“Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear.” – William Shakespeare
The story of my great-great uncle Gus….Attestation
“Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear.” – William Shakespeare
The story of my great-great uncle Gus….Attestation
Last month marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girls (Tim Firth). It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of “Ruth Reynoldson”.
Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently. Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathize with that character.
What is empathy and why does it matter?
It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history. “Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”. At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”
And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.
“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.
The more empathy, the better. It’s a no-brainer, right?
Yale professor Paul Bloom views empathy a bit differently. He qualifies empathy as “narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate”. Oooh. Ouch. Now, before we all get up in Bloom’s grill over this, it might be best to qualify his perspective a bit more. Make no mistake, Bloom does value the importance of empathy as part of human-to-human interaction and a basis for mutual understanding. But Bloom states that empathy, in practice, can often be divisive. Especially when empathy is muddied by emotional bias and when that emotional bias leads to bad social policy.
So, maybe society’s struggle is less about an ‘empathy gap’ but, rather, with ‘misplaced empathy’. We need to ask ourselves: Are we unduly influenced by our tribes and by our cognitive biases? (Likely, see Kahan 2012) Are we stuck in echo chambers where we are completely unaware that our empathies may be misplaced? (Yes, and our ‘fast information nation‘ only serves to exacerbate the problem).
I am not advocating for the abandonment of empathy through these musings. Not at all. Rather, I see this as more of a call-to-action for us to better understand how our emotions, biases and behaviours drive our actions. A combination of empathy, self-awareness, AND reason seem to be in order here (see Cummins and Cummins 2013 and Konnikova 2012).
“Feeling in”: What can we learn about empathy from the acting profession
Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things and messages that run counter to our world views or way of thinking. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.
Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”. In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray. They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.
We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers: “[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.” (Kevin deLaplante)
This is hard work. And having conversations about controversial topics is hard work. Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:
As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:
“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgemental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.”
I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.
Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes
There is nothing like donning the sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan and the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating and authenticating the story.
“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I have grown to love since I was given the role this past June. Over the months, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and I have even learned a little bit more about me.
“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.
Thanks to Jenny Dewey Rohrich for allowing me to include her beautiful sunflower photo on this blog post.
Ah, the halcyon days of public sector research. I loved it. It was a time and place in my career when reading and writing were prioritized tasks; where traveling the world, sharing and exchanging knowledge, speaking at conferences and collaborative publishing were valued currencies of the profession. It was a world where you could pop down the hall, poke your head into a colleague’s office and say, “How about we knock off for a bit, grab a coffee and have a chat about how busy we are?” (‘hat tip’ to @Sh#tAcademicsSay for that last witty bit – I adapted it).
I jest. Rest assured, public sector researchers are some of the hardest working people I know.
Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs: that’s innovation
Academic research is an honorable career endeavor. There is nothing more gratifying than feeling like you are directing your work for the greater public good. During my “tenure” as a public sector researcher, I got to work with the best-of-the-best; people from public research institutes and universities all over the world. I regularly interacted with farmers, with grower organizations, as well as consumers and other stakeholders representing local, national and international NGOs and governments. And, yes, I connected with individuals from the private sector. But it seems that these public-private partnerships are under attack even though they are governed by high scientific and ethical standards.
Forgive me as I step back into a personal narrative again… My research, for the most part, involved the examination of how networks of scientists are structured, how they perform, and what – in this wonderful world of public sector research – qualifies as innovative performance and valuable outcomes for society. I also dipped my research toe into the sea of literature and research into public-private partnerships. You could say that, collectively, all of this was in my ‘wheelhouse’. Much of my work between 2001 and 2014 was funded through Genome Canada (specifically, through Genome Canada’s GE3LS program).
So, what does a public-private partnerships, under the auspices of Genome Canada, look like? Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization that funds and supports genomics and genomic-based applied research and technologies in Canada. It is an agency with the goal to “catalyze the creation of economic and social benefits for Canada”. And, yes, this means ensuring that the public sector connects and/or partners with appropriate stakeholders, including the private sector.
