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

Are American Professors More Responsive to Requests Made by White Male Students?

Less than one fifth of PhD students in the United States will be able to pursue tenure track academic faculty careers once they graduate from their program. Reduced federal funding for research and dwindling support from the institutions for their tenure-track faculty are some of the major reasons for why there is such an imbalance between the large numbers of PhD graduates and the limited availability of academic positions. Upon completing the program, PhD graduates have to consider non-academic job opportunities such as in the industry, government agencies and non-profit foundations but not every doctoral program is equally well-suited to prepare their graduates for such alternate careers. It is therefore essential for prospective students to carefully assess the doctoral program they want to enroll in and the primary mentor they would work with. The best approach is to proactively contact prospective mentors, meet with them and learn about the research opportunities in their group but also discuss how completing the doctoral program would prepare them for their future careers.


The vast majority of professors will gladly meet a prospective graduate student and discuss research opportunities as well as long-term career options, especially if the student requesting the meeting clarifies the goal of the meeting. However, there are cases when students wait in vain for a response. Is it because their email never reached the professor because it got lost in the internet ether or a spam folder? Was the professor simply too busy to respond? A research study headed by Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the lack of response from the professor may in part be influenced by the perceived race or gender of the student.

Milkman and her colleagues conducted a field experiment in which 6,548 professors at the leading US academic institutions (covering 89 disciplines) were contacted via email to meet with a prospective graduate student. Here is the text of the email that was sent to each professor.

Subject Line: Prospective Doctoral Student (On Campus Next


Dear Professor [surname of professor inserted here],

I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming Fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.

I will be on campus next Monday, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.

 Thank you in advance for your consideration.


[Student’s full name inserted here]

As a professor who frequently receives emails from people who want to work in my laboratory, I feel that the email used in the research study was extremely well-crafted. The student only wants a brief meeting to explore potential opportunities without trying to extract any specific commitment from the professor. The email clearly states the long-term goal – applying to doctoral programs. The tone is also very polite and the student expresses willingness of the prospective student to a to the professor’s schedule. Each email was also personally addressed with the name of the contacted faculty member.

Milkman’s research team then assessed whether the willingness of the professors to respond depended on the gender or ethnicity of the prospective student.  Since this was an experiment, the emails and student names were all fictional but the researchers generated names which most readers would clearly associate with a specific gender and ethnicity.

Here is a list of the names they used:

White male names:  Brad Anderson, Steven Smith

White female names:  Meredith Roberts, Claire Smith

Black male names: Lamar Washington, Terell Jones

Black female names: Keisha Thomas, Latoya Brown

Hispanic male names: Carlos Lopez, Juan Gonzalez

Hispanic female names: Gabriella Rodriguez, Juanita Martinez

Indian male names: Raj Singh, Deepak Patel

Indian female names: Sonali Desai, Indira Shah

Chinese Male names; Chang Huang, Dong Lin

Chinese female names: Mei Chen, Ling Wong

The researchers assessed whether the professors responded (either by agreeing to meet or providing a reason for why they could not meet) at all or whether they simply ignored the email and whether the rate of response depended on the ethnicity/gender of the student.

The overall response rate of the professors ranged from about 60% to 80%, depending on the research discipline as well as the perceived ethnicity and gender of the prospective student. When the emails were signed with names suggesting a white male background of the student, professors were far less likely to ignore the email when compared to those signed with female names or names indicating an ethnic minority background. Professors in the business sciences showed the strongest discrimination in their response rates. They ignored only 18% of emails when it appeared that they had been written by a white male and ignored 38% of the emails if they were signed with names indicating a female gender or ethnic minority background. Professors in the education disciplines ignored 21% of emails with white male names versus 35% with female or minority names. The discrimination gaps in the health sciences (33% vs 43%) and life sciences (32% vs 39%) were smaller but still significant, whereas there was no statistical difference in the humanities professor response rates. Doctoral programs in the fine arts were an interesting exception where emails from apparent white male students were more likely to be ignored (26%) than those of female or minority candidates (only 10%).

