Monday, November 28, 2016

Building Behavioral Muscles

“I have a device in my pocket that is capable of connecting me to all the information in the world.  I use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers.”

I am reading a book called Curious.  It tells how humans are the only animals capable of curiosity and how curiosity is beneficial to individuals and to society as a whole. 

At one point the author discusses whether the Internet is making people smarter or lazier and stupider.  During the 1990s experts talked of a digital divide, the idea that access to the Internet was limited by someone’s socioeconomic status.  With recent advances and government programs, that problem takes a back seat to what he describes as a curiosity divide.  According to Kaiser Family Foundation surveys, “children in the United States spend at least ten hours a day with digital devises, and the lower those families are on the economic scale the more time it is.”  The author of that study is quoted as saying, “the reality is their use for education . . . is miniscule compared to their use for entertainment.”  Instead of the extra time closing an achievement gap between the rich and the poor, it’s “widening the time-wasting gap.”

“A study of teachers by Pew Research found that most agreed that digital technology is creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  They look for and get quick answers, which is an impediment to curiosity.  It is a disincentive to look deeply into problems, to ask questions based on the information given, to investigate further when the original answers are more complex, to ask more questions, and to really learn about a subject instead of just filling in the blanks.  These are exactly the skills that employers are looking for.  They don’t hire people to spit out the right answer (after looking it up on Wikipedia); they hire people to figure things out, people who might stumble onto seemingly unrelated information and put it together into creative solutions.  They hire people to do things computers can’t do.  This is a skill children need to learn early and continue throughout life, both for better job opportunities and for a more fulfilling life in general.

The Internet gives us the opportunity to be smarter and to dig deeper.  At the same time it gives us the opportunity to be lazy and fritter away our time.  The difference is in the habits each person develops.  The same is true of the five key behavioral dimensions.  Internet-induced laziness may be signs of poor discipline, some problems with perspective – appreciating the power at our fingertips, or responsibility – especially for parents.  But it is also an example of the need to develop the right habits and of the obstacles we face in doing so.

Developing habits is like building muscles.  It takes a firm intention, and it takes repetition.  Strong behavior in the dimensions will not come automatically to individuals or to society.  We need constant reminders – apparently the unfortunate consequences are not strong enough or not immediate enough.  We need practice.  That’s why I write this twice a week.  We can’t get from here to where we want to be by doing the same things in the same way.  Politicians and advocates can’t get us there either.  It’s up to everyone to build and exercise the behavioral “muscles” in daily lives.

Friday, November 25, 2016


Usually at this time of year I write about perspective.  Black Friday yields plenty of good behavioral examples.  It is common for people to throw perspective out the window, pay no attention to the distinction between wants and needs, line up or camp out in anticipation of the “door-buster” sales, and in some cases literally risk their lives and those of their neighbors in a human stampede to secure the best bargains.

This year I’d rather write about perspective from the standpoint of yesterday’s celebration, Thanksgiving, one day set aside for gratitude.  

We live in such a comfortable and convenient world.  Even those considered poor in America today have far more than many people living in the rest of the world.  The vast majority has access to indoor plumbing, refrigeration, microwave ovens, color television, the Internet and much more.  They can play games on their smartphones to pass time while waiting in line for free winter clothing for their children.

And the rest of us are much better off.  As we sit in front of the wide screen HDTV watching football, we don’t need to get out of our seat to change the channel or to run our own instant replays using the DVR.  The house is heated and the food plentiful.  A major worry is how to recover from having eaten too much, not where the next meal is coming from or how we are going to pay the rent.  This is a big step forward for many families over only a few generations, but we take most of this for granted.

Instead of appreciating all the conveniences and comfort, instead of being thankful for what we have, we complain about more and more trivial things.  We have hot buttons.  We experience outrage and offense at insignificant words and actions of others.  No one is allowed to tell jokes unless they are the right kind of jokes – “A shopping mall Santa Claus in Florida is out of a job for telling a 10-year-old girl that Hillary Clinton was on his ‘naughty list.’”  (The mother explained that the girl was a Clinton supporter.  So we have a politically savvy 10-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus!)

Gratitude, on the other hand, draws us toward the present.  It focuses our attention on what we have and how lucky we are to have it.  When we don’t take the time for gratitude, regrets from the past and worries about the future overwhelm us.  We make up scary scenarios about possible future disasters.  What if this happens?  We dwell on disappointments.  This may be the result of having too many possessions, too much food and too much free time, but it’s probably more of a case of searching for things to upset us to publish our distress and get sympathy from likeminded friends on social media.

When I teach yoga, I emphasize the need for gratitude.  It draws students to the present, to spending one hour on the mat away from the stresses and worries of a typical day.  Being grateful for just one circumstance or one relationship can drive out fears and worries.  Focus on the breath, and as you feel the cool inhale at the tip of the nose, know that even that single next breath was never guaranteed to you.  But we all take it for granted and instead compound our misery with imagined slights, while we play the prophet by manufacturing a future of ruination.

