It is often argued that the United States is exceptional with regard to its capabilities and responsibilities. With respect to its military prowess, and defense budget, it is certainly exceptional. I am curious however. To what extent is the US exceptional in other important ways? Is the US the envy of the world with regard to its educational system and its healthcare? How safe are Americans? Further, does America prove exceptional with regard to issues such as equality, democracy, and opportunity? I for one, am all for being exceptional. Shouldn’t we strive for superiority in all these areas? Is not a person’s character judged based on variables other than one’s physical strength? Are not issues such as kindness, fairness, and morality given important consideration when we evaluate each other? I suggest that nations too should be judged on these issues. We as a people certainly judge other nations based on these attributes.
So, how does the US compare to other wealthy and developed nations on these important issues? Let us take a closer look. By far, the best accessible and concise analysis of this question is contained in The Measure of a Nation by Howard Steven Friedman. Dr. Friedman is a prominent statistician and health economist at the United Nations and he teaches at Columbia University. Measure of a Nation was named by Jared Diamond (author of Pulitzer Prize winning Guns Germs and Steel) as the best book of 2012 in an interview published in the New York Times. I have to agree with Diamond’s opinion. Friedman’s book is a data driven assessment of 14 nations, each meeting specific criteria for population (at least 10 million) and wealth (mean GDP at least $20,000). Friedman methodically and carefully analyzes data from each nation and creates a relative ranking system whereby each nation is evaluated on diverse issues such as Health, Safety, Education, Democracy, and Equality. The comparison countries include: UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Australia, Korea, and Japan.
Friedman’s book constitutes an ambitious undertaking and he is careful to be clear about the pitfalls associated with the measures and analyses used. In the end however, as a skilled statistician and economist, he was able to pull together a clear and concise comparative ranking system that factually answers the question – “Is America Exceptional?”
He are the rankings:
Data is from The Measure of a Nation, by Howard Steven Friedman
I don’t know about you, but I was appalled by these findings. The US comes up with a last place ranking on a majority of very important quality of life variables with regard to health, safety, democracy, and equality. It gets worse when you look at all the comparisons drawn in Friedman’s book. I included only those measures that could easily be put in a table without the need for deeper explanation. And with regard to education, we are in the middle and bottom third of the rankings, except when it comes to years of education and percent of the population getting secondary education. Our literacy rankings are unacceptable.
Neither Friedman or I are driven to bash the United States. Instead, he and I both are motivated by a desire for exceptionalism across all these measures. Friedman makes recommendations about how we as a people, and a nation, could improve on all these important variables. The subtitle of his book is How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge And Boost Our Global Standing. The problem is one of over-confidence and unquestioning nationalism. To boldly contend that America is exceptional in every way is both unsubstantiated and untrue. How I wish it was otherwise.
It is time to step back, look deeply at these issues, accept the reality that we can do better, and then devote our efforts to making it so. We are arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world with a vast capability for excellence. It comes down to priorities and hubris. If “we the people” demand excellence in these areas, and stand-up and make our voices heard, politicians will have to respond. If however, we bombastically proclaim “We’re #1” regardless of what the evidence suggests, we will continue to languish. Should not the measure of a nation, with such capabilities, be the best?
Spread the word, get and read Friedman’s book. Let’s start changing the dialogue in this country away from the current divisive and unproductive rancor, and begin focusing on what really matters. It starts with knowledge and it ends with a healthier, safer, smarter, and more fulfilled populace whose politicians truly represent them and actually address important issues.
For other discussions and data points on US rankings relative to other nations see:
We’re # 37! USA! USA! USA! A look at the US Healthcare System
A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math.
Happiness as Measured By GDP: Really?
There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem. Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it. The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.
Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2012, the traffic to my site doubled. Throughout 2012 my blog had 35,819 hits from 31,960 unique visitors, accounting for over 46,720 page views. I had visitors from every state in the US and visits from people from 165 nations around the world. Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, India, and Australia also brought in large contingents.
This year the top ranked article was my 2011 post on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail, which accounted for 50% more hits than this year’s number two ranked article (Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the number one post from last year). The piece on conspicuous consumption, is in my opinion, one of my all time most important pieces. It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill. It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock). The Brainwave piece, also from 2011, compares and contrasts the different measures used to peer into the workings of the brain.
Of my posts published in 2012, only two made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010 and three were published in 2011. Of those eight from previous years, five were also on the top ten list last year.
My 2012 review and discussion of the Broadway Musical Wicked topped the list of posts actually written in 2012, but it came in third overall this year relative to all other posts. This article explores the theme that “things are not as they seem.” I relate the story told in the show to the political and historical manipulation American citizens are subjected to, and it stirs up unpleasant and inconvenient realities that many would prefer remain unknown.
