Isn’t it interesting how hard times help us bring into focus that which is really important?  I believe that this is true in our day-to-day lives as well as in the mindset of a nation.  True crises sharpen our vision and help us cut through the minutia that often takes precedence in our day to day lives.  Or does it?

 

For so long,  rampant consumption, the behavior that typifies the American way of life, has been the rule.  The mantras of “the bigger the better” and “he who dies with the most shit wins” capture the mindset that drives this behavior.   This is particularly true this time of year.  Somehow, many of us turn the Holidays into a competitive event spurred on by Martha Stewart and Madison Avenue – with massive divestitures of capital, time, sleep, energy, and ultimately health.

 

As Americans we make up 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 25% of the world’s resources.  Our economy is perilously balanced on this mentality of consumption.  No longer can we afford this – economically or environmentally.  China and India, whose populations greatly exceed that of the US, have expanding economies, and when their citizens’ develop consumptive appetites like our own, we are in serious trouble.

 

Sustainability, both personally and environmentally,  demands that we cut back – we have to shed those deeply entrenched materialistic ways of old.  This is not easy given that we have been programmed to value things over people, to seek happiness through acquisition, and to enhance our status through the clothes we wear and the cars we drive.

 

Perhaps this sustained economic crisis will help us all refocus on what is really important.  I believe that ultimately we will be better off if we share the view that enough is riches.  Having enough food, shelter, water, and clothing stands one in good position relative to the vast majority of people in the world.  Conspicuous consumption to keep up with the Joneses is really a zero sums game.  But such a minimalist mentality wont drive our current economic scenario out of the doldrums.  This is the rub.

 

How do we move forward as a people and a nation in a sustainable manner?  Our economic needs and our planet’s needs are at odds.  The solution, I am certain, is complex – yet the need has never been more clear.  I believe that we can make choices to cut back in strategic ways and at the same time take steps to engage in sustainable practices.

 

For example, we can take real steps to reduce our consumption of, and dependence on, hydrocarbons.  And we can buy our food in ways that reduce the impact and power of large unsustainable factory farms.  We also can spend our money in stores that provide a living wage and health care for their workers.

 

How do we do this?

 

First, get away from the mindset that consumption and material items will raise your status.  Then consider driving less and walking or biking more.  Look into renewable energy sources like solar or wind generation systems.  Turn off the lights, computer, and TV when they are not in use.  Turn down the heat or A/C and dress to compensate.  Buy based on need not want.  Buy your produce from a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm and grow your own vegetables (learn how to can or freeze fresh produce from these sources).  Buy your meat from local farmers who graze their livestock in pastures where they consume what they have evolved to eat.  Learn that convenience comes at a cost – and that those costs, in many ways, are hidden and delayed.

 

Cost is the second rub.  All the things that I have suggested (with the exception of the conservation efforts) cost more.  And they all demand more effort.  It costs more to shop at Krogers, Wegmans, or Tops than at Walmart.  It costs more to buy your food at a CSA farm stand or from a local sustainable farming practitioner.   It takes time and effort to grow your own food.  And although the tax benefits and governmental subsidies for wind and solar power are huge, one still has to lay out some money to install such a system.

 

Regardless, if we are more careful and mindful about how we spend our money, I believe we can take strides to reduce the fiscal impact of sustainable buying.  At the same time we can grow the economy, by rewarding sustainable and responsible practices over unsustainable and unethical practices.

 

For my family the motivation to take these steps has come from gaining increased insight into the hidden costs of practice as usual.  The ethical, economic, social, and environmental implications of business practices like those of Walmart and huge food conglomerates like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, ADM, AgriBank, Cargill, JBS, etc. are not well known or even all that accessible.  If you desire more knowledge or inspiration perhaps a good place to start is with the movie Fresh.  See the trailer below.

 

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I have learned some things of late that have congealed in such a way, so as to leave me in a bit of an existential crisis. One of my most precious beliefs, specifically, the importance of parenting style, as it pertains to child intelligence and personality outcomes, has been relegated to the proverbial dust heap alongside the id, the wandering uterus, and the Oedipus complex.

 

Why would the salience of parenting style even come into question? It seems ridiculous to pose such a question. Of course parenting style matters! It is widely believed that parents can and do shape and mold their youngsters in a meaningful way that plays out in the formation of an adult. But, and this is a big but, the reality is that the impact of what you do as a parent has a much narrower impact than you might think.

