Monday, October 31, 2011


What’s with these Wall Street protests?

Is it a failure of Critical Thinking – a protest against the fact that life is not fair, with no one able to agree on the definition of success or fairness?

Is it a failure of Perspective – able to afford to take the time and make the trip to participate in a gathering that was organized via computers and smart phones, not grateful for what they have, but jealous because they don’t have as much as someone else?

Is it a failure of Responsibility – unhappy with circumstances but marching to demand that someone else fix the situation?

Perhaps it’s a combination.  Just who are these 1% people they are protesting against, anyway?  When they are nameless, faceless entities characterized as Wall Street fat cats, it’s easy to demonize them as evil, greedy and deserving to be singled out and punished for being rich.  According to this CNN article and other sources though, only about 14% fall into the financial category, Wall Street types; and I’m sure not all of them are evil and greedy.  The top 1% also includes people like Peyton Manning, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, Justin Bieber, Leonardo Dicaprio, Eminem, Kobe Bryant, Dr. Phil, Steven Spielberg, Katie Couric, Larry the Cable Guy and many other favorites from sports and entertainment.  I don’t think the animosity against the rich extends to this group.  If you resent the fact that they are rich, stop buying their music, watching the games, and going to the movies.  Look at the Forbes list of richest Americans.  Most of them got there by providing us with products or services that we gladly paid for.

These people aren't necessarily evil.  They are just a lot better than you and me at figuring out ways to make money,  but of course, that's not fair!

Friday, October 28, 2011

What are the Odds?

I recently ran across this article about identical twin sisters having babies on the same day in the same hospital.  It reminded me of an Oprah show a number of years ago about a young boy and young girl who were best friends in a Russian orphanage, were adopted separately and were reunited by accident in a restaurant in Michigan.  I may not have all the details right, but the details don’t matter.  The point is that the audience oohed and ahhed over the seeming miracle.  A story about such a coincidence always causes people to look for connections or causes and ask the question:  What are the odds?  Well, let’s do some critical thinking.

The question is not about the odds of these two particular youngsters meeting again or of these two women giving birth on the same day.  The question is about the odds of the producers of the Oprah Show going out and finding such an extraordinary situation or the odds of a newspaper reporting an unusual coincidence.  (There have also been stories of a mother and her daughter giving birth on the same day.)  Consider that there are over 300 million people in the US doing their daily activities, including being born or adopted, having traffic accidents, going on vacation, shopping, working, dying, attending schools and sporting events and movies and concerts and restaurants, climbing mountains, skydiving and a full range of other activities.  It is very likely that several unusual coincidences would arise somewhere over a period of time just by chance.  If part of your job is to look for heartwarming or freakish stories, as a news agency or a television show would be, they should be relatively easy to find.  Notice that we are not specifying that we find a story about twins giving birth on the same day.  The requirement is only to find unusual coincidences.  The odds of doing so are high.

I don’t want to be a party-pooper, rather a devil’s advocate.   As you may know a devil’s advocate in Roman Catholic law is an official appointed to present arguments against a proposed candidate for sainthood.  Even the Catholic Church sees the appropriateness and necessity for healthy skepticism and critical thinking when making important decisions.  Likewise it should be appropriate and necessary for us all to exercise caution, to think things through more carefully before ohhing and ahhing and assigning mysterious or supernatural causes to a surprising event.  It’s especially important when we are faced with the “snake-oil” vendors trying to sell us miracle products or services using amazing stories, fancy scientific-sounding arguments or faulty statistics.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Perspective and Gratitude

Earlier this month Purdue University held a student forum where administrators shared their perspective, and students were encouraged to ask questions.  It seems an admirable practice and more will be scheduled.  One of the main topics was scholarships and the plans about how to raise more funds without tuition increases. 

One part of the article caught my eye because it seemed not quite right.  Students were asking about scholarships and the college president related to a reporter:  "Some of the scholarships we do give, students are interested will they keep pace with inflation because their expenses grow every year.”

You would think students would be grateful to receive scholarships.  Instead, they are commenting on their increasing expenses and asking if the scholarships will increase, as if asking Mom or Dad for a raise in their allowance.