In the context of agricultural research, the relationship between the public sector and the private sector is an important one. Why? Well, think about it. If you want to ensure that high-quality and relevant agricultural research is conducted in our academic institutions, research objectives need to be linked to market and societal needs. You won’t see any universities doing back-door deals to sell seeds. And I certainly don’t want my tax dollar going towards those kinds of activities in post-secondary institutions.
Federal funding agencies have a vested interest in ensuring that the best research is conducted so that we can all benefit. They want the private sector to be part of the research and development process. What this means for society is that the research is being used to address real-world problems and has impact for people more broadly. We call that innovation.
“If innovation is the fuel for the regions to reinvent their economies, higher education is a critical source of that fuel.” Mark Drabenstott (2005) (cited in: Bruininks 2005)
Stakeholder engagement and funding
Partnership structures vary from case to case. It all depends upon research context and which organizations are involved. The Genome Canada funding model, in particular, requires that a portion of the requested funding for eligible costs for any given project be obtained through co-funding from other sources (matching initiatives are not uncommon in public funding models). In fact, Genome Canada will not release funds to a project until there is a firm commitment for co-funding for eligible costs of the project.
“…Genome Canada funds will not be released to a project until there is a firm commitment for at least 75% of the co-funding for eligible costs of the project and a well-developed and feasible plan for securing the remaining 25% of co-funding.”
Sources include (but are not limited to): companies, industry consortia, trust funds, foundations, charities, government agencies/departments. Funds from the private sector to universities often come in the form of ‘unrestricted grants’ wherein funds are freely given with no strings attached.
And there’s no subterfuge here. The identity of partnering organizations, funding sources and the affiliated collaborative arrangements are all public knowledge.
Yeah, but what about ethics?
Good question. Here’s the deal. All Genome Canada-funded projects need to have appropriate ethics approval. Universities are bound by tri-council agreements and cannot allow any research to carry on that does not have formal approval. And this kind of ethics approval does not happen overnight. It is controlled by the universities involved in the research. The real challenge here is that not all institutions are built the same; they have different processes and guidelines around ethics. So, sometimes it takes a LONG time for these multi-actor projects to move forward, no matter who is involved. It is important to reiterate that Genome Canada funding will NOT flow until the collective ethics approval is in place. Period.
Simply stated, there are lots of boxes to tick off when setting up collaborative research projects.
Leadership and Accountability
Projects are monitored closely both scientifically (in terms of meeting milestones) and financially (to ensure that funds are being spent on eligible costs). Continued monitoring also includes ongoing assessments that the project is being carried out to the highest ethical standards. Responsibility and leadership of Genome Canada funded projects always fall under the intellectual direction of a publicly-funded, faculty person. That leader ensures that:
While Genome Canada ‘sports’ its own kind of partnering/funding model, it appears to operate in a similar manner to agencies in the U.S. See this series of blog posts (here, here, and here) by weed scientist Andrew Kniss from the University of Wyoming.
Public-private partnerships in research are a GOOD thing!
A few years ago, I conducted a study on how university researchers connect with other stakeholders in the agriculture systems. As part of this work, I traveled to Australia and interviewed a number of people in government, academia and the private sector. One of the most compelling statements came from the Chief Economist for the Department of Food and Agriculture in Western Australia.
“The likelihood for increased public funding in agriculture is close to zero…so the future of agriculture – whether agriculture likes it or not – is going to be more about strategic partnerships.”
Along with farmers, grower groups and other stakeholders, funding agencies and universities play important roles in facilitating the collaborative development and transfer of knowledge for the public good.
“As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected and a requirement of my position … that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise…to ensure the public benefits from the best and most complete understanding of research and emerging commercial developments of any technology.” – Dr. Bruce Chassy (2015), Academics Review
To be competitive as a country and to continue to provide for people here in Canada and around the world, cultivating and maintaining relationships across the entire agricultural value chain is the right thing to do. During my entire tenure as a public sector researcher, I was never once “sanctioned” by private sector partners (or other stakeholders) in any way. No one tried to delay, postpone, or otherwise influence the publication of study results. Genome Canada would not support this kind of censorship. It would no way serve the public good.
