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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Ukrainians get out the vote!

The Ukrainians held an election for president the other day, and you've got to hand it to them. Not only did up to 110% of the registered voters vote in some areas, but some folks in their patriotic fervor voted several times. Strange it seemed though, at least to the Russians, that most of the Ukrainians did not approve. Alexander Putin, leader and chief thug among the Russians, and leader of the emerging economic union of thug states including neighboring Belarus and Kazhakstan, sent warm congratulations. After all, the election was stolen fair and square. Of course, the Americans and European Union disagreed. Putin lectured the west about lecturing Ukraine, which ignored the din of the millions of Ukrainians pouring into the streets who with a loud voice had the temerity to lecture back.

The press blathered on about a conflict about east and west, whereas I see it as a simple matter of bigger meal portions. Let me explain. My wife, who is a Russian national, returned recently to the mother land, and observed how Russia seems to be on the road to rapid Americanization. Compared to her last trip a year ago, there were no drunks in the street, you could call a taxi rather than have to thumb a ride, and meal portions were bigger. So what does this mean? Simply that a free market was doing what free markets do, respond to rising consumer demand. A swell thing about free markets is that we can bitch loud about poor service, demand our money back, and take our business elsewhere when dissatisfied. This makes for some bad habits, particularly is you are a criminal politician. If you're a dictator who is in control of a bad government that fits all, and doesn't return phone calls at that, you've got an emerging problem. People will actually begin to think that if they can vote with their dollars, they can vote at the polls, and vote you out. Like pizza delivery, if you can't deliver the pepperoni, then Papa Johns of Dominos will beckon. The Ukrainians have recently learned, as the Russians will as well, the fact that is you allow choice, you allow complaints, and if complaints work with your local baker, they can work with your local dictator. So the Russians will become Americanized as they too learn the power of complaining, and Putin will I predict have to learn in a few years a new trade, which I suggest should be pizza delivery.

Monday, November 29, 2004

This disaster is brought to you by Krispy Kreme

My neighborhood had a disaster the other day.

Of sorts.

It was a dark and stormy night, which I slept through. North by a mile, a nearby subdivision got hit by a twister that sheared off roofs, toppled trees, ripped off siding, and made a general nuisance. No one was hurt though, yet the disaster made the nightly news and of course the weather channel.

And yet within minutes the scene was all sealed, antiseptic, like a breach in the Matrix. The guys with the shades were there, serious like police, manning the barricades. The official trucks made it though, of the county, the city, the power department, the water department, and the Home Depot truck. They were handing out rakes, all neighborly like. But the real neighbors were behind the barricades, this was a job for the caring web of authority. Later, All-State insurance vans buzzed the neighborhood with smiling adjusters with clipboards. The place hummed of jig saws and hammers. It was all better and soon, and I didn't have to care, or even care to remember that the disaster ever existed.

That's the thing about good government, it relieves you of the inconvenience of handing out rakes, helping with the reconstruction, even offering a neighbor a donut. It's all done for you, it's in the bylaws of our government, paid for by out taxes, and carried out by smiling people in shades. And if you ever deny it, rebel against it, then you might as well disconnect yourself, exist on pea soup, and live in the center of the earth. And you know something? Against the dramatic grain, no one in our perfect world will rightly care.

Mozart on the Barbie

I just finished watching with my little daughter the latest computer graphic masterpiece of the modern cinema: 'The Princess and the Pauper', starring 'Barbie'. This insipid plastic doll, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton, has thanks to modern technology supplanted real life actresses, though I wince imagining Hillary Duff in the role. This movie was more than a Barbie play, it was a Barbie musical. Fetching music, if of course you like musical tapwater. Nonetheless, it's stuff for the ages, between the ages four and eight that is.

A ridiculous legacy perhaps to be known as a composer for such cartoonish tripe, but that's par for the course when genius has to be married with other inspirations pulled from the bottom drawer. Discounting whether Barbie music ever could aspire to greatness, it is a truism that works of genius generally serve humble or vulgar ends. In other words, without a view to an imminent or even distant payday, creativity most assuredly will not find a way.

A persistent illusion among psychologists is that creation needs motives that well up pure and sparkling from within, like spring water. Get rid of all those bad extrinsic motivators (i.e., the fast buck), and the Mozart, Shakespeare, or Michelangelo within us will break free. Problem is, Mozart generally composed on commission, Shakespeare wrote for a fickle, women ogling, nut cracking audience that paid the bills, and Michelangelo was not in the ceiling painting business until the Pope made the call. The fact is, genius needs vulgar motives to survive. The trick is to get the vulgar masses to be interested enough to demand a higher standard of excellence in the stuff they buy.

But what's excellence but in the eye of the beholder? As a member of the vulgar masses who inadvertently voted for the Barbie operetta, perhaps I've given an unwitting vote for mediocrity, but not in the eyes of my four year old daughter, where Barbie is the Renaissance personified. To which I must admit, she is correct.

Monday, November 22, 2004

National Book Award Controversy: The Pleasures of Obscurity

What happens if you wrote a book and nobody read it? Well at least you can hope for a National Book Award. Being obscure is not necessarily a bad thing, as the folks who run this book award charged the judges in this competition to vote on books that they liked, the public and mass market be damned. To which I say, good show! Nonetheless, because the nominees and eventual winner probably had a collective readership of only a few thousand, a controversy has swirled as to whether books that have a marginal readership deserve a national accolade, when we have all sorts of swell books that have millions of readers that deserve equal time in the limelight (hear that Steven King?).

In my opinion, this is all totally beside the point, because it's the tiny audiences that really count. If you think about it, nearly all of the artistic and literary creations we treasure were written for audiences that wouldn't fill a high school gymnasium. Famous dramatists from Euripedes to Shakespeare wrote their plays for a local civic population no larger than a mid sized town, and musicians like Mozart and Schubert composed for provincial audiences who were equally small, and even indifferent! The point is, genius demands but a small audience, as world wide fame only helps pay the bills. Problematically, people are not in the habit of giving small audiences to creative minds, and would rather turn the dial on the TV than turn the page on someone's book or discuss with interest their latest brainchild. Thus, because we too often have no audience to inspire us, inspiration fades. Of course, in the whole wide world, there are always a few hundred folks who will want to hear what you say, no matter how daft. Which brings us to, you guessed it, the blog. The internet has fractured audiences into tiny groups, each of which can provide inspiration to genius as well as stupidity. But of course the wheat must come with the chaff, as even a Shakespeare and a Mozart had to contend with dozens of competitors who each sought the same tiny audience. The blog tethers an infinitude of tiny audiences with an infinitude of writers that they inspire. And indeed, if a million, million of us aspire to write, compose, or think because we have a tiny coterie of people clicking on us from time to time, it's better than a whole raft of National Book Awards, and who knows, a new Mozart or Shakespeare may pop out of it, as the fractious history of mankind has so amply proved.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Gramps out to pasture

In my workaday travels, I get the opportunity to see members of the human species in all sorts or naturalistic and unnaturalistic settings. It strikes me as altogether fitting that when folks grow old, they find themselves a way of going out to pasture, and spend their waning days munching figuratively on green leaves in a wide open space. So what is this modern day equivalent of a pasture?

Why, a casino of course.

They come to these places by the bus load, and succored by dazzling lights, noises, and cheap buffets, they fix their eyes raptly on spinning wheels engraved with bells, stars, and cherries. Gambling commandeers this instinctual baggage, shared by parrots and people, to seek out new and different things. Called a seeking or foraging response, it simply reflects our sensitivity to positive events that stray from the expected. The seeking response is an integral part of everything we do, and without it, we would hardly have need to change from the same old routines of life. As kids, the seeking response is a McDonald's or Disney playland, as adults its the unexpected challenge of career and family, and as old folks it's in the unexpected roll of a die. When we are very old or very young, the seeking response is unvarnished by higher purposes of work and family, it is just exploration pure and simple. It is play. And indeed, when out to pasture life and the reason to live become no more than a game, a purpose I would hope that heaven shares.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Evolutionary psychology wins its argument, and no one cares.

As the story goes, the Greek philosopher Zeno was beating his slave one day, and the slave cried out: "Master, why do you beat me, seeing that my behavior is determined to be so as you have said in your philosophy?" To which Zeno replied: " Yes, and I fear that my beating you is also quite determined!"

Moral: whether free will or determined, we will still behave the same.

However one may regard the merits of the free will vs. determinism debate, it is quite true that however one stands on the issue, one will still behave the same. And this is why no one really cares that much about philosophical issues like this, it just doesn't have any practical implications for their lives.

Now, practicality is the great spoil sport for grand philosophical ideas. If its impractical, its ignored (except in philosophy books and courses), and if it purports to be practical, then it must generate procedures that are testable. Freudians and behaviorists found this out the hard way, as psychoanalysis and behavior analysis became progressively ignored and hence irrelevant as their procedures they generated weren't quite up to snuff, or were no different than common sense applied. Contemporary academic and pop psychologists understand this too well, and make sure that the procedures they generate are hard to test, can generate tests that are predetermined to come out supporting their conclusions, or suggest tests that really aren't tests (e.g. the testimonial). The rub is, no matter how many psychological 'proofs' that one can assemble that giving gold stars to children will make them disinterested (self determination theory), or that motivational suggestion (e.g. hypnosis, Dr. Phil) can allow one to walk on water, these procedures must still work in the real world.

