My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Don’t Be Mean! We Regress to the Mean With or Without Scolding.

Thinking-Fast-and-Slow-CoverYou’ve probably had this experience, and made the very same mistake that most people make.

You perform a task exceptionally well, compliment yourself for a job well done, and then notice your next attempt at the very same task is much less effective. Compliments, you decide, affect your performance for the worse!

On the other hand, you’ve probably had the opposite experience, too. You do something very poorly, scold yourself for your poor performance, and then notice that your next attempt at the same task has improved. Aha! A good scolding, you decide, affects your performance for the better!

Before you know it, you’re trying not to jinx yourself with compliments and cursing at yourself like a drill sergeant whenever you make a mistake.

Unfortunately, your assessment of what’s happening is totally wrong! Rewarding improvements in performance is always more effective in the long run than punishing mistakes — no matter what your experience seems to suggest!

What’s happening is that your brain’s instinctive desire to make sense of the world around you, quickly and easily, is overlooking the statistical phenomenon known as regression to mean.

The key factor in your misunderstanding of the situation is the exceptionally good or poor performance that prompts you to compliment or berate yourself. Whenever you deviate exceptionally from normal performance, the next time you undertake the very same task, you’re much more likely to perform at levels more typical for you — that is closer to your average or mean performance.

This will almost always happen whether you compliment yourself or not! Perform a task exceptionally well, and you can expect the next attempt to be less successful and closer to your mean. Perform a task very poorly, and you can expect your very next attempt to be better and closer to your mean performance.

Your brain, unfortunately, isn’t a statistician by nature, and its love of easy answers makes it hard for you to resist your hunch that compliments jinx and scolding improves performance simply because you’re much more likely to compliment exceptional performance and scold its very poor cousin.

Useful nuggets like our tendency to misunderstand the role of regression to mean are found throughout Thinking, Fast and Slow, written by Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics and, unfortunately, not for Literature. It may seem like a cheap shot, but I doubt this book would have gone to press in its present form, if its author didn’t have the highly marketable stamp of approval from the Nobel committee.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a hard slog of a read, and, in places, downright crippling. Not because the subject matter it covers is necessarily difficult or esoteric but because it’s not terribly well written. It’s tone and style varies so much, it’s difficult to understand even who this book is intended for. At times, it’s far too detailed and academic for the casual reader, but, because it’s ultimately a rehash of well-known and widely accepted research, I doubt any experts in the field will want to read it just to discover the personal anecdote Kahneman uses to explain the common mistake I described at the outset.

I can’t recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, especially when there are many well-written books that cover the same ground. If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious systems of the brain, start with Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson.  If you want to learn more about the ineffective shortcuts our brain often makes when reasoning, I’d start with You Are Not So Smart or You Are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney. Or check out his site.

If you want to explore and discuss in greater detail the ideas and research in these books, I can help.

Revisting Personality Type and Gender: A Cosmetic Distinction!

Historically, it is often claimed that a disproportionate number of women exhibit a certain set of personality traits and a disproportionate number of men exhibit a distinct set of personality traits.

From the perspective of the Myers Briggs framework, it is said women tend to prefer “to come to decisions by associating or empathizing with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside’ and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit, considering the needs of the people involved.” In contrast, men tend to “decide things from a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent and matching a given set of rules.” In either case, both decision “styles” can be more or less rational, depending on the given circumstance and the decision made (Source). Call the first style of reasoning, F-type, and the second, T-type.

There is, it seems [big “seems”, read on], empirical evidence to support the claim that women prefer F-type reasoning and men prefer T-type. For instance, it is often claimed online that roughly sixty per cent of women prefer F-type reasoning and sixty per cent of men prefer T-type. Thus, on the whole, most women are F-type reasoners and, on the whole, most men are T-type. Unfortunately, as often as I find this claim online, I can’t find a study to justify it. I should also admit I have been guilty of citing these numbers in conversation and, probably, even on this blog. I thought I sourced them in a peer reviewed paper but I can no longer find the mysterious source! Looks like I may have been guilty of some lazy online research!

After a little more digging, I found a credible source, which initially seems to support the claim that the genders are divided along a preferred type of reasoning. The surprising conclusion is that men often falsely report their preferences. On closer scrutiny, it seems many more men, who are initially assessed as T-type reasoners, are, in fact, F-type. The gender differences that seems to exist in the numbers might very well be caused by men who prefer to think of themselves as T-type reasoners when they are, in fact, F-type.

It should also be emphasized that the MBTI test is designed only to measure preferences. We are all capable of employing either type of reasoning and we all do, depending on a variety of different factors, and, it seem plausible, we might even use both types of reasoning for any given decision. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that the different forms of reasoning will lead to different conclusions. Ultimately, the MBTI test, even when perfectly administered by a trained professional, only indicates a generalized preference which may or may not manifest itself in any given circumstance. So, even if some well-executed study demonstrates a strong correlation between gender and reasoning preferences, I’m not sure it will be of much use to us on a person-to-person and day-to-day basis.

Moreover, I now doubt the validity of the distinction drawn between the two types of reasoning. When I imagine a group of human primates living on the edge of survival thanks only to their mutual cooperation, it is, I think, very logical for them to employ F-type reasoning to draw conclusions about the vast majority of the decisions they face. Once I draw this conclusion, I then start to wonder if anything meaningfully distinct is captured with the expression “…a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent and matching a given set of rules.” There is, after all, no reason to assume that reasoning involving empathy, internal coherence, and giving due consideration to the balance of reasons is not also reasonable, logical, causal, consistent, and involve rule-following. “Thou shall take all perspectives into consideration to identify the best outcome” is a rule that is reasonable, logical, consistent, and causal! Similarly, I know many reasonable and logical people who solve complex problems “by associating … with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside’ and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit, considering the needs of the … [ideas] involved.” For example, a thought experiment about what it might be like to travel at light speed is consistent with this kind of reasoning. Some mathematicians also solve math problems the same way some people just get other people.

My claim, then, is this: the proposed distinction between F-type and T-type reasoning is tantamount to a distinction between “six” and a “half-dozen”. The only difference is the language employed to describe the very same phenomenon. Perhaps, some people prefer to describe their reasoning with one set of words as opposed to another but I don’t think the preference is terribly important to understanding how they reason. In support of this claim, I note that the “Big Five Personality Traits,” for which there is a growing body of supporting empirical research, does not seem to have a distinct trait corresponding to the F/T distinction. Finally, even a cursory glance at the cognitive neuroscience research on reasoning suggests there is much more going on in our brains when we reason than is implied by the F/T distinction.

The last lingering question, of course, is why a particular description of reasoning was identified, distinguished, and, for the most part, privileged. I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that appeals to higher order, abstract principles, or ideals is an easy way to disregard the reasonable claims of others standing in front of us.