How to Not Destroy Ourselves

Ali Mattu, New York Nerd Nite, How to not destroy ourselves

This Friday I'll be at New York City's Nerd Nite discussing "How to not destroy ourselves: lessons from science fiction". Here's a sneak description of my talk: 

2017 sure does seem like the darkest timeline: our politics are broken, technology is disrupting society, and the planet is warming. But we’ve been here before, at least in the imaginary worlds of science fiction. Join psychologist Dr. Ali Mattu as he investigates how we got into this mess and what science fiction can teach us about getting out of it.

Purchase tickets at

Our Polarized World Needs Star Trek

For the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I wanted to write about the franchise's relentless optimism. But my article grew to become much more than that. It became my love letter to Star Trek, what it taught me about psychology, and why we need it now more than ever. Here's an excerpt: 

What was so brilliantly subversive about Star Trek was that it gave people a way to talk about social issues that they might otherwise avoid bringing up. We rarely speak up about politics when we believe that others don’t share our perspective. And when we do get pulled into politically heated discussions (think about your last awkward family dinner), the conversations mostly don’t go anywhere.

Psychology can help explain why this is. When we hear ideas that conflict with our beliefs, our minds fight that information in the same way our immune systems attack a virus. We’re wired to preserve the lens through which we view the world. This is why most conversations about politics don’t change our mind, but only strengthen our preexisting beliefs.

Star Trek, however, manages to bypass its audience’s political defenses because it presents real-world conflicts in ways that we find less threatening. Even today, bringing up the Vietnam War can be polarizing in conversation. But a story about the Federation and Klingons arming opposing tribes on the planet Neural (“A Private Little War”)? That sparks a real discussion, not a shouting match of partisan politics.

Read the full article at Quartz for more.

Can 9/11 Help Us Understand Star Trek Into Darkness? 5 Non-spoiler Predictions From the Psychology of Terrorism.

Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 event. 

Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 event. 

Some Trekkies believe J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film didn't include social commentary, that it didn't tackle the issues of our time. But that's just not true. Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 attack against the United Federation of Planets. It occurred by an unknown terrorist, brought an end to feelings of safety, and seismically changed what it meant to be a citizen of the Federation - just like 9/11 in America. 

This isn't my idea. I got it from Damon Lindelof, one of the guys who produced Star Trek:

“We often referred to the destruction of Vulcan as the 9/11 moment of [Star Trek]. There had to be an event that was so significant that it allows you to change the Trek universe, not just for the purposes of the first movie, but moving forward. The idea of saying, if you did something that huge, what would be the effect of that rippling outwards?”

This week we get to see the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. It's clear from the trailers and interviews that the new film continues the 9/11 thread of the first. Here's how Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) described the movie:

“It’s about terrorism, about issues we as human beings in 2013 deal with every day, about the exploitation of fear to take advantage of a population, about physical violence and destruction but also psychological manipulation. John Harrison is a terrorist in the mold of those we’ve become accustomed to in this day and age.”

Since we have over a decade of research on how America changed after 9/11, I wondered if I could we use the psychology of terrorism to predict the events of Star Trek Into Darkness? This is my attempt to do just that.

A quick note before we get started. Even though Star Trek Into Darkness is already out in many parts of the world, I don't know what actually happens in the film. I did get a spoiler over the weekend (which led to a rant about how spoilers are evil), but that spoiler wasn't related to the larger plot of the movie. My predictions are purely based on my knowledge of psychological science as well as exposure to canonical content (e.g. Star Trek Into Darkness trailers, Countdown to Darkness graphic novel, and Star Trek: The Video Game). There are no spoilers in this article, just my educated guesses.

Prediction #1: Starfleet Is Emotionally Compromised


Their is clear scientific consensus that 9/11 increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even people who weren't directly exposed to the devastation of the attacks were at risk for trauma, leading some scientists to question the way we diagnose PTSD. While rates came down to normal a few years after 9/11, the two groups that continued to be at an increased risk for PTSD were first responders and immediate victims of the attack. First responders had multiple exposures to trauma while survivors faced years of chronic stress as they rebuilt their lives.

