The Anatomy of Friendship in a “Digital Age”

Why is the number of friendships that we can actively maintain limited to 150? The evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford is a pioneer in the study of friendship. Over several decades, he and his colleagues have investigated the nature of friendship and social relationships in non-human primates and humans. His research papers and monographs on social networks, grooming, gossip and friendship have accumulated tens of thousands of academic citations but he may be best known in popular culture for “Dunbar’s number“, the limit to the number of people with whom an individual can maintain stable social relationships. For humans, this number is approximately 150 although there are of course variations between individuals and also across one’s lifetime. The expression “stable social relationships” is what we would call friends and family members with whom we regularly interact. Most of us may know far more people but they likely fall into a category of “acquaintances” instead of “friends”. Acquaintances, for example, are fellow students and colleagues who we occasionally meet at work, but we do not regularly invite them over to share meals or swap anecdotes as we would do with our friends.

Dunbar recently reviewed more than two decades of research on humans and non-human primates in the article “The Anatomy of Friendship” and outlines two fundamental constraints: Time and our brain. In order to maintain friendships, we have to invest time. As most of us intuitively know, friendship is subject to hierarchies. Dunbar and other researchers have been able to study these hierarchies scientifically and found remarkable consistency in the structure of the friendship hierarchy across networks and cultures. This hierarchy can be best visualized as concentric circles of friendship. The innermost core circle consists of 1-2 friends, often the romantic partner and/or the closest family member. The next circle contains approximately 5 very close friends, then progressively wider circles until we reach the maximum of about 150. The wider the circle becomes, the less time we invest in “grooming” or communicating with our friends. The social time we invest also mirrors the emotional closeness we feel. It appears that up to 40% of our social time is invested in the inner circle of our 5 closest friends, 20% to our circle of 15 friends, and progressively less. Our overall social time available to “invest’ in friendships on any given day is limited by our need to sleep and work which then limits the number of friends in each circle as well as the total number of friendships.

The Circles of Friendship – modified from R Dunbar, The Anatomy of Friendship (2018)

The second constraint which limits the number of friendships we can maintain is our cognitive capacity. According to Dunbar, there are at least two fundamental cognitive processes at play in forming friendships. First, there needs to be some basis of trust in a friendship because it represents implicit social contracts, such as a promise of future support if needed and an underlying promise of reciprocity – “If you are here for me now, I will be there for you when you need me.” For a stable friendship between two individuals, both need to be aware of how certain actions could undermine this implicit contract. For example, friends who continuously borrow my books and seem to think that they are allowed to keep them indefinitely will find that there are gradually nudged to the outer circles of friendship and eventually cross into the acquaintance territory. This is not only because I feel I am being taken advantage off and the implicit social contract is being violated but also because they do not appear to put in the mental effort to realize how much I value my books and how their unilateral “borrowing” may affect me. This brings us to “mentalizing”, the second important cognitive component that is critical for stable friendships according to Dunbar. Mentalizing refers to the ability to read or understand someone else’s state of mind. To engage in an active dialogue with friends not only requires being able to read their state of mind but also infer the state of mind of people that they are talking about. These levels of mentalizing (‘I think that you feel that she was correct in …..) appear to hit a limit around four or five. Dunbar cites the example of how at a gathering, up to four people can have an active conversation in which each person is closely following what everyone else is saying but once a fifth person joins (the fifth wheel!), the conversation is likely to split up into two conversations and that the same is true for many TV shows or plays in which scenes will rarely depict more than four characters actively participating in a conversation.

Has the digital age changed the number of friends we can have? The prior research by Dunbar and his colleagues relied on traditional means of communication between friends such as face-to-face interactions and phone calls but do these findings still apply today when social media such as Facebook and Twitter allow us to have several hundred or even thousands of “friends” and “followers”? The surprising finding is that online social networks are quite similar to traditional networks! In a study of Facebook and Twitter social media networks, Dunbar and his colleagues found that social media networks exhibit a hierarchy of friendship and numbers of friends that were extremely similar to “offline” networks. Even though it is possible to have more than a thousand “friends” on Facebook, it turns out that most of the bidirectional interactions with individuals are again concentrated in very narrow circles of approximately 5, 15 and 50 individuals. Social media make it much easier to broadcast information to a broad group of individuals but this sharing of information is very different from the “grooming” of friendships which appears to be based on reciprocity in terms of building trust and mentalizing.

There is a tendency to believe that the Internet has revolutionized all forms of human communication, a belief which falls under the rubric of “internet-centrism” (See the article “Is Internet-Centrism a Religion“) according to the social researcher Evgeny Morozov. Dunbar’s research is an important reminder that core biological and psychological principles such as the anatomy of friendship in humans have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and will not be fundamentally upstaged by technological improvements in communication. Friendship and its traditional limits are here to stay.


Dunbar R.I.M. (2018). The Anatomy of Friendship” Trends in Cognitive Science 22(1), 32-51


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


Novelty in science – real necessity or distracting obsession?

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It may take time for a tiny step forward to show its worth.

Jalees Rehman, University of Illinois at Chicago

In a recent survey of over 1,500 scientists, more than 70 percent of them reported having been unable to reproduce other scientists’ findings at least once. Roughly half of the surveyed scientists ran into problems trying to reproduce their own results. No wonder people are talking about a “reproducibility crisis” in scientific research – an epidemic of studies that don’t hold up when run a second time.

