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. 


Dismantle the Poverty Trap by Nurturing Community Trust

Would you rather receive $100 today or wait for a year and then receive $150? The ability to delay immediate gratification for a potentially greater payout in the future is associated with greater wealth. Several studies have shown that the poor tend to opt for immediate rewards even if they are lower, whereas the wealthy are willing to wait for greater rewards. One obvious reason for this difference is the immediate need for money. If food has to be purchased and electricity or water bills have to be paid, then the instant “reward” is a matter of necessity. Wealthier people can easily delay the reward because their basic needs for food, shelter and clothing are already met.

Unfortunately, escaping from poverty often requires the ability to delay gratification for a greater payout in the future. Classic examples are the pursuit of higher education and the acquisition of specialized professional skills which can lead to better-paying jobs in the future. Attending vocational school, trade school or college paves the way for higher future wages, but one has to forego income during the educational period and even incur additional debt by taking out educational loans. Another example is of delayed gratification is to invest capital – whether it is purchasing a farming tool that increases productivity or investing in the stock market – which in turn can yield greater pay-out. However, if the poor are unable to pursue more education or make other investments that will increase their income, they remain stuck in a vicious cycle of increasing poverty.

Understanding the precise reasons for why people living in poverty often make decisions that seem short-sighted, such as foregoing more education or taking on high-interest short-term loans, is the first step to help them escape poverty. The obvious common-sense fix is to ensure that the basic needs of all citizens – food, shelter, clothing, health and personal safety – are met, so that they no longer have to use all new funds for survival. This is obviously easier in the developed world, but it is not a trivial matter considering that the USA – supposedly the richest country in the world – has an alarmingly high poverty rate. It is estimated that more than 40 million people in the US live in poverty, fearing hunger and eviction from their homes. But just taking care of these basic needs may not be enough to help citizens escape poverty. A recent research study by Jon Jachimowicz at Columbia University and his colleagues investigated “myopic” (short-sighted) decision-making of people with lower income and identified an important new factor: community trust.

The researchers first used an online questionnaire (647 participants) to assess trust and asked participants to choose between a payoff in the near future that is smaller and a larger pay-off in the distant future. They also measured community trust by asking participants to agree or disagree with statements such as “There are advantages to living in my neighborhood” or I would like my child(ren) to be raised in the neighborhood I currently live in”. They found that lower income participants were more likely to act in a short-sighted manner if they had low levels of trust in their communities. In a second online experiment, the researchers recruited roughly 100 participants from each state in the US and assessed their community trust levels. They then obtained real-world data on payday loans – a sign of very short-sighted financial decision-making because people take out cash advances at extraordinarily high interest rates that have to be paid back when they get their paycheck – for each state. They found that the average community trust for each state was related to the use of payday loans. In states with high average community trust ratings, people were less likely to take out these payday loans, and this trend remained even when the researchers took into account unemployment rates and savings rates for each state.

Even though these findings all pointed to a clear relationship between community trust and sound financial decision-making, the results did not prove that increased community trust is an underlying cause that helps improve the soundness of financial decisions. To test this relationship in a real-world setting, the researchers conducted a study in rural Bangladesh by collaborating with an international development organization based in Bangladesh. The vast majority of participants in this study were poor even by Bangladeshi standards, earning less than $1/day per household member. The researchers adapted the community trust questionnaire and the assessment of financial decision-making for the rural population, with live interviewers asking the questions and filling out the responses for the participants. After assessing community trust and the willingness to delay financial rewards for greater payouts in the future, half of the participants received a two year intervention to increase community trust. This intervention involved volunteers from the community that acted as intermediaries between the local government and the rural population, providing input into local governance and community-level decisions (for example in the distribution of social benefits and the allocation of funds for development projects).

At the end of the two year period, participants who had received the community intervention showed significant increases in their community trust levels and they also improved their financial decision-making. They were more likely to forego immediate lower financial rewards for greater future rewards when compared to the villagers who did not receive any special intervention.

By combining correlational data from the United States with an actual real-world intervention to build community trust, the researchers show how important it is to build trust when we want to help fellow humans escape the “poverty trap“. This is just an initial study with a limited group of participants and a narrow intervention that needs to be replicated in other societies and with long-term observation of the results to see how persistent the effects are. But the results should make all of us realize that just creating “jobs, jobs, jobs” is not enough. We need to invest in the infrastructures of communities and help citizens realize that they are respected members of society with a voice. Empowering individuals and ensuring their safety, dignity and human rights are necessary steps if we are serious about battling poverty.


Jachimowicz, J. M., Chafik, S., Munrat, S., Prabhu, J. C., & Weber, E. U. (2017). Community trust reduces myopic decisions of low-income individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201617395.

