimulus we can easily recall.

That is, if you try sushi for the first time, and then go on a roller coaster that makes you nauseated -- many hours later (I'm told even up to a day later) -- you're likely to become convinced that the sushi made you sick (even if you should know better), and avoid it in the future.

The thing I find fascinating is that it can be conditioned with just one trial, and is strongly resistant to cognitive control. It causes endless problems for chemotherapy patients, who eventually "learn" to associate all sorts of food with sickness, causing nutritional deficits, as if their primary troubles weren't enough.

So the next time you're certain that this or that made you sick, see if you can separate out the feeling of certainty about what caused it. You might not be able to break the feeling that the food certainly caused your sickness, but you should be able to break the certainty itself.