Instead of calling them scholarships, let’s call them what they really are to the students, free money.  It's a gift, not a right.  How does this sound?  “About this free money you are giving me, you see my expenses keep going up and if you keep giving me the same amount of free money, I may not be able to make ends meet.”  How is this entitlement mentality going to translate into their life and work experiences after graduation?  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Don't Call Alcoholism a Disease

Good news for the dimension of Responsibility!  There are some who disagree with using the disease model to label and treat alcoholics. 

Alcoholism is a serious personal and societal issue, but this article points out that calling it a disease may create other problems with the diagnosis and treatment of some individuals.  The article hints at, but does not directly say, that treating it as a disease also implies limited personal involvement in overcoming the problem.

One aspect of unsatisfactory behavior in the dimension of Responsibility across our society is to look for someone or something else to blame for our problems or suffering.  Claiming to be the victim of evil banks, big companies, the government, the actions of another (no matter how remote), a genetic defect, or a disease excuses us from personal responsibility, but also removes our control.  It is no longer our job to fix the problem, because it was not our fault to begin with.  We look to others for solutions:  doctors, lawyers and juries, government regulations, or advocates.  This passive approach leads to increased power for those rescuers and decreased power for us.  Therein lies the danger.  We are off the hook for the short term but have voluntarily diminished our choices and opportunities over the long term.  This is so insidious because these delayed consequences of inaction seem less threatening at the moment, lulling us into a false sense of security.

So many things these days are getting labeled as diseases or as the result of some genetic marker in our DNA that it is refreshing to see some of the experts backing off, allowing room for personal ownership and participation.  The fewer ready-made excuses the experts serve up, the better our chances of taking charge of our lives.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Perspective: Substantial vs. Superficial - Dentists and Deer

A failure in the dimension of Perspective is the superiority of the superficial over the substantial when choosing criteria for decision-making.  Simply put, we tend to value appearance over function when we decide how to act, how to vote, what to value and how to spend our money.  We substitute values based on appearance and popularity for our stated values of family, faith, charity, etc.  Evidence is everywhere.

A few days ago I caught the local news on TV and saw an advertisement for a dentist.  The emphasis was not on your teeth, but on your smile.  I’ve noticed this trend other places and even at recent trips to my own dentist.  More are promoting teeth whitening and straightening.  Not long ago dentists were mostly concerned about flossing, gum disease, and cleaning and filling teeth – substantial stuff.  I’m sure these items are still very important to them, but now they have discovered that to attract customers takes a superficial appeal, how bright and attractive your smile is.

Later in the same broadcast the news anchor reported on a deer jumping through a glass window.  She commented that fortunately no people were injured, but the deer had to be put down – “poor deer.”  Now if it had been a rat or a skunk, I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard “poor rat.”  Deer in populated areas are pests, causing more damage and potential disease than rats, but deer are cute.  People will protest the killing of deer (but not rats).  It’s a double standard based on appearance.

How does this carry over?  We often get the more attractive or charming, rather than the more competent candidates for office.  Attractive people tend to get lighter legal sentences, faster promotions and are hired more readily.  With indirect encouragement from the news media, we put as much stock in the opinions of movie stars and singers as those of known experts.  We are underwater on our houses but continue to buy more toys or products to impress our friends.  We trade a car that is not yet paid off for a newer model and go further into debt.  We forget to value people and things for what they are and judge instead based on whether they are cool or in.  As I say, examples are everywhere, some trivial and some important, but they all represent failures in the same dimension of behavior, Perspective.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Man Sues In-laws

Each week on Monday and Friday I post further explanations of my premise and examples of behavioral failings.  I contend that behavior has consequences and that the crises of the day are merely the accumulated consequences of overall behavior, poor individual decisions creating trends in society.  Pick a problem and I can show how it is born from behavioral failures, which can be classified into five key dimensions.  What needs fixing is not the visible problems, but the underlying persistence of poor choices.  Examples show the prevalence of these behaviors throughout our society.  I hope that more people will see events through this new lens to become more sensitive to the core behavior and less focused on mere symptoms.

