Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Oh, lawdy…  Bobo has found a new blog to read (the only link in this thing) and has picked up all sorts of disconnected bits and pieces of conversation starters (what he calls the “data” he presents) that he can use in his vast spaces for entertaining this holiday season.  In “Social Science Palooza III” he gurgles that social science continues to remind us of the power of social context, and the thousands of variables that shape our unconscious. He tosses out a smattering of recent research.  Of course, not one link to any of the 12 (see what he did there?) studies he cites, but he did have the grace to link to the blog he stole them from.  In “Time to Tune Out” Mr. Cohen says to share, that once beautiful verb, has become an awful emotional splurge. There is merit to disconnection.  Ain’t that the truth…  Mr. Nocera says “Show Me the Money,” and that when college sports executives get together, it’s not the athletes or their educations that they talk about.  Mr. Bruni addresses “The God Glut” and says a West Point cadet’s experience suggests our lax observance of the line between church and state.  Here’s Bobo — you can start a conversation with one of his stolen bits of information on each of the 12 Days of Christmas:

Elections come and go, but social science marches on. Here are some recent research findings that struck my fancy.

Organic foods may make you less generous. In a study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, Kendall J. Eskine had people look at organic foods, comfort foods or a group of control foods. Those who viewed organic foods subsequently volunteered less time to help a needy stranger and they judged moral transgressions more harshly.

Men are dumber around women. Thijs Verwijmeren, Vera Rommeswinkel and Johan C. Karremans gave men cognitive tests after they had interacted with a woman via computer. In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the male cognitive performance declined after the interaction, or even after the men merely anticipated an interaction with a woman.

Women inhibit their own performance. In a study published in Self and Identity, Shen Zhang, Toni Schmader and William M. Hall gave women a series of math tests. On some tests they signed their real name, on others they signed a fictitious name. The women scored better on the fictitious name tests, when their own reputation was not at risk.

High unemployment rates may not hurt Democratic incumbents as much. In the American Political Science Review, John R. Wright looked at 175 midterm gubernatorial elections and four presidential elections between 1994 and 2010. Other things being equal, high unemployment rates benefit the Democratic Party. The effect is highest when Republicans are the incumbents, but even when the incumbent is a Democrat, high unemployment rates still benefit Democratic candidates.

People filter language through their fingers. In a study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto asked people to rate real words, fictitious words and neologisms. Words composed of letters on the right side of the QWERTY keyboard were viewed more positively than words composed of letters from the left side.

We communicate, process and feel emotions by mimicking the facial expressions of the people around us. For a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Paula M. Niedenthal, Maria Augustinova and others studied young adults who had used pacifiers as babies, and who thus could not mimic as easily. They found that pacifier use correlated with less emotional intelligence in males, though it did not predict emotional processing skills in girls.

Judges are toughest around election time. Judges in Washington State are elected and re-elected into office. In a study for The Review of Economic Statistics, Carlos Berdejó and Noam Yuchtman found that these judges issue sentences that are 10 percent longer at their end of the political cycle than at the beginning.

New fathers pay less. In a study for the Administrative Science Quarterly, Michael Dahl, Cristian Dezso and David Gaddis Ross studied male Danish C.E.O.’s before and after their wives gave birth to children. They found that male C.E.O.’s generally pay their employees less generously after fathering a child. The effect is stronger after a son is born. Female employees are less affected than male employees. C.E.O.’s also tend to pay themselves more after the birth of a child.

Affluent neighborhoods challenge mental equilibrium. In a study for the Journal of Research on Adolescence, Terese J. Lund and Eric Dearing found that boys reported higher levels of delinquency and girls reported higher levels of anxiety and depression when they lived in affluent neighborhoods compared with middle-class neighborhoods. Boys’ delinquency and girls’ anxiety-depression levels were lowest when they were from affluent families living in middle-class neighborhoods.

Premarital doubts are significant. In a study in the Journal of Family Psychology, Justin Lavner, Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury found that women who had cold feet before marriage had significantly higher divorce rates four years later. Male premarital doubts did not correlate with more divorce.

Women use red to impress men. In a study for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Andrew Elliot, Tobias Greitemeyer and Adam Pazda found that women expecting to converse with an attractive man were more likely to select a red versus green shirt than women expecting to converse with an unattractive man or another woman.

Birth date affects corporate success. In a study for Economics Letters, Qianqian Du, Huasheng Gao and Maurice Levi found that C.E.O.’s are disproportionately likely to be born in June and July.

It’s always worth emphasizing that no one study is dispositive. Many, many studies do not replicate. Still, these sorts of studies do remind us that we are influenced by a thousand breezes permeating the unconscious layers of our minds. They remind us of the power of social context. They’re also nice conversation starters. If you find this sort of thing interesting, you really should check out Kevin Lewis’s blog at National Affairs. He provides links to hundreds of academic studies a year, from which these selections have been drawn.

The less said about Bobo the better…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Researching a family memoir, I recently read the magazine of my father’s high school in Johannesburg from the year he graduated, 1938. An editorial said: “The stresses set up by the social changes wrought by the advent of technology are straining the structure of civilization beyond the limits of tolerance.”