The discrimination primarily occurred at the initial response stage. When professors did respond, there was no difference in terms of whether they were able to make time for the student. The researchers also noted that responsiveness discrimination in any discipline was not restricted to one gender or ethnicity. In business doctoral programs, for example, professors were most likely to ignore emails with black female names and Indian male names. Significant discrimination against white female names (when compared to white males names) predicted an increase in discrimination against other ethnic minorities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that having higher representation of female and minority faculty at an institution did not necessarily improve the responsiveness towards requests from potential female or minority students.

This carefully designed study with a large sample size of over 6,500 professors reveals the prevalence of bias against women and ethnic minorities at the top US institutions. This bias may be so entrenched and subconscious that it cannot be remedied by simply increasing the percentage of female or ethnic minority professors in academia. Instead, it is important that professors understand that they may be victims of these biases even if they do not know it. Something as simple as deleting an email from a prospective student because we think that we are too busy to respond may be indicative of an insidious gender or racial bias that we need to understand and confront. Increased awareness and introspection as well targeted measures by institutions are the important first steps to ensure that students receive the guidance and mentorship they need, independent of their gender or ethnic background.


Milkman KL, Akinola M, Chugh D. (2015). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678–1712.

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


Milkman KL, Akinola M, & Chugh D (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. The Journal of applied psychology, 100 (6), 1678-712 PMID: 25867167

Imagine: Listening to Songs Which Make Us More Generous

It does not come as a surprise that background music in a café helps create the ambience and affects how much customers enjoy sipping their cappuccinos. But recent research suggests that the choice of lyrics can even impact the social behavior of customers. The researcher Nicolas Ruth and his colleagues from the University of Würzburg (Bavaria, Germany) assembled a playlist of 18 songs with pro-social lyrics which they had curated by surveying 74 participants in an online questionnaire as to which songs conveyed a pro-social message. Examples of pro-social songs most frequently nominated by the participants included “Imagine” by John Lennon or “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson. The researchers then created a parallel playlist of 18 neutral songs by the same artists in order to truly discern the impact of the pro-social lyrics.


Here is an excerpt of both playlists

Artist                                    Pro-social playlist               Neutral playlist

P!nk                                         Dear Mr. President                    Raise Your Glass

John Lennon                           Imagine                                     Stand By Me

Michael Jackson                    Heal the World                         Dirty Diana

Nicole                                      Ein bisschen Frieden               Alles nur für dich

Pink Floyd                               Another Brick in the Wall      Wish You Were Here

Scorpions                                Wind of Change                        Still Loving You

Wiz Khalifa                              See You Again                          Black and Yellow

The researchers then arranged for either the neutral or the pro-social playlist to be played in the background in a Würzburg café during their peak business hours and to observe the behavior of customers. The primary goal of the experiment was to quantify the customers’ willingness to pay a surcharge of 0.30 Euros for fair trade coffee instead of regular coffee. Fair trade coffee is more expensive because it is obtained through organizations which offer better trading conditions to coffee bean farmers, prohibit child labor and support sustainable farming practices. Information about fair trade coffee was presented on a blackboard in the center of the café so that all customers would walk past it and the server was trained by the researchers to offer the fair trade surcharge in a standardized manner. The server also waited for a minimum of six minutes before taking the orders of guests so that they would be able to hear at least two songs in the background. During the observation period, 123 customers heard the prosocial playlist whereas 133 heard the neutral playlist.

The effect of this brief exposure to prosocial songs was quite remarkable. The percentage of customers who opted for the more expensive fair trade coffee option doubled when they head prosocial songs! Only 18% of customers hearing the neutral playlist were willing to pay the extra 0.30 Euros – even though they had also seen the information board about the benefits of fair trade coffee – but 38% of the customers hearing prosocial songs opted for the fair trade option.

