Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Attention must be paid

August 23, 2019

I read Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction .when it first came out in 2015 and reviewed it favorably.  I read it again recently as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek and found it well worth re-reading.

Crawford’s basic idea is that we are what we pay attention to, so we should be careful what we pay attention to.  He wrote that there is a moral imperative to attend to the real world and not retreat to a world inside your head.

But attention is a limited resource.  You can’t focus on everything all at once, and your ability to focus is depleted over the course of a day.

The book has two themes.  One is the challenge of engaging with reality—the realities of tangible things, of other people and also of tradition—because reality can be frustrating.  It is what it is, regardless of your wishes..  The temptation is to buffer yourself by use of technology

The other theme is the danger of letting your attention be hijacked by people and organizations that want to manipulate you for their own purpose.  Attention comes in two kinds, purpose-driven and stimulus-driven.   The more you are forced to respond to stimuli, the less you are able to focus on your own purposes.

In the contemporary USA, there are billion-dollar industries devoted to capturing your attention and manipulating your perceptions.  It’s almost impossible to get away from this, as Crawford noted.  Silence has become a luxury good.

All this may seem abstract, but The World Beyond Your Head isn’t an abstract book.  Crawford filled the book with reports of skilled practitioners, including carpenters, short-order cooks, ice hockey players, martial arts fighters and motorcycle racers, and how they train themselves to focus their minds and hone their skills.

Crawford himself, at the time he wrote this book, had a job making components for custom-made motorcycles.  There is no postmodern way of making motorcycle parts.  The component is real.  It either functions or it doesn’t.

He said he felt validated every time he presented his bill to a satisfied customer.  But he added that the public are not the best judges of craft work.  The only true judge of a skilled carpenter is another skilled carpenter.

Skilled manual work is devalued.  A good auto mechanic is just as intelligent as, say, a good pharmacist or librarian, but the mechanic is not respected because he gets his hands dirty.

Factory workers are deskilled by design.  Customers also are deskilled by design.  An example of this is the battle over the right of farmers to repair farm machinery, rather than sending it back to the manufacturer for a replacement.

Technology buffers us from the physical world.  It also buffers us from other people.  It’s much less risky to relate to people on social media than it is face-to-face.   There are many anecdotes about college students today demanding to be protected from the discomfort and even fear that they feel when someone expresses a hostile opinion.

Big institutions have rules for how their employees are supposed to behave, all of which involve not expressing personal feelings and opinions and not exercising individual judgment, no matter what the situation, so that they never give offense.  Instead they’re supposed to face the world with a bland, smiling neutrality.

The last chapter of the book is a report on a firm of pipe organ builders.  They’re the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition of organ building.  They’re the masters of an age-old craft.  But they are more than that.  They can’t just be historic preservationists.  The organs they build have to be fit for use not just now but for a long time to come.  They express their individuality not be rebelling against a tradition, but by enriching and adding to it.

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Why so many suicidal mass gun killings?

August 11, 2019

Vigil for mass shooting victims in Las Vegas in 2017. Source: VOA.

The mass shootings that regularly occur in the United States are mostly also suicides.

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They are the ultimate “deaths of despair.”

The killers do their shooting in public places and are almost guaranteed to be gunned down in their turn, if they don’t kill themselves first.

They are comparable to the suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, except that the jihadist killers are sometimes trying to achieve a specific military objective, like the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War Two.

Among all the rich Western nations, the United States is the only one in which mass shootings occur on a regular basis.

That is not to say that ordinary Americans, and visitors to the United States, are in grave danger.  As a risk factor, mass shootings rank far below traffic accidents.

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But the fact that they occur says something about our society.  For every man (the shooters are almost all men) who kills others and then himself out of rage and despair, there must be a hundred others who feel the same rage and despair and don’t act it out.

Some people blame availability of guns, and I agree it would be better if the government restricted sales of rapid-firing firearms with large ammunition clips and magazines.  Casualties from mass killings were fewer during the assault weapons ban, but they still occurred.

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Some people blame ideologies based on hatred of black people or hatred of immigrants or hatred of women.  But the mass shooters can be of any race, and the percentage of white mass shooters is slightly less than the percentage of whites in the general population.

The killers profess all kinds of professed political and social motives and some profess no motives at all.  The only common denominator is that the killers are almost all suicidal men.

Hatred and bigotry have long been motives for killing.  The new thing is that the killers are suicidal.

There are ways to commit murder without sacrificing your life in the process.  (The methods are obvious, but if you can’t think of them, I see no benefit to society in helping you out.)

I think the root cause of mass killings are feelings of powerlessness and feelings of meaninglessness.  Your life is meaningless, so you give it up.  But you take others with you, so you do have some power after all.

I don’t have a good answer for this.  Calling for a greater sense of community or a stronger sense of values isn’t going to bring these things about.  Greater availability of mental health counseling probably would help some, but it won’t in itself empower people or make their lives meaningful.

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A ranking of countries by civic honesty

June 28, 2019

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To gauge the honesty of people in different nations, social scientists turned in 17,003 “lost” wallets to people in charge in various public businesses and institutions in 355 cities in 40 countries around the globe, and recorded how many of the wallets were actually returned.

