The great folksinger Odetta was born on this day, December 31st, in 1930. Here's her rendition of the Bob Dylan antiwar classic "With God on Our Side".
The great folksinger Odetta was born on this day, December 31st, in 1930. Here's her rendition of the Bob Dylan antiwar classic "With God on Our Side".
Last July, Leigh Alexander, who covers the culture and business of interactive entertainment for a number of major publications, wrote the following article. It was written before the #gamergate craziness erupted, but contains a number of excellent suggestions for approaching the issue of online sexism. She gave blanket permission to reprint the article provided that the article is not altered, and that a link be provided to her site. I've only recently discovered her writing, and recommend that you go to her site, and add her articles to your regular reading list. She writes about games and other forms of online and digital entertainment in a manner that assumes her readers are adults.
The article follows.
But WHAT CAN BE DONE: Dos and Don’ts To Combat Online Sexism
You may notice that a lot of things happen to do with sexism on the internet. Sometimes someone has done a sexist thing and people are talking about it. Sometimes someone has written an article about the time they experienced sexism and other people are having feelings about it. Sometimes a particular woman or women is being harassed on Twitter and you are witnessing it.
As you know, sexism is bad, and when bad things happen, you might have feelings about it too. But how can you help? What should be done? Here is a guide:
DON’T: Tweet at women asking them “what should be done”. When someone is venting about systemic injustice, commandeering their attention with the question, “but what solutions would you recommend” is akin to walking up to a person who is on fire and asking them to bring you a bucket of water so that you can “help.”
DON’T: Make the person who is clearly suffering from the effects of an unfair system do free work for you. If you need more information to understand what you see happening, you have ways of obtaining it: Look at someone’s profile and read their feed or their conversations. Look at links that have been posted. Google. Ask your own friends. You can find a Game of Thrones torrent from anywhere in the world, and you can find out what has happened or is being discussed without making people who are obviously upset or occupied explain it to you. Some people may have high public profiles and busy feeds; some people may even be experiencing stressful interactions, even threats. You are not helping by butting in with “link please” or “did I miss something.”
DON’T: Feel like you have to give a response. Sometimes people simply want to be heard and understood, and you do not need to prove you are a good person by offering a pithy reply or insincerely fist-shaking along. One component of sexism is that men tend to inherently expect that what they say is valuable, and that a statement from a woman cannot possibly stand alone without their contributions. It is totally and entirely possible that you might have nothing to add, and you could benefit from the conversations of those who do.
DON’T: Try to explain things. Understand that even if the person you are addressing is not an authority in her field (though she often may be, as sexism targets prominent women) you ought not automatically assume she needs you to let her know how things go in her field, unless she has asked. Experiment with the idea that her experience is not whatsoever about you and it’s not the time for you to attention-seek or offer an ‘alternative perspective’.
And absolutely don’t try to explain to a woman writer or speaker what sexism is or what is happening to her. She knows.
DON’T: Tone-police. Does she sound enraged, impatient, and bitter? Is she not being especially nice to all the people who have Tweeted at her to explain sexism, ask her how to solve sexism, or otherwise undermine the things she is saying? Too bad. You wouldn’t be nice either if you lived in a system which consistently conspired to remove your authority and devalue your work. No matter what happens, you are not the victim in the situation — do not re-center conversations on yourself and your needs and emotions by pestering angry women to talk more nicely to you.
Did she hurt your feelings? You’ll live. Ditch the passive aggressive “fair enough” and “I was merely trying to” and “as you wish” and all of this, leave her alone, and consider your obligation to be part of the solution to a system that has harmed her and made her angry. If you think women, particularly women who are public figures, should feel an equally-important sense of obligation to make you feel good about yourself while they are under stress, congratulations: You are part of the problem.
DON’T: Make stupid jokes. You might be one of tons of people Tweeting at her, tone is hard to read online, and you shouldn’t be putting anyone, especially someone who does not actually know you, in charge of figuring out your sense of humor when they are under stress. You might just be trying to lighten things up or cheer the situation, but let people be angry, let them have heated discussions if they want and need to. Imagine this: Your dog dies, and a stranger walking past thinks you should cheer up, or take it less seriously, and decides to joke about your dead dog. What would you think of them?
You aren’t the mood police, and joking when someone is upset just sends the message that you don’t want to take her feelings or challenges seriously.
