Postdoctoral Research Associate, The Rockefeller University
Yoav Litvin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
The Conversation is funded by Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Knight Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Alfred P Sloan Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation and the Simons Foundation. Our global publishing platform is funded by Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
Intellectuals, academics and artists play a unique role in society: they preserve and defend both freedom of expression and the morality of choices. Artists can use their work as a means to communicate messages of dissent and hope in the face of injustice, repression and despair.
Meanwhile, those in power who seek to control public opinion typically consider untethered freedom of thought and expression a threat.
But in any capitalist system, it’s difficult to survive as a full-time artist. Artists need to be industrious in order to make a living from art, and may choose to work with government organizations or corporations to supplement their income.
Herein lies what I’ve dubbed the “artist’s dilemma”: how does one cooperate with a large entity while ensuring moral ground? In other words, what constitutes “selling out,” arguably the worst insult that can be lobbed at an artist?
It’s an issue that has come to the forefront, especially for street artists, who seem to be increasingly collaborating with businesses and corporations. Companies will often seek to cultivate artists as a way to enhance their brand, and street art can have the effect of making a product look more authentic, edgy and gritty.
Meanwhile, in some instances, the boundaries between political activism and commodification have blurred. Earlier this year, the street artist Gilf! made headlines for wrapping yellow caution tape with the words “Gentrification in Progress” around shuttered buildings throughout New York City. But the caution tape can now be had for the price of US$60.
In response to these trends within the world of street art, some claim that the genre – specifically, its festivals – have “sold out.” Others make the puzzling argument that this debate is outdated because the genre of street art “has been recognizable since the ‘70’s and ’80’s.”
What is apparent is that with the growth of corporate control over public spaces – along with the relentless attempt of corporate entities to commodify anything and everything – the debate about street art and artists “selling out” is not only relevant, it’s necessary.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma: an analogy
In order to methodically tackle this issue, it’s useful to look at it through the lens of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game analyzed by use of principles of game theory.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, developed by mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dreshner, is an analysis of a hypothetical situation. The police apprehend two accomplices for committing a minor crime, but they’re suspected of a greater offense. The evidence for the greater offense, however, is circumstantial. The police need their confession to convict.
For this purpose, the accomplices are separated and individually presented with the following options: squeal on your partner and go free (and be absolved of the lesser crime) or remain silent and risk your partner squealing on you, in which case you’ll get the maximum prison term for the major offense.
But there are two more possible scenarios: if both prisoners squeal, they each get an intermediate sentence. Lastly, if both prisoners stay silent, they’ll be tried for the lesser offense, and could still end up in jail.
Studies show that although game theory predicts that the rational choice for each prisoner (dictated by self-preservation) is to squeal on his or her partner, most humans will attempt to at least remain faithful to their partner once before giving them up, which demonstrates the tendency of humans to value social bonds.
The artist’s dilemma
So what does this have to do with artists, their art and the idea of selling out?
Let’s apply a similar “two-by-two” approach to the artist’s dilemma.
Many artists use the streets as an ad space for their art; they view the public as potential clients and pride themselves on corporate partnerships, which can be quite lucrative.
In this case, as long as artists are clear about their overarching goal – promoting sales in a capitalist market – they can’t “sell out.” In a sense, these artists are smaller versions of commercial enterprises that use public space to advertise their products (often without having to pay for the space).
At the same time, artists who have any kind of moral presumptions guiding their work need to assume certain responsibilities. For one, if they are receiving funding from a corporation or government organization, they need to research each entity’s respective agendas. It could simply mean doing some background research on the internet, but it could also entail communicating with the organization itself and asking what it stands for, what it opposes and what its mission and goals are.
If, after adequate research, the entity’s agenda coincides with the artist’s, the work is morally kosher.
However, education also entails risk: if the artist discovers the entity is morally corrupt, at least by his or her definition, it’s the obligation of the artist to forfeit the financial opportunity in order to hold moral ground.
If the artist has found that the organization is morally corrupt and still chooses to work with it – well, the artist is, by definition, selling out.
There’s another outcome: the artist can choose to stay ignorant and work with any organization solely for the money. If the artist is lucky, the organization turns out to be morally sound. However, if the organization turns out to be morally corrupt, the artist can’t simply plead ignorance when being called a sellout.
Pleading ignorance, of course, doesn’t excuse the artist from the consequences of collaborating with a morally corrupt organization. At the very least, he or she must assume responsibility after the fact.
Organizations and corporations involved in the arts also have a moral responsibility. They need to be transparent about their policies and political agendas so that artists can make informed decisions, and don’t have to do all the work themselves.
