dw2

22 December 2013

A muscular new kid on the block

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”, 1903

How far should we go, to be the best that we can be? If personal greatness lies at the other side of an intense effort, should we strain every muscle, muster every personal resource, and vigorously push away every distraction, in order to seize that crown?

For example, should we accept the “Transhumanist Wager”, as dramatically portrayed in the trenchant new novel of the same name by former world-traveller and award-winning National Geographic journalist Zoltan Istvan?

The-Transhumanist-Wager-e1368458616371The book, which hit the #1 best-seller spot in Amazon a few months back (in both Philosophy and Science Fiction Visionary and Metaphysical), is a vivid call to action. It’s a call for people around the world to waken up to the imminent potential for a radical improvement in the human condition. The improvement can be earned by harnessing and accelerating ongoing developments in medicine, engineering, and technology.

However, in the nightmare near-future world portrayed in the novel, that improvement will require an intense effort, since the seats of global power are resolutely opposed to any potential for dramatic, human-driven improvement.

For example, under the influence of what the novel calls “a rogue group of right-wing politicians – those who considered Sunday church a central part of their existence”, the US government passes sweeping laws forbidding experimentation in stem cell therapies, genetic reprogramming, human enhancement, and life-extension. Istvan puts into the mouth of the President of the United States the soporific remarks, “Good old-fashioned, basic health, that’s what the people really want”.

That ambition sounds… reasonable, yet it falls far, far short of the potential envisioned by the hero of the novel, Jethro Knights. He has much bigger sights: “My words define a coming new species”.

Anyone reading “The Transhumanist Wager” is likely to have strong reactions on encountering Jethro Knights. Knights may become one of the grand characters of modern fiction. He challenges each of us to rethink how far each of us would be prepared to go, to become the best that we can be. Knights brazenly talks about himself as an “omnipotender”: “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience”. Throughout the novel, his actions match his muscular philosophy. I read it with a growing mix of horror and, yes, admiration.

The word “wager” in the book’s title recalls the infamous “Pascal’s Wager”. French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal argued in the 17th century that since there was a possibility that God existed, with the power to bestow on believers “an infinitely happy life”, we should take steps to acquire the habit of Christian belief: the potential upsides far outweigh any downsides. Belief in God, according to Pascal, was a wager worth taking. However, critics have long observed that there are many “possible” Gods, each of whom seems to demand different actions as indicators of our faith; the wager alone is no guide as to the steps that should be taken to increase the chance of “an infinitely happy life”.

The transhumanist wager observes, analogously, that there is a possibility that in the not-too-distant future, science and technology will have the ability to bestow on people, if not an “infinitely happy” life, a lifestyle that is hugely expanded and enhanced compared to today’s. Jethro Knights expounds the consequence:

The wager… states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible. Anything else you do while alive, any other opinion you have, any other choice you make to not safeguard, extend, and improve that life, is a betrayal of that life…

This is a historic choice that each man and woman on the planet must make. The choice shall determine the rest of your life and the course of civilisation.

Knights is quite the orator – and quite a fighter, too. As the novel proceeds to its climactic conclusion, Knights assembles like-minded scientists and engineers who create a formidable arsenal of remote-controlled weaponry – robots that can use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to devastating effect. The military stance is needed, in response to the armed forces which the world’s governments are threatening to deploy against the maverick new entity of “Transhumania” – a newly built seasteading nation of transhumanists – which Knights now leads.

It is no surprise that critics of the book have compared Jethro Knights to Joseph Stalin. These criticisms come from within the real-world transhumanist community that Istvan might have counted to rally around the book’s call to action. Perhaps these potential allies were irritated by the description of mainstream transhumanists that appears in the pages of the book: “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals, mostly aged nerds trying to gently reshape their world… their chivalry and sense of embedded social decency was their downfall”.

I see four possible objections to the wager that lies at the heart of this novel – and to any similar single-minded undertaking to commit whole-heartedly to a methodology of personal transcendence:

  1. First, by misguidedly pursing “greatness”, we might lose grasp of the “goodness” we already possess, and end up in a much worse place than before.
  2. Second, instead of just thinking about our own personal advancement, we have important obligations to our families, loved ones, and our broader social communities.
  3. Third, by being overly strident, we may antagonise people and organisations who could otherwise be our allies.
  4. Fourth, we may be wrong in our analysis of the possibility for future transcendence; for example, faith in science and technology may be misplaced.

Knights confronts each of these objections, amidst the drama to establish Transhumania as his preferred vehicle to human transcendence. Along the way, the novel features other richly exaggerated larger-than-life characters embodying key human concerns – love, spirituality, religion, and politics – who act as counters to Knights’ own headstrong ambitions. Zoe Bach, the mystically inclined physician who keeps spirituality on the agenda, surely speaks for many readers when she tells Knights she understands his logic but sees his methods as not being realistic – and as “not feeling right”.

The book has elements that highlight an uplifting vision for what science and technology can achieve, freed from the meddling interference of those who complain that “humans shouldn’t play at being God”. But it also serves as an awful warning for what might ensue if forces of religious fundamentalism and bio-conservatism become increasingly antagonised, rather than inspired, by the transformational potential of that science and technology.

My takeaway from the book, therefore, is to work harder at building bridges, rather than burning them. We will surely need these bridges in the troubled times that lie ahead. That is my own “transhumanist wager”.

Postscripts

1.) A version of the above essay currently features on the front-page of the online Psychology Today magazine.

DW on front cover2.) If you can be in San Francisco on 1st February, you can see Zoltan Istvan, the author of the Transhumanist Wager, speaking the conference “Transhuman Visions” organised by Brighter Brains:

Transhuman-Visions2-791x10243.) I recently chaired a London Futurists Hangout On Air discussion on The Transhumanist Wager. The panelists, in addition to Zoltan Istvan, were Giulio PriscoRick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. You can view the recording of the discussion below. But to avoid spoiling your enjoyment of the book, you might prefer to read the book before you delve into the discussion.

Advertisements

1 April 2012

Why good people are divided by politics and religion

Filed under: books, collaboration, evolution, motivation, passion, politics, psychology, RSA — David Wood @ 10:58 pm

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have thanked me over the years for drawing their attention to the book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” written by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. That was a book with far-reaching scope and penetrating insight. Many of the ideas and metaphors in it have since become fundamental building blocks for other writers to use – such as the pithy metaphor of the human mind being divided like a rider on an elephant, with the job of the rider (our stream of conscious reasoning) being to serve the elephant (the other 99% of our mental processes).

This weekend, I’ve been reading Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. It’s a great sequel. Like its predecessor, it ranges across more than 2,400 years of thought, highlighting how recent research in social psychology sheds clear light on age-old questions.

Haidt’s analysis has particular relevance for two deeply contentious sets of debates that each threaten to destabilise and divide contemporary civil society:

  • The “new atheism” critique of the relevance and sanctity of religion in modern life
  • The political fissures that are coming to the fore in the 2012 US election year – fissures I see reflected in messages full of contempt and disdain in the Facebook streams of some several generally sensible US-based people I know.

There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to summarise it without doing an injustice to huge chunks of fascinating material:

  • the importance of an empirical approach to understanding human morality – an approach based on observation, rather than on a priori rationality
  • moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second, to justify the intuitions we have already reached
  • there’s more to morality than concerns over harm and fairness; Haidt memorably says that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors”
  • the limitations of basing research findings mainly on ‘WEIRD‘ participants (people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)
  • the case for how biological “group selection” helped meld humans (as opposed to natural selection just operating at the level of individual humans)
  • a metaphor that “human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee”
  • the case that “The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction”
  • methods for flicking a “hive switch” inside human brains that open us up to experiences of self-transcendence (including a discussion of rave parties).

The first chapter of the book is available online – as part of a website dedicated to the book. You can also get a good flavour of some of the ideas in the book from two talks Haidt has given at TED: “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence” (watch it full screen to get the full benefits of the video effects):

and (from a few years back – note that Haidt has revised some of his thinking since the date of this talk) “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives“:

Interested to find out more? I strongly recommend that you read the book itself. You may also enjoy watching a wide-ranging hour-long interview between Haidt and Robert Wright – author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Evolution of God.