They don't, and thus they are safely relegated to academia, the self help circuit, and the Oprah show.

In spite of the fact that psychology has as much practical traction as a tire on ice, psychologists continue to blather on with explanations that remain untestable, impractical, and downright useless. The latest psychological movement that fills this bill is evolutionary psychology. Whereas in the past, psychological determinism was the useless argument du jour, the argument now has vaulted to genetic determinism. That is, you are still determined to do what you do, but blame those naughty genes! Evolutionary psychologists has provided psychologists, biologists, and other assorted cranks a field day to hypothesize all sorts of genetic reasons (or should I say alibis) for all sorts of behavior from altruism and sexuality to thumbsucking and voting republican. And rather than isolate the real neurological cause tethered to a real identifiable gene, they defer that issue to a convenient time, say one million years into the future, and instead justify it by saying that our Paleolithic ancestors had to rape women, suck their thumbs, or select leaders who espoused family values because survival depended on it. And because survival depended on it, the genes they passed on to their children encoded these so important traits.

The point is whether it is true or not, who cares? Indeed, to shut them up, I am willing to grant that it is all true, just like I tell my child that Santa and the Easter Bunny exists. Because in truth it doesn't really matter if its true or not, because people will continue to behave the same. That's why much of the social sciences, and evolutionary psychology in particular, is just a big empty box. There's nothing in it for us common folk, therefore we ignore it. Presently, evolutionary psychology has lit up the intellectual landscape because it is new, and because there are still a lot of traits that still have to be explained (e.g. procrastination, jock itch, shoe fetishes) by postulating new and fanciful genetic causes. But when that's done, then evolutionary psychology will fade from the intellectual landscape, much as Freudian and behavioristic psychology have become mere intellectual afterthoughts.

And of course, we will still continue to behave the same.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The God Gene

A common excresence or should we say expression in evolutionary psychology is an announcement by some academic type of the discovery of a new gene that controls an aspect of our behavior, such as altruism, thumbsucking, incest, or voting Republican. The latest dubious discovery is the 'God gene' . The God gene is no more than a gene that controls the transport mechanisms of mood altering chemicals, whatever that means. Now, I'm of the sort that thinks we believe in God due to fact that we have a big neocortex (or grey matter), and thus can forsee bad things like death and taxes. Thus we postulate Gods and Republican administrations to eliminate the problem. Therefore there is no need to postulate a God or Republican gene. But that's besides the point.

Consider if you will a particular array of genes that only me and 7% of the population have. They basically wire up my cerebral noggin with many more receptor genes for a particular little neurochemical called dopamine. Thus I and my minority compatriots are more sensitive to novelty and surprise, and seek it out wherever we can. Because this mood altering dopamine molecule is being transported all over the place due to the extra receptors I possess, I am more inclined to be a creative troublemaker. Thus I will be more likely to be a world conqueror, artist, scientist, or republican president. Now here's the rub. Do I say that I possess an artistic gene, attila the hun gene, or political gene? Well no, because these genes, as well as other genes, control for general tendencies, not specific ones. Thus, all I can say is that these genes control for left handedness , and a sensitivity to surprise. Now a sensitivity to surprising or novel things doesn't have the cachet of an Attila the Hun gene, but evolutionary psychologists don't care to trumpet this blander fact because that's not where the money or notoriety is. The guy who discovered the God Gene has written a new book, 'The God Gene', about it, and will make a lot of money, which goes to show that money talks, or that the poor fellow possesses the yet to be discovered bullshitter gene.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Choices, Choices!

Copernicus. Remember him? What Copernicus did was change the metaphorical way we look at the world. By demonstrating that the earth and planets revolved around the sun rather than have the planets and sun revolve around the earth, he changed the way we pictorially think about the world, and opened the door to advances in physics that allowed space travel among other things. Metaphors can change the way we look at the world, and whether it is the metaphor of evolution, disease, mental health, etc., the questions we ask are dependent upon mental pictures of the world that we scarcely question. One of the most important metaphors that describes the root cause of our satisfaction/disatisfaction with the world is the cause of stress. Generally, we are stressed because of demands that we cannot fulfill or threats we cannot escape. The problem is, in a world far more bountiful and less threatening than in times past, we are beset by more anxieties than ever before. But what if it isn't demand or threat that makes us so stressed out and unhappy, but rather an abundance of options or choices? Then all we have to do to feel relaxed and happy is to manage how we choose things rather than what we choose. Very simply, like Copernicus' observation, regarding our mental health, and in particular stress, we've got is all backwards. Since I as a caustic reviewer eschew pontification on things, I only submit a procedure, recounted here: Itty-Bitty Self Help Book , the rest like the argument below is mere scribbling.

My argument in a nutshell

It is well known that muscular tension is a common element in the constellation of physiological events that comprise a ‘flight or fight’ response, a hard wired response that engages neural structures such as the amygdala that prime an individual to action. It is also true that the ‘flight or fight’ response is commonly expanded in the literature of stress to encompass states of muscular tension that may not originate in fear or anger, but remain attributable to point like stressors arising from the day to day demands of living. Thus, just like seeing a lion will charge one to tense up, seeing a deadline at work will do much the same, and activate the same neurological machinery. Although this logic is simple, it simply does not fit the facts from the social psychological to the physiological.

An extensive body of social psychological research has demonstrated, and has recently been argued at book length by the psychologist Barry Schwartz (‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’) that an abundance of choices rather than threats are responsible for the present day surge in anxiety related disorders. In other words, the tremendous increase in the number of options available to the modern consumer make it less and less possible to make reasoned choices, thus causing frustration, tension and often depression when opportunity losses abound from a plethora of options that are unchosen. But if irreconcilable choices are used as the operative metaphor rather than ‘stressors’, the implications to our understanding of stress are profound. Because the metaphor of choice does not imply threat, the logic of ‘flight or fight’ begins to ring hollow. For example, does the momentary tension that occurs while we decide between several varieties of toothpaste occur because we are priming ourselves to escape?

Of course, eliminating choices is not possible, since having multiple varieties of goods to choose from is not only reasonable but affectively desirable. However, temporarily avoiding or timing when we make choices is possible, and is a means we often use to avoid stress. For example, irreconcilable choices may be due to important decisions that must be made with limited information (whether or not to accept a job) or because the information provided comes from a different neurological source (raiding the refrigerator or keeping to a diet). To escape stressful choices, we thus avoid them, or move them to a preset place and time. Besides making choices that involve information or primary drives (e.g. hunger), choices are also embedded in drive states that more properly describe our sensitivity to novel or discrepant information that leads to a positive result. The ‘drive’ state, which is also called a ‘seeking response’ or Pavlovian incentive motivation, describes the attentive arousal, often pleasurably perceived, that attends our perception of novel positive events. Watching TV, answering email, playing a video game, engaging in a social conversation at work are all events that stimulate or arouse our attention because of the element of surprise or uncertainty they entail. More popularly called ‘distractions’, an attribute of our times is that often we don’t eliminate or forestall them, but use them as solution for stress rather than perceiving them as a cause. So when confronted with too many choices at work, rather than timing out and doing nothing, we introduce more choices (gossiping, web surfing, reading the paper), and end up being even more stressed.

Schwartz’s solution to the stresses that plague us was simple, namely reduce choice. A better solution is to manage choice, and to during preset hours during the day avoid all irreconcilable choices. In other words, by avoiding all distractions, with the alternative to making a choice being a simple time out (i.e. just sitting and doing nothing), the musculature will revert to a default or relaxed state. Thus, by deciding when to choose rather than what to choose, we can become relaxed at home and work, and be able to manage the daily stresses that beset us.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

My Russia Trip: Take a Number

I was in Russia the other day, well a lot of days ago. It was July, 2003 to be exact. Just visiting my wife's folks. Since my wife is from Russia, it didn't seem at the time that I would be visiting Russian to see the inlaws any time soon.

I was wrong.

You don't take the mini-van to this place, you take the train, and from Moscow you stay in the tiny cabin of the sleeping car for TWO DAYS straight. If Napoleon's army had taken the train to Moscow, I am sure his fate would have been the same, except his troops would have frozen to death in the dining car. Anyways, my wife's home town is called Krasnoturinsk, a dilapidated little town that looks like Aspen, Colorado would look like if it mainly catered to Ukrainian migrant tomato pickers. Krasnoturninsk is easy to find. Just picture yourself in nowhere. Now put yourself in the middle of it. See, easy! Krasnoturinskians spend a lot of their time idling along, waiting, or its off to the outskirts of town so they can plant potatoes, squash, berries, or whatever, and then sit back and watch them sprout. Of course, a plentiful supply of vodka helps you idle better, which I can attest to personally.