DO: Express your feelings of support. When you see something unjust happen, say that you condemn it. When someone’s the victim of destructive sexist behavior, defend them– not in a brownie points-seeking way, directing your comments at the victim herself or copying women into your Tweets so that they know you’re a good guy — but in your own channels. When you see friends and colleagues passing on destructive opinions, challenge them. By engaging the issue yourself, you take responsibility.
DO: Consider the well-being of others. When a woman or group of women becomes the victim of sexist harassment in public, spotlighting them isn’t always helpful, even if it’s well-intentioned. Tweeting “Everyone currently spewing hateful bullshit @thisperson is a jerk” expresses a noble and true sentiment, but it also does two things: puts the spotlight on @thisperson and the volume of hate speech circulating around her, and also risks attracting more jerks. Good intentions aren’t quite enough: Think about the impact your statement may have, and make sure you’re not just creating more social media noise for someone. You do not improve someone’s level of stress or overstimulation with a wall of five replies from you about how bad you feel for her.
DO: Boost the individual and her work, not her victimhood. No woman who experiences sexism in her profession wants to be known primarily for “being a woman who experiences sexism.” It is right to defend and support women, and it is right to condemn sexism, but sometimes the best way to do that is by supporting their work. Hundreds of hair-tearing tweets protesting all the terrible sexist things that are happening to so-and-so can actually have the same ultimate effect as sexism: In both cases, the woman is reduced simply to “victim of sexism”.
Instead of Tweeting “it sucks what’s happening to @thisperson, why are people so evil and why is this industry so terrible,” consider something more like “I support @thisperson, author of this impactful paper [link]” or “I respect @thisperson, one of the best speakers on [topic] that I’ve ever seen.” Be sincere and not flowery or excessive — sometimes when people are trying to diminish someone because of their gender, talking about their achievements instead is the best countermeasure. Keep the individual at the center of the story, not the people harassing her nor the fact of her harassment. Don’t say “it’s so brave, what you do.” Say “I like something you created.”
And remember, women are individuals who all do different kinds of work, not a hive mind of “women writers” “women programmers” or “harassment victims” for you to group together.
DO: Take on some of the battles. When you see someone attacking a woman — or even just asking the kind of obtuse “but why is this a problem” questions we’ve already discussed in point one, here — explain and correct. Provide resources. Injustice and inequality of all kinds happen because people don’t recognize or realize the myriad way society has written different, deeply-ingrained rules for some people versus others, and information and empathy are keys to solving that problem. It should not only be women and minorities who are in charge of disseminating this information and heading up this fight.
Offer to moderate your friend’s Twitter feed or her website comments at stressful times (if it’s someone you know personally, who would trust you with her login information). Empower yourself to do better than just watching things happen with angst and concern, feeling bad about yourself and wondering “what can be done”. Take the lead sometimes, especially when you see someone being assailed, and share the load.
DO: Be aware of your own power and how you can use it to help others. It’s tough for women when they speak or write about sexism, or become victims of public harassment, to see strangers on Twitter care about what is happening to them — but their male peers, the organization they work for, their colleagues and coworkers remain silent in public. Don’t just send her a nice note in private about how bad it looks like things are sucking and how you “have her back.” Actually have her back. Stand up in public and say that yours is not a professional infrastructure that allows women to be abused or treated unfairly. Say that so-and-so is a talented, valued asset you’re proud to work with or for.
The silence of our friends is so much more painful than the noise of our enemies, and when our bosses, important figures in our field, or colleagues do not come out to condemn sexism or acts of abuse against us it can be very lonesome — we get the message that sexism is our own problem, an inconvenient issue that no one wants to get their hands dirty with.
when men condemn sexism the response is universally approving — good man, brave man. When women talk about sexism, we get death threats. Men should use this advantage to the fullest: The essays guys often write about how sexism is wrong or how they came to understand their own sexism may set examples for other men, and that’s not unimportant, but it’s basically just patting their own backs if those men are not also signal-boosting and supporting the work of women colleagues, hiring women, and bringing attention to the accomplishments of the women in their field.
DO: Care about feminist issues all the time, not just when someone you like on Twitter seems to be being abused. Share and RT the stories and articles that have educated you so that others can learn from them. Regardless of gender, all of us have been sexist before and will probably be again, as sexism, like racism, is unconscious and related to the values we internalize in our societies growing up. If someone tells you you are being sexist or racist, it is not a slur against your character, but an opportunity to learn more about yourself and others. We should all be interested in continuing to read, learn and share with those around us.