Footnote: Haidt is talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts on lunchtime on Tuesday 10th April; you can register to be included on the waiting list in case more tickets become available. The same evening, he’ll be speaking at the Royal Institution; happily, the Royal Institution website says that there is still “good availability” for tickets:

Jonathan Haidt, the highly influential psychologist, is here to show us why we all find it so hard to get along. By examining where morality comes from, and why it is the defining characteristic of humans, Haidt will show why we cannot dismiss the views of others as mere stupidity or moral corruption. Our moral roots run much deeper than we realize. We are hardwired not just to be moral, but moralistic and self-righteous. From advertising to politics, morality influences all aspects of behaviour. It is the key to understanding everybody. It explains why some of us are liberals, others conservatives. It is often the difference between war and peace. It is also why we are the only species that will kill for an ideal.

Haidt argues we are always talking past each other because we are appealing to different moralities: it is not just about justice and fairness – for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty are more important. With new evidence from his own empirical research, Haidt will show it is possible to liberate us from the disputes that divide good people. We can either stick to comforting delusions about others, or learn some moral psychology. His hope is that ultimately we can cooperate with those whose morals differ from our own.

Discovering and nourishing an inner ‘Why’

Filed under: books, challenge, Energy, films, leadership, marketing, motivation, passion, psychology — David Wood @ 1:21 am

Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?

In the 2012 year of London Olympics, the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” is poised to return to cinemas in the UK, digitally remastered. As reported by BBC News,

The film tells the true story of two runners who compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics despite religious obstacles.

It will be shown at more than 100 cinemas around the country from 13 July as part of the London 2012 Festival.

Starring Ian Charleson and Ben Cross, the film won four Oscars, including best picture, screenplay and music for Vangelis’ acclaimed score.

Although the film is 31 years old, producer Lord Puttnam believes the message is still relevant.  “Chariots of Fire is about guts, determination and belief…” he said.

This is a film about accomplishment against great odds. More than that, it’s a film about motivation that can enable great accomplishment. The film features athletics, but the message applies much more widely – in both business life and personal life.

I vividly remember watching the film in its opening night in Cambridge in 1981, and being so captivated by it that I returned to the cinema the following evening to watch it again. One part that has wedged deep in my mind is the question I’ve placed at the top of this article, which comes from a sermon preached by Eric Liddell, one of the athletes featured in the movie:

Running in a race… is hard. It requires concentration of will. Energy of soul… Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.

Liddell’s own answer involved his religious faith, including following the principle that forbade playing sport on Sundays. Viewers can take inspiration from the film, without necessarily sharing Liddell’s particular religious views. The general point is this: Lasting personal strength arises from inner conviction.

Anyone watching the film is implicitly challenged: do we have our own inner basis for lasting personal strength? Do we have a ‘Why’ that gives us the power to pick ourselves up and continue to shine, in case we stumble in the course of our own major projects? Indeed, do we have a ‘Why’ that inspires not only ourselves, but others too, so that they wish to work with us or share our journey through life?

In similar vein, the renowned writer about personal effectiveness, Stephen Covey, urges us (in his celebrated book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”) to Begin with the end in mind and to Put first things first:

Are you–right now–who you want to be, what you dreamed you’d be, doing what you always wanted to do? Be honest. Sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty–successes that have come at the expense of things that were far more valuable to them. If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster…

To live a more balanced existence, you have to recognize that not doing everything that comes along is okay. There’s no need to over-extend yourself. All it takes is realizing that it’s all right to say no when necessary and then focus on your highest priorities…

I was recently reminded of both Chariots of Fire and Stephen Covey when following up an assignment given to me by a personal coach. The assignment was to view the TED video “How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek:

This talk features high on the page of the TED talks rated by viewers as the most inspiring. Watch the video and this high placement won’t be a surprise to you. I liked the video so much that I downloaded the audio book the talk is based on: “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”. I’ve been listening to it while walking to/from work over the last few days. It’s been both profound and challenging.

Sinek’s central message is this:

People don’t buy ‘What’ you do, they buy ‘Why’ you do it.

To back up this message, Sinek tells a host of fascinating tales. He offers lots of contrasts, between individuals (or companies) that had a clear, inspiring sense of purpose (their ‘Why’), and those that instead became bogged down in the ‘What’ or the ‘How’ of their work. The former generated loyalty and passion – not so the latter. Examples of the former include Southwest Airlines, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, the Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King, and Apple. He also gives examples of companies that started off with a clear sense of purpose, but then lost it, for example due to changes in leadership, when an operational leader took over the reins from an initial inspirational leader.

Sinek repeatedly contrasts “inspiration” with “manipulation”. Manipulation includes both carrots and sticks. Both inspiration and manipulation can lead to people doing what you want. But only the former can be sustained.

One vivid example covered by Sinek was the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton of the 1914-16 Trans-Antarctic Expedition. According to Sinek, Shackleton gathered crew members for this expedition by placing the following advertisement in the London Times:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. —Ernest Shackleton.

Another of Sinek’s example is how the Wright Brothers succeeded in achieving the first powered flight, beating a team that was much better funded and seemed to be better placed to succeed, led by Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley.

In Sinek’s view, it’s not a matter of having energy, or skill, or financing; it’s a matter of something deeper. It might be called ‘charisma’, or ’cause’:

Charisma has nothing to do with energy; it comes from a clarity of ‘Why’. It comes from absolute conviction in an ideal bigger than oneself. Energy, in contrast, comes from a good night’s sleep or lots of caffeine. Energy can excite. But only charisma can inspire. Charisma commands loyalty. Energy does not.

Energy can always be injected into an organization to motivate people to do things. Bonuses, promotions, other carrots and even a few sticks can get people to work harder, for sure, but the gains are, like all manipulations, short-term. Over time, such tactics cost more money and increase stress for employee and employer alike, and eventually will become the main reason people show up for work every day. That’s not loyalty. That’s the employee version of repeat business. Loyalty among employees is when they turn down more money or benefits to continue working at the same company. Loyalty to a company trumps pay and benefits. And unless you’re an astronaut, it’s not the work we do that inspires us either. It’s the cause we come to work for. We don’t want to come to work to build a wall, we want to come to work to build a cathedral.

There’s a bit too much repetition in the book for my liking, and some of the stories in it can be questioned (for example, the advertisement supposedly placed by Shackleton is probably apocryphal).

But the book (like the TED video) has a tremendous potential to cause people to rethink their own personal ‘Why’. Without clarity on this inner motivation, we’re likely to end up merely going through the motions in activities. We might even seem, from outside, to have many achievements under our belts, but we will (to return to Stephen Covey’s analogy) have climbed a ladder leaning against the wrong wall, and we’ll lack the power to inspire the kind of action we truly want to see.

I’ll finish with a few thoughts on what I perceive as my own ‘Why’ – To enable the widespread radically beneficial application of technology:

Technology, deployed wisely, can do wonders to improve the everyday lives of humans everywhere. But technology also has the potential to do very serious damage to human well-being, via unintended disruptions to the environment and the economy, and by putting fearsome weapons in the hands of malcontents.

As a technology super-convergence accelerates over the next 10-20 years, with multiple hard-to-predict interactions, the potential will intensify, both for tremendously good outcomes, and for tremendously bad outcomes. We can’t be sure, but what’s at risk might be nothing less than the survival of humanity.

However, with the right action, by individuals and communities, we can instead witness the emergence of what could be called “super-humanity” – enabled by significant technological enhancements in fields such as synthetic biology, AI, nanotechnology, and clean energy. Progress in these fields will in turn be significantly impacted by developments in the Internet, cloud computing, wireless communications, and personal mobile devices – developments that will ideally result in strong positive collaboration.

The stakes are sky high. We’re all going to need lots of inner personal strength to steer events away from the looming technology super-crisis, towards the radically beneficial outcome that beckons. That’s a cause worthy of great attention. It’s a race that we can’t afford to lose.

14 January 2012

Speaking of angels – visions of a world beyond

Filed under: books, irrationality, magic, paranormal, psychology — David Wood @ 1:03 am

How open-minded are you?