In a time of declining investment in public sector education and research, if we want good quality and relevant research to reach the end-user (farmers and society more broadly) we need to have the right experts involved that are backed with sufficient funding dollars. Independent academic experts need resources to be able to lead and carry out high quality scientific research. And they also need to be supported (in different ways) by organizations that are in a position to ensure that research and technological outcomes reach the people and societies that can benefit most from them.
PostScript: Genome Canada is now investing in the GAPP program which aims to foster a more productive interface between Academia and Users. Check it out, especially if you are a fan of cheese and salmon like I am! J
Update (related articles):
Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.
Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.
(2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” Genetic Expert News Service. September 8.
Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“. The GRIST. September 9.
Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.
Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.
Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.
Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.
Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC). Available online at: http://www3.crk.umn.edu/planning/nca/documents/Criterion3/45LandGrantUniversitiesandRegionalEconomies.pdf.
Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Available online at Academics Review at: http://academicsreview.org/2015/09/the-usrtk-foia-campaign-against-academics-40-plus-years-of-public-science-research-and-teaching-under-assault/
GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”. Available online at: http://geneticexperts.org/freedom-of-information-requests-reveal-how-scientists-interact-with-seed-chemical-and-organic-companies/
Genome Canada. (2014). Guidelines for Funding Research Projects. Available online at: http://www.genomecanada.ca/medias/pdf/en/guidelines-funding-research-projects-june-2014.pdf. June.
Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation Deficit. Report/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available online at: http://dc.mit.edu/sites/default/files/innovation_deficit/Future%20Postponed.pdf. April.
Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three part series starting with “On Transparency, Intimidation, and being called a Shill.” Blog posts in Weed Control Freaks. August.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Karen Dewar (Genome Canada) and Kari Doersken (Genome Prairie) for their insights and editorial suggestions on this blog post.
“…the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative…” Steven Pinker @sapinker
Well, its that time of year again… drosophila season. Who has tags and a really tiny pellet gun?
The tradition of storytelling has always been a critical part of social engagement. Myths and stories illustrate simple moral lessons and learning from them can be empowering. There’s a good reason why so many of us read bedtime stories to our children. Stories and myths can act as mirrors to our society; they often are a reflection of social organization. They are vehicles for connecting society to a nostalgic past or to a more promising future. Most importantly, in this context, stories provide context and explanation under conditions of perceived or real uncertainty (Levi-Strauss 1966).
Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. We read them, we listen to them, we tell and re-tell them and we watch them (thank you, Hollywood). Stories – the good ones – have “stickability”.
Enter the fascinating work of Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of the book The Love Molecule. Zak examines the psychological effects of stories and narratives on the human mind – the ‘neuroscience of the narrative’. According to Zak, whether they play out at bedtime, in our communities or in popular media, stories can build trust. Zak’s research finds that stories cause our brains to produce a chemical called oxytocin (there are others too). The production of this oxytocin, in turn, enhances our feelings of empathy. Stories can be powerful influencers of both opinion and behavior.
While we human animals still love stories, our consumption of stories (and associated behaviors) has evolved over time. Our feet are now firmly entrenched in the “Post-Literate Era” and an age of rapidly diminishing attention spans:
“The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th Century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents’ generation, to web pages that are granted 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant, and ultimately to Twitter’s 140-character limit.” Killianbranding (2015)
The cognitive muscles that allow us to follow a story, complete a task or to learn and create are weakening. In fact, of the people that clicked on and started reading this blog entry, most only have read a third of the preceding text and several others have already moved onto things beyond this website.