 

I discussed this last week in my post Ten Best Parenting Tips: But Does it Really Matter? where I shared the Parent’s Ten (Epstein, 2010) and laid out a question of the quality of the research used to delineate these ten great tips. In that post I noted that:

 

“We are lead to believe, based on the results of [the Epstein 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.”

 

Genes are the sticking point. Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study. It is likely that children who have well functioning parents will be likewise well functioning, not because of the parenting style employed by their parents, but because of their shared genes. Well functioning and happy adults breed happy and well functioning children. Ultimately, parenting style, seems to have little impact on such outcomes.

 

The current research from behavioral genetics provides a preponderance of evidence leading to the same conclusion: that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the personality and intelligence outcomes of children! Heredity (genes) accounts for about 50%. A long standing question about the remainder has ultimately pointed in the direction of the child’s peer group whereby they account for 40-50% of the variance on personality and intelligence outcomes (Pinker, 2002). As it turns out, peers are the nurture influence in the nature and nurture interplay.

 

This latter notion runs counter to nearly everything we have been taught regarding human development over the last 100 years (Gladwell, 1998). Freud first put parents at the core of the child’s personality and neurosis development, and there they have remained. Mothers in particular have fielded more than their share of blame with regard to the pathology of their offspring. Cold maternal parenting style, after all, had been blamed for autism. And perfection seeking mothers have been blamed for the development of anorexia in their teenage daughters. We know that these relationships are unfounded. Regardless, the thinking persists, and bad outcomes are attributed to bad parenting whereas good outcomes are the fruit of sound parenting. The problem with this type of thinking is that the research has not born it out.

 

The Minnesota studies of twins and the Colorado Adoption Project have made it clear (Harris, 1998): parents contribute their genes and that seems to be it. When it comes to personality variables such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism, parents affect this only through heritability. Factors like IQ, language proficiency, religiosity, nicotine dependence, hours of television watching, and political conservatism/liberalism are all hugely influenced by genes (Pinker, 2002).

 

How do we know this? Adopted children resemble their biological parents not their adoptive parents (Gladwell, 1998). Also, as Steven Pinker (2002) points out, “Identical twins reared apart are highly similar; identical twins reared together are more similar than fraternal twins reared together; biological siblings are far more similar than adoptive siblings. All this translates into substantial heritability values…”

 

And consider smoking. Who can forget the TV ad portraying a child watching and pondering the emulation of his father’s smoking behavior. The slogan was something akin to “like father like son.” They had it right, but the smoking behavior in front of the child was not the culprit. Children of smokers are two times more likely to smoke as children of non-smokers. What we see is that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes. Adoptive children of smokers do not have elevated rates of smoking, and this greatly diminishes the role that modeling plays in the equation.

 

The psychologist Eric Turkheimer pulled together the unusually robust evidence from extensive studies of twins (fraternal and identical) reared together and apart as well as studies of adopted children relative to biological children and concluded that there are three important laws that help explain the development of personality characteristics and intelligence.  Steven Pinker suggests that these laws constitute the most important discovery in the history of psychology (2002). The three laws are as follows:

 

  1. All Human traits are heritable;
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes; and
  3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

 

So does this mean that what we do as parents doesn’t really matter? And does it mean that my role as a child psychologist helping parents manage very difficult children is a waste of time? This is my crisis.

 

Well … it does matter! How a parent treats and manages a child within the home will affect how the child behaves in the home and how the child feels about the parent. These are important issues. If poor parenting results in difficult feelings for the parent, “these feelings can last a lifetime – but they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home” (Harris quoted in Gladwell, 1998).  Here is the important point “whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us” (Harris quoted in Gladwell, 1998). The home environment is very important for all involved – and parenting style can greatly impact that environment. So parenting style does matter – if only for the establishment of sanity in the home.  It seems to me that treating a child well is an ethical obligation. But if that’s not enough encouragement for treating another human being well, perhaps you should do so, in hopes that when you are old and frail, your children may treat you well (Harris paraphrased in Gladwell, 1998).

 

Pinker (2002) adds an important provision:

 

Differences among homes don’t matter within the samples of homes netted by these studies, which tend to be more middle-class than the population as a whole. But differences between those samples and other kinds of homes could matter. The studies exclude cases of criminal neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and abandonment in a bleak orphanage, so they do not show that extreme cases fail to leave scars. Nor can they say anything about the differences between cultures… In general, if a sample comes from a restricted range of homes, it may underestimate effects of homes across a wider range.

