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Do people have an innate preference to take matters into their own hands?

Do people have an innate preference to take matters into their own hands?



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People usually want to make their own decisions. Those looking for spouses often listen to their inner romantic instincts and reject advice from more experienced people. Drivers are skeptical about self-driving cars and would feel safer driving themselves. In some cases, even when unjustified, people would rather take matters into their own hands.

A convenient explanation of this is overconfidence. People may be overly confident about their ability to choose the best decision. However, it seems that this is not everything.

Even those who know that it is better to let experts decide for them have bursts of distrust. People routinely decide not to follow doctor advice, even though they know they don't have good reasons to do so. Even those exposed to thorough research on how romantic instincts are not long-lasting follow their heart when choosing spouses.

These observations lead me to suspect that people simply have an innate preference to take matters into their own hands. Is there research that can speak to this conjecture?


This is called the illusion of control:

… the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events; for example, it occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.

Some examples from the same source:

Subjects are either given tickets at random or allowed to choose their own. They can then trade their tickets for others with a higher chance of paying out. Subjects who had chosen their own ticket were more reluctant to part with it… Participants who chose their own numbers were less likely to trade their ticket even for one in a game with better odds.

On average, drivers regard accidents as much less likely in "high-control" situations, such as when they are driving, than in "low-control" situations, such as when they are in the passenger seat. They also rate a high-control accident, such as driving into the car in front, as much less likely than a low-control accident such as being hit from behind by another driver.

The illusion of control is one of several positive illusions that people have about themselves.


How to Stop Sweaty Hands: 5 Steps to Take

It’s tough to hold someone&rsquos hand if yours are covered in sweat &mdash not to mention how awkward it is if you&rsquore at an interview or meeting new people (no one likes a slippery handshake). But for those suffering from sweaty hands, it’s no laughing matter.

“Technically called hyperhidrosis, excessive sweating can be an embarrassing problem,” says Dr. Leslie Baumann, an internationally board-certified dermatologist in Miami, Florida. “Unless you suffer, most people don&rsquot realize what an impact it has on a person’s life… imagine avoiding shaking hands throughout the day.”

Fortunately, there are definitive steps a person with super-sweaty palms can take to curtail the glisten. If you’re among the clammy-clasp challenged, this is a good time to, well, take matters into your own hands.

1. Curb your anxiety

Believe it or not, one of the top triggers for sweaty palms is worrying that you’re going to have sweaty palms. “Excepting medical causes, which I believe are not that common, we can assume that almost all sweaty palms can be attributed to a form of performance anxiety,&rdquo says James I. Millhouse, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and author of The Parents Manual of Sport Psychology. “Most people with this condition tend to experience a lot of anxiety with regard to imagined future events. A person needs to realize that perception is not necessarily reality. It is important to understand the difference between wanting something to be a certain way, such as a person liking them, and it being critical that this happen.”

When a person who sweats excessively trips their anxiety meter, their eccrine glands will kick into overdrive and produce a sticky, non-smelly sweat on their hands and feet. From a primal standpoint, this comes from the fight-or-flight response (or a need to grip something harder… like a tree branch).

The way to combat this response? Learning to take a chill pill. “Excessive sweating comes with higher activation of the sympathetic nervous system, so relaxation procedures that decrease sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation and conversely increase parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation can act to decrease sweating,” says Millhouse.

Biofeedback, meditation, psychotherapy and self-hypnosis can all have a positive effect for those suffering from super-sweaty hands, triggered by stress. “Dealing with this condition psychophysiologically, as described above, is the first choice to eliminate this problem at the source and has produced dramatic results,” says Millhouse.

2. Use a hand antiperspirant

In the same way that you control underarm sweat with a roll-on, those ingredients will help stop slimy hands on the spot. The only problem is that regular drugstore antiperspirants can leave a film on your hands or be irritating. Fortunately, other sweaty-hand sufferers have started to develop products that can stop the sweat without the redness or obvious coating. One to check out? Carpe Lotion &mdash an antiperspirant hand lotion that uses a much stronger and more effective aluminum salt in its composition along with eucalyptus oil (to prevent irritation) that will keep hands sweat-free for four hours or more. To use you simply rub a pea-sized amount into palms for 10 to 15 seconds, and wait 10 minutes before whatever handholding activity you wish to undertake.

Another product to try is grip spray Awesome Chalk. Although it’s marketed mainly as a fast-drying spray to use when exercising, both to get a better grip on weight and prevent blisters, you can use it outside the gym. All you do is shake the can well, hold it approximately 6 to 8 inches from your skin and spray (for roughly two to three seconds) until your hands are coated.

3. Consider a prescription

While there aren’t any over-the-counter meds a person can take to stop sweaty hands, there are some prescription pharmaceuticals that may help. “An easy trick to stopping sweaty palms, at least temporarily, is with a class of drugs called anticholinergics, two notable examples of which are atropine and dicyclomine,” says Morton Tavel, M.D., clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and author of Health Tips, Myths, and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice. “They are generally used for gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcers and irritable colon, but one of their regular ‘side effects’ is a dry mouth usually associated with drying of sweaty palms (not usually mentioned in the drug literature). The interruption of sweating results from blockage of the part of the nervous system that enhances sweat production.”

Though not suitable for persons with glaucoma, this class of drugs can offer relief for many with overactive sweat responses. As always, check with a physician to see if this is an option for you and heed any contraindication warnings. But, for those who might prefer to take a pill and forget about it, this is a potential sweat-reducing popper.

4. Consider Botox

Botox, the popular wrinkle-wrangler, has another use that many people may not be aware of: It can effectively treat hyperhidrosis. Though it’s not cheap (a typical treatment requires 50-100 units at $10-$15 a unit), it can be very effective in curtailing sweaty palms.

“Botox works by temporarily disabling the sweat glands in treated areas for a drastic reduction in perspiration for up to six months,” says Dr. Baumann. “A tiny needle is used to inject the Botox just under the skin&rsquos surface to temporarily disable the sweat glands and a numbing cream is often used to keep discomfort to a minimum so there&rsquos no downtime.”

Though Botox is only FDA approved for use in the armpits, also known as axilla, it can be used off-label for the palms, feet, scalp and beyond. Similar to topical creams, there is some evidence that results may last longer with subsequent treatments. Though this isn’t a pain-free option, it is frequently efficacious.

5. Keep a short-term arsenal handy

Let’s face it: It’s not always convenient to deal with sweaty hands in the spur of the moment. Some days, there may not be time for shots at the doc or a meditation session. When that happens, it’s good to know a few workarounds.

One super-quick fix? Use hand sanitizer, says Gillian Palette, a board-certified adult nurse practitioner, who also recommends people carry paper towels, wear cotton clothing (onto which a person could quickly wipe their hands) or wear gloves with natural fibers (stay away from synthetic fabrics as they will increase sweating and irritation).

The bottom line is: There are options &mdash because no one should have to hold back from romantically interlocking fingers with an amour because of a few drippy digits.

A version of this article was originally published in October 2015.


Reward from &lsquosameness&rsquo

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of &ldquoreward.&rdquo These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

In addition to dopamine itself, neurochemicals such as oxytocin can significantly alter the sense of reward and pleasure, especially in relationship to social interactions, by modulating these mesolimbic circuits.

Methodological variations indicate further study is needed to fully understand the roles of these signaling pathways in people. That caveat acknowledged, there is much we can learn from the complex social interactions of other mammals.

The neural circuits that govern social behavior and reward arose early in vertebrate evolution and are present in birds, reptiles, bony fishes and amphibians, as well as mammals. So while there is not a lot of information on reward pathway activity in people during in-group versus out-group social situations, there are some tantalizing results from studies on other mammals.

For example, in a seminal paper, neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford combined genetics and behavioral tests with a cutting-edge approach called fiber photometry where light can turn on and off specific cells. Using this process, the researchers were able to both stimulate and measure activity in identified neurons in the reward pathways, with an exquisite degree of precision. And they were able to do this in mice as they behaved in social settings.

They showed that neural signaling in a specific group of these dopamine neurons within these mesolimbic reward loops are jazzed up when a mouse encounters a new mouse&mdashone it&rsquos never met before, but that is of its own genetic line. Is this dopamine reward reaction the mouse corollary of human in-group recognition?