Now, getting about in this idyllic (or should I say idle-ick) country should be a priority, after all I wanted to spread my boredom about equitably. But no. You see, a passport and visa are not enough to give you the right to trot about the country. My passport needed another stamp, sort of a 'park hopper' pass (like you get in Disneyworld). So my wife and I trotted to a non descript building (all buildings here are non descript), housing the local travel agency. Breezing through travel brochures for excursions to the Black Sea, Greece, and other places, I noted that there were none for the U.S. There's a simple reason for this, namely the American bureaucratic opinioni that America is such a swell place, anybody traveling from a less than first world country will be tempted to stay, well, forever. So no passports for the local folk unless they would leave behind as a virtual hostage a multi-million dollar bank account and pregnant wife.

So as I figure, the Russians returned the favor by letting you in, but still requiring the locals to invite you to visit. My passport was soon on its merry way to the nearby city of Ekaterinburg, and expedited as we requested, it would only take I was assured four weeks or so to get stamped, just in time for me to take the train out of this place. But I digress.

It was the agony associated with my wife's passport that raised my keen psychological eye. As a lady with a schizophrenic identity, namely Russian and American citizenship, she naturally needed her passport fixed as well. So that meant a trip to the notary and a few other bureaucratic functionaries. Picture a spare waiting room, about 15 meters square, with about twenty or so people milling about. Every thirty minutes, the door would open, a voice would call, and a flurry of fingers would point, right and left. Who was next? Who knows? Anyways, what struck me was that the Russians had not, in the renaissance of their freedom, invented that great American time saver: taking a number. We couldn't take a number, couldn't get our name put down in a queue. We just had to wait. Naturally, after five hours, we were the last one's to be called, but at that moment we were told the office would be closed, and to come back another day.

In experimental psychology, if a mouse, rat, or monkey is put in a position where it can't escape from a shock, it learns to be helpless, and won't respond to helpful cues to escape when even the gates of the cage are drawn down. In seventy years, an entire nation learned that it couldn't escape, and therefore couldn't attend to the simple cues, or for that matter provide for the simple cues, that would allow them to escape. So we were all trapped in that little room, for want of a taking simple number. If I was to write a lesson from this experience, perhaps critical thinking is not the real problem, but learning to attend to the problem to begin with. Here, no one attended to the problem, so they suffered silently in the face of it, as if waiting in life was as inevitable as death and taxes. In America, our problem is the opposite, as we are so keen on solving problems, we must continually invent new ones to solve. Perhaps there is higher lesson to this, but I'll take a number and think about it another time.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Spandrel of Virtue: Radical Behaviorism and the Science of Optimism


Radical behaviorism as defined recognizes only behavioral observations that are observable and replicable, and is coextensive with purely inductive psychological principles. Recently, the incorporation of micro-behavioral or neural events into a radical behaviorism has permitted the construction of new theoretical principles for incentive motivation that integrate Pavlovian salience motivation with the associationalist principles of Skinnerian operant conditioning. This for the first time permits the operationalization of key inferred processes in psychology such as intrinsic motivation, hope, and virtue that had heretofore been resistant to empirical analysis. Moral or humanistic principles thus may be derived without loss from a behavioristic analysis considered alone.

Radical Behaviorism in a New Century

A common view in psychology is that a behaviorism is about 'surface' things, overt behaviors, contingencies, and reinforcers, and that behavior is isomorphic to patterns of environmental events perceived now and historically (through memory). But what counts as behavior is dependent upon the resolving power of the tools you use to observe it, much as the behavior of the cosmos from the quantum to the universe as a whole counts on the tools available that enabled physicists to observe them. Ultimately, if behavior is what the body does, then it does not matter where the level of analysis must begin, from molecular neural events to molar behavioral events. They all equally 'count' and they all must be ultimately woven into a unified theory of behavior. A 'radical' behaviorism represents exactly this perspective (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993, Marr, 2001)

Historically, the core element of learning theories, namely reward, reinforcement or incentive motivation, has been most commonly represented by a methodological behaviorism that used as its primary subject matter directly measurable descriptions of behavior as represented by response topography or form and the contingent relationships between behavior and reward that were mapped in turn to schedules of reinforcement. This can be simply represented by act-outcome relationships that cohere with common sense appraisals of how behavior is motivated. Presently, a second factor has been added to the equation that differs not only psychologically but also in terms of the brain mechanisms that as micro-behavioral entities are also directly measurable. This second factor, formally known as Pavlovian incentive salience, is represented by the activity of the mesolimbic dopamine system in the brain, and can be more simply represented by the concept of behavioral discrepancy. Behavioral discrepancy, as postulated by Donahoe and Palmer (1993), broadens the heuristics or rules of thumb of behaviorism to encompass covert events that until only recently were unobservable. Informed by the observations derived from new methodologies (e.g. fmri, neuronal modeling) that can examine the brain in ‘action’, the common sense rules that can be applied to behavior must now not only include knowledge of the daily contingencies of cause and effect, but the daily discrepancies in the predicted correlations between cause and effect. In other words, the value of what we do is influenced not only by what we do and see, but also by the continuously changing estimate of what we predict to be.

The concept of discrepancy, or a discrepancy theory of reward (Hollerman and Schultz, 1998), simply states that the neurological sensitivity imputed to events of nativistic or inborn significance such as food, sex, power, etc. must also include abstract elements of behavior, namely the relative novelty or surprise whereby those events occur. In other words, discrepancy acts in effect as a Pavlovian unconditioned stimulus. In two factor learning theory, Pavlovian stimuli such as food, sex, etc. represented a separate learning process called respondent conditioning that complemented but did not integrate with incentive learning as reflected by operant conditioning. With the inclusion of discrepancy as a Pavlovian stimulus, this has changed. Thus not only contingency but also discrepancy must be considered in an integrated account of incentive motivation. The notion of discrepancy makes evolutionary sense, since it is unpredictable events (e.g. a predator jumping out of a tree, finding a new source of food) that have the most salience, as we need to come up with new cognitive strategies that can handle them. Thus, when we are surprised with events that occur in ways different than expected, the brain creates neuromodulators (neurochemicals that modulate or activate global areas of the brain) that fix attention, make thinking more efficient, and at high levels are perceived as having a hedonic value (i.e. they feel good). So what does this mean? It is a cause for hope, literally.


Hope, optimism, or positive thinking represents a cognitive appraisal or focus on probable or likely positive events, but not positive events that are wholly predictable. For example, I would never say that I am optimistic that the sun will rise, but for a picnic on a cloudy day, I would say I am optimistic that the sun will shine. Although optimism is a conscious appraisal of positive uncertainty, the same uncertainty and its hedonic value may be non-consciously perceived and still influence behavior (Berridge, 2001). Moreover, the hedonic value if consciously perceived may have a value that is coherent or incoherent with a rational perspective of what is good and proper.

To illustrate this, consider this mind experiment. A piece worker in a button factory may have to pull the lever on a button making machine many times during the day to make a required quota of buttons, with the reinforcement of the worker's labor occurring upon the weekly receipt of a fixed paycheck. But what if payment occurred following some random average of pulls, and what if the payment ranged from a sum many times the size of the paycheck to actual debits from the workers account? Whereas every act of the worker was before utterly predictable in terms of the relationship between behavior and reward, the sudden randomization of the size and timeliness of the reward reflects the imposition of a positive uncertainty that transforms the button machine into a slot machine. If real world examples suffice, the worker will become alert, enthused, and will likely look forward to positive results for his next day at ‘work’ even though he may recognize that his weekly winnings may on average never surpass his former and predictable paycheck of old. In other words, despite the good or bad implications of his behavior, he becomes happy and optimistic, and feels all the better because of it.

As the individual morphs from a bored and disinterested factory worker to an excited and optimistic ‘player’, the motivational source of his behavior will likely remain obscure, and his linguistic appraisal of his own behavior may thus vary radically and unpredictably, even though its neural concomitants remain as consistent and verifiable dependent measures. Thus if the worker is aware of the cause of his higher motivation, he may say that he is intrinsically motivated, and if he is aware of attendant good feelings, he may say he is also having a peak experience. Further, if the implications of his work are good, then he may refer to his experience as self-actualization, and if its implications are bad, it may be called an addiction. The worker’s behavior may therefore be conscious or non-conscious, entail good feelings or no feelings, and have good or bad implications. Each of the permutations of these factors can thus result in different mentalistic descriptions that can be assumed to reflect distinct hypothetical motivating entities that are presumably instigated by different mental or neurological processes. The unfortunate result of this is that a bestiary of inferred processes, traits, and characteristics is created that is more likely to impede than clarify an understanding of behavior. The question though remains, what is essential and what is derived? Are inferred processes the building blocks of behavior, or is there something more elemental and observable?

