Some interesting results from research on bullying: often, neither the victims nor the perpetrators of bullying call it that. They use the term “drama.”

Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings.

one of the most important rites of passage

“The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—‘drugs‘—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use.”

— Sam Harris argues that experimenting with psychedelic drugs is ‘one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.’

The “new” science of responsibility

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainWe appear to be in the middle of a rash of books that seek to “re-examine” morality, responsibility, and the whole idea of criminal blameworthiness, in light of recent scientific discoveries. And while the field of neurology has had an astounding couple of decades, a lot of the work of applying these insights to our commonsense understanding of blame seems to be falling flat.

Consider The Science of Evil (British title: “Zero Degrees of Empathy”) by Simon Baron-Cohen. Here the premise is that ugly behavior is caused by a lack of empathy with others, which strikes me as banal, if not reflexive. There’s a scale of empathy, you see (and you can take the test!), and those with low to empathy are more likely to be “evil”. Of course your empathy score is a combination of nature and nurture, and people who normally have normal empathy can have temporary bouts of un-empathy. It’s all supported by research, but it’s also, I think, supported by our commonsense understanding.

Another book making the rounds is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. (You can hear him discuss it on Fresh Air.) Maybe I’m overinformed, but Eagleman’s central claim — that behavior is caused by brain chemistry — got little more than a “duh” out of me. His observation that the brain consists of a number of competing actors, and that the conscious mind is more an observer of decisions than a king, is lifted from the work of Daniel Dennett and others. And the idea that the criminal justice system should take people’s brain states into account when passing sentences is old hat to anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology; in fact our notoriously slow-changing and backwards justice system has actually been incorporating these ideas.

Eagleman’s big example of how brain chemistry cause our behavior is the pedophile who was cured and returned to normal when a suddenly discovered brain tumor was removed. But just because behavior in one person was linked to a tangible brain defect outside his control does not mean that we should re-evaluate our notions of blame in general. Some actions are within a person’s self-control and some are not. If Eagleman has a worthwhile message, it’s that the vast majority of decisions fall somewhere in the middle, and that our apparent free will is, much more so than we realize, an illusion of how our minds work.

The basis of that realization is actually decades-old psychological experiments (e.g. the pantyhose experiment), but it’s an idea that’s resisted by conventional wisdom. The value of Eagleman’s book (and his current publicity tour) is to spread this idea.

Merlin Mann’s inbox zero book progress update

Well, I thing that Merlin Mann might have to add me to the list of people who think he’s lost his mind a little, because according to a video he posted yesterday, he’s 25,000 words into writing a book that explains how it’s ok/good to goof off every once in a while, so long as you know when to stop and get to work. But don’t get me wrong, I agree! And the stuff about the butcher and the 7 levels of knowledge is great and everything. (Tho I think lifehacker’s point was that if you’re soaking your dishes overnight, dishwasher soap works for some reason better then regular dish soap, which is not a completely useless thing to know, really.)