All posts in “Human Nature”

old victorian children's books

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: diversifying books; trusting others; new brain technologies; deviating from gender roles; predicting feelings.

Multicultural characters. Author, Dashka Slater, examines the lack of color and diversity in children’s literature. From Dashka Slater via Mother Jones.

Linking causes. New study finds trust is a key motivator in movement participation. From American Sociology Association via Science Daily.

Neuroethics. Scientific advances in brain technologies come with ethical questions. From Andrew Maynard via The Conversation.

Sexism in society. Journalist, Peter Beinart, evaluates why some fear women in positions of power. From Peter Beinart via The Atlantic.

Affective forecasts. Personal prejudice directly affects how empathetic we are towards others. From Association for Psychological Science via Psy Post.



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Image: flickr/pettifoggist CC BY-SA 2.0

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: partisan media; reading the Constitution; the ideal affect; power of the mind; understanding our social brains.

Spreading disinformation. A recent study suggests that partisan media outlets encourage us to disregard information that fails to support our point of view. From Tom Jacobs via Pacific Standard.

An American read. If you were ever interested in reading the Constitution, here is a nerdy guide to getting started. From Garrett Epps via The Atlantic.

Affect valuation theory. A study from the American Psychological Association examines the relationship between how we would like to feel and how we actually feel. From Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D. via Psychology Today.

Cheering up the world. A clever poem written by a high schooler goes viral with a very inspiring message. From Mark DeNicola via Collective Evolution.

The social brain. Scientists constructed a neurodevelopmental model of a rare genetic disorder that may help explain what makes humans social beings. From University of California at San Diego via PsyPost.


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Image: flickr/freyjo7 CC-BY-ND 2.0

Vincent Van Gogh painting an iPhone

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: remembering one of music’s great; gender neutral bathrooms at the White House; facing fears; sensing the gist of the world; avoiding empathy burnout.

The loss of an icon. Prince was a symbol for activism and revolution, who called for change and fought for justice, and the steps he took for social justice will not soon be forgotten. From True Activist.

Gender neutral bathrooms. President Obama opens the first gender neutral restroom at The White House. From Maria Caspani via Charisma News.

Scary stories. One author seeks to empower and inspire her young readers through scary stories. From N.D. Wilson via The Atlantic.

The illusion of realitySome neuroscientists argue that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses. From Cell Press via Science Daily.

Empathy burnout. The stress of opening ourselves up to the suffering of others can leave us feeling hardened, but forming a goal to alleviate suffering can make empathy feel less draining. From Jamil Zaki via Nautilus.


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Image: flickr/JD Hancock CC BY-2.0

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: brain size and extinction risk; chocolate on the brain; impulses towards retribution; the online spread of Ebola fears; the legacy of Harper Lee.

Extinction vulnerability. Surprisingly, animals with larger relative brain sizes may face greater risk of extinction. From Stanford University via Futurity

A chocolate a day. Regularly eating chocolate may help the brain retain mental sharpness. From Tom Jacobs via Pacific Standard.

Crime & Punishment. A philosopher offers a different vision for our country’s justice system, less based on punishment, and more on rehabilitation and empathy. From Neil Levy via Aeon.

Snowballing stress. With the help of the Internet, stress and fear have the ability to spread faster and further than other emotions. From Adrienne Berard via Nautilus.

Take a walk in someone else’s skin. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird reflects a respect not just for the arc of history, but for the hope that it does indeed bend toward justice. From Megan Garber via The Atlantic.


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Image: flickr/Ken Teegarden CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bellanger Gossip statue in Winnipeg

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: gossip as a social skill; the economics of immigration; the view from outer space; living a ‘brain-healthy’ life; political roadblocks.

Hardwired to gossip. Evolutionary psychologists explore the origin of gossip and its prevalence in human society. From The Conversation via Psy Post.

Chasing the American dream. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research compares waves of immigrants over time and how they fit into the American economy. From Gillian B. White via The Atlantic.