 

We do know that parenting style can have adverse consequences when a child is subjected to neglect or abuse.  This is hugely important!  Its not that parenting style doesn’t matter.  It matters greatly!  Parents can establish a happy encouraging environment, provide for the development of essential skills and knowledge; BUT, again, over the long term, it seems that these contributions do not shape the personality or intelligence of their children.  Their gene’s are responsible for their contributions.  What seems to be more important, when it comes to shaping the genetic contribution, is where a parent raises their child. It’s the peer group that finishes the job. Now that is scary! And I thought my crisis was over.

 

Refeferences:

 

Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).

 

Gladwell, M. (1998).  Do Parents Matter? Judith Rich Harris and Child Development. Annals of Behavior. The New Yorker.

 

Lehrer, J. (2009). Do Parents Matter? Scientific American. April 9, 87http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=parents-peers-children

 

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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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.

 

  1. Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
  2. Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
  3. Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
  4. Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
  5. Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
  6. Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
  7. Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.
  8. Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
  9. Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
  10. 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.

 

Refeferences:

 

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.

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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.

 

References:

 

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

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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?

 

References:

 

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 BlissSkeptic 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

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Are you as perplexed as I regarding the acrimony in American Politics?  The rift is peppered with claims of amorality and threats of calamity.  It’s almost as if the opposing parties come from entirely different realities.  Perhaps they do.  I have gained some insight into the liberal-conservative divide thanks to Jonathon Haidt’s work, particularly his Moral Foundations Theory.

 

Haidt contends that the political divide itself boils down to five universal and transcendent morals held to varying degrees by individuals across all cultures and civilizations.  He demonstrated how these moral values group in predictable ways.  In particular, he has identified two dichotomous groupings that had been previously discussed respectively by John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim.

 

Haidt describes the first cluster as the Individualizing Foundation, where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals.  Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009).  The second cluster of values is referred to as the Binding Foundation, which weighs more heavily moral issues that increase social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.

 

Haidt noted that liberals value above all the Individualizing Foundation and hold a relative devaluation of the Binding Foundation.  Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to hold the Binding Foundation as being of equal relative importance as the Individualizing Foundations.  This conceptualization helped me understand why less affluent conservatives support the Republican agenda regardless of the negative economic impact that such support bestows upon them.  They vote based on values that resonate with them.  It also helps explain how people at each extreme can take a stand that they contend is morally superior while their adversaries are viewed as being unprincipled and amoral.  The reality is that each perspective stems from a position of deeply held principles.

 

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Rather than looking at this political divide in terms of morality, Pinker frames it in terms of divergent views of human nature. Underlying this political divide is a deeper and more rancorous debate about what defines human nature.  This issue is as old as civilization itself and was, for example, evident in the divergent lifestyles of the conflicted Greek City States of Athens and Sparta.  Pinker contends that the political divide really comes down to how individuals attribute the motives and behaviors of people in general. It is a very basic question of how one views the human race and what drives human behavior.

 

Pinker takes a stand against the commonly held notion that human nature is a blank slate shaped exclusively through environmental circumstances influenced by economic, political, and social forces.   The notion of a blank slate concedes social determinism, which is a position that is favored by liberals.  Evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience bring to the table substantial evidence that suggests that there are indeed genetic or biological determinants of behavior.  Accepting this reality comes with the dreadful reality that such notions guided the eugenics movement that resulted in the holocaust (and other horrible crimes of humanity).

 

As it turns out, political attitudes, for example, are largely, although not entirely, determined by heredity.  Pinker quotes a study of political attitudes among identical twins reared apart where the correlation coefficient was .62.  This suggests that genetics accounts for 38% of the determination of political attitude.  Such a notion is sacrilege to those on the left.  It is deeply disturbing for me, as one who leans heavily to the left on political issues, to learn that my inclinations to accept the findings of these increasingly powerful sciences at some level, distances me from other liberal thinkers.  How can this be?

 

You see, liberals emanate from the sociological tradition that holds the position that society “is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts.  People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism” (Pinker, 2002 p. 284).   On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold the belief that “society is an arrangement negotiated by rational, self-interested individuals.  Society emerges when people agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security from the depredations of others wielding their own autonomy” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).

 

The modern theory of evolution aligns best with the latter economic contract paradigm, where natural selection results in complex individual adaptations benefiting individuals rather than the species or community.  This theory holds that “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation” and that “reciprocal altruism, in particular, is just the traditional concept of the social contract restated in biological terms” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).  To make this dichotomy more clear it might help to think of the sociological tradition as being consistent with Marxist thinking while the social contract is more consistent with Milton Friedman’s free-market conservatism.

