Wednesday, February 29, 2012

the perils of email

like most technological advances, email is both a blessing and a curse. emailing with students really exemplifies how it can be both. its of course good because they have access to me, and i have access to them, when im not in my office. it is also bad because they send emails more than they should (in my opinion). i actually dont have an attendance policy, but that doesnt stop students from emailing me when they won't be in class. and i appreciate it, usually; its good to know if a student cant make it to class, and that it matters to them that they are going to miss! but what is a bit of an overshare is when they are sick, and they give me the details..the number of times i have read the word "puking" in an email is too many!

here are some of my favorites:

"I'm really sorry but I'm home sick today -  A bunch of people at my house have been sick and I woke up today with a sore throat and a fever :("

"I had to leave work early because I am feeling super sick to my stomach and have been throwing up since. I believe I must have ate something last night or this morning that did not sit well with me because I am now feeling quite awful."

"I'm sorry, but I will not be in class today. I slept like crap last night and I have a horrible migraine...grrr."

"I was not able to go to class on Monday due to the fact that I was sick."

"So I won't be able to make it to class today...I think I ate something bad last night and I've been throwing up for the past hour."

"This finals period has been an absolute train-wreck. It started with me getting the stomach flu, where I spent three days in bed throwing up."

oh no, i iz gunna PUKE.!!

Sunday, February 12, 2012


this semester at Oxy I am teaching the course i designed for the politics department. the title is American Political Behavior and Psychology and the course description outlines a semester of studying political behaviors and attitudes (explicitly consistency and stability of political attitudes), with tools from the discipline of psychology. if you know the topic of my dissertation, then you know i am specifically interested in how our personality traits impact stability of political attitudes, especially in the face of new and/or framed information. For example, the general attitude stability question might ask: when presented through the lens of individual and/or 2nd Amendment rights, will the most staunch, anti-gun liberal be more likely to express support for gun rights? and i merely add an addendum but suggesting, sure, depending on the personality of the particular liberal.

but another aspect we study in the class is the effect of emotions, or as the scientific community calls it, "affect." in political science, the impact of emotions on decision-making has almost exclusively been assumed to be negative; when we make decisions that are driven by our emotions our reason is inhibited and/or distracted, and the subsequent decision is then insufficient.  

this understanding of the impact of our emotions on decision-making as having maladaptive effects, underlies much of the political theory of the American Constitution, and other government apparatuses put in place by the Founders. For example, James Madison, in Federalist no. 10 justified support for republican features of national government--electing representatives instead of direct democracy--on the basis of a need to protect the people from their own volatile opinion swing. The eventual Constitution only gave normal citizens the right to elect their member of the House of Reps. originally, Senators were chosen by state representatives; while that has since changed (in 1913), we still elect our president via an electoral college. 

one earlier proprietor of emotion and affective decision-making as substandard and ultimately dangerous was Thomas Hobbes.

for Hobbes, the state of nature is one of competition, fear and distrust, and our psychology is dominated by passions, which must be tamed. it is this condition that then justifies the necessity of an authority to make rules, and individuals to then obey those rules. 

but research from evolutionary psychology would fault this very premise; our emotions are not insufficient, but actually learned, sophisticated, and productive. according to evolutionary psych, particular emotions, and emotional reactions persist because of their utility; because they solved adaptive problems in the ancestral environments on which their human lives evolved, these responses continue. 

emotions, from the evolutionary psych perspective, are best understood as evolved information-processing programs that are not at odds with reason, but exist in concert with reason. 

when i teach the impact of emotions on political decision-making i use the idea of emotional intelligence to suggest particular individuals are more efficient at using their emotions to make decisions, than others. emotional intelligence, in sum, is the ability to recognize the relevance of one's emotional reactions to the object at hand. thus, how relevant is your gag-reflux reaction to newt gingrich to your vote choice? if you a. recognize the emotion you are experiencing and then b. assess its relevance to the situation, you are "emotionally intelligent." 

this conception of emotions and different levels of intelligence, then, does not discredit hobbes, and other theorist who were also wary of the "masses." in fact, for hobbes, it is the emotion of fear, a very real and often justified feeling, that enables citizens to give up some of their freedoms to an authority, for protection--as long as everyone else is giving up some of their freedoms, as well.

hobbes is my favorite of the philosophers and thinkers that influenced the Founders' thinking and worldviews. while his most often quoted passage is somewhat of a bummer (life as poor, nasty, brutish and short), i think he was much less cynical, than some suggest. his main goal was accomplishing peace! and thus, i like to think of hobbes as a intellectual hippie :) and i'll leave you with that image in mind.