These findings make two groups at risk for PTSD in Star Trek - Starfleet officers and Vulcans. Starfleet, the Federation's first responders, witnessed the destruction of their fleet and the genocide of the Vulcan people. Many of them were also probably involved with humanitarian efforts after the attack, furthering their exposure to trauma. We know about 10,000 Vulcans (out of 6 billion) escaped the destruction of their planet. Every surviving Vulcan has been impacted by this attack, lost loved ones, and saw their home destroyed (through a viewscreen or on the news). Many Vulcans were exposed to additional trauma when the Gorn attacked New Vulcan (see Star Trek: The Video Game).

The person most likely to develop PTSD symptoms in Star Trek Into Darkness is Spock. Spock witnessed his mother’s death, saw his planet destroyed, identifies as a member of "an endangered species", and has a history of struggling with emotions (he attacked kids who were teasing him for being half Human/half Vulcan and attacked Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise). We've already seen him re-experiencing the trauma of Vulcan's destruction in Countdown to Darkness. The movie will give us a deeper look into how Spock is responding to these traumatic events.

Prediction: We'll see Spock re-experience the trauma of Vulcan's destruction, try to numb his pain, and lose complete emotional control (and probably beat the crap out of someone).

Prediction #2: Xenophobia Will Rise


 Star Trek Into Darkness  may focus on Klingon xenophobia.

Star Trek Into Darkness may focus on Klingon xenophobia.

Discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americas skyrocketed post 9/11. Between 1998 to 2000, there were less than 10 incidents of Anti-Arab/Muslim hate crimes. Compare that with the 700 reported in the first 9 months after 9/11. Since the terrorists involved in the hijackings couldn't be brought to justice, many Americans took out their anger on those they thought looked like the enemy (which was based purely on prejudice and stereotypes).

I don't think we'll see the Federation become prejudiced towards Romulans (they look just like Vulcans). Instead, the Federation is going to become highly cautions of unknown alien threats in the galaxy (probably the Klingons, since they're in Countdown to Darkness). This post-Vulcan Federation won't be as inclusive and welcoming as the old – it’s been changed. To paraphrase Jack Beatty, this Federation has been "expelled from Utopia".

Prediction: Starfleet will act with extreme prejudice against the Klingons (for no reason) and see them as a threat to the Federation.

Prediction #3: The Prime Directive Will Be Challenged

Starfleet Command will debate breaking its guiding rule #1. 

Starfleet Command will debate breaking its guiding rule #1. 

Research into the political aftermath of 9/11 is messy. Studies have revealed different, sometimes conflicting, findings. Some saw an increase in American conservatism after 9/11. Others identified a polarization of existing politics - liberals became more liberal, conservatives more conservative.

One of the most interesting, experimental, findings was the relationship between artificially created anxiety and anger in political decision-making. People who felt anxiety about terrorism endorsed opposition to aggressive domestic and foreign policies (e.g. increased homeland security, war against Iraq, etc.) while anger strongly increased support for war aboard. This makes sense - anxiety makes us exaggerate dangers and avoid situations while anger reminds us that we've been wronged and pushes us towards conflict. Even though anger and anxiety waxed and waned in the 2000s, American politics led to an erosion of individual freedoms in the interest of national security.

Star Trek Into Darkness will explore a similar theme. The focus won't be on civil liberties. Rather, the Federation may break its general order number 1: the Prime Directive. Countdown to Darkness is all about a character ignoring the Prime Directive for the sake of saving innocent lives. We're going to see a similar debate in this movie. Maybe even Section 31, Starfleet's covert intelligence agency, will be involved.

Prediction: A new terrorist attack will enrage the Federation, leading it to break the Prime Directive in the interest of protecting its citizens.

Prediction #4: John Harrison Is Motivated By Humiliation


Its been difficult to study the factors that influence individuals to engage in terrorism. This isn't exactly a population that's interested in contributing to research. 

Most of what we know is based upon retrospective studies and field research. Some surprising findings indicate that most terrorists don't have religious education. Instead, many are college-educated professionals. This helps terrorist groups like al-Qaeda retain skilled agents. Terrorist become radicals in their late teens/early 20s, have incomplete knowledge of their religion, and aren't motivated by religious factors or poverty. 

Terrorists are motivated by their social network (i.e. peer pressure), the belief that a foreign power has interfered with their country, an ingroup/outgroup identity (it's us versus them), and a sense of national humiliation. The humiliation is a big deal - feeling as though their people experienced problems under a foreign occupation (like marginalization), experienced chronic frustrations, and lost significance are good predictors of radical terrorism. 

