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Monday, May 7, 2012

Studies on the mind can make you crazy

Trying to figure out what makes us tick
By Will Collette

Part of what makes humans human is self-awareness. So it follows that researchers will devote careers trying to understand behavioral traits, especially those behaviors that exceed the norm or cause alarm. 

I keep waiting for a caravan of researchers to arrive and set up shop in Charlestown, especially after the recent Westerly Sun editorial that worried aloud that perhaps Charlestownians get just a little too emotional and excited about politics.

That's certainly worth considering as we roll on through one crisis after the other here in town, whether it’s the use (or abuse) of taxpayer funds, fair taxation policies, the use of Ninigret Park, policies toward children and working families, the fitness of our Town Administrator, charges of five-year conspiracies, claims of cover-ups and duplicity, and the wind.

Yep, here in Charlestown, we are a bunch of excitable boys and girls.

One reason might be the close proximity of the Westerly Wal-Mart, just over our western border. 

Researchers from Penn State, New Mexico State and Michigan State recently collaborated on a study cited in  According to the researchers, there is statistically significant data showing the presence of a Wal-Mart store was a more important marker of heightened participation in hate groups than high unemployment and crime or low educational levels.

The researchers noted that Wal-Mart (and perhaps other Big Box stores) usually kill off smaller local merchants, leading to a diminished sense of community. While they studied Wal-Mart, the researchers admit their findings could apply to other stores as well.

"We're not trying to pick on Wal-Mart," said one researcher. "In this study, Wal-Mart is really serving as a proxy for any type of large retailer." 

Maybe Wal-Mart is the reason there is so little cooperation among Charlestown citizens. You hear how new  and controversial plans are brought forward without cooperation among the various Town bodies that should be working together. The Planning Commission is frequently mentioned as acting without consultation on subjects that are part of other commission’s portfolios. There are also complaints about the way that Planning also ignores the advice and input they get from other groups.

That can cost more than just the town’s harmony, according to researchers at the Trinity College Dublin’s Theoretical Ecology Research Groupin the UK. They report complex social interactions, especially cooperation, are the key to intelligence.

Since it’s impractical to experiment directly on human brains and to expect to monitor evolutionary changes except over many generations, the researchers crafted a digital model to simulate human interactions over 50,000 generations.

They introduced social games into the model where the two main options for “winning” the game were cooperating or cheating. Their results were that when their digital societies employed cooperation, this led to “mutations” that increased the size and complexity of intelligence, while cheating doesn't.

“The transitions to cooperative societies from uncooperative ones select for intelligence because of the constant risk of being exploited by uncooperative individuals,” Luke McNally explained. “This requires memory of past interactions and use of this memory to make decisions.”

The researchers warned that cooperation does not always lead to greater intelligence (citing the examples of social insects such as bees, wasps and ants), Nor does it necessarily lead to a better society, as evidenced by the cooperation needed in cultures that use cooperation to unite their populace to oppress or conquer other cultures.

Two other recent stories caught my eye. Though they are not about scientific studies on human behavior, they do serve, I believe, as interesting social commentary.
One comes from the Indianapolis Star about a heated political battle in Johnson County, Indiana over an upcoming referendum on a $30 million library construction project.
Naturally, there is organized activity both for and against the new library, but it was the recent campaign finance report filed by the anti-library group that raised eyebrows. Supporters of the library project cited the group’s gaffe as all the more reason the community needed to invest in the library. See the heading of their campaign disclosure report at right.

Finally, there’s a report about new municipal rules in the villageof La Toba, Spain. La Toba has a new “courtesy charter” that sets out 65 rules of conduct that may well provide the Charlestown Planning Commission with ideas for lots of new ordinances. 

LaToba Mayor Julian Atienza Garcia issued the charter which forbids, slurping, burping, something called “parping,” farting, coughing without covering your mouth, nose-picking, touching certain parts of the body while in public (remember the old Bill Cosby routine?).

It forbids yawning, talking while eating, requires people to say “please” and “thank you,” and to wash their hands after using the toilet.

Though all of these rules are standard etiquette, it is unusual to see them codified into law. But isn’t it nice when you have the power – or at least think you do – to make your pet peeves and life’s annoyances unlawful?