How we connect and interact as human beings has fundamentally changed with the introduction of the Internet. We no longer share our stories on cave walls. We do it on the fast-moving train of social media. Selfies and sound-bytes have become the proxy for social interaction and exchange. This has implications for science communication. Here’s the problem. Science is complex. Explaining science in absolutes runs counter to the culture (and methods) of science itself. Added to that, how we traditionally communicate the science is not how people want to hear about the science.
For example, if we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with (too many) facts or talking points, only the language processing part of our brain gets activated – the part where we translate words into meaning. Other than the unfortunate side effect of lulling a few people into peaceful slumber, nothing else happens beyond that particular decoding process.
Convey your message through a story format, however, and things transform considerably. Not only is the language processing part of the brain activated, but other areas as well; including those parts that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events of the story first-hand (Gonzales et al 2006)!
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life…” “Your Brain on Fiction” by Anne Murphy Paul, New York Times (March 17, 2012)
As scientists and science communicators, if we want to capture and retain the attention of our audience, we need to lead with the narrative. The process is more of an art than a science. The personality (likeability) of the storyteller comes into play, of course. How the story is told matters a great deal as well. Employing metaphors in an artful way can stimulate an audience’s senses; what brains see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
Stories are powerful communicators. A successful story will draw us in so far that, as Paul Zak states, we will find ourselves mimicking the feelings and behaviors of the storyteller or the character. The storytelling device is an important tool for the science communicator. In this world where we strive for immediate gratification, a science communicator needs to anchor new symbols around science. We need to create pictures with our words. In doing so, we transform facts and information into meaningful messages that stimulate the human brain and appeal to human values.
Who are your favorite (most effective) science communicators?
[This blog entry summarizes part of a seminar I gave at the University of California Davis on June 3rd, 2015, entitled: The Brave New World of Public Outreach: understanding human behavior, public opinion and the challenges for science communication. Thank you to the staff, faculty and students at the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for the kind invitation to present and engage in thoughtful discussion.]
We have an information banquet at our finger tips. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives. Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.
Some statistical ‘appetizers’* for you:
Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative. It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information. The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth.
“Orange” You Frustrated by This One?
While our new ‘meme’ culture has cultivated a new generation of idea-generators, it has also sowed seeds for ‘online vandalism’. In February of this year, a photograph of sliced oranges with what appeared to be red veining and discoloration circulated on Facebook. According to the originator of the post, the oranges were imported from Libya and had been injected with the blood of an HIV positive person.
Grossly misleading ‘myths’, like this one, are the “virtual B and Es” (break and enters) that can lead to broader damage. I volunteered with AIDS Saskatoon for years and worked with men, women and children and their families that were afflicted with or affected by this terrible disease. HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted in the manner described in this bit of misleading information. The virus cannot survive very long outside the human body. You cannot even get infected from consuming food handled by an HIV-infected person. This ‘myth’ is an example how nefarious information can generate some serious social costs. People that suffer with HIV/AIDS already deal with social stigmas. Myths like these only serve to perpetuate those stigmas.
The Snowball Effect
So, maybe you and I are not buying into the kind of information that the ‘online vandals’ propagate. Maybe we aren’t even sharing it. But others do. There are huge implications of this. When a story hits social media, the effect is much like a snowball rolling down a hill… it gains volume and momentum.
Based on his studies of societies, cultures, and the cognitive capacity of the human brain, scholar Robin Dunbar determined that there was an optimal number of people that one person could effectively manage or carry on meaningful relationships with within his/her social circle (1992). That number – Dunbar’s Number – is “150” (check out this interview with Dunbar on one of my favorite podcasts Social Science Bites).
With the increased carrying capacity of social media platforms, however, other research suggests that Dunbar’s number is much higher now. According to Barry Wellman (2012), a social network analyst with the University of Toronto, our effective reach as individuals is now in the neighbourhood of 600 people or more. Those additional links may not be as qualitatively strong as our ‘face-to-face’ connections but advances in communication technology do allow us to track people, activities and to share information in ways unlike ever before. While many stories can quite easily get swallowed up and die a quick death amidst the mass of information, others can become almost pathogenic. ‘Shareability’ is a function of just how provocative, inflammatory or even ‘sticky’ that information is (check out the cockroach/cherry effect outlined here). The reality is that, as human beings, we are hard wired to believe the worst and buy into what the ‘online vandals’ share.
