Monthly Archives: April 2012

Dark Tourism & Terror Management

The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.

Ernest Becker, 1973 “The Denial of Death”

I was very intrigued to learn of the new Institute for Dark Tourism Research that opened last week at the University of Central Lancashire. According to their mission statement, “The Institute for Dark Tourism Research aims to advance knowledge about the act of visitation to tourist sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre.” The Institute’s director is Dr. Philip Stone who spent 15 years in the tourism industry before becoming an academic. On reading Dr. Stone’s academic profile, I learned a new word as he has a Ph.D. in “thanatology” – society’s reactions to and perceptions of death and mortality and has co-edited a book, “The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism” (Channel View Publications, 2009).

Every year, thousands of people visits sites such as Ground Zero and Auschwitz in what Dr. Stone calls a compulsion to face their own mortality in a secular pilgrimage. “People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them,” he told the BBC education correspondent.

However, there is a  psychological theory called “Terror Management Theory” (TMT) that shows that when people are made aware of their own mortality, they become more punitive and aggressive towards others who could potentially threaten their world view and self-esteem. For example, judges are more likely to hand down harsher sentences if they have been reminded of their impending deaths.

TMT, developed over 20 years ago by social psychologists, explains how humans come to cope with death anxiety by developing self-esteem and attributing purpose to life. However, we do this by shoring up our own cultural identities, self-esteem, and frankly become more conservative in the way that we view others who might threaten our world view. So while Dark Tourism might make us feel all the better about being alive, it may make us less tolerant of others which just seems so counter-intuitive.

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Psychology Today

I have just started a blog on Psychology Today. Why write two blogs you might ask? Well Psychology Today is an edited site that has certain rules about what can be blogged so I want to retain my own independence. I also want the freedom to talk about the more unsavory side of humanity that might be considered too risque for Psychology Today. On the other hand, they have a much larger potential reading audience so I want to be able to access that demo.  Anyway, here is my first blog for them reproduced below.

Well, what should be my very first blog for Psychology Today? I have had a look through the help pages and the do’s and don’ts of blogging on this site. Rule 2 is that there should be no “Blatant self-promotion.” That’s a bit of a tough one for me at the moment given that my blog is all about the illusion of the self and this is also the very week that a certain book on this very topic by this very same author has been launched in the UK. At the danger of incurring the wrath of the editors (they do have the power to pull any blog that defies the rules), then let me briefly write about something that I had forgotten was the negative side of publishing books.

I published my first general audience book two years ago. The first time round, I experienced a whole set of emotions and expectations that I simply put down to virgin author nerves. However, over the past day, I have discovered the very same thoughts and feelings returned all over again with my second popular science book, which shall remain nameless here to appease the Psychology Today editors (hint: don’t you think that’s a snappy title for my blog?).

I published my first general audience book two years ago. The first time round, I experienced a whole set of emotions and expectations that I simply put down to virgin author nerves. However, over the past day, I have discovered the very same thoughts and feelings returned all over again with my second popular science book, which shall remain nameless here to appease the Psychology Today editors (hint: don’t you think that’s a snappy title for my blog?).

I have been writing for years as a scientist, but edited academic volumes and textbooks don’t count—hardly anyone buys them and they are rarely critiqued. Of course, we all get emotionally invested with our journal papers but so long as they get accepted, then publication is simply a moment of pride. Actually, for me, that moment of joy on publication day for journal articles has somewhat evaporated. I vividly remember the exhilaration of receiving the proofs of my first scientific paper in 1986 (I was child prodigy). Nowadays, it is usually an attached electronic PDF file from an automated website that lacks the humanity of that triumphant moment of scientific achievement. More often than not, the final publication appears online well in advance of any physical paper and I only discover it when someone in some obscure part of the world, that does not have library access, sends me a postcard requesting a hard copy. I then have to download it from the Internet, print it off and send it by post.

Maybe the automaticity of journal publication over the recent years explains why scientific journal papers thrill me less. Or maybe I am simply getting a bit long in the tooth when it comes to the problems of difficult reviewers, journal politics and the sheer rip-off of academics time and effort in the whole academic publishing world. Of course I will continue to publish my research and I still enjoy the editor’s letter of acceptance with minor revisions, but trade books are a totally different game. They are much more real world, more risky, more edgy—a bit like releasing your new album.