  • Suppose someone you’ve never met before takes a look at the palm of your hand, and shortly afterwards tells you surprising things about yourself – for example, about private issues experienced by your family, that no one else knows about.  What would your reaction be?
  • Or consider the case of people apparently leaving their bodies, whilst near death, and travelling around the neighbourhood in an out-of-body experience, observing hidden details that could only be noticed by someone high up in the sky.  Isn’t that thought-provoking?
  • Or what about reliable, trustworthy witnesses who return from spiritualist seances reporting materialisations and apparitions that the best conjurors of the day realise they could not possibly duplicate?
  • What about a president of the United States (Abraham Lincoln) who dreamed the details of his own death, in a precognition, several weeks ahead of that dreadful event?
  • What about someone who can cause the pages of a bible in another part of the room to turn over?  Or pencils to rotate?  Or solid steel spoons to bend and break?
  • Finally, what about a dog which springs to the window, seemingly knowing in advance that their owner has set off from work to return home, and will shortly be arriving at the house?

All these phenomena, and a lot more like them, are described in Professor Richard Wiseman’s recent book, “Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there“.

At face value, these phenomena testify to the presence of powers far beyond the present understanding of science.  They suggest the existence of some kind of angelic realm, in which information can travel telepathically, from one brain to another, and even backwards in time.

One common reaction to this kind of report is to cough in embarrassment, or make a joke, and move on to another topic.

Another reaction is to become a debunker.  Indeed, Wiseman’s book contains some splendid debunking.  I won’t spoil the fun by sharing these details here, but you can bear in mind the apparently miraculous feats demonstrated right in front of spectators’ eyes by magicians like Derren Brown or “Dynamo“.  (As noted on his website, Wiseman “started his working life as a professional magician, and is a Member of the Inner Magic Circle”.)

However, “Paranormality” goes far beyond debunking.  Although some of the apparently paranormal events do have mundane explanations, for others, the explanation is more wonderful.  These explanations reveal fascinating details about the way the human mind operates – details that have only come to be understood within recent years.

These explanations don’t involve any actual transfer of disembodied thought, or any transcendent angelic realm.  Instead, they shed light on topics such as:

  • Circumstances when the mind can become convinced that it is located outside the body
  • Ways to pick up subliminal cues, by which people “leak” information to one another via subtle movements
  • The sometimes spectacular unreliability of human memory
  • Cognitive dissonance – how people react when, on the surface, prophetic statements have proven false
  • The functioning of dreams, linked to sleep paralysis
  • Circumstances when people feel that there’s a ghostly presence
  • Purposeful movements made by the body, without the awareness of the conscious mind
  • Limitations in the mind’s concept that it has free will.

The book also retells some dramatic historical episodes.  Some of these episodes were already familiar to me, from my days doing postgraduate research in the philosophy of science, when I looked hard and long at the history of research into the paranormal.  Others were, I confess, new to me – including an account of Michael Faraday’s investigation of the mechanics behind table-turning at seances.

The book has many practical tips too:

  • How to develop the habit of “lucid dreams” (when you’re aware that you’re dreaming)
  • How to impress people that you can (apparently) read their mind and discern hidden depths of their character
  • How to distract an audience, so that they fail to notice what’s right in front of them
  • How to organise a group of people around a table, so that the table apparently starts moving of its own volition
  • How to avoid losing control of your mind in circumstances when powerful persuasive influences operate.

In other words, rather than dismissing instances of apparent paranormal occurrences as being inevitably misguided, Wiseman suggests there’s a lot to learn from them.

I expect to hear more of the same theme later today, at the “Centre for Inquiry UK” event “Beyond the Veil – a closer look at spirits, mediums and ghosts“.  This is being held at London’s Conway Hall (one of my own favourite London venues).  Richard Wiseman is one of the speakers there.  The full agenda is as follows:

10.30 Registration (tickets will be available at the door)

11.00: Spirits on the brain: Insights from psychology and neuroscience – Chris French, Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London

12.00: ‘Is there anybody there?’ – Hayley Stevens, a ghost hunter that doesn’t hunt for ghosts, who has been researching paranormal reports since 2005.

13.00: Lunch break

13.30: Mediums at Large – Paul Zenon, a professional trickster for almost thirty years, during which period he has appeared countless times as performer, presenter and pundit on numerous TV shows

14.00: Parnormality – Richard Wiseman, Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire

15.00: You Are The Magic – Ian Rowland, writer and entertainer with an interest in various aspects of how the mind works or sometimes doesn’t, who taught FBI agents how to be persuasive, and taught Derren Brown how to read fortunes

16.00: End

Postscript: Wiseman’s book contains a number of 2D barcodes.  The book suggests that readers should point their smartphones at these barcodes.  Their smartphones will then be redirected to short related movies on a special website, such as this one.  It was a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the utility of smartphones while my mind was engrossed in reflections of psychology.

30 December 2011

2012 resolution resolution

Filed under: books, psychology — David Wood @ 6:46 pm

It’s the season for new year’s resolutions.  But before composing a new year’s resolution list, some questions:

  • How important is resolve?
  • Should we prioritise self-control?
  • Does willpower matter?

In their recent book “Willpower – rediscovering the greatest human strength“, pioneering psychology researcher Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney have a great many positive things to say about willpower and self-control.  Their analysis provides a timely counterbalance in a world that is generally suspicious of thrift and self-denial, and that tends, instead, to value “self-esteem”, “anything goes”, and “if it feels good, do it”.

I consider this to be a very practical book, on a topic that has been overlooked for too long.

Early in the book, the authors provide this summary of recent changed opinions within social science research:

Baumeister and his colleagues around the world have found that improving willpower is the surest way to a better life.

They’ve come to realise that most major problems, personal and societal, centre on failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, under achievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.

Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, winding up in prison.  It can cost you the US Open, as Serena Williams’s tantrum in 2009 demonstrated; it can destroy your career, as adulterous politicians keep discovering.  It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system, and to the shaky prospects for so many people who failed (along with their political leaders) to set aside enough money for their old age…

People feel overwhelmed because there are more temptations than ever.  Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant through the click of a mouse or a phone.  You can put off any job by checking email or Facebook, surfing gossip sites, or playing a video game…  You can do enough damage in a ten-minute online shopping spree to wreck your budget for the rest of the year.  Temptations never cease…

The book contains very interesting reports of how well-known people nurtured stronger willpower – such as the magician and “endurance artist” David Blaine, the 19th century explorer Henry Stanley Morton, personal effectiveness pioneer Benjamin Franklin, and recovering alcoholics such as guitarist Eric Clapton.   It also summarises the results of numerous psychology experiments.  There’s lots of practical advice:

  1. Willpower gets depleted over time; however, supplies of willpower can be replenished by food and rest
  2. Self-control exercised in one region of our life (e.g. to resist eating tempting food) depletes the immediate store of willpower we have for other regions of our life (e.g. not to lose our temper); we don’t have separate supplies of different kinds of willpower
  3. The same observation has a positive side to it too: exercising willpower in some areas of life, and building greater stamina there (over time) – for example, sustained piano practice, or a discipline of meditation or prayer – typically builds better willpower (over time) in other areas too
  4. Temporary reserves of willpower can be reinstated by eating foods that provide a quick release of sugar – though a more sustainable longer term approach is to eat healthily on a regular basis
  5. Willpower can also be augmented when we have better feedback on what we are doing – for example, when we see ourselves in a mirror, or when we record aspects of our health daily (such as our weight), or when a trusted friend or colleague is aware of our goals and discusses our progress with us
  6. Willpower can also be augmented when we see our efforts as fitting into a larger framework or community, which can be seen as a “higher power” – such as a religious, political, or humanitarian cause
  7. The best use of willpower is to design our lives to minimise the impact of potential distractions and temptations.  This includes the above advice on healthy eating, adequate rest, as well as having a less cluttered life.

To elaborate the final point, here’s a summary of some research described in the final chapter of the book:

Researchers were surprised to find that people with strong self-control spent less time resisting desires than other people did…  Self-control is supposedly for resisting desires, so why are the people who have more self-control not using it more often…?

But then an explanation emerged.  These people have less need to use willpower because they’re beset by fewer temptations and inner conflicts.  They’re better at arranging their lives so that they avoid problem situations…

People with good self-control mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and in work…  They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them.  They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.  They play offense instead of defence…

The advice on having a less cluttered life applies to the set of goals we set ourselves.  Baumeister and Tierney are not keen on lengthy lists of new year’s resolutions.  Worrying about goal number 4 on the list, for example, is likely to limit our ability to concentrate on goal number 2 on the list:

The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.  Self-control without goals or other standards would be nothing more than aimless changes, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

For most of us, though, the problem is not a lack of goals but rather too many of them.  We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are.  By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed.  That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Worse, there are often latent conflicts between different goals.  With too many goals:

  • People worry too much – the more competing demands someone faces, the more time they spend contemplating these demands
  • People get less done – they replace action with rumination
  • People’s health suffers, physically as well as mentally; they paid a high price for too much brooding.