What if the mouse were of a different genetic line with different external characteristics? What about with other small mammals such as voles who have dramatically different social relationships depending upon whether they are the type that lives in the prairie or in the mountains? Is there the same positive mesolimbic signaling when a prairie vole encounters a mountain vole, or does this &ldquoout-group&rdquo difference tip the balance toward the amygdala and expressing fear and distrust?

Scientists don&rsquot know how these or even more subtle differences in animals might affect how their neural circuits promote social responses. But by studying them, researchers may better understand how human brain systems contribute to the implicit and unconscious bias people feel toward those in our own species who are nonetheless somewhat different.


Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros./IMDb

Hero means everything and nothing. It encompasses the firefighters who rushed into the burning twin towers, long-distance runners who compete through chronic disease, and the wag on Twitter who makes a point you agree with. The highly specific, armor-bright figure of classical myth has grown a thousand faces. We still want him around (DC Comics recently announced 10 new superhero films to unspool over the next six years, including one about a her: Wonder Woman), but his omnipresence makes him easy to mock. Part of our ambivalence may also stem from the suspicion that his noble deeds are not as selfless as they seem, motivated instead by a thirst for attention, rational egotism, or even masochism.

What’s the psychology of heroism? Is extreme self-sacrifice the result of a pained calculus, a weighing of desire and obligation, or an instinct? (Which would be more heroic? Does it matter?) In a study out last week in the journal PLOS ONE, Yale researchers recruited more than 300 volunteers to read statements by 51 contemporary “heroes.” These men and women had all received the Carnegie Hero Medal for “civilians who risk their lives to save strangers” the experimenters wanted to know whether they had acted without thinking or after exerting “conscious self-control” in order “to override negative emotions like fear.”

The volunteers—and a computer algorithm, for safesies—analyzed the medal winners’ statements for evidence of careful thought, or of unpremeditated action. Overwhelmingly, they found that day-savers rescue first and reflect second. As Christine Marty, a 21-year-old student who wrested a trapped senior citizen from her car during a flash flood, said, “I’m thankful I was able to act and not think about it.” Study author David Rand noted that people playing economic games are similarly less likely to share resources when they ruminate about their moves, but more generous when they don’t take time to consider strategy. Perhaps human nature is reflexively pure and kind (and corrupted by our hyper-rational, transactional society)—or perhaps, as Rand speculated, cooperation becomes an intuitive habit only after we see it paying off. (Quoth Zazu: Cheetahs never prosper.)

The Yale study adds to a rich tradition of scientific inquiry into altruism, generosity, and the better angels/cannily perceptive salespeople of our nature. Before diving in, though, it’s worth noting that the hero and the altruist are made of slightly different stuff. While both act admirably, only one has, by definition, a superhuman, preternatural aura. That distinction raises the question of whether what we value in heroism is a kind of transcending of what we take to be our frail or selfish wiring. Generosity might retain its gleam if it’s innate—but does heroism count as heroism if we’re predisposed to it?

We may indeed be built for acts of kindness. Children engage in prosocial behavior early on, helping, giving, and empathizing. One-year-olds will comfort an experimenter in feigned distress. And a 2009 study by German psychologists revealed that 18-month-old toddlers often provide “spontaneous, unrewarded” help to adults, retrieving a dropped clothespin, for instance, or opening a cabinet for a researcher whose hands are full. It isn’t just that the kids like feeling useful or picking up clothespins. When the experimenter seemed unruffled by the fallen pin or the closed cabinet, rates of helping declined.

Of course, it doesn’t cost a lot to pick up an object from the floor (especially when you are 2 feet tall). So next, the researchers strewed obstacles between the clothespin and the child—complex motor movement is hard at that age!—and got the same results. Phase 4 was giving the child enticing toys to play with in one corner of the room and positioning the closed cabinet in the opposite corner. In order to do a mitzvah for the researcher, the toddlers had to leave behind the toys and walk precariously across the room. Many did. Nor did rewards for helping motivate them to help more. (In fact, suddenly introducing an extrinsic motivation can undermine the internal glow of doing good—and drive subsequent helping rates down. This overjustification effect is the bane of helicopter parents everywhere.)

Once we’re older, research finds, the impulse to be nice doesn’t go away. Brain scans show the activation of neural regions that process pleasure when we give to charity. Some people experience more activation—they find giving more pleasurable—than others. They are the ones who voluntarily donate the most in an experimental setting. (Stroke victims who suffer from lesions to selected brain areas may also exhibit pathological generosity.) But the question remains: Why do these so-called altruists take such joy in acting kindly?

One study, by researchers at Georgetown University, implies that the world’s givers and helpers simply possess more empathy. Psychologist Abigail Marsh and her team recruited 19 people who had donated their kidneys to total strangers, and 20 people who had not. They flashed images of fearful, upset, or angry human faces at the volunteers while recording their brain activity with an fMRI machine. The donors and the control group generated similar scans, except for two details: In donors, the right amygdala, which governs emotional response, was 8 percent larger, and it showed enhanced activity. Previous tests had already revealed the opposite finding for psychopaths. These empathy-impaired subjects had amygdalae that fired less when distressed faces were presented. Though fMRI studies are in their infancy, this one implied that altruists just give more shits than do the rest of us.

Yet perhaps they pursue generous deeds for craftier reasons. In 2012, psychologists from Knox College in Illinois divided 78 students into 26 groups of three—some with two men and one woman, and some with two women and one men. The groups were asked to complete a task that would result in a financial reward, and one facet of the job was that a team member would need to plunge his or her forearm into a bucket of icy water for 40 seconds. Within each group, the volunteer who elected to “sacrifice” him- or herself to the bucket (“This hurts a lot more than people think it will, and … even more after you remove your arm from the ice,” intoned the experimenter) was judged as more likeable and admirable than everyone else. That group member was also awarded more money when the teams decided how to split up their prize.

Perhaps predictably, intense rivalry broke out, especially between the men in male-male-female groups. Guys really wanted to wear the heroic, ice bucket-conquering mantle, gain social status, and impress the lady. The researchers concluded that engaging in “self-sacrifice” is “a profitable long-term strategy.” “Competition … and ‘showing off’ are key factors in triggering altruistic behavior,” they wrote.

Which brings us back to heroes. Despite all the prestige, money, and adoring lookers-on, at a certain point altruism no longer represents any kind of long-term strategy. Rather, its risks and sacrifices overwhelm its benefits.

The morbid, unspoken problem with studying real-life heroes is that they have a tendency to die. The three men who leapt in front of their girlfriends when a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater can’t tell us what they were thinking and feeling. Nor can the Sikh temple president who lost his life shielding worshippers from a skinhead’s bullets. Nevertheless, a few papers shed some light. In 2005, researchers ran personality tests on 80 Gentiles who risked their lives to shelter Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, as well as 73 bystanders. Two interesting commonalities arose among the “heroes”: First, they were more likely to embrace, or at least tolerate, danger. Second, they were more likely to say they interacted frequently with friends and family. These findings expanded on a classic 1970 study of 37 Holocaust rescuers, in which researchers determined that the helping Gentiles were animated in part by “a spirit of adventurousness.” (Related but more prosaic: Studies suggest that “sensation-seeking” is positively correlated with the willingness to give blood.) In 1984, scientists John P. Wilson and Richard Petruska determined that “high-esteem” college students—those who believed they were worthy and competent—more often rushed to aid an experimenter during a simulated explosion, while “high-safety” students, driven by a need for security and the desire to avoid anxiety, were less likely to lend a hand. In the realm of smaller, but still substantial, risk, 74 percent of kidney donors interviewed for a 1977 study said they put great faith and trust in people, compared with only 43 percent of non-donors.

The heroic picture that emerges here—confident, risk-taking men and women who believe in others and value their relationships—looks familiar. It’s idealistic Peter Parker and grinning, goodhearted Indiana Jones. It’s Buffy, Wildstyle from The Lego Movie, and Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson. Meanwhile, for show-offy altruists, there are philanthropic golden boys Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, or that one male ally in your Twitter feed who always blurs the line between feminist support and benevolent sexism.

What about you or me? Will we be heroes when the moment calls? Maybe, if we don’t overthink it.