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


Jachimowicz, J., Chafik, S., Munrat, S., Prabhu, J., & Weber, E. (2017). Community trust reduces myopic decisions of low-income individuals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1617395114

The Mesh of Civilizations in Cyberspace

“The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”

—Samuel P. Huntington (1972-2008) “The Clash of Civilizations

In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published his now infamous paper The Clash of Civilizations in the journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington hypothesized that conflicts in the post-Cold War era would occur between civilizations or cultures and not between ideologies. He divided the world into eight key civilizations which reflected common cultural and religious heritages: Western, Confucian (also referred to as “Sinic”), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African. In his subsequent book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order“, which presented a more detailed account of his ideas and how these divisions would fuel future conflicts, Huntington also included the Buddhist civilization as an additional entity. Huntington’s idea of grouping the world in civilizational blocs has been heavily criticized for being overly simplistic and ignoring the diversity that exists within each “civilization”. For example, the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia were all grouped together under “Western Civilization” whereas Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf states were all grouped as “Islamic Civilization” despite the fact that the member countries within these civilizations exhibited profound differences in terms of their cultures, languages, social structures and political systems. On the other hand, China’s emergence as a world power that will likely challenge the economic dominance of Western Europe and the United States, lends credence to a looming economic and political clash between the “Western” and “Confucian” civilizations. The Afghanistan war and the Iraq war between military coalitions from the “Western Civilization” and nations ascribed to the “Islamic Civilization” both occurred long after Huntington’s predictions were made and are used by some as examples of the hypothesized clash of civilizations.


It is difficult to assess the validity of Huntington’s ideas because they refer to abstract notions of cultural and civilizational identities of nations and societies without providing any clear evidence on the individual level. Do political and economic treaties between the governments of countries – such as the European Union – mean that individuals in these countries share a common cultural identity?

Also, the concept of civilizational blocs was developed before the dramatic increase in the usage of the internet and social media which now facilitate unprecedented opportunities for individuals belonging to distinct “civilizations” to interact with each other. One could therefore surmise that civilizational blocs might have become relics of the past in a new culture of global connectivity. A team of researchers from Stanford University, Cornell University and Yahoo recently decided to evaluate the “connectedness” of the hypothesized Huntington civilizations in cyberspace and published their results in the article “The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication“.

The researchers examined Twitter users and the exchange of emails between Yahoo-Mail users in 90 countries with a minimum population of five million. In total, they analyzed “hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map global patterns of transnational interpersonal communication”. Twitter data is public and freely available for researchers to analyze whereas emails had to be de-identified for the analysis. The researchers did not have any access to the content of the emails, they only analyzed whether users any given country were emailing users in other countries. The researchers focused on bi-directional ties. This means that ties between Twitter user A and B were only counted as a “bi-directional” tie or link if A followed B and B followed A on Twitter. Similarly, for the analysis of emails analysis, the researchers only considered email ties in which user X emailed user Y, and there was at least one email showing that user Y had also emailed user X. This requirement for bi-directionality was necessary to exclude spam tweets or emails in which one user may send out large numbers of messages to thousands of users without there being any true “tie” or “link” between the users that would suggest an active dialogue or communication.

Countries are clustered based on the difference between observed and expected density of social ties in 90 countries with population above 5 million, based on interpersonal email and Twitter communication.
Credit: State et al, PloS ONE 2015Countries are clustered based on the difference between observed and expected density of social ties in 90 countries with population above 5 million, based on interpersonal email and Twitter communication.

The researchers then created a cluster graph which is shown in the accompanying figure. Each circle represents a country and the 1000 strongest ties between countries are shown. The closer a circle is to another circle, the more email and Twitter links exist between individuals residing in the two countries. For the mathematical analysis to be unbiased, the researchers did not assign any countries to “civilizations” but they did observe key clusters of countries emerge which were very close to each other in the graph. They then colored in the circles with colors to reflect the civilization category as defined by Huntington and also colored ties within a civilization as the same color whereas ties between countries of two distinct civilization categories were kept in gray.

At first glance, these data may appear as a strong validation of the Huntington hypothesis because the circles of any given color (i.e. a Huntington civilization category) are overall far closer to each other on average that circles of a different color. For example, countries belonging to the “Latin American Civilization” (pink) countries strongly cluster together and some countries such as Chile (CL) and Peru (PE) have nearly exclusive intra-civilizational ties (pink). Some of the “Slavic-Orthodox Civilization” (brown) show strong intra-civilizational ties but Greece (GR), Bulgaria (BG) and Romania (RO) are much closer to Western European countries than other Slavic-Orthodox countries, likely because these three countries are part of the European Union and have shared a significant cultural heritage with what Huntington considers the “Western Civilization”. “Islamic Civilization” (green) countries also cluster together but they are far more spread out. Pakistan (PK) and Bangladesh (BD) are far closer to each other and to India (IN), which belongs to the “Hindu Civilization” (purple) than to Tunisia (TN) and Yemen (YE) which Huntington also assigned to an ‘Islamic Civilization”.