A number of us academics are doing it now. Probably too many as we vie for the same territory that has been more skillfully occupied by the professional journalists who know how to write for the general public both in terms of accessible style and what is going to sell. We all know who they are. However, we academics should not feel too aggrieved. We have full time jobs whereas these guys have literally got to write for their next paycheck. We all make uncomfortable bedfellows as we look for angles and topics that have not already been covered. It is getting very hard and as soon as something interesting appears on the scientific horizon, you can bet it will end up in a trade book within six months—the minimum time it takes to go from final proof edits to publication.

So we push on with the trade book wars. I am sure that many authors will agree, when starting out, publication day is a double-edged sword. Yes, there is the sense of completion and achievement but those positive vibes are soon replaced by anxiety about how your efforts are going to be received. After all, what’s the point in writing when it is going to be panned by critics or worse, not read at all. Some writers are OK with negative criticism if their books sell well because they can always take comfort that critics are failed writers and the public knows best. Well at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Then there are those books that receive positive “critical acclaim” which is a euphemism for “didn’t sell well.” Inevitably, we try to remain aloof from the process of evaluation by market forces but really we are emotionally distraught by negative reviews and elated by thumbs up and five star ratings. I would like to say that I am above that, but I know that I will be checking my Amazon ratings on the hour for the next week or so. Well at least until the next book idea and offer comes along.

So there it is.. fairly  non-controversial. But do take a visit to the site if you can. Apparently they might pay me.

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Publication Day

Today is the official publication day in the UK of my new book, “The Self Illusion.” 

I have some kind, generous comments from David Eagleman, Michael Shermer and Robin Ince on the cover and so far, the first reviews have been positive. However, one reviewer has expressed some existentialist angst reading it but it’s ok, you can’t easily get rid of the grand illusionist that my colleague Dan Wegner has called “The Great Selfini.”

If you decide to buy it, you can order it from amazon. The US and Canadian versions are being published next month. If you do get a chance to read it, let me know what you think. I am hoping it will stimulate minds and debate.  I am sure it will annoy/upset/depress/ liberate (delete as appropriate) a number of you but it should most definitely not bore the reader. And yes, I know the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe is considerably more than 1081. If you read it, you’ll understand why.

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Another School Massacre – Is Ostracism to Blame?

In what seems an all too familiar tragedy, we learned last week, that a lone gunman walked on to the campus of Oikos University in east Oakland, California, and opened fire indiscriminately killing seven. It is not clear what motivated the suspect, 43-year-old One Goh, but already, we want to know what triggers these bloody rampages – Dunblane, Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Oikos University. Why?

Occasionally there are neurological conditions that precipitate the actions such as the case of Charles Whitman that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. However, as noted by Professor Ian Robertson, the commentator on that blog, it seems implausible that every rampage killer has a brain tumor. So why do individuals go on murder sprees? Kip Williams, a psychologist at Purdue University thinks it may have something to do with ostracism – when we are ignored and excluded from groups. In his research he demonstrated that social rejection is one of the most painful events that as a social animal, we can endure. He experienced this first hand after an episode in a local park when he was taking a walk and a Frisbee hit him in the back of his head. He picked it up and threw it back to the two players, who then engaged Williams by throwing the Frisbee back to him. All was fine until the two players returned their attention to each other and ignored Williams. He remembers feeling very hurt and then went off to study why we feel so upset by rejection.

It turns out that we are trip-wired to detect when the group to which we want to belong, rejects us. This shows up in measures of mood as well as brain imaging studies that reveal that the pain of social rejection also activates brain centers associated with physical pain. It is a particularly aversive experience, which is why most of us will automatically change our behaviour in an attempt to re-establish ourselves as members of the group, to the extent that we can become obsequious. If these efforts fail, then the ostracized individual will seek to force the group to recognize their existence. Williams has shown that ostracized individuals will seek revenge and are more aggressive to innocent bystanders. In its extreme form, this may be the motivation behind the lone gunman who goes on a rampage. In 13 out of 15 cases of school shootings in the United States, shooters had been targets of ostracism. For humans, group acceptance and reputation is paramount. For some, to be ostracized from the group is the worst fate imaginable. It can be considered a ‘psychological death.’

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