1. The Many Moral Sentimentalisms

Consider the following story related by Frans de Waal in a recent book:

J. lives in a small seaside town in France, where he is known as the handyman he is. He can build an entire house with his own hands, as he is skilled in carpentry, plumbing, masonry, roof work, and so on. He demonstrates this every day at his own home, and so people naturally ask him for help. Being extremely nice, J. usually dispenses advice or lends a helping hand. One neighbor, whom he barely knew, kept asking about how to put a skylight in his roof. J. lent him his ladder for the job, but since the man kept returning, he promised to come take a look one day.

J. spent from morning until late evening with the neighbor, basically doing the job on his own (as the neighbor could barely hold a hammer, he said), during which time the neighbor's wife came, cooked, and ate lunch (the main meal in France) with her husband without offering J. anything. By the end of the day, he had successfully put the skylight in, having provided expert labor that normally would have cost more than six hundred euros. J. asked for nothing, but when the same neighbor a few days later talked about a scuba diving course, and how it would be fun to do together, he felt this opened a perfect occasion for a return gift, since the course cost about 150 euros. So J. said he'd love to go, but unfortunately didn't have the money in his budget. By now you can guess: The man went alone. (de Waal 2009: 174&ndash175)

Assuming the story is true and leaves nothing of importance out, we're likely to have two kinds of response to it: we have a negative feeling of some sort towards the neighbour, and we think that the neighbour acted wrongly towards poor J. Roughly speaking, sentimentalists think that these two responses are intimately related, with the feeling in the driving seat. (Since different theories in the sentimentalist family make use of different responses, this entry will adopt a liberal definition of a &lsquosentiment&rsquo that comprises non-cognitive attitudes and states of all kinds&mdashemotions, feelings, affects, desires, besires, plans, and dispositions to have them.)

There are many questions we could ask about this. One kind of question is explanatory: Why do we think that the neighbour did something wrong? Explanatory sentimentalists believe that moral thoughts are fundamentally explained by sentiments or emotions. The second kind of question is constitutive: What does our thought that the neighbour did something wrong consist in? That is, what kind of thought is it? Is it more like believing that Pluto is a planet or like wanting to hit an uncooperative computer? Judgment sentimentalists believe that moral judgments are constituted by emotional or non-cognitive responses, at least in part, or alternatively are judgments about emotional responses or the tendency of something to give rise to them. Some judgment sentimentalists are also expressivists, who believe that the meanings of moral terms must be accounted for in terms of associated non-cognitive states.

Third, assuming that we've got it right, what kind of fact if any makes our thought about the neighbour's action true? Is the wrongness of the action a projection of our sentiments? If it is a fact, is it like the fact that the square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides of a right triangle, or like the fact that water is H2O, or perhaps more like the fact that rotten food is disgusting? For metaphysical sentimentalists, moral facts make reference to our sentimental responses. Finally, we're pretty confident of our judgment. But even if we assume we know all the pertinent empirical facts, how do we know that what the neighbour did is wrong? What if someone disagrees? How can we justify our verdict? Epistemological sentimentalists believe that moral justification bottoms out in sentimental responses of a certain kind.

These sentimentalist views are logically independent of each other. One indication of this is that they contrast with different views. Epistemological and possibly explanatory sentimentalist views contrast with rationalist and intuitionist views, according which we can acquire moral knowledge by reasoning or intuition, respectively. Judgment sentimentalist views, in turn, contrast with some forms of cognitivism. Metaphysical sentimentalist views contrast with error theory and mind-independent moral realism in naturalist and non-naturalist variants.


What Makes People Gay?


Researcher Alan Sanders signs up Daniel Velez Rivera on Boston Common for a study using gay brothers to search for the genetic basis for homosexuality. (Illustration / Chris Buzelli Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman) Illustration / Chris Buzelli Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman

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With crystal-blue eyes, wavy hair, and freshly scrubbed faces, the boys look as though they stepped out of a Pottery Barn Kids catalog. They are 7-year-old twins. I'll call them Thomas and Patrick their parents agreed to let me meet the boys as long as I didn't use their real names.

Spend five seconds with them, and there can be no doubt that they are identical twins - so identical even they can't tell each other apart in photographs. Spend five minutes with them, and their profound differences begin to emerge.

Patrick is social, thoughtful, attentive. He repeatedly addresses me by name. Thomas is physical, spontaneous, a bit distracted. Just minutes after meeting me outside a coffee shop, he punches me in the upper arm, yells, "Gray punch buggy!" and then points to a Volkswagen Beetle cruising past us. It's a hard punch. They horse around like typical brothers, but Patrick's punches are less forceful and his voice is higher. Thomas charges at his brother, arms flexed in front of him like a mini-bodybuilder. The differences are subtle - they're 7-year-old boys, after all - but they are there.

When the twins were 2, Patrick found his mother's shoes. He liked wearing them. Thomas tried on his father's once but didn't see the point.

When they were 3, Thomas blurted out that toy guns were his favorite things. Patrick piped up that his were the Barbie dolls he discovered at day care.

When the twins were 5, Thomas announced he was going to be a monster for Halloween. Patrick said he was going to be a princess. Thomas said he couldn't do that, because other kids would laugh at him. Patrick seemed puzzled. "Then I'll be Batman," he said.

Their mother - intelligent, warm, and open-minded - found herself conflicted. She wanted Patrick - whose playmates have always been girls, never boys - to be himself, but she worried his feminine behavior would expose him to ridicule and pain. She decided to allow him free expression at home while setting some limits in public.

That worked until last year, when a school official called to say Patrick was making his classmates uncomfortable. He kept insisting that he was a girl.

Patrick exhibits behavior called childhood gender nonconformity, or CGN. This doesn't describe a boy who has a doll somewhere in his toy collection or tried on his sister's Snow White outfit once, but rather one who consistently exhibits a host of strongly feminine traits and interests while avoiding boy-typical behavior like rough-and-tumble play. There's been considerable research into this phenomenon, particularly in males, including a study that followed boys from an early age into early adulthood. The data suggest there is a very good chance Patrick will grow up to be homosexual. Not all homosexual men show this extremely feminine behavior as young boys. But the research indicates that, of the boys who do exhibit CGN, about 75 percent of them - perhaps more - turn out to be gay or bisexual.

What makes the case of Patrick and Thomas so fascinating is that it calls into question both of the dominant theories in the long-running debate over what makes people gay: nature or nurture, genes or learned behavior. As identical twins, Patrick and Thomas began as genetic clones. From the moment they came out of their mother's womb, their environment was about as close to identical as possible - being fed, changed, and plopped into their car seats the same way, having similar relationships with the same nurturing father and mother. Yet before either boy could talk, one showed highly feminine traits while the other appeared to be "all boy," as the moms at the playgrounds say with apologetic shrugs.

"That my sons were different the second they were born, there is no question about it," says the twins' mother.

So what happened between their identical genetic starting point and their births? They spent nine months in utero. In the hunt for what causes people to be gay or straight, that's now the most interesting and potentially enlightening frontier.

WHAT DOES IT MATTER WHERE HOMOSEXUALITY COMES FROM? Proving people are born gay would give them wider social acceptance and better protection against discrimination, many gay rights advocates argue. In the last decade, as this "biological" argument has gained momentum, polls find Americans - especially young adults - increasingly tolerant of gays and lesbians. And that's exactly what has groups opposed to homosexuality so concerned. The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank in Washington, D.C., argues in its book Getting It Straight that finding people are born gay "would advance the idea that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic, like race that homosexuals, like African-Americans, should be legally protected against 'discrimination' and that disapproval of homosexuality should be as socially stigmatized as racism. However, it is not true."

Some advocates of gay marriage argue that proving sexual orientation is inborn would make it easier to frame the debate as simply a matter of civil rights. That could be true, but then again, freedom of religion enjoyed federal protection long before inborn traits like race and sex.

For much of the 20th century, the dominant thinking connected homosexuality to upbringing. Freud, for instance, speculated that overprotective mothers and distant fathers helped make boys gay. It took the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 to remove "homosexuality" from its manual of mental disorders.

Then, in 1991, a neuroscientist in San Diego named Simon LeVay told the world he had found a key difference between the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men he studied. LeVay showed that a tiny clump of neurons of the anterior hypothalamus - which is believed to control sexual behavior - was, on average, more than twice the size in heterosexual men as in homosexual men. LeVay's findings did not speak directly to the nature-vs.-nurture debate - the clumps could, theoretically, have changed size because of homosexual behavior. But that seemed unlikely, and the study ended up jump-starting the effort to prove a biological basis for homosexuality.

