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

Let Them Make My Cake: Exporting Burden, Importing Convenience in the Externalization Society

On 5 November 2015, an iron ore tailings dam burst in Bento Rodrigues near the Brazilian city of Mariana, releasing 60 million cubic meters of a reddish-brown mud-flood. This toxic flood buried neighboring villages and flowed into the Rio Doce, contaminating the river with several hazardous metals including mercury, arsenic and chromium as well as potentially harmful bacteria. The devastating and perhaps irreparable damage to the ecosystem and human health caused by this incident are the reason why it is seen as one of the biggest environmental disasters in the history of Brazil. The German sociologist Stephan Lessenich uses this catastrophe as a starting point to introduce the concept of the Externalisierungsgesellschaft(externalization society) in his book Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis (“Around us, the deluge: The externalization society and its cost”).

What is the externalization society? According to Lessenich, this expression describes how developed countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany transfer or externalize risks and burdens to developing countries in South America, Africa and Asia. The Bento Rodrigues disaster is an example of the environmental risk that is externalized. Extracting metals that are predominantly used by technology-hungry consumers in developed countries invariably generates toxic waste which poses a great risk for the indigenous population of many developing countries. The externalized environmental risks are not limited to those associated with mining raw materials. The developed world is also increasingly exporting its trash into the third world.

The US, for example, are the world’s largest exporter of paper trash, exporting scrap paper worth US$ 3.1 billion each year. The US is also the largest producer of electronic waste (E-Waste), estimated at more than 7 million tons of E-Waste per year (PDF). Every new smartphone or tablet release generates mountains of E-Waste as consumers discard their older devices. Re-cycling the older devices sounds like a reasonable solution bu true recycling and re-using of electronic components is quite costly and time-consuming. It is also often not clear which electronic components of devices actually get recycled. To track the fate of discarded electronic devices, Jim Puckett from the Basel Action Network and his colleagues placed GPS-trackers in old electronics dropped off at US-based recycling centers. They found that a third of the “recycled” electronics were shipped overseas to countries such as Mexico, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Kenya. Puckett used the GPS signal to identify the sites where the E-Waste ended up and visited such a location in Hong Kong, where he found that the “recycled” electronics were being dismantled in junkyards by migrant workers from mainland China who were not wearing any protective clothing that would have protected them from hazardous materials released during the extraction of salvageable E-Waste materials. There are many regulations that restrict the trading of E-Waste but the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that up to 90% of the world’s E-Waste is traded or dumped illegally. This means that even though dropping off old devices at a recycling center may alleviate the conscience of consumers, a significant number of these will not be re-used but instead shipped off to junkyards in other countries – without appropriate monitoring of how these electronic waste products will affect the local environment and health of the population.

Exporting environmental risks to developing countries by either outsourcing high-risk extraction of raw materials or simply dumping waste is just one example of externalization according the Lessenich. Externalizing occupational health risks and poverty by severely under-paying workers are other examples. Bangladesh has now emerged as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of clothing because of its cheap labor. In 2011, the typical monthly wage of a garment industry worker in Bangladesh was estimated at $91 per month – roughly one and a half dollars per day! In addition to this dismally low pay, garment factory workers in Bangladesh also face terrible occupational risks. The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in 2013 which called over 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500 people is just one example of the occupational risks faced by the workers.

Lessenich’s concept of the externalization society isn’t just another critique of the global inequality that we so often hear about. The fundamental principle of the externalization society put forth by Lessenich is the interdependence between the “imperial lifestyle” of wealth and comfort in the developed world and the “wretched lifestyle” of poverty and hardship in the developing world. If those of us who live in the developed world want the convenience of upgrading our smartphones every few years or buying cheap cotton t-shirts, then we need those who manufacture these products in the developing world to be paid lousy wages. If those workers were paid humane wages and their employers instituted appropriate occupational safety measures, as well as health and disability insurance plans that are routine in most parts of the developed world, then the cost of the products would be incompatible with our current economy and lifestyle which are fueled by consumerism and the capitalist imperative of incessant growth.