The villain in Star Trek Into Darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison. Who Harrison is, what he does, and what motivates him has been the topic of intense debate on the internet. Some think he is Khan, Star Trek's most iconic villain. I don't think he is Khan, but I do think he's a genetically augmented human like Khan, potentially one of Khan's allies. Like most terrorists, Harrison will be motivated by strong humiliation. Harrison will discover a plan by the Federation to persecute his people (augmented humans) and he will strike back with a campaign of terrorism. 

Prediction: John Harrison, a Section 31 agent, discovers a Federation plot to kill augmented men, women, and children. In retaliation, he attacks Starfleet Headquarters. 

Prediction #5: Resilience & Altruism Flourish

Someone will sacrifice their life in  Star Trek Into Darkness .

Someone will sacrifice their life in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Americans met the challenge of 9/11 with resiliency and altruism. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, people felt closer to one another, made blood donations, volunteered, contributed to charity, and increased trust in their communities. Character strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork also significantly increased. Why did this happen? After large disasters, our sense of responsibility to each other increases, thereby encouraging acts of altruism. What was unique about 9/11 was American's strong desire to learn more about Islam - the Quran became a bestselling book and many efforts were put into place to increase religious understanding between different communities.

Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek is an optimistic future. Therefore, Into Darkness will demonstrate humanity at its best. The crew will face immense challenges, but they’ll remain resilient in the face of traumatic stress. The Federation might engage in questionable moral actions, but Kirk will correct the Federation's mistakes. Someone will demonstrate ultimate altruism by sacrificing their life to save Earth.

Prediction: Kirk will do the right thing, even if it means losing his command. A member of the crew (not Spock) will sacrifice their life to save Earth.

This wraps up my countdown to Star Trek Into Darkness. Come back Sunday for my initial non-spoiler review of the film and check back in a few weeks for my analysis of the psychology of Star Trek Into Darkness. 

Anger and Hope in the Presidential Elections of Roslin/Baltar & Obama/Romney

Note: This article contains spoilers for Lay Down Your Burdens, season 2 episodes 19 and 20 of Battlestar Galactica.

Living in New York, I’ve been sheltered from the 2012 presidential ads. Since the state is all but guaranteed to vote for Barack Obama, neither candidate has spent much money on advertising here. However, when I was in Virginia this past weekend, I was inundated with political ads. These ads reminded me of another pivotal election in which a once popular incumbent (who also inherited a horrible situation) declined in polls after a failed debate against a candidate no one expected to win – the presidential race between Battlestar Galactica’s President Laura Roslin and Vice President Gaius Baltar.

Obama's ads claim Romney's policies would result in more economic decline. 

Obama's ads claim Romney's policies would result in more economic decline. 

Romney's ads claim the economy continues to decline. 

Romney's ads claim the economy continues to decline. 

Vice President Baltar was an “empty suit” of a politician, light on experience, socially awkward, and perceived to be a man of privilege. His campaign was unable to gain traction against the incumbent, President Roslin. However, Roslin was not universally popular. Many questioned whether this “schoolteacher” should have been sworn in as president at all (as the Secretary of Education, she was 43rd in line of succession after the destruction of her homeworld during the Cylon genocide). Primarily due to Roslin’s alliance with the military, polls expected her to be re-elected to a 2nd term.  

All of that changed when the fleet stumbled upon a planet hidden in a nebula that was capable of supporting life – New Caprica. Roslin rejected the idea of permanent settlement due to the brutal landscape of the new planet. Baltar’s aid, Tom Zarek saw this planet as an opportunity:

“It may look dreary. It may be dreary, but it's solid ground under your feet, and a real sky over your head. You'd be surprised what a powerful idea that is to people cooped up in metal boxes for nine months."

Baltar agreed and centered his campaign on the prospect of settlement. Roslin defended her platform, criticized Baltar for promoting a plan that could put the fleet in danger, and reiterated the need to move forward despite any hardships they will encounter.

Baltar went on to win the election because of his projected optimism and Roslin’s cold realism. During the final presidential debate, he gave the fleet hope that they could finally stop the onslaught of Cylon attacks.

"The President uses fear to drive her campaign…fear of the gods, fear of the Cylons, fear of fear itself. Isn't it time to stop being afraid? I am asking all of us to stop running from our lives and start living them."

As was best summarized by Tory Foster, Roslin's chief of staff, “People vote their hopes, not their fears, they don't want to hear the truth.”