Later that same year, Boston University psychiatrist Richard Pillard and Northwestern University psychologist J. Michael Bailey announced the results of their study of male twins. They found that, in identical twins, if one twin was gay, the other had about a 50 percent chance of also being gay. For fraternal twins, the rate was about 20 percent. Because identical twins share their entire genetic makeup while fraternal twins share about half, genes were believed to explain the difference. Most reputable studies find the rate of homosexuality in the general population to be 2 to 4 percent, rather than the popular "1 in 10" estimate.

In 1993 came the biggest news: Dean Hamer's discovery of the "gay gene." In fact, Hamer, a Harvard-trained researcher at the National Cancer Institute, hadn't quite put it that boldly or imprecisely. He found that gay brothers shared a specific region of the X chromosome, called Xq28, at a higher rate than gay men shared with their straight brothers. Hamer and others suggested this finding would eventually transform our understanding of sexual orientation.

That hasn't happened yet. But the clear focus of sexual-orientation research has shifted to biological causes, and there hasn't been much science produced to support the old theories tying homosexuality to upbringing. Freud may have been seeing the effect rather than the cause, since a father faced with a very feminine son might well become more distant or hostile, leading the boy's mother to become more protective. In recent years, researchers who suspect that homosexuality is inborn - whether because of genetics or events happening in the womb - have looked everywhere for clues: Prenatal hormones. Birth order. Finger length. Fingerprints. Stress. Sweat. Eye blinks. Spatial relations. Hearing. Handedness. Even "gay" sheep.

LeVay, who is gay, says that when he published his study 14 years ago, some gays and lesbians criticized him for doing research that might lead to homosexuality once again being lumped in with diseases and disorders. "If anything, the reverse has happened," says LeVay, who is now 61 and no longer active in the lab. He says the hunt for a biological basis for homosexuality, which involves many researchers who are themselves gay or lesbian, "has contributed to the status of gay people in society."

These studies have been small and underfunded, and the results have often been modest. Still, because there's been so much of this disparate research, "all sort of pointing in the same direction, makes it pretty clear there are biological processes significantly influencing sexual orientation," says LeVay. "But it's also kind of frustrating that it's still a bunch of hints, that nothing is really as crystal clear as you would like."

Just in the last few months, though, the hints have grown stronger.

In May, Swedish researchers reported finding important differences in how the brains of straight men and gay men responded to two compounds suspected of being pheromones - those scent-related chemicals that are key to sexual arousal in animals. The first compound came from women's urine, the second from male sweat. Brain scans showed that when straight men smelled the female urine compound, their hypothalamus lit up. That didn't happen with gay men. Instead, their hypothalamus lit up when they smelled the male-sweat compound, which was the same way straight women had responded. This research once again connecting the hypothalamus to sexual orientation comes on the heels of work with sheep. About 8 percent of domestic rams are exclusively interested in sex with other rams. Researchers found that a clump of neurons similar to the one LeVay identified in human brains was also smaller in gay rams than straight ones. (Again, it's conceivable that these differences could be showing effect rather than cause.)

In June, scientists in Vienna announced that they had isolated a master genetic switch for sexual orientation in the fruit fly. Once they flicked the switch, the genetically altered female flies rebuffed overtures from males and instead attempted to mate with other females, adopting the elaborate courting dance and mating songs that males use.

And now, a large-scale, five-year genetic study of gay brothers is underway in North America. The study received $2.5 million from the National Institutes of Health, which is unusual. Government funders tend to steer clear of sexual orientation research, aware that even small grants are apt to be met with outrage from conservative congressmen looking to make the most of their C-Span face time. Relying on a robust sample of 1,000 gay-brother pairs and the latest advancements in genetic screening, this study promises to bring some clarity to the murky area of what role genes may play in homosexuality.

This accumulating biological evidence, combined with the prospect of more on the horizon, is having an effect. Last month, the Rev. Rob Schenck, a prominent Washington, D.C., evangelical leader, told a large gathering of young evangelicals that he believes homosexuality is not a choice but rather a predisposition, something "deeply rooted" in people. Schenck told me that his conversion came about after he'd spoken extensively with genetic researchers and psychologists. He argues that evangelicals should continue to oppose homosexual behavior, but that "many evangelicals are living in a sort of state of denial about the advance of this conversation." His message: "If it's inevitable that this scientific evidence is coming, we have to be prepared with a loving response. If we don't have one, we won't have any credibility."

AS THE 21-YEAR-OLD COLLEGE JUNIOR IN A HOSPITAL JOHNNY slides into the MRI, she is handed controls with buttons for "strongly like" and "strongly dislike." Hundreds of pornographic images - in male-male and female-female pairings - flash before her eyes. Eroticism eventually gives way to monotony, and it's hard to avoid looking for details to distinguish one image from the rest of the panting pack. So it goes from "Look at the size of those breasts!" to "That can't be comfortable, given the length of her fingernails!" to "Why is that guy wearing nothing but work boots on the beach?"

Regardless of which buttons the student presses, the MRI scans show her arousal level to each image, at its starting point in the brain.

Researchers at Northwestern University, outside Chicago, are doing this work as a follow-up to their studies of arousal using genital measurement tools. They found that while straight men were aroused by film clips of two women having sex, and gay men were aroused by clips of two men having sex, most of the men who identified themselves as bisexual showed gay arousal patterns. More surprising was just how different the story with women turned out to be. Most women, whether they identified as straight, lesbian, or bisexual, were significantly aroused by straight, gay, and lesbian sex. "I'm not suggesting that most women are bisexual," says Michael Bailey, the psychology professor whose lab conducted the studies. "I'm suggesting that whatever a woman's sexual arousal pattern is, it has little to do with her sexual orientation." That's fundamentally different from men. "In men, arousal is orientation. It's as simple as that. That's how gay men learn they are gay."

These studies mark a return to basics for the 47-year-old Bailey. He says researchers need a far deeper understanding of what sexual orientation is before they can determine where it comes from.

Female sexual orientation is particularly foggy, he says, because there's been so little research done. As for male sexual orientation, he argues that there's now enough evidence to suggest it is "entirely in-born," though not nearly enough to establish how that happens.

Bailey's 1991 twin study is still cited by other researchers as one of the pillars in the genetic argument for homosexuality. But his follow-up study using a comprehensive registry of twins in Australia found a much lower rate of similarity in sexual orientation between identical twins, about 20 percent, down from 50 percent. Bailey still believes that genes make important contributions to sexual orientation. But, he says, "that's not where I'd bet the real breakthroughs will come."

His hunch is that further study of childhood gender nonconformity will pay big. Because it's unclear what percentage of homosexuals and lesbians showed CGN as children, Bailey and his colleagues are now running a study that uses adult participants' home movies from childhood to look for signs of gender-bending behavior.

Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem has proposed an intriguing theory for how CGN might lead to homosexuality. According to this pathway, which he calls "the exotic becomes erotic," children are born with traits for temperament, such as aggression and activity level, that predispose them to male-typical or female-typical activities. They seek out playmates with the same interests. So a boy whose traits lead him to hopscotch and away from rough play will feel different from, and ostracized by, other boys. This leads to physiological arousal of fear and anger in their presence, arousal that eventually is transformed from exotic to erotic.

Critics of homosexuality have used Bem's theory, which stresses environment over biology, to argue that sexual orientation is not inborn and not fixed. But Bem says this pathway is triggered by biological traits, and he doesn't really see how the outcome of homosexuality can be changed.

Bailey says whether or not Bem's theory holds up, the environment most worth focusing in on is the one a child experiences when he's in his mother's womb.

LET'S GET BACK TO THOMAS AND PATRICK. BECAUSE IT'S UNCLEAR why twin brothers with identical genetic starting points and similar post-birth environments would take such divergent paths, it's helpful to return to the beginning.