The pillars of the externalization society are indifference and ignorance. We are indifferent because we see the differential in lifestyle as a Selbstverständlichkeit – a German word for obviousness or taken-for-grantedness. They were born in developing countries, so of course they have to struggle – tough luck, they ended up with the wrong lottery tickets. This Selbstverständlichkeit also extends to the limited mobility of the people born in the developing world. They lack the birthright of the developing world citizens whose passports allow them to either travel visa-free or obtain a visa to nearly any country in the world with minimal effort. This veneer of Selbstverständlichkeit is easiest to maintain if “they” and “their” problems are invisible and thus allow us to ignore the interdependence between our good fortune and their misery. We might see images of the toxic flood in Brazil but few, if any, members of the externalization society will link the mining of cheap iron in Brazil to the utensils they use in their everyday life.

A decade ago, disposable single-use coffee pods such as the Keurig K-cups or the Nespresso pods were extremely rare but by 2014, K-cup manufactures sold a mind-boggling 9 billion K-cups! A new need for disposable products that had previously been met by standard coffee machines arose without considering the environmental and global impact of this need. In theory, the K-cups are recyclable but this would require careful separating of the paper, plastic and the aluminum top. It is not clear how many K-cups are properly recycled, and the E-Waste example shows that even if items are transported to recycling centers, that does not necessarily mean that they will be successfully recycled. Prior to the advent coffee pods, our coffee demands had been easily met without generating additional mountains of disposable plastic and aluminum coffee pod trash. Out of nowhere, there arose a new need for aluminum which again is extracted from the aluminum ore bauxite – another process that generates toxic waste. Instead of feeling a sense of absolution when we drop a disposable item into a recycling bin, we should simply curtail unnecessary consumption of products in disposable containers.

How do we overcome the externalization society? We can make concerted efforts through advocacy, education and regulations that restrict exporting environmental waste, improve health and safety conditions for workers in the developing world and try to restrict our consumerist excesses by clarifying the interdependence between wealth in the externalization society and the poverty in the developing world as well as the moral imperative to abrogate the inequality and asymmetry. Numerous advocates have already attempted this approach for the past decades with limited success. Maybe instead of appealing to the ethics of interdependence, a more effective approach may be to educate each other about the consequences of the interdependence. When millions of refugees show up at the doorstep of the externalization society, “they” are no longer invisible. One can blame wars, religious extremism and political ideologies for the misery of the refugees but it becomes harder to ignore the extent and central role of the underlying inequality. Creating humane working and living conditions for people in the developing world is perhaps the most effective way to stop the so-called “refugee crisis“.

Global climate change is another threat to the externalization society, a threat of its own making. Transferring carbon footprints and pollution to other countries does not change the fact that the whole planet is suffering from the consequences of climate change. Political leaders of the externalization society often demand the closing of borders, erecting walls and expanding their armed forces so they are less likely to have to confront the victims of their externalization but no army or wall is strong enough to lower the rising water levels or stabilize the climate. The externalization society will end not because of a crisis of conscience but because its excesses are undermining its own existence.


Lessenich, S. (2016). Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis. Hanser Berlin.


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

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

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.

Blissful Ignorance: How Environmental Activists Shut Down Molecular Biology Labs in High Schools

Hearing about the HannoverGEN project made me feel envious and excited. Envious, because I wish my high school had offered the kind of hands-on molecular biology training provided to high school students in Hannover, the capital of the German state of Niedersachsen. Excited, because it reminded me of the joy I felt when I first isolated DNA and ran gels after restriction enzyme digests during my first year of university in Munich. I knew that many of the students at the HannoverGEN high schools would be similarly thrilled by their laboratory experience and perhaps even pursue careers as biologists or biochemists.

What did HannoverGEN entail? It was an optional pilot program initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen at four high schools in the Hannover area. Students enrolled in the HannoverGEN classes would learn to use molecular biology tools typically reserved for college-level or graduate school courses in order to study plant genetics. Some of the basic experiments involved isolating DNA from cabbage or how learning how bacteria transfer genes to plants, more advanced experiments enabled the students to analyze whether or not the genome of a provided maize sample had been genetically modified. Each experimental unit was accompanied by relevant theoretical instruction on the molecular mechanisms of gene expression and biotechnology as well as ethical discussions regarding the benefits and risks of generating genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). The details of the HannoverGEN program are only accessible through the the Wayback Machine Internet archive because the award-winning educational program and the associated website were shut down in 2013 at the behest of German anti-GMO activist groups, environmental activists, Greenpeace, the Niedersachsen Green Party and the German organic food industry.