Reproducibility of findings is a core foundation of science. If scientific results only hold true in some labs but not in others, then how can researchers feel confident about their discoveries? How can society put evidence-based policies into place if the evidence is unreliable?

Recognition of this “crisis” has prompted calls for reform. Researchers are feeling their way, experimenting with different practices meant to help distinguish solid science from irreproducible results. Some people are even starting to reevaluate how choices are made about what research actually gets tackled. Breaking innovative new ground is flashier than revisiting already published research. Does prioritizing novelty naturally lead to this point?

Incentivizing the wrong thing?

One solution to the reproducibility crisis could be simply to conduct lots of replication studies. For instance, the scientific journal eLife is participating in an initiative to validate and reproduce important recent findings in the field of cancer research. The first set of these “rerun” studies was recently released and yielded mixed results. The results of 2 out of 5 research studies were reproducible, one was not and two additional studies did not provide definitive answers.

There’s no need to restrict these sort of rerun studies to cancer research – reproducibility issues can be spotted across various fields of scientific research.

Researchers should be rewarded for carefully shoring up the foundations of the field.
Alexander Raths/

But there’s at least one major obstacle to investing time and effort in this endeavor: the quest for novelty. The prestige of an academic journal depends at least partly on how often the research articles it publishes are cited. Thus, research journals often want to publish novel scientific findings which are more likely to be cited, not necessarily the results of newly rerun older research.

A study of clinical trials published in medical journals found the most prestigious journals prefer publishing studies considered highly novel and not necessarily those that have the most solid numbers backing up the claims. Funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health ask scientists who review research grant applications to provide an “innovation” score in order to prioritize funding for the most innovative work. And scientists of course notice these tendencies – one study found the use of positive words like “novel,” “amazing,” “innovative” and “unprecedented” in paper abstracts and titles increased almost ninefold between 1974 and 2014.

Genetics researcher Barak Cohen at Washington University in St. Louis recently published a commentary analyzing this growing push for novelty. He suggests that progress in science depends on a delicate balance between novelty and checking the work of other scientists. When rewards such as funding of grants or publication in prestigious journals emphasize novelty at the expense of testing previously published results, science risks developing cracks in its foundation.

Houses of brick, mansions of straw

Cancer researcher William Kaelin Jr., a recipient of the 2016 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, recently argued for fewer “mansions of straw” and more “houses of brick” in scientific publications.

One of his main concerns is that scientific papers now inflate their claims in order to emphasize their novelty and the relevance of biomedical research for clinical applications. By exchanging depth of research for breadth of claims, researchers may be at risk of compromising the robustness of the work. By claiming excessive novelty and impact, researchers may undermine its actual significance because they may fail to provide solid evidence for each claim.

Kaelin even suggests that some of his own work from the 1990s, which transformed cell biology research by discovering how cells can sense oxygen, may have struggled to get published today.

Prestigious journals often now demand complete scientific stories, from basic molecular mechanisms to proving their relevance in various animal models. Unexplained results or unanswered questions are seen as weaknesses. Instead of publishing one exciting novel finding that is robust, and which could spawn a new direction of research conducted by other groups, researchers now spend years gathering a whole string of findings with broad claims about novelty and impact.

There should be more than one path to a valuable journal publication.

Balancing fresh findings and robustness

A challenge for editors and reviewers of scientific manuscripts is assessing the novelty and likely long-term impact of the work they’re assessing. The eventual importance of a new, unique scientific idea is sometimes difficult to recognize even by peers who are grounded in existing knowledge. Many basic research studies form the basis of future practical applications. One recent study found that of basic research articles that received at least one citation, 80 percent were eventually cited by a patent application. But it takes time for practical significance to come to light.

A collaborative team of economics researchers recently developed an unusual measure of scientific novelty by carefully studying the references of a paper. They ranked a scientific paper as more novel if it cited a diverse combination of journals. For example, a scientific article citing a botany journal, an economics journal and a physics journal would be considered very novel if no other article had cited this combination of varied references before.

This measure of novelty allowed them to identify papers which were more likely to be cited in the long run. But it took roughly four years for these novel papers to start showing their greater impact. One may disagree with this particular indicator of novelty, but the study makes an important point: It takes time to recognize the full impact of novel findings.

The ConversationRealizing how difficult it is to assess novelty should give funding agencies, journal editors and scientists pause. Progress in science depends on new discoveries and following unexplored paths – but solid, reproducible research requires an equal emphasis on the robustness of the work. By restoring the balance between demands and rewards for novelty and robustness, science will achieve even greater progress.