The case of Shepard Fairey
Shepard Fairey (known for his iconic OBEY slogan) is one of the world’s most renowned street artists. But in addition to his work on the streets, Fairey runs a thriving graphic design business that caters to big corporations, including some with questionable moral standing, like Nike and Saks Fifth Avenue. (For a full list, click here.)
if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers.
According to this statement, it’s apparent that even though Fairey is aware of the questionable moral agendas of some of the corporations that commission him, he still takes their money.
So is he a sellout? Not according to Fairey’s definition of selling out.
In one interview, Fairey defines selling out as “compromising your values to pander to the lowest common denominator.”
In another, he elaborates: “To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity.”
And in his new book Covert to Overt, Fairey details what he calls his “inside/outside” strategy of work:
…doing things on my own terms outside of the system when necessary, while also seizing opportunities to infiltrate the system and use its machinery to spread my art and ideas, hoping to change the system for the better in the process.
Here, Fairey assumes a Robin Hood-like approach: taking from exploitative corporations and using his commissioned art to chip away at their influence by, for example, raising awareness about war.
Fairey’s dealings with corporations fall within the definitions of selling out, as outlined by the artist’s dilemma. And one must wonder how much influence corporate entities have over Fairey’s art and messaging – surely the commissioned work, but also his street works.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that these dealings have enabled him to devote significant time and resources to putting up works on the streets that endorse progressive, noncommercial (even anti-commercial) causes. So in order to evaluate whether or not Fairey is selling out, it seems that one must weigh the influence of corporate interests on his work versus the benefits of Fairey’s works on the streets.
The example of Fairey demonstrates the limitations of applying a simple two-by-two theory as a sweeping criterion. Nevertheless, the artist’s dilemma can act as a frame for this important discussion: it unequivocally demonstrates that artists need to be transparent and accountable. They have a responsibility to forge moral alliances with employers that could have potentially conflicting agendas.
“The USA has a long standing practice of non intervention in foreign affairs.” OMG, these people really think that we are dumb. They’re probably right, as we keep electing them liars politicians to represent us.
Here are some hallmark examples of verbal and bodily cues that lying liars exhibit when they lie, as demonstrated for you by the president… with a bonus from the State Dept.
The question in this particular example regarded how the federal government would go about confiscating America’s guns, asked by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly. After a lengthy subject change of nearly a minute, the president said he believed Kelly was alluding to a conspiracy to disarm American citizens and impose martial law.
People are incredibly receptive to meaningless buzzwords, according to a new study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making. Yes, the vast majority of people are willing to believe complete bullshit, to use the scholarly term. (Title of the study: “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.”)
Over the course of four different experiments including hundreds of participants, researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo and Sheridan College tested how profound people would rate a bunch of buzzwords strung together in a plausible syntactic structure. The psychologists intended to establish a method of testing people’s individual receptivity to bullshit.
Participants rated statements on a scale of profundity from 1 to 5, 5 being “very profound.” As source material, the researchers used Wisdom of Chopra, a site that draws words from the tweets of holistic health guru Deepak Chopra (sample tweet: “experience is made out of awareness”) and turns them into randomly generated sentences; and a website called New Age Bullshit Generator, which comes up with a slew of nonsense phrases based on New Age buzzwords. In a subsequent experiment, they used actual tweets from Chopra deemed to be particularly vague. In another, they compared motivational quotes like “a river cuts through a rock, not because of its power but its persistence” to regular statements like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” In the fourth, they also tested people’s tendency to agree with conspiracies. The hundreds of subjects in the final three studies were all recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and paid for their participation.
The researchers found that people vary in their proclivity to assign profound meaning to vague statements, a characteristic they call “bullshit receptivity.” But some people will find almost anything profound, including not very insightful sentences like “most people enjoy some sort of music.” A quarter of the 280 participants in one experiment rated the randomly generated sentences from Wisdom of Chopra and the New Age Bullshit Generator as a 3 or higher on the 5-point profundity scale, indicating that they found them pretty meaningful. “These results indicate that our participants largely failed to detect that the statements are bullshit,” the researchers write.
This may be the result of a lack of critical thinking. Those who are particularly receptive to bullshit, the researchers found, tend to show lower cognitive abilities (like verbal intelligence); are less reflective; more prone to conspiracy theories; more likely to subscribe to religion and belief in the paranormal; and more likely to be a fan of alternative medicine. (The latter, of course, you could probably have predicted based on the motivational quotes that show up on your hippie relative’s Facebook feed.)