Why did these activists and organic food industry lobbyists oppose a government-funded educational program which improved the molecular biology knowledge and expertise of high school students? A press release entitled “Keine Akzeptanzbeschaffung für Agro-Gentechnik an Schulen!” (“No Acceptance for Agricultural Gene Technology at Schools“) in 2012 by an alliance representing “organic” or “natural food” farmers accompanied by the publication of a critical “study” with the same title (PDF), which was funded by this alliance as well as its anti-GMO partners, gives us some clues. They feared that the high school students might become too accepting of biotechnology in agriculture and that the curriculum did not sufficiently highlight all the potential dangers of GMOs. By allowing the ethical discussions to not only discuss the risks but also mention the benefits of genetically modifying crops, students might walk away with the idea that GMOs could be beneficial for humankind. The group believed that taxpayer money should not be used to foster special interests such as those of the agricultural industry which may want to use GMOs.

A response by the University of Hannover (PDF), which had helped develop the curriculum and coordinated the classes for the high school students, carefully analyzed the complaints of the anti-GMO activists. The author of the anti-HannoverGEN “study” had not visited the HannoverGEN laboratories, nor had he had interviewed the biology teachers or students enrolled in the classes. In fact, his critique was based on weblinks that were not even used in the curriculum by the HannoverGEN teachers or students. His analysis ignored the balanced presentation of biotechnology that formed the basis of the HannoverGEN curriculum and that discussing potential risks of genetic modification was a core topic in all the classes.

Unfortunately, this shoddily prepared “study” had a significant impact, in part because it was widely promoted by partner organizations. Its release in the autumn of 2012 came at an opportune time for political activists because Niedersachsen was about to have an election. Campaigning against GMOs seemed like a perfect cause for the Green Party and a high school program which taught the use of biotechnology to high school students became a convenient lightning rod. When the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a coalition after winning the election in early 2013, nixing the HannoverGEN high school program was formally included in the so-called coalition contract. This is a document in which coalition partners outline the key goals for the upcoming four year period. When one considers how many major issues and problems the government of a large German state has to face, such as healthcare, education, unemployment or immigration, it is mind-boggling that de-funding a program involving only four high schools received so much attention that it needed to be anchored in the coalition contract. In fact, it is a testimony to the influence and zeal of the anti-GMO lobby.

Once the cancellation of HannoverGEN was announced, the Hannover branch of Greenpeace also took credit for campaigning against this high school program and celebrated its victory. The Greenpeace anti-GMO activist David Petersen said that the program was too cost intensive because equipping high school laboratories with state-of-the-art molecular biology equipment had already cost more than 1 million Euros. The previous center-right government which had initiated the HannoverGEN project was planning on expanding the program to even more high schools because of the program’s success and national recognition for innovative teaching. According to Petersen, this would have wasted even more taxpayer money without adequately conveying the dangers of using GMOs in agriculture.

The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green Party coalition government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists were representing their own special interests. The “study” attacking HannoverGEN was funded by the lucrative “organic” or “natural food” food industry! Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles stating that squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could not lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive relevant formal science education and thus make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry by scientists and science writers did not make much of a difference. It did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.

In 2014, the government of Niedersachsen then announced that they would resurrect an advanced biology laboratory program for high schools with the generic and vague title “Life Science Lab”. By removing the word “Gen” from its title which seems to trigger visceral antipathy among anti-GMO activists, de-emphasizing genome science and by also removing any discussion of GMOs from the curriculum, this new program would leave students in the dark about GMOs. Ignorance is bliss from an anti-GMO activist perspective because the void of scientific ignorance can be filled with fear.

From the very first day that I could vote in Germany during the federal election of 1990, I always viewed the Green Party as a party that represented my generation. A party of progressive ideas, concerned about our environment and social causes. However, the HannoverGEN incident is just one example of how the Green Party is caving in to ideologies, thus losing its open-mindedness and progressive nature. In the United States, the anti-science movement, which attacks teaching climate change science or evolutionary biology at schools, tends to be rooted in the right wing political spectrum. Right wingers or libertarians are the ones who always complain about taxpayer dollars being wasted and used to promote agendas in schools and universities. But we should not forget that there is also a different anti-science movement rooted in the leftist and pro-environmental political spectrum – not just in Germany. As a scientist, I feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to support the Green Party because of its anti-science stance.