Great interest persists in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is. This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article received a number four ranking, down from a number two ranking over the last two years. I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct. This article moved down two notches this year, ultimately ranking number five. My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number six this year, versus a number four ranking last year. My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked number seven this year, down two spots from its ranking in 2011. One of my all time favorite posts from 2010, Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? returned to the top ten list this year coming in eighth. In 2010 it ranked number ten, but it fell off the list last year. My Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number nine this year, compared to a number ten ranking last year. Finally, in the number ten slot this year, is my 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? This post was perhaps the most important post of the year.
So here is the Top Ten list for 2012.
- Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail (2011)
- Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
- Wicked! Things are NOT as they Seem (2012)
- Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
- Moral Instinct (2010)
- IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity (2010)
- Where Does Prejudice Come From? (2011)
- Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? (2010)
- Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox? (2010)
- Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012)
Again this year, the top ten articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think. This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog. There are several other 2012 posts that ranked outside the top ten; regardless, I believe they are important. These other posts include:
This latter article, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth, pertains to the microbiome, the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain). These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach. Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiome as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).
Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention. If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty. As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin. Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.
The bottom line:
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples. Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:
“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover the truth.
Posted by Gerald Guild
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Socioeconomic Status
| Tagged: Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture
Citizens of the United States are endowed with certain unalienable rights: one of which is the right to pursue happiness. Governments generally need to attend to the common level of happiness of its citizens in order to sustain power. As evidenced by the Arab Spring, unhappy people have the capability to overthrow ineffectual governments. As it turns out, the way politicians and economists presume to measure happiness is through a statistical measure called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Let’s take a closer look at GDP and ponder the questions as to whether it is, in fact, an appropriate measure with regard to overall happiness.
Following World War II, a metric called the Gross National Product (GNP) was adopted as the key indicator of a nation’s economic growth. Eventually GDP replaced GNP and it acquired broader meaning as a proxy of individual well-being (happiness). But what does GDP really measure? GDP as defined by InvestorWords.com is:
The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.
GDP is the measure we look at to determine whether our economy is growing, in recession, or in depression. This makes sense. But the deeper fundamental belief is that GDP equates to personal wealth, and that the more personal wealth individuals posses, the happier they will be. Our economy grows when people have money and spend it. The bottom line assumption here is that money buys happiness.
Since developed nations have strategically attended to this measure, GDP has skyrocketed. Concurrently, there have been unequivocal rises in living standards and wealth. The United States has done relatively well in this regard. But you might be surprised to know that according to a CIA website, the US ranks 12th in the world on a measure of GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) behind countries like Qatar, Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Brunei.
In poor nations where GDP is very low, quality of life and subjective measures of happiness are indeed low. As GDP increases, there is a correlated increase in both quality of life and happiness. But that relationship holds up, only to a certain point, and then it falls apart. For example, in developed Western Democracies such as the United States, UK, and Germany, since the 1970’s, GDP has grown, but on a variety of measures, the happiness of its citizens has stagnated or declined. See the chart below from James Gustave Speth’s book The Bridge at the Edge of the World.
Average Income and Happiness in the USA
As it turns out, when a nation’s GDP rises above $10,000.00 per capita there is no relationship between GDP and happiness. For a reference point, in the United States our GDP per capita rose above this $10k point in the 1960s and is currently around $50k per capita. The reality is that despite a five-fold increase in personal wealth, people as a whole, are no more happy today than they were in the 1970s. This suggests a fundamental flaw in the thinking of our policy makers.
I am not alone, nor am I first to point out the problem with assuming that GDP equates to citizen happiness. James Gustave Speth, provides a ground shaking critique of our current political, economic, and environmental policies in his 2008 book The Bridge at the Edge of the World. This GDP-Happiness issue is a prominent theme in his book and he explores what actually accounts for happiness. What follows is a summary of Speth’s discussion of this topic.
Research suggests that there are a number of important factors associated with individual happiness. What is interesting is that the major factors are relativistic, innately internal, as well as social and interpersonal. Yes, below a certain point, when people are impoverished and struggling to survive, happiness is indeed tied to GDP. But above that $10K GDP per capita line, these other human factors play a major role.
Let us start with perhaps the most powerful factor associated with happiness, our genes. It is estimated that about one-half of the variability in happiness is accounted for by our genetic composition. One’s happiness is much like one’s personality, to a large extent it is written in our DNA. Some people are just congenitally happier than others. Some are chronic malcontents no matter what the circumstances provide. Such proclivities are difficult to over ride. But the remaining 50% of variance in happiness does seem to be rooted in variables that we can influence.
One’s relative prosperity is a clear variable. There is an inverse relationship between happiness and one’s neighbors’ wealth. If you are relatively well-off compared to those around you, you are likely to experience more happiness. If however, you are surrounded by people doing much better than you, you are likely to experience discontent. It is more about relative position rather than absolute income. And as everyone’s income rises, one’s relative position generally remains stable. So more money does not necessarily equate to more happiness.