Males and females have a fundamental genetic difference - females have two X chromosomes, and males have an X and a Y. Still, right after conception, it's hard to tell male and female zygotes apart, except for that tucked-away chromosomal difference. Normally, the changes take shape at a key point of fetal development, when the male brain is masculinized by sex hormones. The female brain is the default. The brain will stay on the female path as long as it is protected from exposure to hormones. The hormonal theory of homosexuality holds that, just as exposure to circulating sex hormones determines whether a fetus will be male or female, such exposure must also influence sexual orientation.

The cases of children born with disorders of "sexual differentiation" offer insight. William Reiner, a psychiatrist and urologist with the University of Oklahoma, has evaluated more than a hundred of these cases. For decades, the standard medical response to boys born with severely inadequate penises (or none at all) was to castrate the boy and have his parents raise him as a girl. But Reiner has found that nurture - even when it involves surgery soon after birth - cannot trump nature. Of the boys with inadequate penises who were raised as girls, he says, "I haven't found one who is sexually attracted to males." The majority of them have transitioned back to being males and report being attracted to females.

During fetal development, sexual identity is set before the sexual organs are formed, Reiner says. Perhaps it's the same for sexual orientation. In his research, of all the babies with X and Y chromosomes who were raised as girls, the only ones he has found who report having female identities and being attracted to males are those who did not have "receptors" to let the male sex hormones do their masculinizing in the womb.

What does this all mean? "Exposure to male hormones in utero dramatically raises the chances of being sexually attracted to females," Reiner says. "We can infer that the absence of male hormone exposure may have something to do with attraction to males."

Michael Bailey says Reiner's findings represent a major breakthrough, showing that "whatever causes sexual orientation is strongly influenced by prenatal biology." Bailey and Reiner say the answer is probably not as simple as just exposure to sex hormones. After all, the exposure levels in some of the people Reiner studies are abnormal enough to produce huge differences in sexual organs. Yet, sexual organs in straight and gay people are, on average, the same. More likely, hormones are interacting with other factors.

Canadian researchers have consistently documented a "big-brother effect," finding that the chances of a boy being gay increase with each additional older brother he has. (Birth order does not appear to play a role with lesbians.) So, a male with three older brothers is three times more likely to be gay than one with no older brothers, though there's still a better than 90 percent chance he will be straight. They argue that this results from a complex interaction involving hormones, antigens, and the mother's immune system.

By now, there is substantial evidence showing correlation - though not causation - between sexual orientation and traits that are set when a baby is in the womb. Take finger length. In general, men have shorter index fingers in relation to their ring fingers in women, the lengths are generally about the same. Researchers have found that lesbians generally have ratios closer to males. Other studies have shown masculinized results for lesbians in inner-ear functions and eye-blink reactions to sudden loud noises, and feminized patterns for gay men on certain cognitive tasks like spatial perception and remembering the placement of objects.

New York University researcher Lynn S. Hall, who has studied traits determined in the womb, speculates that Patrick was somehow prenatally stressed, probably during the first trimester, when the brain is really developing, particularly the structures like the hypothalamus that influence sexual behavior. This stress might have been based on his position in the womb or the blood flow to him or any of a number of other factors not in his mother's control. Yet more evidence that identical twins have womb experiences far from identical can be found in their often differing birth weights. Patrick was born a pound lighter than Thomas.

Taken together, the research suggests that early on in the womb, as the fetus's brain develops in either the male or female direction, something fundamental to sexual orientation is happening. Nobody's sure what's causing it. But here's where genes may be involved, perhaps by regulating hormone exposure or by dictating the size of that key clump of neurons in the hypothalamus. Before researchers can sort that out, they'll need to return to the question of whether, in fact, there is a "gay gene."

THE CROWD ON BOSTON COMMON IS THICK ON THIS SCORCHER of a Saturday afternoon in June, as the throngs make their way around the 35th annual Boston Pride festival, past booths peddling everything from "Gayopoly" board games to Braveheartian garments called Utilikilts. Sitting quietly in his booth is Alan Sanders, a soft-spoken 41-year-old with a sandy beard and thinning hair. He's placed a mound of rainbow-colored Starbursts on the table in front of him and hung a banner that reads: "WANTED: Gay Men with Gay Brothers for Molecular Genetic Study of Sexual Orientation."

Sanders is a psychiatrist with the Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Research Institute who is leading the NIH-funded search for the genetic basis of male homosexuality (www.gaybros.com). He is spending the summer crisscrossing the country, going to gay pride festivals, hoping to recruit 1,000 pairs of gay brothers to participate. (His wife, who just delivered their third son, wasn't crazy about the timing.) When people in Boston ask him how much genes may contribute to homosexuality, he says the best estimate is about 40 percent.

Homosexuality runs in families - studies show that 8 to 12 percent of brothers of gay men are also gay, compared with the 2 to 4 percent of the general population.

Sanders spends much of the afternoon handing out Starbursts to people who clearly don't qualify for a gay brothers study - preteen girls, adult lesbians wearing T-shirts that read "I Like Girls Who Like Girls," and elderly women in straw hats who speak only Chinese. But many of the gay men who stop by are interested in more than free candy. Among the people signing up is James Daly, a 31-year-old from Salem. "I think it's important for the public - especially the religious right - to know it's not a choice for some people," Daly says. "I feel I was born this way."

(In fairness, there aren't many leaders of groups representing social and religious conservatives who still argue that homosexual orientation - as opposed to behavior - is a matter of choice. Even as he insists that no one is born gay, Peter Sprigg, the point person on homosexuality for the Family Research Council, says, "I don't think that people choose their sexual attraction.")

In the decade since Dean Hamer made headlines, the gay gene theory has taken some hits. A Canadian team was unable to replicate his findings. Earlier this year, a team from Hamer's own lab reported only mixed results after having done the first scan of the entire human genome in the search for genes influencing sexual orientation.

But all of the gene studies so far have been based on small samples and lacked the funding to do things right. Sanders's study should be big enough to provide some real answers on linkage as well as shed light on gender nonconformity and the big-brother effect.

There is, however, a towering question that Sanders's study will probably not be able to answer. That has to do with evolution. If a prime motivation of all species is to pass genes on to future generations, and gay men are estimated to produce 80 percent fewer offspring than straight men, why would a gay gene not have been wiped out by the forces of natural selection? This evolutionary disadvantage is what led former Amherst College biologist Paul Ewald to argue that homosexuality might be caused by a virus - a pathogen most likely working in utero. That argument caused a stir when he and a colleague proposed it six years ago, but with no research done to test it, it remains just another theory. Other scientists have offered fascinating but unpersuasive explanations, most of them focusing on some kind of compensatory benefit, in the same way that the gene responsible for sickle cell anemia also protects against malaria. A study last year by researchers in Italy showed that female relatives of gay men tended to be more fertile, though, as critics point out, not nearly fertile enough to make up for the gay man's lack of offspring.

But there will be plenty of time for sorting out the evolutionary paradox once - and if - researchers are able to identify actual genes involved in sexual orientation. Getting to that point will likely require integrating multiple lines of promising research. That is exactly what's happening in Eric Vilain's lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. Vilain, an associate professor of human genetics, and his colleague, Sven Bocklandt, are using gay sheep, transgenic mice, identical twin humans, and novel approaches to human genetics to try to unlock the mystery of sexual orientation.

Instead of looking for a gay gene, they stress that they are looking for several genes that cause either attraction to men or attraction to women. Those same genes would work one way in heterosexual women and another way in homosexual men. The UCLA lab is examining how these genes might be turned "up" or "down." It's not a question of what genes you have, but rather which ones you use, says Bocklandt. "I have the genes in my body to make a vagina and carry a baby, but I don't use them, because I am a man." In studying the genes of gay sheep, for example, he's found some that are turned "way up" compared with the straight rams.

The lab is also testing an intriguing theory involving imprinted genes. Normally, we have two copies of every gene, one from each parent, and both copies work. They're identical, so it doesn't matter which copy comes from which parent. But with imprinted genes, that does matter. Although both copies are physically there, one copy - either from the mom or the dad - is blocked from working. Think of an airplane with an engine on each wing, except one of the engines is shut down. A recent Duke University study suggests humans have hundreds of imprinted genes, including one on the X chromosome that previous research has tied to sexual orientation.