A strange story from the news last week gave minimal information about the case.  Apparently a man was helping his in-laws retrieve Christmas decorations from the attic and made a misstep, falling into the garage and injuring himself.  He sued his in-laws.

Let me speculate that he sued not because of any family feud or bad feeling, but because he and his in-laws felt that their insurance would pay for his injuries thus relieving them of the expense.  After all, that’s what insurance is for!

I hope I am wrong, because this is clearly “magic money tree” thinking, so common among people weak in Economic Understanding.  When only the insurance companies or the government or some big industry must pay, many people think that the money comes from some big pot of reserves just sitting there to cover these sorts of contingencies.  They don’t appreciate that this pot gets refilled regularly through our taxes, our insurance premiums or higher prices for goods and services.  In the case of insurance this sort of activity not only affects the one company involved, but also increases the risk for all insurance companies, causing them to require a larger reserve, which translates into higher premiums for everyone.  There is no magic money tree.  All the funding that seems free at the time eventually finds its way out of your pocket and mine.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Restaurant Menu Issues Demonstrate My Point

Last time I reinforced the need for critical thinking by pointing out the dubious value of self-reporting surveys.  Whether they be about politics or personal habits, they tend to be an inaccurate reflection of actual choices and behavior.  I wonder why news agencies spend so much time on them.  Here is an article that reinforces that point and goes on to give good examples of conflicts within the other four dimensions as well.  It’s about healthier menu choices in restaurants.

The  report begins, “while 47 percent of Americans say they'd like restaurants to offer healthier items like salads and baked potatoes, only 23 percent tend to order those foods…” Since the information comes from different surveys, we must be careful, but the general behavior, if not the specific percentages, is confirmed by sales figures presented later in the report, so again there seems to be a large discrepancy between stated preference and actual behavior.

Further along they remind us that, “the government has stepped up its oversight — and influence — over the industry that it blames for America's expanding waistline.”  This blatant admission that the government does not blame people for eating the wrong foods but blames the industry leads the government to seek solutions by regulating restaurants instead of expecting personal responsibility to change behavior.  When they find out this requirement of listing calories and offering more healthy choices is not working, what is their next option?  How do they escalate when they don’t trust us to do the right thing?  Next logical steps, as I stated in earlier articles, would be increased threats to our freedom, perhaps minor in this case, but where would it end?  As this controlling philosophy remains predominant in the minds of our government, they will feel justified in regulating away all of our choices.

Later the report cites the efforts of a couple of restaurants to conform to the regulations.  Omitted is the reminder that in one way or another we are paying for the additional food preparation, research and reprinting of menus; but as we are strong in economic understanding, we are aware of this.  Like any other attempt to solve a behavior problem by attacking symptoms with regulations, it inevitably leads to higher costs for the public – not unlike the additional fees that came on the heels of consumer credit card protection – but it does not solve the problem.  Most Americans and the government have yet to learn the main lesson of economic understanding - added costs are passed on to the consumer.

Finally, why don’t people choose the healthy menu items?  Examples in the report show as reasons:  peer pressure and that “[h]ealthier foods also are usually among the most expensive menu items, which can be tough for recession-weary customers…” Both relate to perspective, overly caring what other people think and not looking at the long-term effects of today’s decisions.

All this effort and regulation tries to solve a problem (unhealthy eating) brought on by behavior (a failure in discipline).  This single article, read from a behavioral standpoint, reinforces my point that weaknesses in the five key dimensions are the root cause of most of our contemporary crises and therein lie the solutions, not in any outside programs or government interventions no matter how well-intentioned.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Surveys and Critical Thinking

The news media seem obsessed with survey results, people telling us what they think or how they feel.   Being a critical thinker (at least most of the time), I take the results of these self-reporting surveys with a grain of salt.

I am skeptical for several reasons.  It is easy for organizations to word survey questions with the intent of influencing the answer.  People often want to impress the survey taker.  Most surveys leave no room for follow-up or clarifying questions.  The sample surveyed is often done with convenience in mind or is otherwise not properly designed.