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One surprising result was that there was a higher rate of return with wallets containing a small amount of  money ($13.46) than of empty wallets, except in Mexico and Peru.

In three countries, the United States, the United Kingdom and Poland, they also left wallets with a larger sum ($94.15),  There was an even higher rate of return for wallets with big money than just a little money.

This is contrary to what both experts and non-experts predicted.

Researchers thought that people made an extra effort when money was involved in order to avoid thinking of themselves as thieves.

Switzerland had the highest rate of return for empty wallets and Denmark for wallets with money in them.  European countries overall, including Russia, got high marks for honesty.

China had the lowest rate of return for empty wallets and Peru for wallets with money.  I am disappointed that the United States is so far down on the list.

LINKS

Humans are surprisingly honest when it comes to returning lost wallets by Katherine J. Wu for PSB NOVA.

Civic honesty around the globe by Alain Cohn, Michel Andre Marechal, David Tannenbaum and Christian Lukas Zond for Science.

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Gender, race and the 2016 psychodrama

June 26, 2019

I recently read a collection of essays entitled NASTY WOMEN AND BAD HOMBRES: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election edited by Christine A. Kray, Tamar W. Carroll and Hinda Mendell (2018).

The question the book seeks to answer is how such an ignorant and misogynistic man such as Donald Trump could have defeated such an intelligent and well-qualified woman as Hillary Clinton.

The answers are sought in rhetoric, psychology and popular culture, not public policy. Clinton and Trump are treated as symbols, not as individuals with public records.  The election is treated as a psychodrama, not as a struggle for power.

The common theme was the need to overcome prevailing male attitudes toward women (“the patriarchy”) and prevailing white attitudes toward people of color (“white supremacy”).

I have reservations about this approach, which I’ll get to in due course..  But I first want to acknowledge the book’s merits.

One chapter discussed the obscene and vicious abuse directed at Hillary Clinton based on her gender, in the form of postcards, posters and Internet memes.  She was caricatured as a witch, a Medusa, a hag, a lesbian and a transgender man.  Unlike with Trump and Bernie Sanders, her age was held against her; she was depicted as a hag.  No human being should be subjected to this.

This unfortunately is not unusual nowadays for women who successfully compete with men.  They are subject to harassment via the Internet, up to and including threats of rape and death..

Donald Trump got his share of abuse, too—for example the widespread meme, including a video distributed by the New York Times, showing Trump and Vladimir Putin as gay lovers—the unstated assumption being that gays are weak and disgusting.

But I don’t think Trump, Sanders or any other male candidate was subjected to anything comparable to what Clinton had to endure because of her sex, and that Barack Obama had to endure because of his race.

I’d be interested about the experience of conservative woman in politics, such as Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley,  Do they get the same level of vicious and obscene abuse as white women?  My guess is, probably not, but I don’t know.

Another of the essays was about images of the women’s suffrage movement of a century ago.  The suffragists were mocked for presuming to assume male roles.  The mockery was extremely condescending, but it wasn’t threatening or obscene.

Is the viciousness of attacks on women nowadays due to a lowering of standards of public discourse?  Or do anti-feminist men today feel more threatened than than anti-suffragist men did back then?

But then there also are women, quoted in another chapter, who think that Hillary Clinton does not behave as a woman should.  Many of these same women excused Donald Trump’s bad behavior.

Indeed, the 2016 Presidential campaign illustrated the double standard for personal morality for men and women.  It is not just that Hillary Clinton could not have gotten away with trash-talking like Donald Trump.  Neither she or any of the current crop of female Presidential candidates could have been forgiven for infidelity in their marriages, as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have been.

Various writers highlighted this double standard and speculated as to the cultural and psychological reasons why it exists.  Others dealt with a range of topics, from the myth of immigrant crime to religious freedom for Muslims.

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War, power and the clothing of men

June 12, 2019

These drawings are copied from About Face by Nate Powell for Popula.

Click on About Face to see the rest of the sequence.

War, power and the clothing of men (2)

June 12, 2019

Click on About Face for the previous part of this sequence.

LINKS

 About Face by Nate Powell for Popula.

A veteran and historian responds to Nate Powell’s “About Face” by Sam Duncan for Popula.

The Sum of All Beards by Adrian Boneberger and Adam Weinstein for The New Republic.

America in denial: the psychology of Russiagate

May 9, 2019

I admire the reporting of Aaron Maté, who was one of the few journalists to keep his head about the Russiagate conspiracy theory, but I hadn’t heard of his father, Gabor Maté, a physician, psychologist and author of books on childhood trauma and addiction.

This interview by Aaron Maté of his dad is one of the best things I know about the implications of Russiagate.   If you don’t have time to view the full 27 minutes, I suggest you read these highlights of the interview compiled by Caitlin Johnstone.  Here is the full transcript.

Addiction, depression and the war on drugs

January 23, 2019

Hat tip to Pete’s Politics and Variety.

