Logical fallacies

Collective work, debates, philosophical thinking and the progress of social sciences and humanities, are commonly disturbed by logical errors called “sophisms” or “logical fallacies”.

Here is a non-exhaustive list:

Attack the person rather than the ideas.

Distort the other’s words to attack him or her.

Confound correlation and causation: it is not because two phenomena occur at the same time that one is the cause of the other.

Present two possible alternatives, “all black” or “all white” when there may be others, for example consider that one is either “pro-migrant” or racist.

Believe that an idea is right because a majority of people share it.

Believe that a good idea is an idea “between two extremes” or “average”, in other words, looking for a compromise rather than the truth.
For example: in Morocco, there are women who go hair free, others wear a veil that covers the hair, others cover their faces. Thus, the “middle ground” for most Moroccans is the veil that covers the hair. Yet in other cultures, the border of decency is different.

Invoke “God”, “nature”, “genetic determination” or any ideology, to prevent criticism. For example: to say that women are not good at mathematics, because it’s in their genes.

Believe that an idea is true because it is emitted by experts. Nobody is infallible, so being an expert does not free from having to argue and prove an idea.

Believe that an idea is true because one can not prove its opposite. For example, God exists because we can not prove that He does not exist.

Make a single example a generality.

Assume that the preferred alternative is true when an idea is ambiguous.

Appeal to emotions, for example using sentimental blackmail or raising the threat of a catastrophe.

Respond to criticism by another critic, instead of disassembling the criticism itself.

Believe that an idea is wrong because it uses fallacious arguments. Although the logical fallacies presented here can lead to errors, this does not mean that all the ideas expressed in this way are false. This means that they must be demonstrated with more methodological rigor.

To extend this list to all the phenomena that can alter the efficiency of a debate, we can mention:

Speaking louder than the interlocutor, and thus give the audience the feeling of being “the strongest”. This does not mean that the idea is more relevant.

Interruptions: the interlocutor thinks he/she knows the end of the speech of the other or does not worry about his/her ideas, and therefore cuts it. In addition to showing aggression, arrogance and disrupting the focus of the speaker, an interruption may make the meaning of the speech quite different from what it should have.
I was very embarrassed one day when, in a feminist society, I wanted to say, “Women are hurt by ideological pressures to prevent them from aborting, but what about men? Don’t they have a responsibility in those dramas?”, and that one of the feminists cut me off after “but what about the men?”, to say that indeed, it was not fair for her son, whose girlfriends could have an abortion against his will. The other women were so eager to express their revolt that I did not have the opportunity to complete my remark.

These phenomena also handicap the functioning of a democracy, since the latter is based on debates of ideas. Parliamentary debates and other mediated exchanges should ideally be framed to avoid them, for example, by training participants, correct them during debates, cutting the sound of others’ microphones when someone speaks, etc.



Contemporary life has progressively moved us away from a sensory reality by replacing it by symbolic realities that make sense to the human community. In doing so, it locks us into the human comedy.

Symbols realize an association between elements of reality and a simplified way of representing them, which is understood by the human community.
It can be language, in oral and written form, mathematics, programming algorithms, and so on.

Symbols allow us to communicate with others, and other human beings are sources of attachment and survival. For this reason, symbols become so important that they come to supplant and atrophy sensory reality.

In other words, they are also sources of alienation. The child progressively moves away from his animal intelligence, his total sensory impregnation, for a symbolic reality that simplifies it in a sketch understood by the human species.

The importance of the verb in the building of hopes and fears of humanity that are religions, is an emblem of its power, particularly in religions based on writing that are the Abrahamic religions.

The Bible and the Torah teach us that everything begins with a divine word:

God says, “Let there be light!” And there was light.
The Bible, Old Testament, Genesis, 1:3

Saint John is more explicit. He assures :

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in God, and the Word was God.
The Bible, New Testament, St Jean’s Gospel, 1:1

The Qur’an tells us:

This is the Book about which there is no doubt, it is a guide for the those who fear God.
Qur’an, Al Baqarah (The cow) 2:2

In other words, the truth is contained in a book, in words.

However, language is a recent invention, it appeared with our species, that is to say, a few hundred thousand years ago. It is just a drop in the ocean of cosmic time. A drop in the history of nature itself, which is several hundred of millions years old, according to scientists.

The Tao-Te-Ching is more cautious. The word Tao means “the way”. The Tao Te Ching can be translated as “The Book of the Way and Virtue” or “The Book of the Righteous Way”.
The oldest fragments of this book have been dated to the 3rd century BCE, but some think that the philosophy it describes is much older.

The Tao Te Ching tells us:

The way that can be said is not the eternal way.
Tao Te Ching, chap. 1

What is the verb?

I propose the following definition: The verb is a set of symbols, each representing a redundant aspect of reality. The symbol is a graphic element or sound. Humanity uses these symbols to communicate with others and make predictions in order to take control of nature.

But the perfection of our symbols does not exist in reality. A perfect round does not exist, a cat never looks like another perfectly, one and one are two in reality if the two units are perfectly equal, which is never true. Reality is not in concepts. Reality is not in verb. Reality is impure, chaotic.

We can remember or delve into the past as archaeologists, or project ourselves into the future, we only get ideas. Reality is sensory. Even though our senses are limited, they offer a more reliable reality than our concepts, which are always too simple, too perfect.

Some people realize what they lose in the process of replacing sensory reality with a symbolic or virtual one, and they need a long practice of art, meditation, or music, to regain some of the bliss of the baby, wholly surrendered to her/his senses, as confident in the belly of nature as in the belly of her/his mother.

Science, which dissects the elements of nature by describing them with symbols, cuts us off from the marvels of reality, which, could be presented at the same time.

How many know that proteins, workers of our cells, which structure is schematized, like any molecule, by means of colored balls for the atoms, retained by sticks, can join to form a structure that folds several times on itself to reach a complex form adapted to its function, sometimes even micro-motors capable of moving a flagellum? And when these proteins are concentrated in pure state, they aggregate to form beautiful crystals reflecting light on a multitude of colors?

Protein crystals
Protein crystals.
Source: Oregon students’ blog

To represent a cell, we represent a potato for the membrane, with a round for the nucleus, corrugated tubes for the mitochondria, sausages for the Golgi apparatus, sticks for the proteins, etc …

But when we observe unicellular organisms under a microscope, we are amazed by the beauty and complexity of these delicate buildings.

We trust science only, to the point of seeing ancient rituals as archaic superstitions. For example, in the French countryside, people used to make bouquets with ears of corn during the harvest festival, and hang them in the houses to bring prosperity. These rituals reveal as much as maintain an attachment to nature.

Makilam, author of “The Magical Life of Berber Women in Kabylia” describes the perception of cycles of nature for the Kabyle people of her grandmother’s time:

Today, the “modern man” can distance himself from the macrocosm and consider it from the outside. He can indeed, thanks to the logic of its graphic and rational thought, be abstracted and project himself outside the solar system. […] But the peoples of nature did not reason, they lived from themselves and referred to what they saw and perceived in all their senses, unlike the modern man, which has adopted the laws of rational science. In his reasoning, he dissociates from himself as a corporeal entity when he perceives reality only through thought. He thus sees only one aspect of his human nature since he projects himself mentally outside of the place and the precise moment in which he finds himself. As a result, the written calendar no longer reproduces sidereal time because it no longer reads in the sky. This new form of linear thinking involves the separation of the human person from the rest of the earthly nature from which it no longer depends for the organization of its material activities. On the level of consciousness, today’s human being perceives himself as separated from the life of the Great Nature and constantly lives the duality of his nature in relation to the cyclical overall life of his environment.

The child who has not yet learnt to speak is in a state of perception of reality not hidden behind concepts, which was ours at the dawn of humanity.
When we are small, we see quantities instead of counting them. We observe reality instead of conceiving it. A wooden table is not a wooden table for a baby. It is a flat mountain with above a universe of stripes and ellipses on different shades of brown.

A long time ago, while humanity was leaving the animal kingdom by acquiring an awareness of its inexorable mortality, when we used to paint animal life on the walls of caves and carved maternal bodies, before arts, technics, explorations, became reserved to a male elite, tens of thousands of years ago, we lived more on an immediate, sensory reality. We had no choice because we were expecting dangers and facing adversity. We did not learn so many concepts, of which prejudices are part. We were more instinctive. Our thoughts were more tinged with sensations. Only nature, much more beautiful and varied than today, offered itself to our senses.

Little by little, the verb and other mental projections have replaced the sensory reality, for the evolving humanity as for the child who learns to speak. Because the verb allows us to communicate with our fellow beings, and nothing is more important than them. Many of our nonverbal mental projections are also related to others. They are our guarantee of survival. But as these symbols cut us off from reality, other human beings becomes even more important because they becomes our main source of satisfaction.

Thus, reality gradually gave way to a predictable play, with oneself as the main actor, which scenes and roles are always the same, and the audience is only oneself. We have moved away from our animal condition by losing much of our sensory attachment. We have moved away from the flow of life that gave birth to us, the original womb, nature.
In the redundancy of our play, our spirit dies.

We are stuck like hens in a cage, in an office, an apartment, a car or other means of transport, tunnels of gray concrete and macadam. The gray of our walls is accompanied by that of our sounds, those of cars and city works … the noises of ourselves, murmured on TV, around us, and in an infernal cycle in our mind. The smells and flavors have become just as gray, sterilized by pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and other poisons, suffering of people, animals and nature.

In prehistory, although we sometimes had to suffer physically, our senses were on alert and we struggled to survive. Now, stuck in our cages, we peck in the cages next door.