[Any site or outlet has express permission to reprint this article if a. link back to my site is provided b. the article is not edited or altered in any way]
Leigh Alexander's website is https://leighalexander.net
[NOTE: I changed the title of my blog post to more accurately reflect the content of Ms. Alexander's article. I had originally written "sexual harassment" rather than "sexism"]
Yesterday afternoon, while doing a few housekeeping chores, I loaded a DVD of The Godfather to watch while putting away items cluttering the living room. I've seen the movie so many times that I can recite quite a few lines in unison with the characters.
In the environment of today's movie studio culture, it is very doubtful that a movie like The Godfather could be produced.
Jason Bailey has written an excellent article entitled How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA , published on the website Flavorwire.
The premise of the article is that major film studios are no longer willing to invest in mid-budget films (defined as movies with budgets between $5 million and $60 million dollars). Film studios now prefer the so-called "tent pole" or "blockbuster" films, that cost much more to make, but that can be enormously profitable. By concentrating on big-budget blockbusters, a studio can make enough money on one hit to absorb the losses of all the misses for the year.
The effect of this emphasis on big-budget film is that directors who have made some of the best films of the past few decades, directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Whit Stillman, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, and John Waters, are not able to consistently make movies for major studios, if they can make them at all.
An alternative available to directors is to go into the crowded marketplace of low budget independent film. Like indie culture in other artistic media, independent film is a hotbed of innovation and diverse voices. But for a director accustomed to working with much larger budgets, it is also a significant step down, in both production capabilities, and in the effectiveness and profitability of the distribution networks.
I won't summarize Bailey's article further. He builds a strong case that the huge budget "tent pole" movies have edged out the mid-budget category which gave us "The Godfather", "Metropolitan", and "Blue Velvet".
I was an avid comic book fan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so I enjoy the spectacular, big-budget superhero movies like "The Avengers", and the various incarnations of Spiderman and Batman. But I don't want them to completely edge out more thoughtful movies, with less predictable plots, and more fine-grained character development.
Bailey's article points out a depressing flaw in the way movies are being produced now, and if you love cinema, you should read it.
The "method of the loci", also known as the Memory Palace, is a mnemonic device, or a technique for remembering things. It is often used by people who compete in memory competitions. The method consists of imagining a room or set of rooms you are familiar with, and mentally walking through it, placing reminders of the things you are trying to remember in different locations in the representation of your room. I know that it works for me, since I used it at one time to remember complicated options for a set of unix commands.
Browsing Science Daily this morning, I found an article about research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for Neural Computation which may explain how method of the loci works.
They placed rats in 11 similar but distinct rooms, and let them run around seeking chocolate crumbs. The researchers monitored the activity of CA3 place cells in the brain's hippocampus as the rats explored. Place cells fire when an animal (humans included) enters a particular physical location. The researchers found that the brains of the rats would build a unique map for each room, and when a specific room has entered for a second time, the memory map created for that room earlier would activate.
This suggests that the method of the loci trick works by storing a memory of the thing you're trying to memorize with the memory map of the location. When you think about that location in detail, the thing appears along with the general characteristics of the place.
It would be interesting to know the limits of the technique. I was impressed when I used it a few years ago, and contestants in memory contests have used it to remember impressive ordered lists of things. But I wonder how it would hold up to something as complex as remembering a long list of equations, or learning a foreign language.
The Science Daily article has a link to the original study if you are interested in exploring this further.
I've been blogging for over 11 years now, and I've taken on the role of The World's Oldest Journalism Undergraduate to make a late life transition from IT into journalism. I've also set up the infrastructure for an online news publication called the Atlanta Tortoise ("Slow News is the Best News") that will be launched in the spring of 2015. At the rate of two courses per semester I'll graduate with a BA in journalism, with a concentration in print journalism, in slightly under two years. So according to plan, by the time I get my degree I will have had roughly 12 years of experience blogging, and one year running a news site.
The reason I wrote the description above is to give you an idea of my own relationship to both blogging and journalism. Both are important to me. Blogging democratized the crafts of writing and publishing, and opened up the public arena for new and diverse voices. Professional journalism and a free press is necessary for public engagement, democracy, and progress. Those may seem like boilerplate feelgood platitudes, but they are true. We need both a means of hearing the voice of the general public, even if it's a rude cacophony, and a full time professional press, with the resources and mission to "Seek Truth and Report it".