‘Calories In, Calories Out’ or ‘Binge and Purge’?
So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass information and decide what to include on our ‘plate’? It’s not easy, but I’ve compiled some basic principles that we can apply under the acronym “CLEAR” that might help:
“C” Credibility: What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign). Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words? Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.
“L” Language: Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading. Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information? If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.
“E” Endorsement: Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.
“A” Accuracy: Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates? Is the article or information current?
“R” Reliability: Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate? Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven” or “clinically proven”. Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).
Monitoring Your Information Diet
We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook profiles aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).
But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day. Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.
It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.
“The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb
[This blog post is a summarization of a presentation I was invited to give to a group of dietitians, food writers, media personalities, educators and chefs at Canola Connect Camp on May 1, 2015. The event was hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (May 1 and 2, 2015) and I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with such a diverse group of food-saavy individuals!]
*descriptive statistics sourced from JeffBullas.com
Other good ‘myth-busting’ sources and tip-sites:
Dunbar, R.I.M. (1992). “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution. Volume 22, Issue 6, June. Pps: 469-493.
Konnikova, Maria (2014). The Limits of Friendship. The New Yorker. October 7.
Wellman, Barry (2012). “Is Dunbar’s Number Up?” Commentary. The British Journal of Psychology. 103(2):174-6
As humans, we all experience a range of emotions: Anger, joy, sadness, surprise, fear and disgust. Fear and disgust are dominant emotional drivers. And you can thank your ancestors for that. Research suggests that we have evolved an “ingrained cognitive response” to things that we perceive as threatening (like spiders and snakes) so that we may survive as a human species.
A personal anecdote
I was involved in a serious car accident in 1986. It was what is referred to as a ‘miss and run’. There were devastating losses (I won’t get into the tragic details). It’s been almost thirty years [update: 32 years ago as of 2018] and while some things were quickly lost in the haze of shock or eventually blurred by time, certain images still lucidly dance across my mind.
Like The Closer You Get…it’s the title track from Alabama’s 7th studio album of the same name. It was playing on cassette in the truck stereo. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, those beloved classic harmonies were like nails on a chalkboard to me. “Can you please turn the music off?” I asked. An attending RCMP officer obliged, reaching past me through the passenger window to switch off the stereo.
The fear that we felt before and after impact was palpable. Actually, fear became a regular, unwelcome guest in my life. It took several months (dare I say, years) before I could travel down that stretch of highway without experiencing anxiety. Similarly, it was a long time before I could listen to that Alabama song without my stomach turning inside out. For me, Highway #7 and that ill-fated song had become synonymous with pain, loss and suffering.
The twin responses of fear and disgust are often intertwined
Feardrivers fall along a continuum. There are immediate and tangible fears; ones that come with real risks. For example, you are caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or in a flood, or you are at risk of drowning because you overturned your canoe and you don’t have a lifejacket on, or you are skidding on black ice into oncoming traffic on a very busy highway. There are other fears, though, that we experience; those are often perceived as less-than-rational. Things like the fear of needles, of spiders and snakes (see above), of heights or even the fears of leaving your own home. Some fears can be socially debilitating.
Disgustis slightly different but still related. It is the very human response to something we may view as unpleasant or vile in our environment. The ‘contamination-avoidance’ mechanism that kicks in to help us make decisions about something. I had a good friend that loved the name Paris but, in disgust, refused to name her baby daughter that because of what she viewed as Paris Hilton’s highly public, immoral foibles. She couldn’t separate the name Paris from the actions of the celebrity persona. That’s anecdotal, but the human response phenomenon has been studied by scholars too. For example, psychologist Paul Rozin conducted a study that included 50 respondents where he discovered, among other things, that people will outwardly and immediately reject delicious, tasty brownies if they are presented in the shape of something unpalatable, like dog feces (imagine that).