Yet another innately human factor that plays out in this happiness paradox is our incredible tendency to quickly habituate to our income and the associated material possessions that it affords. We seem to have a happiness set point. There may be an initial bump in happiness associated with a raise, a bigger better car, or a new house; however, we tend to return to that set point of happiness pretty quickly. We habituate to the higher living standards and quickly take for granted what we have. We then get a relative look at what’s bigger and better and begin longing for those things. This is the hedonic treadmill.
Happiness is to a large extent associated with seven factors:
- Family relationships
- One’s relative financial situation
- The meaningfulness of one’s work
- Ties to one’s community and friends
- Personal freedom
- Personal values
Speth notes that “except for health and income, they are all concerned with the quality of our relationships.” We clearly know that people need deeply connected and meaningful social relationships. Yet we are living increasingly disconnected and transient lifestyles where we relentlessly pursue increasing affluence all the while putting distance between us and what we truly need to be happy. We are on that hedonic treadmill convinced that happiness comes from material possessions, all the while neglecting the social bonds that truly fulfill us.
Obviously, GDP misses something with regard to happiness. Speth quotes Psychologist David Meyers who wrote about this American Paradox. At the beginning of the twenty-first century he observed that Americans found themselves:
“with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We were excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life. We celebrated our prosperity but yearned for purpose. We cherished our freedom but longed for connection. In an age of plenty, we were feeling spiritual hunger. These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically.”
The reality is that there is a great deal of disillusionment in this country. And we are falling behind in other areas of significant importance. Our healthcare systems ranks 37th in the world with regard to life expectancy. The efforts of our education system finds us loosing touch with the world’s top performers. A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math. Out of the 34 countries in the study, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. The US students ranked far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai each in China. Secretary Duncan, at the time of the PISA announcement, said that:
“The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades…In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”
Although GDP is an important economic measure, many economists and some leaders suggest that we should assess well-being more precisely. For example, alternatives include the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) that factors into the equation environmental and social costs associated with economic progress. See the graph below for how we in the US have fared on GPI.
GDP and GPI Growth
This GPI data suggests that since the early seventies there has been a clear divergence between GDP and the well-being of the citizens of the United States. This GPI line correlates strongly with the relative happiness line over the same time period.
Another effort made with regard to measuring the well-being of the citizens is the Index of Social Health put forward by Marc and Marque-Luisa Miringoff. They combined 16 measures of social well-being (e.g., infant mortality, poverty, child abuse, high school graduation rates, teenage suicide, drug use, alcoholism, unemployment, average weekly wages, etc.) and found that between 1970 and 2005 there has also been a deteriorating social condition in the United States despite exponential growth in GDP.
The New Economics Foundation in Britain has developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI) that essentially measures how well a nation converts finite natural resources into the well-being of its people. The longer and happier people live with sustainable practices the higher the HPI. The United States scores near the bottom of this list. At the top of the list in the Western Developed nations are countries like Malta, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, and the Netherlands (due to long happy lives and lower environmental impact). At the bottom across all nations are countries like the US, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait (each as a result of atrocious environmental impact) and Rwanda, Angola, Sudan and Niger (due to significantly shortened life spans).
“Right now,” Speth notes, “the reigning policy orientation and mindset hold that the way to address social needs and achieve better, happier lives is to grow – to expand the economy. Productivity, wages, profits, the stock market, employment, and consumption must all go up. Growth is good. So good that it is worth all the costs. The Ruthless Economy [however] can undermine families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even mental health, [but] in the end, it is said, we’ll somehow be better off. And we measure growth by calculating GDP at the national level and sales and profits at the company level. And we get what we measure.”
All this taken together seems to suggest that we would be better off as a citizenry if we radically re-prioritized our economic, social, and environmental policies with increased focus on factors that more closely align with human well-being. Yet, we continually forge ahead striving unquestionably for economic growth because we believe it will make us better off. Closer scrutiny suggests that we should broaden our thinking in this regard. If we were to focus our energies on GPI and/or HPI, like we have on GDP over the last 50 years, just imagine what we could accomplish.
Central Intelligence Agency. The World Fact Book: GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).
Guild, G. (2011). We’re Number 37! USA! USA! USA!
Happy Planet Index. NEF
Johnson, J. (2010). International Education Rankings Suggest Reform Can Lift U.S. US Department of Education.
Speth, James Gustave. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
What drives you crazy about your partner? Dirty dishes left piled in the sink. Several days worth of laundry strewn about the bedroom. The toilet paper roll is never replenished. She talks too much – he doesn’t talk enough. He’s always late – she’s a compulsive neat freak. These are a few of the common complaints that spouses have about their loved ones. It is well known that close intimate relationships can be very tough to sustain over time. There is something about living with someone for a long period of time that turns idiosyncratic quirks into incendiary peeves. Why is this?