Intrinsic Motivators

The extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation dichotomy in social psychology is a prime example of this difficulty. Intrinsic motivators are commonly defined as events that are reinforcing in and of themselves. That this reasoning is itself tautological, that is, ‘we behave because we behave’, and that discrete extrinsic and intrinsic motivators have no demonstrated neurological foundation has not forestalled the postulation of a host of inferred intrinsically motivating processes from ‘flow’ states to ‘senses’ of control, empowerment, etc. What is distinctive about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation states is that the former are near universally appraised as events that occur predictably and have predictable implications, while the latter are not.

For example, the intrinsically motivating flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is a pleasurable and ecstatic state that occurs when demand matches but does not surpass skill, such as when one is performing artistic, sporting, or other creative pursuits. But demand and skill invariably co-vary, as rock climbing, tennis playing, or other creative endeavors represent continuous and unexpected shifts in the predictability of a sure grasp on a ledge, a good tennis shot, or of a moment’s inspiration. Similarly, senses of power, control, security, etc. also involve shifting estimates of the predictability of rewards, as when an individual cognitively surveys the unpredictable yet positive implications of a position of power, wealth, or other authority.

In contrast, extrinsic motivators are generally appraised as discrete events that occur predictably and have predictable implications. In particular, in educational environments, gold stars, verbal praise, and other rewards are contingent on behavior that follows predictable or rote forms, and the implications of such rewards are predictable as well. Because of the inherent predictability of such contingencies of reward as well as the reward itself, such behavior is inherently unstimulating or even boring. However, as our previous example attests, to continually vary the timeliness and size of an external reward transforms such external motivators into intrinsic motivators. Secondly, if extrinsic motivators are profuse and interdependent, a similar transformation occurs. For example, a student may find writing a play for a mere class grade a boring task to be sure, but if aspects of that story influence not only the teachers attention, but a prize from the principal, a chance of publication, the favors of a classmate of the opposite sex, beating out a competitive student, or gaining the judgement of posterity, then the uncertain dependencies between all these events would create a stimulating and internally rewarding environment. This of course was Shakespeare's predicament as well as his inspiration if the movie 'Shakespeare in Love' is to be believed.

These examples underscore the fact that the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is misconceived by assigning meaning to metaphorical (inner intrinsic and outer extrinsic) causes rather than meaning that derives from evidential characteristics of the behavior itself. That is, intrinsic and extrinsic do not denote the ‘discrepant’ value and the ‘contingent’ value that correspond respectively with the hedonic and logical ends of behavior. This analysis coheres (as it must) not only on a molar behavioral level, but also on a molecular behavioral level with present day ‘two-factor’ learning theories that divide incentive motivation into different neurological processes that separately correspond with ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ (Berridge, 2001).

The dubious value of inferred mental motivating processes such as intrinsic motivation underscores the larger fact that human motivation has been described for millennia by a metaphorical language that is detached from or obscures the reality of behavior, and most importantly the neuro-physiological processes that make up our minds. But in biology, the homeostatic impulses or drives that animate all living things, from thirst and hunger to sex, can be dissected without primary consideration of feelings or ‘qualia’ of hunger and thirst, and do not need their introduction to be predicted and controlled. Philosophy however has always been immune to such a presumption, and has generally been considered to be not reducible to byproducts of mere physiological urges. But is this truly the case? The simple question is this: can a positive psychology be derived from behavior alone if its subjects, like its mammalian cousins are rendered in principle mute? In other words, is the necessity of virtue something that is beyond words?

The Spandrel of Virtue

In evolutionary psychology as well as popular discourse, it is presently fashionable to hypothesize mental modules engraved by evolutionary pressures that can directly account for idiosyncratic human behavior, from hungering for hot dogs to hot blondes. The evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979) provided a cautionary warning to such armchair theorizing, and noted that every biological or behavioral feature does not necessarily exist for some adaptive purpose. They offered the architectural term of a spandrel as a metaphor for characteristics that are or were originally side effects and not true adaptations to the environment. Spandrels, or the gaps that surround the interstices of a series of contiguous arches, exist as a necessary outcome of building with arches. In the same way Gould and Lewontin argued that many features of organisms exist simply as the result of how an organism develops or is built. In other words, every feature does not necessarily exist for some adaptive purpose.

For evolutionary psychologists, we lust after our neighbor’s wife, and act selfishly or virtuously because of modular means-end impulses ingrained in the human brain. Similarly, inferred motivational processes, although not necessarily attributed to evolutionary selection, equally represent modular processes that occur practically independent of the brain.

But do we need inferred modules or processes to underscore human qualities, or may they be safely discarded without abandoning or denigrating their substantive predictions, namely the importance of human creativity, resilience, and moral virtue? We can if we consider such virtues to be a by-product of simple and fundamental motivational processes, and that they represent not mental modules, but spandrels.

Uncertainty is an abstract element of behavior, and any behavior that is characterized by a high, frequent, and positive uncertainty will be valued more than behavior that is elicited by events that are more predictable. Indeed, as gamblers who lose themselves to its pleasures soon note, the hopeful qualities of a die roll outweigh even putting bread on the table.

The implications of this are profound, since if value can be denoted more in the accentuation of abstract qualities of information rather than the type of information per se, then the maximization of value and the affective responses that denote that value becomes non-materialistic in nature and origin, and prospectively boundless. In turn, if happiness lies in maximizing value, then maximizing the problem sets or discrepancies or 'problems' that ultimately mediate value is the true goal of life. Thus happiness is not the mindless idyll of a land of the Lotus-eaters, but an often-painful Odyssean quest that is full of troubles. But with a sea of troubles must necessarily arise the virtues that spring from their conscious appraisal. The fact that we must be sensitive to novelty to survive impels us to be sensitive to the novelty that we not only experience in reality but the reality we must model virtually. Because we can as thinking beings model future behavior in almost infinite iterations and thus be prepared for the vicissitudes of nature, to be empathetic and to build cultures that foster empathy means to be able to model endless eventualities in nature and in human minds and to exalt the icons of music, art, sport, and literature that by their very nature entail discrepancy. Although this prepares us to survive nature by embracing its complexity, the price we must pay for this capability is to act as if virtual consequences are real, thus tying our self-interest and perhaps our very survival to shadows. The spandrel of self-less empathy, like the devil, is in the details of survival. Thus we suffer embarrassment from people who can scarcely hurt us, feel shame from behavior that creates the mere virtual approbation of others, and take prideful pleasure in acts that can never be returned in kind because we accept the currency of virtual meanings. We can gladly offer our lives for God and country because we are hopeful of the meanings they entail, and hope, a byproduct of the survival organ that is our brain, is just enough to get by.

Hypotheses Non Fingo

Hitherto we have explained the phenomenon of the heavens by the power of gravity, but have not yet assigned the cause of this power…Hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypothesis (hypotheses non fingo), for whatever is not derived from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. –Isaac Newton, Principia

In the 17th century, physics was a straightforward and settled thing. Nature, the heavens and man himself were supernaturally selected, and although obscured from view, reverse engineering nonetheless revealed the mechanics of the world. Thus, as revealed by scripture, God’s reasons for the selections He made could be divined by clerics resting on comfortable armchairs, and clever fellows like Claudius Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe who could spin earth centered mechanical universes that made input and output square. Galileo Galilei of course demurred, and cursed (vipers all!) his peers for refusing to look through his telescope. That was understandable of course, since a deep understanding of how the world actually worked was at best redundant and at worst disruptive to the conventional thinking of the time.

In the late 20th century, psychology was also a straightforward and settled thing. Nature, the heavens, and man himself were naturally selected, and although obscured from view, reverse engineering nonetheless revealed the mechanics of the world. Thus, as revealed by the geological record, evolutionary psychologists resting on comfortable armchairs could divine nature’s reasons for the selections made, and clever fellows like Tooby/Cosmides (2000) and Pinker (1997) could spin computational mental mechanics that made input and output square. Jaak Panksepp (2000) of course demurred, and cursed (autistic all!) his peers for refusing to look through the lens of neuro-psychology at the true workings of the human mind. That was understandable of course, since a deep understanding of how the brain actually worked was redundant and at worst disruptive to the conventional thinking of the time.

Presently, the influence of evolutionary and computational models of human behavior have gained great currency as explanatory devices that bypass, like astronomical models of old, a deep understanding of human motivation derived from empirical descriptions of behavior from the molecular (neural) to the molar (overt behavior). That a science of optimism, or a humanistic psychology can operate unrooted to any theory of incentive motivation or learning based upon the reality of the brain (e.g. Seligman, 2002) is one of the more astonishing and unfortunate facts of present day psychology. Until recently however, this omission could be justified by the fact that empirically rigorous neural theories of incentive motivation did not exist. Like astronomy before the telescope, learning ‘theories’ such as radical behaviorism that were based on inductive principles were impaired not by the weakness of their principles but by the unavailability of observational tools that could fully reveal the micro-behavioral facts of the human brain. Nonetheless, B. F. Skinner, like Isaac Newton, stuck to his principles, and by recognizing the danger of armchair hypothesizing, made none. But the price for this stand has been dear, namely a near universal relegation of behaviorism to the wastebasket of failed psychological principles. But this will change. The fact that bio-behavioral learning theory must have morality as its entailment brings philosophical events such as human virtue and character under the purview of empirical science. But this is hardly new even in philosophy, and traces its roots hundreds of years in the past to a Spinozan philosophy that postulated an embodied mind whose understanding entailed a just and virtuous life, and saw God, as an abstract mathematical essence, pervading all things. Ironically, the seed to this change will occur, as with the heliocentric revolution in Copernicus’s time, with a revolution in common sense.