Our ancestors saw everyday as gift, as they struggled against nature to stay alive.  Our struggles are so minor that we have time and energy left over to stress over tomorrow’s possibilities and to be nasty to people who didn’t vote the same way we did in the last election (or the ones before that). 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thinking about Guns and Abortion

An unexpected similarity between the prochoice crowd and the right-to-bear-arms crowd struck me the other day when I heard a news story out of Indiana.   A judge ordered that the implementation of a law banning abortions sought due to fetal genetic abnormalities be temporarily delayed.  The state chose not to appeal.  The report also mentioned, “North Dakota is the only other state that prohibits abortions because of genetic abnormalities such as Down syndrome or because of the race, gender or ancestry of a fetus.”

The first thing that struck me as odd about the law was how it could be enforced.  How do you prove that the parents’ actions were based on not wanting a baby in one of these categories rather than just not wanting a baby (or another baby) at this particular time?  The state would have to prove many assumptions about the inner thoughts of those making the decision.  Even if they made the decision after getting news of possible abnormalities, people do change their minds.

The next puzzle arose from the understanding that those who are prochoice are generally in favor of protecting the rights of everyone, with a special emphasis on considerations of race, gender or disability.  They will often circulate petitions, write to legislators, march in protest and vote for candidates based on the need to ensure that no one in these categories faces discrimination.  Yet the right of a woman to discriminate against an unborn child for the same reasons wins out over the right of the disabled unborn.  Is there a contradiction here or at the very least, an inconsistency?  I did a mental double-take and tried to resolve it.

My interpretation of this apparent contradiction comes, believe it or not, from parallel behavior among defenders of the Second Amendment.  When faced with reasonable arguments about automatic weapons and so-called assault rifles, they balk.  These weapons are not used for hunting and seem like unnecessary firepower even for self-defense.  How many rounds per second do you need to fire through the door to neutralize an intruder?  You can’t very well fit one of these into a purse with your concealed-carry permit.  Those who favor increased gun control scratch their heads in wonderment at the intractability of their political opponents.

But the same principle applies in both cases:  give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.  Any compromise moves one step closer to selling out on the basic position.  Whether it be a stance on right to choose or a stance on guns, any compromise weakens your negotiating position in future discussions, arguments, and legal battles.

How many other areas face the same quandary?  We look to Washington to compromise, to reach across the aisle, but in everyday beliefs ordinary Americans refuse to act in that way.  Each party holds fast to its principles.  Then we scratch our heads and ask why nothing gets done.

People may differ philosophically, but their behavior is often surprisingly similar.  Remember only a month ago when a big fear was that a Trump loss would lead to protests in the street?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Responsibility On Line

I just finished reading Sense of Style, a book about writing by Stephen Pinker.  After covering clarity, fluency of thought, styles, grammar and syntax, he wraps up with some general advice for writers.  I contend that the audience for his advice is much wider than he intended.  Today nearly everyone is a writer – maybe not a professional writer, but a writer just the same.

Pinker’s closing points are about the integrity of an author.  “First, look things up.  Humans are cursed with a deadly combination of a highly fallible memory and an overconfidence in how much they know… If you are making a factual claim it should be verifiable.” 

Writing is not like speaking.  There is always time to find a reliable source to check whether what you are writing is true.  Why should anyone trust a writer who had the time to check the truth of their assertions but didn’t bother?

Many journalists have learned this lesson the hard way.  They risked their careers by making things up or by being careless about material that reflected their personal viewpoints.  Here is a short list with quoted sections taken from the individual Wikipedia entries. 
  • Jayson Blair: “an American journalist formerly with The New York Times. He resigned from the newspaper in May 2003 in the wake of the discovery of plagiarism and fabrication in his stories.”  The entry lists 7 cases of falsifying information about interviews he conducted and places visited from late 2002 to early 2003.
  • Janet Cooke:  “a former American journalist. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for an article written for The Washington Post, but the story was later discovered to have been fabricated.”  She is the only person to have returned a Pulitzer.
  • Stephen Glass:  “Over a three-year period [in the 1990s] as a young rising star at The New Republic, Glass invented quotations, sources, and events in articles he wrote for that magazine and others.”
  • James Frey:  “His two first books, A Million Little Pieces (2003) and My Friend Leonard (2005), were marketed as memoirs, but large parts of the stories were later found to be exaggerated or fabricated.”  First released as brutally honest nonfiction, later editions included a note from the author and publisher apologizing. 
  • Dan Rather:  “became embroiled in controversy about a disputed news report involving President George W. Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard and subsequently left CBS Evening News in 2005, and he left the network altogether after 43 years in 2006.”  His report relied on documents that “could not be authenticated.” 
What do we have in common with these professionals?  Why should we care?  With the growth of the Internet and social media, most people today are writers but don’t know it.  The act of liking, following and forwarding puts them in that category.  By virtue of this "authorship" they must also accept responsibility for accuracy.  Like some of those professionals mentioned and many more, they must not simply repost material that reinforces their worldview without checking.