Fear and disgust are not only experientially-based, they can be triggered and spread via the power of the Internet and social media. For example, James McWilliams outlines how the rhetoric of disgust can undermine our food choices. In a recent interview by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post, Alan Levinovitz, James Madison University Prof and author of The Gluten Lie, is quoted as saying: “…[S]preading fear, before we actually know the truth, endangers society…” We have to take care to tread carefully through those provocative headlines, stories and blogs.
Our emotional responses shape our opinions and beliefs. Our opinions and beliefs are reinforced through our personal networks and once stuff gets stuck in our psyche, it’s pretty hard to displace it. Paul Rozin et al (1986) refer to the laws of contagion and similarity, where 1) contagion is qualified as “once in contact, always in contact”), and; 2) similarity holds that “the image equals the object”. There’s an enduring ‘stickiness’ to images and ideas that are synonymous with our emotional responses. That’s why the word Frankenfood (and the associated images) has been so pervasive in how we view GM foods. And why people object more to GM food than to GMOs developed for other applications (such as insulin in the treatment of diabetes) (Blancke et al 2015).
The closer you get…
There are physical and moral dimensions of disgust. On that fateful day in 1986 (and many days after), I experienced both. That Alabama song elicited a strong physical response in me – a stomach-churning, heart-palpating reaction. It was a benign, harmless song but one that I associated with a negative experience in my life.
My contempt for the ‘phantom driver’ (Mr. ‘miss and hit’ Guy), on the other hand, existed more on the moral plane. (Please note, my ill-will towards this faceless and nameless individual eventually faded over the years — forgiveness and passage of time are beautiful things, no?)
My fears, at the time, were very present, very real (to me) and also very debilitating. It took a great deal of healing and time before those emotional responses no longer overwhelmed or defined me. Fear and disgust are provoked when we perceive a threat from something. Each emotion can lead us down a different response path. While fear primes us to run (‘flight’), disgust readies us to evade something that repulses us. Distinguishing real risk from manufactured or perceived risk requires critical thought. We need to give some time and thought to rationally consider what the real risks of a given situation are. In the end, it’s all about quality of life.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Blancke, Steffan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu (2015/in press). “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science.
Levinovitz, Alan. (2015 forthcoming). The Gluten Lie.
New, Joshua J. and Tamsin C. German. (2015). “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness.” Evolution and Human Behavior. Volume 36, Issue 3. Pps: 165-173.
Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (2008). “Disgust: The body and soul emotion in the 21st century.” In D. McKay & O. Olatunji (eds.), Disgust and its disorders. Washington DC: American Psychological Association. Pps: 9-29.
Rozin, Paul, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff. (1986). “Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 50, No. 4. Pps: 703-712.
I am a self-professed ‘late bloomer’; in the academic sense, anyway.
In the early nineties, I was a single parent trying make ends meet. I worked 2+ part-time jobs to keep my daughter and son fed, clothed, healthy and happy. My story isn’t much different than many out there. I leaned on the ‘system’ for a while (yes, had to). As an extension of that, I attended an administrative bookkeeping course sponsored through the provincial government’s social assistance program. I even took advantage of a provincial milk program offered for low income families. Believe me, an extra two gallons of milk a week makes a big difference when you have growing kids. I even made the odd trip or two to the local food bank to stock up when the cupboards echoed their food-thin song (usually around the holidays).
Times were tough. But always there was this niggling little voice at the back of my mind saying: “Cami, if you want to get ahead you really need to go back to school. You need to get a degree.”
I knew that getting an education would help me and my family out. So, every year, from 1993 onwards, I filled out an application to the University of Saskatchewan. Every year. The sad part is that every year that envelope would sit on my dining room table – unmailed.
Change is hard. Sure, we are pretty good at identifying problems (and we are great at complaining about them). But how good are we at acknowledging and acting on potential solutions?