A New Common Sense

Common sense is simple reasoning, but can radically change as long as the new paradigm that replaces it is equally simple and fits the facts of nature as we see them, aided by the instrumentalities that display them. We accept the Newtonian view of the world because of its simplicity and because it fits the facts of nature as revealed by the instrumentality of the telescope, but we do not do complex Newtonian calculations to predict where the planets will move. Similarly, a new paradigm for human behavior that incorporates contingency and discrepancy is as revolutionary as the celestial mechanics of Newton’s day, but provides us with a calculus for behavior that is even more imposing than Newton’s own.

Behavior is complex because the contingencies that instigate behavior are complex, and are cognitively denoted by a myriad interconnected and dynamic perceptions both consciously and nonconsciously perceived that are mediated by brain and body. But although we may therefore hope to generally and not exactly predict behavior, our understanding of the overriding principles of motivation need not be so uncertain. A true radical behaviorism that simply describes behavior is all that counts because ultimately all that counts is behavior, and behavior is a straightforward thing. But behavior of course is language too, and we ultimately need our metaphors to understand. Indeed, as we do not think of our pains as the mere hyperactivity of nerve endings, we will likewise always think of our lives in terms of metaphors, of hot feeling and cool reason, of flowing pleasures and walks in the park that brim with subtle surprises. A physicist uses metaphors like black holes and cosmic string so we may understand the universe, yet he must rely on higher mathematics to describe and predict. Such is the similar conundrum of a radical behaviorism that can accept metaphors for understanding, but must employ a more formal language of behavior to also describe and predict. That is why behavior is confusing, and that is why too the aliveness that is the behavior we feel and taste will forever remain a mystery. But again, we will always have hope.


Berridge, K. (2001) Reward Learning: Reinforcement, Incentives, and Expectations, The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, (3), Academic Press, New York

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins

Donahoe, J.W. and D. C. Palmer (1993). Learning and Complex Behavior, Needham Heights, Ma: Allyn and Bacon

Gould, S. J. and R. C. Lewontin. (1979)"The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London

Hollerman, J. R., and W. Schultz (1998) Dopamine neurons report an error in the temporal prediction of reward during learning, Nature Neuroscience, 1(4), 304-309

Marr, A. J. (2001) Why behaviorism, to survive and triumph, must abandon its very name. An Open Letter Behavior and Social Issues, 11(1), 92-99

Panksepp J. (2000) On preventing another century of misunderstanding: toward a psychoetheology human experience and a psychoneurology of affect. Neuropsychoanalysis, 1(2), 1-21 (on line supplement at

Panksepp, J. and J. B. Panksepp (2000) The Seven sins of evolutionary psychology. Evolution and Cognition, 6(2), 108-131

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. Norton: New York

Seligman, M. (2002) Authentic Happiness. Free Press: New York

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2000) Towards mapping the evolved functional organization of mind and brain. In: Gazzaniga, M. S. (ed.) The New Cognitive Neuroscience (2nd edition). MIT Press: Cambridge, Ma., 1167-1178

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Politics, now and then

As we pass through another season of voting, similar I think to passing gas, except its a lot less comfortable, it's important to recognize that we're not that different from those lovable democrats of old, the classical Athenians (ca: 400BC). They invented democracy, and with it assassination of the political sort, idiotic foreign intervention, gerrymandering to rig the vote, and a governance if not by logic, at least by happy sounding metaphor.

For the American congress, clever gerrymandering made it possible to democrats and republicans to run virtually unopposed, and to demonize each other as they fight for the levers of power that can't be immobilized by clever back room deals. As for the issues, just wrap them up in the rhetoric, entitlement, or manifest destiny, and you've got the sound bites that can carry elections.

The Athenians knew this business as well. Only male citizens could vote, which left out the vast majority of the populace, consisting as it were of women and slaves (in our times also called the middle classes) And the pressing issue then and now was security. Invade this city state, bully another, par for the course for the supreme power in the Aegean.

Athenians were very bright people, giving us philosophy, literature, and science, things we know about but never read. This of course didn't stop them from entering interminable wars with their neighbors, making stupid economic decisions, and acting for the most part like selfish assholes. Of course, the Romans, Macedonian, and other peoples who took them over were just as selfish, were even greater assholes, and made even stupider economic and political decisions, leading inevitably to a long series of dark ages fully of death, destruction, and ignorance. Winston Churchill said that democracy is an awful form of government, but that all the others were far worse. Perhaps that's the muse that checks my despair with the idiotic politics of the U.S. Heavens! I could be living in Bolivia, Ivory Coast, Chad or France!

Friday, November 05, 2004

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff: Just Stuff it!

A family is a wonderful thing, but spouses, children, and parents can slowly chip away at your dignity, time, and most importantly, bank account. Small stuff adds up to being large stuff, so you need to find a strategy to tell your loved ones to ‘stuff it’.

People who learn to make ordinary generic irksome stuff into small barely annoying stuff have a tremendous edge. They are more peaceful with themselves and less attached to having things a certain way. This can be particularly valuable as the antics of your family bring your world crumbling down upon your head. In general, you will feel less burdened, and this peaceful feeling can spread to other family members, who will now steer clear of that snoring lump on the couch, lest you deprive them of some small stuff, like their teeth.

Finally, people who know how to stuff the small stuff feel more patient and easygoing, have better sex lives, win more and better promotions on the job, are more likely to win Power-Ball lotteries, and when they die will go to heaven without having first to take a number.

The following strategies are designed to address some of the most common sources of aggravation, and to help you appreciate the gift of a well trained and housebroken family.

Put Feelings First

I recall that as a child, when I wrecked the furniture, scratched the car, or indulged in other forgivable mischief, my father would take me in his arms. As his hands tightened around my neck, he would murmur gently from behind his clenched teeth: "Stuff can be replaced, and so can you!" From that pearl of wisdom, I learned how to postpone cleaning, yard work, and other errands, and all the while seem noble and unselfish.

There is a lesson somewhere to be learned in all this. You can make precious moments out of when your wife tells you about her successful shopping trip, or when your child wants to share with you his exultation and pride upon passing the seventh level in the video game ‘ Quake’. With a simple mechanical nod, you help them feel pride and self worth, and assist them in their development of a life of wanton materialism and video game addiction. These are memories that can last a lifetime.

But, otherwise, unless you can live with a dented car, scratched furniture, and dirty dishes, tell your loved one’s to stuff it! By venting your wrath, your loved ones will soon develop their own precious memories about how its not nice to make havoc with your stuff, and will steer clear of anything that disturbs you. And as for their feelings, just remember that feelings mend at lot faster than upholstery stains.

Learn to live like kids do.

We should emulate the life affirming exuberance of little children. Children live for the moment, do what they feel, and have no regrets if they make mistakes.

We should cultivate such joyful innocence. Adults of course do have to work on it a little. It’s often difficult to act without thinking of others, to be mindless about responsibility, and have no empathy for anybody or anything but yourself. In other words, it takes a little doing to revert to the natural state of a child, and to behave, for all intents and purposes, like a little Caligula.

But it can be done! Observe your child as he or she abuses their peers or the family pet, and ignore utterly your every request. Soon you will be able to pick up their invaluable sociopathic skills, and learn to take innocent and inconsiderate pleasure in abusing your family, boss, and coworkers. It can even prepare you with new skills that you can apply to new career paths like politics or law!!

Forgive your outbursts

No matter how close you all are, sometimes you’ll just lose it. You’ll get angry, rant and rave, maybe even go after a family member with a chain saw. But unless you hurt someone, you only need admit that you’re only human and move on.

Indeed, beating yourself up afterwards is not the solution, since there are a lot more people deserving of a good thrashing than you.

Becoming a more peaceful person, particularly in at home and with family, is a process, not a destination; unless of course your family has taken off to a destination such as your mother-in-laws, while leaving you in proud possession of a six pack of beer and the TV remote control. When you forgive your own outbursts its easier to extend the same courtesy to others, particularly when you visit them in the place where your outburst put them, namely the hospital or mental ward.

Think of your home as the Golden Gate Bridge

Like most folks, I used to get overwhelmed and frustrated about the maintenance of our home. If seemed like nothing ever got done- a bed needed making, meals had to be prepared, and pants had to be put on one leg at a time, again and again. I kept waiting for the time when the work would be finished, but alas, I never won the lottery, my kids unfortunately didn’t run off as they reached puberty, and my wife refuses to accept my narrow instinctive calling of hunter-gatherer.