When we lived in caves, we had to rely on each other. But now we are locked in the sinister comedy of disguised people, and it is this disguise that determines the comfort provided by others.

We are insane. We have lost the meaning of our life. We have lost our instincts.

The influence of prejudices

In all scientific fields, prejudices can affect the perception of reality.

When I was in high school, I had a particularly sexist math teacher. He told us that women were rather good at litterature, and men at mathematics. He believed it so much, that one day he made a miscalculation by counting my points on a copy: he had counted 8 instead of 14 / 20. I counted the points in front of him, and he had to bow to the evidence, which made him very angry.

Sexist prejudices also influence the way in which objects of study are perceived when they relate to living beings. This is particularly notable in the study of the animal world, history and archeology.

Animal observations

The animal social organization is often described by projection of our ways of life. Finally, animal documentaries tell more about our prejudices and our narcissistic aspirations, than about the animals themselves . Added to this bias is the need to make the image commercially attractive.

The myth of the dominant male

In groups of animals where agressive competition between males exists, it is observed that there are, therefore, groups with a larger number of females than males. Sometimes there is only one male, or only one of the males can mate with the females. The commentators deduce that this is the “dominant male” and his “harem”. But, by this expression: “dominant male”, one could understand that he also dominates the females.
This may be the case with some of our closest primate cousins, but things seem less obvious about other species such as, for example, deer, cattle, elephants, wolves or cats…
Does the male restrict the space of the females, does he control their actions, as does a man who has a harem of wives? Is he violent toward the females as he is toward other males? Can we talk about “harem” if females sometimes mate with other males, as we often see in these groups?

A lion with his harem, or lionesses with their reproducer?
A lion with his harem, or lionesses with their reproducer? Photo by Brian Scott

By observing, for example, a pack of lionesses with a lion, one could also change perspective and say that it is a group of lionesses who share a male, who may be pampered because he is unique, but he does not dominate them.

Things can be different, however, when animals are in a stressful situation, such as living in a cage. Promiscuity, lack of sensory stimulation, inability to move, can induce aggressive behaviors, in animals as in humans, males or females. In this case, the strongest have an advantage, which is the case of males in species where they are bigger.

The myth of the protective male

It is customary to say that the male protects the herd. But, on the contrary, he is often a threat to the little ones. The female must fight against him or soften him by sex, especially among mammals practicing an agressive competition between males.

There are exceptions however: when the male takes a nurturing role (for example, the albatross). Then he becomes a second “mother” and protects the babies and the territory with her.

The need to sell

In order to offer sensational images, documentaries show mostly scenes of predation and fighting between males. But these activities do not constitute most of animal time. They, male and female, also spend time exploring, resting, cleaning, chewing, playing, helping each other or hugging. Videos shared on social networks offer a very different vision of the animal world:
Animal tenderness shared by Animals Australia.
Animal solidarity, compilation of several amateur videos.
Attachment between humans and animals in an hunter-gatherers tribe (Awa Amazonian tribe), by Survival International.

Finally, the most honest animal documentaries are those that are not accompanied by any comments, any music other than that of nature itself, and which offers scenes faithful to the everyday life of an animal, in order to give, to those who have the joy of discovering these recordings, the happiness of observing and hearing nature as it is offered to us.

History and archeology

Merlin Stone, in her work “When God Was Woman” (1976), analyzed many writings on the pagan faith that preceded Abrahamic religions, especially ones that turned to a feminine image of the divine. She writes :
In most archeological texts the female religion is referred to as a “fertility cult”, perhaps revealing the attitude toward sexuality held by the various contemporary religions that may have influenced the writers. But archeological and mythocological evidence of the veneration of the female deity as creator and lawmaker of the universe, prophetess, provider of human destiny, inventor, healer, hunter and variant leader in battle suggests that the title “fertility cult” may be a gross oversimplification of a complex theological structure.

Riane Eisler, author of “The chalice and the blade”, also attempts an interpretation of the abundant number of female figurines found in the remains of the Neolithic and Antiquity, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. She also questions the choice of the term “fertility cult” used by archaeologists. She notes that this term is probably as reductive as qualifying Christian crucifixes as a “death cult”, if these prove to be discovered in the future by a humanity that has forgotten the Christian religion.

One reason this point is obscured is that scholars have in the past routinely referred to the worship of the Goddess, not as a religion, but as a “fertility cult,” and to the Goddess as an “earth mother.” But though the fecundity of women and of the earth was, and still is, a requisite for species survival, this characterization is far too simplistic. It would be comparable, for example, to characterizing Christianity as just a death cult because the central image in its art is the Crucifixion.
Riane Eisler, “The chalice and the blade”, 1987

Merlin Stone gives other blatant examples of observations altered by sexual gender biases:

J. Maringer, professor of prehistoric archeology, rejected the idea that reindeer skulls were the hunting trophies of Paleolithic tribes. The reason? They were found in the grave of a woman. He writes “Here the skeleton was that of a woman, a circumstance that would seem to rule out the possibility that reindeer skulls and antlers were hunting trophies”.
In 1961, a serie of mistakes were described by professor Walter Emery, who took part in the excavations of some of the earliest egyptian tombs. He tells us that “The chronological position and status of Meryet-Nit is uncertain, but there is reason to suppose that she might be the successor of Zer and the third sovereign of the First Dynasty”. Writing of the excavation of this tomb by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1900 he says “At that time it was believed that Meryet-Nit was a king, but later research has shown the name to be that of a woman and, to judge by the richness of the burial, a queen”. He goes on to say “In 1896, de Morgan, then Director of the Service of Antiquities, discovered in Nagadeh a gigantic tomb which, from the objects found in it, was identified as the burial of Hor-Aha, first king of the First Dynasty. However, later research has shown that it is more probable that it was the sepulchre of Nit-Hotep, Hor-Aha’s mother”. And again he tells us that “On the name of Narmer a seated figure in a canopied palanquin was once thought to be that of a man, but a comparison of similar figures on a wooden label from Sakkara shows that this is improbable and that it most certainly represents a woman”. Yet, despite his own accounts of this serie of assumptions that the richest burials and royal palanquins of the past were for men, rather than women, in describing the tomb of King Narmer he then states “This monument is almost insignificant in comparison wit the tomb of Nit-Hotep at Nagadeh, and we can only conclude that this was the king’s southern tomb and that his real burial place still await discovery…”. Thought some pharaohs did build two tombs, one might expect a “possibly” or “probably” rather than such an absolute conclusion and the implied dismissal of the possibility that, in that period of earliest dynastic Egypt, a queen’s tomb just might have been larger and more richly decorated than a king’s.

Archeological news surprise by the number of errors of this type, revealed by modern methods of analysis.

The Palace of Knossos in Crete is another example. The remains reveal many frescoes which, in their reconstruction, show human beings, animals, plants. A large number of these frescoes show women, beautifully dressed and with bare breasts. Female figurines holding snakes were also found.

Minoan goddesses figurines
Minoan goddesses figurines from Knossos – Archaeological Museum of Crete in Heraklion.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first to report an analysis of this site is archaeologist Arthur John Evans. He concludes that it is the palace of a king and his harem. According to Arte’s documentary “Archaeological Surveys – Crete, the myth of the labyrinth” by Peter Eeckhout (in french), more recent analyzes have shown that the engraving of the man that Evans claims to be that of a king, was built from several pieces found at different places of the site. The researchers also found, in a room at the elevated seat, the engraving of a woman sitting on an identical seat. Today, most researchers agree that the palace was initially a temple of ​​priestesses, and that a woman sat on the throne, but the site must have known several means of governance, because the most recent constructions seem to reveal hierarchical relationships, which is not the case of the most ancien ones.

Often, when excavations are carried out on tombs in which remains of the skeleton do not allow to identify the sex, the archaeologists assume that the tombs with weapons are tombs of men whereas the tombs with jewels are those of women. When these results are popularized, it is deduced that since the dawn of humanity, men carry weapons and women jewelry. This is a fallacious logic, one of the many examples of the way in which prejudices are self-perpetuating.

In fact, when more rigorous analysis of the bones are done, we can see that there are many women buried with weapons, and men with jewels. Shane MacLeod, of Western Australia University, has shown that women were buried with weapons in Viking tombs in England. The same observation was made by researchers at the Uppsala and Stockholm Universities on excavations of Birka in Sweden, this time performing genetic analyzes on bones. Jeannine Davis-Kimball also notes that women are buried with weapons in Kurgan graves in the Porkovka site in Kazakhstan.

Woman buried with weapons and horses, excavations of Birka, in Sweden
Woman buried with weapons and horses, excavations of Birka, in Sweden.
Source: Wikimedia commons

An identical fallacy exists in the determination of the sex of the Australopithecus. The smallest skeletons are attributed to women (this is the case of the famous Lucy). Bioanthropologist Robert Martin, in a report by Arte “Why are women smaller than men?” by Véronique Kleiner (in french), says that it is an arbitrary position. Larger skeletons have been attributed to male Australopithecus, but he says it could also be another species. All that is certain, he says, is that we have large specimens and small specimens.
This arbitrary decision on skeleton’s sex may lead to the idea that sexual dimorphism was important at the beginning of humanity, and this idea then serves as a reference for future examinations and theories.

Merlin Stone notes that many ancient writings are vague enough to give great differences of interpretation between translators, and in this case the influence of their prejudices is even stronger.
This is something everyone can do, observing the diversity of translations that have been proposed for very ancient texts, such as hieroglyphic, cuneiform or old Chinese writings.
Sometimes, in these translations, information is ignored because it is not considered useful, but, as a result, part of the state of mind of the culture that gave birth to these texts is lost.