With imprinted genes, there is no backup engine. So if there's something atypical in the copy from mom, the copy from dad cannot be turned on. The UCLA lab is now collecting DNA from identical twins in which one twin is straight and the other is gay. Because the twins begin as genetic clones, if a gene is imprinted in one twin, it will be in the other twin as well. Normally, as the fetuses are developing, each time a cell divides, the DNA separates and makes a copy of itself, replicating all kinds of genetic information. It's a complicated but incredibly accurate process. But the coding to keep the backup engine shut down on an imprinted gene is less accurate.

So how might imprinted genes help explain why one identical twin would be straight and the other gay? Say there's an imprinted gene for attraction to females, and there's something atypical in the copy the twin brothers get from mom. As all that replicating is going on, the imprinting (to keep the copy from dad shut down) proceeds as expected in one twin, and he ends up gay. But somehow with his brother, the coding for the imprinting is lost, and rather than remain shut down, the fuel flows to fire up the backup engine from dad. And that twin turns out to be straight.

IN THE COURSE OF REPORTING THIS STORY, I EXPERIENCED A good deal of whiplash. Just when I would become swayed by the evidence supporting one discreet theory, I would stumble onto new evidence casting some doubt on it. Ultimately, I accepted this as unavoidable terrain in the hunt for the basis of sexual orientation. This is, after all, a research field built on underfunded, idiosyncratic studies that are met with full-barreled responses from opposing and well-funded advocacy groups determined to make the results from the lab hew to the scripts they've honed for the talk-show circuit.

You can't really blame the advocacy groups. The stakes are high. In the end, homosexuality remains such a divisive issue that only thoroughly tested research will get society to accept what science has to say about its origin. Critics of funding for sexual orientation research say that it isn't curing cancer, and they're right. But we devote a lot more dollars to studying other issues that aren't curing cancer and have less resonance in society.

Still, no matter how imperfect these studies are, when you put them all together and examine them closely, the message is clear: While post-birth development may well play a supporting role, the roots of homosexuality, at least in men, appear to be in place by the time a child is born. After spending years sifting through all the available data, British researchers Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman come to an even bolder conclusion in their forthcoming book Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation, in which they write: "Sexual orientation is something we are born with and not `acquired' from our social environment."

Meanwhile, the mother of twins Patrick and Thomas has done her own sifting and come to her own conclusions. She says her son's feminine behavior suggests he will grow up to be gay, and she has no problem with that. She just worries about what happens to him between now and then.

After that fateful call from Patrick's school, she says, "I knew I had to talk to my son, and I had no clue what to say." Ultimately, she told him that although he could play however he wanted at home, he couldn't tell his classmates he was a girl, because they'd think he was lying. And she told him that some older boys might be mean to him and even hit him if he continued to claim he was a girl.

Then she asked him, "Do you think that you can convince yourself that you are a boy?"

"Yes, Mom," he said. "It's going to be like when I was trying to learn to read, and then one day I opened the book and I could read."

His mother's heart sank. She could tell that he wanted more than anything to please her. "Basically, he was saying there must be a miracle - that one day I wake up and I'm a boy. That's the only way he could imagine it could happen."

In the year since that conversation, Patrick's behavior has become somewhat less feminine. His mother hopes it's just because his interests are evolving and not because he's suppressing them.

"I can now imagine him being completely straight, which I couldn't a year ago," she says. "I can imagine him being gay, which seems to be statistically most likely."

She says she's fine with either outcome, just as long as he's happy and free from harm. She takes heart in how much more accepting today's society is. "By the time my boys are 20, the world will have changed even more."

By then, there might even be enough consensus for researchers to forget about finger lengths and fruit flies and gay sheep, and move on to a new mystery.


Serious insight for serious situations.

While you’re here, you may wish to attend one of our upcoming workshops:

Investigating Complex Cases

While you’re here, you may wish to attend one of our upcoming workshops:

Investigating Complex Cases

What do you do when your investigation takes an unexpected turn? Have you struggled with how to proceed when the normal steps don’t seem to apply? In this advanced course, we tackle the complexities that can complicate an otherwise traditional investigation. This course includes in-depth discussion of handling anonymous complaints, counter-complaints, complaints of reprisal, and more!

No matter how fair-minded an investigator may be, the inescapable reality is that we all have inherent biases. The situations we investigate are viewed through our own lens, and sometimes our past experiences and our perceptions can interfere with a fair and neutral information gathering process unless steps are taken to mitigate the risk. The important first step is to be aware of the different kinds of bias, and how they can operate to influence our decision making.

This is the type of bias most people are familiar with. My colleague, Cory Boyd, provided a helpful overview of case law regarding confirmation bias in a previous blog.

Confirmation bias occurs when a person searches for, interprets, and recalls information in a way that substantiates their pre-existing beliefs. It’s the kind of bias that is at play when psychics and tarot-card readers do a “cold reading”. If the subject already believes that the psychic can tell the future, they are likely to remember the statements that are true, forget the statements that are false, and interpret ambiguous comments in a favorable manner. Similarly, if you have ever watched a reality show featuring ghost-hunters, you might have seen confirmation bias in action. Every creaky noise becomes a footstep and every slight breeze a ghostly apparition when the person involved is already convinced the house they are exploring is haunted.

While confirmation bias may not be particularly harmful in the scenarios noted above, it can be extremely detrimental in a workplace investigation. If an investigator makes up their mind at an early stage that, for example, the complainant is lying, confirmation bias can cause them to actively seek out documents and witness that support this position, while failing to search for evidence to the contrary. It can even cause an investigator to over-rely on evidence that backs up their belief and forget hearing anything that contradicts it.

While it is natural to try to make sense of the information being gathered while an investigation is ongoing, it is crucial that investigators keep an open mind until the final report has been written. To keep confirmation bias in check, ask yourself:

  • What assumptions am I making, and what are they based on?
  • Am I asking the right questions during interviews, and am I making good use of open-ended questions?
  • Is there any important information or witnesses I might have missed?

2. Primacy effect

A type of bias that is related to confirmation bias is the preference for early information, also known as the “primacy effect”. Studies[1] have shown that people have an innate preference for information they hear first. For example, people form a more positive impression of someone described as “intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious”, than if the order of adjectives is reversed. Having heard the positive traits first, the listener forms a hypothesis of what this individual is like, and gives less weight to the negative traits that come after.

In a workplace investigation, one version of the facts is always going to be presented first. Usually, this version comes from the complainant. An investigator must work to avoid jumping to conclusions based on this first telling of the events, and to keep an open mind to the respondent’s version as well. To avoid the primacy effect, consider:

  • When did you come up with a theory of the case? Was it too early to do so, and how willing are you to waiver from that theory?
  • If you had to support the opposite conclusion to the one that you have reached, what evidence would you use?

3. Defensive attribution bias

If you have ever read an online news article about a person suffering a misfortune, and instantly dozens of commenters chime in that it was the victim’s own fault (“He wouldn’t have gotten mugged if he didn’t walk in a bad neighbourhood at night! I would never do that!”), you have seen defensive attribution in action. Psychologists theorize that people do this in order to convince themselves that they are in control of the world around them, and to minimize fear that they will become a victim of a similar event.

Studies show that defensive attribution bias operates more strongly when we are considering the actions of a person who we see as dissimilar to ourselves[2]. Defense attorneys have argued that this type of bias can be seen in trials involving black defendants and all-white or mostly-white juries, causing jurors to have less sympathy for the accused and accordingly be less likely to consider mitigating factors in sentencing[3]. Conversely, studies have shown that male jurors are less likely to sympathize with female sexual assault victims, and are more likely to place blame on the victim rather than on the perpetrator[4].

When it comes to workplace investigations, an investigator is going to encounter complainants who are alleging that they have been victims of harassment and bullying. In many cases one of the parties will have more in common with the investigator than the other, whether it be gender, race or religion. When we are evaluating the truthfulness of what an individual is saying, and the impact that bullying or harassment might have had on a complainant, it is important to consider whether the defensive attribution bias is coming in to play. To see whether you are being impacted by defensive attribution bias, be honest with yourself about the following:

  • What was your impression of each of the parties within the first few minutes of the interview? What was that impression based on?
  • Do you find it particularly hard to believe the account of one of the parties and if so, why?

4. Courtesy bias

Courtesy bias is the tendency for people to respond in a way that is in keeping with what they think someone wants to hear. This type of bias often comes up in market research situations. For example, someone participating in a focus group might say they like a new soft drink, when in fact they don’t, because they do not want to seem impolite. It can impede the ability for the researcher to get honest and useful feedback.

