Sep 14

The Neuro-Psychology of Good and Evil

I was pleasantly surprised when on the second day of the social good summit, I recognized one of the speakers from a TED talk I once watched for my AP Psychology class. In her presentation, “The Neuro-Tech Network of Humanity,” Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor explained how human brains are designed in a way that makes social activism possible. One half of our brain (the left brain) makes it possible for us to plan, communicate, and organize things, while the other half (the right brain) is able to think holistically and creatively. More interesting is the idea that the left brain is what allows us to see ourselves as individuals, while the right brain understands that we are part of something much bigger. So we don’t just understand that we are all a part of this planet; we also understand that we as an individual can make a difference.

Taylor went on the explain how our most basic and innate functions were located in the center of the brain, while our higher “additional” functions developed through evolution and aging. If you ever learned about the brain’s anatomy, you know that the limbic system (emotions) is right in the center of everything, while our frontal lobe and cerebral cortex (thinking and higher reasoning) are at the edges of our brain. So in Taylor’s words, “We aren’t thinking creatures who feel, we are feeling creatures who think.”

Why is that important? Well according to Taylor’s argument, our natural tendencies lead us to feel for others. We are sensitive to the suffering around us and want to make a change. The thing which separates humans from other animals is that our brains have both the capacity to feel for others, and  the reasoning and thinking skills to make accomplish the goal to make their lives better. If we go by what Taylor is saying, we are basically designed to be good people and help one another.

But if that’s true, why is it that so many people often choose to make decisions which harm others? The answer, coincidentally, can be found in yet another TED talk I viewed in my AP psychology course.

Philip Zimbardo, world-renowned psychologist and professor at Stanford University, has spent his career studying what makes humans “go bad.” In his book The Lucifer Effect, he analyzes the ways in which we can span the spectrum between kind and cruel, caring and indifferent, and so on. What he eventually found is that people don’t just become evil; rather, it is a higher power, or “the system,” which causes them to do bad things. In Zimbardo’s words, it’s not the apples that go bad, it’s the barrel.

He found that when people are put in an unfamiliar situation, they tend to do what the authoritative figure tells them to do–even if that means hurting people. Anonymity is also a large factor. When people disguise themselves, 12 out of 13 are willing to harm others, compared to 1 in 8 if they just appear as themselves. I know this sounds extreme, but there have been several studies to back this up, including Zimbardo’s himself, which tested college students like us. Kids were assigned positions in a makeshift prison, either as inmates or guards. The guards were instructed by authority figures to taunt the prisoners, humiliate them and abuse them. And they did, because that what they’d been told, and they didn’t know what else to do. They adapted in order to cope within a bad situation.

Humans are impressionable, and though I’d like to believe in what Taylor asserts about us being engineered to do good, we also have to remember how easy it is for us to do bad as well. If we keep a close watch on our leadership, and constantly ask ourselves if what we’re doing is really okay, I think we could make the progress everyone at the summit was talking about. We just have to remember: The most important person to monitor is ourselves.


Jill Bolte Taylor. Stroke of Insight, 2008.

Philip Zimbardo. The Psychology of Evil, 2008.

Philip Zimbardo. The Lucifer Effect, 2007.

Sep 14

Why People Who Went To Preschool Have A One-Up On The World

During the summit, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were interviewed in the presentation, “Actions Speak Louder Than Hashtags.” In it, and in their books, they talked about why the American Dream might not be all it’s cracked up to be. However, they did provide the viewers with a few suggestions on how to change that.

People often wonder why it has become so hard to move up economically in the world. If it’s possible for 1 in 7 people to move from the lowest class to the highest class in places like Scandinavia and the UK, why can only 1 in 12 people do so in America, this “land of opportunity?” One of the factors Kristof and WuDunn pointed was that in several European counties, early childhood education is provided to everyone, whereas in the US, we act as if education doesn’t matter until you’re in high school. However, to put it bluntly, this is not true at all.

As Kristof and WuDunn explained, children’s plasticity is highest when they’re young. In other words, and their brains are more malleable, which means they retain more information and pick up new, complex concepts easier (think languages, reading, and some basic math). As you can imagine, learning these things early makes it a lot easier to deal with more advanced things later, and ultimately you become more likely to do well in school–and in turn, the world.

This fascinated me, and I wondered: is there anything else early childhood education does for you, other than eventually leading to an impressive paycheck? I did some of my own research and learned that…

Early childhood education increases kids’ self esteem, social skills, motivation, and cognitive ability. They’re more likely to attend and succeed in college, and less likely to commit a crime or get arrested. Even more interesting is that the advantages children gain in preschool stay with them all the way through their educational career. They will always stand out among their student peers, because they had a leg up on them from the beginning.

What’s coming into focus, and what President Obama keeps repeating to no avail, is that we are investing our money for education in the wrong places, and in the wrong people. And with the evidence that more than half of our nation’s kids don’t have the adequate math, reading, or behavior skills to profitably start kindergarten, or our slipping international ranking in college attendance, this is becoming even harder to contest. The national government has doubled the amount spent on Pell grants in the past year, but this doesn’t do much difference if it doesn’t bridge the simple gap in education which preschool fills. Economists like James Heckman (winner of the Nobel Economics prize) also point out that it is much faster and cheaper to teach a six-year old a new skill than it is an eighteen-year old (remember: plasticity).