One obvious explanation for there being increased email and Twitter exchanges between individuals belonging to the same civilization is the presence of a shared language. The researchers therefore analyzed the data by correcting for language and found that even though language did contribute to Twitter and email ties, the clustering according to civilization was present even when taking language into account. Interestingly, of the various factors that could account for the connectedness between users, it appeared that religion (as defined by the World Religion Database) was one of the major factors, consistent with Huntington’s focus on religion as a defining characteristic of a civilization. The researchers conclude that “contrary to the borderless portrayal of cyberspace, online social interactions do not appear to have erased the fault lines Huntington proposed over a decade before the emergence of social media.”  But they disagree with Huntington in that closeness of countries belonging to a civilization does not necessarily imply that it will lead to conflicts or clashes with other civilizations.

It is important to not over-interpret one study on Twitter and Email links and make inferences about broader cultural or civilizational identities just because individuals in two countries follow each other on Twitter or write each other emails. The study did not investigate cultural identities of individuals and some of the emails could have been exchanged as part of online purchases without indicating any other personal ties. However, the data presented by the researchers does reveal some fascinating new insights about digital connectivity that are not discussed in much depth by the researchers. China (CN) and Great Britain (GB) emerge as some of the most highly connected countries at the center of the connectivity map with strong global ties, including India and countries in Africa. Whether this connectivity reflects the economic growth and increasing global relevance of China or a digital footprint of the British Empire even decades after its demise would be a worthy topic of investigation. The public availability of Twitter data makes it a perfect tool to analyze the content of Twitter communications and thus define how social media is used to engage in dialogue between individuals across cultural, religious and political boundaries by analyzing culturally relevant keywords used in tweets. Analyses of Twitter data over time could test the intriguing hypothesis whether connectivity and the content of communications between users living in different countries change over time. Such a study would be even more informative in terms of linking cyberspace connectivity to cultural identities and could provide insights into the evolution of digital ties over time.



Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3) 22-49.

State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The mesh of civilizations in the global network of digital communication. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0122543.

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


State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication PLOS ONE, 10 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122543

Nostalgia is a Muse

“Let others praise ancient times. I am glad that I was born in these.”

                                                                                                – Ovid in “Ars Amatoria”

When I struggle with scientist’s block, I play 1980s music with the hope that the music will inspire me. This blast from the past often works for me. After listening to the songs, I can sometimes perceive patterns between our various pieces of cell biology and molecular biology data that had previously eluded me and design new biological experiments. But I have to admit that I have never performed the proper music control studies. Before attributing inspirational power to songs such as “99 Luftballons“, “Bruttosozialprodukt” or “Billie Jean“, I ought to spend equal time listening to music from other decades and then compare the impact of these listening sessions. I have always assumed that there is nothing intrinsically superior or inspirational about these songs, they simply evoke memories of my childhood. Eating comfort foods or seeing images of Munich and Lagos that remind me of my childhood also seem to work their muse magic.

Camera nostalgia

My personal interpretation has been that indulging nostalgia somehow liberates us from everyday issues and worries – some trivial, some more burdensome – which in turn allows us to approach our world with a fresh, creative perspective. It is difficult to make such general sweeping statements based on my own anecdotal experiences and I have always felt a bit of apprehension about discussing this with others. My nostalgia makes me feel like an old fogey who is stuck in an ossified past. Nostalgia does not have a good reputation. The German expression “Früher war alles besser!” (Back then, everything used to be better!) is used in contemporary culture to mock those who always speak of the romanticized past with whimsical fondness. In fact, the expression nostalgia was coined in 1688 by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. In his dissertation “Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia oder Heimweh“, Hofer used nostalgia as an equivalent of the German word Heimweh (“home-ache”), combining the Greek words nostos(homecoming) and algos (ache or pain), to describe a medical illness characterized by a “melancholy that originates from the desire to return to one’s homeland“. This view of nostalgia as an illness did not change much during the subsequent centuries where it was viewed as a neurological or psychiatric disorder.

This view has been challenged by the University of Southampton researchers Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, who have spent the past decade studying the benefits of nostalgia. Not only do they disavow its disease status, they have conducted numerous studies which suggest that nostalgia can make us more creative, open-minded and charitable. The definition of nostalgia used by Sedikides and Wildschut as a “sentimental longing for one’s past” is based on the contemporary usage by laypersons across many cultures. This time-based definition of nostalgia also represents a departure from its original geographical or cultural coinage by Hofer who viewed it as a longing for the homeland and not one’s personal past.

In one of their most recent experiments, Sedikides and Wildschut investigate nostalgia as a “mnemonic muse“. The researchers first evoked nostalgic memories in participants with the following prompt:

“Please think of a nostalgic event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that makes you feel most nostalgic. Bring this nostalgic experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the nostalgic experience. How does it make you feel?”

