Who benefits when research promotes a meme of self-sacrifice?

The main purpose of this 2014 Illinois human study was to make findings directed toward high school students that:

“Well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure.”

The study’s messages to young people and to those who control young people were:

  • You have to give up trying to live your own life if you want to be happy.
  • For your own “well-being” just follow the “higher values” where other people tell you what to do and think.
  • Other people know how you should live your life better than you do. Science says so.

The researchers embedded many assertions into the study, most of which weren’t supported by the study’s data. The researchers’ main assertion was:

“Optimal well-being may be achieved through eudaimonic activities.”

The researchers repeated this assertion multiple times in multiple ways, such as citing philosophy and other research. The short version of the term “eudaimonic” was defined as: “Meaning and purpose, a life well-lived.”

The study’s ONLY measurement of “eudaimonic” activities was the subjects’

“Neural activation when making a donation to the family that involves self-sacrifice.”

The study’s main finding involving this SOLE measurement was:

“Eudaimonic decisions predicted longitudinal declines in depressive symptoms.”

Depressive symptoms were determined by “a self-report measure” where the subjects, 47 adolescents aged 15-17:

  • “Completed the internalizing symptoms subscale of the Youth Self-Report form of the Child Behavior Checklist
  • Underwent a brain scan during which they completed a family donation task and a risk-taking task.”

39 of the subjects returned one year later to reanswer the checklist.

I wonder what bases the reviewer used to approve the researchers’ methods.

1. In the study’s verbiage the researchers extrapolated the significance of the sole measurement of eudaimonic activities – the initial fMRI scan – many times past what it actually measured. One-time measurements of the blood flow in the ventral striatum of a few Los Angeles teenagers can’t validly be assigned as the bases for all of what the researchers went on and on about to glorify “prosocial eudaimonic decisions.”

2. No method checked the subjects’ personal impact of the experiments’ monetary rewards and donations. The subjects didn’t scale their personal relative importance of the monetary rewards and donations.

Consider the relative importance of a dime for a kid whose parents gave them a BMW to drive to high school. Compare that with a kid who searched the sidewalk for dropped coins as they walked to high school.

Absent subjective scaling, the monetary rewards and donations data couldn’t be used as the basis to produce informative results.

3. The balloon test used in this study to measure “risky hedonic decisions” was the same as in the Who benefits when research with no practical application becomes a politically correct meme? study. The same objection applies here: a video game task of popping balloons that engages the cerebrum was NOT informative to the cause-and-effect of the emotions and instincts and impulses from limbic system and lower brain areas that predominantly drive risky behavior.

Scientific justification for memes like the self-sacrifice promoted by this study helps rush people past what really happened in their lives. A popular cultural meme is to “live in the present” and purposefully overlook how we arrived at our present lives.

I wonder how we would evaluate the “higher values related to family, culture, and morality” if we felt and honestly understood our real history.

Do you feel that young people benefit when they sacrifice their lives in the name of “family, culture, and morality?” Who benefits when people don’t pause to reflect on how their history impacts what’s going on now with their lives?

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/18/6600.full “Neural sensitivity to eudaimonic and hedonic rewards differentially predict adolescent depressive symptoms over time”

2 thoughts on “Who benefits when research promotes a meme of self-sacrifice?

  1. While I was studying psychology I read many research reports. Some of them reported the actual results but then went on further to make ‘assertions’ about what the data meant. I remember thinking to myself that they were taking a ‘leap of faith’ and science doesn’t, or shouldn’t do that.

  2. Yes, Gil, this study was full of that. What usually happens is that the researchers cite bits and pieces of other research to build a narrative without repeating the citations’ contextual qualifiers.

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