“How’s the view?” One researcher explores how seeing the Earth from space can promote a cognitive shift in awareness. From The Conversation via PHYS.

The brain that changes itself. The science of neuroplasticity has led some to believe that we’re not stuck with the brain we’re born with. From Will Storr via Pacific Standard.

Political gridlock. A political scientist argues that negative feelings, not ideological differences, do more to keep politicians from compromise. From Jim Patterson via Futurity.


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Image: flickr/Dano CC BY 2.0

Scared cat

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: the benefits of anxiety; story motifs across time; healthy social networks; origins of phobias; links between the amygdala and kindness.

Detecting social threats. Anxious people may process social threats in a different region of the brain than less anxious people. From eLife via Science Daily.

Story skeletons. From perilous journeys to brave new worlds, the structure of storytelling remains much the same across time. From John Yorke via The Atlantic.

Healthy relationships. A recent study finds strong social relationships can help to reduce health risks throughout a person’s life. From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill via PsyPost.

Pre-wired fear? A lack of understanding of how fear is acquired can lead us to believe that phobias are pre-wired when in fact they may be more of an adaptation. From Graham C.L. Davey Ph.D. via Psychology Today.

Monkeying around. By observing amygdala activity in rhesus macaques, researchers can predict when one monkey will behave charitably toward another. From Michele Berger via Futurity.


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Image: flickr/Dat CC BY-ND 2.0

Rhinos butting horns

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads; overcoming political polarization; the brain-body divide; disrupting flawed mental templates; losing one’s inner monologue; the good that comes from gratitude.

Reframing the argument. Liberal and conservatives both find it hard to frame arguments that appeal to their political opponents’ values. From Rotman School of Management via Psy Post.

Brain-body divide. Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton argues that cognitive processes aren’t as separate from senses and motor functions as once thought. From Jack Meserve via Science of Us.

Disrupting the narrative. A group of writers seek to change the way Islam is seen and represented in American culture. From Emma Green via The Atlantic.

Inner monologue. We often talk to ourselves as a way of processing our own thoughts and emotions, but what happens when a stroke silences some of that inner monologue? From Claire Cameron via Nautilus.

Giving thanks. Gratitude can increase empathy and support personal well-being. From Tania Lombrozo via NPR.


Panda hug

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Watch that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: that warm and fuzzy feeling how social cues influence the risks we take; “professional discomfort producers”; putting emotions into words; practicing global compassion.

Warm and fuzzy. Has it ever warmed your heart to see a stranger do something kind for someone? Science helps explain the effects of niceness on the brain and body. From Melissa Dahl via Science of Us.

Follow the crowd. Observed behavior can lead us to make safer or riskier choices than we would make alone. From Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute via Psy Post.

Growing pains. One comic book writer shares her artistic process of confronting the uncomfortable in hopes of sparking conversations that lead to change. From Rachel Gillett via Business Insider.

Talk it out. Research has found that putting feelings into words releases stress and helps us feel less isolated as we process our emotions. From Monica Joshi via Big Think.

Global compassion. Looking to Buddhist practices, psychologist Paul Ekman explores compassion for total strangers and whether it can be taught. From Paul Ekman via Big Think.


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Image: flickr/TaQPets, CC-ND BY 2.0

Doll listens to iPhone

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: iPhone addiction; measuring moral development in children; steer clear of workplace miscommunication; learning through punishment; gaining human perspective from multiple languages.


Separation anxiety. Can you live without your phone? A new study explores the anxiety and irrational fears people experience when parted from their smart devices. From Natalie Shoemaker via Big Think.

False witness. The impact of moral evaluations on decision-making changes with age, which may be important when considering eyewitness testimony. From American Psychological Association via PsyPost.

As clear as mud. Illusions of transparency can make us believe our feelings and intentions are crystal clear, when in fact others are misinterpreting us. From Emily Esfahani Smith via Business Insider.

Learn from your mistakes. While it is commonly believed that rewards elicit desired behavior, recent research suggests that punishments may sometimes serve as stronger motivators. From Gaia Remerowski via Futurity.

