Letters to the Editors, July/August 2010

Letters to the editor about the March/April 2010 issue of Scientific American MIND

I have a bone to pick, related to “The Power to Persuade,” by Kevin Dutton. Too often people blame others for their bad decisions. In Mariette DiChristina’s comments in her column From the Editor, she says that she could not figure out what the art salesperson had done to “make” her buy the pen-and-ink set, implying that she had had no option but to buy it. Persuasion may be potent, but it is not helpful to allow people to excuse themselves for not making a better decision. It reminds me of Flip Wilson’s old line, “The devil made me do it!”
Sally Comer
via e-mail

If more than one fourth of the population is considered ill by the psychiatric community, as Robert Epstein wrote in his article “Are You Mentally Healthy?” perhaps the definition of illness should be more carefully examined. For a bacterial infection, it is a patient’s impaired functioning—not just the presence of bacteria in the body—that signals treatment is necessary. If my medical doctor continuously treated infections that created no disability, I’d eventually seek a second opinion.
commenting at

I think Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s argument in “The Ethical Dog” that canine fair play can give insight into human morality is a good one, but I would limit the comparison to early humans living in small hunter-gathering bands. Once groups start to get larger, altering the tight interdependence necessary for survival, patterns of group behavior change. In other words, when you can start to benefit from my losses, I must play by different rules.
commenting at

When I started this article, I thought, “Humans have spent millennia selecting dogs for certain behavioral traits. What dogs do is not reflective of wild animals.” When I saw that the study included widespread moral behavior in other canids, such as wolves and coyotes, I asked myself, “Have dogs influenced the selection of human behavioral traits?” In some societies, for example the Inuits of North America, dogs played an essential role in the survival of the people they lived with. Could these dogs have made choices, at critical moments, to help or abandon people that did not play by the rules of dog fairness?

Clearly, the power of dogs to select for human traits is not as strong as the power humans have over the breeding of dogs, but perhaps the influence is not negligible.
Spencer Murray
Saint Laurent, Quebec

BEKOFF REPLIES: I think it is conceivable that during the course of the domestication of dogs, humans observed the way wolves  socially interacted—and perhaps people noted that these wolves played fairly and abided by clear rules of social engagement. Although the idea is not testable in any empirical way, I think it is possible that early humans saw the animals’ fairness, cooperation, empathy and other positive social behavior patterns and may have used these “social lessons” in their own interactions.

Thank you for the article “Living with Schizophrenia,” by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz, which conveyed the important social message that many schizophrenics can experience significant recovery and go on to lead relatively normal lives. It is good to state that even when patients do decline, the symptoms need not devastate friendships—and to point out that those patients with schizophrenia who unfortunately never fully recover should not be blamed for their condition.
Greg Westlake
Norfolk, England

This article was originally published with the title "March/April 2010 Issue."

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