Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

13 JANUARY, 2012

Elevator Groupthink: A Psychology Experiment in Conformity, 1962

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What vintage Candid Camera can teach us about the cultural role of the global Occupy movement.

The psychology of conformity is something we’ve previously explored, but its study dates back to the 1950s, when Gestalt scholar and social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch, known today as the Asch conformity experiments. Among them is this famous elevator experiment, originally conducted as a part of a 1962 Candid Camera episode titled “Face the Rear.”

But, while amusing in its tragicomic divulgence of our capacity for groupthink, this experiment tells only half the story of Asch’s work. As James Surowiecki reminds us in the excellent The Wisdom of Crowds, Asch went on to reveal something equally important — that while people slip into conformity with striking ease, it also doesn’t take much to get them to snap out of it. Asch demonstrated this in a series of experiments, planting a confederate to defy the crowd by engaging in the sensible, rather than nonsensical, behavior. That, it turned out, was just enough. Having just one peer contravene the group made subjects eager to express their true thoughts. Surowiecki concludes:

Ultimately, diversity contributes not just by adding different perspectives to the group but also by making it easier for individuals to say what they really think. [...] Independence of opinion is both a crucial ingredient in collectively wise decisions and one of the hardest things to keep intact. Because diversity helps preserve that independence, it’s hard to have a collectively wise group without it.”

Perhaps the role of the global Occupy movement and other expressions of contemporary civic activism is that of a cultural confederate, spurring others — citizens, politicians, CEOs — to face the front of the elevator at last.

HT Not Exactly Rocket Science

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12 JANUARY, 2012

John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter

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“If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.

Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

Complement with six tips on writing from Steinbeck.

via Letters of Note

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12 JANUARY, 2012

The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story of Humanity’s Oldest Analog Computer, circa 150 B.C.

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30 gear wheels of anachronism, or what a 2,000-year-old shipwreck reveals about the evolution of technology.

On their way back to Greece from Africa in October 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his crew of sponge divers encountered a severe storm, so they decided to wait it out on the small island of Antikythera. To pass the time, they set out to dive for sponges off the island’s coast. The first of them, Elias Stadiatos, had barely submerged 60 meters when he laid eyes on a striking sight — a heap of human and horse corpses lying on the sea bed. He rushed frantically to the surface and reported what he had seen. Kontos, suspecting carbon dioxide may have caused his fellow to hallucinate, dove into the water himself and soon resurfaced with the bronze arm of a statue. Over the two years that followed, Greek sponge divers and archaeologists recovered multiple artifacts from the shipwreck, estimated to have sunk some 2,000 years prior.

In 1902, however, archaeologist Valerious Stais made the most momentous discovery of all, and he did so from the dry safety of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — embedded in one of the pieces of rock, he noticed a discernible gear wheel. Nicknamed the Antikythera mechanism, this object became known as humanity’s oldest analog computer — an ancient mechanical device designed to calculate astronomical positions. Some scholars have even prized its historic value higher than the Mona Lisa’s.

In Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, Jo Marchant tells for the first time the fascinating story of an obsessive quest to unravel the mystery of this ancient clue that could rewrite the history of technology. It’s a story about unsung heroes, raging egomaniacs, and death-defying treasure hunts, told with a scholar’s scientific rigor and a storyteller’s penchant for intrigue.

The Antikythera mechanism’s fragments are now known to contain some 30 gear wheels, with instructional inscriptions scribbled on every surface. But what makes the discovery most extraordinary is its seeming anachronism — a curious fold in the space-time continuum of technological history. Marchant observes:

According to everything we know about the technology of the time, it shouldn’t exist. Nothing close to its sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, with the development of elaborate astronomical clocks in Renaissance Europe.”

More than an archaeological curiosity, its mystery — which took more than a century to decode — fundamentally challenges our knowledge not only about what the Ancient Greeks were and what they were capable of, but also about the timescale on which technology evolved as humanity grappled with ordering the heavens and understanding time.

Thanks, Mark

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