I’ve recently finished reading Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman. This fascinating read dives into a topic that has escaped much direct scientific scrutiny. This fact is amazing because “although everyone can tell you what’s annoying, few, if any, can explain why” (Palca & Lichtman, 2011). One of the topics that these authors explore is this issue of the bothersome habits of intimate partners. It’s exceedingly common – if your partner drives you crazy – you are not alone.
What is very curious is that often the very things that attracted you to your partner, are the things that, in the end, foster contempt. Palca and Lichtman explore the concept of Fatal Attraction coined by sociologist Diane Felmlee of UC – Davis. Felmlee has explored this concept for years and she has seen this tendency in couples all over the world. In the first stage of love (Romantic Love), we are drawn in, in part, by the cute little things, the person’s novel traits, that trigger affection. But, over time, those initially positive attractors often have an annoying flip side.
Why does something that attracted you to your partner get flipped into a detractor? Felmlee believes that this disillusionment occurs due to Social Exchange Theory where “extreme traits have [their] rewards, but they also have costs associated with them, especially when you are in a relationship.”
- If you were drawn to partner because he was nice and agreeable, he may later be seen as passive and prone to letting people walk all over him.
- If you were attracted to your partner because of her assertiveness, confidence, and self-directed demeanor, you may later find her to be stubborn and unreasonable.
- If you were swooned by his strong work ethic and motivation to be successful, you may later be disappointed because you now have an inattentive, inaccessible, workaholic.
- Someone who is a romantic, attentive, and caring suitor may later be viewed as a needy and clingy partner.
- The passionate may become the dramatic or explosive hot-head.
- The calm, cool, and collected becomes the aloof stoic.
- The laid back guy becomes the lazy slob.
- The exciting risk taker becomes the irresponsible adrenaline junkie.
- The gregarious life of the party becomes the clown who takes nothing seriously.
And so it goes. Repetition seems to be a crucial contributor notes Elaine Hatfield, a psychologist from the University of Hawaii. “The same thing keeps happening over and over again in a marriage” she notes. Michael Cunningham, a psychologist from the University of Louisville has come to refer to these annoying attributes as Social Allergens. The analogy with an allergen is played out in the dose effect. He notes that “small things don’t elicit much of a reaction at first” but that with repeated exposure over time, they “can lead to emotional explosions.” Palca and Lichtman note that:
People frequently describe their partners as both “the love of my life” and “one of the most annoying people I know.”
Elaine Hatfield also believes that these social allergens get amplified when there is an imbalance in equity within a relationship. Equity Theory, she notes, suggests that when there is an imbalance of power, commitment, or contribution in a relationship, these quirks take on a disproportionate amount of negative value. However, if there is balance in the relationship (equity), the annoyance value of a partner’s quirks is more easily tolerated. So, if your partner is a good contributor and there is a balance of power, you are less likely to be annoyed. If, on the other hand, your needs are left unmet, or you do the lion’s share of the work around the house, or you feel unappreciated or diminished by your spouse, there is likely to be more annoyance associated with his or her quirks.
It is also important to note that the nature of a relationship changes over time. During the initial passionate Romantic Love stage, the couple tends to be on their best behavior. Once commitment and comfort are attained, one’s truer attributes tend to come to the surface. There tends to be less effort to conceal one’s quirks and thus increased occurrences of these social allergens.
Over time, increased and accelerated exposure take their toll and if there are equity issues, it’s a recipe for disaster. So, what is one to do?
The first step is to think about the issues that get to you with regard to how the value of those attributes may have a positive side. We all have our strengths and our quirks – yes, you too have your annoying tendencies! Michael Cunningham suggests that you should try to be accepting of your partners quirks. These behaviors are a part of who the person is. He notes that “You’ve got to take this if you want all of the other good things.”
Own your feelings and explore them at a deeper level, particularly with regard to the equity issues in your relationship. Arthur Aaron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook urges couples to nurture their relationship. “Celebrate when something good happens to your partner” he notes. Attend to and accentuate the positive. He also suggests engaging in novel, challenging and exciting activities fairly often. “Anything you can do that will make your relationship better will tend to make your partner less annoying.” My suggestion is to think of a relationship as a garden that needs attention, maintenance, and nurturance. It’s impossible to rid the garden of all its weeds and pests. But the more attention and nurturance you provide, the more it will flourish. As Stephen Covey is fond of saying: “Love is a verb. Love the feeling is the fruit of love the verb.” So do loving things.
Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief? Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own? If so, then this blog is for you. I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue. I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people. I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant. There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking. And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be? I have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made. I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.
Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought. Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception. I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand. As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.
As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:
- Attribution Error
- Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
- Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
- Moral Instinct
- IAT: Questions of Reliability
- Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
- What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
- Illusion of Punditry
- Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?
What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet. It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.
I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration. Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell. Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs. Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.
Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs. These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.
There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above. Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention. This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot. Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.
The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience. Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling. I’ve covered other topics such as happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.
The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways. First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought. Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe. These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival. Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force. Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.
Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents. Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology. And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized. As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture: “We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience. Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in. The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.
Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:
“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”
We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness. Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps. Are you ready to move forward? How do you think?
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Invisible Gorilla
, Placebo Effect
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Invisible Gorilla
, Rational Thought
, Self Serving Bias
, Spinoza's Conjecture
What makes a good parent? Really? What can we do to ensure that our children grow up happy, healthy and wise? There is a lot of advice out there – some of which, on the surface seems quite sage. But history is replete with really bad advice – some based in moral authority and some in the ill formed wisdom of so called experts. New advice is commonplace and how often have you been confused by the contradictory nature of yesterday’s and today’s tips? There are enough schools of thought out there to confirm and satisfy almost any advocate of any “reasonably sane” parenting approach and even some not so prudent approaches. There is a pretty good reason for this variability and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, lets look at a recent article from Scientific American MIND that provides a summary of a scientific analysis resulting in a list of the top ten most effective child rearing practices.
In What Makes a Good Parent? the author, Robert Epstein, shares the results of a study on parenting skills that he carried out at UC San Diego, with a student (Shannon Fox). The results were presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association this past summer. Epstein and Fox looked at parenting techniques advised by experts, strategies commonly employed by parents, and strategies that seemingly had efficacy in the real world. They collected their data online from nearly 2000 parents who volunteered to take a test of parenting skills at Epstein’s website: http://MyParentingSkills.com. The test was devised by Epstein based on the literature, whereby ten parenting techniques that had robust evidence with regard to good outcomes were selected and measured. Epstein had the 10 skills assessed by 11 parenting experts to further evaluate their validity. The participants answered 100 questions pertaining to their agreement (on a 5 point agree to disagree scale) with the ten parenting variables (e.g., “I generally encourage my child to make his or her own choices,” “I try to involve my child in healthful outdoor activities,” “No matter how busy I am, I try to spend quality time with my child.”). In addition to these questions the test asked questions pertaining to important variables such as income and educational levels of the parents, marital status, parenting experience, age, as well as questions regarding the happiness, health and functioning capacity of their child/ren.
The results, coined by the author as The Parent’s Ten, make perfect sense to me as a parent of three reasonably well adjusted, happy and successful college students. They also gel with my exposure to the literature and my experiences guiding parents within my professional capacity as a child psychologist over the last 16 years. Here is an excerpt from the article:
“Here are 10 competencies that predict good parenting outcomes, listed roughly in order from most to least important. The skills – all derived from published studies – were ranked based on how well they predict a strong parent-child bond and children’s happiness, health and success.
- Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
- Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
- Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
- Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
- Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
- Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
- Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.
- Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
- Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
- Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.“
Although you may not find these results all that surprising, Epstein suggests that they are because if you look closely at the list you’ll see that the vast majority of the skills are parental personality and/or life skill issues. As this study suggests, a child’s well-being, it seems, is most closely associated with how a parent treats oneself (e.g., manages stress and maintains a healthy diet and exercise regimen), how one gets along with the co-parent (e.g., maintains and models important healthy relationships), as well as the efficacy of one’s life skills (e.g., sustains income and plans for the future), and how deeply one values education.
These “skills” constitute a full 50% of the list and when weighted, based on the degree of association, likely account for a huge and disproportionate amount of the influence on child happiness, health, and adaptive functioning outcomes. And several of the other “skills” (e.g., affection, respect for the dignity of children, degree of parental control imposed, and even level of spirituality) really are behaviors that are known to vary associated with one other crucial, yet unmentioned variable.
You see, the presumption here is that children are brought into the world as malleable blank slates that we can mold through the type of parenting we employ. The reality is that parents who employ these skills likely do so as a function of their intelligence and personality, which are heavily influenced by their genes. The truth of the matter is likely that children whose parents care for themselves, have good social skills, and plan for the future will have happier, healthier, and wiser children, but not because of the parenting skills employed during their upbringing, but because of their shared genes. Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study. And neither have most of the researchers looking at the relationship between parenting behavior and children outcomes (Pinker, 2002). The current research from behavioral genetics suggests that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the wellness outcomes of children! Heredity accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%) (Pinker, 2002).