Jalees Rehman, Associate Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology, University of Illinois at Chicago

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Neuroprediction: Using Neuroscience to Predict Violent Criminal Behavior

Can neuroscience help identify individuals who are most prone to engage in violent criminal behavior? Will it help the legal system make decisions about sentencing, probation, parole or even court-mandated treatments? A panel of researchers lead by Dr. Russell Poldrack from Stanford University recently reviewed the current state of research and outlined the challenges that need to be addressed for “neuroprediction” to gain traction.  The use of scientific knowledge to predict violent behavior is not new. Social factors such as poverty and unemployment increase the risk for engaging in violent behavior. Twin and family studies suggest that genetic factors also significantly contribute to antisocial and violent behavior but the precise genetic mechanisms remain unclear. A substantial amount of research has focused on genetic variants of the MAOA gene (monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme involved in the metabolism of neurotransmitters). Variants of MAOA have been linked to increased violent behavior but these variants are quite common – up to 40% of the US population may express this variant! As pointed out by John Horgan in Scientific American,  it is impossible to derive meaningful predictions of individual behavior based on the presence of such common gene variants.

One fundamental problem of using social and genetic predictors of criminal violent behavior in the legal setting is the group-to-individual problem. Carrying a gene or having been exposed to poverty as a child may increase the group risk for future criminal behavior but it tells us little about an individual who is part of the group. Most people who grow up in poverty or carry the above-mentioned MAOA gene variant do not engage in criminal violent behavior. Since the legal system is concerned with an individual’s guilt and his/her likelihood to commit future violent crimes, group characteristics are of little help. This is where brain imaging may represent an advancement because it can assess individual brains. Imaging individual brains might provide much better insights into a person’s brain function and potential for violent crimes than more generic assessments of behavior or genetic risk factors.

Poldrack and colleagues cite a landmark study published in 2013 by Eyal Aharoni and colleagues in which 96 adult offenders underwent brain imaging with a mobile MRI scanner before being released from one of two New Mexico state correctional facilities. The prisoners were followed for up to four years after their release and the rate of being arrested again was monitored.

This study found that lower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC- an area of the brain involved in impulse control) was associated with a higher rate being arrested again (60% in participants with lower ACC activity, 46% in those with higher ACC activity). The sample size and rate of re-arrest was too small to see what the predictive accuracy was for violent crime re-arrests (as opposed to all re-arrests). Poldrack and colleagues lauded the study for dealing with the logistics of performing such complex brain imaging studies by using a mobile MRI scanner at the correctional facilities as well as prospectively monitoring their re-arrest rate. However, they also pointed out some limitations of the study in terms of the analysis and the need to validate the results in other groups of subjects.

Brain imaging is also fraught with the group-to-individual problem. Crude measures such as ACC activity may provide statistically significant correlations for differences between groups but do not tell us much about how any one individual is likely to behave in the future. The differences in the re-arrest rates between the high and low ACC activity groups are not that profound and it is unlikely that they would be of much use in the legal system. So is there a future for “neuroprediction” when it comes to deciding about the sentencing or parole of individuals?

Poldrack and colleagues outline some of the challenges of brain imaging for neuroprediction. One major challenge is the issue of selecting subjects. Many people may refuse to undergo brain imaging and it is quite likely that those who struggle with impulse control and discipline may be more likely to refuse brain scanning or move during the brain scanning process and thus distort the images. This could skew the results because those most likely to succumb to impulse control may never be part of the brain imaging studies. Other major challenges include using large enough and representative sample sizes, replicating studies, eliminating biases in the analyses and developing a consensus on the best analytical methods. Addressing these challenges would advance the field.

It does not appear that neuroprediction will become relevant for court cases in the near future. The points outlined by the experts remind us that we need to be cautious when interpreting brain imaging data and that solid science is required for rushing to premature speculations and hype about using brain scanners in court-rooms.


Poldrack RA et al. (2017). Predicting Violent Behavior:What Can Neuroscience Add? Trends in Cognitive Science, (in press).

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Do We Value Physical Books More Than Digital Books?

Just a few years ago, the onslaught of digital books seemed unstoppable. Sales of electronic books (E-books) were surging, people were extolling the convenience of carrying around a whole library of thousands of books on a portable digital tablet, phones or E-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle. In addition to portability, E-books allow for highlighting and annotating of key sections, searching for keywords and names of characters, even looking up unknown vocabulary with a single touch. It seemed only like a matter of time until E-books would more or less wholly replace old-fashioned physical books. But recent data seems to challenge this notion. A Pew survey released in 2016 on the reading habits of Americans shows that E-book reading may have reached a plateau in recent years and there is no evidence pointing towards the anticipated extinction of physical books.

The researchers Ozgun Atasoy and Carey Morewedge from Boston University recently conducted a study which suggests that one reason for the stifled E-book market share growth may be that consumers simply value physical goods more than digital goods. In a series of experiments, they tested how much consumers value equivalent physical and digital items such as physical photographs and digital photographs or physical books and digital books. They also asked participants in their studies questions which allowed them to infer some of the psychological motivations that would explain the differences in values.

In one experiment, a research assistant dressed up in a Paul Revere costume asked tourists visiting Old North Church in Boston whether they would like to have their photo taken with the Paul Revere impersonator and keep the photo as a souvenir of the visit. Eighty-six tourists (average age 40 years) volunteered and were informed that they would be asked to donate money to a foundation maintaining the building. The donation could be as low as $0, and the volunteers were randomly assigned to either receiving a physical photo or a digital photo. Participants in both groups received their photo within minutes of the photo being taken, either as an instant-printed photograph or an emailed digital photograph. It turned out that the participants randomly assigned to the digital photo group donated significantly less money than those in the physical photo group (median of $1 in the digital group, $3 in the physical group).

