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Monday, November 24, 2008

Neuroscience: Advocacy research hits the big time

We are always hearing that "research shows" this and that. What to believe?

Warning against research claiming to show that one lifestyle produces better results than another, University of Kent sociologist Frank Furedi notes:

If you are offended that your lifestyle and belief have not been validated by gold-standard research, you will be delighted to know that there must be a study out there that proves your moral worth.

[ ... ]

Scientists can now prove that contrasting political outlooks are related to differences in how the brain processes information. Scientists at NYU and UCLA believe that their experiments show that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of the way their brains function. They too have numbers - liberals are 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to indicate activity in the brain circuits that engage with conflict.

Despite its links with the past, advocacy research has now acquired an unprecedented significance in Western culture. One important driver of its expansion is the growing significance that people attach to their lifestyles. The very subjects that advocacy research addresses suggest that lifestyle issues such as emotional orientation, parenting styles and the management of relations have become increasingly politicised.

As Furedi implies, that sort of thing is mostly junk. But it does not follow that lifestyle choices make no difference at all.

For example, people who regularly volunteer and give to charity are more likely to be happy than people who sit around whinging that the world is rotten and that no one cares about them. And research does show that. But the explanation is obvious: People who reach out have more fun and make more friends than people who do not.

I usually trust research that follows obvious intuitions and mistrust research that comes up with odd conclusions that could be politically motivated.

Some stories on lifestyle habits that may make a real difference:

Police just as good as church in promoting socially helpful behaviour?

News flash, sort of ... people would rather give to charity than pay taxes

Research that tells you something you already knew: Givers are happier

Altruism - it's all about sexual display, see?

Humanity's hopeful sign: Disaster causes outpouring of charity in China

Altruism: Why it can't really exist but why it does anyway

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