Sunday, August 1, 2021

Two Stories, a Connection, the Beginning of a Hypothesis

There were two stories in the Star Tribune's Sunday Science section that seem possibly connected, and also related to the rise in violent crime and speeding/reckless driving we've seen during the pandemic.

One story, and probably the more directly related one, was a reprint from the Washington Post called The Bane of Boredom. It told of research by Erin Westgate, an assistant professor at the University of Florida. Early in her career, she started by putting subjects in a quiet room alone for 10 minutes to see what they would do and found, disturbingly, that two thirds of the men and a quarter of the women preferred to self-inflict pain at least once, rather than sit with their thoughts. Since then, she has found that her bored subjects are also "more willing to hurt others and behave sadistically..."

Boredom researchers differentiate from "state boredom" — short-term boredom in between other activities — and "boredom proneness." It's the latter that equals a "chronic sense of being disengaged or disconnected with the world." Recent work has linked boredom proneness to reckless driving and substance abuse. Other forms of violence are not mentioned, however.

The second story had the headline Lead Exposure in Childhood Can Alter Personality and was reprinted from the Austin American-Statesman. It summarized a University of Texas study that analyzed data from 1.5 million people in the U.S. and Europe. The researchers found that

people from areas with higher lead exposure had more negative personality profiles. They were less agreeable and conscientious, and sometimes more neurotic. [The researchers] then examined how the personality profiles shifted as...exposure [decreased] starting in the 1970s.... people born after lead levels started to decline...had healthier and more mature personalities as adults... Because different counties stopped using leaded gasoline at different times..., the personality differences...can't simply be because of a particular generation being "nicer" or "meaner"...

Earlier research looked specifically at the link between lead exposure and crime, including in at least one controlled study (I've discussed it here).

Of course, lead exposure would not have changed enough to cause our recent upswing of bad behavior during the pandemic, but lead levels in the U.S. have remained unacceptably high despite the discontinuation of leaded gas, and so the people it damages are always around, part of the wider public health risk we face in a country awash in more than one gun per capita.

Boredom-prone people cut off from all that is normal, some of whom have been damaged by lead poisoning... many with access to multi-ton, high-horsepower vehicles and roads designed for speed, and some with access to guns.

And we wonder why things can go very wrong very fast.

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