Importantly, each experiment also involved a control group of participants who were given a very different prompt:

“Please bring to mind an ordinary event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that is ordinary. Bring this ordinary experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the ordinary experience. How does it make you feel?”

This allowed the researchers to compare whether specifically activating nostalgia had a distinct effect from merely activating a general memory.

After these interventions, participants in the nostalgia group and in the control group were asked to write a short story involving a princess, a cat and a race car. In an additional experiment, participants finished a story starting with the sentence: “One cold winter evening, a man and a woman were alarmed by a sound coming from a nearby house“. After 30 minutes, of writing, the stories were collected and scored for the level of creativity by independent evaluators who had no knowledge of the experimental design or group that the participants belonged to. Participants who had experienced more nostalgia wrote more creative prose!

This is just one example of the dozens of studies conducted by Sedikides and Wildschut which show the benefits of nostalgia, such as providing inspiration, increasing trust towards outsiders and enhancing the willingness to donate to charities. What is the underlying mechanism for these benefits? Sedikides and Wildschut believe that our nostalgic memories provide a sense of belonging and support, which in turn helps our self-confidence and self-esteem. The comfort of our past gives us strength for our future.

Does this mean that this longing for the past is always a good thing? Not every form of nostalgia centers on personal childhood memories. For example, there is a form of ideological nostalgia expressed by groups who feel disenfranchised by the recent progress and long for days of former power and privilege. The South African sociologists van der Waal and Robbins recently described the popularity of a song about the Anglo-Boer waramong white Afrikaans-speakers in the post-Apartheid era which may have been rooted in a nostalgic affirmation of white Afrikaner identity. It is conceivable that similar forms of ideological nostalgia could be found in other cultures and states where privileged classes and races are losing ground to increased empowerment of the general population.

It is important that we distinguish between these two forms of nostalgia – personal childhood nostalgia and ideological group nostalgia – before “rehabilitating” nostalgia’s reputation. The research by Sedikides and Wildschut clearly demonstrates that nostalgia can be a powerful tool to inspire us but we have to ensure that it is not misused as am ideological or political tool to manipulate us.


1. de Diego, F. F., & Ots, C. V. (2014). Nostalgia: a conceptual history. History of psychiatry, 25(4), 404-411.

2. Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past Forward: Nostalgia as a Motivational Force. Trends in cognitive sciences (published online Feb 18, 2016)

3. van Tilburg, W. A., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2015). The mnemonic muse: Nostalgia fosters creativity through openness to experience.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 1-7.

4. Van der Waal, K., & Robins, S. (2011). ‘De la Rey’and the Revival of ‘Boer Heritage’: Nostalgia in the Post-apartheid Afrikaner Culture Industry. Journal of Southern African Studies, 37(4), 763-779.


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



van Tilburg, W., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2015). The mnemonic muse: Nostalgia fosters creativity through openness to experience Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 1-7 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.02.002

Shame on You, Shame on Me: Shame as an Evolutionary Adaptation

Can shame be good for you? We often think of shame as a shackling emotion which thwarts our individuality and creativity. A sense of shame could prevent us from choosing a partner we truly love, speaking out against societal traditions which propagate injustice or pursuing a profession that is deemed unworthy by our peers. But if shame is so detrimental, why did we evolve with this emotion? A team of researchers led by Daniel Sznycer from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which suggests that shame is an important evolutionary adaptation. According to their research which was conducted in the United States, Israel and India, the sense of shame helps humans avoid engaging in acts that could lead to them being devalued and ostracized by their community.

L0035595 An Iron 'scolds bridle' mask used to publicaly humiliate
A Belgian Iron ‘scolds bridle’ or ‘branks’ mask, with bell, used to publicly humiliate and punish, mainly women, for speaking out against authority, nagging, brawling with neighbors, blaspheming or lying via Wellcome Images

For their first experiment, the researchers enrolled participants in the USA (118 participants completed the study; mean age of 36; 53% were female) and India (155 participants completed the study, mean age of 31, 38% were female) using the online Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform as well as 165 participants from a university in Israel (mean age of 23; 81% female). The participants were randomly assigned to two groups and presented with 29 scenarios: The “shame group” participants were asked to rate how much shame they would experience if they lived through any given scenario and whereas the “audience group” participants were asked how negatively they would rate a third-party person of the same age and gender as the participants in an analogous scenario.

Here is a specific scenario to illustrate the study design:

Male participants in the “shame group” were asked to rate “At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your wife with a food server” on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).

Female participants in the “shame group” were asked to rate “At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your husband with a food server” on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).

Male participants in the “audience group”, on the other hand, were asked to rate “At the wedding of an acquaintance, he is discovered cheating on his wife with a food server” on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn’t view him negatively at all) to 7 (I’d view him very negatively).

