Thursday, May 29, 2014

Don’t be “good”

Much research in psychology and neuroscience has found that we have a virtually limitless ability to rationalize problems away. A case in point is the argument offered by Aaron Hurst on a few weeks ago (“Being ‘Good’ Isn’t the Only Way to Go”). He begins by noting that many members of the corporate work force apparently struggle to find purpose in their work, so they look for meaning elsewhere – often in volunteering. But they should not really need to do this. In Hurst’s experience, the “satisfaction” employees “expressed” from non-paid work “came from contributing to something greater than themselves, but was also about the opportunity for self-expression and personal growth that such work enabled.” The solution? Just give everyone the impression that they are achieving the latter part of this compound formula for job satisfaction, and they won’t be distracted by search for meaning elsewhere. And, by the way, work in the non-profit sector can be unsatisfying in its own way.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

“Depressed, but Not Ashamed”

This is the title of a column in the NYT by two high-school students who edit their school’s newspaper. They argue that depression should be completely destigmatized, so teenagers could freely discuss it as a serious health issue. Good point – which could be taken a step further by saying that perhaps it is the cheerfully adjusted to a depressing educational system (and larger social “matrix”) who should feel some shame. A few psychoanalysts made a similar argument back in the 1960s, but – as we now all know – that was an intellectual and therapeutic dead end. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Donald Rumsfeld of IT?

A few weeks ago, the NYT carried an article which asked an intriguing question: “If Steve Jobs were alive today, should he be in jail?” It seems the iconic entrepreneur was involved in some clearly illegal activities: a conspiracy to stop other companies from poaching Apple employees, a scheme aimed at boosting the value of his stock options, etc. Why did he do it? Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, says he “always believed that the rules that applied to ordinary people didn’t apply to him. … He believed he could bend the laws of physics and distort reality. That allowed him to do some amazing things, but also led him to push the envelope.” And this was his modus operandi in general: Over and over, people referred to his reality distortion field. The rules just didn’t apply to him, whether he was getting a license plate that let him use handicapped parking or building products that people said weren’t possible. Most of the time he was right, and he got away with it.” Am I the only one who sees an odd parallel here? Except that Rumsfeld wasn’t right about Iraq, and still got away with it – and remains in denial.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Power to the “pro-social psychopaths”!

Is Recep Tayyip Erdogan a hard-headed fundamentalist? Sure. But he seems to have a bigger problem which may eventually sap his power. A few years ago I wrote a paper on perhaps the central paradox of politics – but also in big business or the military . To rise to the top, “leaders” need to have very, very thick skin and unflagging determination; and, since good judgment requires apt affective response, such callousness often undermines their capacity for effective decision-making in crisis situations. This is what the Turkish prime minister had to say following the recent mining disaster: These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘work accident' ... It happens in other workplaces, too. Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world.” What kind of person can say this, really?

Monday, May 12, 2014

The wisdom of spiders

The NYT covers a new study of a rare spider species, one of the very few living in colonies (“Spiders That Thrive in a Social Web”). The scientists who did the study kept some young spiders in the same group of older spiders, and moved others repeatedly from one group to another. According to the NYT article, “the researchers showed that spiders exposed to the same group day after day developed stronger and more distinctive personalities than those that were shifted from one set of spiders to the next. Moreover, the spiders in a stable social setting grew ever less like one another over time.” It should be hardly surprising that the socially mobile spiders were more alike, with less pronounced personal quirks. After all, the break-up of stable, small-scale human communities and social mobility have long been associated with the emergence of a “protean” self – superficial, malleable, and supremely adaptable. But the spider study also contains another lesson which I hope some of my students can take to heart.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The added value of pleasant vices

Almost a decade ago, economist Steven Levitt pronounced he had solved the biggest mystery in American criminology. Why had levels of violent steadily clime declined since their peak in the early 1990’s? Because abortion was legalized – so fewer unwanted babies, who would be more likely to become criminals, were born. It’s an elegant theory, but there is a slight problem with it. It can’t be proven – or refuted – through statistical analysis. Abortion is entangled countless other social “variables,” so its “causal” impact on crime rates can be established only within a crude abstract model – but this will tell us little about its significance in the non-abstract world of living, breathing, and killing or dying human beings. In fact, I am tempted to offer a different theory which may seem fanciful –and wouldn’t be amenable to empirical validation, either – but may well be more credible. Though someone with Levitt’s unrelenting empirico-analytic bent, however, would typically be impervious to dissuasion or self-doubt.