 

At the core of these paradigms are very different conceptualizations of human nature.  Thomas Sowell has captured this dichotomy in his book A Conflict of Visions where he delineates those visions as being either constrained or unconstrained.  Pinker adapted these labels to be more descriptive and thus refers to them respectively as Tragic (a term Sowell later adopted) and Utopian.  These visions refer to the “perfectibility of man” whereas the Tragic Vision holds that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue” and that as a result “all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.”   This  pessimistic view of human nature, is steeped in biological determinism and the acknowledgment of self interested motives. The liberal or Utopian View contends that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements.”  It is believed that economic deprivation elicits social depravity and that social engineering can eradicate the ills of society.

 

Sowell and Pinker suggest that these very visions of human nature shape the belief mechanisms or morals that result in divergent social policies.  For example, people who hold the Tragic Vision are more likely to support a strong military because of an inherent human selfishness and the inclination to compete for resources.  They are more likely to value religion, tough criminal sentences, strong policing, and judicial restraint because people need to be constrained in order to maintain an orderly and cohesive society.  Likewise, because of this pessimistic view of human nature, people inclined to hold such a view are likely to be censorious, meritocratic, pragmatic, and pro business.

 

People holding the Utopian View are likely to be idealistic, egalitarian, pacifistic, secularist, and more likely to tolerate homosexuality, to be in favor of the rehabilitation of criminals, judicial activism, generous social welfare programs, and affirmative action.  They are also more likely to be environmentalists. Pinker’s contention is that all these values, more or less, are heritable and that as a result, people are likely to hold them as self defining.  Subsequently, these beliefs are typically not amenable or susceptible to change because they are often held without a rationally based understanding of them.  Such deeply held (intuitive) and heritable attitudes quickly spark emotional responses when challenged and people do not move away from such notions even when reason compels them to do so.

 

So it seems, at the core of the contentious political divide there are discrepant realities pertaining to the very essence of what it is to be a human being.  And that essence is evolving regardless of the ideologies that shape the political climate.  Perhaps we can escape the gridlock by acknowledging the disconnect between ideology and reality and embrace a truer essence of humanity.  That reality, it seems, is a blend of the Tragic and Utopian Visions where human behavior is guided by both social and biological determinants.  Reality, as it turns out, is often queerer than one can suppose.

 

Breaking the chains of ideology necessarily involves abandoning and overpowering intuition, which is itself, a formidable task. But social morays have evolved over time as we have gained deeper insight into humankind. Lets hope for continued evolution!

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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Adversity – Had Enough?

5 November 2010

I have long suspected that a certain amount of adversity in life ultimately leads to greater degrees of happiness.  This is contrary to the commonly held notion that suggests that traumatic stress is inherently harmful.  It can be argued, as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”   I’m in sync with Nietzsche here: hard times build resilience and help one appreciate the better times with deeper enthusiasm.  A recent Scientific American Podcast indicated that I might just be right.  In Adversity Is Linked to Life Satisfaction, Christie Nicholson reviews the results of a multiyear study by Mark Seery, Alison Holman, and Roxane Cohen Silver that was just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Using a national survey panel consisting of  2,398 subjects who were assessed on multiple occasions over a four year period, the authors tested for “…relationships between lifetime adversity and a variety of longitudinal measures of mental health and well-being: global distress, functional impairment, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and life satisfaction.” In their analysis of the data they found that:

 

“people with a history of some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity.”

 

For the purposes of this study adversity included: “own illness or injury, loved one’s illness or injury, violence (e.g., physical assault, forced sexual relations), bereavement (e.g., parent’s death), social/environmental stress (e.g., serious financial difficulties, lived in dangerous housing); relationship stress (e.g., parents’ divorce); and disaster (e.g., major fire, flood, earthquake, or other community disaster).”  It is important to note that adverse events were measured using a frequency count rather than any qualitative analysis of degree of adversity.

 

The implications one might draw from these findings is that without at least some adversity, individuals do not learn through experience how to manage stress; therefore, “the toughness and mastery they might otherwise generate remains undeveloped.”  Overwhelming levels of adversity, are more likely to exceed one’s capacity to manage stress, and thereby impede toughness and mastery.  The authors are careful to note that these data are correlative and as such do not establish causation, but they contend that moderate exposure to lifetime adversity may contribute to the development of resilience.