A significant example is the diversity of translation that exist for the Tao Te Ching. The word “Tao” refers to the way, the balance, the conduct, the source, the primordial mother …
Some translators emphasize the maternal essence of the Tao while others exclude it totally. An interesting comparison is available on ttc. tasuki.org

However, could we think, are not the prejudices built, ultimately, on a reality?
When we look around, even with an effort of objectivity, is not the domination of men over women, and the law of the strongest in general, everywhere? Is it not legitimate to deduce that it has been so since the dawn of time?

In fact, there are many exceptions to patriarchy. Some societies have adopted a matrilocal and matrilineal type of parentage, that is to say that girls, or only one of them, remain in the parents’ home and inherit their property, while taking care of them in their old age. These are for example the Garo or Khassi of Meghalaya, the Mosuo from China, the Minangkabau from Indonesia, the Iroquois from America… Explorers tell us about several other societies that have worked according to this system, before almost all peoples became subject to religious or philosophical systems of patriarchy, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Manu laws of Hinduism, Confucianism…

Indian Garo couple with there traditional dress
Garo Young Boy and Girl with there Garo Traditional Dress during a Wangala Festival at Asanaggre 14 KM from Tura. On saturday. Photo by Vishma Thapa.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The way of living of a human society also depends on environmental conditions and contacts with other civilizations. When these elements of the environment change, so does the way of life.

It is probable that a long time ago, when humanity was less numerous and therefore less subject to conflicts, a large part of humanity at least respected the natural affiliation that binds the child to her/his mother more than to her/his father.
Perhaps that the development of attractive commercial centers, cities, has favored an agglomeration of populations which, if they are poorly protected, easily become the prey of the most violent and the most plundered of them, for whom a system of filiation which favors the strongest does not seem unnatural.
Anyways, to make an average of what one observes today a global generality, immutable, even ideal, leads certainly to errors.

History is also a tool of power, because we tend to learn from the past to improve the future. It is easy to manipulate the official version of History to make certain ideals acceptable.

Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell “1984” (published in 1949)

Obsolete foundations

School and university programs, museums, documentaries, ignore the abundance of discoveries based on modern tools, or an unusual point of view, that would crack the dinosaur that is the official stream.

Jean Piaget, a researcher in child psychology, describes learning in two ways: assimilation and accommodation. The first adapt the information of the environment to our structure of knowledge, the second adapts our structures of knowledge to the information of the environment.

In my profession, computer programming, requests often vary significantly throughout the project, to the point that, if we wanted to do well, we would have to recode the whole program, which makes developments particularly long. It’s like destroying a house and laying again and again the foundations for it, because customers decide what their home will look like as they see it grow. For reasons of time and budget, it is hardly possible to do so. Therefore, we proceed by “assimilation” of new features, without rethinking the whole, in other words without “accommodating” the existing. The new functionalities accumulate in a chaotic way, the anomalies are numerous and the reordering that it would be necessary to do, would take at least as many time than the one already passed.

This is also what happens in the progression of academic knowledge.
Challenging the foundations of academic knowledge involves bringing together experts who are authorities in their field, and agreeing with them, which is far from easy. They may have published works on obsolete bases, so their reputation is at stake, as well as the reputation and wealth of museums and libraries.

Yet, there are many things, that everyone can observe, that make official versions of science or history doubtful.

How to integrate, in our biological and chemical knowledge, the effectiveness of parallel medicines, such as Ayurveda (Indian medicine), meditation, yoga, compared to the chemical or surgical intrusive cures that doctors usually use?

How to have faith in the dating of Celtic and Roman civilizations, while the oldest copies of latin texts available in libraries and museums, and which serve as historical references, date from the ninth century – if we believe the estimates – or even from the Renaissance?
The earliest copies of Julius Caesar’s “Commentaries on the War of Gaul” (“Commentarii de Bello Gallico”), the main historical source for describing the Celtic peoples, are estimated in the 9th century AD. One of these copies is kept at the National Library of France (BNF), the other in Amsterdam. The oldest (partial) editions of Titus Livius’s “The History of Rome” (Ab Urbe Condita Libri), one of the main historical sources of the Roman Empire, are also estimated in the 9th century AD. One of these editions is also kept at the BNF.
The website tertullian.org has a remarkable list of the oldest known manuscripts for most classical Greek and Latin authors, and their estimated date.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico - Julius Caesar
One of the two oldest copies of Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the War of Gaul, estimated in the first half of the 9th century, preserved in the National Library of France (BNF). Source : BNF Archives

Other inconsistencies between archaeological data and official chronology are observed by researchers such as Anatoly Fomenko and Gleb Novosky.

The areas of academic knowledge or computer development are not the only ones that evolve this way. A major problem for democracies today is the exponential development of laws and jurisprudence, which is not always accompanied by a concern for clarity and coherence. The same goes for administrative procedures. When we know that “no one is supposed to ignore the law”, we can measure all the difficulties and costs that this represents for businesses as well as for ordinary citizens. This complexity is probably one of the reasons slowing down the adoption of democracy in some parts of the world.

Reality and test tubes

We are doomed to make misstake when we try to simplify human attitudes by numbers and categories. The human being and its environment are very complex and to think that we can totally identify and isolate a cause and an effect through an experience is an illusion. How can we put the infinite complexity of nature into a test tube?

Experimentation in humanities

Differential psychology attempt to study the differences between social groups based on experiences and inferential statistics. An experience consists in isolating an independent variable and a dependent variable, to observe the effect of the variation of the first on the second. Inferential statistics uses probability to state whether differences found on samples of subjects are “significant”, that is, if the difference is big enough to make sense, and how much we can generalize on the parent population, with a margin of error.
There are several things to be aware of about these experiences:

Correlation does not mean causality. If two factors are correlated, for example gender and performance, this does not mean that one explains the second. More relevant factors may be educational, such as toys that subjects received in childhood and that influenced cognitive development.

These results are not definitive. A person can improve her/his performance in one area through exercise or change attitudes by changing self-image. The brain is a very flexible organ.
For example, according to a study by Kass, A.J. Ahlers R.H. and M. Dugger, (1998), with learning, differences in spatial geometry scores disappear.

These results are not systematic, there are people who have an excellent performance in a task in which their socio-cultural group uses to perform badly, and the other way round may be true too. Results generally follow a Gaussian curve, which is a reversed bell, the majority of the scores grouping around the average. When the performances of two groups of subjects differ, it is according to two Gaussian curves which intersect. this means that even if there is a “significant” difference of average between two groups, there are always individuals in the lower average performance group who exceed individuals in the higher average performance group. Unfortunately the perception of the public is such that it believes that all people have a performance corresponding to the average of their socio-cultural group (see the diagrams below).

Chart of performances in spatial task
Example of chart of results on a task in which men are known to do better in average (such as spatial task)

Validity of experiences

When experiments are shared through scientific publications, it is easy to ignore certain results or to add fictitious ones. When budgets or ideals are at stake, there is no doubt that some experiments are more or less falsified. Sometimes their results are accepted by the scientific community without any attempt to replicate them.
Nature is full of diversity, so it is easy to find the data we want in relation to our ideology or financial interest, and to ignore other data.
For example, there are pharmaceutical industry experiences that deliberately ignore the side effects of drugs. See Ben Goldacre’s conference on TED.


“Scientific” observations on cognitive gender difference

Some researchers feed sexist arguments with hormonal comparisons, descriptions of differences in anatomy and chromosomes, and draw an arrow that they call for “cause” to all the social and psychological differences, as if the fact of having a vagina and estrogen predisposes to stay home and take care of children, to be emotionally unstable, and intellectually less creative and less technical than men.

No doubt there is a genetic influence in the human personality. The results of research on identical twins separated at birth show that they have, for example, the same preference for certain foods. But this does not mean that there is a part of genetics in everything, especially in something as culturally anchored as sexual gender differences and their impact on the development of intelligence. All genetic studies show that the characteristics of the parents are transmitted to children regardless of their gender, so an engineer father can transmit to his daughter his taste for mathematics, for example.

These scientific and sexist publications are all the more harmful as they are the opposite of the type of information that allows the individual to have faith in her or him, in order to persevere in skills development. Carole Dweck (already mentioned in the article Role models), shows that the idea that some individuals have innate and fixed predispositions lead people to flee the challenges and to give up easily in case of failure. On the contrary, the idea that all skills develop with practice, encourages one to persevere in efforts, to accept criticism and to embrace challenges.

The brain is indeed a flexible organ. Brain structures change when a person, for various reasons, acquire new skills or change attitude: other areas of the brain are stimulated, other neurotransmitters are produced. If there are researches that show average biological differences in the brain by using statistics over a large number of people, they reflect social differences, they don’t explain them.
Recent research shows that even genes expressions are modified with experience! This is the field of epigenetics.

Catherine Vidal, neurobiologist and research director of the Pasteur Institute of Paris, has published many articles on the question of brain differences between genders. She has also made a speech on Ted, available on youtube (you can turn on english subtitles):


Here is a summary of her main observations:

– Some researchers claim that women are less intelligent than men because their brain is on average smaller. But other studies show that brain size is not related to intelligence. Catherine Vidal mentions famous smart people who had a small brain.

– Others have done research on the relationship between sexual orientation and genetic and neurophysiological factors. Catherine Vidal shows that these studies are invalid and not confirmed by other similar studies.