Female participants in the “audience group” rated “At the wedding of an acquaintance, she is discovered cheating on her husband with a food server” on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn’t view her negatively at all) to 7 (I’d view her very negatively).

To give you a sense of the breadth of scenarios that the researchers used, here are some more examples:

You stole goods from a shop owned by your neighbor.

You cannot support your children economically.

You get into a fight in front of everybody and your opponent completely dominates you with punch after punch until you’re knocked out.

You receive welfare money from the government because you cannot financially support your family.

You are not generous with others.

For each of the 29 scenarios, the researchers created gender-specific “shame” and “audience” versions. The “audience group” reveals how we rate the bad behavior of others (devaluation) whereas the “shame group” provides information into how much shame we feel if we engage in that same behavior. By ensuring that participants only participated in one of the two groups, the researchers were able to get two independent scores – shame versus devaluation – for each scenario.

The key finding of this experiment was that the third-party devaluation scores were highly correlated with the shame scores in all three countries. For example, here are the mean “shame scores” for the wedding infidelity scenario indicating that people in all three countries would have experienced a lot of shame:

USA: 6.5

India: 5.7

Israel: 6.7

The devaluation scores from the third-party “audience group” suggested that people viewed the behavior very negatively:

USA: 6.4

India: 5.1

Israel: 6.6

For nearly all the scenarios, the researchers found a surprisingly strong correlation between devaluation and shame and they also found that the correlation was similarly strong in each of the surveyed countries.

The researchers then asked the question whether this correlation between personal shame and third-party negative valuation was unique to the shame emotion or whether other negative emotions such as anxiety or sadness would also correlate equally well with devaluation. This experiment was only conducted with the participants in the USA and India. The researchers found that even though the fictitious scenarios elicited some degree of anxiety and sadness in the participants, the levels of anxiety or sadness were not significantly correlated with the extent of devaluation. The researchers interpreted these results as suggesting that there is something special about shame because it tracks so closely with how bad behavior is perceived by others whereas sadness or anxiety do not.

How do these findings inform our view on the evolutionary role of shame? The researchers suggest that instead of designating shame as an “ugly” emotion, it is instead an excellent predictor of how our peers would view our behaviors and thus deter us from making bad choices that could undermine our relationships with members of our community. The strong statistical correlations between shame and negative valuation of the behaviors as well as the universality of this link in the three countries indeed support the conclusions of the researchers. However, there are also so important limitations of these studies. As with many evolutionary psychology studies, it is not easy to ascribe a direct cause-effect relationship based on a correlation. Does devaluation lead to evolving a shame mechanism or is it perhaps the other way around? Does a sense of shame lead to a societal devaluation of certain behaviors such as dishonesty? It is also possible that the participants in the audience group responded with the concept of “shame” in the back of their mind even though they were not asked to directly comment on how shameful the act was. Perhaps their third-party assessments of how bad the behavior was were clouded by their own perceptions of how shameful the behavior would be if they themselves had engaged in it.

Another limitation of the study is that the participants represented a young subgroup of society. The mean ages of 23 (Israel), 31 (India) and 36 (USA) as well as the use of an online Amazon Mechanical Turk questionnaire means that the study results predominantly reflect the views of Millennials. The similarities of the shame and devaluation scores in three distinct cultures are among the most remarkable findings of these studies. However, perhaps they are more reflective of a global convergence of values among the Millennial generation than an underlying evolutionary conservation of an adaptive mechanism.

These limitations should not detract from the provocative questions raised by the studies. They force us to rethink how we view shame. Like all adaptive defense mechanisms, shame could go awry. Our immune function, for example, is an essential defense mechanism but an unfettered immune response can destroy the very body it is trying to protect. Perhaps shame acts in a similar fashion. A certain level of shame could help us function in society by promoting certain moral values such as justice, honesty or generosity. But an excess of shame may become a maladaptive prison which compromises our individuality.


Daniel Sznycer, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Roni Porat, Shaul Shalvi, and Eran Halperin. (2016). “Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across culturesProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Sznycer D, Tooby J, Cosmides L, Porat R, Shalvi S, & Halperin E (2016). Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 26903649

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

We Have Become Exhausted Slaves in a Culture of Positivity

We live in an era of exhaustion and fatigue, caused by an incessant compulsion to perform. This is one of the central tenets of the book “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft” (translatable as “The Fatigue Society” or “The Tiredness Society“) by the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Han is a professor at the Berlin Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) and one of the most widely read contemporary philosophers in Germany. He was born in Seoul where he studied metallurgy before he moved to Germany in the 1980s to pursue a career in philosophy. His doctoral thesis and some of his initial work in the 1990s focused on Heidegger but during the past decade, Han has written about broad range of topics regarding contemporary culture and society. “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft” was first published in 2010 and helped him attain a bit of a rock-star status in Germany despite his desire to avoid too much public attention – unlike some of his celebrity philosopher colleagues.