In fact, approximately half the participants in the digital group decided to donate no money. Interestingly, the researchers also asked the participants to estimate the cost of making the photo (such as the costs of the Paul Revere costume and other materials as well as paying the photographer). Both groups estimated the cost around $3 per photo, but despite this estimate, the group receiving digital photos was much less likely to donate money, suggesting that they valued their digital souvenir less.

In a different experiment, the researchers recruited volunteer subjects (100 subjects, mean age 33) online using a web-based survey in which they asked participants how much they would be willing to pay for a physical or digital copy of either a book such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (print-version or the Kindle E-book version) or a movie such as The Dark Knight (DVD or the iTunes digital version). Participants were also asked how much “personal ownership” they would feel for the digital versus the corresponding physical items by completing a questionnaire scored with responses ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” to statements such as “feel like it is mine”.  In addition to these ownership questions, they also indicated how much they thought they would enjoy the digital and physical versions.

The participants were willing to pay significantly more for the physical book and physical DVD than for the digital counterparts even though they estimated that the enjoyment of either version would be similar. It turned out that participants also felt a significantly stronger sense of personal ownership when it came to the physical items and that the extent of personal ownership correlated nicely with the amount they were willing to pay.

To assess whether a greater sense of personal ownership and control over the physical goods was a central factor in explaining the higher value, the researchers than conducted another experiment in which participants (275 undergraduate students, mean age of 20) were given a hypothetical scenario in which they were asked how much they would be willing to pay for either purchasing or renting textbooks in their digital and print formats. The researchers surmised that if ownership of a physical item was a key factor in explaining the higher value, then there should not be much of a difference between the estimated values of physical and digital textbook rentals. You do not “own” or “control” a book if you are merely renting it because you will have to give it up at the end of the rental period anyway. The data confirmed the hypothesis. For digital textbooks, participants were willing to pay the same price for a rental or a purchase (roughly $45), whereas they would pay nearly twice that for purchasing a physical textbook ($88). Renting a physical textbook was valued at around $59, much closer to the amount the participants would have paid for the digital versions.

This research study raises important new aspects for the digital economy by establishing that consumers likely value physical items higher and by also providing some insights into the underlying psychology. Sure, some of us may like physical books because of the tactile sensation of thumbing through pages or being able to elegantly display are books in a bookshelf. But the question of ownership and control is also an important point. If you purchase an E-book using the Amazon Kindle system, you cannot give it away as a present or sell it once you are done, and the rules for how to lend it to others are dictated by the Kindle platform. Even potential concerns about truly “owning” an E-book are not unfounded as became apparent during the infamous “1984” E-book scandal, when Amazon deleted purchased copies of the book – ironically George Orwell’s classic which decries Big Brother controlling information –from the E-book readers of its customers because of some copyright infringement issues. Even though the digital copies of 1984 had been purchased, Amazon still controlled access to the books.

Digital goods have made life more convenient and also bring with them collateral benefits such as environment-friendly reduction in paper consumption. However, some of the issues of control and ownership associated with digital goods need to be addressed to build more trust among consumers to gain more widespread usage.


Atasoy O and Morewedge CK. (2017). Digital Goods Are Valued Less Than Physical GoodsJournal of Consumer Research, (in press).

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

The Far Right Movement in Germany and the Burden of History

A friend who was invited to serve as a visiting professor at a German university recently contacted me and asked whether staying in Germany would be safe for him and his family. His concern was prompted by the September 2017 election of the federal German parliament in which the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, translated as “Alternative for Germany”) party received approximately 13% of the popular vote. AfD had campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform, and has been referred to by various media outlets as a nationalist, racist, far-right populist, right wing extremist or even Neo-Nazi party. For the first time in history since World War 2, a far-right or nationalist party would be sitting in the federal German parliament by crossing the 5% minimum threshold designed to keep out fringe political movements. Even though all other political parties had categorically ruled out forming a government coalition with the AfD, thus relegating it to an opposition role in parliament with only a limited role in policy-making, my friend was concerned that its success could be indicative of rising neo-Nazism and hatred towards immigrants or Muslims. As a Muslim and visibly South Asian, he and his family could be prime targets for right-wing hatred.

I was flabbergasted by his concern. What surprised me most was that someone living in the US would be worried about safety and racial prejudice in Germany. Violent crime rates in major German cities are much lower than those of their US counterparts. While it is true that AfD garnered 13% of the popular vote in Germany, the US president who also ran on a similar populist, nationalist and anti-immigrant platform (with promises of building walls and enacting Muslim bans) received 46% of the popular vote! Many of the views of the AfD – for example the claims that traditional Islam is not compatible with Western European culture and the constitution, that immigrants and refugees represent a major threat to the economy and safety or that multiculturalism and progressive-liberal views have betrayed the ideals of the country’s heritage – are increasingly becoming mainstream views of the ruling Republican party in the US. White supremacists, supporters of confederate ideology and neo-Nazis now feel emboldened to hold rallies in the US, knowing that they might only receive lukewarm or relativistic criticism from the US government whereas such acts would be unequivocally condemned by the German government. Racial or religious prejudices held by members of the government and the ruling party can lead to severe institutional reprisals against individuals. When these views are held by a minority party, there is much less danger of immediate institutionalized discrimination and persecution by the government or law enforcement.