Epstein asks what parental characteristics are associated with good outcomes and finds that women produce only slightly better outcomes than men. Likewise they found that married individuals produce slightly happier children than divorced parents. Gay individuals actually report slightly happier children than do straight individuals. And no differences were noted associated with race or ethnicity, but more educated individuals had the best outcomes. He notes that “Some people just seem to have a knack for parenting, which cannot be easily described in terms of specific skills.” He’s got that right! That knack, although unacknowledged by Epstein, is largely a function of one’s genes. Temperament is a personality trait that we know is hugely influenced by genes and Epstein notes that “Keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting.”
So we have another conundrum. We are lead to believe, based on the results of this study, that we, as parents, can shape our children, and thus by engaging in The Parent’s Ten, produce happier, healthier, and wiser children. But can we really? Is there an illusion of cause here? Are these simply correlations? The findings of behavioral genetics would suggest that this is an illusion – that these variables vary in predictable ways based on the influence of a third variable – genes.
Next week I’ll delve into this notion of whether how one parents really matters. This exploration comes with significant discomfort for me as I am a behavioral child psychologist with 11 years of training and 16 years of practice steeped in the belief that I can help parents make a difference in the lives of their children. I have long accepted the notion that the nature-nurture debate is not an either-or issue. I see in my life and practice that outcomes are clearly the result of the influences of both nature and nurture. Regardless, I have held the notion that it is parenting to a large extent, that accounts for a large portion of the nurturing influence. Now I have to look carefully at the evidence, be willing to shed the ideological notion that we are blank slates, and accept the reality of the situation, no matter how hard and contrary to my beliefs. This necessitates true intellectual honesty and deep scientific scrutiny.
Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.
Happiness keeps popping up in my life. Not just the feeling, but the topic. In fact, this morning I woke up to a text asking me how happy I was. That didn’t make me feel happy at all. More on that in a minute. Ever since my recent posts on happiness, it feels like relevant conversations and tweets also keep popping up. I know that this is a result of my reticular activating system cuing me into this omnipresent topic, but it just makes me happy when it happens.
Certainly a big contributor to my awareness of happiness is my participation in a research project that randomly asks me to quantify my level of happiness throughout the day. I heard of this study on NPR’s Science Friday where Ira Flatow interviewed a Doctoral Candidate from Harvard University upon the publication of his study that found a relationship between mind wandering and lower levels of happiness (Killingsworth, 2010). The way the data was collected is very interesting, well actually it is very cool (at the risk of sounding too pedestrian). To a guy who really appreciates technology and has a dendrite tight connection to his iPhone, this is way cool. So this is how it works. Once you sign up to participate and give some basic demographic data you start getting texts that ask you to rate your happiness at that moment. They also ask other questions such as wake and sleep time, quality of sleep, desire and need to do what you are doing at the moment, level of current social interaction, degree of focus on task, what the task is, and where you are. They ask other questions too, but not too many in any one session. Each session takes about a minute to complete. And upon completion, they send you some graphic data about you and your responses over time. The catch is you need to have an iPhone to participate. Granted, this skews the data set, but pretty soon they will release it to Android owners, so that wannabes can participate too 😉 . Yes, I know! The data will still be skewed.
I have found this to be very rewarding on multiple levels. It is great to contribute to research, yes, but I have also learned some things about myself and about the levels and situations of my happiness. For one thing, I find that I am happier far more often than I had ever really realized. I guess I don’t really think about it much, but when asked and put in a position to respond, I assess my mood, and often find it to be good to very good. The grumpy and pissed off moments really amount to that, just moments, and for the most part, I’m feeling pretty good.
I also found that my inclination to be exercising with my wife or working on a project or being outside or helping someone to be associated with the highest states of happiness. There is one more topic they assess from time to time, which I will not share here: but lets just say that it is associated with the pinnacle of pleasure. I am drawn to all the above activities perhaps because I am rewarded with a flood of the feeling good neurotransmitter (dopamine) that sweetly caress my nucleus accumbens (NAcc). These are parts of, and reactions that occur in, the brain. I felt the need to clarify this for those that may be reading soft porn into my prose.
Granted, the data is limited to three sessions a day (I selected this frequency) so not all activities of my daily life have been sampled sufficiently to draw any firm conclusions, but it is interesting nevertheless. I suggest that if you have an iPhone, you should go to https://www.trackyourhappiness.org/ and sign up. You will be contributing to science and learning a bit about yourself. Really it is non-invasive and actually quite fun, except at 6:00 am, (I gave them permission to send texts at this time), the morning after hosting a large family Thanksgiving Dinner. I got over it, and really I was quite happy anyways. I’m very fortunate to have such a great family.
On a different note, I recently received a tweet with a link to an article titled A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder (Bentall, 1992). This absolutely cracked me up. The abstract reads as follows:
“It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.”