Johann Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015) and Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions (2018)

In the first book, he argued that drug addiction is not mainly a chemical dependency; it is an escape from pain and misery.  In the second, he argued that depression is not mainly a result of a chemical imbalance, it is a reaction to pain and misery.

The answer to both addiction and depression, Hari believes, is to enable people to fulfill their basic needs, material and psychological.

Late last year he was in Brazil, promoting the Portuguese-language version of Lost Connections, and did a wide-ranging interview with Glenn Greenwald about addiction, depression and drug policy.

The most interesting part, to me, starts at about the 38 minute mark.  It is about Switzerland’s successful drug legalization policy, which began in 1991.  

In Switzerland, a heroin addict can visit a clinic and get a medically-supervised injection of heroin.  This does not, as I might have thought, lead to an increase in heroin use.  Just the opposite!

The reason is that Switzerland uses the money saved from not enforcing drug laws to help addicts obtain jobs. housing and therapy.  Over time they commonly find they no longer want to escape from reality.

This fits in with the famous “rat park” experiment.  Scientists found that rats in cages prefer heroin to food and water to the point where they literally will die of starvation.  But one scientist decided to create a “rat park,” containing everything that might constitute a good life from a rat’s point of view.  Happy rats had no interest in heroin.

Unfortunately I don’t think such an experiment is feasible in the United States.  The reason is that millions of Americans, maybe a majority of the population, are stressed and fearful.  Many can’t pay their medical bills.  Many are burdened with student debt. Many are losing ground economically.

I think they would be very jealous if the minority of the population who are addicted to drugs are guaranteed jobs, housing and even drugs themselves.  It is actually more practical to make things better for the American public as a whole than for a targeted group, such as addicts.

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From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

November 24, 2018

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

How social media try to manipulate your mind

June 28, 2018

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Any time you log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter or other “free” social media, information on every keystroke is being fed into powerful computers somewhere.

Algorithms in these computers correlate this data.  They compare you with other people with similar profiles,  The algorithms—”intelligent,” but blind—experiment with ways to use this information to modify your behavior so you will do what they want.

What they usually want is for you to respond for an ad for a particular product or service.  But they can be trying to influence you to vote—or not to vote.

Jaron Lanier, a scientist and entrepreneur who pioneered virtual reality, wrote about this in his new book, TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW (2018)

He thinks this is sinister.  Your social media may not be influencing you a lot, but it is almost certain to have some influence, and that influence is operating on you below your level of awareness.

Social media feeds you stuff that is intended to stimulate your emotion, and it is easier to stimulate feelings of anger, fear and resentment than it is feelings of joy, affection and security.

I know this from my newspaper experience.  Back in the 1990s, my old newspaper made a big effort to discover what kind of news our readers wanted.  In surveys and focus groups, they said that wanted positive news—articles about people accomplishing good things.  But the article they remember the best was a horrible story about a dead baby being found in a Dumpster.

The people who answered the survey weren’t hypocrites.  Not at all.  It is just that we human beings react in ways we don’t choose, and this leaves us open to manipulation.

Another effect of feedback from social media is to reinforce whatever it is you happen to be—liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-war—and to diminish you ability to understand people who think differently from you.

I was shocked when I read about Cambridge Analytica, the campaign consultant that worked for the Trump presidential campaign, and its claim that it could manipulate voter behavior on an individual basis.  But I later came to realize that this was the standard Facebook service, and could have been available to the Clinton campaign.

Lanier takes the charges of Vladimir Putin’s interference in the campaign more seriously than I did.  The Russian ads seemed amateurish to me (unless they were decoys to divert attention from the real influence campaign) and most of them were posted after election day.

But effectiveness of the 2016 ads is beside the point.  If the combination of Big Data, artificial intelligence and behavior modification algorithms can influence voting behavior, Putin is sure to use it, and he doesn’t, some other foreign government or institution will.  Not to mention our own NSA and CIA.

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Jordan Peterson’s intellectual limitations

June 8, 2018

I enjoyed and admired Jordan Peterson’s 12 Years for Life.  It is good advice, written in high-energy prose, on how to form the habits that enable you to overcome despair and lead a meaningful life.

The fact that it is a best-seller is not only due to the merits of the book, but on the need for such books, especially for aimless young men.

Jordan Peterson

When I reviewed the book, I largely ignored Jordan Peterson’s underlying political views because I didn’t think they were important to the book’s basic message.

But now that Peterson has become a political pundit on TV, I think his political thinking deserves a closer look.

In the videos I’ve watched, Peterson expresses himself forcefully, understandably and without equivocation.  He gets the better of debate opponents and hostile interviewers.   He says hardly anything I outright disagree with, but much that is one-sided and incomplete.

Here’s what I see as Peterson’s intellectual limitations.

Psychology vs the Social Sciences

Peterson has a good understanding of human motivation, based on wide study of psychology in all its aspects and also his practice of clinical psychology.   But human behavior is constrained by political, economic and social structures, which Peterson has not studied well.

For example, he explains economic inequality as a product of hierarchies of competence, the fact that some people are more talented and work harder than other people.