I worry about all anti-science movements, especially those which attack science education. There is nothing wrong with questioning special interests and ensuring that school and university science curricula are truly balanced. But the balance needs to be rooted in scientific principles, not political ideologies. Science education has a natural bias – it is biased towards knowledge that is backed up by scientific evidence. We can hypothetically discuss dangers of GMOs but the science behind the dangers of GMO crops is very questionable. Just like environmental activists and leftists agree with us scientists that we do not need to give climate change deniers and creationists “balanced” treatment in our science curricula, they should also accept that much of the “anti-GMO science” is currently more based on ideology than on actual scientific data. Our job is to provide excellent science education so that our students can critically analyze and understand scientific research, independent of whether or not it supports our personal ideologies.


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

Feel Our Pain: Empathy and Moral Behavior

“It’s empathy that makes us help other people. It’s empathy that makes us moral.” The economist Paul Zak casually makes this comment in his widely watched TED talk about the hormone oxytocin, which he dubs the “moral molecule”. Zak quotes a number of behavioral studies to support his claim that oxytocin increases empathy and trust, which in turn increases moral behavior. If all humans regularly inhaled a few puffs of oxytocin through a nasal spray, we could become more compassionate and caring. It sounds too good to be true. And recent research now suggests that this overly simplistic view of oxytocin, empathy and morality is indeed too good to be true.


Many scientific studies support the idea that oxytocin is a major biological mechanism underlying the emotions of empathy and the formation of bonds between humans. However, inferring that these oxytocin effects in turn make us more moral is a much more controversial statement. In 2011, the researcher Carsten De Dreu and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands published the study Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism which studied indigenous Dutch male study subjects who in a blinded fashion self-administered either nasal oxytocin or a placebo spray. The subjects then answered questions and performed word association tasks after seeing photographic images of Dutch males (the “in-group”) or images of Arabs and Germans, the “out-group” because prior surveys had shown that the Dutch public has negative views of both Arabs/Muslims and Germans. To ensure that the subjects understood the distinct ethnic backgrounds of the target people shown in the images, they were referred to typical Dutch male names, German names (such as Markus and Helmut) or Arab names (such as Ahmed and Youssef).

Oxytocin increased favorable views and word associations but only towards in-group images of fellow Dutch males. The oxytocin treatment even had the unexpected effect of worsening the views regarding Arabs and Germans but this latter effect was not quite statistically significant. Far from being a “moral molecule”, oxytocin may actually increase ethnic bias in society because it selectively enhances certain emotional bonds. In a subsequent study, De Dreu then addressed another aspect of the purported link between oxytocin and morality by testing the honesty of subjects. The study Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty showed that oxytocin increased cheating in study subjects if they were under the impression that dishonesty would benefit their group. De Dreu concluded that oxytocin does make us less selfish and care more about the interest of the group we belong to.

These recent oxytocin studies not only question the “moral molecule” status of oxytocin but raise the even broader question of whether more empathy necessarily leads to increased moral behavior, independent of whether or not it is related to oxytocin. The researchers Jean Decety and Jason Cowell at the University of Chicago recently analyzed the scientific literature on the link between empathy and morality in their commentary Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?, and find that the relationship is far more complicated than one would surmise. Judges, police officers and doctors who exhibit great empathy by sharing in the emotional upheaval experienced by the oppressed, persecuted and severely ill always end up making the right moral choices – in Hollywood movies. But empathy in the real world is a multi-faceted phenomenon and we use this term loosely, as Decety and Cowell point out, without clarifying which aspect of empathy we are referring to.

Decety and Cowell distinguish at least three distinct aspects of empathy:

1. Emotional sharing, which refers to how one’s emotions respond to the emotions of those around us. Empathy enables us to “feel” the pain of others and this phenomenon of emotional sharing is also commonly observed in non-human animals such as birds or mice.

2. Empathic concern, which describes how we care for the welfare of others. Whereas emotional sharing refers to how we experience the emotions of others, empathic concern motivates us to take actions that will improve their welfare. As with emotional sharing, empathic concern is not only present in humans but also conserved among many non-human species and likely constitutes a major evolutionary advantage.

3. Perspective taking, which – according to Decety and Cowell – is the ability to put oneself into the mind of another and thus imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. This is a more cognitive dimension of empathy and essential for our ability to interact with fellow human beings. Even if we cannot experience the pain of others, we may still be able to understand or envision how they might be feeling. One of the key features of psychopaths is their inability to experience the emotions of others. However, this does not necessarily mean that psychopaths are unable to cognitively imagine what others are thinking. Instead of labeling psychopaths as having no empathy, it is probably more appropriate to specifically characterize them as having a reduced capacity to share in the emotions while maintaining an intact capacity for perspective-taking.

