June 7, 2009

One of my most depressing pet theories, inferred from an actual gruesome example that occurred in my town a few years ago, is that publicizing particularly graphic or unusual suicides can trigger copycats. I recently discovered (via Andrew Sullivan) that this is actually a very well-documented effect with its own Wikipedia page and guidelines for journalists to avoid triggering it.

On a lighter note, clicking through those Wikipedia links for a bit brought me to this classic Washington Post article from a few years ago. It’s a long story, but very well done and worth reading through in its entirety if you have the time. The writer convinced the world-class violinist Joshua Bell to play for an hour at a D.C. metro station, looking and acting like an ordinary street performer. They were both curious to see how the crowd would respond.

As is noted in the article, context is important for art, and the social norms guiding the relationship between street performers and passers-by are very complicated. Thus I really wouldn’t recommend drawing any broader conclusions about people at all from this story. It’s just a fun read.

Macabre Fires
April 1, 2009

fire

I have nothing kind to say about the cultural obsession with crime, exemplified in gruesome shows like CSI and in wonderful TV moments like Nancy Grace badgering a mother into committing suicide (Nancy’s response: “The truth … is not always nice or polite or easy to go down. Sometimes it’s harsh, and it hurts”). But this obsession is an enduring part of human nature, and I succumb to it on occasion as well. For example, consider the case of the arsons in the Philadelphia suburb of Coatesville.

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Obama’s Teleprompter
March 25, 2009

In the last few weeks, Republican partisans have all started to talk about Obama’s teleprompter.

AP Photo credit Jae C. Hong

AP Photo credit Jae C. Hong

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Feels Like Thinking
March 15, 2009

image courtesy Wikipedia

image courtesy Wikipedia

I was recently reminded of a portentous plot from this portentous paper by two researchers at Princeton. Back in 1996, they studied people’s perceptions of the state of the economy, and connected these perceptions to measurements of how politically informed these people were. However, instead of comparing these perceptions to reality (which is, in my opinion, that the economy was pretty good in 1996), they just compared the perceptions of Democrats and Republicans at every information level to each other. Since the President at the time was a Democrat, it makes sense that Democrats would generally have had a rosier view of the economy than Republicans. As the paper describes it, the “pull of objective reality” causes perceptions to improve as people become better-informed. But then, once Republicans become well-informed enough, they change their minds fairly dramatically and conclude that, in fact, the economy is in poor shape. I don’t take this to be a particularly conservative tic; rather, such rationalization is just how extreme partisans of any type process ideologically inconvenient facts. So apparently, once people know what we want to believe, we are pretty good at making ourselves believe it. The researchers take this as a terrible blow to the prospects of democracy, and I think I agree with them. 

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