Interestingly, hearing prosocial songs did not affect the tipping behavior of the customers. Independent of what music was playing in the background, customers tipped the server roughly 12% of the bill. This is in contrast to a prior study conducted in a French restaurant in which hearing prosocial songs increased the tipping behavior. One factor explaining the difference could be the manner by which the songs were selected. The French study specifically created a playlist of prosocial songs with French lyrics whereas the Würzburg playlist contained mostly English-language songs, often with global themes such as world peace, brotherhood and abolishing boundaries. Supporting fair trade may be more consistent with the images evoked by these global-themed songs than increased tipping of a server in Germany. It is also important to note that servers or waiters in Germany are comparatively well-compensated by restaurants and cafés, therefore they do not really depend on their income from tips.

The Würzburg experiment raises some intriguing questions about how music – either consciously or subconsciously – affects our immediate decision-making. The researchers went to great lengths to minimize confounding factors by matching up songs from the same artists in both playlists. Their work is also one of the first examples of a field study in a real-world setting because prior studies linking music and pro-social behavior have been mostly conducted in laboratory settings where pro-social behavior is experimentally simulated. But one also needs to consider some caveats before generalizing the results of the study.

Würzburg is a university town where students represent a significant proportion of the population. The researchers estimated that more than 40% of the customers were in their 20s, consistent with a principal student clientele which may be more mindful of the importance of fair trade. The history of Würzburg is also noteworthy because more than 80% of the city was destroyed in a matter of minutes during the Second World War when the British Royal Air force firebombed this predominantly civilian city and killed an estimated 5,000 residents. Residents of the city may be therefore especially sensitive to songs and imagery that evoke the importance of peace and the perils of war.

Some of the next steps in exploring this fascinating link between background music and behavior is to replicate the findings in other cities and also with participants from varying age groups and cultural backgrounds. Another avenue of research could be to assess whether the content of the lyrics affects distinct forms of behavior. Are there some prosocial songs which would increase local prosocial behavior such as tipping or supporting local charities whereas others may increase global social awareness? How long do the effects of the music last? Are customers consciously aware of the lyrics they are hearing in the background or are they just reacting subconsciously? The number of questions raised by this study shows us how exciting the topic is and that we will likely see more field studies in the years to come that will enlighten us.


1.              Ruth, N. (2016). Heal the World”: A field experiment on the effects of music with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior. Psychology of Music, (in press).

2.              Jacob, C., Guéguen, N., & Boulbry, G. (2010). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on tipping behavior in a restaurant. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 29(4), 761-763.


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



Ruth, N. (2016). “Heal the World”: A field experiment on the effects of music with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735616652226

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.

Empathy, Connectedness and Responsibility: German Academics Discuss the Refugee Crisis

Nearly half a million applications for asylum submitted by refugees were processed by German authorities in 2015, according to the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration. The number of people who were officially registered in Germany as potential asylum seekers was even far higher-roughly one million in 2015 – which suggests that Germany anticipates an even higher number of official asylum applications for 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has defied many critics even in her own party and cabinet by emphasizing that Germany can and will take on more refugees, most of whom are coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can do it!” (“Wir schaffen das!”) was the phrase she used in September of 2015 to convey her optimism and determination in the face of ever-growing numbers of refugees and the gradual rise of support for far right extremist demonstrations and violent attacks by far right extremists on refugees centers in Germany.

Refugees welcome


The German media and right wing populists are currently obsessing about statistics such as the fact that the far right and libertarian party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) will garner 10% of the popular vote or that the vast majority of the refugees are male and could lead to a demographic gender shift if they remain in Germany. While such statistics serve as an important barometer of the political climate in the German electorate or to prepare for the challenges faced by the refugees and German society in the next years, they do not address the fundamental philosophical questions raised by this refugee crisis. In the latest issue of the popular German philosophy periodical “Philosophie Magazin“, the editors asked philosophers and other academic scholars to weigh in on some of the key issues and challenges in the face of this crisis.