I have no doubt that such hierarchies exist.  But they don’t explain the great increase in wealth of the top 0.1 and 0.01 percent of the population throughout the Western world.  The average CEO’s income was 40 times the wage of the average corporate employee 30 years ago, and it is 400 times as much now.  Are rich people smarter and harder working now than they were 25 years ago?  Or is there some other explanation?

Psychology helps you to understand what is permanent in human nature.  You need the social sciences to understand differences between communities and societies and how they change over time.  I would like to see Peterson engage with a social scientist who knows his stuff, such as the economist Thomas Piketty or the political scientist Thomas Ferguson.

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Individualism vs. Mutual Aid

Jordan Peterson is an unusually self-reliant and individualistic person.  As an anti-Communist, he identifies with individual dissidents such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.  But I don’t know of anything he’s written about the Solidarity movement in Poland.  There is only so much you can do by yourself to resist tyranny.  You need solidarity with others.

Similarly, he considers himself a Christian of a sort.  But he never goes to church.  He once said he doesn’t need to participate in a congregation to think about God.

12 Rules for Life is all about taking responsibility for solving your own problems and for society as a whole.  It is sensible, inspiring and a good starting point.  But there is only so much you can do by yourself.  Mutual aid is part of human life.  People need to be able

I admire Peterson’s rugged independence, but most of us human beings aren’t like him.  We need community as well as freedom in order, first, to survive and, second, to get things done.  Peterson is insufficiently aware of this side of life.

Academia vs the Great World

Jordan Peterson became famous not just because of his book, but because of his resistance to mandatory rules about using special pronouns for individuals who didn’t consider themselves men or women.

I think he was right both on academic freedom grounds and on the merits of the issue.  But he writes and speaks as if conflict over political correctness rules were as big an issue in the world as large as they are in academia.

In the world outside the college campus, women are subject to employment discrimination and sexual harassment, black people are subject to employment discrimination and police harassment and unauthorized immigrants to deportation and separation from their families.

These are not micro-grievances, and it is natural and right for people who are picked on because of race, gender, immigration status or other characteristics to band together on the basis of identity to defend themselves.

It is true that this kind of identity politics can devolve into a war of competing micro-nationalisms, without a vision of the common good.  Peterson’s critique of identity politics is all right as far as it goes, but it is not enough.  What’s needed is an idea of the common good.

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Jordan Peterson takes antidepressants

April 24, 2018

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, author of the best-selling 12 Rules for Life, said in a 2012 interview (above) that he takes antidepressants and expects to take them for the rest of his life.

I don’t have any current information, but my guess is that this is still true.

His daughter Mikhaila, who was 20 back then, also said she takes antidepressants.  Peterson believes he is subject to a genetic flaw that his grandfather and father also had.

This runs counter to the argument of British journalist Johann Hari, whose new book, Lost Connections, was reviewed by me in my previous post.  Hari said people are depressed not because things are wrong in their brains, but because things are wrong in their lives, which is often due to things that are wrong with society in general.

All three generations of Peterson appeared to have everything that makes life living—meaningful work, friends, loving marriages, children and the respect of their communities.

Yet Jordan Peterson’s grandfather and father went to pieces in middle age, and Peterson himself thinks that he might have suffered the same fate if antidepressants hadn’t been available.

Mikhaila, the daughter, did go through a lot of suffering.  She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from a young age and had to have hip and ankle replacements.  But she didn’t suffer alone.  She had the support of parents and friends.

So none of the Petersons fit the profile of typical depressed people as reported in Lost Connections.

Hari reported on clinical studies comparing patients who’ve been given antidepressants with patients who’ve been given placebos and patients who’ve been given nothing.

They indicate that 50 percent of the apparent benefit of antidepressants comes from the placebo effect and 25 percent from people simply getting better on their own.

That, of course, leaves a remaining 25 percent who actually were helped.  Hari said nobody understands how this works, because the effects of the various antidepressants are widely different.  Some increase serotonin, some decrease it, some increase or decrease dopamine and other biochemicals.  Also, many of them have bad side effects.

Peterson said that antidepressants work best for people who outwardly have great lives and are depressed for no apparent reason.   If you are depressed because you are unemployed, divorced or lonely, antidepressants won’t fix you, he said; you need to look for a job, a new mate and new friends.

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Antidepressants not a cure for lost connections

April 23, 2018

Journalist Johann Hari said in his new book that people who are depressed are not victims of bad brain chemistry.  They are depressed because they are disconnected from things that make life worth living.

They are disconnected from meaningful work, meaningful values and meaningful relationships with other people, from status and respect, the natural world and a secure or hopeful future.

In LOST CONNECTIONS: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions (2018), Hari walks the reader through the scientific research that shows how people suffer when they are disconnected from the things they need, and how they can heal when they recover those connections.

Depression and anxiety are big problems.  Hari said psychiatric drugs are being taken by one in five American adults, one in three French adults and an even higher proportion in the UK.

The death rate in the United States is actually increasing, driven by “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-caused liver disease.   The World Health Organization reported in 2010 that depression is the world’s second leading cause of disability.

Hari said therapists can help, and gave examples.  He said there are ways people can help themselves, and gave examples.  Medication has its place, although often ineffective.  Hari deeply regrets the 13 years of his own life that he spent taking antidepressants.

