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Science in Society

People’s Notions of a Perfect Life are Surprisingly Modest

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When I was a kid I was always fascinated by genie-in-the-bottle scenarios, where people could choose three wishes. It’s a question that’s exciting but also weirdly stressful to ponder. If there were no limits to how you lived your life – if you could have for yourself whatever you wanted - what would you choose?

What to Do When Algorithms Rule

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The first American astronauts were recruited from the ranks of test pilots, largely due to convenience. As Tom Wolfe describes in his incredible book The Right Stuff, radar operators might have been better suited to the passive observation required in the largely automated Mercury space capsules. But the test pilots were readily available, had the required security clearances, and could be ordered to report to duty.

Career Snapshot: On Being an Editor

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As I approached the end of my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at Vanderbilt University, I knew that an academic career was not what I wanted. I had a strong publication record because I liked the process of connecting dots in the literature, designing experiments and interpreting data in light of that literature, and bringing everything together in a paper that laid out a clear argument, not because I was inherently motivated by specific research questions.

Nudging the City and Residents of Cape Town to Save Water

Image of Cape Town desert parched earth and dead trees

Cape Town could become the world’s first major city to run out of water – what’s been termed Day Zero. Sao Paulo faced similar difficulties in 2015 leading to significant social unrest.

On Day Zero – which could be in mid-July if there’s no significant rain – residents of the city will have to travel to one of 200 city-wide collection points to get the allocated 25 litres per person, per day, under the watchful eye of an armed guard.

Why Is Sarcasm so Difficult to Detect in Texts and Emails?

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This sentence begins the best article you will ever read.

Chances are you thought that last statement might be sarcasm. Sarcasm, as linguist Robert Gibbs noted, includes “words used to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning of a sentence.” A form of irony, it also tends to be directed toward a specific individual.

An Illness by Any Other Name: Could a Name Change Improve Perceptions of Gout?

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The beginning of a new year is a time of resolution setting and recovery from the festive season. We enjoyed plenty of ham, turkey, Christmas pudding and maybe a few alcoholic beverages. But merriment has consequences. In fact, the head of the Royal College of General Practitioners has asserted that due to poor diet and lifestyle habits, Santa Claus probably has a few health problems, one of which being gout.

The dangerous belief that white people are under attack

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In August, the Justice Department decided to investigate instances of bias against whites in university admissions. Since then, campuses have been flyered with “It’s okay to be white,” and in November, violence erupted at the University of Connecticut during a speech about discrimination against whites.

Are white people actually under attack?

After all, in the U.S., whites have historically been viewed as perpetrators of bias, and racial minorities as the victims.

Do People Like Government ‘Nudges’? Study Says: Yes

Image of a yellow post-it note on a blank notebook page that reads "Do the right thing"

On Oct. 9, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago won the Nobel Prize for his extraordinary, world-transforming work in behavioral economics. In its press release, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences emphasized that Thaler demonstrated how nudging – or influencing people while fully maintaining freedom of choice – “may help people exercise better self-control when saving for a pension, as well in other contexts.”

In terms of Thaler’s work on what human beings are actually like, that’s the tip of the iceberg – but it’s a good place to start.

Attitudes to Same-Sex Marriage Have Many Psychological Roots, and They Can Change

Image of two wedding bands tied together on a horizontal line of string

As the Australian same-sex marriage debate heats up it may be time for cool reflection on the sources of our polarised views. Recent research shines a revealing light on the roots of pro- and anti-marriage equality sentiment. It helps explain the roots of our attitudes to same-sex marriage, and whether they are shallow enough to allow attitudes to change.

Healthy Choices are Neither Good or Bad; Only Thinking Makes Them So

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Doing healthy things can feel like a battle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The devil impels me to order the bacon burger for lunch, but the angel nudges my hand toward the salad.

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