I have seen survey questions that are preceded by a paragraph about how terrible or how wonderful a particular practice or policy is.  They then ask if you favor continuing the policy.  It’s important to see the entire question before judging the validity of the answer and brief news stories often omit this information.  In a similar vein, how many times has a salesperson told you directly that anything less than “completely satisfied” on the follow-up survey will reflect badly on the store?

Sometimes people just want to show the survey takers how cool or clever they are.  They try to guess at the desired answer or try to position themselves in the right group.  There are many examples where married couples are questioned separately about something they do together:  housework, managing the finances, general decision making, who disciplines the children or frequency of sexual activity.  Invariably discrepancies appear between the answers of husbands and wives, discrepancies that can be explained only by a misperception or an attempt to give a favorable rather than an accurate answer.  Apply this to teens self-reporting on tobacco or drug use.  Are they being honest or exaggerating?

Some surveys give a choice of answers, but perhaps none fits the exact situation.  I have received many customer service surveys that leave me scratching my head because I did not experience the service they ask about and there is no “Not Applicable” option.  I can’t give them the correct answer and there is no way to clarify.  The same can be true with public opinion questions.  My “10” or “completely agree” may differ, not from your experience, but from your definition of these terms.

Finally, there are people who, either purposely to influence the outcome or through negligence, survey an incomplete or biased sample.  I sometimes get unsolicited phone surveys, which I hang up on.  I wonder what they do next.  Do they get someone else from their list with the same demographics (and how do they know my demographics anyway?) or more likely, do they just go to the next name on the list?  Sometimes they survey likely voters and sometimes just registered voters.  It makes a difference.

So I take these reports in the news less seriously.  When I hear that consumer confidence is slipping, it’s interesting, but not as reliable as the retail sales numbers at the end of the month.  What people say and what they do often differ. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Words People Use

Early in my career my job involved administering a union contract, one that had a protection clause that was somewhat controversial.  Management called it “comparison” and the union and workers called it “regression.”  You only had to listen to the choice of words to tell where the speaker stood on the issue.

Since then I have become sensitive to the way others use words to try to influence me as I try to make rational decisions politically and economically.  In politics it’s more transparent, for example, some talking about inheritance tax and others about death tax, but there are a few in advertising that seem subtler.

One that is especially widespread is the substitution of the word home for house.  In general usage, a house is a structure where people might live.  A home on the other hand connotes something more personal, defined in one source as “the place in which one's domestic affections are centered.”  Accordingly realtors don’t sell houses any more; they sell homes.  We are enticed to look for new homes at a parade of homes.  It was a very clever marketing strategy to get buyers to think of the touchy-feely aspects of the transaction and react emotionally to “the home of your dreams” or to fall in love with a home, but it seems to have caught on everywhere.  I rarely hear people referring to the places where they live as their house.  It’s their home, and they may have a second home or a vacation home somewhere.  They buy homeowner’s insurance in case it burns down.  I wouldn’t be surprised if soon they don’t have a dog home in the back yard with a bird home hanging from the tree!  Does “the American dream of owning a home” imply that an apartment or rental property cannot be made into a home with love and care?  The real estate industry probably hopes so.  This has become so widespread that I recently saw a religious wall hanging saying, “Bless this home”, rather than using the traditional wording of house.

Of course there are others trying to change our vocabulary to their advantage including:  car dealers selling pre-owned cars as if to imply that someone only owned it for a while, but didn’t really use it; executives calling us associates instead of employees, then going out of their way not to associate with most of us – too important/busy for that; or restaurants and hotels calling us guests instead of customers.  (Well, if I’m your guest, why are you making me pay?)  I received a survey from a restaurant asking me to compare them to other “rapid service” establishments.  Maybe the term they used was “swift service,” but it definitely wasn’t “fast food”!  Good luck with that one!

It’s all a ploy to get us to switch off our Critical Thinking mechanism long enough to slip one by us.  I’d rather see the actions/results that they are trying to portray with these words than the fancy marketing terminology.