Sunday, March 31, 2013

Planet of the nerds

The NYT magazine carries a profile of Adam Grant, an associate professor at Wharton. He is an experimental psychologists who, at 31, has published tons of articles on “organizational behavior” in per-reviewed journals, and has apparently become an academic celebrity. The secret of his success? He has done numerous clever experiments establishing a counterintuitive truth – that informing employees of the ways in which their work helps others is a more powerful motivating factor than material reward. And Grant applies tirelessly this finding to his own life – giving advice  to dozens of students and fellow academics every day (mostly by email, sometimes on the phone), and often allowing students to tap into his personal networks. This all sounds almost too good to be true. But, to me at least, it was a chilling read providing a highly inaccurate portrait.

Here are some curious clippings From Grant’s profile:
   - “He was an upbeat boy, though socially awkward and burdened by numerous food allergies and strong aversions — to haircuts, to bluejeans, to chocolate.
   - On weekends, he played video games for so many consecutive hours - 10 was not unusual - that his mother called the local paper to complain about what the paper called, in the subsequent article, The Dark Side of Nintendo.’”
   - “An aspiring basketball player, he would not allow himself to go inside until he made 23 consecutive free throws, even if it meant missing dinner.
   - “His childhood friends called him Mr. Facts.”
   - He was painfully shy as a teenager, and later needed to develop strategies for socializing comfortably.”
   - He lost most of his hair in his 20s.
   - Though he comes across as charming and agreeable, there are still traces of the awkward boy he says he once was, a hint of discomfort in the smile he gives a student he runs into unexpectedly, a longstanding dread of parties.”
   - Grant has a deep-seated anxiety about “mortality” and needs to have his days and evenings (“he … works at least one full day on the weekend, as well as six evenings a week, often well past 11) densely scheduled in order to avoid “mortality awareness”
   - He puts on his calendar things like watching a TV show with his wife.
   - The only things that make sense to Grant are hard data and quantifiable experimental results. And he incorporates his field’s findings into his own life with methodical rigor: one reason he meets with students four and a half hours in one day rather than spreading it out over the week is that a study found that consolidating giving yields more happiness.
   - Though he passes for a psychologist, “Grant doesn’t seem interested in digging too deeply into the origins of his own psyche.

To the extent that he ventures an insight into his own soul, Grant believes he has introverted tendencies, and some of his research involves the strengths of introverts at work.” Introverted? Am I the only one who sees this as an insult to true introverts, and senses a different diagnosis?

To me, Grant comes across as someone afflicted by a different syndrome – a grotesquely hypertrophied executive, and a stunted default network in his brain (a condition which in its clinical expression falls on the autism spectrum). He probably had some early predisposition to develop such a tilted neural architecture; and that tendency was greatly exacerbated by the countless hours he spent video gaming (and, more recently, responding to streams of email requests from students, peers, and strangers). The fact that someone with such a neuropsychological profile can be recognized as an authority on human motivation, and be profusely praised by students and colleagues, may be a bit unsettling – but it reflects quite faithfully the current sociotechnological Zeitgeist. Which was so memorably conveyed a few months ago by the title of The Atlantic article on President Obama’s dream team of campaign quants: “The Nerds Come Marching In.”

Out of theoretical and applied academia, people with a neural profile similar to Grant’s are also capturing the journalistic imagination. Case in point – another Atlantic piece describing “How One Man Turned Himself Into a Publicly Owned Company.” That trailblazer is Mike Merrill, a 35-year-old software developer who has “long dabbled in creative side projects.” Some time ago, he had his most creative idea – to sell shares in his own life, a venture he has dubbed KmikeyM. Initially, his hundreds of “shareholders” got to decide only issues related to his creative output, hoping to boost the price of their own holdings. Later, some complained that ostensibly personal decisions (like moving in with his girlfriend) could have an impact on his creativity, and thus on shareholder value. So Merrill started asking his shareholders to vote on things the romantic partners he should pursue, the clauses of a relationship contract with the one they selected, whether he should have a vasectomy, etc. And he is quite pleased with the results – he “maintains that having investors holding me accountable has genuinely improved his life.

What kind of person would embark on such a life journey? Here are again some telling excerpts from Merrill’s profile:

   - “He has long expressed an intense interest in rules and systems…, and an admiration for the benefits of financial and capitalist structures. 
   - He has a tendency to always seek “objective advice” and input from “market mechanisms.”

Merrill can perhaps be laughed off as a geeky freak bent on creepy self-promotion. But Prof. Grant is an academic star who has earned fast academic promotion, is profusely praised by his peers, and receives dozens of worshipful emails every week from grateful students. So he can, indeed, be seen as expressing in exaggerated form a broader, underlying neuropsychological trend. That trend is captured nicely by David Brooks in his column on the rise of what he calls “The Empirical Kids.”

Brooks quotes from the essay of one of his current students, Victoria Buhler (who, no doubt, is already basking in her 15 min. of fame – like the geeky teenage programmer recently acquired by Yahoo) . She observes that her generation has been deeply disappointed by the failure of the neoconservative crusade abroad and the capitalist system at home. As a result, they have become deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

To her credit, Ms. Buhler acknowledges the downside of the empirical mindset she describes – that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ ... can retard action. ... The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.” And if this isn’t enough, the young empiricynics are also distracted from effective public action by the relentless pursuit of the self-improvement required by the “meritocratic system” they inhabit – they realize that “time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

As I noted, Мs. Buhler attributes the epistemological shift she describes to the lessons her generation has learned from those momentous historical hiccups. But the influence of such “lessons” is probably overrated. What Buhler describes can be perhaps better understood as a result of social and sensory overstimulation – a weaker form of the neuropsychological fitness which has allowed an academic geek like Prof. Grant to rise so fast professionally and (for lack of a better word) intellectually. 

Ms. Buhler “also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.” This is a bold thought – which may not go far enough. Perhaps the “matrix” we inhabit has found subtler and more politically correct ways of producing the castes it neds, as opposed to the crude manipulation of embryos once envisaged by Aldus Huxley.

I do have some sympathy for Grant on his quest for ever cleverer managerial experiments; and for the “empirical kids” embarking on meritocratic career advancement. But my heart is mostly with to the dwindling tribe of true introverts who must seek success, love, and some sort of haven in this heartless world.