So why is it that the 13% vote for AfD is causing such concern, both in Germany and outside of Germany?

One of the obvious reasons is Germany’s history. If the AfD emergence were to foreshadow a re-awakening of Nazi ideology, then it could indeed have devastating consequences for Germany and the world in general. But there is no real evidence to suggest that Nazi ideology is espoused by the AfD leadership or by its base. Terms such as neo-Nazism and fascism are readily used by opponents of the AfD to describe the party but the AfD tries to clearly distance itself from Nazism. The AfD does not accept membership applications from former members of the NPD – a right wing extremist fringe party in Germany with an ideology that was far closer to that of the Nazis. The AfD not only disavows anti-Semitism, it has successfully recruited many Jewish members and offered them leadership roles in the party by portraying itself as a bulwark that will protect German Jews from Muslim anti-Semitism. These approaches effectively counter accusations of Nazism but they have not convinced all. The president of the German Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, recognizes that there is a growing problem with anti-Semitism perpetrated by Muslims in Germany but is not ready to accept the AfD as an ally. It may be advantageous to scape-goat Muslims in the current political climate but who is to say that the AfD won’t switch its scape-goat to Jews in the future if the latter were politically more expedient?

Part of the confusion about what the AfD really stands for is that it has rapidly evolved over the course of just a few years. It started out in 2013 as a party founded by economics professors, who were opposed to Angela Merkel’s handling of the euro crisis and the loss of Germany’s fiscal sovereignty in the European Union. But once it became apparent that feared massive economic crash and recession had been averted (at least transiently), it morphed into an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant party. This modified AfD ousted its co-founder, the economics professor Bernd Lucke, from his leadership role in 2015. The party gained far more traction with its anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views after Merkel’s government allowed more than 1 million refugees (predominantly from Syria but also from other countries in the Middle East) to enter Germany.

During this evolution, the AfD also become increasingly populist. Jan-Werner Müller, a German political scientist and professor at Princeton University, defined the key characteristics of populism in his recent book Was ist Populismus? (“What is Populism?”). Populist movements portray themselves as anti-establishment or anti-elite, but a second key element of a populist movement is their attitude towards pluralism. Müller uses the phrase “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people“) that was chanted by the East German demonstrators during the final months of the DDR in 1989 to illustrate anti-pluralism. The “We” can be an inclusive “We” in the sense of “We are the people, too. Let us have a say!” This may be an apt description of the DDR demonstrators where several political factions demonstrated side-by-side in opposition against the socialist dictatorship. However, in populist movements, the “We” is exclusive: “Only we represent the people!” Those who do not agree are seen as traitors. In the past 2 years, the AfD leaders and base increasingly began to claim this exclusivity. Merkel was accused of betraying Germany and colluding with leftists, environmentalists and Muslim to betray the true values of the German people. Such anti-pluralism is antithetical to democracy and is thus a major cause of concern for democratic parties and institutions in Germany. The sense of exclusivity allows populists to develop a unique zeal and promote conspiracy theories about the political establishment and media, brandishing rational criticisms as pro-establishment collusions.

AfD is not just an anti-immigrant populist party, it also embodies a broader “Neue Rechte” (“New Right”) movement. This is supported by the fact that some of the AfD positions have garnered the “philosophical blessing” of German intellectuals, an expression used by Müller in his excellent 2016 essay about the AfD. Müller cites the intellectuals Marc Jongen, Peter Sloterdijk and Botho Strauβ but this list now needs to be extended to include the prominent history professor Rolf Peter Sieferle who committed suicide in September of 2016 (one year before the election). His posthumously published and scandal-provoking book Finis Germania (alluding to the Latin phrase Finis Germaniae which means “The End of Germany”), became a best-seller in the months leading up to the 2017 election.

Sieferle was a respected professor of history and sociology, and thought of as a pioneer in studying environmental history. Finis Germania appears to have been written in the mid-1990s because it refers to the atrocities of the Nazis as having occurred 50 years prior. It is a short collection of mini-essays and aphorisms, grouped together in a handful of chapters. The tone is pessimistic and cynical, pointing towards a decline and likely collapse of German heritage and Germany. The most controversial passages revolve around Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German word for processing and overcoming history. In Germany, Vergangenheitsbewältigung primarily refers to how Germany deals with its Nazi past. The Holocaust, the guilt of the Germans who participated in committing the atrocities and the historical responsibility (historische Verantwortung) that resulted from it for modern Germany are among the most extensively discussed topics in German school curricula and public intellectual discourse.

There is no denial of the Holocaust in the book. Sieferle uses the expressions “Verbrechen” (crime) and “Greueltaten” (atrocities) to describe the genocide committed by the Nazis, as was recently emphasized by Christopher Caldwell. However, Sieferle openly criticizes the style of contemporary Vergangenheitsbewältigung in which Germans are cast as perennial villains who need to demonstrate never-ending penance to atone for their collective guilt. Sieferle uses religious metaphors in which the Holocaust is compared to a new form of Erbsünde (literally translated as “inherited sin”, but it is a German expression for the biblical original sin of Adam and Eve). Vergangenheitsbewältigung is likened to a new state religion which is meant to keep Germans docile.