– Other researchers claim that men and women use their brain differently. For example, one researcher wrote that men use the left brain more than women (he based this theory on an observation of about forty people), but this research was not confirmed by observations over a larger number of people. Another researcher shows that corpus callosum (which connects the two hemispheres of the brain) is larger in women, by observing twenty brains preserved in formalin, and it has inspired many ideas on the fact that women would be better at multitasking. This observation was not confirmed by analysis of a larger number of brains. Unfortunately, due to the popularity of these researches on various newspapers and documentaries, many people continue to believe them, even though they have been invalidated.
Recent studies show that individuals, regardless of gender, use different parts of the brain to solve the same task. Catherine Vidal writes “A major contribution of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI or MR) was to reveal how much brain function varies over different individuals. So it is, for example, when using mental representations to solve a problem, as mental arithmetic or chess. For the same performance, all have their own way to activate neurons and organize their reasoning”..

– Catherine Vidal also shows that most of the brain develops after birth. Thanks to magnetic resonance imaging, one can see the brain changing after learning, such as in musicians: “Thickening of the regions that are specialized in finger control, hearing and vision”, among taxi drivers: “areas of cortex that controls the sense of direction is more developed, and in relation to the number of years of experience of driving a taxi”, among jugglers: “thickening of the regions that are specialized in vision and coordination of movements of arms and hands”. The same phenomenon has been observed in people who develop more abstract knowledge (chemistry, physics, biology). These studies show the brain plasticity, and Catherine Vidal concludes: “to see differences between individuals or between sex does not mean that they are inscribed in the brain from birth, or that they will remain.”.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that these cerebral observations are also used by the team of Mindsetworks (inspired by Carole Dweck), to encourage children of both sexes, through an educational video, to persevere in efforts.

– Other studies show that women perform better on tests of verbal ability, and men in tests of spatial ability, in average. Catherine Vidal explains that these differences are not systematic : “the spread of values ​​is such that there are a large number of women who are better in tests where men succeed better in average and vice versa,”. They are not definitive, “after learning these differences disappear”. Moreover, these differences are small. They may even disappear, for example, when an exercise is presented as a drawing task instead of a geometry task (this confirms the “stereotype threat” effect discussed in “Roles models“).

– The relationship between hormones and behavior is also questioned. No studies confirm the relationship between testosterone and aggression in men, for example, and there is no hormonal imbalance in homosexual people. Catherine Vidal writes (and quotes Zweifel): “In normal physiological conditions, no scientific studies have shown a direct relationship between hormone levels and changes in our mood”. In humans, unlike animals, behaviors are based on more complex causes of social and cultural nature. Maybe some hormonal changes have an influence, but differently for each person, because abstract reasoning is stronger in human beings, and it is built through a diversity of experiences, specific to each individual.

The limits of measuring instruments

Science gives us the idea that one day, everything will be under control, since everything obeys regular rules. We just need to find the mathematical formulas which best mimic the observations, in order to make predictions.
In fact, it is true in an environment where everything is under control, and if we accepte the limits of what we can observe on our scale of space and time.

The laws of gravity don’t explain some movements of the stars, for example the fact that galaxies are moving away from each other faster and faster. To explain it, we invoke “dark matter”, unobservable directly, and exerting a gravity force. But in fact, we do not know.

Even in our conceptual and sensorial framework, it is difficult to reproduce an environment accurately, and therefore to make perfect predictions, because our measuring instruments are limited. And we know that very small differences in initial conditions, which are not always measurable, can produce very different results.

This was observed by a meteorologist named Lorenz in the sixties. He made weather forecasts based on complex mathematical formulas taking into account climatic conditions such as wind speed, temperature and pressure. By entering more digits after the comma, so by entering more accurate measures, the results become far different. He concludes that subtle variations can produce big changes.

A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a tornado in Texas.
Edward Lorenz, 1972

Before Lorenz, Mary Lucy Cartwright and John Edensor Littlewood had observed a phenomenon as surprising, during the Second World War, about radio waves. When the amplitude of the radio waves was particularly small, their transmission became more unstable, in other words, unpredictable.

When one goes to extremely small scales, at the level of the supposed constituents of the atoms, the predictability becomes harder, and the physicists calculate probabilities of events. This is the domain of quantum physics. Some observations go as far as to defy common sense, for example the fact that a photon or an electron can behave sometimes as a wave, sometimes as a particule.

Only in the mathematical world, our conceptual world, can we produce perfect predictions. The knowledge that we have in other disciplines are simple observations from which we have identified recurrences giving us a sufficient predictability on our scale of time and space, and which can sometimes be described with mathematical formula.

Thus, no human being can fully define reality, because we are limited in what we are able to observe and to conceive. We can observe redundancies and deduce rules, they remain valid for our level of observation only, in an environment under control.


Screens are television, computer, smartphone or tablet, game console. Watching screens has become a common hobby, a companion, and, for families, a nanny. However, this leisure is not without danger for the cognitive development of children. Furthermore, it increases prejudices, aggressiveness and pathogenic consumptions.

Intellectual disabilities

Screens take the time that children could spend reading or acting on their environment, manipulating, inventing stories, looking for small animals or flowers, interacting with peers …

Most of the time, screens are watched in a passive way (online videos, television …). But movement is at the root of neuronal development. The most primitive forms of nervous systems are dedicated to the movement of a multicellular organism.

The experience of Richard Held and Alan Hein (1963) illustrates the importance of action in learning. They kept kittens in total darkness from birth. As soon as they became able to walk, they were exposed to light for 3 hours a day, during which, half of the kittens, always the same, could move by pulling each a small basket in which was another kitten. The other half of the kittens were those who remained passively in the basket. They could only move their head and see their surroundings. After a few weeks, active kittens had developed normal motor skills, while passive kittens behaved like blind kittens.

Passivity itself is not bad, if it is properly balanced with moments of action.
To act on the world, one needs to observe. Perception, reflection and action feed each others. It’s like a breath. Perception is an inspiration, action, an exhalation, sometimes taking the form of an intellectual action, we think about planning an action, a creation. And it is this need for action / creation that arouses perception and reflection.

But the perception of images on a screen is not a perception guided by ourself, for actions or future creations. It is a transformed flow of information, a rapid succession of images and sounds, designed to capture attention and sell. It hypnotizes, rather than informing.

Studies by Ayelet N. Landau, Michael Esterman, Lynn C. Robertson, Shlomo Bentin, and William Prinzmetal show that this form of attention involves different nerve circuits than those used in concentration on a task. It is called “automatic” or “exogenous”, as opposed to “voluntary” or “endogenous” attention. An experiment by Ayelet N. Landau, Deena Elwan, Sarah Holtz and William Prinzmetal shows that impulsiveness is correlated with the first form of attention (involuntary) and negatively correlated with the second form (voluntary). Television promotes the development of involuntary attention to the detriment of voluntary attention.

Michel Desmurget, in his book “TV lobotomy” (2011) quotes the study of Marie Winn which notes the collapse of performance between the years 1965 and 1980 on a test of verbal skills called verbal SAT, which is part of the selection tests used by American universities. She notes, in her book “The plug-in drug”, that this collapse is consecutive to the penetration of television in American homes, as indicated by the curve below:

Relation between TV equipment and SAT performances
Relation between TV equipment (descending curve meaning growing penetration) and SAT performances (descending curve meaning decreasing performance)

We can see that the time between the two curves (number of households equipped and verbal SAT scores) is simply the age that students must have when they take the test.

That said, a correlation between two events does not necessarily mean that one is the cause of the other. A more prominent study is the one conducted by Tannis MacBeth Williams and her colleagues in the 1970s in Canada, and reported in her book “The Impact of Television: A Natural Experiment in Three Communities”.
At the beginning of her study, not all Canadian cities have yet been connected to the TV network. Of those that are, some receive multiple channels, and others only receive one. This allows Tannis MacBeth to make three groups of children: NoTel (no TV), OneTel (a single TV channel) and multiTel (multiple channels). She measures their performance at a reading task. She notes that the results of the NoTel group are higher than those of the two others.
Shortly after, the municipality of the group NoTel is connected to the television.
Verbal performance is measured again two years later. The group of children of former NoTel maintains its lead over the other two groups. But this is not the case of new children of former NoTel belonging to the class level of children NoTel two years earlier, ie those who had access to television programs due to the connection. For these new children, there is no significant difference between the three municipalities.
Tannis MacBeth doesn’t only observe the damaging effect of TV on verbal performance. She also notes that television exposure increases aggression, gender prejudices, and reduces creativity.

Studies reported in Carolyn N. Hedley, Patricia Antonacci and Mitchell Rabinowitz’s book “Thinking and Literacy- The Mind at Work” focus on hundreds of thousands of children, and find that their performance is negatively correlated with their television consumption.