Obviously, this is a satirical paper, but it says something important about happiness and perhaps more importantly, something about our obsession with it. This paper was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics back in 1992. You can see get a free copy at Pub Med. Its a “fun” read if you get a kick out of reading scholarly papers written tongue in cheek.
Finally, I have to state the obvious, Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. This weekend I went camping with my brother-in-law. It was snowing, very windy, and pretty darn cold in Western New York. At one point my companion checked the Weather Channel on his Android hoping to find that the lake effect snow bands were swinging south to really blast us. The temperature was 24° and the wind chill made it feel like 12° (Fahrenheit).
Later, in the middle of the night, in my tent, my thermometer read 25 degrees. And I was HAPPY! My wife suggests that it is a testosterone thing. I’m not sure, but I find that there is something greatly fulfilling about enduring adversity such as this. At one point my brother-in-law blurted out his supreme happiness, as we sat eating a delicious freeze dried beef stew among great rock city quartz conglomerate relics of Devonian Age deposition. And as we later cooked our dinner over the hot coals of our warmth providing camp fire, amidst bone chilling winds, we again mutually proclaimed deep happiness. There is something about eating food cooked outside on a fire or even on our tiny camp stoves that makes it taste so much better than it would were we to cook it in the shelter and warmth of a conveniently contrived home. It’s about getting back to one’s roots: it’s about the struggle for survival, the very capabilities that ultimately brought us here, to this point in time in our evolution. But it also reminds me how fortunate I am to have such conveniences. I am aware that what I now have was not available to a vast majority of my fore bearers. I am also aware that even today, so many of my fellow human beings are far less fortunate. I am happy because I can appreciate the relative bounty that is my life. So much of happiness is about perspective. From my perspective – life is good.
Bentall, R. P. (1992). A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. Journal of Medical Ethics. 1992 Jun;18(2):94-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1619629
Killingsworth, M. (2010). Quantifying Happiness. National Public Radio. Science Friday. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131274191/quantifying-happiness
Are you Happy? What makes you happy? These questions, although seemingly rudimentary, are more difficult to answer than you might think. As it turns out, happiness, as a condition, eludes clear understanding.
Throughout history, mankind has grappled with a definition of this emotion. Perhaps the most meaningful framing of happiness is rooted in the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia suggests that fulfillment comes not from experiencing the feeling of joy, but from living a virtue-based and meaningful life. Central to this notion is an emphasis on being a good person. Others have put forth perhaps equally telling notions. Nietzsche wrote that “the secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.” Bertrand Russel noted that “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” These latter two concepts acknowledge something important about the reality of happiness that Ayn Rand denied when she wrote that happiness is “a state of non-contradictory joy, joy without penalty or guilt.” (Salerno, 2010).
We all know (I hope) the feeling of happiness. We might surmise that, if given the power to manipulate our circumstances, we would be able to effectively engineer our world in a way that would guarantee this desirable state. But, as it turns out, as Nietzsche and Russel suggest, happiness is paradoxical.
We think we know what we want, but the acquisition of one’s desires often fails to live up to expectations and sometimes it brings regret, remorse, guilt, or dissonance. Those situations or items we covet in hopes that they will bring us happiness, come with detractors. Many women for example, desire children. Yet many mothers struggle with the need for fulfillment beyond domestic responsibilities (Salerno, 2010). And these two pursuits often collide in stressful ways. We are it seems, hard wired to pursue some goals that are, by their very nature, contradictory when happiness is concerned.
Life’s most prized aspirations, namely children and wealth, actually do not tend to bolster happiness. When looking at the research on the impact of children on maternal levels of happiness, the conclusions suggest that child rearing has a neutral to negative affect on quality of life. Positive associations are hard to come by. And although it appears that there is a slight positive relationship between wealth and happiness, there are numerous caveats to this correlation. Lottery winners for example, after the initial excitement of the win end up being no happier or even less contended than they were before the draw. And people in the United States, the richest nation in the world, report overall lower levels of happiness than folks from poorer countries. (Salerno, 2010).
In reality, our daily lives are comprised of unending battles between opposing objectives. On the one hand, we are drawn to selfish, indulgent, freedom while at the same time we are constrained by altruism, frugality, and commitment (Salerno, 2010). We can’t have it both ways and this conundrum often leaves us conflicted. After all, if we all were to pursue or own selfish interests we would have a highly dysfunctional, disjointed, and even dangerous society. The drive for social cohesion and the necessary restraint have deep evolutionary and strongly compelling roots. And then there is the drive to build social status through material acquisition or conspicuous consumption. This pursuit is really a zero sum game. Whatever you accumulate, there are many others that have bigger and better houses, cars, and jewels. It is all quite complicated and we are a curious lot. We want happiness, yet often what we aspire to, diminishes our happiness. I am reminded of the proverb: “Be careful of what you wish for. You just might get it.” What we want and what really brings happiness are often opposing forces or at least likely to stir conflict. This seems to be especially true with regard to deeper, genetically driven, intuitive drives (e.g., procreation and status building).