In addition to the complexity of what we call “empathy”, we need to also understand that empathy is usually directed towards specific individuals and groups. De Dreu’s studies demonstrated that oxytocin can make us more pro-social as long as it benefits those who we feel belong to our group but not necessarily those outside of our group. The study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses by Xu and colleagues at Peking University used fMRI brain imaging in Chinese and Caucasian study subjects and measured their neural responses to watching painful images. The study subjects were shown images of either a Chinese or a Caucasian face. In the control condition, the depicted image showed a face being poked with a cotton swab. In the pain condition, study subjects were shown a face of a person being poked with a needle attached to syringe. When the researchers measured the neural responses with the fMRI, they found significant activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is part of the neural pain circuit, both for pain we experience ourselves but also for empathic pain we experience when we see others in pain. The key finding in Xu’s study was that ACC activation in response to seeing the painful image was much more profound when the study subject and the person shown in the painful image belonged to the same race.

As we realize that the neural circuits and hormones which form the biological basis of our empathy responses are so easily swayed by group membership then it becomes apparent why increased empathy does not necessarily result in behavior consistent with moral principles. In his essay “Against Empathy“, the psychologist Paul Bloom also opposes the view that empathy should form the basis of morality and that we should unquestioningly elevate empathy to virtue for all:

“But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.”

I do not think that we can dismiss empathy as a factor in our moral decision-making. Bloom makes a good case for distanced compassion and kindness that does not arise from the more visceral emotion of empathy. But when we see fellow humans and animals in pain, then our initial biological responses are guided by empathy and anger, not the more abstract concept of distanced compassion. What we need is a better scientific and philosophical understanding of what empathy is. Empathic perspective-taking may be a far more robust and reliable guide for moral decision-making than empathic emotions. Current scientific studies on empathy often measure it as an aggregate measure without teasing out the various components of empathy. They also tend to underestimate that the relative contributions of the empathy components (emotion, concern, perspective-taking) can vary widely among cultures and age groups. We need to replace overly simplistic notions such as oxytocin = moral molecule or empathy = good with a more refined view of the complex morality-empathy relationship guided by rigorous science and philosophy.



De Dreu, C. K., Greer, L. L., Van Kleef, G. A., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. J. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrismProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(4), 1262-1266.

Decety, J., & Cowell, J. M. (2014). Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior?Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 525-537.

Shalvi, S., & De Dreu, C. K. (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonestyProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(15), 5503-5507.

Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responsesThe Journal of Neuroscience, 29(26), 8525-8529.



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







De Dreu, C., Greer, L., Van Kleef, G., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (4), 1262-1266 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015316108


Decety J, & Cowell JM (2014). Friends or Foes: Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Behavior? Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 9 (5), 525-37 PMID: 25429304


Shalvi S, & De Dreu CK (2014). Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (15), 5503-7 PMID: 24706799


Xu X, Zuo X, Wang X, & Han S (2009). Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulates empathic neural responses. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 29 (26), 8525-9 PMID: 19571143

The “Invisible Web” Undermines Health Information Privacy

“The goal of privacy is not to protect some stable self from erosion but to create boundaries where this self can emerge, mutate, and stabilize. What matters here is the framework— or the procedure— rather than the outcome or the substance. Limits and constraints, in other words, can be productive— even if the entire conceit of “the Internet” suggests otherwise.

         Evgeny Morozov in “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism


We cherish privacy in health matters because our health has such a profound impact on how we interact with other humans. If you are diagnosed with an illness, it should be your right to decide when and with whom you share this piece of information. Perhaps you want to hold off on telling your loved ones because you are worried about how it might affect them. Maybe you do not want your employer to know about your diagnosis because it could get you fired. And if your bank finds out, they could deny you a mortgage loan. These and many other reasons have resulted in laws and regulations that protect our personal health information. Family members, employers and insurances have no access to your health data unless you specifically authorize it. Even healthcare providers from two different medical institutions cannot share your medical information unless they can document your consent.

