The True Rewards of Giving

12012228_f520Would most people rather save one person or save the world? The answer might surprise you.

University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic asked subjects for donations to save a little girl from starvation. To one group he gave no other information; to the other group he added that this girl was one of millions of other starving people. Logically, that extra bit of information should make no difference, since the girl being saved is the same.

But as one of my mentors likes to say, human beings are psychological and not logical creatures. Case in point: subjects in the second group donated about half as much money as those in the first group.

Click here to read the whole article.

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What Ferguson teaches us about ourselves

imgresDoes living in St. Louis make me an authority on the Ferguson riots or the Michael Brown shooting? On the one hand, local news offers a view of events more pure, more raw, and more personal than anything found in national coverage.  More significant, perhaps, is how the fear of spreading violence, made real by advisory statements from local police and local rabbis, descended upon our community more palpably than the first snowfall of winter.

But let’s be honest. The violence hasn’t spread. Ten miles sounds perilously close to the images spilling over television screens around the world; but I was no more affected by the rioting than you were in New York or Israel or Madagascar.

In University City, St. Louis’s predominantly Torah observant neighborhood, you find an even mixture of middle-class Jews and middle-class blacks.  The families next door and across the street from my house are African American, and we couldn’t wish for nicer neighbors.  Indeed, for all the portents of spreading violence, not a whisper of civil unrest has disturbed our ethnically divided neighborhood… Baruch Hashem.

So who am I to opine on the Ferguson violence?  Frankly, my perspective has more to do with what I do than with where I live.  I’m a high school teacher.  My subject is Jewish history.

So my first thought was that Jews have had plenty of cause for grievance over the generations.  Relentless Roman pogroms, forced conversions by Almohad Muslims, massacres by the Crusader armies, the Cossack uprising in Poland, the expulsion of Jews from Spain (and Portugal, and Britain, and France, ad nauseum), the blood libels of Europe and North Africa and, of course, the Holocaust, have provided ample justification for a culture of entitlement based on historical victimhood.

imagesAnd yet the Jews have never responded that way.  Our collective equanimity comes largely from our religious sensitivity, which dictates that absolute justice is reserved for the World to Come; the best we can hope for in this world is an imperfect system that prevents, according to the teaching of our sages, man from swallowing his fellow alive.  We need only watch recent news reports to witness what happens when the rule of law is abandoned.

And so, collectively, we have accepted with stoicism the injustices perpetrated upon us by the nations of the earth, defending ourselves when we could, resigning ourselves to Divine judgment when we could not.  But we never responded with random violence, never vented our rage against one another, never burned down our own communities because we had no where else to direct our fury.

Well, almost never.

Click here to read the whole article.

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The Poetry of Pop

imagesAnd now for something completely different.

Is there depth and poetry in popular music?  You bet… if you know where to look for it.  Here are my candidates for the best song lyrics of all time.

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The Illusion of Wisdom

HydrantSeat belts. Shoulder straps. Air bags. Radial tires. Automatic headlights. Warning chimes. Back up cameras.

It’s only a matter of time before car manufacturers introduce the next big safety innovation… and the next, and the next… inexorably making us safer and safer as we take to the roadways.

Or so it would seem.

But are we really safer, or are we indulging an illusion of safety that may actually place us in greater danger?

Click here to read the whole article.

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The Self-Esteem Fallacy

100_1181Take a ride in a glass elevator, from ground level to rooftop in a single ride. How do you feel?

If you’re like most people, you feel — well, you feel like you’re on top of the world. You feel good about yourself and believe in your ability to overcome any obstacle and conquer every challenge. The only downside is — well, going down. By the time you get to the bottom, not only have your feelings of grandeur evaporated, but now you feel a bit puny, somewhat insignificant, and less than capable.

But wait! you can save yourself the effort. Researchers have discovered that you can awaken the same responses by merely imagining yourself soaring skyward or plummeting earthward. With a little visualization, you can create your own mood.

But what happens next?

That’s what Max Ostinelli, David Luna, and Torsten Ringbergat wanted to find out. According to NPR, the three University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, psychologists had people imagine themselves rising up into the sky, then asked them to solve a series of SAT-style math problems. With all that positive self-esteem pumping up their neural pathways, certainly their performance should have increased significantly. Right?

Wrong. They did worse. A lot worse.

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When Statistics Lie

All right statisticians, the gloves are off.  Get ready for a fight.

Home from college, my son presented me with the Monty Hall paradox (which I had encountered before with similar incredulity). With the self-assurance unique to denizens of the ivory tower, he argued passionately against my insistence that the universally accepted conclusion is a statistical fiction that has no basis in reality.

For the uninitiated, the famous problem goes like this:

You are a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal, and Monty Hall (the original show-host) offers you a choice of three doors. You choose Door Number 2. Obviously, your odds of winning the Ferrari are three-to-one against.

Monty then reveals that behind Door Number 3 is a goat. Not only are you still in the running, but your odds have just shortened to even-money.

So here’s the question: Given the option, should you stay with your original choice of Door Number 2 or switch your bet and take Door Number 1?

Most of us would say that it doesn’t matter. With two possibilities, your chances are 50-50, no matter which door you choose. So why switch?

Logical Nonsense

But that’s not what Statisticians say. Rather, since your original choice left you with a ⅔ chance of losing, one of the two ways you could have lost is now removed. Consequently, Door Number 1 now absorbs the ⅓ probability that previously resided with Door Number 3. In other words, the chance of the Ferrari appearing behind Door Number 2 remains at ⅓ while the chance of it appearing behind Door Number 1 doubles to ⅔.

Really?

Mathematically, this makes perfect sense. Practically speaking, it is utter nonsense. I’m still left with two unknowns, which are just as unknown as they were before the cranberry sauce appeared. Two chances: even-money; 50-50. That’s all there is to it.

No! Scream the statisticians. We’ve proven it mathematically. We’ve even tested it, and it works.

Well, maybe they have. I don’t know; I wasn’t there. But the popular illusionists Siegfried and Roy demonstrated a lot of interesting phenomena, too, so forgive me if a remain a skeptic.

You won’t forgive me, Mr. Statistician? Okay, I’ll prove I’m right.

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Dance with Joy

Finding the hidden meaning of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah

Simchas_TorahWhat is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?

According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.

“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”

In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.

This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping orfrolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.

Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.

Read the whole article here.

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