Then I hear a story about how the Golden Gate Bridge had to be painted every day, and how this incessant painting caused many workers to leap off the bridge in despair, and local government to impose onerous tolls. Thinking about my responsibilities in these terms has been a tremendous relief to me. Now when I think about my wife and kids constantly badgering me for money or to do incessant chores, I can quell my ardent desire to jump off the roof. Instead of panicking when something needs to be done, I put in all in perspective. So, as mildew, termites, and nagging family progressively reduce my physical and social life to a shambles, I will not panic, and keep in mind that all of these things can be addressed the first thing tomorrow.

Develop your own reset button

In every home there are warning signals that chaos is imminent. These signs, such a billowing smoke, siren alarms, shrieking cats and mates, and the stampeding noise of children are usually ignored until they interfere with your appreciation of the football game on TV. But by then its normally too late, and you are then rudely pulled out of your Lay-z-boy into the baleful world of oven cleaning chores, lawn mowing, and little Johnny’s soccer practice.

But we can use these feelings as signals to hit the reset button. So when your family gathers around you like hungry hyenas zoning in on an injured wildebeest, you take them into another room, and hit your reset button. This button, which resembles the garage door opener, can slam them in the garage for hours at a time. As you wait for them to cool off, you can cool off with your beer as you finish your game. While you’re at it you can develop a rewind, fast forward, and pause button too as you think about the good old days, about your upcoming vacation, and about that quick nap that you’re going to take right now.

Read a book that takes a different position from what you hold dear.

Its always good to expand your horizon, to challenge yourself with new ideas. Sometimes we can get stuck when we revert again and again to the same old patterns of thinking. You know that those well worn and tiring rules, those boring golden rules, stop signs, and fat content labels on hot dog wrappers. These can really impede you from dynamic and liberating thinking. A quick antidote from the same old ways of thinking is to read books that take positions a bit different from those we are so familiar and complacent with.

For example, I read the other day a book written by an obscure Austrian house painter. I learned some marvelous new things, such as how people need lots of living space, and how really selfish some people are who refuse to share their ample living space with others who just need a little living room. This is particularly irksome when all you need is something small, like the Ukraine.

I also learned some interesting things about international politics and banking, and in particular about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy that threatens world peace. I also became interested in joining fun social groups where I enjoyed the camaraderie of campfire meetings at the local church or synagogue. Since then my life has changed so much for the better, and all thanks to the courage to consider new ideas, and of course to the inspiration of mein Fuhrer!

Let someone else be right

When someone else wins an argument, it doesn’t mean that you lose, since no one can really win until you say so. Settling an argument is like settling the score of a football game, except you’re a referee. So when your wife declares you an utter fool, you can easily call back the argument on a technicality. Thus, by merely saying, "But I recall that it was you who said such and such", there is no way for your better half to revisit the time of the conversation to conclusively prove you are wrong. Thus, since there is no instant replay available for your past mistakes, you’re pretty safe to dismiss any argument she may have.

Besides reinventing the past, another helpful strategy is to simply change the topic. For example, if one of my kids say, "You never spend any time with me." My first thought would be to respond, "Yes, I do. Wasn’t it just three years ago that we went to the park?" However, this just feeds the argument. A better response is. "You’re right. I’d like to spend more time together. I love you very much." As you return to watching your favorite wresting match, you know that you have not only ended the argument before it started, but that you reinforced in your child that precious cynical attitude that will cause him to give up before he even thinks about questioning you again.

Finally, if a family member just has to be right, let them be right about something you care little or nothing about. Tell your wife that her choice of wallpaper is perfect, your child that Mohawk haircut looks fine, and your teenager that its ok to substitute a three month BA degree from Bob’s Institute of Hair Care in place of a university education.

Speak Softly…and carry a big stick

If you really want someone to listen to you, soften your voice as you slowly stroke the sides of a baseball bat. You be surprised how attentive and respectful your audience will become as they notice that you mean business. As you relax your body and lower your voice, take a few practice swings. Smashing a lamp or two will communicate to your family the transitory nature of existence, and they will know and appreciate your sincerity.

You’ll be surprised that similar mild mannered gestures such as holding frying pans, hammers, and assorted power tools can be perceived as a gentle portent of doom. This apocalyptic foreboding can elicit just the right ‘fear of dad’ that can make your family as attentive and affectionate as a warm puppy.

Ask Yourself, "Why not me."

A few years ago, I was complaining to my boss Ebenezer about how miserable and wretched my life was. Rather than sympathize with my plight, he snarled:

"Is there some reason you should be exempted from the troubles of the human race? And so what if you can’t make your VISA payments? Are there not workhouses? Are there not jails? Your complaint is just a big humbug!"

He was just stating the obvious—that everyone’s life is full of disasters, tragedies, and frequent indigestion. Regardless of your background, religion, sex, credit rating, astrological sign, or sense of humor, shit happens.

Case closed.

Remember what your children really want

Its easy to say, "My children are the most important thing to me in my life", but another to ask what it is that makes you important in their own eyes. Our kids don’t need our success, and they don’t need our love, they need our bucks. They don’t care if you are a doctor, lawyer, hooker, Mr. Rogers, or a Mafia Don. They just need the bucks, and they will pretend to love you just fine. Your willingness to give them money unconditionally will turn them into slavering sycophants with marginal social skills who have a phobic response to anything resembling working for a living.

We have only a short window of opportunity to make them into such helpless dependent creatures. Fortunately, most of us have wisely dedicated ourselves to career success to the exclusion of time wasting activities like reading to our kids, watching their soccer games, or talking to them. This frees us to earn those precious bucks that kids most dearly need. Kids just want to be at the center of our universe, and to live on the planet Bloomindales. For the few precious years that we have them, lets make it so.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Parsing Optimism: Martin E. P. Seligman and the Science of Happiness

If one were to define two conceits of the modern mind that form loops both trivial and profound, it would be the age of anxiety matched by the antidote of optimism. Of course, before the age of psychological euphemism people had much more reason to be anxious than the traffic/work/income tax challenged folk of today. Arguably, the difference between now and then is that needs for basic survival have been replaced by subtler insecurities ironically emerging from an age of leisure. Simply put, although we are magnitudes wealthier, more secure, and healthier than our ancestors, our reported happiness has been trending not upwards, but down. This of course belies the economic maxim that an increase in economic goods parallels a rise in psychological goods. In other words, if we're so rich, why are we so unhappy? The answer goes to the core of what unhappiness or happiness is. In a static sense, we all know the feeling, literally. It's an affective, emotional thing that we can allude to but not fully describe. In an active sense, we may not know it better, but at least it seems, well, actionable. In its simplest form, happiness is based ultimately on how how one will perceive the world. To look 'optimistically' upon things is a cure seductive in its simplicity, and packaged with the rhetoric of psychology has become a veritable industry in itself. The better or bright side of things has been grist for a publication mill of self help books that essentially play variations of the same thing: namely the evocation and implemenation of an optimistic way of life.

What is optimism? In the trivial sense, it is the cognitive act of appraising the increased likelihood of good things. Optimism energizes behavior, focuses and sharpens thought, and in its exercise, feels good. Sometimes optimism arises when we realistically appraise our circumstances and competencies, and on other occasions it occurs when we purposively shade or distort our perception of the world. Self help maxims notwithstanding, it certainly is to our emotional interest to accentuale the positive; yet in all philosophy, whether the academic or popular kind, optimism never rises above euphemism to explanation. Ultimately, it is a matter of words, of defining one's terms. The French philosopher Voltaire said that all debate and confusion arise from failing to define what you're talking about. The controversy over the uses and philosopy of optimism is no different.

Profound Optimism

What is optimism? It is of course the appraisal of the high likelihood of good things, but optimism explained must implicate not just what we appraise, but how we appraise. Combined, they provide a new perspective of optimism that is simple and profound.

We are optimistic that the sun will shine, but not that the sun will rise. To cohere to the logic of optimism, we can never be optimistic about things that are certain, for if we had perfect knowledge of all things past and future, optimism could never be.

The perception of a positive uncertainty, such as a raise, an accomplishment, or just a sunny day represents a transition from a lesser to a greater likelihood that a good thing will occur, or in other words is a reconciliation of a prediction error that bodes future benefit. This estimation, whether of real (actual) or virtual (modeled) events is known to us respectively as good fortune or hope, but also has a very real neurological basis, namely in the heightened production of neurochemicals or neuromodulators such as dopamine that arouse and fix attention, increase the efficiency of thought, and subjectively, feel good. Moreover, the more good things we appraise, and the more important they are the better we feel, as we can shift our perspective from one good thing to another.

The act of perceiving information does not necessarily entail a verbal or metaphorical label. Intuition, foreboding, or 'gut-level' feelings represent nonconscious estimations of the world that we are aware of not verbally, but emotionally.

We may be optimistic of success in all of our endeavors, or optimism may represent the likelihood of a positive outcome of a specific performance, or even aspects of a performance. Thus an individual may be optimistic about 'life', about his success in a game of chess, or about a move in chess.