But feelings of depression and anxiety are not the problem, according to Hari.   Pain, whether mental or physical, is a message that lets you know something is seriously wrong.   The rising rate of depression is a message telling us that something is wrong with our society.

∞∞∞

In organizations, you might think that the managers and decision makers would be under the most stress, while those with less responsibility would be the least stressed.  A study of the British civil service, among others, showed that the opposite is true.  The lower your rank, the higher the stress.

What causes stress is lack of control, Hari reported.   Employees are stressed when they have to produce results without being able to use their best judgment as to how to produce these results.

They are stressed when they don’t know the meaning or purpose of their work.  They are stressed when nobody notices whether they are doing a good job or not.  They are stressed when they’re on call even after the work day ends.   They are stressed when they don’t know whether they are going to have a job next week or next year.  Lost Connections gives examples of workers dealing with all these things.

Stressful working conditions are on the increase.  We the people were told that technological advances would result in all the routine work being done by machines, and more fulfilling, higher-level tasks being done by humans.  I believe such a path is possible, but it has not been the path chosen.

Instead we got Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management, factory automation and computer numerically-controlled machines.  The purpose of these innovations was not to make workers more skilled.  It was to make them more replaceable.

High tech executives continue to push to eliminate the human factor from work, even when there is no need or demand for it, such as self-driving cars, and even when the public hates it, such as elimination of human interaction from customer service.

Workers do not suffer from a chemical imbalance, Hari wrote; they suffer from a power imbalance.

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Jordan Peterson and the dominant lobster

April 17, 2018

I forgot to mention the most striking metaphor in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life—the struggle for dominance among lobsters.

Hierarchy is a law of nature, Peterson wrote; it is hard-wired in our brains by the evolutionary process.  It manifests itself not only as top dogs and pecking orders, but the struggle for dominance of our distant ancestor, the humble lobster.

Lobsters, it seems, compete for the best nesting places where they can be safe when they are shedding their shells.  The winners are lobsters with the biggest claws and a level of confidence produced by a substance called serotonin.   Sub-dominant lobsters not only fail to get good nesting places, but their level of serotonin drops so they can adjust to their lowly status.  Not only that, lobsters respond to Prozac.

So don’t be a loser lobster, Peterson says; stand up for yourself.

Illustration from 12 Rules for Life

It’s true, as he says, that human beings compete for dominance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Everybody can see this.  I’ll never again observe a certain type of (usually) male behavior without forming a picture in my mind of a giant humanoid cartoon lobster, waving its claws.

And it’s also true that the human body produces serotonin.  But current thinking is that serotonin has little to do with mental states.  In human beings, its main function is to aid digestion.   Also, even though lobsters respond to Prozac, there is no evidence that it makes them happier.  Also, the lobster species is not the ancestor of the human species.

Peterson, to his credit, does not advocate being at the top of a dominance hierarcy as a life goal.   That way lies fascism by way of social Darwinism.  What he says is that life is tough and you need to be able to stand up for yourself.

Where he goes wrong is to claim dominance and hierarchy in the animal kingdom have any relevance to current arguments about economic inequality.

It is true that, within any group, there will be one or more persons who are more competent and confident than the others, and they will emerge as leaders.

But that has nothing to do with questions of the power of money in politics, the abuse of power by government or the growth of income inequality.  The current distribution of wealth and power in the USA and other countries does not reflect constants of human nature; it is the result of governmental and corporate policies during the past 35 years.

12 Rules for Life is inspirational, and Peterson mostly speaks good sense when he is dealing with matters of which he has personal experience or has studied deeply.   But on issues of economics and politics, he seems not to know what he doesn’t know.

LINKS

Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain human hierarchies – do they? by Leonor Gonçalves for The Conversation.

Three More Reasons for Wealth-Deprived Americans to Take to the Streets by Paul Buchheit for AlterNet.  The real issues in the inequality debate.

 

Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life

April 17, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s new best-selling 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos is different from most self-help books.   The author doesn’t promise happiness or success.  It is a manual for survival in a harsh, unforgiving world.

He teaches that suffering is inevitable, happiness is not a worthwhile goal, and the path of least resistance in life leads to failure, addiction, depression and hatred of oneself and ultimately of the human race.  But he says it also is possible to pull yourself together, listen to your best moral intuitions and live a life of meaning and integrity.

Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and also had a clinical psychology practice, which means that he had an opportunity to test his theories in practice.

He has been in the news for his opposition to his opposition to the revolution in thinking about gender and his defense of academic freedom.

12 Rules made a strong impression on me.  Peterson is the kind of writer with whom I hold imaginary conversations in my mind.  I think he has blind spots, which I will get to, but none that negate the value of the book.

Here are Peterson’s rules.

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
2. Treat yourself like someone you were responsible for helping.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else was today.
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
8. Tell the truth—or at least, don’t lie.
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
10. Be precise in your speech.
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The key fact about life is that it is suffering, Peterson wrote.  Even the most fortunate can expect to experience either serious illness or the illness of loved ones during our lifetimes and then old age and death.