The book starts out with two biomedical metaphors to describe the 20th century and the emerging 21st century. For Han, the 20th century was an “immunological” era. He uses this expression because infections with viruses and bacteria which provoked immune responses were among the leading causes of disease and death and because the emergence of vaccinations and antibiotics helped conquer these threats. He then extends the “immunological” metaphor to political and societal events. Just like the immune system recognizes bacteria and viruses as “foreign” that needs to be eliminated to protect the “self”, the World Wars and the Cold War were also characterized by a clear delineation of “Us” versus “Them”. The 21stcentury, on the other hand, is a “neuronal” era characterized by neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), burnout syndrome and borderline personality disorder. Unlike the diseases in the immunological era, where there was a clear distinction between the foreign enemy microbes that needed to be eliminated and the self, these “neuronal” diseases make it difficult to assign an enemy status. Who are the “enemies” in burnout syndrome or depression? Our environment? Our employers? Our own life decisions and choices? Are we at war with ourselves in these “neuronal” conditions? According to Han, this biomedical shift in diseases is mirrored by a political shift in a globalized world where it becomes increasingly difficult to define the “self” and the “foreign”. We may try to assign a “good guy” and “bad guy” status to navigate our 21st century but we also realize that we are so interconnected that these 20th century approaches are no longer applicable.

The cell biologist in me cringed when I read Han’s immunologic and neuronal metaphors. Yes, it is true that successfully combatting infectious diseases constituted major biomedical victories in the 20th century but these battles are far from over. The recent Ebola virus scare, the persistence of malaria resistance, the under-treatment of HIV and the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria all indicate that immunology and infectious disease will play central roles in the biomedical enterprise of the 21st century. The view that the immune system clearly distinguishes between “self” and “foreign” is also overly simplistic because it ignores that autoimmune diseases, many of which are on the rise and for which we still have very limited treatment options, are immunological examples of where the “self” destroys itself. Even though I agree that neuroscience will likely be the focus of biomedical research, it seems like an odd choice to select a handful of psychiatric illnesses as representing the 21st century while ignoring major neuronal disorders such as Alzheimer’s dementia, stroke or Parkinson’s disease. He also conflates specific psychiatric illnesses with the generalized increase in perceived fatigue and exhaustion.

Once we move past these ill- chosen biomedical examples, Han’s ideas become quite fascinating. He suggests that the reason why we so often feel exhausted and fatigued is because we are surrounded by a culture of positivity. At work, watching TV at home or surfing the web, we are inundated by not-so-subtle messages of what we can do. Han quotes the example of the “Yes We Can” slogan from the Obama campaign. “Yes We Can” exudes positivity by suggesting that all we need to do is try harder and that there may be no limits to what we could achieve. The same applies to the Nike “Just Do It” slogan and the thousands of self-help books published each year which reinforce the imperative of positive thinking and positive actions.

Here is the crux of Han’s thesis. “Yes We Can” sounds like an empowering slogan, indicating our freedom and limitless potential. But according to Han, this is an illusory freedom because the message enclosed within “Yes We Can” is “Yes We Should”. Instead of living in a Disziplinargesellschaft(disciplinary society) of the past where our behavior was clearly regulated by societal prohibitions and commandments, we now live in a Leistungsgesellschaft (achievement society) in which we voluntarily succumb to the pressure of achieving. The Leistungsgesellschaft is no less restrictive than the Disziplinargesellschaft. We are no longer subject to exogenous prohibitions but we have internalized the mandates of achievement, always striving to do more. We have become slaves to the culture of positivity, subjugated by the imperative “Yes, We Should”. Instead of carefully contemplating whether or not to pursue a goal, the mere knowledge that we could achieve it forces us to strive towards that goal. Buying into the “Yes We Can” culture chains us to a life of self-exploitation and we are blinded by passion and determination until we collapse. Han uses the sad German alliteration “Erschöpfung, Ermüdung und Erstickung” (“exhaustion, fatigue and suffocation”) to describe the impact that an excess of positivity has once we forgo our ability to say “No!” to the demands of the achievement society. We keep on going until our minds and bodies shut down and this is why we live in a continuous state of exhaustion and fatigue. Han does not view multitasking as a sign of civilizational progress. Multitasking is an indicator of regression because it results in a broad but rather superficial state of attention and thus prevents true contemplation

It is quite easy for us to relate to Han’s ideas at our workplace. Employees with a “can-do” attitude are praised but you will rarely see a plaque awarded to commemorate an employee’s “can-contemplate” attitude. In an achievement society, employers no longer have to exploit us because we willingly take on more and more tasks to prove our own self-worth.

While reading Han’s book, I was reminded of a passage in Bertrand Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness” in which he extols the virtues of reducing our workload to just four hours a day:

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion.