A colleague of mine shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago: “Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief”. The solution aversion model – introduced by Duke University scholars Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay – is tested as an explanation for why people are so often divided over (in particular) evidence. The study suggests that “certain solutions associated with problems are more threatening to individuals who hold a strong ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution…” Thus, people will deny the existence of a problem (a user-friendly overview of the study can be found here)
The human is my favourite mammal. 🙂 As problems present themselves, we humans are more likely to ignore solutions and move onto information or into spaces where our core beliefs are validated. Humans are also social animals. We like to seek protection within the ‘herd’; we are conformists. So we are highly influenced by the networks of individuals that surround us (see Dan Kahan’s take on this here). In Psychology Today, David Ropeik talks about perceptions of risk and the human response to the ‘feeling of losing control‘ (a scary pre-cursor to solution aversion):
“The more threatened we feel as individuals, the more we look to our tribe [or network] to provide a sense of power and control.”
– David Ropeik –
What this means is that solutions to problems that counter our deeply held beliefs will be rejected or ignored in favour of our conveniently-shaped beliefs – no matter how factual, practicable, or moral those solutions are. Rejecting or avoiding solutions helps us to minimize personal social and psychological dilemmas. In other words, it serves the dominant, primal human instinct to survive.
Where was I? Oh yes! It was the 1990s and I was busy passing up opportunities to pursue a post-secondary education (AKA, avoiding a potential solution). I steered clear of those opportunities for a long time mostly because of self-doubt and fear. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid that I would have less income (although it was hardly possible at the time). I was afraid of racking up debt. I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and I felt that I was just too old to go to school (this latter bit makes me laugh now). At the time, I told myself “Things aren’t that bad, the kids are doing just fine!” or “I like the people I work with!”. For the most part, I believed that it was safer to stick with the status quo; to keep my head down and winnow my way through life working at low-paying, unsatisfying jobs. Friends and family did not really encourage the whole “go rogue and be a single-parent-student” thing either. They probably held some of the same beliefs that I did. And, for a long time, I allowed their doubts to reinforce my own fears.
There was a bright light though; an exception. A favorite aunt. Aunt S was one of my biggest fans. She knew me well (all of the faults, insecurities and possibilities). Aunt S applauded me every year that I filled out an application to the University. With her encouragement, I actually mailed in my application in 1997.
Tragically, that bright light was suddenly snuffed out. Aunt S died later that year. As fate would have it, a letter of acceptance from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce arrived a few days after her funeral.
It was Aunt S’s words of encouragement and her favorite quote “Do one thing every day that scares you” that prompted me to mail the application form that year. But (sadly) it was her death that was the impetus for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with things. I made my way through and got not one but, two degrees. I worked hard, I played hard, I learned, I networked AND I looked after my kids. They were fed, healthy and happy and they got to their various activities: dancing, hockey, music lessons and school plays. In fact, we all survived. Beautifully.
Even when a solution is staring you right in the face, it can be hard to take the ‘leap’ and grab the opportunity. It often takes a crisis before you re-evaluate where you are at, who you are and what you believe that you are capable of doing. I lost someone very important to me. This was a definitive point in my life; one where I had to hold the mirror up to my face, face my fears and decide what I really wanted for me and for my children.
The ‘road less travelled’ presents a bumpy ride. Acting on opportunities and following through with solutions can represent huge investments in time, energy and resources. But the rewards can be huge. Today, my children are happy, active adults working at what they love and contributing to their communities. When my kids tell me how proud they are of me, of what I have accomplished, that is reward enough for me.
I have had an inordinate fear of three things in my life: spiders, math and pastry. I don’t think that my fear of spiders is ever going to mend itself. I have come to terms with that. But I have faced my other two phobias in one way or another.