Although investigations are very different from market research, investigators can also suffer from being too polite, or too eager to please their client. In most cases a workplace investigator is hired by an employer, and that employer might have their own ideas about the guilt or innocence of the respondent. Unfortunately, the result of some workplace investigations is a termination, and when the job of a valued employee is on the line a client might be a bit too eager to share their preference regarding the outcome of an investigation.

Another difficulty arises when the information gathered may appear to reflect poorly not only on the respondent, but on the workplace as a whole. An investigator might have to tell an employer that one of their employees has been harassed, and also that their own deficient policies and workplace culture contributed to the harassment.

Investigative findings can never be tailored to the preferences of the client, and an important part of an investigator’s job is to tell their client the hard truths. Accordingly, it is vital for an investigator to be aware of the potential impact of courtesy bias in cases where they know a client may not be happy with the outcome of an investigation. Protect your investigations from courtesy bias by doing the following:

  • From the first contact with the client, be clear and open about your role as a neutral, objective investigator.
  • Consider what information you would need to address the problem if you were in the client’s shoes, and be honest with yourself about whether you have provided all that information.

5. Likeability bias

It’s not surprising that we tend to form a more positive general impression of those who are likeable. Studies have shown that when it comes to hiring decisions, whether someone is likeable is even more important than whether they are competent to do the job.

While it makes some sense that you would want to hire a person you like, it shouldn’t matter whether an investigator likes the person they are interviewing. The likeability of the complainant or respondent should never influence the investigative findings. In practice, however, it’s a common pitfall to think that a person who is nice to us during the investigation process is also more truthful and trustworthy. If one party is kind, friendly and polite and the other is surly, rude and insulting, it’s hard not to let that impression spill over into our findings on their credibility.

Investigators must keep in mind that just because someone is nice, it doesn’t mean they are honest. You can curb the effects of likeability bias by doing the following:

  • Consider whether one party is particularly kind or rude to you, and how that made you feel during the interview.
  • Review your notes a day or two after the interview, and ask yourself what someone who knows nothing about the parties would think of the evidence provided.

6. Empathy gap

The idea behind “empathy gap” is that it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be in a state other than the one you’re in. If you’re stuffed from a full meal, it’s hard to imagine what someone who is hungry feels like. In hospital settings, studies[5] have shown that empathy gaps cause staff to routinely under-medicate patients who are in a great deal of pain, because it is hard to understand pain that you are not experiencing yourself.

This also applies to bullying. People have difficulty understanding the severity of the trauma experienced by bullying victims if they are not also being bullied themselves[6].

This is important for workplace investigators, since part of our job is to understand the subjective impact of workplace harassment or bullying on the complainant. It can be easy to think that bullying is less serious if you have never experienced it yourself. Investigators should ensure that they have explored with the complainant the subjective impact that the respondent’s behaviour had on them.

You can limit the effects of empathy gap on your investigations by:

  • Asking the complainant how they felt during their interactions with the respondent, and why
  • Continually evaluating what assumptions you are making about the complainant’s experiences

7. The Illusory Truth effect

The foundation of the illusory truth effect, also known as the reiteration effect, is that repetition makes things seem more plausible. This is the reason you hear talking points being circulated during elections – one candidate is “tough on crime”, while another is a “flip-flopper”. The more people hear these sayings repeated, the more likely they are to believe they are true.

All investigators have encountered a complainant or respondent who is stuck on repeat you might hear “Jane is a bully” or “John is a liar” 20 or 30 times during the course of an interview. It is crucial for any investigator to examine the findings and assumptions they are making and to consider what evidence backs them up. If you believe Jane is a bully, is that because the evidence points to that conclusion, or because you heard it so many times during an interview that it became the “truth”?

Prevent the illusionary truth effect from de-railing your investigations by:

  • Being alert for statements that are repeated without supporting evidence
  • Actively considering what objective facts corroborate each version of the events

8. Information bias

This type of bias relates to the way an investigation is conducted, rather than the conclusions eventually reached. It causes a person to believe that more information is always better. In reality, sometimes extra information adds nothing to an investigation, and can only serve to confuse the issue.

A 1988 study[7] asked subjects to pretend to be a doctor treating a hypothetical patient who had one of three possible fictitious diseases. A test could be run that would determine if the patient had one of the diseases, but would not impact the course of treatment. Most subjects decided that the test should be run, even if it were costly. This is an example of thinking information is critical, even when, in a practical sense, it is unimportant.

How does this apply to workplace investigations? Consider the following scenario:

John says that his manager, Mark, called him an “ugly jerk” and shoved him. Mark admits that he called John a “jerk” and shoved him, but denies that he called him ugly. The harassment policy is clear that a manager calling someone that reports to them a derogatory name and shoving them would constitute harassment. What more information does a workplace investigator need?

Someone who is succumbing to information bias might go to great lengths to sort out whether Mark really did call John “ugly”. An important question to consider is: what difference does it make? In some cases the exact wording of the insult might be relevant, but in most the respondent’s own admission is enough for the investigator to conclude that the behaviour was in violation of the harassment policy.

Investigators tend to be naturally curious people, and accordingly it is easy for information bias to take hold. We don’t only want to understand the relevant facts we want to understand everything.

Investigators can avoid information bias by:

  • Continually evaluating their investigation plan and revising as necessary
  • Determining whether the steps they are taking during an investigation are necessary for them to reach their findings

While we may all fall victim to one or more of these biases on occasion, it’s not inevitable that they will impact our work. There are some ways investigators can help avoid the impact of bias:

  • Be honest with yourself about your own biases
  • Admit to yourself that you will not know everything at the beginning of an investigation, and that this is okay
  • Relentlessly challenge your own assumptions, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Talking out a case with a co-worker can provide valuable third-party input that will let you know if you’re heading in the wrong direction
  • If more information is needed, seek out professional training on how to deal with bias.

About the Author: Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.

[1] Asch, S. E. (1946) Forming impressions of personality, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258-290

[2] Griffitt, W., & Jackson, T. (1973). Simulated jury decisions: The influence of jury-defendant attitude similarity-dissimilarity. Social Behavior and Personality, 1, 1–7.

[3] Bowers WJ, Steiner BD, Sandys M. “Death Sentencing in Black and White: An Empirical Analysis of Jurors’ Race and Jury Racial Composition,”, University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law , 2001, vol. 3 (pg. 171-275)

[4] Deitz, S. R., Blackwell, K. T., Daley, P. C., & Bentley, B. J. (1982). Measurement of empathy toward rape victims and rapists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(2), 372-384.

[5] Twycross, A., & Powls, L. (2006). How do children’s nurses make clinical decisions? Two preliminary studies. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 15(10), 1324-1335.

[6] Nordgren, Loran, Kasia Banas and Geoff MacDonald. 2011. Empathy Gaps for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Pain of Social Suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100: 120-128.

[7] Baron, Jonathan Beattie, Jane Hershey, John C (1988). “Heuristics and biases in diagnostic reasoning” (PDF). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 42 (1): 88–110


3. Handhold style: On top and bottom

Picture this: Your partner is holding your hand with both of theirs&mdashone of their hands is on top of yours and the other is on the bottom. They&rsquore probably also staring into your (starry) eyes as you talk. &ldquoThis is almost a type of embrace. All that skin-to-skin contact maximizes the oxytocin high,&rdquo says Coleman. This intense handhold signals that your partner is 100 percent paying attention to your every word.


How to Stop Sweaty Hands: 5 Steps to Take

It’s tough to hold someone&rsquos hand if yours are covered in sweat &mdash not to mention how awkward it is if you&rsquore at an interview or meeting new people (no one likes a slippery handshake). But for those suffering from sweaty hands, it’s no laughing matter.

“Technically called hyperhidrosis, excessive sweating can be an embarrassing problem,” says Dr. Leslie Baumann, an internationally board-certified dermatologist in Miami, Florida. “Unless you suffer, most people don&rsquot realize what an impact it has on a person’s life… imagine avoiding shaking hands throughout the day.”

Fortunately, there are definitive steps a person with super-sweaty palms can take to curtail the glisten. If you’re among the clammy-clasp challenged, this is a good time to, well, take matters into your own hands.