Benefits of being bilingual. A new study suggests children who speak multiple languages may have an easier time taking others’ perspectives and communicating effectively. From Nathan Collins via Pacific Standard.


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Image: flickr/Charles Rodstrom, CC-NC-ND BY 2.0

Two dogs fight for a Frisbee in a tug of war

Fear & Empathy: An Emotional Tug of War

By Robert Pérez

On many social issues, fear and empathy often yank against each other in an emotional tug of war in the minds of our target audiences. Fear has evolutionary advantages over empathy that makes it seem like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is pitted against Steve Urkel.

Understanding what’s going on in the brains of our target audiences – and influencing that tug of war – is key to developing successful messaging strategies on controversial social issues.

Origins of Fear and Empathy

Fear is our brain’s way of keeping us (and our species) alive. This emotion is regulated in a part of our brain called the amygdala. It is responsible for innate reactions that we have about the world around us – especially things that might harm us.

An overactive amygdala can shut down or limit access to empathy. It does this in order to respond to fear and our evolutionary focus on survival.

Empathy is the ability to understand and to imagine another person’s experience – the capacity to walk in another person’s shoes – including those who are different from us.

The good news is that according to Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution98% of humans are hardwired for empathy.

However, when the amygdala is activated, it’s very difficult for humans to empathize because of the negative emotional “noise” created by the amygdala.

Calming the Amygdala

Amygdala activation and its impact on empathy has implications for the messaging strategies we develop on controversial social issues.

Case in point: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area and the National Employment Law Project wanted to convince employers to hire people with arrest and conviction records. They asked Wonder and our partner, MDC Consulting, for help in developing a public education campaign.

When we conducted qualitative research with employers about the idea of being open to hiring people with arrest or conviction records, we could see the emotional tug of war play out in the ways they talked about the issue.

On the one hand, they believed in giving folks a second chance.

On the other hand, they expressed concerns about the safety of their employees and customers. Their aymgdala was helping them to imagine – even exaggerate – all the things that might go wrong by hiring a person with a record.

Our strategy to help calm the amygdala was to surround our target audience with familiarity. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says, “Familiarity calms the amygdala.” Put another way, unfamiliar ideas – like the idea of hiring someone with an arrest or conviction record – trigger an alarm in your brain. Familiarity, according to Berns, helps to quiet that alarm.

The Power of Shared Values

One source of familiarity that works well: shared values. We developed a storytelling strategy that emphasized the values that our target audiences told us they held dear including giving folks a second chance and the value of a job and hard work.

One story featured Michael Rachal, the pit master at Smoke Berkeley, a successful BBQ restaurant, and Tina Ferguson-Riffe, chef and owner of the restaurant. Before starting at Smoke Berkeley, Michael served time for a firearm conviction.

In telling their story, both Chef Tina and Michael echoed the values of hard work and second chances.

“When I hire someone, it’s looking into their eyes, trying to see who they are before I even hire them and that they want to work hard,” said Chef Tina. “We all need to work. We all need to make a living.”

Sharing what the job meant to him, Michael said, “Working here at Smoke Berkeley just turned my life around.”

The Right Messenger Maximizes the Message

Trusted messengers are another source of familiarity. It’s the reason that our videos prominently featured employers like Chef Tina as well as Mike Hannigan, co-founder and president of Give Something Back, a successful office supply company.

Based on our audience research, we understood that our target audience – employers – related more to other employers. It helped that our trusted messenger in this video was the co-founder of one of the most successful office supply companies in California. His business wasn’t harmed by hiring people with records. Instead, it was thriving.

When testing our messages and stories among our target audience, one employer had this observation about hearing from other employers who have hired people with records: “It’s like jumping off a cliff into a lake. It can be scary to be the first person to jump, but once someone goes before you – and you see them land safely, it’s not as scary to make the leap.”

This insight perfectly summarizes the emotional tug of war – as well as the ways to give empathy a fighting chance.


To learn more about this campaign, please visit


Image: flickr/TimmyGunz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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