 

So, it seems, as Nicholson notes:

 

 

“… there’s a sweet spot, where a certain amount of struggle is good and produces a toughness and sense of control over one’s life, but anything above or below that amount is correlated with the inverse:  Distress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed.”

 

You might ask “Where is this Goldilocks Zone?” At what quantity does adversity benefit one’s life perspective and where does it cross a line?  Seery et al., acknowledged that it is impossible to pin point the exact parameters of such a sweet spot, but that the data suggests that around two to four adverse events may sufficiently enhance one’s capacity to sustain happiness and tolerate stress.  However, and this is important to note, They do not recommend engineering disasters for those who have been “fortunate” enough to escape adversity.

 

This research reminded me of a story by an unknown author that my mother sent me a few years back.   I’m guessing that it has made the rounds on the internet.  Regardless, and despite the melodrama, it seems relevant here.  What is cogent here is the notion of just enough.

 

I Wish You Enough

 

At an airport I overheard a father and daughter in their last moments together.  They had announced her plane’s departure and standing near the door,he said to his daughter,

“I love you, I wish you enough.”

 

She said, “Daddy, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Daddy.”

 

They kissed good-bye and she left.

 

He walked over toward the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see he wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on his privacy, but he welcomed me in by asking, “Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?”

 

“Yes, I have,” I replied. Saying that brought back memories I had of expressing my love and appreciation for all my Dad had done for me.  Recognizing that his days were limited, I took the time to tell him face to face how much he meant to me.

 

So I knew what this man was experiencing.
“Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever good-bye?” I asked.

“I am old and she lives much too far away. I have challenges ahead and
the reality is, her next trip back will be for my funeral, ” he said.

 

“When you were saying good-bye I heard you say, ‘I wish you enough.’
May I ask what that means?” He began to smile. “That’s a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone.”

He paused for a moment and looking up as if trying to remember it in detail, he smiled even more. “When we said ‘I wish you enough,’ we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with enough good things to sustain them,” he continued and then turning toward me he shared the following as if he were reciting it from memory.

 

“I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish enough “Hello’s” to get you through the final “Good-bye.”

 

I don’t suppose that it is a reach to suggest that exposure to small inconveniences such as rain or pain will likewise help you be more appreciative of sunshine and comfort.  After all, we as humans tend to quickly habituate to smooth roads.  Without a few potholes, we tend to take unbroken roads for granted.  But, the adversity study is suggesting more than this.  Its about developing resilience or reparative mechanisms that help us cope with future stressors.  This is referred to as adversarial growth, of which, I wish you enough.

 

References:

 

Nicholson, C. (2010).  Adversity Is Linked to Life Satisfaction. Scientific American Podcast. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=adversity-is-linked-to-life-satista-10-10-16

 

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

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Halloween seems like an appropriate time to discuss superstition.  What with ghosts and goblins and black cats and witches and all.  But would not Easter or Christmas, or any other evening that a five year old loses a tooth be an equally appropriate time?  In actuality, we massage magical thinking in our children with notions of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy.  And recall if you will, some of your favorite children’s books and the supernatural forces employed to delight your youthful whimsies.  Magic is, along with the thinking employed to delight in it, seemingly a rite of childhood, and in some ways the essence of what it is to be a child.

 

Much as magical thinking has its roots in childhood fantasies, superstition too has its roots in our species’ youth.  In that nascent time we lacked the capacity to understand the forces and whims of the natural world around us.  Our ancestors struggled to survive, and living another day in part depended on their ability to make sense of the forces that aided or impinged upon them.  We must not forget that our forefathers lived much like the non-domesticated animals around us today.  Survival was a day to day reality dependent upon the availability of life sustaining resources like food, water and shelter, and was often threatened by predation or the forces of nature.  Death was a real possibility and survival a real struggle.  The stakes were high and the hazards were plentiful.  As it turns out, these are the very conditions under which superstition is likely to thrive.

 

So what is superstition?  Bruce Hood, author of The Science of Superstition, notes that superstition is a belief “that there are patterns, forces, energies, and entities operating in the world that are denied by science…”  He adds that “the inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.” It involves an inclination to attempt to “control outcomes through supernatural influence.”  It is the belief that if you knock on wood or cross your fingers you can influence outcomes in your favor.  It is the belief that faithfully carrying out rituals as part of a wedding ceremony (e.g., wearing something blue, something new, something borrowed) or before going to bat or before giving a big speech will improve outcomes.  It is also the belief that negative outcomes can come as a result of stepping on a crack, breaking a mirror, or spilling salt.  Hood argues that supersense goes beyond these obvious notions and surfaces in more subtle ways associated with touching an object or entering a place that we feel has a connection with somebody bad or evil.  For example, how would you feel if you were told that you had to wear Jeffery Dalmer’s T-shirt or that you were living in a house where ritualistic torture and multiple murders took place?  Most of us would recoil at the thought of this.  Most of us also believe (erroneously) that we can sense when someone is looking at us, even when we cannot see them doing so.  These beliefs and much of the value we place on sentimental objects stems from this style of thinking.

