Have you ever seen this collection of record album covers that are no longer cool … No longer hip … Or are they no longer funky, rakish, chic, ultracool or spiffy? You see, even the words for fashionable go out of fashion.
And as we chuckle at these album covers, there is something a bit uneasy about what we’re doing. Yes, some of these covers were failures from Day One, but others have that high school yearbook thing going on–they look silly to us because they have elements of oldness to them that should remind us that no matter how fashion-tuned we are, some of the photos of us will someday be snidely chuckled at. If not our clothes, it will be our phone or our food or our method of transportation or the type of gadget we use for playing our music.
The only constant is that everything is social.
I just finished reading Susan Cain’s excellent new book about and for introverts (I posted my review of her book in the comments here). In this post, I’d like to highlight simple yet powerful advice she offered in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She provided this test in the context of introverts, but this test applies to everyone who feels like a misfit at work.
Ms. Cain was an attorney who struggled in the field of law, finding herself deprecating her own efforts and abilities because they didn’t match up to the extroverts at the firm. Eventually, she started forcing herself to listen better; people were telling her that she was a actually a skilled negotiator, not inept. One reason for the compliments is that she invited lots of feedback from the participants. She started recognizing that her introversion gave her many advantages as a lawyer.
But she kept asking herself whether she was a good “fit” for her job, mainly due to her exhaustion trying to keep up with the social end of her job, including the constant pressure to hang out with co-workers after work, to “have a drink.” Was she in the right career? If not, what was the right “fit”? Here are three questions that lead her to change her career:.
First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child.
Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to.
Third, pay attention to what you envy.
These strike me as excellent tests, and they make me wonder how many of us are well suited for our jobs?
Whenever you engage in high level discussions, many of the points made by you and your opponents are founded on claims that some things are “relevant” to other things. Those who engage in arguments usually make it sounds like “relevance” is an objective concept, almost algorithmic. They often suggest that what is relevant can be clearly determined by necessary and sufficient conditions. They make it sound as though all reasonable people would come to the same conclusions about what is (and is not) relevant, if only they pondered long enough. It is my position there is no meaningful simple definition of “relevance” in any real world field (the concept works in math and logic).
This is how I used to think many years ago. Now, however, I am convinced that what is “relevant” is always a matter of the emotional tuning of the person claiming relevance. No, it’s not a completely subjective measure, given that we all inhabit human bodies and thus have a shared basis for our observations. But neither is it an objective measure, applying to all people at all times.
What is relevant to morality? Tradition, upbringing, what the powers-that-be decree, logic, distribution of resources, the Bible, the Koran, whatever comes clear through personal meditation, patriotism, sustainability, or what respects personal liberties? We humans are tuned in a million different ways. Perhaps if we were all tuned the same, we could speak of some objective concept of relevance, but that is not the case. Also, add to the nuance of the word “relevant” that humans are incredibly symbolic, meaning that they have the power and imagination to make anything at all meaningful to anything else. We can even turn meaning upside down, in Orwellian fashion. What is “relevant”? What do you want to be relevant?
My views are quite sympathetic to notion (of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) of experientialism: Namely, that the verbal expression of the facts of life is, at bottom, indeterminate despite our most persistent attempts to capture them with language (which often border on the heroic). Most people nevertheless have faith in “objectivity,” (e.g., that “relevance” refers to necessary and sufficient conditions). People cling to objectivism because, perceiving no middle ground, they fear that the only alternative is a free fall to nihilism. They cling not to just any “objectivity,” of course, but their own version of objectivity. Experientialism makes a strong case in showing the “objective” use of language to be a myth: there is no such thing as abstract and disembodied thought. Truly “objective” thought would require the impossible: a “logical propositional trajectory from principle to concrete application.”
Under the cover of “objectivism,” however, the widely-shared meanings of concepts have always been grounded in and constrained by our widely-shared biological, cognitive, social, and linguistic interactions. These interactions, which constitute our bodily existences, extend imaginatively and metaphorically to give what substance there is to high-level concepts. “Objectivity,” as used in the context of legal decision-making (and elsewhere), can exist only to the extent that these interactions are widely shared. It must not be overlooked that such interactions are widely shared, enabling extensive meaningful communication, even among people of divergent languages and cultures. No radical deconstruction of language is being suggested.
I am always on high alert when someone makes an argument, indicating that something is “relevant,” much less “highly relevant.” Whenever such a claim occurs, it is time to puncture the bubble and force the participants to put their emotional baggage on the table, as best they can. There is no other way to have a meaningful conversation regarding contentious topics.
Back in 1996, I wrote a paper I called “Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention,” in which I claimed that most of our dramatic “moral lapses” are not the result people intentionally trying to hurt others. Rather, most of the harm humans inflict on other humans results from the manner in which we deploy attention. We are able to make any moral issue vanish simply by not paying attention to it. Quite often we develop habits of not paying attention to certain aspects of the world—a classic habit for Americans is not considering that on planet Earth, a child starves to death every 5 seconds. If you have habituated yourself to not-think about this horrible and undeniable fact, it is quite easy to blow a large sums of money on things like poodle-haircuts, vacation homes, and even a steady stream of fancy meals.