Be grateful for whatever happiness and joy come your way, he says but make your life a quest for something meaningful, not for happiness.

Face with world standing straight with your shoulders back, he says, which is almost word-for-word something my mother told me when I was a boy.  This body language braces you to face the world and its challenges.  (A good breakfast also helps).

Making yourself strong isn’t everything, but it is the first step to anything.  Being weak and agreeable only sets you up to be a victim.

Look at what you do that hurts you.  Look at what you don’t do that you need to do.  If you are honest with yourself, you know what these things are.

Start with some improvement in your life that you know is within your power to make.  Don’t feel embarrassed if it seems trivial.  Just do it.  And then reward yourself for doing it.

Minor improvement day after day is like compound interest, Peterson wrote.  You’d be surprised how much you can change your life over time with tiny incremental changes.

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How minds can be primed without our knowing it

January 30, 2018

Double click to enlarge.  Source: Eva-Lotta Lamm

When Barack Obama was thinking about running for President, his supporters wrote many words trying to dispel the misconception that Obama was a Muslim.   But the more they tried to this belief, the more it persisted.   People forgot the argument, and just remembered, subconsciously, the words “Obama” and “Muslim”.

Obama supporters instead started writing about Obama’s Christian beliefs and his church attendance.   That helped—although it also called attention to the inflammatory sermons of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The “Obama-Muslim” link is an example of how unconscious anchors shape our thinking without us realizing it, and of not only how we mislead ourselves, but leave ourselves open to manipulation by others.

This fits in with the writings of research psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his 2011 best-seller, Thinking Fast and Slow, and elsewhere.  He says human beings are more inclined to rely on intuition (fast thinking), which operates between the level of consciousness, than on conscious reasoning (slow thinking).

The most disturbing part of the book is how others can intentionally manipulate us by priming our intuitive minds without our realizing it.

Vance Packard wrote about this possibility in The Hidden Persuaders in 1957.   Facebook in 2012 ran an experiment to see if it could change its clients’ moods by manipulating its news feed.

In the 2016 election, Facebook worked with the Donald Trump campaign, as it routinely works with advertisers, to micro-target voters based on information they’ve left on social media.   Facebook would have provided the same service to the Clinton campaign, but they didn’t ask.

A company called Cambridge Analytica claimed to have used artificial intelligence to create individual psychological profiles on 220 million registered American voters, and to have used this to support the Trump presidential campaign.  Cambridge Analytica also supported the British campaign to leave the European Union.

None of this is mind control.  People with firm opinions are not likely to change their minds based on subliminal or targeted messages.   The aim is to increase sales of a certain product or votes for a certain candidate by a few percentage points.

But to the degree that mind manipulation is possible, the advertisers and propagandists are going to get better at it.   That’s cause for concern.

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Why rational decisions are so difficult and so rare

January 29, 2018

Click to enlarge.

Most thinking goes on below the level of the conscious, reasoning mind.   It couldn’t be otherwise.   Human beings couldn’t function if they had to think out the reasons for every action.

The philosopher John Dewey said human actions are determined by impulse, habit and reason.  Our habits control our impulses.   It is only when neither our impulses nor our established habits get us what we want that we start reasoning.  This is how things are.

An experimental psychologist named Daniel Kahneman has devoted his life to studying how this works.   In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), he summarized what he and other psychologists have discovered about the interplay of intuition and reason in decision-making.

What’s noteworthy about the book is that it is based on real science.  Every assertion in it is backed up by a study, many of them by Kahneman himself and his friend,  the late Amos Tversky.

Our default mode of thinking is what Kahneman calls “fast thinking,” or System 1.  It consists of the mental processes that enabled our prehistoric ancestors to react quickly, and to survive.   It is the human mind’s default state.

“Slow thinking”, or System 2, is the override system, comparable to taking conscious control of your breathing.   It requires continuous concentration and effort.  Doing it is hard work.  Some are better at it than  others, but few people can sustain it for long.

System 1 consists of pattern recognition.  The human mind is constantly monitoring the present state of things and matching it with previous experiences and impressions.

This works well for people with long experience of doing similar things, and receiving immediate feedback.    If a firefighter in a burning building or an anesthesiologist in an operating room says something doesn’t seem right, you’d better heed them, because their intuition is grounded in long experience of burning buildings and operating rooms.  Over time, chess players, performing artists and emergency room nurses develop reliable intuition.

The problem is that intuition will give you an answer whether there is any basis for it or not.   Political pundits, stock market analysts and clinical psychologists typically have poor records of predicting results, but this seldom affects their self-confidence.

Human beings would be paralyzed if we had to think of logical reasons for every decision and exercise conscious control over every action.   We need intuition.  But intuition can mislead us.  Kahneman’s book is about ways this happens.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is an extremely rich book.  Almost every chapter could be expanded into a self-help book, while some could be textbooks on negotiations, advertising and propaganda.

I’ve had a hard time getting started on writing about the book, maybe just because there is so much in it.   I’ve given up on trying to give an overview.  I will just hit a few highlights in the hope that I can spark interest in reading it.

