Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Human Behavior in the Science Times

One of my favorite sections of the newspaper is the Science Times published every Tuesday in the New York Times. Often news from the Science Times is more significant than the ephemera reported in the news sections, in my opinion, because it reports about information that will have direct impacts on our lives. An example is the Science Times of Tuesday, November 16, 2010 that reports on two findings of interest to me.

The first article, Science Times reporter John Tierney writes about research by psychologists at Harvard on daydreaming. According to Tierney, “(t)he least surprising finding, based on a quarter-million responses from more than 2,200 people, was that the happiest people in the world were the ones in the midst of enjoying sex.”

Other, perhaps more surprising findings relate that people daydream on average about 47 percent of the time. And that there is “no correlation between the joy of the activity and the pleasantness of their thoughts.”

There is evidence that daydreaming causes unhappiness and there is no evidence that unhappiness causing daydreaming. This appears to confirm the dictum of philosophers from the ages – “Live in the Present.” As Tierney put it:

    “What psychologists call “flow” — immersing your mind fully in activity — has long been advocated by non-psychologists. “Life is not long, ”Samuel Johnson said, “and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent.” Henry Ford was more blunt: “Idleness warps the mind.” The … results jibe nicely with one of the favorite sayings of William F. Buckley Jr.: “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.””

The second article is about the human ability to make judgments about others’ intent, “Ability Seen in Toddlers to Judge Others’ Intent”.

This ability is obviously an important skill for anyone who deals with negotiations or even just generally works with people. The article reports on research from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany that children as young as 3 appear to be able to discriminate based on others’ intent. They were less likely to help a person after seeing that person intentionally harm someone else, but when they saw a person accidentally cause harm they were more willing to help.

Interesting research.

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