So why do so many people fall prey to complete nonsense masquerading as deep thoughts? It could be that they’re just categorically open minded, and accept these statements without critical thought. It could also be a factor of verbal intelligence, since people with higher verbal intelligence, the researchers hypothesize, would have greater knowledge of word meanings that might help them detect the banality of a statement. Or, it could be that people naturally assume that the statements provided to them in the course of a psychological study must have some meaning.
Regardless, we should all cultivate a little more awareness of the bullshit around us. As Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it in his essay (later book) “On Bullshit” [PDF], “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
(ANTIMEDIA) A recent study served to confirm the patently obvious: song lyrics for the most popular genres of music are ridiculously obtuse — and getting worse over time. Though this might not be a revelation, the figures are distressing indicators of both an intellectually vapid societal and cultural future as well as its apparent inevitability.
If you’ve already moved away from Billboard music, congratulations, you refuse to be insulted. But if you haven’t, or if you’re concerned about pop culture trends acting as portents of systemic dysfunction, you should probably pay attention. Andrew Powell-Morse of SeatSmart studied the “Lyric Intelligence” of 225 Billboard songs in the Pop, Country, Hip-hop, and Rock genres that spent three or more weeks parked at the top of the charts to analyze any changes over the course of ten years. And change there was.
Ten years ago, the most popular songs read between a third and fourth grade level, but the inanity only increased with time, and after a five-year downward tumble ending in 2014 (the last year of the study), chart-topping hits had a reading level equivalent to second or third grade. Broken into genres, the levels measured just 2.6 for Hip-hop/R&B, a tie of 2.9 for Rock and Pop, and faring best was Country at 3.3 — though declaring a winner in this insipid race to the bottom seems somewhat defeatist. Even further to that point, the most intellectually stimulating song, Blake Shelton’s Country hit “All About Tonight”, measured just 5.8, while wading deeply into the ludicrous was Three Days Grace’s “The Good Life”, at a level equivalent to 0.8 — begging the question, did they have to try to craft lyrics a kindergartner could easily read?
So how did this happen and why is it getting even worse? For the sake of brevity, this is a systemic issue being reinforced across the board by pandemic anti-intellectualism. Some have argued there is no harm in a bit of mindless distraction, but this is incontrovertibly false. When just six corporations control 90% of the media, and 80% of radio stations have identical playlists, mindless content isn’t a choice — it’s a virtual mandate. In this self-propelled cycle of banality, the conglomerates dictate content to be promoted by radio, which in turn pushes it endlessly, creating a false perception that what is being played is due to listener demand. But this insidious marketing ploy is more akin to kidnapping and is every bit as dangerous.
There is a dearth in music options over the airwaves, so when vacuous lyrics are foisted on listeners, they become captives under duress. It is scientifically proven that flexing the intellect can slow cognitive decline, but there has been a cultural shift away from stimulating thought in favor of homogenization and living for the moment, and empty radio content is both symptom and reinforcement of that trend. Society is focused on entertainment, materialism, and self-promotion, and when coupled with a need for instant gratification, it’s really no wonder we’re in such a sorry state. Occasional forays into mindless distraction would be understandable and harmless if they were just forays, but the foundation is faulty due to a sharp decline in quality education at every level.
Education has become the highest form of indoctrination with teachers forced into regurgitating information so their students can pass tests rather than become innovators and original thinkers. And who could blame them? Currently, they’re held to the ridiculous system where their performance is ranked, and salary determined by how those students perform on standardized tests that are, themselves, flawed. As Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, put it, “This country has spent billions on accountability, not on the improvement of teaching and learning at the classroom level.”
An education system based almost solely on taking tests is not only intellectually dimming, it’s stressful — instructors doling out the tests are given a set of instructions for what to do when students vomit on their test booklets. All of this is designed to send students to college where the situation is perpetuated. According to Catherine Liu, a film and media studies professor at the University of California, “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”
From a political standpoint, all this ‘dumbing down’ makes sense: indoctrination creates obedience. If music and culture focus on mindless diversion, and education lacks, well, education, then people lack the acuity necessary to question the absurdity of the system. Those who manage to liberate themselves from this mold and have the gumption to question official authority will find a cozy spot on the government’s watch list. So while we bemoan our country’s lack of intellectual prowess, it isn’t by a failure of design.
The author of aptly titled Idiot America, journalist Charles Pierce, thoroughly summed up the issue this way: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good.”
Unfortunately, if the lyrics study is a prognostic omen, the epidemic of idiocy will only get worse.
When you see someone smiling or you hear laughter, you often can’t help but smile or laugh yourself. Now scientists from the University of Florida have shown that the same applies to certain non-aggressive negative behaviors, especially rudeness.