Drawings of children related to TV exposure
Drawings of children related to TV exposure. Source: Winterstein & Jungwirth “Medienkonsum und Passivrauchen bei Vorschulkindern”, quoted in “TV lobotomie” by Michel Desmurget

Perhaps the impact of screens depends on the quality of the programs offered, and educational programs can be beneficial for children?
According to a study by Rachel Barr and Harlene Hayne, this is not always the case, at least for young children. In one of the experiments of their study, a woman shakes a puppet in front of children of 12, 15 and 18 months. She removes the bell that the puppet has in her glove, shakes it, then puts it back in the glove of the puppet. Some of these children see the woman in real life, the other sees a video recording. The results show an imitation rate of the complete demonstration much higher in the real condition, as shown in the figure below:

Developmental changes in imitation from television during infancy, Rachel Barr & Harlene Hayne
Developmental changes in imitation from television during infancy, Rachel Barr & Harlene Hayne

These results are consistent with those obtained by Cordua, Mac Graw and Drabman, 1979 (See “Role models”)


Does violence on screens influence children’s agressivity? The question is important because violent images are in constant increase. In the US, for example, we observe an average of 18.6 violent events per hour of cartoons on Saturday morning children’s programs in 1980, and it becomes 26.4 in 1990 (New York Times, 1990).
The American study “National Television Violence Study” (J. Federman, S. Smith, C. Whitney, J. Cantor and A. Nathanson, 1998), observed over 3 years 10 000 hours of randomly selected programs on 23 popular American channels. The results show that 60% of the broadcasts contained acts of violence, that they occur on average 6 times per hour, that they are perpetuated in a realistic way and positive characters. In more than 7 out of 10 cases, the violence caused no remorse, criticism or punishment. Another American study that shows that 70% of youth programs included violent content, with 14 incidents per hour (Barbara J. Wilson, Stacy L. Smith, James Potter, Dale Kunkel, Daniel Linz, Carolyn M. “Violence in Children’s Television Programming: Assessing the Risks”, 2002).

Eron, Huesmann, Lefkowitz and Walder, in 1972, conducted a study during 10 years. They noted the viewing habits of 800 children who are, in the beginning, 8-9 years. Researchers noted also their aggressive behavior, as reported by their classmates. Boys who watch a lot of violence are much more aggressive than those who prefer less violent programs.
Ten years later, half of these children were tested again on their television preferences and their aggressive tendencies, also reported by their environment. Results show that a high level of exposure to violence on TV at the age of 9 was positively correlated with aggressiveness at 19 years old.

Effect of violence on TV on boys' behavior
Effect of violence on TV on boys’ behavior. Source : “Hilgard’s introduction to psychology”, 1996, par Rita L. & Richard C. Atkinson, Edward E. Smith, Daryl J. Bem and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema

The study does not show a correlation for the girls, but most violent models on TV are male.
This experiment was confirmed by 28 others of the same type.
However, we can think that it was the initial aggressiveness of the child that orients him to violent programs. Other studies show that the display of violent programs precedes the appearance of aggressive behaviors in children.

Michel Desmurget, in his book “TV lobotomie” (2011, in French) quotes a study by Kaj Björqvist made in 1985. He shows a violent video to a group of children aged 5-6, and a neutral video to another group of children of the same age. He observes the children’s behavior in the playroom after the video. The results show that children who watched the violent video were significantly more likely to push, hit, and provoke their peers than those who watched the neutral video. Similar results are reported on a study by Wendy Josephson (1987) who observes children 7-8 years old playing hockey after watching a video either neutral or violent. Michel Desmurget cites many other studies with similar results (“TV lobotomy”, pp. 219-221).

Mediated violence also affects compassion, through the phenomenon of habituation (described in the article “Active learning”). Michel Desmurget reports numerous studies. In one of them, conducted by Margaret Thomas in 1977, 8-10 children and college students are divided into two groups, one watching a violent movie, the other a non-violent movie. Then, the subjects are invited to watch the video of a real aggression. During the vision of this last video, the experimenters collect physiological markers of emotion (blood pressure, electrodermal response). The results show that these signals are strongly attenuated among the subjects who observed the violent film.
Michel Desmurget also cites studies showing that men exposed to violent images tend to accept more easily physical and moral violence against women (“TV lobotomie”, pp. 226-227). For example, he describes the study by Charles Mullin and Daniel Linz, in 1995, where faculty students were exposed to a horror movie every other day for six days. These contained a particularly heavy load of sadistic violence directed against women. Three days after the last screening, the students were exposed to videos in which women, victims of real violent assaults, described in detail her ordeal. The results showed that, compared to a control group that did not watch the horror movies, the students who viewed the movies felt less empathy for the victims, who were portrayed as responsible for their misfortune, and the severity their trauma was greatly minimized.

Take educated individuals, submit them to violent images involving sadistic behaviors directed against a woman, and our merry boys will eventually explain without blushing that rape victims are sluts who have desserved what happened to them and that anyway, it’s really not that bad.
(Michel Desmurget “TV lobotomie”, p. 227)

These results are the opposite of theories considering mediated violence as a cathartic outlet, and aggression as an innate need whose quantity and expression would depend on the genetic program specific to each individual.

The imitation of violence has tragic consequences in the area of ​​sex. Sex education of adolescents is often done through the viewing of pornographic movies, made widely available through Internet. In pornography, however, pleasure arises mainly from the humiliation and enslavement of women. Girls learn, with more or less success, to find pleasure in these performances, to please their partner. It is difficult to measure how much this phenomenon alienates young people’s ability to establish a true loving, tender and empathetic relationship, and to get from this connection a more fulfilling and lasting form of desire.

One may also question the relationship between exposure to pornography and a greater risk to commit rape. We have already cited the studies reported by Michel Desmurget on the effect of watching horror films on the reduction of empathy toward women victims of violence. For some men and boys, visual models can even erase the line between fantasy and reality.

However, it is difficult to conduct rigorous experiments in this area, which would involve putting women’s safety at risk for the needs of an experiment. Studies are therefore most often based on the collection of interviews.

The study “Pornography and Sexual Violence” by Robert Jensen and Debbie Okrina, describes interviews that were conducted by Diana Russell (1998), and by Robert Jensen (2004).
Based both on the lab research and interviews, Diana Russell has argued that pornography is a causal factor in the way that it can:
(1) predispose some males to desire rape or intensify this desire;
(2) undermine some males’ internal inhibitions against acting out rape desires;
(3) undermine some males’ social inhibitions against acting out rape desires;
(4) undermine some potential victims’ abilities to avoid or resist rape
(Russell, 1998, p. 121)

Robert Jensen conducted interviews with pornography users and sex offenders, and various other researchers’ work. They have led him to conclude that pornography can:
(1) be an important factor in shaping a male-dominant view of sexuality;
(2) be used to initiate victims and break down their resistance to unwanted sexual activity;
(3) contribute to a user’s difficulty in separating sexual fantasy and reality;
(4) provide a training manual for abusers
(Dines & Jensen, 2004)

Here are some of the reports of these two studies:

From a woman involved in street prostitution, who reported that when one John exploded at her he said: “I know all about you bitches, you’re no different; you’re like all of them. I seen it in all the movies. You love being beaten. [He then began punching the victim violently.] I just seen it again in that flick. He beat the shit out of her while he raped her and she told him she loved it; you know you love it; tell me you love it” (Silbert & Pines, 1984, p. 864).

From a woman, interviewed in a study of sexual assault: “My husband enjoys pornographic movies. He tries to get me to do things he finds exciting in movies. They include twosomes and threesomes. I always refuse. Also, I was always upset with his ideas about putting objects in my vagina, until I learned this is not as deviant as I used to think. He used to force me or put whatever he enjoyed into me” (Russell, 1980, p. 226).

From a 34-year-old man who has raped women and sexually abused girls: “There was a lot of oral sex that I wanted her to perform on me. There were, like, ways that would entice it in the movies, and I tried to use that on her, and it wouldn’t work. Sometimes I’d get frustrated, and that’s when I started hitting her. … I used a lot of force, a lot of direct demands, that in the movies women would just cooperate. And I would demand stuff from her. And if she didn’t, I’d start slapping her around” (p. 124).

Other consequences

Michel Desmurget shows that television has also effects on sleep, eating disorders, excessive alcohol consumption and smoking.

The effect of television on pathogenic consumption reveals the damage of an economy based on mass consumption.
Television is becoming increasingly financially supported by advertising, which makes viewers “super-consumers”, with more damages on children. This closes the vicious circle of an economic system which ultimate outcome is the destruction of nature.

Modern lifestyle favors high television consumption: car traffic and crimes encourage parents to keep children safe at home, with their smartphone, computer, console, games and television. Work and travel times reduce parents’ time, attention and patience. Finally, in many households, fathers do not assume, or not enough, the parental and household duties that should be their’s as much as the mother’s, when she also works.


Experiments in psychology reveals different factors that can influence the efficiency of memory.

The conclusions of these experiences reported here were taught by Hervé Devos, professor of occupational psychology, at the “Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers de Lille”, school year 1997-1998.

Effects related to the pedagogic material

Effect of repetition

The more an event is repeated, the better it is memorized. Redundancy is therefore useful, but with different formulations, to increase decontextualization.

Law of distribution (Jost’s law)

Remembering is better when alternating breaks between learning (distributed learning) and when breaks are not too long.

Global learning and partial learning

This corresponds to the distinction between mass and distributed learning but adding an organizational dimension : it is the way we’re going to cut the material. Partial learning consists of cutting the material into small parts accessible to the target. The different parts are learned separately, one after the other. Global learning is about remembering the material entirely. The effectiveness of the division depends on the level of expertise of the students in relation to the complexity of the content and the form: the less the subject is familiar with the discipline or the more complex the material, the more the partial learning is effective. Global learning is more effective for the expert because he / she perceives the logic that emerges from the overall text and selects the interesting details.

Visual vs verbal

People do not have the same facilities to remember two presentations of the same concept. Some people retain better an imaged material (drawings, curves, diagrams …) and others a verbal material. Both types of presentation are therefore interesting to use simultaneously to ensure understanding by all learners.