While Russell’s essay proposes reduction of work hours as a solution, Han’s critique of the achievement society and its impact on generalized fatigue and malaise is not limited to our workplace. By accepting the mandate of continuous achievement and hyperactivity, we apply this approach even to our leisure time. Whether it is counting the steps we walk with our fitness activity trackers or competitively racking up museum visits as a tourist, our obsession with achievement permeates all aspects of our lives. Is there a way out of this vicious cycle of excess positivity and persistent exhaustion? We need to be mindful of our right to refuse. Instead of piling on tasks for ourselves during work and leisure we need to recognize the value and strength of saying “No”. Han introduces the concept of “heilende Müdigkeit” (healing tiredness), suggesting that there is a form of tiredness that we should welcome because it is an opportunity for rest and regeneration. Weekend days are often viewed as days reserved for chores and leisure tasks that we are unable to pursue during regular workdays. By resurrecting the weekend as the time for actual rest, idleness and contemplation we can escape from the cycle of exhaustion. We have to learn not-doing in a world obsessed with doing.

Notes: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily Blog. Müdigkeitsgesellschaft was translated into English in 2015 and is available as “The Burnout Society” by Stanford University Press.


Byung-Chul Han (2015). The Burnout Society Stanford University Press

The Dire State of Science in the Muslim World

Universities and the scientific infrastructures in Muslim-majority countries need to undergo radical reforms if they want to avoid falling by the wayside in a world characterized by major scientific and technological innovations. This is the conclusion reached by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama in their recent commentary “Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world“, published in the scientific journal Nature. The physics and astronomy professor Guessoum (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) and Osama, who is the founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative, use the commentary to summarize the key findings of the report “Science at Universities of the Muslim World” (PDF), which was released in October 2015 by a task force of policymakers, academic vice-chancellors, deans, professors and science communicators. This report is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of scientific education and research in the 57 countries with a Muslim-majority population, which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Map of Saudi Arabia in electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)
Map of Saudi Arabia using electronic circuits via Shutterstock (copyright drical)

Here are some of the key findings:

1.    Lower scientific productivity in the Muslim world: The 57 Muslim-majority countries constitute 25% of the world’s population, yet they only generate 6% of the world’s scientific publications and 1.6% of the world’s patents.

2.    Lower scientific impact of papers published in the OIC countries: Not only are Muslim-majority countries severely under-represented in terms of the numbers of publications, the papers which do get published are cited far less than the papers stemming from non-Muslim countries. One illustrative example is that of Iran and Switzerland. In the 2014 SCImago ranking of publications by country, Iran was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country with nearly 40,000 publications, just slightly ahead of Switzerland with 38,000 publications – even though Iran’s population of 77 million is nearly ten times larger than that of Switzerland. However, the average Swiss publication was more than twice as likely to garner a citation by scientific colleagues than an Iranian publication, thus indicating that the actual scientific impact of research in Switzerland was far greater than that of Iran.

To correct for economic differences between countries that may account for the quality or impact of the scientific work, the analysis also compared selected OIC countries to matched non-Muslim countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) values (PDF). The per capita GDP in 2010 was $10,136 for Turkey, $8,754 for Malaysia and only $7,390 for South Africa. However, South Africa still outperformed both Turkey and Malaysia in terms of average citations per scientific paper in the years 2006-2015 (Turkey: 5.6; Malaysia: 5.0; South Africa: 9.7).

3.    Muslim-majority countries make minimal investments in research and development: The world average for investing in research and development is roughly 1.8% of the GDP. Advanced developed countries invest up to 2-3 percent of their GDP, whereas the average for the OIC countries is only 0.5%, less than a third of the world average! One could perhaps understand why poverty-stricken Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not have the funds to invest in research because their more immediate concerns are to provide basic necessities to the population. However, one of the most dismaying findings of the report is the dismally low rate of research investments made by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, the economic union of six oil-rich gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar with a mean per capita GDP of over $30,000 which is comparable to that of the European Union). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, invest less than 0.1% of their GDP in research and development, far lower than the OIC average of 0.5%.

So how does one go about fixing this dire state of science in the Muslim world? Some fixes are rather obvious, such as increasing the investment in scientific research and education, especially in the OIC countries which have the financial means and are currently lagging far behind in terms of how much funds are made available to improve the scientific infrastructures. Guessoum and Athar also highlight the importance of introducing key metrics to assess scientific productivity and the quality of science education. It is not easy to objectively measure scientific and educational impact, and one can argue about the significance or reliability of any given metric. But without any metrics, it will become very difficult for OIC universities to identify problems and weaknesses, build new research and educational programs and reward excellence in research and teaching. There is also a need for reforming the curriculum so that it shifts its focus from lecture-based teaching, which is so prevalent in OIC universities, to inquiry-based teaching in which students learn science hands-on by experimentally testing hypotheses and are encouraged to ask questions.