A similar paradox plays out in society where it is need, or misery, that catalyzes advancement. To paraphrase Plato: Necessity is the mother of invention. We prosper through innovation, creativity, and achievement: all of which, to some degree, stem from discontent (Salerno, 2010). Sociologists Allan Horowitz and Jerome Wakefield suggest in their book, The Loss of Sadness, that sadness has a clear evolutionary purpose – essentially to propel adaptation. Daniel Gilbert (2006), a happiness guru from Harvard University once wrote that “We have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain. That word is dinner.” It seems that contentedness fosters passivity and stagnation. For example, college students who score very high on measures of happiness rarely have correspondingly high GPAs. And the perkiest adults among us tend to make less money than their more even-keeled colleagues. (Salerno, 2010). I refer to yet another paradox in “Adversity: Had Enough?” where I shared research that contends that happiness is strongest in those that have experienced two to four adverse life events. Moderate amounts of adversity seem to bolster one’s capacity to tolerate and cope with future stressors and elevate one’s general level of contentedness (Seery, 2010). One might assume, that smooth sailing brings happiness, but as it turns out, this is not quite true. And a newly released study from Harvard University suggests that lower levels of happiness are associated with mind-wandering (Killingsworth, 2010). I discussed this in Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy, where I suggested that the mantra of FOCUS & FINISH will result in more efficiency (Nass, 2010), but as it turns out, it may also bring one a better mood.
Okay, so what brings people true happiness? There are general circumstances that appear to be associated with higher overall levels of happiness. For example married people tend to be happier than singles, church goers happier than atheists, and people with friends tend to be happier than the insular (Salerno, 2010). Recent findings suggest that people in their 50s are happier than those in their 20s (Stone, 2010).
To me happiness has to do with how you frame it and mostly about your expectations. It is helpful to think of life as a transient series of states dappled with moments of joy. It is unrealistic to expect a chronic state of bliss. We are much too inclined to misery to ever accomplish this. And this brings me to perhaps my greatest offering:
Misery exists in the gap
between expectations and reality.
Think about it. I am suggesting that a flexible and open minded focus on the world and the realities of its constraints will help you avoid misery. The most miserable people I know have the most rigid expectations about life, about others behavior, about rules, about fairness, and about shoulds. We have a concept in psychology called the tyranny of the shoulds (coined by Karen Horney) whereby one’s expectations that things should go a certain way, result in subsequent neuroses. This is often true it seems because generally our expectations are unrealistic. The more rigid and prolific one is with regard to expectations, the more likely they are to be slapped down by reality. These folks are consistently victimized by life.
Happiness I contend is a multidimensional construct. In part, it is an absence of misery. But that doesn’t tell us what it is. Perhaps Charles Shultz had it right when he said “Happiness is a warm puppy.” In reality we have to accept that it is paradoxical and that pursuit of it is a personal responsibility. This latter fact is a stressor for many (Salerno, 2010). I myself get joy from shared moments of close interpersonal intimacy, from adventure, from persevering on challenging tasks, from increased understanding of the world around me, and from the contributions I make toward the betterment of other people’s lives. I am happy because I make a difference, because I choose to include adventure in my life, and because I am very fortunate to live in this time and place where I am relatively well off (although not wealthy) and loved.
I ask again: What makes you happy?
Gilbert, D. (2006). The Science of Happiness. Edge The 3rd Culture. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gilbert06/gilbert06_index.html
Harmon, K. (2010). It’s getting better all the time: Happiness, well-being increase after 50. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=its-getting-better-all-the-time-hap-2010-05-17
Horowitz, A., Wakefield, J. (2007). The Loss of Sadness. Oxford University Press: New York
Killingsworth, M. (2010). Quantifying Happiness. National Public Radio. Science Friday. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131274191/quantifying-happiness
Nass, C. (August 28, 2009). Talk of the Nation: National Public Radio: Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112334449
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 106, no. 37. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583
Salerno, S. (2010). Ignorance of Bliss. Skeptic Magazine Vol. 15 No. 1.
Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010, October 11). Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021344
Seldon, B. (2009). Multitasking, marijuana, managing? http://www.management-issues.com/2009/9/21/opinion/multitasking–marijuana–managing.asp
Stone, A. (2010). Positivity And Life At 50 Plus. http://commcgi.cc.stonybrook.edu/am2/publish/Medical_Center_Health_Care_4/Positivity_And_Life_At_50_Plus_–_SBU_Scientist_And_Colleagues_Find_Patterns_of_Perceptions_Of_Well-Being_Across_The_Life_Span.shtml
Tierney, J. (2010). When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/science/16tier.html