Health Information Privacy via Shutterstock
Health Information Privacy via Shutterstock

The recent study “Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web” conducted by Tim Libert at the Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania) shows that we have a for more nonchalant attitude regarding health privacy when it comes to personal health information on the internet. Libert analyzed 80,142 health-related webpages that users might come across while performing online searches for common diseases. For example, if a user uses Google to search for information on HIV, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) webpage on HIV/AIDS (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/) is one of the top hits and users will likely click on it. The information provided by the CDC will likely provide solid advice based on scientific results but Libert was more interested in investigating whether visits to the CDC website were being tracked. He found that by visiting the CDC website, information of the visit is relayed to third-party corporate entities such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. The webpage contains “Share” or “Like” buttons which is why the URL of the visited webpage (which contains the word “HIV”) is passed on to them – even if the user does not explicitly click on the buttons.

Libert found that 91% of health-related pages relay the URL to third parties, often unbeknownst to the user, and in 70% of the cases, the URL contains sensitive information such as “HIV” or “cancer” which is sufficient to tip off these third parties that you have been searching for information related to a specific disease. Most users probably do not know that they are being tracked which is why Libert refers to this form of tracking as the “Invisible Web” which can only be unveiled when analyzing the hidden http requests between the servers. Here are some of the most common (invisible) partners which participate in the third-party exchanges:

Entity                                      Percent of health-related pages

Google                                                78

Facebook                                            31

Twitter                                               18

Amazon                                              16

Experian                                             5

What do the third parties do with your data? We do not really know because the laws and regulations are rather fuzzy here. We do know that Google, Facebook and Twitter primarily make money by advertising so they could potentially use your info and customize the ads you see. Just because you visited a page on breast cancer does not mean that the “Invisible Web” knows your name and address but they do know that you have some interest in breast cancer. It would make financial sense to send breast cancer related ads your way: books about breast cancer, new herbal miracle cures for cancer or even ads by pharmaceutical companies. It would be illegal for your physician to pass on your diagnosis or inquiry about breast cancer to an advertiser without your consent but when it comes to the “Invisible Web” there is a continuous chatter going on in the background about your health interests without your knowledge.

Some users won’t mind receiving targeted ads. “If I am interested in web pages related to breast cancer, I could benefit from a few book suggestions by Amazon,” you might say. But we do not know what else the information is being used for. The appearance of the data broker Experian on the third-party request list should serve as a red flag. Experian‘s main source of revenue is not advertising but amassing personal data for reports such as credit reports which are then sold to clients. If Experian knows that you are checking out breast cancer pages then you should not be surprised if this information will be stored in some personal data file about you.

How do we contain this sharing of personal health information? One obvious approach is to demand accountability from the third parties regarding the fate of your browsing history. We need laws that regulate how information can be used, whether it can be passed on to advertisers or data brokers and how long the information is stored.


Here is the Privacy Policy Summary for WebMD, a commonly visited health information portal:

   We may use information we collect about you to:

 ·         Administer your account;

·         Provide you with access to particular tools and services;

·         Respond to your inquiries and send you administrative communications;

·         Obtain your feedback on our sites and our offerings;

·         Statistically analyze user behavior and activity;

·         Provide you and people with similar demographic characteristics and interests with more relevant content and advertisements;

·         Conduct research and measurement activities;

·         Send you personalized emails or secure electronic messages pertaining to your health interests, including news, announcements, reminders and opportunities from WebMD; or

·         Send you relevant offers and informational materials on behalf of our sponsors pertaining to your health interests.


Users are provided with instructions for how they can opt out of the tracking and receiving information from the (undisclosed) sponsors but it is unlikely that the majority of users read the privacy policy pages of the various health-related websites. It is even less likely that users will go through the cumbersome process of requesting that all their information be kept private and not passed on to corporate sponsors.

Perhaps one of the most effective solutions would be to make the “Invisible Web” more visible. If health-related pages were mandated to disclose all third-party requests in real-time such as pop-ups (“Information about your visit to this page is now being sent to Amazon“) and ask for consent in each case, users would be far more aware of the threat to personal privacy posed by health-related pages. Such awareness of health privacy and potential threats to privacy are routinely addressed in the real world and there is no reason why this awareness should not be extended to online information.




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


Libert, Tim. “Privacy implications of health information seeking on the Web” Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 3, Pages 68-77, March 2015, doi: 10.1145/2658983 (PDF)



Libert, T. (2015). Privacy implications of health information seeking on the web Communications of the ACM, 58 (3), 68-77 DOI: 10.1145/2658983