For this reason, even before I get to my own list of new year’s resolutions, I know that the underlying principle is going to be:

  • Do less, in order to make a better job of the things that matter most.

That’s my 2012 “resolution resolution”.

27 July 2011

Eclectic guidance for big life choices

Filed under: books, challenge, Economics, evolution, leadership, market failure, psychology, risks, strategy — David Wood @ 10:34 pm

“If you’re too busy to write your normal blog posts, at least tell us what books you’ve liked reading recently.”

That’s a request I’ve heard in several forms over the last month or so, as I’ve been travelling widely on work-related assignments.  On these travels, I’ve met several people who were kind enough to mention that they enjoyed reading my blog posts – especially those postings recommending books to read.

In response to this suggestion, let me highlight four excellent books that I’ve read recently, which have each struck me as having something profound to say on the Big Topic of how to make major life choices.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Tim Harford

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure draws out all sorts of surprising “aha!” connections between different areas of life, work, and society.  The analysis ranges across the wars in Iraq, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of Soviet-style centrally planned economies, the unorthodox way the development of the Spitfire fighter airplane was funded, the “Innovator’s Dilemma” whereby one-time successful companies are often blindsided by emerging new technologies, different approaches to measuring the effectiveness of charitable aid donations, the risk of inadvertently encouraging perverse behaviours when setting grand over-riding incentives, the over-bearing complexity of modern technology, the causes of the great financial crash of 2008-2009, reasons why safety systems break down, approaches to tackling climate change, and the judicious use of prizes to encourage successful breakthrough innovation.  Yes, this is a real intellectual roller-coaster, with some unexpected twists along the way – revelations that had me mouthing “wow, wow” under my breath.

And as well as heroes, there are villains.  (Donald Rumsfeld comes out particularly badly in these pages – even though he’s clearly in some ways a very bright person.  That’s an awful warning to the others among us who rejoice in above-average IQs.)

The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but this book is grounded in observations about Darwinian evolution.  Three pieces of advice pervade the analysis – advice that Harford dubs “Palchinsky Principles”, in honour of Peter Palchinsky, a Russian mining engineer who was incarcerated and executed by Stalin’s government in 1929 after many years of dissent against the human cost of the Soviet top-down command and control approach to industrialisation.  These principles are designed to encourage stronger innovation, better leadership, and more effective policies, in the face of complexity and unknowns.  The principles can be summarised as follows:

  1. Variation – seek out new ideas and try new ideas
  2. Survivability – when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  3. Selection – seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along, avoiding an instinctive reaction of denial.

Harford illustrates these principles again and again, in the context of the weighty topics already listed, including major personal life choices as well as choices for national economies and international relations.  The illustrations are full of eye-openers.  The book’s subtitle is a succinct summary: “success always stars with failure”.  The notion that it’s always possible to “get it right the first time” is a profound obstacle to surviving the major crises that lie ahead of us.  We all need a greater degree of openness to smart experimentation and unexpected feedback.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris

That thought provides a strong link to the second book I wish to mention: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.  It’s written by Sam Harris, who I first came to respect when I devoured his barnstorming The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason a few years ago.

In some ways, the newer book is even more audacious.  It considers how we might go about finding answers to big questions such as “how should I live?” and “what makes some ways of life more moral than others?”  As some specific examples, how should we respond to:

  • The Taliban’s insistence that the education of girls is an abomination?
  • The stance by Jehovah’s Witnesses against blood transfusion?
  • The prohibition by the Catholic Church of the use of condoms?
  • The legalisation of same-sex relationships?
  • The use of embryonic stem cells in the search for cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
  • A would-be Islamist suicide bomber who is convinced that his intended actions will propel him into a paradise of abundant mental well-being?

One response is that such questions are the province of religion.  The correct answers are revealed via prophets and/or holy books.  The answers are already clear, to those with the eye of faith.  It is a divine being that tells us, directly or indirectly, the difference between good and evil.  There’s no need for experimental investigations here.

A second response is that the main field to study these questions is that of philosophy.  It is by reason, that we can determine the difference between good and evil.

But Sam Harris, instead, primarily advocates the use of the scientific method.  Science enters the equation because it is increasingly able to identify:

  • Neural correlates (or other physical or social underpinnings) of sentient well-being
  • Cause-and-effect mechanisms whereby particular actions typically bring about particular changes in these neural correlates.

With the help of steadily improving scientific understanding, we can compare different actions based on their likely effects on sentient well-being.  Actions which are likely to magnify sentient well-being are good, and those which are likely to diminish it are evil.  It’s no defense of an action that it makes sense within an archaic, pre-scientific view of the world – a view in which misfortunes are often caused by witches’ spells, angry demons, or spiteful disembodied minds.

Here, “science” means more than the findings of any one branch of science, whether that is physics, biology, psychology, or sociology.  Instead, it is the general disciplined outlook on life that seeks to determine objective facts and connections, and which is open to making hypotheses, gathering data in support of these hypotheses, and refining hypotheses in the light of experimental findings.  As science finds out more about the causes of human well-being in a wide variety of circumstances, we can speak with greater confidence about matters which, formerly, caused people to defer to either religion or philosophy.

Unsurprisingly, the book has stirred up a raucous hornet’s nest of criticism.  Harris addresses most of these criticisms inside the book itself (which suggests that many reviewers were failing to pay attention) and picks up the discussion again on his blog. He summarises his view as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena… fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

As Harris makes clear, this is far from being an abstract, other-worldly discussion.  Cultures are clashing all the time, with lots of dramatic consequences for human well-being.  Seeing these clashes, are we to be moral relativists (saying “different cultures are best for different peoples, and there’s no way to objectively compare them”) or are we to be moral realists (saying “some cultures promote significantly more human flourishing than others, and are to be objectively preferred as a result”)?  And if we are to be moral realists, do we resolve our moral arguments by deference to religious tradition, or by open-minded investigation of real-world connections (investigations such as those proposed, indeed,  by Tim Harford in “Adapt”)?  In the light of these questions, here are some arguments that deserve thought:

  • There’s a useful comparison between the science of human values (the project espoused by Harris), and a science of diets (what we should eat, in order to enjoy good health).  In both cases, we’re currently far from having all the facts.  And in both cases, there are frequently several right answers.  But not all diets are equally good.  Similarly, not all cultures are equally good.  And what makes one diet better than another will be determined by facts about the physical world – such as the likely effects (direct and indirect) of different kinds of fats and proteins and sugars and vitamins on our bodies and minds.  While people still legitimately disagree about diets, that’s not a reason to say that science can never answer such questions.  Likewise, present-day disagreements about specific causes of happiness, mental flourishing, and general sentient well-being, do not mean these causes fail to exist, or that we can never know them.
  • Likewise with the science of economics.  We’re still far from having a complete understanding of how different monetary and financial policies impact the long-term health of the economy.  But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop searching for insight about likely cause and effect.  The discipline of economics, imperfect though it is, survives in an as-yet-incomplete state.  The same goes for political science too.  And, likewise, for the science of the moral landscape.
  • Attempts to reserve some special area of “moral insight” for religion are indefensible.  As Harris says, “How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious.”  (I especially recommend Harris’s excoriating demolition of surprisingly spurious arguments given by Francis Collins in his surprisingly widely respected book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief“.)

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel Siegel

The next book on my list serves as a vivid practical illustration of the kind of scientifically-informed insight that Harris talks about – new insight about connections between the brain and mental well-being.  Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation contains numerous case histories of people who:

  • Started off lacking one or more elements of mental well-being
  • Became a patient of the author, Dr Daniel Siegel – a Harvard-trained physician
  • Followed one or other program of mindfulness – awareness and monitoring of the patterns of energy and information flowing in the brain
  • Became more integrated and fulfilled as a result.

To quote from the book’s website:

“Mindsight” [is] the potent skill that is the basis for both emotional and social intelligence. Mindsight allows you to make positive changes in your brain–and in your life.