 

I explored the deep evolutionary roots of superstitious thinking in a previous post, The Illusion of Cause: Vaccines and Autism.   The principle underpinnings are the same.  In that post I noted the following:

 

Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons (2009) note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).

 

Bruce Hood takes this notion further and adds that the cultural factors discussed at the opening of this piece and other intuitive inclinations such as dualism (a belief in the separation of mind and body), essentialism (the notion that all discernible objects harbor an underlying reality that although intangible, gives each and every object it’s true identity), vitalism (the insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things), holism (that everything is connected by forces), and anism (the belief that the inanimate world is alive) shape adult superstition.  These latter belief mechanisms are developmental and naturally occurring in children: they are the tendencies that make magic and fantasy so compelling for children.  It is when they lurk in our intuition or are sustained in our rational thought that we as adults fall victim to this type of illusion.

 

It is interesting to note that much like our ancestors, we are more prone to this type of thinking when faced with high stakes, a low probability of success, and incomprehensible controlling circumstances.  Think about it.  In baseball, batters often have complex superstitious rituals associated with batting.  The best hitters experience success only one in three times at bat.  And the speed at which they have to decide to swing or not and where to position the swing defies the rational decision making capacity of humans.  On the other hand, these very same athletes have no rituals when it comes to fielding a ball (which is a high probability event for the proficient).

 

Superstition is a natural inclination with deep evolutionary and psychological roots embedded deeply in our natural child development.  These tendencies are nurtured and socialized as a part of child rearing and spill over into adult rituals in predictable circumstances (particularly when there is a low degree personal control).   When one deconstructs this form of thinking it makes complete and total sense.  This is not to suggest that reliance on superstitions is sensible.  Often, however, the costs are low and the rituals therein can be fun.  There are some potential costs associated with such thinking.  Some of the dangers are materialized in notions such as vaccines cause autism and homeopathy will cure what ails you in lieu of scientific medicine.  Resignation of personal power in deference to supernatural forces is a depressive response pattern.  Reliance on supernatural forces is essentially reliance on chance and in some cases its applications actually stack the deck against you.  So be careful when employing such tactics.  But, if you’re in the neighborhood, NEVER EVER walk under my ladder.  I’ve been known to drop my hammer.

 

References

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press: New York.

 

Gelman, S. A. (2004). Psychological Essentialism in Children. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404-409.

 

Hood, B. (2008). The Science of Superstition (Formerly Titled: Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable). HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

 

Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762

 

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman/Henry Holt and Company: New York.

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I’m sure you have heard of subliminal messages. You know that classic story where it was alleged that flashing the words DRINK COKE on a movie screen for a fraction of a second would increase cola buying behavior at the concession stand.  Well, that was a hoax, but you should know that I can, in other ways, tap into your subconscious thoughts and make you smarter, dumber, more assertive, or more passive for a short period of time.

 

This is not brainwashing!  It has a different name.  In the field of psychology, this interesting phenomena is referred to as primingJohn Bargh (now at Yale University) and colleagues formerly at New York University demonstrated the legitimacy of priming in a very interesting paper entitled Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996).  These researchers contend “that social behavior is often triggered automatically on the mere presence of relevant situational features [and that] this behavior is unmediated by conscious perceptual or judgmental processes.”  One of the studies they used to empirically demonstrate the implications of automatic social behavior (priming) involved a group of undergraduates from NYU who were given the scrambled sentence test.  The test involves the presentation of a series of five scrambled word groupings.  From each grouping one is to devise a grammatical four word sentence.  For example, one of the groupings might include the words: blue the from is sky.  From this grouping your job would be to write The sky is blue.  A typical scrambled sentence test takes about five minutes.