There is no doubt that Sieferle’s book touched a raw nerve with many Germans living today who feel that they are still held responsible for crimes committed by the Nazis. Any expression of German pride or patriotism is often self-scrutinized carefully to ensure that it in no way challenges Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Especially when interacting with non-Germans, Germans may consciously or subconsciously perceive themselves being pigeon-holed as descendants of Nazi perpetrators. They go out of their way to prove that they are different from their parents or grand-parents who may have lived during their Nazi era. Sieferle specifically contrasts Germans with Anglo-Americans who do not engage in self-flagellating Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A recent poll showed that 43% of British citizens are proud of their colonial past and do not feel shame for the atrocities of the British Empire. One example of British atrocities is the diversion of food from India in 1943 to feed British soldiers that was authorized by Winston Churchill and resulted in a famine which killed 4 million Indians.

A member of a book jury initially recommended this book because it would initiate a discussion about German history and the book quickly became a non-fiction best-seller. While there is no explicit Holocaust denial in the book, the subtext of the book was seen as dallying with anti-Semitism. Modern day anti-Semites cannot deny the Holocaust because the evidence for the atrocities is so overwhelming but they instead try to cast Jews as post-war perpetrators who use the memory Holocaust as a means of suppressing dissent. Some passages of Finis Germania are ambiguous enough to provide fodder for anti-Semites. The massive popularity of a book that could potentially promote anti-Semitic ideas came as a shock to the German literary and intellectual establishments. But the rash reaction of the leading German magazine Der Spiegel to delete the book from its best-seller listturned a marginally intelligible book with fragmented ideas into a heroic anti-establishment tract. Book-shops refused to sell the book but it remained an Amazon best-seller, suggesting that the ban had not diminished its popularity. While some German writers and intellectuals supported the decision of Der Spiegel, others saw it as a form of censorship to suppress undesirable ideas.

How does this book about the German history connect to the success of the AfD and the New Right movement? A second posthumously published Sieferle book also became a best-seller: Das Migrationsproblem (“The migration problem“). This book discusses the basic challenge for a welfare state such as Germany which aims to provide excellent housing, healthcare and food for all to take large numbers of refugees or immigrants who would be eligible for all the welfare services. The stability of the welfare state depends on a balance of workers who pay into the system and the beneficiaries. It performs a semi-quantitative analysis and suggests that Germany cannot handle the influx of political and economic refugees without compromising its welfare state character. The book also touches on the cultural differences between indigenous Germans and “tribal” refugees who hail from aggressive cultures. This second book also became a best-seller but it is the combination of the two themes that may form the intellectual foundation for the success of the AfD. Finis Germania decries the culture of collective guilt which in turn has lead Germans to be so docile that they accept millions of refugees as their inherited burden even if it undermines their economy and culture.

The AfD has tried to avoid public discussions of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in order to escape accusations of anti-Semitism and instead focused on Islam, immigrants or refugees. However, in a widely criticized speech, Björn Höcke – the leader of AfD in Thuringia – referred to the Berlin Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame” in January of 2017. He suggested that German history was crippling contemporary Germans and there was a need to re-think how Germans should handle their past. The federal AfD leadership was taken aback by these overt and public comments about a taboo topic and initiated a process to remove him for the party. However, Höcke remains an AfD member and has received support from many other AfD leaders. The success of the AfD may suggest that his speech may have been an intentional ploy to link German frustration with collective guilt to voting for AfD as a means to escape from the burden of the past.

How should Germany move forward after the success of AfD? As a Muslim German of South Asian descent, I am of course worried about the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and populist rhetoric promoted by the AfD. There is no easy solution for how to deal with the rise of the far right but we can glean insights from this election and the success of far right movements in the United States or other countries. Censoring or banning books that simply express unpleasant view-points is the wrong approach. Denouncing 13% of German voters as Nazis, fascists or “deplorables” would be equally wrong. Burying our heads in the sand and hoping that right-wing populism will just disappear would be a folly. There is a sense of panic about the results of the German election but we can also see it as a wake-up call. Many countries have seen a rise in right-wing populist movements but the social and historical context of each movement is different and needs to be analyzed contextually. What is needed now is a rational analysis and the required actions.

Those of us who believe in the German democratic institutions and the power of rational dialogue need to engage the citizens who voted for AfD. One may agree or disagree with the positions of the AfD and its voters but this should not prevent meaningful dialogue. Concerns about the future of a welfare state with an imbalance between payers and beneficiaries are not unreasonable. The concerns revolving around immigration, refugees, the right to experience national pride and Vergangenheitsbewältigung should be addressed without condescension or throwing around insults and clichés. Another major concern voiced by AfD supporters is that key decisions about the future of Germany are made unilaterally by the government elites without engaging in a meaningful discussion with the electorate. Voters felt disempowered and ignored. This may also explain why the AfD received more than 20% of the vote in some parts of East Germany (the former DDR). Former DDR citizens wrested their freedom to vote and participate in public policy-making from a dictatorship less than 30 years only to find that the post-DDR Germany was also ignoring their opinions. The government and members of parliament have to learn how to routinely meet citizens so that they can listen to their concerns.