  • Is there a memory that torments you, or an irrational fear you can’t shake?
  • Do you sometimes become unreasonably angry or upset and find it hard to calm down?
  • Do you ever wonder why you can’t stop behaving the way you do, no matter how hard you try?
  • Are you and your child (or parent, partner, or boss) locked in a seemingly inevitable pattern of conflict?

What if you could escape traps like these and live a fuller, richer, happier life?  This isn’t mere speculation but the result of twenty-five years of careful hands-on clinical work by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D… one of the revolutionary global innovators in the integration of brain science into the practice of psychotherapy. Using case histories from his practice, he shows how, by following the proper steps, nearly everyone can learn how to focus their attention on the internal world of the mind in a way that will literally change the wiring and architecture of their brain.

Siegel is, of course, aware that drugs can often play a role in addressing mental issues.  However, his preference in many cases is for patients to learn and practice various skills in mental introspection.  His belief – which he backs up by reference to contemporary scientific findings – is that practices such as meditation can change the physical structure of brain in significant ways.  (And there are times when it can relieve recurring back pain too, as in one case history covered.)

Siegel defines the mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information”.  He goes on to say:

So how would you regulate the mind?  By developing the ability to see mental activity with more clarity and then modify it with more effectiveness… there’s something about being able to see and influence your internal world that creates more health.

Out of the many books on psychotherapy that I’ve read over the years, this is one of the very best.  The case studies are described in sufficient depth to make them absorbing.  They’re varied, as well as unpredictable.  The neuroscience in the book is no doubt simplified at times, but gels well with what I’ve picked up elsewhere.  And the repeated emphasis on “integration” provides a powerful unifying theme:

[Integration is] a process by which separate elements are linked together into a working whole…  For example, integration is at the heart of how we connect to one another in healthy ways, honoring one another’s differences while keeping our lines of communication wide open. Linking separate entities to one another—integration—is also important for releasing the creativity that emerges when the left and right sides of the brain are functioning together.

Integration enables us to be flexible and free; the lack of such connections promotes a life that is either rigid or chaotic, stuck and dull on the one hand or explosive and unpredictable on the other. With the connecting freedom of integration comes a sense of vitality and the ease of well-being. Without integration we can become imprisoned in behavioral ruts—anxiety and depression, greed, obsession, and addiction.

By acquiring mindsight skills, we can alter the way the mind functions and move our lives toward integration, away from these extremes of chaos or rigidity. With mindsight we are able to focus our mind in ways that literally integrate the brain and move it toward resilience and health.

The sections in the book on meditation are particularly interesting.  As Siegel has become aware, the techniques he recommends have considerable alignment with venerable practices from various eastern traditions – such as the practice of “mindfulness“.  However, the attraction of these techniques isn’t that they are venerable.  It is that there’s a credible scientific explanation of why they work – an explanation that is bolstered by contemporary clinical experience.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, by Richard Rumelt

From a great book on psychotherapy, let me finish by turning to a great book on strategy – perhaps the best book on strategy that I’ve ever read: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters.  The author, Richard Rumelt, Professor of Business and Society at UCLA Anderson School of Management, is a veteran analyst of strategy, who gained his first degree as long ago as 1963 (in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley).  He speaks with an accumulated lifetime of wisdom, having observed countless incidents of both “bad strategy” and “good strategy” over five decades of active participation in industry.

“Strategy” is the word which companies often use, when justifying their longer term actions.  They do various things, they say, in pursuit of their strategic objectives.  Here, “strategy” goes beyond “business case”.  Strategy is a reason for choosing between different possible business cases – and can provide reasons for undertaking projects even in the absence of a strong business case.  By the way, it’s not just companies that talk about strategy.  Countries can have them too, as well as departments within governments.  And the same applies to individuals: someone’s personal strategy can be an explicit reason for them choosing between different possible alternative courses of action.

It’s therefore a far from ideal situation that much of what people think of as a strategy is instead, in Rumelt’s words, “fluff” or “wishful thinking”:

It’s easy to tell a bad [strategy] from a good one. A bad one is full of fluff: fancy language covering up the lack of content. Enron’s so-called strategy was littered with meaningless buzzwords explaining its aim to evolve to a state of “sophisticated value extraction”. But in reality its chief strategies could be summed up as having an electronic trading platform, being an over-the-counter broker and acting as an information provider. These are not strategies, they are just names, like butcher, baker and candlestick maker…

Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action.  It assumes that goals are all you need.  It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impractical.  It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings…

The core of [good] strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors…

Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems.  It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead of accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.  Like a quarterback whose only advice to teammates is “Let’s win”, bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision, and values.  Each of these elements is, of course, an important part of human life.  But, by themselves, they are not substitutes for the hard work of strategy…

If you fail to identify and analyse the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy.  Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.

The mention of a specific company above – Enron – is an example of a striking pattern Rumelt follows throughout his book: he names guilty parties.  Other “guilty parties” identified in the midst of fascinating narratives include CEOs of Lehman Brothers, International Harvester, Ford Motor Company, DEC, Telecom Italia, and metal box manufacturer Crown Cork & Seal.

Individuals that are highlighted, in contrast, as examples of good strategy include titans from military history – General Norman Schwarzkopf, Admiral Nelson, Hannibal, and Hebrew shepherd boy David (in his confrontation with Goliath) – as well as industry figures such as Sam Walton, Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, IBM’s Lou Gerstner, and a range of senior managers at Cisco.  The tales recounted are in many ways already well known, but in each case Rumelt draws out surprising insight.  (Rumelt’s extended account of Hannibal’s victory over the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC indicates many unexpected implications.)

Why do so many companies, government departments, and individuals have “bad strategy”?  Rumelt identifies four underlying reasons:

  • A psychological unwillingness or inability to make choices (this can be linked with an organisation being too decentralised)
  • A growing tide of “template style” strategic planning, which gives too much attention to vision, mission, and values, rather than to hard analysis of a company’s situation
  • An over-emphasis on charismatic qualities in leaders
  • The superficially appealing “positive thinking” movement.

Rumelt’s treatment of “positive thinking” is particularly illuminating – especially for a reader like me who harbours many sympathies for the idea that it’s important to maintain a positive, upbeat attitude.  Rumelt traces the evolution of this idea over more than a century:

This fascination with positive thinking, and its deep connection to inspirational and spiritual thought, was invented around 150 years ago in New England as a mutation of Protestant Christian individualism…

The amazing thing about [the ideology of positive thinking] is that it is always presented as if it were new!  And no matter how many times the same ideas are repeated, they are received by many listeners with fresh nods of affirmation.  These ritual recitations obviously tap into a deep human capacity to believe that intensely focused desire is magically rewarded…

I do not know whether meditation and other inward journeys perfect the human soul.  But I do know that believing … that by thinking only of success you can become a success, is a form of psychosis and cannot be recommended as an approach to management or strategy.  All [good] analysis starts with the consideration of what might happen, including unwelcome events.  I would not care to fly in an aircraft designed by people who focused only on an image of a flying machine and never considered modes of failure…

The doctrine that one can impose one’s visions and desires on the world by thought alone retains a powerful appeal to many people.  Its acceptance displaces critical thinking and good strategy.

As well as pointing out flaws in bad strategy, Rumelt provides wide-ranging clear advice on what good strategy contains:

A good strategy works by harnessing power and applying it where it will have the greatest effect.  In the short term, this may mean attacking a problem or rival with adroit combinations of policy, actions, and resources.  In the longer term, it may involve cleverly using policies or resource commitments to develop capabilities that will be of value in future contests.  In either case, a “good strategy” is an approach that magnifies the effectiveness of actions by finding and using sources of power…

Strategic leverage arises from a mixture of anticipation, insight into what is most pivotal or critical in a situation, and making a concentrated application of effort…

A much more effective way to compete is the discovery of hidden power in the situation.

Later chapters amplify these ideas by providing many illuminating suggestions for how to build an effective strategy.  Topics covered include proximate objectives, chain-link systems, design, focus (“pivot points”), competitive advantage, anticipation and exploitation of industry trends (“dynamics”), and inertia and entropy.  Here are just a few illustrative snippets from these later chapters:

In building sustained strategic advantage, talented leaders seek to create constellations of activities that are chain-linked.  This adds extra effectiveness to the strategy and makes competitive imitation difficult…

Many effective strategies are more designs than decisions – are more constructed than chosen..