 

The scrambled sentence test is a diversion and a means to present words that may influence or prime the subject’s behavior, thoughts, or capabilities.  In this study the subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups.  One group was presented with scrambled sentences that were sprinkled with words like “bold,” “intrude,” “bother,” “rude,” “infringe,” and “disturb.”  The second group was presented with scrambled sentences containing words like “patiently,” “appreciate,” “yield,” “polite,” and “courteous.”  Each student independently completed their test in one room and were told upon completion to walk down the hall to get their next task from an experimenter in another office.  For every subject, however, there was another student (a stooge) at the experimenter’s office asking a series of questions forcing the subject to wait.   Bargh and colleagues predicted that those primed with words like “rude” and “intrude” would interrupt the stooge and barge in quicker than those primed with words like “polite” and “yield.”    Bargh anticipated that the difference between the groups would be measured in milliseconds or at most, seconds.  These were New Yorkers, after all, with a proclivity to be very assertive (Gladwell, 2005).  The results were surprisingly quite dramatic!

 

Those primed with the “rude” words interrupted after about 5 minutes.  Interestingly, the university board responsible for approving experiments involving human subjects limited the wait period in the study to a maximum of ten minutes. The vast majority (82%) of those primed with the “polite” words never interrupted at all.   It is unknown how long they would have waited.  The difference between these groups based simply on the nature of the priming words was huge!  In the same paper Bargh et al., (1996) presented how students primed with words denoting old age (e.g., worried, Florida, lonely, gray, bingo, forgetful) walked more slowly leaving the office after completing the scrambled sentence test than they did on their way to the testing office.  It is suggested that the subjects mediated their behavior as a result of thoughts planted in their sub-conscious pertaining to being old.  These thoughts, in this case, resulted in the subjects behaving older (e.g., walking more slowly).

 

Priming one to be more or less polite or sprite is interesting, but there are disturbing and perhaps very damaging implications of this phenomena.

 

Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg, a research team from Holland, looked at how priming might affect intellectual performance (1998).  Their subjects were divided into two random groups.  The first group was tasked for five minutes with thinking and writing down attributes pertaining to being a college professor.  The second group was tasked with thinking about and listing the attributes of soccer hooligans.  Following this thinking and writing task, the subjects were given 47 challenging questions from the board game Trivial Pursuits.  Those in the “professorial” priming group got 55.6% of the items correct while those primed with soccer hooliganism got only 42.6% correct.  One group was not smarter than the other – but it is contended that those in the “smart” frame of mind were better able to tap into their cognitive resources than those with a less erudite frame of mind.

 

And then there is the research from Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995).  These psychologists investigated the impact on African Americans of reporting one’s race before taking a very difficult test.  They employed African American college students and a test made up of 20 questions from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).  The students were randomly split into two groups.  One group had to indicate their race on the test while the others did not.  Those who indicated their race got half as many of the GRE items correct as their non-race-reporting counterparts.  Simply reporting that they were African American seemed to prime them for lower achievement.

 

All of these effects were accomplished completely and totally outside the awareness of the involved parties.  In fact, this is an essential attribute.  Effective priming absolutely necessitates that it be done outside the subject’s awareness.  Awareness negates the effect.

 

Regardless, consider the implications, intended or otherwise of such priming.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink notes: “The results from these experiments are, obviously quite disturbing.  They suggest that what we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.” (p. 58).

 

Yes, It is disturbing on a personal level with regard to the vulnerability of rational decision making, but I am more concerned about the ethical implications of our insight into this tool. Priming may be used by those with the power, influence, and intentions to manipulate outcomes to serve ideological purposes.  On yet another level the reality of this phenomena supports my contention in Do we all get a fair start? that there is no true equal starting point.  Societal morays and the media in particular shape how we think about others and ourselves in profound ways.  We all are susceptible to stereotypes, prejudices, and biases and these tendencies can cut in multiple directions.  They can also be used to bolster negative attitudes or weaken individuals in destructive ways.  I am not suggesting that the sky is falling or that there is a huge ideological conspiracy going on, but we must be aware of our vulnerabilities in this regard.  And we must act to avoid constraining individuals as a function of subgroup affiliation.

 

References

 

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M.,  & Burrows, L. (1996).  Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 71, No. 2. 230-244

 

Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 865-877.

 

Gladwell, M. (2005).  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

 

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 69  No. 5. 797–811.

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Do we all get a fair start?

16 October 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a close family member the other day.  He was struggling to understand why people in the lower echelons of socioeconomic status do not understand or act on their ability to change their circumstances.  He firmly held the belief that the drive to achieve is universal and that we all have the same potential.  Essentially he was convinced that anyone can rise up by working hard in school or the workplace.  Those who do not achieve, he contended, are making an explicitly different choice.  Many refer to these folks as lazy, free loaders and/or cheaters.  He recounted the stories from his days working at the local grocery where people would use their public assistance checks to buy beer, cigarettes and other non essential items.  This is the same story I’ve heard from countless people who contend that public assistance is for lazy people content about, or highly skilled at, manipulating the system for a free ride.  I had a similar conversation with another family member recently, who was enraged about Obama shoving publicly supported health care down the throats of the American tax payer.