One of the unfortunate aspects of the economically painful transition from traditional forms of print journalism, to online journalism, is that the borders between blogging and reporting, and between opinion and hard or investigative news, have been blurred. Many of the most popular newsites are really expanded blogs, and the difference in standards that should be applied to this new type of media has been unclear. This is not a question of "bias", or even of "balance". It's a matter of developing reasonable standards for making the difference between hard news and opinion clear to the reader, and for giving the public a roadmap for determining which publications to trust. This is not an easy task, and written and enforced guidelines are crucial.
Which brings me to the point of this article. I strongly believe that the established ethical principles should apply to any article presented as hard news or investigative reporting. That includes both the standards for gathering the news, and the standards for the finished product. The most straightforward starting point is to make the Society of Professional Journalism's Code of Ethics the minimal acceptable standard. I would be thrilled if the public read that relatively short document, and held their news providers, both hardcopy and online publications, to that standard.
Blogging is a bit different. Even when blogs cover events in the news, they are clearly written from the viewpoint of the writer. The cost of entry for blogging is very low, so the standards for verification and fact checking, and for truth and fairness, have often been low also.
To some extent the casual and loosely fact-checked nature of blogging has infected the culture of online journalism across the board. At least one of the recent plagiarism scandals arose in part from the lack of emphasis on attribution and originality in the culture of publishing on the web. Cutting and pasting is native to the online form.
I believe that anyone writing anything for public presentation needs to operate with a deliberate and written code of ethics. This doesn't mean that bloggers can't be opinionated, satirical, expansive, sarcastic, creative, clearly biased, and activist. It means that their writing should be grounded in the basic decency and responsibility that comes from having an ethical code.
In that spirit, I've decided to adopt, for this blog, the short version of the Code of Ethics for Bloggers and Social Media and Content Creators, developed at mor10.com. I'll be studying the longer version of the document, and considering whether I want to adopt it in toto, or whether I need to develop a customized document.
The picture gets even more complicated when social media is added into the mix. What does it mean to be ethical on Twitter, Facebook, or any of the other dozens of types of new media? How should bloggers and professional journalists use social media, and how should they behave? I don't yet have a clear opinion on the subtleties of interaction on those newer, faster moving media. But when I do, the readers here will be the first to know.
I'm at the end of my fourth semester as the World's Oldest Journalism Undergraduate. I had decided to get the first part of the science requirement and my entire arts requirement out of the way this semester, so I'm finishing up Introduction to Biology, and Introduction to Theater. Both courses were interesting, but I'm anxious to get back into journalism classes.
My ideal coursework for next semester would include finishing up my biology series, and taking either one of the media writing classes or Ethics in Media. The only non-journalism requirement I have left is Public Speaking. Speaking doesn't really bother me (I'm an avid member of an active Toastmaster's club), but I'm ready to get back into the coursework I'm here for.
Depending on how time consuming my classes are next semester, I'll be launching The Atlanta Tortoise in either early or late spring. I've already put the infrastructure in place, including a website with an issue-based Wordpress magazine module and a "leaky" paywall, similar to the subscription model the New York Times uses.
I've also begun assembling a pool of freelancers who specialize in a number of different areas. Since the subject matter is going to strongly reflect my own personal idiosyncrasies (if this isn't fun and satisfying to me there's absolutely no reason to put the money and work into it), I've sought out people whose work I've seen, and whose approaches to their subjects interest and entertain me.
I've allocated sufficient resources to purchase enough articles at freelancer starvation rates to fill three monthly issues. The Atlanta Tortoise will not be The New Yorker, either in payment rates or in initial name recognition of the writers, but my goal is to reach that caliber within ten years, and to help build the careers of a great team of writers.
For now, though, I have two final exams approaching, so I'd better turn my focus back to the Krebs Cycle and electron transport systems. There will be ample time for the inverted pyramid of journalism later.
First, here is a disclaimer. This post is on a blog, and it's my opinion. I'm under no obligation to present "the other side of the story". So if anyone involved in the sustained internet harassment campaign known as "gamergate" reads this, and wants to shout "ethics in journalism", knock yourself out. But I'd encourage that person to do a little reading about the difference between hard news and editorial opinion. It's obvious that for all the talk within gamergate about journalistic ethics, gamergate has absolutely no grasp of the differences between hard news, product reviews, criticism, and editorial opinion.
I'm not a "gamer" in the currently accepted use of the word. I don't have a gaming console (and wouldn't know what to do with it if I had one), and I don't understand much of the terminology thrown around by the hardcore gaming community. The games I play are the ancient Asian board game Go, a primarily facebook based casual game called Castle Age, and retro Pacman.