One problem with intuitive thinking is the planning illusion.   Those who plan projects typically try to factor in everything they can foresee that is likely to go wrong.   It is predictable that they can’t foresee everything that can go wrong.  That’s why home remodeling contractors and military suppliers make most of their money on change orders.

Kahneman, who grew up in Israel, once talked the Israeli Ministry of Education into commissioning a high school textbook on judgment and decision-making.  He assembled a team, did some preliminary work, and then questioned Seymour, his curriculum expert.

What was the failure rate of people who wrote textbooks from scratch?  Answer: About 40 percent.   Question: How long did it take the others to complete their work?  Answer: Six to ten years.  Question:  Are we better than the other teams?  Answer: No, but we’re not that bad.

Nevertheless, he let the team go ahead.   The textbook took about eight years to complete, and by that time, the Israeli government had lost interest.

The lesson is that, if you are planning a project, you should look at the success rate of those who have attempted similar projects.   Then you should use that as a reference group and determine what makes your project different from the others.

Most entrepreneurs don’t do this, Kahneman said.  This is probably good for society, because the public benefits from their effort, while the entrepreneurs and their backers absorb the loss.   But if you’re an entrepreneur yourself, you’re better off looking before you leap.

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Jordan Peterson on how to change your life

January 23, 2018

LINKS

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson website.

Jordan Peterson: “The pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal” by Tim Lott for The Guardian.

Jordan Peterson’s antidote to chaos

January 22, 2018

Click on this for a full review of Jordon Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Toronto whom I never heard of until last week, but who evidently has millions of followers on YouTube.

Below are his 12 Rules for Living, the title of a book that will be published later this year.  Based on the video above and on a couple of articles I’ve read about him, he is a free spirit who says things that are important and true, things that are important if true and some other things that I can’t make head nor tail of.

  1.  Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2.  Treat yourself like you would treat someone you are responsible for helping.
  3.  Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4.  Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who somebody else is today.
  5.  Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6.  Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7.  Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8.  Tell the truth—or at least don’t lie.
  9.  Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10.  Be precise in your speech.
  11.  Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12.  Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The 12 rules are true and important.  I remember, when I was a small boy, my mother telling me to stand with my shoulders back and my neck straight.   I think of this when I’m feeling down, and adopting good posture does change my attitude.  It makes me wiling to meet the challenges of the day.

He is right to object to silly rules about gendered pronouns, which regulate how you can refer to people who consider themselves neither men nor women.  I do believe in good manners—referring to people (within reason) as they would wish to be called.   But I wouldn’t try to enforce my idea of good manners through the criminal law.

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Six harsh truths for the new year

December 31, 2017

The world only cares about what it can get from you.

The hippies were wrong.

What you produce does not have to make money, but it does have to benefit people.

You hate yourself because you don’t do anything.

What you are inside only matters because of what it makes you do.

Everything inside you will fight improvement.

∞∞∞

These are sub-headlines of an article on Cracked.com by David Wong.  Click on any of the links to read the full article.

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Hierarchies of need, hierarchies of social class

December 12, 2017

Lambert Strether wrote a good post for Naked Capitalism the other day relating psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchies of need with the U.S. hierarchy of class.

Maslow thought that human beings not only have the same basic needs, but the same priorities.  The basic human need is food, shelter and the other means of survival.  Once you have that, you want security.  Once you have security, you want family, friendship and love.  After you have these, you then are free to seek achievement, creativity, self-expression and so on.

Strether pointed out the rough correlation between Maslow’s hierarchy and the U.S. hierarchy of social class, and argued that this affects U.S. politics.   It certain affects the internal politics of the Democratic Party.

Very crudely, Americans are divided into a bottom 90 percent who are struggling to meet their  survival needs, and a 10 percent whose survival needs are met and can afford to try to gratify  higher-level needs.

Fulfillment of higher-level needs does not threaten the interests of the 1 percent or 0.1 percent who control the wealth of this country.  It is the survival needs of the potentially populist 90 percent that threatens them, because they can’t be met without a redistribution of economic and political power.

Lambert Strether relates identity politics to the higher-level needs of the professional class, but I don’t think that is quite right.   It is rather that racism and sexism are matters of survival on the lower levels of American society and matters of emotional distress and career advancement on the upper levels.

It is one thing to fear being killed by police because of your race or having to take a job in which you are sexually harassed in order to pay the rent.  It is another to be offended by racial stereotypes in the movies or stymied in your career because of a glass ceiling.

Not that stereotypes or glass ceilings are okay!  It is just that they aren’t matters of survival.

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Bertrand Russell on war and utopia

November 11, 2017

The following is from Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916)

A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life.  Without imagination and love of adventure, a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional.  The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy.  It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil.  The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull….[Utopians] do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment.  Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are only satisfactory, to most men, when they come in the intervals of activity.  Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature.  They aim rather at securing more leisure, and more opportunity for enjoying it, than at making work itself more satisfactory, more consonant with impulse, and a better outlet for creativeness and the desire to employ one’s faculties.

Hat tip to Marginal REVOLUTION

John Steinbeck and the crowd mind

November 8, 2017

I saw a movie version of IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck (1936) a couple of weeks ago,  I liked the movie  so much that I re-read the novel.