The research showed that once the mind is stimulated with negative concepts, a person is more likely to interpret subsequent actions as rude, even if they are ambiguous or benign, and one is more likely to act with malevolence during interactions with others, thus further infecting them with hostility and negativity.
The scientific study of the transmission of negative behavior is not new. In the 1960’s, the infamous Bobo doll experiment showed that children who observed adults act abusively towards a doll, were themselves abusive to the doll. What was different about this experiment, when compared to these recent studies, was that the behaviors were aggressive, including hitting with a mallet and yelling, and they were acted out by someone the subjects looked up to – an adult. Hence it can be said that children in the study were intentionally mimicking negative behavior because they were copying the adults.
In this case, however, Foulk and his colleagues studied low-intensity negative behaviors, such as rudeness, which are more common in everyday interactions.
First Study – Does Observing Rude Behavior Activate Concepts in the Mind Related to Rudeness
In one of the studies, the participants witnessed an exchange between an actor, who they perceived was a participant arriving late to the experiment. In the control condition, the experiment administrator dismissed the actor offering to reschedule. In the negative condition, the administrator rudely berated the actor. The study participants were then asked to complete a Lexical Decision Task (LDT) in which they decided as quickly as possible if a string of letters formed an actual word, ie. CHIKHEN. Here are the results:
Critically, some of the LDT words were friendly (e.g., helpful), some were aggressive (e.g., savage), and some were rude (e.g., tactless). Response times to the friendly and aggressive items were similar across conditions, but response times to the rude items were significantly faster for participants in the negative condition relative to the control condition. People who watched a rude interaction had concepts about rudeness active in their mind, and thus were faster to respond to those concepts in the LDT. These findings suggest that exposure to rudeness seems to sensitize us to rude concepts in a way that is not intentional or purposeful, but instead happens automatically.
Second Study – Does Sensitivity to Rudeness Impact Social Behavior?
In another study, the researchers asked participants to play the role of an employee in a bookstore. The subjects watched a video with either a rude or polite interaction among coworkers, and then were asked to answer a customer email. The email was either polite, highly aggressive, or moderately rude. Here is what was discovered:
Notably, the type of video participants observed did not affect their responses to the neutral or aggressive emails; instead, the nature of those emails drove the response.
However, the type of video participants observed early in the study did affect their interpretation of and response to the rude email. Those who had seen the polite video adopted a benign interpretation of the moderately rude email and delivered a neutral response, while those who had seen the rude video adopted a malevolent interpretation and delivered a hostile response. Thus, observing rude behaviors, even those committed by coworkers or peers, resulted in greater sensitivity and heightened response to rudeness.
Third Study – Does Watching Rude Behavior Make Us More Obnoxious Towards Others?
This study consisted of a series of negotiation exercises among participants. After an initial negotiation, “the carrier” subject was sent into a new negotiation with a new partner.
As you might guess, participants who negotiated with a rude [initial] partner were in turn perceived as rude in their subsequent interaction with a new partner. These “carriers” evoked feelings of anger and hostility in their new partners, and even incited vindictive behaviors.
Moreover, these effects of negative contagion were evident in negotiations that took place up to a week after the initial exposure, suggesting a fairly long infectious period for negative behaviors.
We often hear that laughter is infectious, but beware, so is obnoxious behavior. If social behaviors, especially negative ones, are in fact contagios in this way, then does that explain why our society seems to be trending towards greater meanness and callousness? More importantly, can this pattern be broken with awareness and mindfulness?
Is evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality
It’s hard to understand how the Nazis, ISIS and other radical groups can turn ordinary people into brutal killers. But perhaps evil is a disease – one we can treat. This article was first published before the attacks in Paris on 13 November
WHY would an apparently normal young adult drop out of college and turn up some time later in a video performing a cold-blooded execution in the name of jihad? It’s a conundrum we have been forced to ponder ever since a group calling itself ISIS declared war on infidels. But 70 years ago we were asking something similar of guards in Nazi concentration camps – and, sadly, there have been plenty of opportunities to ponder the matter in between.
What turns an ordinary person into a killer? The idea that a civilised human being might be capable of barbaric acts is so alien that we often blame our animal instincts – the older, “primitive” areas of the brain taking over and subverting their more rational counterparts. But fresh thinking turns this long-standing explanation on its head. It suggests that people perform brutal acts because the “higher”, more evolved, brain overreaches. The set of brain changes involved has been dubbed Syndrome E – with E standing for evil.