While I'm not a gamer, I developed a significant interest in gamergate, an internet mob set up to harass several prominent women in the gaming community. The primary reason I have a specific interest in internet trolls, harassers, and flame war obsessives, is that about ten years ago I was cyberstalked by a mentally deranged individual across several forums for over a year. My stalker had discovered via my blog that my wife had died, so he set up several impersonation accounts under variations of her name, and began posting disgusting messages from those accounts. He also did what is now called "doxxing" (posting personally identifying information about the person being attacked).
I filed a police report to document the abuse in case it spilled over into the "real world", left the forums in question, and the incident died down. I suspect the cyberstalker chalked it up as a "win".
Gamergate, despite denials from the people involved, began as a campaign to harass a game developer named Zoe Quinn, who had created an online interactive game called Depression Quest, about what it's like to be depressed. Quinn's former boyfriend posted a long meandering attack on her, which led to intensive harassment and misogynistic attacks by an internet mob of gamers who were opposed to the introduction of social issues into game. You can read about the incident in her own words in the article 5 Things I Learned as the Internet's Most Hated Person.
After a few weeks of the harassment campaign against Quinn, the people behind the movement evidently decided that the optics of naming the attacks after the subject of the attacks was not creating great press, so a right-wing character actor with a twitter account posted a link to a video attacking Quinn with under the hashtag #gamergate. Gamergate then decided to deflect attention from the fact that their main activity was harassing a handful of women by creating the slogan "it's about ethics in gaming journalism", and by starting a number of charity campaigns. Thus began the lipstick-on-a-pig phase of gamergate.
Two years earlier, a feminist named Anita Sarkeesian had been subjected to the same treatment by many of the individuals involved in gamergate. Several other women were added to the target list as feminists, inside and outside the gaming community, began speaking out against gamergate.
I've been reading the twitter traffic on the #gamergate hashtag, and reading as much of the strategy discussion among the gamergaters on two of their other forums as I can stomach. Recently, as an experiment, I posted a negative message about gamergate on the twitter hashtag. Within a few seconds I had nearly 50 replies. I was expecting pushback, but that's the first indication I'd had of just how fanatical the people caught up in this internet mob are.
I'm not going to post on the #gamergate hashtag again, and I'm going to keep my interactions with gamergaters limited to circumstances where I think it might have a positive impact. Many naive young people, craving a sense of camaraderie, have been attracted to gamergate. I doubt that I have any ability to convince them that they are supporting and participating in a hate group. Internet echo chambers are a powerful deterrent to critical thinking.
The press has, for the most part, accurately identified gamergate as an internet harassment mob. If you'd like to read more about it, this interview with Arthur Chu is a good starting point. Or you can just do a web search. An enormous amount has been written about it since the initial attacks on Zoe Quinn.
If I write about gamergate again, I'm going to focus on why the internet is such a fertile ground for outpourings of vitriol and rage. But for now, I need a break. I feel like I've been inhaling swamp water.
I dislike headlines about scientific studies that give an inaccurate picture of the conclusion of the study, and today I found an excellent example. Publications love to do twists on "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" when reporting on studies involving apples. I regularly read Science Daily, which aggregates information on scientific studies, and generally does a pretty good job of it, with decent summaries and links to the source of the content of their articles.
Their current issue, however, ran the following headline: "An apple a day could keep obesity away".
The problem with that headline is that the study featured in the article makes no such claim. In defense of Science Daily, the same headline was used in WSU News, the source of the report. But Science Daily's editor's should still know better. As a publication reporting on science, they have a responsibility not to make the same bone-headed mistakes often made by the media in general.
The study itself. conducted at Washington State University, examined the effects of various types of apples on the colon bacteria of mice. The connection with obesity in the study is that nondigestible compounds found in apples, particularly Granny Smith apples, promote beneficial colon bacteria which might reduce inflammation in obese people, thereby lowering the risk of type II diabetes.
There is no claim in the study that apples will reduce obesity, which is strongly implied in the headline. The article, on the other hand, presents a more plausible account of the findings of the study, based on the summary published by Washington State University.
We are living in a world where advances in science have a big impact on our lives. The press has a responsibility to report on scientific issues in a manners which gives the public an accurate picture. Science Daily does a good job at this in most respects. The articles always include links to the original source of the material, and their articles tend to accurately reflect the content of the studies. They need to tighten up on their headlines, though.
