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Saturday, September 26, 2015

When a medical student goes to Alcoholics Anonymous

"My name is Erica and I'm an alcoholic"

is not something I could imagine myself easily sharing, much less in front of rows--at least ten rows filled--within the confines of the St. Aloysius Catholic Church, much less to follow that statement with a personal speech interjected with casual fluency interspersed with shouts from the crowd. Yet it is what I witnessed alcoholics do this Saturday evening. As a medical student non-alcoholic observing the proceedings of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was an outsider even before I stepped in. Crossing across the Harlem streets between Frederick Douglass St and 132nd St, I paused before the church with some uncertainty, before a man asked, 'Where you going, sweetie?" and as we both approached the entrance, I replied with awkward cheer, "here!"

At the entrance
Certainly he was not the first person to raise an eyebrow at my entrance--I, an Asian American twentysomething carrying my backpack, felt quite conspicuous in the midst of the middle-aged mostly black crowd. Thinking back to my visit to the Frick Collection earlier in the day, I started to reflect that my feeling of awkwardness was something these people experienced daily in entering the kind of 'white spaces' which have unconsciously become so natural for me. 

Despite feeling rather out-of-place, I also felt a great sense of camaraderie in the crowd--so that rather than feeling like an uninvited stranger at an official meeting, I felt like a new acquaintance joining a close-knit group of friends, whose inside jokes went over my head. And rather than a therapy session in which I imagined myself as a wallflower, I found myself smiling and nodding along with the shared stories like a (somewhat-clueless) audience member at a comedy show.

For their stories were reminiscent of those from The Moth radio hour where members of the public share gripping personal tales with a receptive audience--they were fun, casual, personal; they elicited laughter and cheers from the crowd; they were told with flair and comedic effect. A man with a blazer and T-shirt went up in front of the crowd, half-grunting half-laughing, "I am certified NUTS!" (laughter from the crowd) "I know I'm crazy," and, referring to his alcoholism, "I know I gotta get out." He goes on, "Alcohol removes," and with dramatic pointing, "Table.... Leg... (laughter). Brain... Kidney... Liver." And a woman with camouflage cap and shirt announces in clear, stately tones, "If it weren't for AA, I wouldn't be here today." 

The last speaker was celebrating her 14th Anniversary--that is to say, it was her 14th year as part of AA, and celebrated with candles and cake. She spoke with flair, spunk: "I was loud. I'm still loud. " And then, sincerely, "My baby teaches me to be better. You all teach me to be better." And, "Others help us see what we don't see in ourselves." As I approached her after the session, along with many others who expressed their congratulations, she turned to me with a bright smile and extended arms--"Are you new?"

I left with the feeling I get when I attend mass at a church and religion I don't "belong to," and why I attend in the first place: that the world is a better place, and can become a better place. That despite our differences, we all seek to be better. And that matters, for alcoholics and for me. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Psychologists use smartphones to measure ethics

What would you do if you could divert a train to save five men but kill one man as a result? Would you do so? What if you had to push that man in front of the train to save the others?

Psychologists often use these kinds of “trolley problems” on test subjects using desk computers in their laboratories to study our moral reasoning. But recently a study published in the journal Science went beyond hypothetical questions into real life. Psychologists now have a sophisticated lab tool for examining morality not just in the lab, but in everyday life: the smartphone.

In the study, 1252 participants of varying ages, ethnicities, and educational levels from the US and Canada texted—in their homes, in the streets, wherever they happened to be. At five random points each day, they would receive a survey by text message, and they would briefly describe the moral or immoral acts they had committed, been the target of, witnessed, or learned about (e.g., through gossip, news, and the internet) within the last hour. From the texts, the researchers were able to measure the frequency and content of moral and immoral acts.

They found that people who were non-religious committed about as many moral acts as those who were religious. And liberals reported more moral acts of fairness, liberty and honesty, while conservatives reported more moral acts of loyalty, authority, and purity. Committing a moral act was associated with a greater sense of purpose, and being the target of a moral act was associated with higher levels of happiness.

Overall, moral acts were reported just as often as immoral acts, but there were some interesting imbalances. Acts committed by the self or received from others were more than twice as likely to be moral than immoral. The opposite case emerged for learned-about acts: they were more than twice as likely to be immoral. The use of smartphones allowed researchers to examine interactions in real-life time, which previously had not been possible in the laboratory. This allowed them to examine how one moral act determined the occurrence of another throughout the day.

Their findings provided evidence for a kind of moral slacking that psychologists call “self-licensing”: people who commit a moral act early in the day are less likely to do so later on, and more likely to commit an immoral act. But there was also evidence for what psychologists call “moral contagion”: people who receive a moral act are more likely to commit a moral act themselves later that day. Self-licensing and moral contagion are amenable to social intervention. So we may be able to alter moral behavior by intervening in the moral course of people’s days.

Researchers foresee the ability to use the smartphone not only for data collection, but to provide interventions to increase self-discipline. According to the original paper, “Given these different mechanisms, it seems important to find out more about how the principles of moral contagion can be used in public policy interventions, and how moral slacking may be prevented.” The study is one of the first of its kind to study ethics outside of the laboratory. More studies will need to be done, but this one has made striking entrance into the real world.

It collected an impressive number of 13,240 responses, substantially more than most psychology studies. The larger the number of responses, the better that sample represents the general population of interest. This allows for robust results and generalization across large populations. But since participants were sampled exclusively from the West (US and Canada), researchers weren’t able to examine how cultures differ in their prioritization of moral values across cultures – a subject of great interest to moral scientists.

Still, the study provides evidence that controlled but artificial laboratory findings also apply to people’s everyday moral experiences. Although the findings are tentative, they provide important areas for further research, and new methods to do so in real-time, everyday situations. “I think of this as a first look of how morality plays out in real life,” says Dr. Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “The first telescopes didn’t tell us everything about the galaxy, but they gave us a tantalizing sense of what’s out there.”