A widely-reported posting on Buzz Feed News a few days ago said that by the end of the presidential campaign, there were more engagements (shares, comments, likes, etc.) of fake news than of mainstream news.  Some fake news was obviously made up, but the interest in spreading it outweighed the responsibility to get it right.  (Not that most mainstream news was without an agenda.) 

This NBC News story adds to the concern.  A doctor looked into the accuracy of information spread on line about the Zika virus earlier this year.  Out of 200 posts, she classified about 12 percent as misleading.  It was bad information, usually centering on some conspiracy theory.  Now 12 percent is not necessarily bad, but she also found that the misinformation was the most popular.  “The most shared credible and useful post, for example, was a video of a WHO press briefing that was viewed 43,000 times and shared by 964 Facebook accounts. The most popular post spreading misinformation claimed Zika virus is a ‘fraudulent medical hoax’ and was viewed more than 530,000 times. That post was also shared by more than 19,600 people.”  In other words, bad information in this case had between 10 and 20 times the reach of reliable medical facts.

Apparently none of those 19,600 people recognized themselves as an author with the responsibilities to fact-check material before forwarding it.  But so much bad information is circulating on Facebook and other social media, that one source of false claims might be used to justify another faulty source.  It becomes a vicious cycle of untruth – a cycle of myths and misperception that others rely on to make decisions.

Some of this information may be relatively harmless.  People may waste a little money on a false hope, a miracle cure to a minor problem or an herb that promises longer life.  In other cases, many of them highlighted in my previous postings, the spread of false information can lead to serious health or financial problems.  Not taking Zika or any other real disease seriously is but one example.

Social media circulates bad information and half-truths daily.  The examples above imply that bad information drives out good information.  If any authors, including the likers and forwarders, don’t take responsibility, they lose credibility.  They lose the trust of friends and readers.  Then we are left with a situation where everyone must exercise critical thinking and verify before believing anything.

It used to be a common joke to say, "It must be true, I read it on the Internet."  It was well understood that the Internet was not reliable.  Today people get their news from Facebook, other social media and comedy shows, take it at face value and pass it along - scary!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Understanding History to Reduce Stress

Before every presidential election and sometimes afterwards, there is a lot of talk about the Electoral College.  Lately people have been suggesting that it be abolished.  They can’t understand why the American system works that way.

When I took American History in high school, it was pretty clear, and I think it’s still a required subject.  Students today, however, tend to apply the situations and values of today when judging historical decisions.  But it was a different time with different concerns.

Members of the Constitutional Convention did not think of themselves as citizens of the same “country” or as Americans, even in the abstract.  They were citizens of, and loyal to, their individual states with individual governments and interests.  If they were to form a republic by joining these states together, they must ensure that their state did not get a bad deal.  The group as a whole needed to compromise on a number of issues to bring everyone in.  (Few people at the time envisioned a powerful central government dictating sweeping policies and restrictions to all the states.)

Anyone who cared enough could easily look up on the history of the Electoral College on Wikipedia.  “In Federalist No. 39, [James] Madison argued the Constitution was designed to be a mixture of state-based and population-based government. Congress would have two houses: the state-based Senate and the population-based House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the president would be elected by a mixture of the two modes.”  That equal representation by state in the Senate protected the voice of the smaller states.

“Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68 laid out the key advantages to the Electoral College. The electors come directly from the people and them alone for that purpose only, and for that time only. This avoided a party-run legislature, or a permanent body that could be influenced by foreign interests before each election.”  This overcame a disadvantage of one original proposal, which was favored by most, that the president be elected by a vote in Congress.

Of course, disputes also arose over the number of electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives, for each state.  This required another compromise, which is often misrepresented.  The southern states wanted each of their slaves counted as a full person when calculating population and their respective number of representatives.  It was the anti-slavery northerners, fearing again that their states would lose power and be under-represented, that pushed for the Three-Fifth Compromise.

“Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free inhabitants of each state be counted for apportionment purposes, while delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, opposed the proposal, wanting slaves to count in their actual numbers. The compromise that was finally agreed upon—of counting ‘all other persons’ as only three-fifths of their actual numbers—reduced the representation of the slave states relative to the original proposals, but improved it over the Northern position.”

Despite the compromise to three-fifths, the slave states still enjoyed an inordinate influence in Washington for the next 70 years.  Often interpreted as a racial attack by those who would devalue people, using three-fifths instead of zero actually reduced the relative influence of the anti-slave faction!

Neither of these compromises was about race or diluting the voice of the people.  They were about distribution of power.  The Constitution was not about building a democracy.  It was about building a republic, about getting 13 states to agree to a master plan that seemed fair to each, one that they could take back to their individual states satisfied that they would be better off banding together than trying to make it on their own, and that they would not be steamrolled by larger states or those with opposing interests.

A little research and a little critical thinking clear up these issues.  It’s a shame so many people allow themselves to be upset and outraged instead of investigating the facts.  But where’s the fun of that?