The fact that optimism must be defined by affective (how we feel), cognitive (how we think), and behavioral (what we do) criteria removes it from the breezy linguistic usage as a mere metaphorical artifact or thing, and provides a unifying explanatory basis for the many metaphorical species of pleasurable behaviors or behavior sets that are optimistic to the core. For example, whereas optimism may reflect a generalized appraisal of likely good things, 'obsession' or 'passion' may reflect our heightened arousal when these good things are extremely important, and 'interest' may reflect the moment to moment or molecular appraisal of likely plot twists in a novel, inspiring ideas to an artist, or winning moves in athleticism, and may vault to 'peak' or 'flow' experiences when those moment to moment events are important and continuously perceived.

In all of these shades, optimism represents wanting, the moment to moment estimate of having. But wanting is nonetheless separate from having in all of its aspects from the physiological to the psychological, and ironically, is viewed by behaviorist and biologist alike as the very stuff, the essence of reinforcement.

The Inversion of Reward

In economics, reward is a natural thing, and is essentially and simply described. But in psychology, it has of late become a doubtful and even notorious thing, because as we have noted, happiness does not correlate all too well with material wealth. According to the 'methodological' behaviorism of B. F. Skinner, reward is a discrete instance where we have obtained something, and is scarcely different from the economic model that indexes well being to the accumulation of things, whether measured by individual possessions or GNP. Yet modern biological and radical behaviorisms have inverted this maxim to equate reward or reinforcement with 'wanting', and not 'having'. These discrepancy based models of reinforcement or reward equate reward with the positive apprehension of choice that in simple terms is no more than optimism.

The implications of this are profound, yet have scarcely been plumbed. If wanting, not having, is the essence of value, then it matters little what we have than how we want it. To prolong and accentuate positive desire, whether known as ambition, hope, or flow or simply looking forward to a new day puts psychology square not against behaviorism, but economics. It shall be interesting to say the least to see how these new perspective will bode for human happiness and the future of the race.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Hungry Gene

It’s a well know fact that we have a need to eat, but what is its cause: nature or nuture?. Researchers at the Academy of Lagado recently made the startling conclusion that the drive to eat is a genetic tendency, and does not derive from spoon feeding, breast feeding, Happy Meal coupons, or other purely environmental influences. It seems that long ago, creatures who ate had a decided reproductive advantage over creatures that didn’t eat. Thus the non-eaters would tend to die off, leaving the eating population, and their ‘hungry’ genes around to propagate like crazy. The implications of this are startling. As Dr. Dawson Richard claims in his bold and original book, ‘The Hungry Gene’. According to Dr. Richard, we are but molecular machines that exist to serve an inborn genetic craving for saturated fats, sweets, and special sauces. Richard makes the revolutionary claim that we do not eat to live, but rather live to eat!! Dr. Richard, who is the Ichabod Crane Professor of Neuro-spastic biology at the Academy of Lagado, says that ultimately we can’t help ourselves when confronted with plates of chicken nuggets, potato chips, pizza slices, and chocolates because we are unconsciously driven by genetic puppet masters that have just got to eat. But these genetic puppet masters don’t stop there, but direct even our table manners!!

In a carefully contrived series of experiments, Dr. Richard noted that when left alone in grocery stores, little children helped themselves to all sorts of food, from chips to fruit, and showed no concern about the fact that their behavior was quite rude, obnoxious, and even illegal. He then cleverly deduced that children not only have an inborn tendency to eat, but an equally inborn tendency to be rude, and to act like insensitive little brats. The genetic tendency to be rude probably arose from our early ancestors, who could obtain life supporting nutrients faster if they snatched if from their parents, stole it from another’s nest, or jumped ahead of the line. This conclusion met with great controversy from other Lagado academics, who disputed the claim that we have an inborn tendency to be rude. Indeed, several critics noted that rudeness could not have been genetically favored in our ancestors, since rude behavior can only provide a series of quick snacks at best, which is hardly enough to secure the propagation of one’s hungry genes.

Nonetheless, Richard knew he was on to something by his postulation of genetic puppet masters, since it explained lots of things without a wasteful recourse to unnecessary thinking. Indeed, he figured that the genetic metaphor can be extended to just about anything that involves some sort of selection, from marriage partners to shoes. Take ideas for instance. We often select different ideas by figuring out their value to us. Good ideas crowd out the bad, and can spread like crazy given enough marketing buzz. If we just think about ideas as little viral entities that can spread like cold germs and infest our minds like some mind altering plague, these ‘memes’ provide a whole new way for us to shift responsibility without shifting the way we think. Thus, when you are confronted with some new or imagined fault, just say it’s not my fault, just blame those bad ideas.

Empowered by his insight, in his following great work, ‘The Copyrighted Phenotype’, Richard expanded the Darwinian metaphor from everything from architecture to shopping. Thus the patterns and shapes of lumber that you see at your hardware store are selected because they have fittedness, pants are selected because they must have a tight fit, an adolescents can hardly wait to select each other (particularly if they are looking fit) and pass on their genes and memes. Thus, along with meme and genes, we have selfish beams, blue genes, and teens as new and exciting genetic metaphors that can be used to further our academic knowledge and dementia.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Dumb Stress Tips

The late twentieth century has been labeled the Age of Anxiety. This is a rather odd name, since in centuries past we certainly had a lot more to worry about, like surviving dangerous and debilitating work in assorted coal mines, sweat shops, and dingy factories, not to mention biannual plagues, wars, and natural disasters. Nowadays, we have a lot more time to worry about things, and we can do so in our leisure. Funny thing is, our problems are not that bad relative to times past. The problem is that we are prepared to think through the crises of life, but we often really can’t our finger on them because they are so relatively insubstantial. That’s stressful enough in itself, so we solve our confusion by attributing it to a mere result of the daily demands to sweat the small stuff, lots of small stuff. Stress represents all of those annoying little things that make life uncomfortable, and can’t be neatly attributed to a single cause, like death, taxes, or an alien invasion. They can make you uncomfortable, but are not so unbearable as to force you to shuck your wife and kids for a grass hut in Belize. It’s a type of bearable discomfort, a sort of unhappiness-lite. When bad times become such feather weights, so do their cures, and stress articles offer you a remedy in ten second cures which are as insubstantial and annoyingly saccharine as gum drops.

Stress tips generally end up in as filler in newspapers, or as lead articles in Bad Women’s Magazines. You generally won’t find them in Men’s Magazines, which neatly sum up stress as the price to conquest and accomplishment in business, sports, sex or politics. For men, the ultimate stress cure is putting other people under stress, and that contradiction is hardly grist for feel good articles nestled in between decorating tips and cake recipes.

The stress business amounts to a thriving industry which employs untold numbers of counselors, therapists, and self help gurus. But as with any good industry, to keep increasing the case load, you have to make people become more aware of all that stress they are encountering. Often, more stress needs to be manufactured so that the stress industry can grow more and more to help those in need. Of course, this new stress production is kept on the sly, but we can see how it is cranked out by simply perusing any number of Bad Women’s magazines. For example, a magazine titled something like ‘Today’s Boring Woman’ will show a lady how to make 25 layer cream pies and how to be independent, assertive and free, and on the next page counsel her on how to drop her weight, and how to attract and be servile to her man. Actually, these magazines give women stress by telling them two different things, and perpetuate the cycle of redundant advice which they obligingly include between their covers. But of course, if they provided good advice to begin with, they would
In keeping with
Dr. Mezmer offers the following bad stress tips

Dr. Mezmer’s Bad Stress Tips
  1. Try a tonic
  2. A study at the Duke-Nukem University in Placebo, N.C. found that homeopathy is a swell cure for anxiety disorders. To find a good nerve tonic, consult a licensed homeopath, or heteropath is your tastes aren’t that kinky. Ingredients for good tonics include catnip oils, essence of buffalo tripe, and at least three ounces of a good gin.

  3. Smile!
  4. Dr. P. T. Barnum of the Bailey Institute of Stress and Egress, says that smiling transmits nerve impulses from the facial muscles to the hippocampal-elephantoid complex in the limbo system, a key emotional centroplex in the brain, tilting the neurochemical balance towards calm, and your good sense towards empty. But don’t do it too long, since your face will lock up, and you will have to go to the emergency room smiling like the village idiot.

  5. Invent a rating system
  6. Using a scale of one to ten, with one being a minor inconvenience and ten being torn apart by wild boars, assign a number to each of your daily problems. You’ll soon not only recognize how insignificant your stress is, but how utterly trivial are the things that caused your stress to begin with. Thus armed with this transcendent knowledge, you will thus be inclined to abandon that formerly stressful job, wife, and family, and pursue more meaningful pursuits like Buddhist contemplation or Guatemalan tax law.

