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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Audacity of Stupid

It may be argued that our biggest psychological divide is not due to academic or philosophical differences, but pocket book ones. That is, how are you going to spend that spare change in your pocket or bank account? It's a bigger and more pressing argument than the endless debates over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, which summarizes metaphorically most debate in academic psychology. The demands on our purse are of course infinite, from health care to housing, and if we don't make the right choices, its the poor house for sure. So, in the large, we have two general directions to take:

If you don't have time to make all those critical decisions or it if it just stresses you out to confront all those choices, you can elect the government to do it for you by electing a government which will tax you to do it.

On the other hand, if you would rather making those decisions for yourself, then you will elect a government who will eject the government, and leave you free to choose.

And that's the difference dear reader between a liberal and a conservative. namely the presumed capacity of folks to make intelligent and reasoned decisions. Now of course, some things the government can do better without our middling choices (e.g., national defense, road construction, etc), and some things we can do better than the government (e.g. choosing what food or housing to buy). And then there are those things in which we are not quite sure which way to go (medical care, education, etc.). But the tilt in the argument ultimately rests upon an implicit attitude about the quality of the very wits we bring to making decisions. If we believe that we are inherently smart folk whose selfish interests dovetail with the common good, then it's good to move off as many decisions to individual folks as we can. On the other hand, if we are inherently stupid and will make decisions that will eventually destroy human civilization, then it's important that the government step in to hold our hand and make our decisions for us.

A liberal view inherently believes in the audacity of stupid, which presumes that average folk will have the sheer audacity of making wrong decisions with their money, and waste it on big houses, conspicuous consumption, and end up like the grasshopper in the fable who didn't save up for the winter.

On the other hand, a conservative believes in the audacity of intelligence, which presumes that average folk will have the audacity to make the right decisions with their money, and invest it in areas where they can make even more money by serving the common wheal, such as business creation or investment, and thus end up like the ants in the same fable, but this time with a lot of seed corn in the bank.

And where does this lead to the current buzzword of 'the audacity of hope'. Well, Hitler and Gandhi certainly had audacious hopes, but hope implies only the likelihood of good things, it doesn't tell you what those good things are. But given the fact that we generally know what good things are, the real question is whether we are confident that we have the wits to survive an increasingly complicated world. Well, I for one believe that we have them in abundance, like the proverbial ants.

And the rest, well, that's just BO.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Tyranny of Swamps

IN 442BC, the Greek philosopher Apollodorus of Schwartz (of the Kosher Greek states) was vacationing with his family in the marshland near Athens. He noticed that his family quickly expired from some strange disease. Astutely, he conjectured that the marsh (or probably the consumption of some three day old tomatoes) was somehow responsible. Later observations of vacationers and mortality rates increasingly confirmed the fact that being around a marsh for a picnic, or worse, living there was a bad thing. Thus the concept of 'the tyranny of swamps' was born. Of course, what caused swamp fever wasn't too important, as one could chalk it up to swamp gas, stinky water, or evil spirits. Whatever the cause, swamps were bad.

Ancient Greek Psychologist

Nonetheless, the fact that swamps are bad could not dissuade folks from living or vacationing near them, and more than two thousand years had to pass before someone actually took the time to scientifically explain why swamps were associated with disease. Actually, the swamp was not at fault, but rather an aspect of swamps, namely a disease carrying mosquito. Thus instead of draining or otherwise avoiding the swamp, you simply get rid of the mosquito. So you can have your swamp vacation and your health too!

Fast forward to the present time, and we are confronted with tyranny of a different sort, namely that of choice. In his recent book 'The Tyranny of Choice' the psychologist Barry Schwartz deftly summarized a score of studies that arrived at the same conclusion: namely having lots and lots of choices is bad for you. Specifically, the more choices you have, the more you stand to lose if you choose the wrong item, whether it be condiments, cars, or condoms. Thus you get anxious, indecisive, and more likely than not end up running away from the whole situation.

A problem with this analysis is that like Schwartz's ancient kin Appllodorus, noting that people get sick because the context of their behavior doesn't explain that behavior. Indeed, all that Schwartz and his colleagues could offer was that making lots of choices taxes our nervous system like an overloaded circuit box, thus substituting metaphor for explanation. But that didn't matter, since like a noxious swamp, all you had to do to escape all that anxiety was to simply avoid making too many choices. So explanation can wait, and no problem if a thousand years would need to pass. Actually, to find an explanation you need to go back 50 years or so, or a thousand and fifty if you waited that long.

Dollard and Miller to the rescue!

In 1955, John Dollard and Neal Miller studied laboratory animals under similar conditions of choice, and came to the conclusion that the critters will tense up when confronting future choices that could result in pain, but would only be anxious if they could possibly avoid those choices. In other words, tension and anxiety occurred to warn you of future pain, and were reinforced because they provided the motivation or 'drive' for you to avoid the situation. Anxiety did not occur because our brain is proverbially overheating due to all those demanding choices, but because it anxiety does something, namely motivates you to avoid future pain.

Now the anticipation of choice is not a painful thing, it's only when you have to make a choice. The problem is in these days, choice is a infinitely portable thing, and we are faced with having to make choices every minute. Unlike the 1950's, when the times we could make choices were more limited, nowadays, we are offered the choice of chatting on the phone/watching tv/internet shopping etc. 24/7. Thus the world becomes infinitely distractive and anxiety inducing when every second we stand to lose something. So its not necessarily the choices, but the timing wherein we make choices. So the cure is remedying an aspect of the problem, namely the portability of choosing. Just radically postpone all your distractions to a set time and place, and voila, you are liberated from the tyranny of choice. So you can indeed have your cake (or dessert choices) and eat it to, just remember that its only after dinner.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Evolution of Sarcasm

As an author who feels that most modern advances in psychology should be greeted with sarcasm instead of awe, it was good to find out recently that one anthropologist has determined that sarcasm likely had survival value among our caveman ancestors. It was a sort of 'verbal hammer' that connects people in social ways, and thus evolved into the sense of humor we enjoy today. Of course, the instinct was sublimated over the years as people used real hammers to make their social decisions. But in these modern days, our sarcasm instinct can breathe free, and who knows, it can now morph into new and more precise satirical instincts that can insure the survival of the species.

Indeed, I can just feel it now, a new instinct waiting to be born, namely the don't grant tenure/vote for/listen to idiots drive.

That instinct will be driving me to the polls this November.

Thank you evolution!!