Should we be motivated by a sense of global responsibility when we are confronted with the terrible suffering experienced by refugees whose homes have been destroyed? The sociologist Hartmut Rosa at the University of Jena responds to this question by suggesting that we should focus on Verbundenheit (“connectedness”) instead of Verantwortung (“responsibility”).  Demanding that those of us who lead privileged lives of safety and reasonable material comfort should feel individually responsible for the suffering of others can lead to a sense of moral exhaustion. Are we responsible for the suffering of millions of people in Syria and East Africa? Are we responsible for the extinction of species as a consequence of climate change? Instead of atomizing – and thus perhaps even rendering irrelevant – the abstract concept of individual responsibility, we should become aware of how we are all connected.

We are connected with the children of Syria and Somalia by virtue of the fact that they are fellow humans who deserve to live, learn and love. We are connected to the species facing extinction by climate change because we share the ecosystems of this planet and our species may also face extinction. For Rosa, the sense of connectedness is what motivates us to help the refugees without trying to precisely determine our relative global responsibility.

Are rational thoughts or emotions a better guide for how to respond to the refugee crisis? The philosopher Volker Gerhardt from the Humboldt University of Berlin emphasizes the importance of balancing rational and emotional responses. Rationally calculating the economic cost of taking on refugees and the benefit of increasing the younger workforce once the refugees are granted permission to settle and work in Germany does not do justice to the issues. Gerhardt is aware of his own background as the child of a refugee mother after World War II who were both cared for by their relatives. Every time he sees a photo of a refugee child, it evokes memories of his own past and serves as a motivation to help. But he is also aware of the limits of such emotional and rational willingness to help. Currently, hundreds of thousands of German citizens are volunteering to help and welcome the refugees by donating their time, money and other essentials but the German government needs to realize that this spirit of charity may become exhausted if the influx of refugees is not restricted. Hilde Landweer is a philosopher at the Free University of Berlin who studies the philosophy of emotions. She explains the underlying mechanisms which allow us to feel empathy for refugees. According to Landweer, there are three components which allow to feel empathy: 1) we have to feel a sense of similarity towards the other person, 2) we have to be able “experience” their situation and 3) we have to realize that one day, we might be able to also find ourselves in such a situation. Germany’s leadership role in its willingness to help the refugees when compared to other developed countries – Britain is planning on taking in 5,000 Syrian refugees per year, the USA only 1,000 to 1,500 – may be rooted in the fact that Germans can identify with the plight of the Syrian refugees. Millions of Germans experienced expulsion and forced resettlement from their homelands after World War II when post-war Germany was carved up. Landweer believes that empathy can be nurtured by meeting refugees and hearing about their personal narratives. But empathy needs to be more than shared pain, it needs to also include looking forward to how one can restore security and joy. This positive vision is what ultimately motivates us to help.

Does Germany have a unique historic responsibility when responding to the refugee crisis? Aleida Assmann is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Konstanz who studies collective memory and its impact on German culture. Assmann refers to the Erinnerungskultur – the culture of remembrance – in Germany. Contemporary Germans are aware of the fact that their ancestors either actively participated or passively ignored the mass murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other ethnicities. According to Assmann, this historic responsibility is sometime summarized as “Auschwitz should never occur again!” but she takes a broader view of this responsibility. The root of Auschwitz was the labeling of fellow humans as fremd – foreign, alien or “other” – which did not deserve respect, empathy and help. Our historic responsibility requires that we avoid the trap of viewing refugees as fremd and instead encounter them with a sense of fellowship. The inherited burden of the Nazi past becomes an opportunity for Germany to define its future: Do we want to become a society that closes its doors to fellow humans in despair or do we want to welcome them in order to build a future society characterized by caring and sharing.

These are just some of the responses given by the philosophers in the Philosophie Magazin issue but they filled me with hope. As a German living in the USA, I often fall into the trap of reading clickbait and sensationalist news articles about the refugee crisis such as the rise of crimes committed by both right wing extremists and refugees in Germany, the imagery of refugees “flooding” German cities and the political gossip about Merkel’s future. But thinking more deeply about the core issues reminds us that what is at stake in Germany is our humanity. Yes, it will be challenging to integrate millions of refugees and provide them with a new Heimat – homeland – but our history and culture compels us to act in a humane fashion and not ignore the plight of fellow human beings.




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