 

We are inherently tribal people and part of our human nature, it seems, is to be on the lookout for freeloaders.  As Jonathon Haidt’s work points out, such vigilance is inherent to various degrees in all of us, as part of the ingroup loyalty moral drive that is fundamental to social cohesion.   Freeloaders detract from the viability and survivability of the group.  This deeply emotional moral position has clear evolutionary roots that remain strong today.

 

No doubt, there are freeloaders among us.  There are people who scam the system and I am guessing that there will always be those who are comfortable with, or even proud of, their ability to live off the diligence and contributions made by others.  Some argue that entitlement programs enable the freeloaders among us to prosper and propagate.   This may be true for some.  But we need to keep it all in perspective.  To do so there are a number of other factors to consider.

 

First, isn’t it interesting that we frame freeloaders at the lower end of the spectrum differently than we classify white collar criminals?  Do they not accomplish essentially the same thing?  They illegitimately acquire resources that they are not entitled to.  And I am guessing that the true costs of white collar crime exceed those of “welfare fraud.”  Keep in mind that the major frauds in the medicaid system are generally perpetrated by white collar criminals – Doctors or administrators billing for un-rendered services.  Also think back to the impact of people like Bernie Madoff who essentially stole $21 Billion.  They are criminals indeed, but their crimes do not result in all those within their income bracket as being likewise identified as untrustworthy.  Granted, all crime is bad, but I have to challenge the implications of labeling an entire subset of a population as “bad” because some of them cheat.

 

Second, isn’t it also interesting that our hyper vigilance for cheaters targets the less fortunate among us rather than the corporations who bilk the system of billions of your hard earned dollars.  Why do we turn our anger against our fellow human beings when corporations like Exxon Mobile get huge tax subsidies while at the same time they are raking in billions of dollars of quarterly profit?  Then consider the financial melt down and the huge bail-outs provided to corporations deemed “too big to fail.”  The costs to our society as a results of welfare cheaters are a pittance in comparison to the impact of the deregulated market-place.

 

Third, although nobody likes a cheater, when given a chance to do so, and a low probability of getting caught, almost everybody will cut corners or scam the system to save a buck.  And everybody knows someone who works or gets paid “under the table.”  Somehow these folks are given a pass and escape the wrath of the stigma of freeloader.  My guess is, the proportion of people who cheat the system span all income brackets, and the actual social costs rise exponentially and commensurately with income.   The disdain that we target toward the less fortunate among us, I argue, is too convenient and hugely disproportionate.   Part of this may stem from the perception that welfare fraud is more visible to us than is white collar crime.  And while white collar crime is perpetrated by people that look and think like we do (or by faceless corporations), welfare fraud is sometimes perpetrated by people whose faces and lifestyles are different from ours.  We see these cheaters and often hear of their exploits.  I contend that much of what we hear amounts to rehashed urban myths.

 

The stereotype that many of us hold about the poor is inaccurate and maintained both by attribution error and confirmation bias.  And the belief that many white middle class college-educated people hold – that they alone are responsible for their position in life is reflective of self-serving bias.  Each generation launches from the shoulders of their parents who each launched from the shoulders of their respective parents.   My children are launching from a place that is exponentially different than that of a poor African American from the east side of Buffalo, New York, or a poor Latino from East L.A., or that of a poor white child raised in remote rural Appalachia, or that of white boarding school attendee from a heavily connected affluent Manhattan family.  The educational, social, and economic opportunities across these launching points vary in important and significant ways that shape their perceptions, aspirations, and realities in profound ways.   Heritage, and thus opportunity, play the biggest role in one’s socioeconomic status – although, “the system” benefits from people believing that it is hard work and intelligence that drives wealth distribution.  Believing the American Dream keeps the masses contented.  It keeps people striving, believing that they can rise up if only they are smart enough and diligent enough.   A significant part of our population has figured this out – they are the disenfranchised.  Without hope or opportunity it is hard to buy into the myth that one can rise out of the ghetto by working hard.  It’s difficult to continually swim against the current; and for the fortunate, it is sometimes hard to see that there is in fact a current when one is floating along with it.

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