B altar won the election due to his optimism about permanent settlement.
Baltar won the election due to his optimism about permanent settlement.

What I love about the election of Baltar is that it highlights much of what we know about the psychology of voting. People vote for many reasons, but political preferences are influenced by a complex interaction of genetics, environment, and psychology. In a recent paper, Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott reviewed the role of each variable in determining political views. What Hatemi and McDermott found was up until individuals move out of their parents’ homes, both identical twins (who share almost the exact genetic structure) and fraternal twins (who share about half of their genetics) have the same political opinions. After leaving one's home, fraternal twins can develop different political views while identical twins retain the same views. In other words, genetics, family, and culture play a major role in influencing political opinion growing up, but change can occur if and when one leaves their home.

By itself, this is not surprising – family influences your politics due to your genes and the values you grow up with (the same is true of temperament and we’ve known that for a long time). What is surprising is the strong role basic emotions play in year-to-year elections, specifically anger and hope.

A group of University of Michigan political scientists, led by Nicholas Valentino, created an experiment in which participants wrote about an experience that made them angry, anxious, or enthusiastic. Later, participants were asked about their participation in politics. Those who were in the angry situation had statistically higher intentions to participate politically compared to the anxiety and enthusiasm groups. The authors found similar results when analyzing national electorate data from 1980 – 2004. Bottom line – to make voters more engaged and mobilized in your cause, get them pissed off at your opponent. Unfortunately, Valentino and his colleagues identified a side effect of anger – it leads individuals to become closed-minded (something 60 Minutes recently detailed in their analysis of the U.S. Senate).

Gridlock within the Senate may be due to anger and hostility. 
Gridlock within the Senate may be due to anger and hostility. 

Along with anger, “people vote their hopes”. The triumph of optimism in U.S. presidential elections was first identified in a series of studies led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Harold Zullow. Researchers analyzed the acceptance speeches of all major candidates at their political conventions throughout the 20th century for optimism, pessimism, and focus on negative events. Their analysis used a technique called CAVE (Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations), which is based on the finding that depressed individuals discuss events differently than non-depressed individuals (e.g. “I’m alone because I don't deserve to be loved” versus “I’m alone because I haven’t met the right person yet”). Results indicated that between 1900 through 1984, the more optimistic candidate who focused less on negative events won 80% of the elections (the exceptions were FDR in his three reelection races and Nixon). Candidates who inspire hope have a significant advantage with the electorate (exemplified by Clinton’s “A bridge to the 21st century”). Why is optimism so important? Optimistic individuals continue to work hard, even in the face of defeat, and optimistic messages may resonate better than neutral or pessimistic messages.

In the Battlestar Galactica election, Roslin failed to understand the importance of emotions in elections. She relied upon her perceived experience, authority, and judgment to win re-election. Baltar capitalized on the underlying anger of the fleet, funneling it towards the incumbent, while also inspiring the electorate with hope for a better future. 

Today’s election between President Barack Obama and Govenor Mitt Romney puts us in a different situation. President Obama’s 2008 landslide victory was the result of a campaign that effectively integrated messages of “hope and change”. But many believe Obama has failed to deliver on his promises. As New York City Mayor recently stated in his endorsement of Obama

“In 2008, Obama ran as a pragmatic problem-solver and consensus-builder. But as president, he devoted little time and effort to developing and sustaining a coalition of centrists, which doomed hope for any real progress on illegal guns, immigration, tax reform, job creation and deficit reduction. And rather than uniting the country around a message of shared sacrifice, he engaged in partisan attacks and has embraced a divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it.”

While, Governor Romney has effectively used the depressed economy to instill anger at Obama, many find him to be uninspiring and untrustworthy due to his political pivots from moderate Governor to a conservative presidential nominee.

It is not surprising that this election is too close to call. There’s plenty of anger to go around and neither candidate has inspired the American people. Combined, the campaigns have spent $2 billion attacking each other rather than giving us a reason to believe in a better future (Obama’s closing argument – “Romney’s proposed policies failed our country in the past, we can’t trust him”, Romney’s – “Obama’s failed our country, we can’t trust him”). There is no New Caprica in this election, nothing to make the American people excited about the prospect of change. Rather, we’re faced with the cold reality that the next four years are going to be nearly as difficult as the last. Utlimately, this election boils down to the following question – which candidate do you dislike the least?