My fear of math was effectively conquered through hours and hours of lectures, readings, numerous calculations and essay-writing on economics and statistics during my time in grad school (admittedly, though, my legs still weaken a little when I come across anything related to calculus formulas or theorems). As for pastry, that’s a different story. There was never a fear in the eating of it. But there was most certainly fear in the making of it. And I tackled that over the holidays.
The back story: I come from a line of what I refer to as kitchen and culinary “masters.” My late maternal grandmother was a legend. Rumour has it that she fed 40 B.C. loggers three square meals a day for a week in the 1930’s with only a few pounds of potatoes and a couple of onions. Her buns and bread were famous in the small Saskatchewan community she eventually settled in. I’m pretty certain that if they were both still alive, my grandma and mom could single-handedly bake, preserve, cook and crochet their way out of any given situation. If wars were won on the palate and world peace could be gained by merely passing the plate, these women would be United Nations ambassadors.
When it comes to kitchen aptitude, I never seemed to measure up. The excuse that I often use is that I just didn’t inherit those skill-bearing genes. ;o) The reality is that I just didn’t pay enough attention when these great ladies were around to teach me. My bad.
During the holidays, a Washington Post article popped up on my Facebook feed. The title really piqued my interest: The scientific season you should put booze into your pies. It had a link to the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Food and Science blog where the good scientists there explain the science behind dough:
“Gluten develops when two wheat proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin, are mixed with water. Because parts of these proteins do not like to interact with water, the proteins begin to stick to each other much in the same way oil droplets come together when suspended in water. As a flour-water dough is mixed, the glutenin and gliadin molecules interact to form an extensive elastic network.” – UCLA Food and Science Blog
Why ‘booze’? Adding alcohol to your dough restricts gluten formation so that the wheat proteins can’t stick to each other and form those springy networks mentioned above. According to science, this makes for a more tender and flaky pie crust.
So, I guess you could say that the science made me do it. Armed with grandma’s decades-old wooden rolling pin and the UCLA recipe for an alcohol-based pie crust, I dove in! I was a kitchen warrior prepared to take on my fears and the peculiarities of pastry!
The making of the pastry was pretty straightforward. The rolling of it, less so.
Oh, great. I hadn’t perspired this much since I defended my doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, I ‘owned’ the fear and kept going. (It’s a good thing that I wore my Batman t-shirt. I like to think that it helped.)
“You must move the dough rather than letting the dough move you.” I’m not really sure what that meant but it sounded perfectly quotable while ever-so-slightly philosophical. I embraced its abstractness, and tried to be inspired rather than intimidated. How hard could it be? After all, I was the one with the rolling pin (and an experienced rolling pin at that, even if I wasn’t).
And voilà … a pretty decent looking pie crust.
I really felt as if I had tackled the most difficult part of the project at this point. The rest, as they say, is just ‘icing.”
Or filling, actually.
Mom’s rhubarb pies were always a family favorite. So, the hubby was a bit miffed when I chose to make pecan pie instead. I recall mom making a bourbon pecan pie years ago and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, that recipe was tucked away between the pages of grandma’s first edition of The Joy of Cooking cookbook. That, along with with hundreds of other family recipes and cookbooks, was shut up tight in storage. Sigh. I had to find another recipe. Enter Google. I came across this one:
Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie
Ingredients: sugar, butter, eggs, dark corn syrup, maple syrup, bourbon (or dark rum), vanilla extract, pecan halves, cream.
Recipe and directions can be found here.
Success! I conquered a fear and treated my family to a tasty dessert! I’m pretty sure that my mom and grandma would be proud.
As a young, working single mom (before I was in graduate school) I would spend my spare time crocheting, crafting, cross-stitching or drawing, painting and writing poetry. Over the years since, I have dedicated more time towards work and scholarly writing. That’s creative too, but in a different way. But I want to change things up. I want to explore those old creative outlets and maybe experiment with some new ones. I have dubbed 2015 as my Year of Living Creatively. I plan to do lots of creative things this year; maybe some things that scare me just a little. And 2015 started out with pastry and pie!
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”
― David Mamet