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.

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