When faced with a corporate success story, many people ask, “How much of the success was skill and how much was luck?”  The saga of Cisco Systems vividly illustrates that the mix of forces is richer than just skill and luck.  Absent the powerful waves of change sweeping through computing and telecommunications, Cisco would have remained a small niche player.  Cisco’s managers and technologists were very skillful at identifying and exploiting these waves of change…

An organisation’s greatest challenge may not be external threats or opportunities, but instead the effects of entropy and inertia.  In such a situation, organisational renewal becomes a priority.  Transforming a complex organisation is an intensely strategic challenge.  Leaders must diagnose the causes and effects of entropy and inertia, create a sensible guiding policy for effecting change, and design a set of coherent actions designed to alter routines, culture, and the structure of power and influence.

You can read more on the book’s website.

The book is addressed to people working within organisations, with responsibility for strategy in these organisations.  However, most of the advice is highly valid for individuals too.  Are the big personal goals we set ourselves merely “wishful thinking”, or are they grounded in a real analysis of our own personal situation?  Do they properly take account of our personal trends, inertia, entropy, and sources of competitive power?

28 December 2010

Some suggested books for year-end reading

Looking for suggestions on books to read, perhaps over the year-end period of reflection and resolution for renewal?

Here are my comments on five books I’ve finished over the last few months, each of which has given me a lot to think about.

Switch: How to change things when change is hard – by Chip & Dan Heath

I had two reasons for expecting I would like this book:

I was not disappointed.  The book is full of advice that seems highly practical – advice that can be used to overcome all kinds of obstacles that people encounter when trying to change something for the better.  The book helpfully lists some of these obstacles in a summary chapter near its end.  They include:

  • “People here don’t see the need for change”
  • “People resist my idea because they say, ‘We’ve never done it like that before'”
  • “We should do doing something, but we’re getting bogged down in analysis”
  • “The environment has shifted, and we need to overcome our old patterns of behaviour”
  • “People here simply aren’t motivated to change”
  • “People here keep saying ‘It will never work'”
  • “I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it”
  • “I’ll change tomorrow”…

Each chapter has profound insights.  I particularly liked the insight that, from the right perspective, the steps to create a solution are often easier than the problem itself.  This is a pleasant antidote to the oft-repeated assertion that solutions need to be more profound, more complex, or more sophisticated, that the problems they address.  On the contrary, change efforts frequently fail because the change effort is focussing on the wrong part of the big picture.  You can try to influence either the “rider”, the “elephant”, or the “path” down which the elephant moves.  Spend your time trying to influence the wrong part of this combo, and you can waste a great deal of energy.  But get the analysis right, and even people who appear to hate change can embrace a significant transformation.  It all depends on the circumstance.

The book offers nine practical steps – three each for the three different parts of this model:

  • Direct the rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination
  • Motivate the elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the change; Grow your people
  • Shape the path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd.

These steps may sound trite, but these simple words summarise, in each case, a series of inspirational examples of real-world change.

The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work – by Shawn Achor

“The happiness advantage” shares with “Switch” the fact that it is rooted in the important emerging discipline of positive psychology.  But whereas “Switch” addresses the particular area of change management, “The happiness advantage” has a broader sweep.  It seeks to show how a range of recent findings from positive psychology can be usefully applied in a work setting, to boost productivity and performance.  The author, Shawn Achor, describes many of these findings in the context of the 10 years he spent at Harvard.  These findings include:

  • Rather than the model in which people work hard and then achieve success and then become happy, the causation goes the other way round: people with a happy outlook are more creative, more resilient, and more productive, are able to work both harder and smarter, and are therefore more likely to achieve success in their work (Achor compares this reversal of causation to the “Copernican revolution” which saw the sun as the centre of the solar system, rather than the earth)
  • Our character (including our degree of predisposition to a happy outlook) is not fixed, but can be changed by activity – this is an example of neural plasticity
  • “The Tetris effect”: once you train your brain to spot positive developments (things that merit genuine praise), that attitude increasingly becomes second nature, with lots of attendant benefits
  • Rather than a vibrant social support network being a distraction from our core activities, it can provide us with the enthusiasm and the community to make greater progress
  • “Falling up”: the right mental attitude can gain lots of advantage from creative responses to situations of short-term failure
  • “The Zorro circle”: rather than focussing on large changes, which could take a long time to accomplish, there’s great merit in restricting attention to a short period of time (perhaps one hour, or perhaps just five minutes), and to a small incremental improvement on the status quo.  Small improvements can accumulate a momentum of their own, and lead on to big wins!
  • Will power is limited – and is easily drained.  So, follow the “20 second rule”: take the time to rearrange your environment – such as your desk, or your office – so that the behaviour you’d like to happen is the easiest (“the default”).  When you’re running on auto-pilot, anything that requires a detour of more than 20 seconds is much less likely to happen.  (Achor gives the example of taking the batteries out of his TV remote control, to make it less likely he would sink into his sofa on returning home and inadvertently watch TV, rather than practice the guitar as he planned.  And – you guessed it – he made sure the guitar was within easy reach.)

You might worry that this is “just another book about the power of positive thinking”.  However, I see it as a definite step beyond that genre.  This is not a book that seeks to paint on a happy face, or to pretend that problems don’t exist.  As Achor says, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change.  It is the realization that we can”.

Nonsense on stilts: how to tell science from bunk – by Massimo Pigliucci

Many daft, dangerous ideas are couched in language that sounds scientific.  Being able to distinguish good science from “pseudoscience” is sometimes called the search for a “demarcation principle“.

The author of this book, evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, has strong views about the importance of distinguishing science from pseudoscience.  To set the scene, he gives disturbing examples such as people who use scientific-sounding language to deny the connection between HIV and AIDS (and who often advocate horrific, bizarre treatments for AIDS), or who frighten parents away from vaccinating their children by quoting spurious statistics about links between vaccination and autism.  This makes it clear that the subject is far from being an academic one, just for armchair philosophising.  On the other hand, attempts by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper to identify a clear, watertight demarcation principle all seem to fail.  Science is too varied an enterprise to be capable of a simple definition.  As a result, it can take lots of effort to distinguish good science from bad science.  Nevertheless, this effort is worth it.  And this book provides a sweeping, up-to-date survey of the issues that arise.

The book brought me back to my own postgraduate studies from 1982-1986.  My research at that time covered the philosophy of mind, the characterisation of pseudo-science, creationism vs. Darwinism, and the shocking implications of quantum mechanics.  All four of these areas were covered in this book – and more besides.

It’s a book with many opinions.  I think it gets them about 85% right.  I particularly liked:

  • His careful analysis of why “Intelligent Design” is bad science
  • His emphasis on how pseudoscience produces no new predictions, but is intellectually infertile
  • His explanation of the problems of parapsychology (studies of extrasensory perception)
  • The challenges he lays down to various fields which appear grounded in mainstream science, but which are risking divergence away from scientific principles – fields such as superstring theory and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

Along the way, Pigliucci shares lots of fascinating anecdotes about the history of science, and about the history of philosophy of science.  He’s a great story-teller.

The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires – by Tim Wu

Whereas “Nonsense on stilts” surveys the history of science, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to continue to find out deeper truths about the world, “The master switch” surveys many aspects of the modern history of business, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to organise society so that information can be shared in the most effective way.

The author, Tim Wu, is a professor at Columbia Law School, and (if anything) is an even better story-teller than Pigliucci.  He gives rivetting accounts of many of the key episodes in various information businesses, such as those based on the telephone, radio, TV, cinema, cable TV, the personal computer, and the Internet.  Lots of larger-than-life figures stride across the pages.  The accounts fit together as constituents of an over-arching narrative:

  • Control over information technologies is particularly important for the well-being of society
  • There are many arguments in favour of centralised control, which avoids wasteful inefficiencies of competition
  • Equally, there are many arguments in favour of decentralised control, with open access to the various parts of the system
  • Many information industries went through one (or more phases) of decentralised control, with numerous innovators working independently, before centralisation took place (or re-emerged)
  • Government regulation sometimes works to protect centralised infrastructure, and sometimes to ensure that adequate competition takes place
  • Opening up an industry to greater competition often introduces a period of relative chaos and increased prices for consumers, before the greater benefits of richer innovation have a chance to emerge (often in unexpected ways)
  • The Internet is by no means the first information industry for which commentators had high, idealistic hopes: similar near-utopian visions also accompanied the emergence of broadcast radio and of cable television
  • A major drawback of centralised control is that too much power is vested in just one place – in what can be called a “master switch” – allowing vested interests to drastically interfere with the flow of information.

