Why you react to gas prices the way you do (5×8 – 2/28/12)

Why the outrage, racism and rallies, the Amish up close, a pill to erase bad memories, and lessons from the slang of teenage girls.

Five themes in the news…


The price of a gallon of gasoline in the Twin Cities jumped another 15 cents in the last 24 hours.

A fascinating segment on Marketplace last night revealed why we care so much about high gas prices, and why people who can afford things seem particularly outraged. It’s because they know the price.

Odd? Consider how many prices of things you don’t know and why you don’t know them, says behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan…

“People go shopping, we spend on so many things, and we just don’t know. We don’t know the prices of things. But gasoline, even when you’re not buying, it’s staring you in the face. Psychologists call this salience. And the salience of gas prices, I think, makes it such a focal point in the debate.

“It’s both how present it is and how important it is. For example, low-income people know the prices of everything they buy because it matters to them. Middle income and higher-income people, we can afford not to know. And so it’s partly that. But partly it’s amazing — even when the $100 doesn’t take a big bite of paycheck because I know you’re getting wealthy off of public radio.”

People do funny things when reacting to the price of things, Mullainathan says. People who buy alcohol, for example, don’t like it when the tax is included in the label price, but have no problem when it’s added to the price at the checkout.


What’s the proper response when a white pride rally comes to your town?

There was a pretty fair chance that a white pride rally planned for Duluth was going to fizzle, denying its organizers a megaphone for their views in response to an anti-racism campaign in the city that’s rubbed some white people the wrong way. There often aren’t enough white supremacists willing to come in from the shadows of their world.

Now, opponents of the white supremacists are planning a counter rally a few blocks away, guaranteeing plenty of news coverage for the group that will probably be vastly outnumbered.

The Duluth News Tribune reports:

According to Kilgour, 50 Duluth-area organizations and nearly 200 community leaders have signed an open letter calling on Duluthians to take individual and collective steps Saturday to counter racism and promote community.

“We have a truly exciting opportunity here,” letter co-author Thomsen said in a news release. “On March 3, we can show the region, the nation, and even the world that Duluth, Minnesota, is about bridging and building relationships, not sowing the seeds of hatred, division and fear of difference.”

It’s a plan that was tested in 1997 when the Ku Klux Klan traveled to Ironwood, Mich., and some residents opted for a prayer vigil at a church and a Love and Unity gathering at a park. Locally, Thomsen and Kilgour were part of a similar effort when members of Westboro Church of Topeka, Kan., came to Duluth with that group’s anti-gay message.

It will be most interesting to see how the media frames the competing rallies.

Discussion point: What’s the best way to marginalize racism?


There are more than 3,000 Amish in Minnesota. Fourteen Amish settlements are located in two regions: southeast near the Iowa border and the central-northwest part of the in Todd County, and in Wadena. Most Minnesotans know nothing about them.

So it was quite a challenge to the producers of The Amish, which is featured on PBS’ American Experience tonight. How can you produce a documentary about people who cannot appear in it?

The Washington Post’s review today suggests we make time for it:

But “The Amish,” part of PBS’s “American Experience” series, is not a tourism brochure. Much of what we learn about the Amish life is fraught with questions, some of them unsettling. If you were to change one or two tiny details about what the Amish believe and practice, would it cease to seem so quaint? Or would it look more like the fundamentalist compound of, say, Warren Jeffs? Is turning the entire world into forbidden fruit really the surest path to a clear conscience? And why is it okay for one community of Amish to carry their lunches in bright plastic Igloo coolers, while another may not?

Though it sometimes drifts into tangents, Belton’s film does an excellent job of unpacking the Amish worldview, as well as our imaginings about the Amish life. It also documents the religion’s function as a litmus test to freedom. The Amish challenged mandatory public schooling (and won) and, in New York, have lately busied themselves protesting building codes that would force them to install fire alarms and automatic sprinklers.

“The line between ‘in this world’ and ‘not of it’ gets blurrier all the time.” it says.


If this isn’t a Mary Lucia-type question, then there’s no such thing as one: If you could take a pill to erase bad memories, would you take it?

Wired.com reports today on the science of remembering things. Every time you remember something, you change the cellular representation of that memory in the brain. Now, researchers believe it will be possible to “erase” bad memories and leave the rest of memory intact.

And this returns us to critical incident stress debriefing. When we experience a traumatic event, it gets remembered in two separate ways. The first memory is the event itself, that cinematic scene we can replay at will. The second memory, however, consists entirely of the emotion, the negative feelings triggered by what happened. Every memory is actually kept in many different parts of the brain. Memories of negative emotions, for instance, are stored in the amygdala, an almond-shaped area in the center of the brain. (Patients who have suffered damage to the amygdala are incapable of remembering fear.) By contrast, all the relevant details that comprise the scene are kept in various sensory areas–visual elements in the visual cortex, auditory elements in the auditory cortex, and so on. That filing system means that different aspects can be influenced independently by reconsolidation.

The larger lesson is that because our memories are formed by the act of remembering them, controlling the conditions under which they are recalled can actually change their content. The problem with CISD is that the worst time to recall a traumatic event is when people are flush with terror and grief. They’ll still have all the bodily symptoms of fear–racing pulse, clammy hands, tremors–so the intense emotional memory is reinforced. It’s the opposite of catharsis. But when people wait a few weeks before discussing an event–as Mitchell, the inventor of CISD, did himself–they give their negative feelings a chance to fade. The volume of trauma is dialed down; the body returns to baseline. As a result, the emotion is no longer reconsolidated in such a stressed state. Subjects will still remember the terrible event, but the feelings of pain associated with it will be rewritten in light of what they feel now.

This will be the most fascinating thing you’ll read today.


It’s probably no surprise the teenage girls and young women are primarily responsible for trends in slang, but many linguists say they’re much more sophisticated than they credit for.

That is to say: It’s another example of how further developed women are than men, the New York Times reports:

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” said Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”

Researchers say women are more sensitive to social interaction and use slang, “uptalk”, and “vocal fry” to offer subtle cues.

Related linguistics: In defense of business jargon.

Even more linguistics: The dictionary of the regionalisms we love.

Bonus I: Rain? Slush? We don’t even get pretty snow anymore. Not like those people.

Snow Circles from Beauregard, Steamboat Aerials on Vimeo.

Bonus II: How jeans conquered the world (BBC)

Bonus III: The top albums of the ’70s:


The Metropolitan Airports Commission is about to name a new airline that will begin serving Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. An airport official says the change could mean increased competition and lower fares. Today’s Question: What improvements would you like to see in Twin Cities air service?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: The state of the GOP presidential race. Guest: Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal Hotline. At 9:20, a discussion of single women voters.

Second hour: Can such a design and branding campaign force us to rethink how we view and respect the teaching profession?

Third hour: A Slave in the White House author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): Michael Leavitt, former Health and Human Services secretary or George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn at the Commonwealth Club about nuclear weapons.

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Identifying human trafficking where you live.

Second hour: A look at interracial marriage.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – Around the country, many police departments are taking more than mugshots and fingerprints of people they’ve arrested for serious crimes. Now they’re collecting DNA samples, too. That’s a boon for law enforcement and a big concern for privacy advocates. NPR looks at the growing DNA database.