  7. Stop gritting your teeth.
  8. Stress tends to settle in certain places in our bodies, sort of like an emotional cellulite. The jaw is a likely place which stress ends up, and can cause a rather biblical degree of gritting and gnashing of teeth. Eventually this can give you that gummy bear smile that you found so endearing in your drooling great-grandfather. To prevent this, Dr. Emmit Lockjaw of the Danish College of Stressodontics recommends a dandy stress de-locator. Simply press your index fingertips on your jaw joint, clench your teeth, inhale deeply, and as you breathe out say "Why am I doing this useless exercise!?" Repeat a few times until you notice that your stress has moved to a new place, namely to your clenched fist that you are waving in the air as you recognize how stupid you were to have been conned into trying this dumb procedure.

  9. Make up a mantra
  10. When life’s a bear, you need an affirmation, a short, clear, coping statement that confirms once again your capabilities of self delusion. According to Dr. Phil Gates, a Certified Master of the Universe, the operating system that runs our brains sometimes displays a tiny little self critical voice, like an unwelcome error message, that crashes our best laid intentions. Dr. Gates suggests as a mental patch some calming words that sooth the spirit, and allow one take stock in a bullish attitude on life. Simply close your eyes, and silently repeat to yourself these life affirming words: Microsoft at 252! Microsoft at 252! Of course, like every good mantra, these words have a very special (and copyrighted) resonance with the universe, not to mention Wall Street. Thus, Dr. Gates asks that you send him five dollars so that you can properly register your mantra. If this mantra replaces one you are already using, Dr. Gates offers a mantra upgrade price of only $2.50.

  11. Write it down
  12. Paul Roach, President of the All American Stress Graduate School of Bonkers, N.Y., notes that writing provides perspective, a way of sorting out all that jumbled up self talk that is so full of misspellings and run on thinking. Simply divide a piece of paper into two parts. On the left side, list the stressors you can probably change, and on the right those you can’t. Tear off the right side of the paper, crumple it, and throw it away. This will signal to the right or reasoning side of your brain that you mean business, and won’t put up with unreasonable stressors. Of course your left or imaginative side of your brain will see this as a wonderful opportunity to let it all hang out since the right brain won’t likely get uptight. It will thus proceed to engage in stress free reveries that your right brain would never approve, and come home late at night intoxicated by its far off musings with other erotic thoughts of the evening.

  13. Schedule worry time
  14. Stressors are like squawling babies. They demand attention, and once they get it, poop all over you. If you pay attention to them, they get the connection, and then they will never stop getting on your nerves. You must treat your stressors like little babies, and discipline them by putting on a psychic feeding schedule that you determine. According to Dr. Price Waterhouse, author of Accounting for Stress, stressors are like babbling little debits that are best dealt with at a later time, and should be filed away in one of those countless little mental compartments in your cerebral noggin. Let’s say that your house is on fire, the IRS wants to audit you, and you just ran over the neighbor’s cat. Just say to yourself no time for that now! Simply file them away in your head, review them on a monthly basis when you can dispassionately review them, and then close them out. But remember, if your IQ is above 90, you are subject to an audit by your common sense, which will probably disallow this stupid procedure.
  15. Play some music
  16. A number of studies have demonstrated that music slows heartbeat, or in the case of heavy metal rock music, stops heartbeat. Music also increases mesomorphins, a pre-archaic chemical that primed our ancient ancestors (hairy two inch shrews.) to freeze and play dead upon spotting a velociraptor. Best bets for some soothing tunes are: Airing out my G-String, by J.S. Bach, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (tr: I’m inclined to knock music) by W. A. Mozart, the adagio from Beethovens’s Erotic Symphony, the tranquil and uplifting final movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetic Symphony, and the slow languid tones of Johann Tacobel’s Canon for unaccompanied tuba.

  17. Be mindful
  18. Heighten your awareness by concentrating on an object. Consider a No.2 pencil. Look at it and admire its long shaft and soft conical tip. Feel it’s long, hard firmness as you thrust it in your hand. Caress the soft nub of the eraser against the folds of your skin. Very, very soon, you will either feel a surge of calm or other surges which will head you towards the bathroom.
  19. Dial a Friend
Sharing your problems with a friend shows you that they care. Of course, you’re more likely nowadays to get voice mail, or your friend will have caller ID and not answer the phone, or he may well be unlisted. Obviously, your friend may be reducing his own stress level by not talking to you. A good feature about this technique is that it will at least reduce someone’s stress, even if all you get for your trouble is an annoying busy signal.

11. Tend your garden

Nothing sooths frayed nerves like communing with nature. Tend to a houseplant, or at the very least, to that fungus growing around your tub. As you weed your garden, you will be cognizant of the plants=growth=cycle of life, which is a nice way of saying that you are merely a weed in the garden of life, and soon you will be pulled out by your roots by the Cosmic Mr. Green Jeans. So why worry?

  1. Knock your head
  2. Drs. Manfred Black and Richard Decker, authors of the Home Depot "Do it yourself manual for stress relief" suggest that when you feel you’re up against the wall, get up against the wall. Lean your head against a wall, move your head back about four inches. Now slam your head through it. When you regain consciousness, your stress will be gone, along with much of the short term memory which was responsible for that stress to begin with.

  3. Admit it
Each of us has unique individual stress signals that signal impending stress, like shoulder pain, shallow breathing, loss of temper, queasiness, etc. Unfortunately, these signals don’t just signal stress, they are stress, and thus leave us with the amazing revelation that stress predicts stress. Knowing these signals have as much perceptive acuity as predicting an earthquake because the earth is shaking, or wondering how a road sign in view that says ‘you are here’ knew how you were indeed here!
These unique signals, like hearing another news story about Monica and Bill, looking at the head light of an oncoming train, or trying to cash in your Indonesian treasury bills. You can do something about it now, like turn off the TV set, get off the tracks, or get into a better investment plan.

14. Check your kim chee
Kim chee is the 5,000 year old Korean art of pickled cabbage. Once ingested the kim chee flows throughout the body generating a high level of stress relieving RPM’s, with only moderate methane by products. The kim chee force is quite powerful, and needs to be vented periodically to maximizes its stress relieving properties. Just bend your knees to a squat position while keeping your upper body straight. Observe your breathing for a few seconds, and feel the surge of calm as the released kim chee vapors envelope you. Of course, when you do this make sure you are away from any co-workers, friends, or heat sources.

15. Fight Back
At the first sign of stress, people often complain, ‘What did I do to deserve this!’ the trouble is, feeling like a victim only increases your feelings of utter worthlessness, self loathing, and impending doom. In times like this, mere therapy just won’t do. Extreme situations require extreme remedies. So don’t wallow in self pity, fight back! Take hostages, make bomb threats, send angry e-mail!. Serene in the knowledge of the soothing powers of vengefulness, you can sustain your mellow vibes by relaxing in the woods while the feds hunt you down.
  1. Try an infomercial
  2. Dr. Zip Zipper, author of the book "Stress Management with No Money Down", notes that stress is often a result of recurring inconveniences that occur day after day. How often do we snap at the kids, kick the dog, and wallop our mate when our nerves are put on edge by the mere fact that we are terrible at dicing onions and making julienne fries? Clearly, your stress is but a fruit dehydrator or ginzo pasta steamer away. In his book Dr. Zipper demonstrates the healing power of infomercials, and how novel kitchen appliances, real estate investment schemes, and feel good self help seminars can eliminate those stressors in no time, and with no money down! Because you are likely too stressed to find the time to read, Dr. Zipper offers a 25 cassette version of his 90pp. Book for only 56 monthly payments of $9.99!

  3. Stimulate your pressure points
Acupressure stimulates the same points as acupuncture, but without feeling needled. According to Dr. Theopolis Goodyear of the Acupressure Institute, stress is a hydraulic process that can cause one to figuratively explode if one can’t find the little input valve that can let out all the hot air. By pressing down on the right bodily points, one can reduce this pressure to acceptable levels. Dr. Goodyear recommends that stress pressure should be checked at least once a month, since unchecked stress can wear you down, and may be vented improperly and prematurely wear out your welcome with other people.
The three major pressure points are:
The Third Eye : Look down (you’ll know him when you see him)
Mystic Mounds: (come in different cup sizes)
Heavenly Buns: glutinous maximus

Bring firm steady pressure on each point for three minutes. The pressure should cause a mild warm sensation, but take care that the feeling not turn sensational. This is particularly the case when all three pressure points are activated simultaneously, and may be delicately called ‘making babies’.

18 Visualize Calm

If you don’t feel calm, you’re just not looking for it. Calm is just a visualization away.
According to Millard Funkstein M. D., the author of ‘Healing Delusions’, suggests this following routine. Close your eyes, take three long slow breaths and visualize yourself loping through a meadow with a clutch of daffodils, kneeling by a babbling brook, or walking along a beach. Soon, your stress will fade away, and you will be immersed in a healing calm. A word of caution though. If you meet along the way long dead relatives, then you’re far beyond being relaxed! You’re dead! Dr. Funkstein thus recommends that unless you want to be permanently relaxed, don’t try this technique while you’re driving a car or using power tools.