Anybody who likes military or political fiction should like this novel.  It is about a kind of asymmetric warfare.

Anybody who is interested in social history should like it.   So far as I can judge, it is a true to life description of labor and labor strife among fruit pickers in California in the early 1930s.

The movie is mostly true to the novel.   What the novel has that the movie lacks is John Steinbeck’s ideas about crowd psychology and the group mind.

Steinbeck believed that there are times when a group of people lose their individuality and become a kind of collective being with a mind of its own.   I think there is truth in this, and I find it frightening.  Steinbeck saw it as a fact of life.

The movie was part of the annual Labor Film series at the Dryden Theater of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, here in Rochester, NY.

The film curator explained that John Steinbeck originally intended to write a magazine article about the great fruit pickers strike in northern California in 1933, but he had so much material that he decided to write a historical novel instead.

Once he got started, his story diverged from the historical facts.   The fruit pickers won a partial victory, but the novel and movie end with them about to make one last stand and go down to glorious defeat—which, however, will help the cause of the workers in the long run.

The hero of In Dubious Battle is the labor organizer Mac, explicitly a member of “the Party” in the novel and implicitly in the movie, as seen by Jim, his young apprentice.   His manipulations supposedly are justified because he cares only for the workers’ cause and wants nothing for himself.

In the movie, Mac says that the basic human desire is to have control of one’s own life.  In the novel, he says that the basic human desire is to be part of a meaningful collective effort.   One of his goals is to get the fruit pickers used to the idea of working together instead of individually and at cross purposes.

Mac has a lot to say about crowd psychology—for example, that nothing galvanizes a crowd as much as the sight of blood.   I think Steinbeck’s spokesman in the novel is his Doc Burton character, who helps the strikers, but doesn’t believe in Mac’s ideals.

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Can Trump be removed via the 25th Amendment?

September 26, 2017

The Constitution provides another way besides impeachment to get rid of a sitting President.   This is a determination by the Cabinet and Congress under the 25th Amendment that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

I wrote a number of times during the election campaign that I do not think Donald Trump is intellectually, temperamentally or morally fit to be President of the United States.

His behavior is growing more erratic by the day.   Could this be this grounds for removing him, as the officers of the Caine removed Captain Queeg in the novel and movie The Caine Mutiny?

The process allows a President to declare himself unable to discharge his office and to delegate his power to his Vice President.   It also allows the Vice President, with the support of the Cabinet, to declare the President unable to serve.

I think the kind of situation they had in mind was President Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955 and his stroke in 1957.

Normally the President would resume the duties of his office when he declared himself able to do so.

But the Vice President and Cabinet could ask Congress to overrule him.

Congress would have 21 days to bar the President from resuming his powers.

This would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a superb article on the subject—The Madness of Donald Trump.

It covered both how deranged President Trump seems to be now and the legal obstacles to applying the 25th Amendment to overthrow him.

In fact, the procedure specifically can’t be about politics.  John Feerick, a Fordham law professor who helped work on the original bill with senators such as Indiana’s Birch Bayh and authored a book titled The 25th Amendment, goes out of his way to point out the many things that do not qualify as “inability” under this law.  The list reads like Trump’s résumé.

The debates in Congress about the amendment, Feerick writes, make clear that “inability” does not cover “policy and political differences, unpopularity, poor judgment, incompetence, laziness or impeachable conduct.”  When asked about the possibility of invoking the amendment today, Feerick is wary.  “It’s a very high bar that has to be satisfied,” he says. “You’re dealing with a president elected for four years.”


Source: Matt Taibbi  – Rolling Stone

Even if deemed unable to serve, Trump would still be President.   No doubt he would have many choice words about how Vice-President Mike Pence administered the office.

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Trump was once very astute: What happened?

September 26, 2017

The young Donald Trump, whatever you think of his ethics, was an astute operator.   He had the benefit of his father’s millions and political connections, but he used them effectively and became an important operator in the New York City real estate market.   When he chose, he was capable of great charm and persuasiveness.

He was able to hold his own when he worked with organized crime figures and corrupt politicians.   Whatever you think of his ethics, he knew what he was doing.

He appeared from time to time as a guest on TV talk shows, on which he expressed himself intelligibly, often in complete grammatical sentences.

That Donald Trump was very different from the Donald Trump of today—very different in terms of intelligence, I mean, not different morally.

He won election as President by being able to articulate the grievances of a segment of the American public who felt themselves ignored, but since he took office, his administration has gone through a continuing series of crises, almost all of them of his own making.

His staff worry about what he is going to say overnight on his Twitter account.   He seems more interested in feuding with journalists and celebrities than in advancing a program.

I have a theory as to why this might be so, which I can’t prove and which you probably will find far-fetched.

My theory is that a person whose aim in  life is to gratify their desires and appetites—for pleasure, for sex, for luxury, for acclaim, for taking revenge—and who has no purpose beyond that will lose the ability to think about anything else..

The end point is something like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings stories or the hungry ghosts of Buddhist cosmology—a creature in which there is no personality left, just the desires and appetites.