Recency and primacy

Experiences show that, of a list of words, we remember better the beginning and the end.
In long-term memory, ie when the reminder is delayed for a few days, only the beginning of the message is remembered. Advertisers are well aware of this phenomenon, so the most important information is often presented at the beginning and sometimes at the end of the advertisement, and the advert is preferably at the beginning or at the end of an advertising sequence. On a pedagogical level, the effects of recency and primacy demonstrate the usefulness of an introduction and a conclusion containing the most important information.

Effect of familiarity

The more familiar a word is, the easier it is to memorize, thanks to pre-existing structures in memory. An educational application is the presentation of familiar examples to illustrate a complex course.

Effect of significance

The more significant a material is in relation to the concrete experience of the individual, the better it will be remembered. An educational application is to give practical exercises before introducing the theory.

Interference effect

Proactive interference (not retaining new information) occurs when the new information belongs to the same semantic field as the previous ones. It is therefore useful in the organization of pupils’ schedules not to follow very similar subjects (for example an Italian lesson after a Spanish course).

Categorization effect

The more a material is composed of categorizable units, the easier it is to remember. That’s why it’s best to present the presentation plan before. This effect is similar to that of partial learning, but emphasizes the division by semantic categories.

Effect of complexity

The memory span is 7 plus or minus 2 elements. It seems that this discovery by Miller (1956) results rather from the time needed to read the list of items. An educational application consists in grouping the information into categories which time required for their utterance corresponds to the period of time implicitly discovered by Miller. If the number of categories is too high, they can in turn be grouped into super-categories (each containing a memorable number of categories) respecting a memorable speech time. Thus the information is structured in a hierarchy instantly accessible in memory.

Effect of distinction

To be perceived, a stimulus must be well distinct from its environment. In pedagogy, this means that the parasitic effect of a background noise caused by chatting in an amphitheater, for example, can be neutralized by creating a contrast between the sound pitch of the teacher and that of the pupils.

Effect of time

The more time passes and the more the memory fades, but the ease of learning in the same semantic domain increases.
We distinguish in order of decreasing retention:


The subject is presented with information and asked to judge the information he has already encountered. MCQs operate according to this paradigm.


The information presented to the subject is represented in the disorder, the subject must return the material in the initial order.

Free recall

The subject recalls the information presented to him in the order that suits him.

Ordered recall

The subject recalls the information in the order presented to him. It is a cross between the reconstruction paradigm and the free recall paradigm (the requirement is twofold).

Forgetting is faster for recall and then for reconstruction. The recognition is almost stable over time.

Effects related to the subject

Effect of motivation

A minimum of motivation is required to memorize. But an excess of motivation causes stress and alter memorization.

memory and motivation

It is therefore important to know how to manage stress in a situation of exam. To help an anxious person, several solutions are possible: cognitivo-behavioral therapies propose the “systematic desensitization”, that is to face the situation on more and more stressful stages until the final stressfull situation. Each step is accompanied by relaxation exercises. This progressive scenario can be illustrated in school by mock exams. Another form of therapy is to totally immerse the subject in the anxiety situation. The risk is then a permanent flight from the subject. Another solution to overcome neurovegetative reactions is to practice a sport.

Effect of sleep

The effect of sleep corresponds on a larger scale to the effect of breaks between learning (law of distribution of the exercise). Montagner’s Studies show that a child’s performance rate is correlated with the number of hours of sleep.

Effect of drugs

In low doses, alcohol, cannabis, caffeine,… can reduce anxiety and therefore increase alertness. But this effect is more related to psychic autosuggestion than to the real chemical effects of the substances, for example by associating the memory of consumption with a pause, the pause being a pretext for the first shots, then, by associative learning, the substance becomes self-sufficient. But this psychological effect is minimal. On the other hand, an excess of these substances causes a clear alteration of the memory. It is often in search for the initial effect that people end up in excess, thus producing exactly the opposite effect than the desired one.

Effect of brain damage

The effects produced by various types of brain damage show that we do not have a single memory. The aphasia of Wernicke for example (semantic confusions in the verbal discourse) is systematically accompanied by a lesion of the left temporal lobe, we can deduce that this cerebral zone manages the connections between the phonological characteristics and the semantic content of the language.

Coactive learning

Coactive learning is a way of learning by interaction with others. This is an efficient form of learning and co-working, if the group is given good conditions to work together. Otherwise, group activities can result in the affirmation of the most aggressive people, and in the reduction of self-confidence and withdrawal of some others. There are various factors involved in the effectiveness of coactive learning. We will see  the influence of the spatial arrangement, of the nature of the task, of the leadership, then how we can improve empathy. Finally we will study collective polarization and rumors.

Spatial arrangement

Leavitt (1951) proposes a collective task with 5 subjects: finding the missing figures on 5 cards of 5 figures, knowing that each subject has a card with a different missing figure and that it is necessary to reach 5 identical cards. Each subject passes one card at a time by another subject. Leavitt varies the disposition of the members of the group: in circle, in chain, in wheel or in Y.

Circle arrangement
Circle arrangement
Chain arrangement
Chain arrangement
Wheel arrangement
Wheel arrangement
Y arrangement
Y arrangement

And it measures the number of exchanges of information and the satisfaction of the members.

The results show that centralized structures (wheel and Y) are more efficient than decentralized structures (circle and chain): they require less information exchange to reach the solution, but the only satisfied members are those who are at the center of exchanges (D and especially C), felt by others as leaders, because they are the ones who direct the flow of information. Decentralized structures produce a more balanced satisfaction among the members of the group but are slower to solve the problem.

Nature of the task

Faucheux and Moscovici add a factor to Leavitt’s experience: the nature of the task, and propose two types of collective tasks:

– a task of creativity (the Riguet tree): it is to obtain the most different figures of figures a, b, c, from an initial figure, closed figures being excluded.

Reference figures (a, b, c)
Reference figures (a, b, c)
Initial figure
Initial figure
Closed figure
Closed figure

– a problem solving task (Euler’s figure): replacing the boxes X and Y by a letter between A and D and a digit between 1 and 4, without repeating, in a same row or column, a number or a letter, and without using A1, B2, C3 or D4.

Euler figure
Euler figure

Results show that the decentralized structures are more efficient for the task of creativity while centralized structures are more efficient for the task of problem solving. Moreover, they observe that if the group is allowed to structure itself, it spontaneously takes the most effective disposition in relation to the nature of the task.


To study the effect of the the style of leadership in a group, Lipitt and White propose to 3 groups of children the construction of the stage set of a theater, with a group leader. Each week a different style of leadership is applied:

– Authoritarian Leadership: The adult makes all decisions about activities, assigning tasks and does not reveal anything in advance. He stays away from the group for anything that is not directly related to the task.

– Democratic leadership: the decisions to be made are submitted to the group that discusses them with the participation of the adult. As soon as children stumble over a technical problem, the adult tries to provide at least two alternatives. Every child is free to work with whoever he wants.

– “laissez-faire” leadership: the adult gives the children total freedom of activity and organization. It merely repeats the instruction, indicates the available equipment and only gives help when a child asks for it. In no case does he evaluate positively or negatively, but he tries to be friendly rather than distant.

The results reveal a maximum efficiency for the democratic group, then the authoritarian group. The laissez-faire group is very unproductive. These results are consistent with those obtained with respect to the effectiveness of a decentralized structure for a creative task. In addition, when the facilitator is absent, the democratic and laissez-faire groups continue their activity while the authoritarian group stops.

The measure of aggressiveness within the groups shows that an authoritarian leadership produces intergroup aggressiveness, whereas not having a leadership maximizes aggressiveness within the group. The democratic leadership annihilates all aggressiveness, as children are fully focused on the creative activity.

Nowadays, French schools are on the “Laissez-faire” leadership style (which means, no leadership at all). Many governments who’ve unsuccessfully tried democracy were in fact also failing in developping a democratic leadership (having corruption instead), and fell into an authoritarian (religious) one because of the damages caused by full freedom of people (“Laissez-faire”), giving rise to the law of the strongest. I suspect this will also be the fate of the western world.

Learning empathy

To work better together in a democratic way, it is essential to understand each others, so to cultivate empathy, that is, the ability to identify oneself with the other and to understand and anticipate one’s ideas and emotions.
Many exercises can be done by adults as well as children to cultivate empathy.

Ashoka proposes a toolkit for schools and families. The exercises are grouped in 3 steps:
– prepare (at the beginning of the year for a school): creating a safe space for the participants
– engage: group play, storytelling, and collective problem solving
– reflect & act: participants identify shared values ​​and differences, and instill courage courage to enable action
Here are some examples of activities from this document:

– Sample exercise of the “Prepare” step: break students into small groups of 3 or 4 to brainstorm and decide upon a set of words that answer this question: How do you want to feel in the classroom each day? Collect the words from each group, listing them on the board. Discuss as a whole class which words are the most common and give students the opportunity to advocate for a particular word. Students vote on their favorite three words, and the five words (or more) with the most votes will form the foundation of the charter. Another step is to work with the students to turn feelings into rules and expectations. For example, what does “respect” look like in everyday practice? Be as specific as possible: Rather than landing on “being nice,” encourage them to identify specific behaviors that they can track and hold themselves accountable for. For example, taking turns speaking, making eye contact, sitting up, etc.

– Sample exercise of the “Engage” step: either read a story, a chapter of a history book or an article in the newspaper, or watch a documentary. Then ask the students to answer the following questions:
How would you feel if you were [person/character]?
How do you think [person/character] might be feeling? How do you know?
Can you think of a time when you felt the same way?
What led him/her to make that (pick one) choice?
What would you have done differently in that situation?
Which character in the story do you relate to most and why?