1. Curb your anxiety

Believe it or not, one of the top triggers for sweaty palms is worrying that you’re going to have sweaty palms. “Excepting medical causes, which I believe are not that common, we can assume that almost all sweaty palms can be attributed to a form of performance anxiety,&rdquo says James I. Millhouse, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and author of The Parents Manual of Sport Psychology. “Most people with this condition tend to experience a lot of anxiety with regard to imagined future events. A person needs to realize that perception is not necessarily reality. It is important to understand the difference between wanting something to be a certain way, such as a person liking them, and it being critical that this happen.”

When a person who sweats excessively trips their anxiety meter, their eccrine glands will kick into overdrive and produce a sticky, non-smelly sweat on their hands and feet. From a primal standpoint, this comes from the fight-or-flight response (or a need to grip something harder… like a tree branch).

The way to combat this response? Learning to take a chill pill. “Excessive sweating comes with higher activation of the sympathetic nervous system, so relaxation procedures that decrease sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation and conversely increase parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation can act to decrease sweating,” says Millhouse.

Biofeedback, meditation, psychotherapy and self-hypnosis can all have a positive effect for those suffering from super-sweaty hands, triggered by stress. “Dealing with this condition psychophysiologically, as described above, is the first choice to eliminate this problem at the source and has produced dramatic results,” says Millhouse.

2. Use a hand antiperspirant

In the same way that you control underarm sweat with a roll-on, those ingredients will help stop slimy hands on the spot. The only problem is that regular drugstore antiperspirants can leave a film on your hands or be irritating. Fortunately, other sweaty-hand sufferers have started to develop products that can stop the sweat without the redness or obvious coating. One to check out? Carpe Lotion &mdash an antiperspirant hand lotion that uses a much stronger and more effective aluminum salt in its composition along with eucalyptus oil (to prevent irritation) that will keep hands sweat-free for four hours or more. To use you simply rub a pea-sized amount into palms for 10 to 15 seconds, and wait 10 minutes before whatever handholding activity you wish to undertake.

Another product to try is grip spray Awesome Chalk. Although it’s marketed mainly as a fast-drying spray to use when exercising, both to get a better grip on weight and prevent blisters, you can use it outside the gym. All you do is shake the can well, hold it approximately 6 to 8 inches from your skin and spray (for roughly two to three seconds) until your hands are coated.

3. Consider a prescription

While there aren’t any over-the-counter meds a person can take to stop sweaty hands, there are some prescription pharmaceuticals that may help. “An easy trick to stopping sweaty palms, at least temporarily, is with a class of drugs called anticholinergics, two notable examples of which are atropine and dicyclomine,” says Morton Tavel, M.D., clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and author of Health Tips, Myths, and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice. “They are generally used for gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcers and irritable colon, but one of their regular ‘side effects’ is a dry mouth usually associated with drying of sweaty palms (not usually mentioned in the drug literature). The interruption of sweating results from blockage of the part of the nervous system that enhances sweat production.”

Though not suitable for persons with glaucoma, this class of drugs can offer relief for many with overactive sweat responses. As always, check with a physician to see if this is an option for you and heed any contraindication warnings. But, for those who might prefer to take a pill and forget about it, this is a potential sweat-reducing popper.

4. Consider Botox

Botox, the popular wrinkle-wrangler, has another use that many people may not be aware of: It can effectively treat hyperhidrosis. Though it’s not cheap (a typical treatment requires 50-100 units at $10-$15 a unit), it can be very effective in curtailing sweaty palms.

“Botox works by temporarily disabling the sweat glands in treated areas for a drastic reduction in perspiration for up to six months,” says Dr. Baumann. “A tiny needle is used to inject the Botox just under the skin&rsquos surface to temporarily disable the sweat glands and a numbing cream is often used to keep discomfort to a minimum so there&rsquos no downtime.”

Though Botox is only FDA approved for use in the armpits, also known as axilla, it can be used off-label for the palms, feet, scalp and beyond. Similar to topical creams, there is some evidence that results may last longer with subsequent treatments. Though this isn’t a pain-free option, it is frequently efficacious.

5. Keep a short-term arsenal handy

Let’s face it: It’s not always convenient to deal with sweaty hands in the spur of the moment. Some days, there may not be time for shots at the doc or a meditation session. When that happens, it’s good to know a few workarounds.

One super-quick fix? Use hand sanitizer, says Gillian Palette, a board-certified adult nurse practitioner, who also recommends people carry paper towels, wear cotton clothing (onto which a person could quickly wipe their hands) or wear gloves with natural fibers (stay away from synthetic fabrics as they will increase sweating and irritation).

The bottom line is: There are options &mdash because no one should have to hold back from romantically interlocking fingers with an amour because of a few drippy digits.

A version of this article was originally published in October 2015.


Richard Rohr > Quotes

&ldquoAll great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect.

That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God. Such people can connect with everybody. They don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .&rdquo
― Richard Rohr, Healing Our Violence through the Journey of Centering Prayer

&ldquoThomas Merton said it was actually dangerous to put the Scriptures in the hands of people whose inner self is not yet sufficiently awakened to encounter the Spirit, because they will try to use God for their own egocentric purposes. (This is why religion is so subject to corruption!) Now, if we are going to talk about conversion and penance, let me apply that to the two major groups that have occupied Western Christianity—Catholics and Protestants. Neither one has really let the Word of God guide their lives.

Catholics need to be converted to giving the Scriptures some actual authority in their lives. Luther wasn’t wrong when he said that most Catholics did not read the Bible. Most Catholics are still not that interested in the Bible. (Historically they did not have the printing press, nor could most people read, so you can’t blame them entirely.) I have been a priest for 42 years now, and I would sadly say that most Catholics would rather hear quotes from saints, Popes, and bishops, the current news, or funny stories, if they are to pay attention. If I quote strongly from the Sermon on the Mount, they are almost throwaway lines. I can see Catholics glaze over because they have never read the New Testament, much less studied it, or been guided by it. I am very sad to have to admit this. It is the Achilles heel of much of the Catholic world, priests included. (The only good thing about it is that they never fight you like Protestants do about Scripture. They are easily duped, and the hierarchy has been able to take advantage of this.)

If Catholics need to be converted, Protestants need to do penance. Their shout of “sola Scriptura” (only Scripture) has left them at the mercy of their own cultures, their own limited education, their own prejudices, and their own selective reading of some texts while avoiding others. Partly as a result, slavery, racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia have lasted authoritatively into our time—by people who claim to love Jesus! I think they need to do penance for what they have often done with the Bible! They largely interpreted the Bible in a very individualistic and otherworldly way. It was “an evacuation plan for the next world” to use Brian McLaren’s phrase—and just for their group. Most of Evangelical Protestantism has no cosmic message, no social message, and little sense of social justice or care for the outsider. Both Catholics and Protestants (Orthodox too!) found a way to do our own thing while posturing friendship with Jesus.&rdquo
― Richard Rohr

&ldquoThe fears that assault us are mostly simple anxieties about social skills, about intimacy, about likeableness, or about performance. We need not give emotional food or charge to these fears or become attached to them. We don’t even have to shame ourselves for having these fears. Simply ask your fears, “What are you trying to teach me?” Some say that FEAR is merely an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.”


What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, psychologists at the University of Rochester, published their Self-Determination Theory in the January 2000 issue of the journal American Psychologist. It looks at why some people are highly motivated and engaged, while others feel apathetic and alienated.

The theory states that human beings naturally strive for a state of high motivation and engagement. Put simply, it's in our nature to pursue growth and well-being.

Ryan and Deci identified three universal psychological needs that motivate us to behave in a positive way. These are the needs for:

When you satisfy these needs, your self-motivation grows and your well-being increases. You feel more curious, creative, passionate, and excited about what you're doing. All of this leads to improved performance and a greater sense of purpose in your life.

When you are not meeting some of these needs, your motivation and well-being can plummet, and it can be a struggle to keep up with your tasks.

Self-Determination Theory and Motivation

The biggest advantage of Self-Determination Theory is the awareness that it provides. Once you realize how important competence, relatedness, and autonomy are to motivation and performance, you can take steps to ensure that your needs are being met.


Watch the video: When the healer has to take matters into their own hands (August 2022).