In a world where ideological killings are rife, new insights into this problem are sorely needed. But reframing evil as a disease is controversial. Some believe it could provide justification for heinous acts or hand extreme organisations a recipe for radicalising more young people. Others argue that it denies the reality that we all have the potential for evil within us. Proponents, however, say that if evil really is a pathology, then society ought to try to diagnose susceptible individuals and reduce contagion. And if we can do that, perhaps we can put radicalisation into reverse, too.
Following the second world war, the behaviour of guards in Nazi concentration camps became the subject of study, with some researchers seeing them as willing, ideologically driven executioners, others as mindlessly obeying orders. The debate was reignited in the mid-1990s in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In 1996, The Lancet carried an editorial pointing out that no one was addressing evil from a biological point of view. Neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried, at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to rise to the challenge.
In a paper published in 1997, he argued that the transformation of non-violent individuals into repetitive killers is characterised by a set of symptoms that suggests a common condition, which he called Syndrome E (see “Seven symptoms of evil“). He suggested that this is the result of “cognitive fracture”, which occurs when a higher brain region, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – involved in rational thought and decision-making – stops paying attention to signals from more primitive brain regions and goes into overdrive.
“The set of brain changes has been dubbed Syndrome E – with E standing for evil”
The idea captured people’s imaginations, says Fried, because it suggested that you could start to define and describe this basic flaw in the human condition. “Just as a constellation of symptoms such as fever and a cough may signify pneumonia, defining the constellation of symptoms that signify this syndrome may mean that you could recognise it in the early stages.” But it was a theory in search of evidence. Neuroscience has come a long way since then, so Fried organised a conference in Paris earlier this year to revisit the concept.
At the most fundamental level, understanding why people kill is about understanding decision-making, and neuroscientists at the conference homed in on this. Fried’s theory starts with the assumption that people normally have a natural aversion to harming others. If he is correct, the higher brain overrides this instinct in people with Syndrome E. How might that occur?
Etienne Koechlin at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris was able to throw some empirical light on the matter by looking at people obeying rules that conflict with their own preferences. He put volunteers inside a brain scanner and let them choose between two simple tasks, guided by their past experience of which would be the more financially rewarding (paying 6 euros versus 4). After a while he randomly inserted rule-based trials: now there was a colour code indicating which of the two tasks to choose, and volunteers were told that if they disobeyed they would get no money.
2016 presidential candidates have a new option in their quest to sway voters. “Neuropolitics” is the attempt to read your mind by scanning facial expressions and feeding them into an algorithm. Biofeedback—including heart rate, eye movements, and skin conditions—can also be captured and used for political purposes and, perhaps one day, for government purposes.
The New York Times describes a recent example in Mexico City, where a Congressional candidate hired a company to deploy a digital billboard with a hidden camera. The billboard advertised for the candidate, but also scanned faces so the campaign could analyze facial expressions and tweak their message.
The technology has been used by politicians in several other countries, including Mexico, Poland, Colombia, and Turkey. The “taboo” that once characterized its use in the U.S. could vanish in the 2016 elections.
David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager, said the tools “would be new ground for political campaigns.”
Mr. Plouffe added: “The richness of this data compared to what is gathered today in testing ads or evaluating speeches and debates, which is the trusty old dial test and primitive qualitative methods, is hard to comprehend. It gets more to emotion, intensity and a more complex understanding of how people are reacting.”
But “the horrendous dial ratings on the bottom of televised presidential debates,” he said, referring to the real-time reactions of undecided voters shown on the television screen, “may now be replaced with the only thing worse: sweat, eye and cardiac monitoring measurements of key voter segments.”
Francisco Olvera Ruiz, the governor of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, is a big believer in using the technology for elections and government programs, saying, “In my government, we have utilized a variety of research tools and opinion studies to evaluate the efficacy of our governmental programs, communications and messages. Neuroscience research [is] especially valuable because it has allowed us to discover with more precision and objectivity what people think, perceive and feel.”
However, academics are accusing neuromarketers of peddling junk science.
“For the most part, I think that companies selling neuroscience-based market research tools are taking advantage of people’s natural tendency to think that measurements of the brain are somehow more ‘real’ than measurements of behavior,” said Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
Nonetheless, those eager to gain the power and influence that comes with being an elected official won’t let academic skepticism get in the way. They say that brain waves, facial expressions and neurobiology give true insight into a voter’s feelings and opinions. Many voters are reluctant to say how they feel about a candidate, but campaigns feel they should be able to get around the voter’s choice to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Neuromarketing consultants are pushing their research in at least a dozen countries, including the United States. One firm said that it worked for a Hillary Clinton campaign, but a Clinton spokesman said they won’t talk about what methodologies they use or don’t use.
In 2016, be wary as you watch the candidates’ digital billboards. They may be watching you too.