I'm launching a local news site for the Atlanta area in the spring of 2015. The focus is going to be on explanatory journalism and a kind of news known as "slow news". Explanatory journalism attempts to explain the issues behind the headlines a bit more systematically, and "slow news" means that I won't have an emphasis on fast breaking headline news stories, but will slow the pace to a more steady and deliberate speed.
The title of the publication is the somewhat whimsical "Atlanta Tortoise" with the slogan will be "Slow news is the best news."
I'm starting with no staff other than myself, and will depend on buying articles from freelance writers to provide the copy that I don't have time to research and write myself.
But I want to pose a series of questions to those of you who read this. I'm trying to get an idea of what the public thinks is lacking in current news coverage, and the sort of stories they pay attention to in existing media. The publication will center on Atlanta, but people from other cities and regions, and even other countries can answer as well, because I suspect that good ideas can come from anyone's experience with local news from any location.
What topics do you think are not getting adequate coverage by local news media?
What is the first thing you read when you look at media which covers local news? (for example: sports? politics? entertainment? self-improvement articles?)
What topics would you read regularly if someone offered them on a consistent basis?
Do you have ideas on how the coverage of specific subjects from local media could be made better (For example: Do you think coverage of education issues help you to make decisions about controversies in local school systems? Do you think the particular sports the local media covers are the ones you like to follow?)
Those are very general questions, and the answers will obviously depend on your specific enthusiasms and interests. But I'm interested in getting responses from a wide range of people.
How much free will do humans really exercise? Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and ethicists have been discussing this question since those disciplines were first practiced. Whether you believe we have unlimited free will, or believe we are prisoners of our genes and life circumstances, it is evident to most people living in the 21st Century that the structure of our brain plays a role in determining what we can or cannot do. If I put my hand on a hot stove, my brain is going to scream at me to remove it, no matter how much I want to prove how much free will I can exercise.
What about something as basic to human interaction as the decision whether to lie or to tell the truth? Is it a straightforward question of integrity? Is it a fully rational decision made by the conscious mind? Or is there some area of the brain that calculates costs and benefits?
A recent research project explored the part of the brain which is active during decisions about telling the truth or lying. It is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and it is located directly behind the forehead.
I frequently read the abstracts of studies on current scientific research. Even if the topic, and the study itself, is over my head, the abstract, or the openings paragraphs in the study, can often give me a clear idea of the findings. Then, if the findings are interesting enough to me, I can try to slog through the more detailed parts of the study.
This morning I was reading the website Science Daily, which aggregates science news. One of the articles was Possible neurological basis for the tradeoff between honesty, self-interest.
The article reported on a study by Lusha Zhu, Adrianna C Jenkins, Eric Set, Donatella Scabini, Robert T Knight, Pearl H Chiu, Brooks King-Casas, and Ming Hsu at Virginia Tech's Carilion Research Institute. Their results ran in the journal Nature Neuroscience, with the title Damage to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex affects tradeoffs between honesty and self-interest.
Here's an excerpt from the Carillon Institute's web page, describing the specific question the researchers were trying to answer:
“We prefer to be honest, even if lying is beneficial,” said Lusha Zhu, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral associate at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, where she works with Brooks King-Casas and Pearl Chiu, who are assistant professors at the institute and with Virginia Tech’s Department of Psychology. “How does the brain make the choice to be honest, even when there is a significant cost to being honest?”
Previous studies have shown that brain areas behind the forehead, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, become more active during functional brain scanning when a participant is told to lie or to be honest.
But there’s no way to know if those parts of the brain are engaged because an individual is lying or because he or she prefers to be honest, King-Casas said.
This time, researchers asked a different question.
“We asked whether there’s a switch in the brain that controls the cost and benefit tradeoff between honesty and self-interest,” Chiu said. “The answer to this question will help shed light on the nature of honesty and human preferences.”
Their findings indicate that such a switch does indeed exist, and that damaging the switch can affect behavior:
We found that lesions of the human dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) decreased the effect of honesty concerns on behavior in economic games that pit honesty motives against self-interest, but did not affect decisions when honesty concerns were absent. These results point to a causal role for DLPFC in honest behavior.
I'm very fond of the notion that I can sit down, decide on a course of action, and carry out my decision by sheer exercise of will power. And I believe that we have significant leeway in making choices in our lives. I also think we can train ourselves to exhibit virtuous behaviors like honesty, But studies like the one at Virginia Tech help us understand the biological limitations we are working with. Decisions about truth and honesty, right and wrong, involve many physical processes in our brain, some of which are in our direct control, and others which go on behind the scenes.