AT&T – the company founded by Bell – features prominently in this book, both as a hero, and as a villain.  Wu describes how AT&T suppressed various breakthrough technologies (including magnetic disk recording, usable in answering machines) for many years, out of a fear that they would damage the company’s main business.  Similarly, RCA suppressed FM radio for many years, and also delayed the adoption of electronic television.  Legal delays were often a primary means to delay and frustrate competitors, whose finances lacked such deep pockets.

Wu often highlights ways in which business history could have taken different directions.  The outcome that actually transpired was often a close-run thing, compared to what seemed more likely at the time.  This emphasises the contingent nature of much of history, rather than events being inevitable.  (I know this from my own experiences at Symbian.  Recent articles in The Register emphasise how Symbian nearly died at birth, well before powering more than a quarter of a billion smartphones.  Other stories, as yet untold, could emphasise how the eventual relative decline of Symbian was by no means a foretold conclusion either.)

But the biggest implications Wu highlights are when the stories come up to date, in what he sees as a huge conflict between powers that want to control modern information technology resources, and those that prefer greater degrees of openness.  As Wu clarifies, it’s a complex landscape, but Apple’s iPhone approach aims at greater centralised design control, whereas Google’s Android approach aims at enabling a much wider number of connections – connections where many benefits arise, without the need to negotiate and maintain formal partnerships.

Compared to previous information technologies, the Internet has greater elements of decentralisation built into it.  However, the lessons of the previous chapters in “The master switch” are that even this decentralisation is vulnerable to powerful interests seizing control and changing its nature.  That gives greater poignancy to present-day debates over “network neutrality” – a term that was coined by Wu in a paper he wrote in 2002.

Sex at dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality – by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

(Sensitive readers should probably stop reading now…)

In terms of historical sweep, this last book outdoes all the others on my list.  It traces the origins of several modern human characteristics far into prehistory – to the time before agriculture, when humans existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little sense of personal exclusive ownership.

This book reminds me of this oft-told story:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

I’ve read a lot on evolution over the years, and I think the evidence husband and wife authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha accumulate chapter after chapter, in “Sex at dawn”, is reasonably convincing – even though elements of present day “polite society” may well prefer this evidence not to become “generally known”.  The authors tell a story with many jaw-dropping episodes.

Among other things, the book systematically challenges the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan that, absent a government, people would lead lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  On the contrary, the book marshals evidence, direct and indirect, that pre-agricultural people could enjoy relatively long lives, with ample food, and a strong sense of community.  Key to this mode of existence was “fierce sharing”, in which everyone felt a strong obligation to share food within the group … and not only food.  The X-rated claim in the book is that the sharing extended to “parallel multi-male, multi-female sexual relationships”, which bolstered powerful community identities.  Monogamy is, therefore, far from being exclusively “natural”.  Evidence in support of this conclusion includes:

  • Comparisons to behaviour in bonobos and chimps – the apes which are our closest evolutionary cousins
  • The practice in several contemporary nomadic tribes, in which children are viewed as having many fathers
  • Various human anatomical features, copulatory behaviour, aspects of sperm wars, etc.

In this analysis, human sexual nature developed under one set of circumstances for several million years, until dramatic changes in relatively recent times with the advent of agriculture, cities, and widespread exclusive ownership.  Social philosophies (including religions) have sought to change the norms of behaviour, with mixed success.

I’ll leave the last words to Ryan and Jetha, from their online FAQ:

We’re not recommending anything other than knowledge, introspection, and honesty. In fact, as we say in the book, we’re not really sure what to do with this information ourselves.

19 September 2010

Our own entrenched enemies of reason

Filed under: books, deception, evolution, intelligence, irrationality, psychology — David Wood @ 3:39 pm

I’m a pretty normal, observant guy.  If there was something as large as an elephant in that room, then I would have seen it – sure as eggs are eggs.  I don’t miss something as large as that.  So someone who says, afterwards, that there was an elephant there, must have some kind of screw loose, or some kind of twisted ulterior motivation.  Gosh, what kind of person are they?

Here’s another version of the same, faulty, line of reasoning:

I’m a pretty good police detective.  Over the years, I’ve developed the knack of knowing when people are telling the truth.  That’s what my experience has taught me.  I know when a confession is for real.  I don’t get things like that wrong.  So someone who says, afterwards, that the confession was forced, or that the criminal should get off on a technicality, must have some kind of screw loose, or some kind of twisted ulterior motivation.  Gosh, what kind of person are they?

And another:

I’m basically a moral person.  I don’t knowingly cause serious harm to my fellow human beings.  I don’t get things as badly wrong as that.  I’m not that kind of person.  So if undeniable evidence subsequently emerges that I really did seriously harm a group of people, well, these people must have deserved it.  They were part of a bad crowd.  I was actually doing society a favour.  Gosh, don’t you know, I’m one of the good guys.

Finally, consider this one:

I’m basically a savvy, intelligent person.  I don’t make major errors in reasoning.  If I take the time to investigate a religion and believe in it, I must be right.  All that investment of time and belief can’t have been wrong.  Perish the thought.  If that religion makes a prophecy – such as the end of the world on a certain date – then I must be right to believe it.  If the world subsequently appears not to have ended on that date, then it must have been our faith, and our actions, that saved the world after all.  Or maybe the world ended in an invisible, but more important way.  The kingdom of heaven has been established within. Either way, how right we were!

It can sometimes be fun to observe the self-delusions of the over-confident.  Psychologists talk about “cognitive dissonance”, when someone’s deeply held beliefs appear to be contradicted by straightforward evidence.  That person is forced to hold two incompatible viewpoints in mind at the same time: I deeply believe X, but I seem to observe not-X.  Most people are troubled by this kind of dissonance.  It’s psychologically uncomfortable.  And because it can be hard for them to give up their underlying self-belief that “If I deeply believe X, I must have good reasons to do so”, it can lead them into outlandish hoops and illogical jumps to deny the straightforward evidence.  For them, rather than “seeing is believing”, the saying becomes inverted: “believing is seeing”.

As I said, it can be fun to see the daft things people have done, to resolve their cognitive dissonance in favour of maintaining their own belief in their own essential soundness, morality, judgement, and/or reasoning.  It can be especial fun to observe the mental gymnastics of people with fundamentalist religious and/or political faith, who refuse to accept plain facts that contradict their certainty.  The same goes for believers in alien abduction, for fan boys of particular mobile operating systems, and for lots more besides.

But this can also be a deadly serious topic:

  • It can result in wrongful imprisonments, with the prosecutors unwilling to face up to the idea that their over-confidence was misplaced.  As a result, people spend many years of their life unjustly incarcerated.
  • It can result in families being shattered under the pressures of false “repressed memories” of childhood abuse, seemingly “recovered” by hypnotists and subsequently passionately believed by the apparent victims.
  • It can split up previously happy couples, who end up being besotted, not with each other, but with dreadful ideas about each other (even though “there’s always two sides to a story”).
  • Perhaps worst of all, it can result in generations-long feuds and wars – such as the disastrous entrenched enmity of the Middle East – with each side staunchly holding onto the view “we’re the good guys, and anything we did to these other guys was justified”.

Above, I’ve retold some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I recently listened to the book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts”, by veteran social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  (See here for this book’s website.)  At first, I found the book to be a very pleasant intellectual voyage.  It described, time and again, experimental research that should undermine anyone’s over-confidence about their abilities to observe, remember, and reason.  (I’ll come back to that research in a moment).  It reviewed real-life examples of cognitive dissonance – both personal examples and well-known historical examples.  So far, so good.  But later chapters made me more and more serious – and, frankly, more and more angry – as they explored horrific examples of miscarriages of justice (the miscarriage being subsequently demonstrated by the likes of DNA evidence), family breakups, and escalating conflicts and internecine violence.  All of this stemmed from faulty reasoning, brought on by self-justification (I’m not the kind of person who could make that kind of mistake) and by over-confidence in our own thinking skills.

