Oliver James: Limited company

The psychology of having a seemingly boundaryless, globalised world is very scary. Here comes the threat (or is it promise?) of astrophysical quantities of deaths from avian flu, spread by cheap air travel. Global warming (not helped by cheaper air travel) evokes apocalyptic visions of unrestrained tidal waves wiping out East Anglia, Saharan climates creating deserts in the Cotswolds, or ice ages turning what's left of us into Eskimos (I can never quite work out which it's supposed to be - freezing or boiling hot).

Of course, doomsday scenarios are nothing new. The pre-scientific notion that the end of time is about to happen (when God will save only those who have taken him into their heart) was common in all Christian countries until recently (not that it has disappeared: two of the past four American presidents believed in it). For most of human history, at any moment, nature could cause starvation by destroying a crop and you never knew when some Vikings were going to appear, a-raping and a-pillaging; disease could wipe out communities and one in four babies died before age five.

Sooner or later, some evolutionary psychologist will claim that we have a gene for expecting apocalypse, based on these primordial origins. But that will not explain why the majority of Americans still believe the Bible is the literal and actual word of God, and are far more exercised about being attacked by terrorists than real risks, such as car accidents, overeating or watching The Jerry Springer Show. Despite massively prolonged life expectancy in the developed world, it often feels, if anything, an even more dangerous existence.

The core problem is that, despite being better educated and informed, we find it hard to distinguish real from false threats. One reason is that governments and the media, especially in the Anglo-Saxon nations, create so much hysterical static (to win votes and sell newspapers, respectively).

But even more fundamental is the lack of boundaries in our very psychology. Having moved from collectivist to individualist societies, we know far more people now than if we lived in a village, never travelled more than a few miles from home, and had no access to TV or the internet. We have to develop a great many more faces to meet the faces that we meet - we are too multifaceted and diverse for our own good.

Consider this curious (and purely accidental) parallel between internet viruses and HIV: infection by both can be the result of exchanging material with strangers, often as a result of rash acts (opening attachments with the unfamiliar); if you do not use the right protection, you can lose everything.

Having integrity that feels safe comes from communicating with few people, and well. Being a modernised, global person has the opposite effect. The solution is better psychological firewalls and condoms.

Mental block

Studies have shown that people who use biological explanations for differences between the sexes believe they differ more. Similarly, people prone to stereotyping gay men and ethnic groups are more likely to be genetic determinists.

A new study reinforces these findings by demonstrating that such determinism also predicts both more blatant and implicit prejudices, and 'modern' sexism (eg the conviction that men and women truly have achieved equal opportunities today), as well as racism.

But the study also shows for the first time that rightwing political convictions are more common among genetic determinists. People who believed in authoritarianism, patriotism, nationalism and the protestant ethic (support for which is strongly correlated with racism, among Americans) were also more likely to be geneticists. Implication: New Labour is likely to be more prone to geneticism than Old Labour.

Coca-cola does not advertise during news programmes because it is worried viewers' moods will have been depressed by bad news, which will make them less likely to see the product as 'fun'. But a study (in Psychology and Marketing) shows that this thinking may be wrong. People whose mood had been depressed were more likely to be receptive to adverts than those who were put in a happy mood (by happy films). Implication: Beware of impulse-buying after watching EastEnders, or anything by Richard Curtis (guaranteed to depress by its awfulness), except Four Weddings.

oliver.james@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.