It continued: “The machine has brought men face to face as never before in history. Paris and Berlin are closer today than neighboring villages were in the Middle Ages. In one sense distance has been annihilated. We speed on the wings of the wind and carry in our hands weapons more dreadful than the lightning.”

This was written more than a half-century before the popularization of the Internet. It is important to cut off from time to time not least because we are not the first humans to believe the world has sped up and hyperconnected to a point where distance has been eliminated. Too often we confuse activity and movement with accomplishment and fulfillment. More may be gained through a pause.

One of life’s great riddles is determining what changes and what does not. Di Lampedusa famously observed that, “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”

We tend to overstate what has changed. The fundamental instincts and urges of our natures remain constant. Social media did not invent the need to be loved or the fear of being unloved. They just revealed them in new ways.

I wrote last week about how oversharing and status anxiety, two great scourges of the modern world, are turning human beings into crazed dogs chasing their tails. Feeling underprized? Overshare on Facebook or Twitter. I overshare therefore I am.

Broadly, there was a generational divide in the reaction. Younger readers tended to see an attack on social media by some 20th-century dude. Older readers tended to nod in agreement.

To be clear, I love Twitter. It is the culture of oversharing and status anxiety that disturbs me. And that is inseparable from the grip of social media.

I started out in journalism at a news agency. Twitter is like a wire service on steroids where you can cherry-pick input from the smartest people you know. It is a feast where you generally get to choose what is on the table and where you do not have to sit through some interminable speech over dessert. It is also a battering ram pointed at the closed systems that turned that old 20th century into hell for so many.

But like Facebook, Twitter can be addictive in ways that may provide brief solace but militate against respect of our deeper natures. There is too much noise, too little silence. To share, that once beautiful verb, has become an awful emotional splurge.

The friend-follower conceits are brilliant marketing tools designed to play on insecurities. Who does not want more friends and more followers? Who does not feel the sleight of being unfriended or unfollowed, a settling of scores more impersonal than a duel and perhaps crueler for that?

Joleen Grussing wrote to thank me for the oversharing column and allowed me to pass along her feelings: “It articulated feelings about social media that led me to drop off of Facebook and stay off it, after having been quite an active participant due to the art world’s crush on Facebook — being able to converse with the likes of Jerry Saltz and significant artists I never would have met otherwise was quite a musk-like attractant. But — for all the reasons you stated in your opinion piece — and a few more — I began to feel a sort of psycho-emotional nausea over even the things I myself would post. Over the way moments in life became more significant at times for the way they presented themselves as perfect photo-ops or anecdotes to be shared on Facebook, rather than as things to be experienced in and of themselves. It was as if there were two parallel realities at all times in my consciousness.”

She went on: “Now, I am back to reading books when I would have been Facebooking. I talk to folks at the café I frequent. People have started calling me on the phone again to catch up because they don’t know what is going on with me otherwise. I have a hunch that being DISconnected is on its way to being the new trend.”

So here’s to doses of disconnection in 2013. Get out of the cross hairs of your devices from time to time. Drink experience unfiltered by hyperconnection. Gaze with patience. Listen through silences. Let your longings breathe.

Somewhere deep inside everyone is the thing that makes them tick. The thing is it is often well hidden. The psyche builds layers of protection around people’s most vulnerable traits, which may be closely linked to their precious essence. Social media build layers of distraction from that essence. If people believed in 1938 that distance had been annihilated, there is time in 2013 to put a little between you and the onrushing world.

Amen.  Next up is Mr. Nocera:

The annual IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, held last week in Midtown Manhattan, is the kind of meeting where football games are routinely described as “product,” television networks are “distribution channels,” and rooting for State U. is an example of “brand loyalty.” The university presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and corporate marketers who attend spend very little time mouthing the usual pieties about how the “student-athlete” comes first. Rather, they gather each year to talk bluntly about making money.

Did you know, for instance, that college football was the top-rated program on four of the five Saturday nights that it aired in 2012? That consumers spent more than $4.5 billion on college sports merchandise in 2011? That more than 20 million college sports fans earn $100,000 a year? That is the sort of thing you learn at the conference (which IMG, a giant sports marketing firm, co-runs with Sports Business Journal.)

Take, for instance, the new college football playoff system that will begin in 2014. You might have thought that the big issue is that only four schools will get to participate — so there is still going to be a lot of dissension over who gets in and who doesn’t.

But no, that wasn’t it at all. The college sports executives were perfectly sanguine about the likelihood of controversy; it would help drive ratings. The real issue is how to divvy up the $470 million that ESPN has agreed to pay annually for the right to televise the playoffs. “The smaller schools all want a bigger piece of the pie,” said Wood Selig, the athletic director at Old Dominion University. Good luck with that, Wood.

Universities switching conferences — so-called conference realignment — was a constant topic of conversation. With conference realignment, there isn’t even a pretense that it is about anything but the money. Just a few weeks ago, the University of Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten, which now has 14 schools. Though neither school is what you would call a football power, they give the Big Ten, which has its own cable network, entrée into the New York and Washington media markets. So what if it means increased travel demands on the athletes?