Near the beginning of my paper, I argued that human animals are more than happy to act out of ignorance because it never actually seems that we are acting out of ignorance. Instead, humans readily assume that they have sufficient information for making important decisions even when a smidgeon of self-critical conscious thought would instantly reveal that they are woefully under-informed. When it comes to making decisions, we are fearless in our ignorance.
In the paper I mentioned above, I described various ways that cognitive science has demonstrated that human attention is severely limited. Thanks to cognitive science (but not thanks to common sense) we know that we can only see eighteen characters of text per saccade while we read, which invites computer-assisted experimenters to continually, and in real-time, fill extra-foveal regions with garbage, unbeknownst to readers. See “A Critique of Pure Vision,” P. Churchland, V. Ramachandran, & T. Sejnowski, p. 37-38. Using conversation shadowing, Broadbent and Treisman demonstrated that one’s ability to absorb multiple simultaneous conversations is severely limited. Attention is bottlenecked at the site of working memory, as well as during perception. As George Miller pointed out long ago, “[T]he span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process and remember.” George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” The Psychological Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (March, 1956). Given that humans have such tiny attentional windows, it is surprising the extent to which we take it for granted that we share the same world. The world is laughingly beyond our capacity to fathom without rampant simplification.
My prejudice has long been that most human conflicts can be traced to base-level differences, minor seeming micro-differences, until they clash at macro levels. I tried to describe this by reference to an incident in the movie “Apollo 13.” Here’s another way of expressing this same idea:
We proceed from the working hypothesis that inferential and judgmental errors arise primarily from nonmotivational—perceptual and cognitive—sources. Such errors, we contend, are almost inevitable products of human information-processing strategies. In ordinary social experience, people often look for the wrong data, often see the wrong data, often retain the wrong data, often weight the data improperly, often fail to ask the correct questions of the data, and often make the wrong inferences on the basis of their understanding of the data. With so many errors on the cognitive side, it is often redundant and unparsimonious to look also for motivational errors. We argue that many phenomena generally regarded as motivational (for example, self-serving perceptions and attributions, ethnocentric beliefs, and many types of human conflict), can be understood better as products of relatively passionless information-processing errors than of deep-seated motivational forces.
R. Nisbett and L. Ross Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment, p. 12 (1980).
The solution to most social conflict, then, is not fighting wars or even yelling at each other. It is striving to be smart–working hard to identify those low-level differences. That is one of the main reasons why I find Jonathan Haidt’s ideas so valuable. Rather than demonize (which we should avoid at all costs), we should work hard to determine why we disagree. Where is it that our world-views diverge?
At Edge.org, Daniel Kahneman offers a video course that parallels his excellent newest book: Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Here’s what Glenn Greenwald has to say about the way we characterize the motives of Americans who kill others versus others who kill Americans:
Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill 16 Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he “saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,” etc. Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.
Although Greenwald doesn’t analyze it in such terms, this is the classic ingroup-outgroup effect. For ingroup members, we make excuses. For members of outgroups, we pour on the venom. Most Americans are repulsed by the idea that we would actually try to understand the “terrorists'” actions by trying the see the world through their eyes. What is that viewpoint? Greenwald offers some ideas:
[T]hey’re responding to American violence in their country; they are traumatized and angry at the continuous deaths of Muslim children and innocent adults; they’ve calculated that striking at Americans is the only way to deter further American aggression in their part of the world.
Tom Hoerr is the is head of school at the New City School in St. Louis (a school both of my daughters have attended). In an article titled, “Got Grit?” at the website of Educational Leadership, Tom reminds us that it is critically important for children to experience failure:
As important as scholastic preparation is (and it is important), it is only part of what students need to succeed in life. Howard Gardner’s personal intelligences, Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence, and Carol Dweck’s mindsets all reflect the fact that our attitudes are even more important than our skills . . .
As educators, part of our job is to ensure that every child finds success, and an important part of finding success is knowing how to respond to failure. As soccer star Mia Hamm said, “Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it.” People who have not learned to respond well to frustration and failure are likely to choose paths without much risk or challenge and thus destine themselves to a life of predictability, safety, and mediocrity.
I’ve also been impress with the writings of Gardner, Goleman and Dweck, and I’ve commented on each of them at this site.
Susan Cain is an introvert in a world dominated by extroverts who insist that introverts should act like extroverts. She recently wrote a book titled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I took special interest in Cain’s talk because I am an off-the-charts introvert.
The world constantly dominated by extroverts is a great loss, Cain asserts, because introverts, who avoid great amounts of stimulation, often “feel their most alive, their most switched on and their most capable when they are in quieter, more low key, environments. Unfortunately, our most important institutions (schools and work places) “are designed for extroverts, and extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.”
Society has a prejudice that creativity comes from gregarious gatherings. Schools and workplaces typically assemble students and workers into groups and ask them to work “together,” even in activities such as writing. Kids that seek to work alone are seen as outliers and problems. Most teachers think of extroverts as superior students even though research shows that “introverts get better grades and are more knowledgeable.” Introverts are often passed over for leadership positions, even though they tend to be careful and avoid unnecessary risks. Research shows that introverted leaders tend to let proactive workers run with their ideas, whereas extroverted leaders tend to interfere with the process (min 6:45). At min 8:00, Cain suggests that “ambiverts” probably have the best of both worlds.