– Sample exercise of the “Reflect and act” Step: begin by asking students, “Have you ever seen or heard someone being bullied or called a name? If so, how did it feel?” Start them off by sharing your own experience. Then ask students to share their answers one at a time, when they’re ready. Afterward, brainstorm what students can say or do when they witness name-calling or bullying, recording each suggestion on chart paper. Introduce the concept of a safe response, such as: say what you feel, take a stand by using words or phrases that interrupt or end the name-calling, ask for help from an adult, find a friend, ignore the situation or exit the area…

When it comes to mobbing, my personal experience has taught me that the highest risk for a child is to be isolated.
An isolated child is a child in danger.

Learning empathy at school can prevent mobbing

There are also interesting exercises used in acting. For example :
– Each member of the group, in turn, performs for one or two minutes, slow movements that the others imitate.
– Form a circle, holding hands, and “to pass a stream” by tightening the hand in the direction opposite to that which one receives. The person who emitted the current first can emit another later in the opposite direction.
– One person speaks and another, behind her, makes hands, having significant gesture according to the speech or manias (ex: scratching the chin or hair).
– Guide another person who has a blindfold, then reverse the roles.
– In a circle, one after another completes the words of the others to make a sentence (verb, adjective, nominal group, etc., but no “little words” such as “the”, “of”, etc.)
– improvise a scene on a subject, for example: a girl comes home very late and her parents express their concern.

Collective polarization

In the 1950s, people use to think that decisions made by groups moderated individual decisions. James Stoner (1961), a student in management in the U.S.A., decided to test this assumption. He questions people about various dilemmas, individually, in groups, and again individually. For example, an engineer must decide between keeping his current job with a modest but correct salary and with confidence on the stability of the company, or take a new high-paid position in a company that has just been created, and that has not yet proved its viability. The subjects make their decision on a scale of chances, in our example of the engineer, will he change position knowing that the chances of success are 5 out of 10, 3 out of 10 or 1 in 10. When Stoner compares group decisions with decisions taken before by the same individuals, he observes an increase in risk taking, this new opinion remaining stable in a second individual measure.

Other results show that the group decision can result in a decrease in risk taking compared to individual decisions.
Collective decisions tend to accentuate the initial positions of the members of the group.
This effect is called “collective polarization”. Several explanations have been proposed. Here are the two main ones:

– The informative influence: the members of the group learn new information and hear new arguments but they tend to raise more arguments in favor of their initial position than against. They thus skew the discussion and push the final decision further in the direction of the initial positions.

– Normative influence: people compare their own initial point of view with the group norm. They can thus adjust their position to comply with the position of the majority. The group provides a canvas of references that makes its members perceive their initial position as too weak or too moderate.

Other studies show that the personal involvement of group members increases collective polarization, and that the initial position of a directive leader polarizes the group towards his decision.
To show this phenomenon, Janis (1982) establishes a historical study on three American failures:
– The Pearl Harbor Affair (1941): The military in place had warned the U.S.A. headquarters of a possible attack by the Japanese air force, but the information was ignored.
– The Korean War (1950): The Americans had planned to invade Communist North Korea, but the Chinese intervention had been underestimated.
– The landing in Bay of Pigs (1961): the American strategy did not take into account the roughness of the terrain (presence of mountains, for example).

This study shows that the failures were all due to a collective polarization during the discussions in military or governmental councils, towards the initial positions of a too directive leader. This does not mean that the presence of a leader is harmful, but that he/she must be trained in group dynamics. She/he must be able to encourage participation, contradictory arguments and their dialectical resolutions, the diversification of points of view, and to put mutual respect into practice. He/she does not take a stand before the discussion begins. Janis also prescribes the renewal of meetings (to allow time for individual reflection and a second chance to alternatives), the presence of people having an opposite opinion and experts, to temper the phenomenon of polarization.

The process and damages of rumors

Rumors are a dangerous phenomenon of collective polarization. They are particularly involved in the designation of scapegoats. They can also influence testimonies, members of a jury, therefore decisions of justice, political or military actions …

They were studied by psycho-sociologists Allport and Postman (1945). During the Vietnam War, a rumor spread about disproportionate damage caused by the failure of Pearl Harbor. Although Roosevelt denied this interpretation, a survey of students before and after the speech reveals that anxiety continued. To understand this phenomenon (the birth and persistence of rumors), they analyze 1000 types of rumors collected in 1942. They find that within a group, the spread of rumors about a specific subject is directly related to the importance and the ambiguous nature of this subject for the life of each member of the group. The content of the rumors is generally hostile (60% of the 1000 rumors studied) or express a fear (25%).

Allport and Postman perform an experiment on 40 groups of subjects to analyze the cognitive processes at work in the propagation of rumors. In each group, 6 or 7 subjects volunteer to go out while the rest of the subjects watch an image.

Example of image used in Allport & Postman study, 1945
Example of image used in Allport & Postman study, 1945

A subject enters and sees the image, then it is removed and a second subject comes back to listen to the description of the image by the first subject. The other subjects return one by one to listen to the description transmitted by the last one having heard it. The analysis of speech transformation shows the following processes:
– reduction: the message tends to be simplified and shortened.
– accentuation: the message is transmitted by selecting and exaggerating certain details.
– assimilation: the content of the message reflects the habits, interests and feelings of the transmitters.

Collective memory performs, in a few minutes, a reduction equivalent to that achieved by an individual memory in a few weeks.

The structure of the message adapts, on the one hand to the human cognitive functioning, on the other hand to individual and cultural representations.

The intervention of the laws of the cognitive functioning appears in the following effects:
– the consistency of messages or their assimilation to a main theme, such as the texts recalled by Bartlett’s subjects: if in the picture, a Red Cross truck appears loaded with explosives, it is described as carrying medical equipment.
– the need to retain a spatial-temporal structure: the first sentence places the message, “this is a battle scene” for example.
– a better retention of familiar and significant symbols: in some images, the church and the cross.
– the addition of explanations: “an accident occurred”.

Social representations and their emotional charges appear, for example, in the description of black people: the knife goes from the hand of the white man to the one of the black man, the number of black people is accentuated …

Allport and Postman conclude: “We will speak of the triple process of transformation (reduction, accentuation, assimilation) of a rumor, as a process of consolidation. It is clear from all our experiences, as well as from other researches carried out in this field, that all subjects face the difficulty of grasping and retaining, in their objectivity, the stimuli coming from the outside world. To be able to use them, they must restructure them in order to adjust them to their boundaries of comprehension and memory, on one hand, and to their personal interests and needs, of the other hand. What was external becomes internal, what was objective becomes subjective. The kernel of objective information received by the individual is so deeply integrated into the dynamic of his mental life that the transmission of a rumor is mostly a projection mechanism.”

Other unions

We have questioned the patriarchal model, built on the brutal law of the strongest. What could be the alternatives to this model?

In “Coactive Learning“, we’ve seen different styles of leadership and ways to improve empathy.

I propose here some reflections on the way in which people unite in a more intimate way, in couples, sex and families.


Love is a source of strength and joy of life. It can lead to develop qualities and skills. The thought of being in the arms of the loved one provides the deepest happiness.
We are naturally attracted to each other, we need each other. A baby does not survive without attachment.
A true connection can only occur between people who are fully aware of being equal, because only then, can we estimate each other enough to count on her/his intelligence, to feel full empathy and to learn to know each other in depth, instead of relying on the prejudice of her/his gender.

An authentic contact between two persons requires patience and courage.
This goes through the mere presence of the other, under different circumstances. Little by little, our senses caress the person we are starting to love. She/he remains in our dream of reality. This dream colors each of our impressions. We live more intensely.

There is only one reality, the one that comes from our senses. There is only one other being in the world who lives in a reality similar to ours. This is another human being. When we look at another person, we think we see an avatar produced by our mind, a man or a woman, with a face, a body and clothes. But these avatars are only one of the many creations of our mind, which is pure consciousness. The person we contemplate has his/her own has avatars in front of his/her eyes, and he/she cares for the avatar he/she sees in the other’s eyes. But, in fact, he/she is, like us, the whole world reflecting in a consciousness.

What makes up most of differences between men and women, or those we imagine by prejudice, is gender. Sexual gender is one of those adult comedies that we are inculcated by will or force. Our reality is much more immense and it has no sex, no age, no skin color, no social, cultural or geographical origin, or even specie. Our reality is pure consciousness.


Sexual desire is flexible. It is influenced by our self-image. Self-image is created through interactions with others and the models available to us, which are still strongly imbued with patriarchal culture.
If a woman comes from an environment that sees sexual pleasure as a source of degradation for a woman, she can have particularly masochistic fantasies. For fear of these perverse impulses, some women become prude and inhibit themselves, or on the contrary, develops a sexuality where the pleasure would find its source in the fact of getting dirty and dominated.
Our first sexual experiences also have a strong influence. When they happen in the wrong context and in the wrong hands, our desires can be sadistic, even against ourselves.
The first erotic images that can be accessed as teenagers are magazines or pornographic websites made by and for a certain type of men, where women are systematically objectified, submitted to male pleasure, simulating their pleasure loudly and sometimes having pain.

These images, without necessarily being imitated, can cause pleasure to women, and the pleasure can get stuck into this kind of things. There is a coherence between these images and the image of women in general, it is only a difference of degree. This is not the only area in which we absorb desires that are not ours at the origin, and that make us frenetic and unethical consumers.
Sex originates in instincts that do not care about morality. Girls do not know it enough, so maybe some of them lose self-esteem in such experiences.