Meanwhile, Maryland has its own issues: Its athletic department is broke. Having failed miserably at ramping up its football program, it had to abolish seven sports and was facing a large deficit. It was in such a hurry to move to the Big Ten — and get hold of its bigger pot of television money — that it didn’t even tell the other schools in its old conference, the A.C.C., that it was bolting. When someone asked how Maryland could afford the A.C.C.’s $50 million exit fee, the answer came back: the exit fee was probably unenforceable. Who knew conferences had exit fees?

Like businessmen everywhere, the college sports executives bemoaned the high cost of doing business these days. Multimillion-dollar salaries for coaches had gotten out of hand, it was generally conceded. Even worse were the buyouts being paid to fired coaches. Auburn had recently fired its football staff — and faced the prospect of paying out $11 million in contractually obligated buyouts to its former coaches. And the University of Tennessee had paid $5 million to get rid of its football coach, Derek Dooley, after three losing seasons.

Indeed, Tennessee had already paid out a $6 million buyout to another former football coach, Phillip Fulmer — as well as to a former baseball coach and an ex-basketball coach. The buyouts at Tennessee for coaches totaled at least $9 million. When the athletic director, Mike Hamilton, finally resigned in June 2011 — with the athletic department on track to lose $4 million that fiscal year — he got, naturally, a big buyout. You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the athletic department has been forced to suspend an annual $6 million payment it made to support the academic side of the university. This at a school where the state has cut its funding by 21 percent since 2008.

At the IMG conference, the participants made it sound as if they were helpless in the face of these outlandish salaries and buyouts. If they didn’t sign coaches to four- or five-year deals, they wouldn’t be able to attract recruits, they moaned.

If they didn’t give their coach a raise when a high-profile job opened up, they risked losing the coach. Several panelists suggested that the only sure way to cut back on coaches’ compensation would be to amend the nation’s antitrust laws to allow universities to band together and cap coaches’ pay.

Well, yes, I suppose that’s one way of doing it. Another way, of course, would be for college presidents to show some backbone and say no.

Fat chance.

And last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:

Bob Kerrey’s political career spanned four years as the governor of Nebraska and another 12 as a United States senator from that state, during which he made a serious bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In all that time, to the best of his memory, he never uttered what has become a routine postscript to political remarks: “God bless America.”

That was deliberate.

“It seems a little presumptuous, when you’ve got the land mass and the talent that we do, to ask for more,” he told me recently.

But there was an additional reason he didn’t mention God, so commonly praised in the halls of government, so prevalent a fixture in public discourse.

“I think you have to be very, very careful about keeping religion and politics separate,” Kerrey said.

We Americans aren’t careful at all. In a country that supposedly draws a line between church and state, we allow the former to intrude flagrantly on the latter. Religious faith shapes policy debates. It fuels claims of American exceptionalism.

And it suffuses arenas in which its place should be carefully measured. A recent example of this prompted my conversation with Kerrey. Last week, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, which receives public funding.

The cadet, Blake Page, detailed his complaint in an article for The Huffington Post, accusing officers at the academy of “unconstitutional proselytism,” specifically of an evangelical Christian variety.

On the phone on Sunday, he explained to me that a few of them urged attendance at religious events in ways that could make a cadet worry about the social and professional consequences of not going. One such event was a prayer breakfast this year at which a retired lieutenant general, William G. Boykin, was slated to speak. Boykin is a born-again Christian, and his past remarks portraying the war on terror in holy and biblical terms were so extreme that he was rebuked in 2003 by President Bush. In fact his scheduled speech at West Point was so vigorously protested that it ultimately had to be canceled.

Page said that on other occasions, religious events were promoted by superiors with the kind of mass e-mails seldom used for secular gatherings. “It was always Christian, Christian, Christian,” said Page, who is an atheist.

Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who presides over an advocacy group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me that more than 30,000 members of the United States military have been in contact with his organization because of concerns about zealotry in their ranks.

More than 150 of them, he said, work or study at West Point. Several cadets told me in telephone interviews that nonbelievers at the academy can indeed be made to feel uncomfortable, and that benedictions at supposedly nonreligious events refer to “God, Our Father” in a way that certainly doesn’t respect all faiths.

Is the rest of society so different?

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub” or “Surrender Dorothy.”

We have God in our public schools, a few of which cling to creationism, and we have major presidential candidates — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum — who use God in general and Christianity in particular as cornerstones of their campaigns. God’s initial absence from the Democratic Party platform last summer stirred more outrage among Americans than the slaughter in Syria will ever provoke.

God’s wishes are cited in efforts to deny abortions to raped women and civil marriages to same-sex couples. In our country God doesn’t merely have a place at the table. He or She is the host of the prayer-heavy dinner party.

And there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument; that godliness isn’t any prerequisite for patriotism; and that someone like Page deserves as much respect as any true believer.

Kerrey labels himself agnostic, but said that an active politician could get away with that only if he or she didn’t “engage in a conversation about the danger of religion” or advertise any spiritual qualms and questions.

“If you talk openly about your doubts,” he said, “you can get in trouble.”

To me that doesn’t sound like religious freedom at all.

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