Some of the same ground is covered in another recent book, “The invisible gorilla – and other ways our intuition deceives us”, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  (See here for the website accompanying this book.)  The gorilla in the title refers to the celebrated experiment where viewers are asked to concentrate on one set of activity – counting the number of passes made by a group of basketball players – and often totally fail to notice someone in a gorilla suit wandering through the crowd of players.  Gorilla?  What gorilla?  Don’t be stupid!  If there had been a gorilla there, I would have seen it, sure as eggs are eggs.

Chapter by chapter, “The invisible gorilla” reviews evidence that we tend to be over-confident in our own abilities to observe, remember, and reason.  The chapters cover:

  • Our bias to think we would surely observe anything large and important that happened
  • Our bias to think our memories are reliable
  • Our bias to think that people who express themselves confidently are more likely to be trustworthy
  • Our bias to think that we would give equal weight to evidence that contradicts our beliefs, as to evidence that supports our beliefs (the reality is that we search high and low for confirming evidence, and quickly jump to reasons to justify ignoring disconfirming evidence)
  • Our bias to think that correlation implies causation: that if event A is often followed by event B, then A will be the cause of B
  • Our bias to think there are quick fixes that will allow significant improvements in our thinking power – such as playing classical music to babies (an effect that has been systematically discredited)
  • Our bias to think we can do many things simultaneously (“multi-task”) without any individual task being affected detrimentally.

These biases probably all were useful to Homo sapiens at an early phase of our evolutionary history.  But in the complex society of the present day, these biases do us more harm than good.

Added together, the two books provide sobering material about our cognitive biases, and about the damage that all too often follows from us being unaware of these biases.

“Mistakes were made (but not by me)” adds the further insight that we tend to descend gradually into a state of gross over-confidence.  The book frequently refers to the metaphor of a pyramid.  Before we make a strong commitment, we are often open-minded.  We could go in several different directions.  But once we start down any of the faces in the pyramid, it becomes harder and harder to retract – and we move further away from people who, initially, were in the very same undecided state as us.  The more we follow a course of action, the greater our commitment to defend all the time and energy we’ve committed down that path.  I can’t have taken a wrong decision, because if I had, I would have wasted all that time and energy, and that’s not the kind of person I am. So they invest even more time and energy, walking yet further down that pyramid of over-confidence, in order to maintain their own self-image.

At root, what’s going wrong here is what psychologists call self-justification.  Once upon a time, the word pride would have been used.  We can’t bear to realise that our own self-image is at fault, so we continue to take actions – often harmful actions – in support of our self-image.

The final chapters of both books offer hope.  They give examples of people who are able to break out of this spiral of self-justification.  It isn’t easy.

An important conclusion is that we should put greater focus on educating people about cognitive biases.  Knowing about a cognitive bias doesn’t make us immune to it, but it does help – especially when we are still only a few rungs down the face of the pyramid.  As stated in the conclusion of “The invisible gorilla”:

One of our messages in this book is indeed negative: Be wary of your intuitions, especially intuitions about how your own mind works.  Our mental systems for rapid cognition excel at solving the problems they evolved to solve, but our cultures, societies, and technologies today are much more complex than those of our ancestors.  In many cases, intuition is poorly adapted to solving problems in the modern world.  Think twice before you decide to trust intuition over rational analysis, especially in important matters, and watch out for people who tell you intuition can be a panacea for decision-making ills…

But we also have an affirmative message to leave you with.  You can make better decisions, and maybe even get a better life, if you do your best to look for the invisible gorillas in the world around you…  There may be important things right in front of you that you aren’t noticing due to the illusion of attention.  Now that you know about this illusion, you’ll be less apt to assume you’re seeing everything there is to see.  You may think you remember some things much better than you really do, because of the illusion of memory.  Now that you understand this illusion, your trust your own memories, and that of others, a bit less, and you’ll try to corroborate your memory in important situations.  You’ll recognise that the confidence people express often reflects their personalities rather than their knowledge, memory, or abilities…  You’ll be skeptical of claims that simple tricks can unleash the untapped potential in your mind, but you’ll be aware than you can develop phenomenal levels of expertise if you study and practice the right way.

Similarly, we should also take more care to widely explain the benefits of the scientific approach, which searches for disconfirming evidence as must as it searches for confirming evidence.

That’s the pro-reason approach to encouraging better reasoning.  But reason, by itself, often isn’t enough.  If we are going to face up to the fact that we’ve made grave errors of judgement, which have caused pain, injustice, and sometimes even death and destruction, we frequently need powerful emotional support.  To enable us to admit to ourselves that we’ve made major mistakes, it greatly helps if we can find another image of ourselves, which sees us as making better contributions in the future.  That’s the pro-hope approach to encouraging better reasoning.  The two books have examples of each approach.  Both books are well worth reading.  At the very least, you may get some new insight as to why discussions on Internet forums often descend into people seemingly talking past each other, or why formerly friendly colleagues can get stuck into an unhelpful rut of deeply disliking each other.

28 December 2008

The best book I read in 2008

Filed under: books, culture, happiness, psychology — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

I’ve had the pleasure to read through several dozen fine books in 2008 – here’s a partial list of reviews. (One reason this list is “partial” is because I often neglected to assign the label “books” to relevant postings.)

As the year draws to a close, I’m ready to declare one book as being the most memorable and thought-provoking that I’ve read in the entire year: “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” by University of Virginia Associate Professor Jonathan Haidt. It’s a tour de force in positive psychology.

The endorsement printed on the front cover is probably reason enough for anyone to read this book: “For the reader who seeks to understand happiness, my advice is: Begin with Haidt“. The endorsement is from Martin Seligman, Professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania.

The stated purpose of the book is to consider “ten great ideas” about morality and ethics, drawn from Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions, and to review these ideas in the light of the latest scientific findings about the human condition. Initially, I was sceptical about how useful such an exercise might be. But the book quickly led me to set aside my scepticism. The result is greater than the sum of the ten individual reviews, since the different ideas overlap and reinforce.

Haidt declares himself to be both an atheist and a liberal, but with a lot of sympathy for what both theists and conservatives try to hold dear. In my view, he does a grand job of bridging these tough divides.

Haidt seems deeply familiar with a wide number of diverse traditional thinking systems, from both East and West. He also shows himself to be well versed in many modern (including very recent) works on psychology, sociology, and evolutionary theory. The synthesis is frequently remarkable. I found myself re-thinking lots of my own worldwide.

Here are some of the age-old themes that Haidt evaluates:

  • The mind is divided against itself – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”
  • Perception is more important than external substance – “Life itself is but what we deem it”
  • Humans tend to be rank hypocrites – we notice the speck in others’ eyes, without paying attention to the plank in our own
  • The golden rule of “reciprocity” lies at the heart of all morality
  • Personal fulfilment depends on giving up attachments
  • Personal happiness is best pursued by seeking to cultivate “virtues”
  • Lives need suffering and setbacks to allow people to reach higher states of development
  • Religion plays a unique role in creating cohesive cultures.

To be clear, the evaluation of these themes typically shows both their prevailing strengths and their limitations. (It was a bit of a jolt every time I read a sentence in the book that said something like “What the Buddha failed to appreciate is…“)

The ideas that I have taken away from the book include the following:

  • A vivid metaphor of the mind as being a stubborn elephant of automatic desires, with a small conscious rider sat on top of it (as illustrated in the picture on the front cover of at least some editions of the book);
  • In any battle of wills, the elephant is bound to win – but there are mechanisms through which the rider can distract and train the elephant;
  • The most reliable mechanisms for improving our mood are meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac;
  • There are hazards (as well as benefits) to promoting self-esteem;
  • Although each person has a “happiness set point” to which their emotional status tends to return after some time, there are measures that people can take to drive their general happiness level higher – this includes the kind of personal relations we achieve, the extent to which we can reach “flow” in our work, and the extent to which different “levels” of our lives “cohere”;
  • Alongside the universally recognised human emotions like happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger, that have typically been studied by psychologists, there is an important additional emotion of “elevation” that also deserves study and strengthening;
  • The usual criticisms of religion generally fail to do justice to the significant beneficial feelings of community, purity, and divinity, that participation in religious activities can nurture – this draws upon some very interesting work by David Sloan Wilson on the role of religions as enabling group selection between different human societies.

Despite providing a lot of clarity, the book leaves many questions unresolved. I see that Haidt is working on a follow-up, entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion“. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

Footnote: “The happiness hypothesis” has its own website, here.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.