The music of our feelings is influenced by self-image and others, and sex is the tempo of this music. It is a coping force that nature has given us.
If the melody changes, sex also changes. In other words, if we are tempted by a pleasure that dirty us or dirty our partner, we can choose to change the image of ourself and of our partner to change our fantasies. One can also choose to assume her/his fantasies, or even to execute them, but there is a risk to hurt someone, either our partner, or the future partners of our partner to whom we will have transmitted this vision of sex.

In addition, a man often leads the dance, sometimes insists on getting what he want, and the woman accepts, then feels dirty afterward, ashamed of having accepted what she should not have accepted.
When the man is stronger and the woman is naked in front of him, he is a bit intimidating, even if she does not show it. Furthermore, women are more or less anesthetized during the sexual act, so it is only afterwards that they realize that they let their partner do what they did not really want.
To have such passivity during sex is an instinctive and archaic reaction. This is the best defense when the other one is stronger. That’s how, for thousands of years, women have saved their life. We know that if we counter attack, we take the risk of being smashed, in addition to being raped.

That’s why the only way for a man to make sure that his partner is not letting him do something she will regret, is to let her lead, or to take the lead the way she asks for by herself. A respectful and confident man should not have an issue with that.


Speaking of the law of the strongest, we have questioned the patriarchal family model. But what could be the alternatives?
Should we move to a more natural model, with a filiation, inheritance and home location, centered on the mother?
This would certainly improve the lot of women in comparison with patriarchy. In the few societies living today like this, for example the Mosuo (or “Na”) of China or the Khassi of India, women are respected, solidarity between people is strong and crimes are rare. Their peaceful nature reveals that it is indeed the status of women that is at the heart of a violent society.

matristic families
Matristic families

The Mosuo offer a particularly interesting family model because there is no marriage. Relationships are free. The family consists of brothers and sisters of the same mother. All generations live together in a big house, and everyone helps. The foster parents of the children are all the adults of the family, the siblings of the mother, and her parents, uncles and maternal aunts still alive. This provides great security for the child, because it does not depend on a love relationship between genetic parents. The genetic father of the child helps the children of his own sisters. This pattern is not strict, as men sometimes help a girlfriend whose family support is smaller, or offer gifts to their genetic children.

Although these societies offer new perspectives, they do not always offer the level of freedom that a human being is entitled to aspire. The role of the woman is valued as a person attached to the home and the family. It may be difficult for her to break away from these responsibilities to pursue long studies, travel, research, create, or accomplish other projects.

A more varied life experience of both parents is also beneficial to the child. The adult learns from contact with others. The housewife is often isolated, confined to poorly stimulating tasks and passivity. Through contact with others and by learning new activities, she enriches her experiences, becomes less naive, deepens her empathic and cognitive abilities,which make her more skillful and stronger in the upbringing of the child. The working father also acquires experiences that may be useful to the child. Conversely, the experience that a man or woman develops as a parent helps him or her to be more understanding, and therefore more effective, in teamwork and leadership, at a professional or political level. The traditional partitioning of roles finally has alienating effects for adults, men and women, as well as for the child, educated by these same adults.

Perhaps a more flexible and balanced distribution of tasks between men and women, and greater solidarity among people in general, would allow everyone to have such moments of freedom, without affecting the desire to be in a relationship or to have children? For this, do we really need to found a family the traditional way, that is, by uniting a man and a woman according to the conditions of marriage?

Marriage is an institution designed to serve the patriarchal model: it binds sexually a woman to a man, to ensure the purity of paternal filiation.
In the contemporary context of the Western world that refuses sexual coercion, this translates into the desire to associate a relationship based on passionate love and a family project. This may work in some cases, but not always. Besides, we do not fall in love once in our life.
Couples who could hold before only by the enslavement of women and the permission for men to have lovers and prostitutes, now separate. Our possibility of choice also throws many of us into celibacy, or into a quest where love mixes with consumption and narcissism, or even, ironically, the acceptance of a return to a patriarchal structure, the woman preferring to take charge of domestic tasks and offer herself to “marital duty” (despite the loss of desire), rather than leaving the material security offered by the father.

If it is so hard to find someone who is at the same time a good parent, a lover, a friend, a cohabitant, perhaps different people can fulfill one or more of these functions, not necessarily the same person at different times of life, because everyone changes. Furthermore, some people don’t need to experience every of those roles. Some people may be happier in living alone, or with a partner but without children.

Perhaps, instead of having a marriage contract encompassing mutual solidarity, parental duty and sexual fidelity, we could have a mutual solidarity contract, with or without cohabitation, and/or a co-parental contract, in which the child does not systematically inherit the name of the father, and none of the contracts would have a sexual clause. Therefore, two persons, including members of the same family, for example a brother and a sister, or two or more friends, could sign a contract of parental responsibility or mutual solidarity, or both.

Maybe we don’t need any contract, but just to learn to work together and to develop more empathy and solidarity between people. Perhaps we should reconstitute tribes of people helping each others, without necessarily living full time with each others.

Humanity has lived for thousands of years as tribes. Mothers were not alone in raising their children, they could rely on their sisters, their brothers, and on the whole clan (see below “Mothers and others” by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). Men were not alone in keeping their family safe, everyone was protecting each others. It was certainly not without conflicts and injustices, but no one was isolated in his or her misery.

We should learn to work together for the common good, and this teaching should be part of the goals of school

If children were learning to respect and help each others at an early age, no doubt that the adults they would become would be able to build the right system of solidarity themselves.

When solidarity is lacking, women are in a weak position to negotiate tasks sharing in the couple. On one hand, they often have a lower income than their companion. On the other hand, they need help when their body serves childbirth. Couples thus easily fall into a patriarchal model: the woman sacrifices her career and takes on her most domestic duties, which widens the pay gap between the two and accentuates the material power of the man.

Mothers whose income is not enough to feed a family, or who want to give more time to their children, have little choice but to depend on a man. Family allowances are generally not sufficient, and there are not always relatives who can help.

When families break up, often, women with low or average incomes have to take care of domestic and family responsibilities alone, while having a full time job. They live a daily slavery and suffer, sometimes they burn out. On the other side, many divorced men find themselves alone with the obligation to pay family support to their former wife, which gives them the feeling of being stripped of their money as well as of their children. Aside of that, there is plenty of isolated people, at any age and any social classes. These situations are symptomatic of a society that tries to rid itself from the unfair patriarchal model, but that has not learned enough to work together by solidarity rather than by obedience to an authority.

This handicap is visible even in the most charitable organizations. I have found as much conflicts, narcissism, lack of listening and empathy, use and abuse of authority, use of scapegoats and rumors, in organizations such as the Red Cross, as in the most capitalist companies in which I’ve worked for money.

Perhaps we should also question the norm of having babies. This contributes not only to the enslavement of women, but also to the destruction of nature. Perhaps we should replace the ideology of giving life with an ideology of non-suffering, which implies asking the question “Is birth in the interest of the child?” As suggested by Jean-Christophe Lurenbaum in his work of the same name (in French).

In any case, there is probably not an ideal model for all, but models that are suitable for some and not for others. The emancipation of women broke the obligation of a structure that made many of them unhappy, and did not make most men happy either. People were just resigned. Today we have the choice, which allows us to have access to love, freedom, a real complicity and a better personal development, but at the cost of trials and errors, by adapting also to the aspirations of his or her partner, whether she is a woman or he is a man.

Mothers and others

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, anthropologist and professor emerita at the University of California, has published several books about the role of the mothers in shaping human evolution. She explains that it is the mother-child relationship that has guided the evolution of the animal towards the human, by developing empathy.

In the article Mothers and Others in Natural History Magazine, she describes the importance of cooperative breeders:

These helpers other than the mother, called allomothers by sociobiologists, do not just protect and provision youngsters. In groups such as the Efe and Aka Pygmies of central Africa, allomothers actually hold children and carry them about. In these tight-knit communities of communal foragers—within which men, women, and children still hunt with nets, much as humans are thought to have done tens of thousands of years ago—siblings, aunts, uncles, fathers, and grandmothers hold newborns on the first day of life. When University of New Mexico anthropologist Paula Ivey asked an Efe woman, “Who cares for babies?” the immediate answer was, “We all do!” By three weeks of age, the babies are in contact with allomothers 40 percent of the time. By eighteen weeks, infants actually spend more time with allomothers than with their gestational mothers. On average, Efe babies have fourteen different caretakers, most of whom are close kin. According to Washington State University anthropologist Barry Hewlett, Aka babies are within arm’s reach of their fathers for more than half of every day.

Aka pygmies
Aka pygmies

But alloparents must be competent and caring. This is not always the case in daycares, for example, as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains:

The NICHD study showed only that day care was better than mother care if the mother was neglectful or abusive. But excluding such worst-case scenarios, the study showed no detectable ill effects from day care only when infants had a secure relationship with parents to begin with (which I take to mean that babies felt wanted) and only when the day care was of high quality. And in this study’s context, “high quality” meant that the facility had a high ratio of caretakers to babies, that it had the same caretakers all the time, and that the caretakers were sensitive to infants’ needs—in other words, that the day care staff acted like committed kin.

Bluntly put, this kind of day care is almost impossible to find. Where it exists at all, it’s expensive. Waiting lists are long, even for cheap or inadequate care. The average rate of staff turnover in day care centers is 30 percent per year, primarily because these workers are paid barely the minimum wage (usually less, in fact, than parking-lot attendants). Furthermore, day care tends to be age-graded, so even at centers where staff members stay put, kids move annually to new teachers. This kind of day care is unlikely to foster trusting relationships.