In addition to these commonsense suggestions, the task force also put forward a rather intriguing proposition to strengthen scientific research and education: place a stronger emphasis on basic liberal arts in science education. I could not agree more because I strongly believe that exposing science students to the arts and humanities plays a key role in fostering the creativity and curiosity required for scientific excellence. Science is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, and scientists can benefit greatly from studying philosophy, history or literature. A course in philosophy, for example, can teach science students to question their basic assumptions about reality and objectivity, encourage them to examine their own biases, challenge authority and understand the importance of doubt and uncertainty, all of which will likely help them become critical thinkers and better scientists.

However, the specific examples provided by Guessoum and Athar do not necessarily indicate a support for this kind of a broad liberal arts education. They mention the example of the newly founded private Habib University in Karachi which mandates that all science and engineering students also take classes in the humanities, including a two semester course in “hikma” or “traditional wisdom”. Upon reviewing the details of this philosophy course on the university’s website, it seems that the course is a history of Islamic philosophy focused on antiquity and pre-modern texts which date back to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The task force also specifically applauds an online course developed by Ahmed Djebbar. He is an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France, which attempts to stimulate scientific curiosity in young pre-university students by relating scientific concepts to great discoveries from the Islamic “Golden Age”. My concern is that this is a rather Islamocentric form of liberal arts education. Do students who have spent all their lives growing up in a Muslim society really need to revel in the glories of a bygone era in order to get excited about science? Does the Habib University philosophy course focus on Islamic philosophy because the university feels that students should be more aware of their cultural heritage or are there concerns that exposing students to non-Islamic ideas could cause problems with students, parents, university administrators or other members of society who could perceive this as an attack on Islamic values? If the true purpose of liberal arts education is to expand the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on non-Islamic philosophy? It is definitely not a good idea to coddle Muslim students by adulating the “Golden Age” of Islam or using kid gloves when discussing philosophy in order to avoid offending them.

This leads us to a question that is not directly addressed by Guessoum and Osama: How “liberal” is a liberal arts education in countries with governments and societies that curtail the free expression of ideas? The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because of his liberal views that were perceived as an attack on religion. Faculty members at universities in Saudi Arabia who teach liberal arts courses are probably very aware of these occupational hazards. At first glance, professors who teach in the sciences may not seem to be as susceptible to the wrath of religious zealots and authoritarian governments. However, the above-mentioned interdisciplinary nature of science could easily spell trouble for free-thinking professors or students. Comments about evolutionary biology, the ethics of genome editing or discussing research on sexuality could all be construed as a violation of societal and religious norms.

The 2010 study Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university surveyed professors at an anonymous GCC university (most likely Qatar University since roughly 25% of the faculty members were Qatari nationals and the authors of the study were based in Qatar) regarding their views of academic freedom. The vast majority of faculty members (Arab and non-Arab) felt that academic freedom was important to them and that their university upheld academic freedom. However, in interviews with individual faculty members, the researchers found that the professors were engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid untoward repercussions. Here are some examples of the comments from the faculty at this GCC University:

“I am fully aware of our culture. So, when I suggest any topic in class, I don’t need external censorship except mine.”

“Yes. I avoid subjects that are culturally inappropriate.”

“Yes, all the time. I avoid all references to Israel or the Jewish people despite their contributions to world culture. I also avoid any kind of questioning of their religious tradition. I do this out of respect.”

This latter comment is especially painful for me because one of my heroes who inspired me to become a cell biologist was the Italian Jewish scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She revolutionized our understanding of how cells communicate with each other using growth factors. She was also forced to secretly conduct her experiments in her bedroom because the Fascists banned all “non-Aryans” from going to the university laboratory. Would faculty members who teach the discovery of growth factors at this GCC University downplay the role of the Nobel laureate Levi-Montalcini because she was Jewish? We do not know how prevalent this form of self-censorship is in other OIC countries because the research on academic freedom in Muslim-majority countries is understandably scant. Few faculty members would be willing to voice their concerns about government or university censorship and admitting to self-censorship is also not easy.

The task force report on science in the universities of Muslim-majority countries is an important first step towards reforming scientific research and education in the Muslim world. Increasing investments in research and development, using and appropriately acting on carefully selected metrics as well as introducing a core liberal arts curriculum for science students will probably all significantly improve the dire state of science in the Muslim world. However, the reform of the research and education programs needs to also include discussions about the importance of academic freedom. If Muslim societies are serious about nurturing scientific innovation, then they will need to also ensure that scientists, educators and students will be provided with the intellectual freedom that is the cornerstone of scientific creativity.


Guessoum, N., & Osama, A. (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526(7575), 634-6.

Romanowski, M. H., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university. Prospects, 40(4), 481-497.



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




Guessoum N, & Osama A (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526 (7575), 634-6 PMID: 26511563



Romanowski, M., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university PROSPECTS, 40 (4), 481-497 DOI: 10.1007/s11125-010-9166-2