Condescension and hatred against the supporters of far right populist movements only strengthens them and their resolve to fight democratic pluralism. By peacefully and rationally engaging fellow citizens, Germany will be able to avoid the fate of the United States where a far right movement now controls the government. The historical responsibility of Germany lies in providing balance and reason in a world that could succumb to populism and chaos.


Jan-Werner Müller. Was ist Populismus?. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2016.

Rolf Peter Sieferle. Finis Germania. Verlag Antaios. 2017

Rolf Peter Sieferle. Das Migrationsproblem. Manuscriptum Verlagsbuchhandlung. 2017

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Alternative Facts and Realities: How the Brain Anticipates Perception

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov is best known for his studies on classical conditioning showing that dogs repeatedly presented with a combination of food and a sound would subsequently salivate upon hearing the sound alone, in anticipation of the meal. The combination of the two stimuli – food and sound – over time “conditioned” the dogs’ brains to link these two stimuli. A variation of this experiment was performed on human subjects by Ellson and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1941. In Ellson’s study, 40 subjects were “conditioned” over time by hearing a sound and seeing a light. Ellson later on exposed the subjects to only the light, yet 32 of 40 subjects claimed to have also heard the sound. Ellson concluded that such conditioning could lead to hallucinations – the hearing of sounds which, objectively speaking, are not present.

Recently, the Yale University psychiatrist Philip Corlett and his colleagues conducted a very interesting variation on this earlier study by asking whether some people are especially vulnerable to having auditory hallucinations induced by conditioning. The researchers recruited four groups of study subjects: 1) Fifteen patients with severe mental illnesses who also regularly heard voices (an auditory hallucination), 2) fifteen patients with severe mental illnesses who did not hear voices, 3) fifteen individuals without any evidence of mental illnesses who also claimed to hear voices and 4) fourteen healthy individuals who did not hear voices. Group 3 consisted of voice-hearing psychics (“clairaudient psychics”) who identified themselves as such via their own websites, at psychic meetings, or referrals from other psychics. Another important innovation in Corlett’s study was the inclusion of brain imaging studies on all subjects, thus allowing the researchers to study functional brain responses when exposing them to auditory and visual stimuli. The researchers then repeatedly exposed the study subjects to a checkerboard image and 1 kHz tone while they were lying in the brain scanner. The subjects were asked to press one button to indicate that they heard the tone, and a second button if they did not. They were also instructed to press down the button longer, the more confident they were in having heard the tone.

After conditioning the subjects, the researchers then intermittently began to show them images of the checkerboard without playing the tone. As expected, many subjects indicated having heard the tone even when it had not been played. However, patients with severe mental illness and a history of hearing voices (group 1) as well as healthy psychics with a history of hearing voices (group 3) were significantly more likely to wrongly indicate that they had heard the non-existing tone. Members of these two groups were also more confident that their hallucination was actually real, since they pressed down the button for longer. Healthy subjects and patients with mental illness who did not have a history of hearing voices were comparatively more correct in identifying whether or not the tone was present. Importantly, when the researchers repeatedly showed the image without the tone, voice-hearing, mentally ill patients were unable to “update” their beliefs when compared to the other groups, whereas the psychics gradually recognized that the tone was non-existent.

Brain imaging showed that the brain regions which respond to sounds were activated by the auditory hallucinations, meaning the brain perceived the non-existent tone as being real! The researchers also found that the subjects who continued to perceive the non-existent tones and did not update their beliefs – even after repeatedly being exposed to the image without the tone – had reduced activation in the brain areas which help integrate and coordinate predictions and perceptions. This could suggest that suppressed activity in these brain regions may contribute to persistent voice-hearing or other hallucinations.

The study has some important limitations: 1) The sample sizes are quite small and the some of the finds – especially those related to the brain imaging – are often only borderline statistically significant; 2) as is the case in many behavioral brain imaging studies, it is difficult to establish cause and effect – was the reduced activity in the parts of the brain which coordinate and integrate perceptions the cause of the inability to update beliefs or merely a correlation; 3) tones are well-suited for conditioning experiments in the laboratory but in the real world, conditioning may occur via specific words or phrases and this could have greater bearing on understanding voice-hearing.

Future studies could therefore address these issues by increasing the sample size, introducing more complex stimuli such as phrases or words, and perhaps also ask other inter-connected questions. Are individuals who are prone to voice-hearing also more likely to have visual hallucinations and hallucinations of smell? Can magnetic stimulation of selected brain areas perhaps improve the ability to update false beliefs? Does conditioning by political, religious or cultural education also affect us in a way that we perceive our hallucinations? For example, would adherents of an extreme political ideology mis-perceive words uttered by political opponents because their brains are conditioned to expect a narrow spectrum of answers and they are unable to update their beliefs? The study by Corlett and colleagues provides some very interesting insights into how our brain anticipates reality due to conditioning which could have important implications for understanding the nature of hallucinations in mental illness and develop new targeted therapies. However, it raises even more fascinating questions which – if addressed in future studies – could have an even broader impact on understanding our perception.