Since 2013’s Economic Report of the President last month, Obama has reissued his call for universal early childhood education, generously citing Heckman’s research. Although it won’t happen overnight, I do believe our country is headed in the right direction with this, shall we say, preschool promotion. If America really is the land of opportunity, than kids should have every opportunity available to them–especially something as fundamental as education.


Council of Economic Advidors. Economic Report of the President, 2014.

James J. Heckman. Schools, Skills, and Synapses, 2008.

President Barack Obama. State of the Union Address, 2014.

Sep 14

Women and the Digital Revolution

During the seminar “Accelerating Global Change: Women & the Digital Revolution,” several women shared their experience connecting online through World Pulse, an online resource for women around the world. The founder, Jensine Larson, created it as a way for women to support and inspire each other, using the web campaign to provide women with information in areas where they need it most. I really enjoyed hearing how girls were using it, and how it encouraged them to try things that women in their communities had never tried before. But later I realized: Larson isn’t the only women who’s created something like this.

If you’re ever looking for a feminist article, you’re most likely not going to find it in the shelves of a library–or at least, you won’t find anything modern. This is because feminism for the most part has taken to the internet, and the blogsphere in particular is booming. There are literally thousands of feminist blogs out there. Some talk about anything feminism, while others focus on black feminism, queer feminism, feminism in hip-hop culture, or even just feminism from the male perspective. There is so much information being shared out there, and more and more women are beginning to take part.

I always appreciated online discussion groups. I think it encourages more people to speak honestly and come out of their shells, especially young girls in this case. But another thing blogging publicly does is make these websites available to anyone and everyone. You don’t have to attend a rally like you did in 1980 if you want to hear about a women’s rights movement anymore. Girls have taken over the web, and in turn, so is feminism.

Despite all this, it hadn’t occurred to me that women from places like Nepal and Tunisia were also getting involved in these online movements. But now that the social good summit has drastically expanded my world view, I’m definitely proud that it has. Women everywhere are beginning to feel empowered, and it’s because all of us are finally able to connect with each other; to inspire and support ourselves as one. Things like country borders, language boundaries, and cultural repression are fading away with the innovations of technology.

My Women’s Studies professor has been having all of her students write blogs sharing our feminist feelings for the week, and then comment on our classmates’ blogs. She did this knowing that if we really wanted to get involved, the blogsphere was the perfect way to start. And while I understood her logic at the time, I never truly appreciated it until further into the semester, as I discovered the seemingly endless amount of females supporting each other and sharing ideas.

Can you guys understand how fantastic this is? Imagine you’re just browsing online, and you suddenly come across an entire worldwide community, devoted entirely to supporting you and making sure you live happy, equal lives without oppression; which understands the challenges you face and actively takes steps to end them. Now imagine that you were like these girls from Nepal and Tunisia, who never had any resources like this before, and came across the same thing. That is what we call the feminist blogsphere.

I would say the internet is a wonderful thing, but we wouldn’t have this community without the women who made it. And I must say, I’m truly proud of this.



Sep 14

Think Globally, Act Locally

On the first day of the Social Good Summit, listeners were introduced to the idea of looking at a situation holistically, and then take steps toward solving the problem with the bigger picture in mind. In the words of children’s rights activist Graca Machel, “Think globally, and then act locally.”

During the seminar “Women Power. Empowered Women,” Machel went into further detail. She explained how even if we can’t reach the entire world at once, if we proceed towards solving a problem with the entire situation in mind, it’s much more likely to succeed the way we want it to. During the summit, Machel and the three other women in her seminar were mostly discussing ways to solve the problem of childhood marriage. But when I considered what they were saying afterwards, I realized this advice to think holistically could be applied to several other issues.

For example, last fall I did a research project on Mississippi’s education program, and found it was one of the five worst programs in the U.S. Their standardized test scores are dismal, and only 60% of the student population ever graduates high school. That means almost half of the state’s youth has never achieved a high school education. I also learned that despite this, Mississippi’s government is taking its money out of its schools, and using it to fund bigger and better prisons in an attempt to combat the state’s rising crime rates. But does that actually solve their problem?

Let’s take a step back and look at the situation holistically–because if Mississippi’s government had, they would have realized that one of the traits most commonly associated with criminals is a lack of education. If you have an education, you’re more likely to get a job, and less likely to be out on the street robbing convenience stores. You’d also be giving back to the economy by working, and the state would be making even more money. I think it’s fair to say that Mississippi didn’t think this one through.

In contrast, the seminar which followed “Women Power. Empowered Women,” gave an example of how holistic thinking is successfully solving problems–even from across an ocean. In “One Year Later: Progress in the Pursuit of Conflict-Free,” the CEO of Intel Corporation Brian Krzanich explained how his company is refusing to purchase conflict minerals (slave-mined minerals from the Democratic-Republic of the Congo often used to build computer chips). Roxanne Rahnama, a student activist at the University of California Berkley, explained how her University and several other like it had pledged to only buy computer supplies from companies which, like Intel, had stopped buying into the Congo’s slave trade. This is an example of how looking holistically at a problem can help us find solutions that are not always obvious, but still get to the heart of the issue: These activists thought globally, and acted locally.

This concept is important to keep in mind, especially since we are out in the world now and making decisions on our own. It’s always good to look at a situation from every angle before deciding how to act. It can save you a lot of time, and probably get you closer to what you wanted in the first place.

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