AR Powers, C Mathys, PR Corlett. (2017). Pavlovian conditioning–induced hallucinations result from overweighting of perceptual priors Science, 357 (6351):596-600; DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3458


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Optimizing Ourselves into Oblivion

The short story “Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral” (“An anecdote about the lowering of work ethic”) is one of the most famous stories written by the German author Heinrich Böll. In the story, an affluent tourist encounters a poorly clad fisherman who is comfortably napping in his boat. The assiduous tourist accidentally wakes up the fisherman while taking photos of the peaceful scenery – blue sky, green sea, fisherman with an old-fashioned hat – but then goes on to engage the lounging fisherman in a conversation. The friendly chat gradually turns into a sermon in which the tourist lectures the fisherman about how much more work he could be doing, how he could haul in more fish instead of lazing about, use the profits to make strategic investments, perhaps even hire employees and buy bigger boats in a few years. To what end, the fisherman asks. So that you could peacefully doze away at the beach, enjoying the beautiful sun without any worries, responds the enthusiastic tourist.

I remembered Böll’s story which was written in the 1960s – during the post-war economic miracle years (Wirtschaftswunder) when prosperity, efficiency and growth had become the hallmarks of modern Germany – while recently reading the book “Du sollst nicht funktionieren” (“You were not meant to function”) by the German author and philosopher Ariadne von Schirach. In this book, von Schirach criticizes the contemporary obsession with Selbstoptimierung (self-optimization), a term that has been borrowed from network theory and computer science where it describes systems which continuously adapt and “learn” in order to optimize their function. Selbstoptimierung is now used in a much broader sense in German culture and refers to the desire of individuals to continuously “optimize” their bodies and lives with the help of work-out regimens, diets, self-help courses and other processes. Self-optimization is a routine learning process that we all engage in. Successful learning of a new language, for example, requires continuous feedback and improvement. However, it is the continuous self-optimization as the ultimate purpose of life, instead of merely serving as  a means to an end that worries von Schirach.

She draws on many examples from Körperkult (body-cult), a slavish worship of the body that gradually replaces sensual pleasure with the purpose of discipling the body. Regular exercise and maintaining a normal weight are key factors for maintaining health but some individuals become so focused on tracking steps and sleep duration on their actigraphs, exercising or agonizing about their diets that the initial health-related goals become lose their relevance. They strive for a certain body image and resting heart rates and to reach these goals they indulge in self-discipline to maximize physical activity and curb appetite. Such individuals rarely solicit scientific information as to the actual health benefits of their exercise and food regimens and might be surprised to learn that more exercise and more diets do not necessarily lead to more health. The American Heart Association recommends roughly 30-45 minutes of physical activity daily to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Even simple and straightforward walking is sufficient to meet these goals, there is no need for two-hour gym work-outs.

Why are we becoming so obsessed with self-optimization? Unfortunately, von Schirach’s analysis degenerates into a diffuse diatribe against so many different elements of contemporary culture. Capitalist ideology, a rise in narcissism and egotism, industrialization and the growing technocracy, consumerism, fear of death, greed, monetization of our lives and social media are among some of the putative culprits that she invokes. It is quite likely that many of these factors play some role in the emerging pervasiveness of the self-optimization culture – not only in Germany. However, it may be useful to analyze some of the root causes and distinguish them from facilitators. Capitalist ideology is very conducive to a self-optimization culture. Creating beauty and fitness targets as well as laying out timelines to achieve these targets is analogous to developing corporate goals, strategies and milestones. Furthermore, many corporations profit from our obsession with self-optimization. Companies routinely market weight regimens, diets, exercise programs, beauty products and many other goods or services that generate huge profits if millions of potential consumers buy into the importance of life-long self-optimization. They can set the parameters for self-optimization – ideal body images – and we just obey. According to the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, such a diffusion of market logic and obedience to pre-ordained parameters and milestones into our day-to-day lives results in an achievement society which ultimately leads to mental fatigue and burnout.  In the case of “working out”, it is telling that a supposedly leisure physical activity uses the expression “work”, perhaps reminding us that the mindset of work persists during the exercise period.

But why would we voluntarily accept these milestones and parameters set by others? One explanation that is not really addressed by von Schirach is that obsessive self-optimization with a focus on our body may represent a retreat from the world in which we feel disempowered. Those of us who belong to the 99% know that our voices are rarely heard or respected when it comes to most fundamental issues in society such as socioeconomic inequality, rising intolerance and other forms of discrimination or prejudice. When it comes to our bodies, we may have a sense of control and empowerment that we do not experience in our work or societal roles. Self-discipline of our body gives our life a purpose with tangible goals such as lose x pounds, exercise y hours, reduce your resting heart rate by z.

Self-optimization may be a form of Ersatzempowerment but it comes at a great cost. As we begin to retreat from more fundamental societal issues and instead focus on controlling our bodies, we also gradually begin to lose the ability to dissent and question the meaning of actions. Working-out and dieting are all about HowWhen and What – how do I lose weight, what are my goals, when am I going to achieve it. The most fundamental questions of our lives usually focus on the Why – but self-optimization obsesses so much about HowWhen and What that one rarely asks “Why am I doing this?” Yet it is the Why that gives our life meaning, and self-optimization perhaps illustrates how a purpose-driven life may lose its meaning. The fisherman prompted the tourist to think about the Why in Böll’s story and perhaps we should do the same to avoid the trap of an obsessive self-optimization culture.


von Schirach, Ariadne. Du sollst nicht funktionieren: für eine neue Lebenskunst. Klett Cotta, 2014.


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.