Monday, August 31, 2009

Christopher Hitchens Wades into the Moral Sludge

When an editor at a reputable publications asks you to review a book he always asks whether you know the author personally. If you did, you were disqualified.

Apparently, such moral strictures are only for the little people. Larger-than-life characters like Christopher Hitchens claim a personal exemption.

I am normally a great admirer of Hitchens' work. Unfortunately, I cannot say as much about his review of a book written by his dear friend Elizabeth Edwards. Link here.

Hitchens seems to believe that a full-throated admission of the extent of his personal friendship with John and Elizabeth Edwards absolves him of any taint of bias.

When you review your friends' writing, you are prone to loyalty. Assuming that you value your moral character, loyalty is a powerful motivating factor. Would anyone seriously consider sacrificing a friendship for the pittance that book reviewers normally receive? Would you not be inclined to defend your friends from charges of moral turpitude?

They are your friends. In defending their behavior, even in empathizing with their condition, you are also defending your own decision to befriend them.

So Christopher Hitchens decided to offer some comments on John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter. The affair took place at around the time that Edwards learned that his wife's stage IV breast cancer had become incurable.

Strangely, Hitchens chose to rationalize his friend's affair by trotting out the now-discredited Freudian theory of life and death instincts, of Eros and Thanatos.

In his words: "In the unequal battle between life and death... Eros has its part in warding off Thantos, and if this really was, as I believe, her husband's first lapse, it might have been partly because of the death-haunted context in which he, for all his money and charm, found himself."

Mickey Kaus correctly noted in "Slate" that Hitchens has hereby made a fool of himself, especially in invoking the "Thanatos made me do it" defense. Frankly, we would all find the "Devil made me do it" defense more persuasive.

And what does the Thantos defense mean anyway? Does it mean that Edwards was especially vulnerable to the feminine wiles of Rielle Hunter because he was afraid to die? Might it be invoking the more grotesque suggestion that Edwards found the prospect of his wife's death to be a special kind of aphrodisiac?

Would it not be more plausible to imagine that Edwards felt abandoned and rejected by his dying wife and that he found comfort in the arms of another woman.

So Hitchens let his loyalty get the better of his judgment. That is not the worst moral flaw. Loyalty to one's friends is surely an important virtue.

But why is loyalty not at issue when it comes to the Edwards marriage?

Forget about the dalliance and ask yourself this: would it not have been better to display a minimal degree of spousal loyalty and be discreet about it?

When you put yourself on the national political stage by making yourself a candidate for the presidency, you are inviting every imaginable kind of scrutiny. Candidacy invites the tabloidization of your life. Under the circumstances a man who had a moral spine would have withdrawn from the race and done his utmost to keep the disloyalty to himself.

By failing to do so he has also drawn his friends into the fray, putting them in the untenable position of having to conjure up implausible reasons to defend the indefensible.





Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Power of Apology

The letter reads like a laboratory experiment. If someone had set up an experiment to show the difference between receiving and not receiving an apology he could not have done better than the situation Hayley describes in a letter to Dr. Irene Levine. Link here.

Hayley was dating Dave. She had been introduced to him by his childhood friend, Liz, who was also Hayley's best friend. One night Liz announced that she was going to have sex with Dave.

Incredulous, Hayley chose to ignore the warning. That night Liz and Dave got very drunk and had sex. When Hayley learned of what had happened, she was devastated.

She stopped dating Dave but continued to be friends with Liz.

Here is the salient point. Dave apologized; Liz did not. Dave offered sincere and heartfelt apologies and Hayley managed to forgive him. They see each other as friends, but not intimately.

Liz refused to apologize. She blamed Dave, said he had taken advantage of her, and refused to take any responsibility for what had happened. She even tried to make Hayley feel guilty for talking to Dave, because of what Dave did to her.

Given the fact that Liz had announced her intention to have sex with Dave, Hayley was not inclined to accept her story.

For her part Liz blamed Hayley for not letting it go. Hayley was laboring under the belief that she can only achieve closure by hearing an apology from Liz. Liz has continued to refuse.

Obviously enough, Liz believes that her good character is completely invested in whether or not she is the kind of woman who would sleep with her best friend's boyfriend. By denying responsibility, she must feel that she is asserting that she is really a loyal friend.

Hayley has remained friends with Liz. The psychological fallout has been severe. In her words: "Since this happened, I have turned into a jealous, self-conscious, mistrusting person with friends and boyfriends alike. I began self-medicating with alcohol and got into bad situations."

Apology is a complicated ritual. If Hayley demands an apology and Liz then apologizes, the apology would lack sincerity. An apology must be offered freely; otherwise it is simply a way to shut up someone who is complaining too much.

Hayley wrote to Dr. Levine to ask how to handle the situation. Dr. Levine responded correctly that Liz has already shown her colors. She is faithless and fundamentally lacking in character. She conspired with Dave to betray Hayley.

If she cannot accept responsibility for her actions after eight months, then she probably never will. Dr. Levine added that it is not necessary to have closure before abandoning a friendship. She would resolve the problem by abandoning the friendship.

Friends who have sex with your boyfriend are not your friends.

When someone has wronged you, their apology, offered sincerely and freely, is the only real way to erase the pain of the trauma that they have inflicted. If they fail to apologize you will instinctively believe that you must have done something wrong. You, as Hayley, will be tormented by guilt, and and will try to soothe its pain with self-punishing behaviors.

And yet, isn't this what talk therapy has traditionally recommended for trauma victims? Didn't Freud recommend that trauma victims get in touch with their own guilt feelings for having unconsciously wished for it to have happened. And didn't he recommend psychological penance for those guilt feelings.

Hayley's experience belies that approach. She shows us that the ill-effects of trauma are decisively mitigated by an apology offered by the person who caused the injury. When that person has not or will not or cannot apologize, then you need to take matters into your own hands. Not by introspecting and doing penance for your sins, but by severing ties with that person.

Ending the friendship is less than optimal, but at times it is the best that can be done.

Keep in mind that what caused the greater part of the psychological damage was not the dual betrayal but the failure of a friend to apologize.

The Human Dimension of the Financial Crisis

Anyone who has spent any time wondering about who might best chronicle the decline and fall of the New York financial world has doubtless come up with a single name: Tom Wolfe.

Who better than the author of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" to recount the extraordinary series of events that culminated in last fall's financial catastrophe? Who better than Wolfe to capture the larger-than-life personalities who ruled that world? And who better to render the human dimension of the financial crisis?

Perhaps Wolfe is hard at work on the project as we write. Hopefully the brief fiction from the most recent Vanity Fair, entitled: "The Rich Have Feelings, Too," is just the first light before the sunrise. Link to Wolfe's piece here.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Is America a Nation of Liars?

Are we, as Newsweek proclaims, "a culture of liars," or do we just like to beat ourselves up, for sins real and imagined? Link here.

Are we a bunch of flagrant, raging, incurable liars? Do we cheat all the time, break all the rules while pretending that being honest and trustworthy are for chumps? Do we believe that the more you cheat the more you get ahead?

Jessica Bennett raises these points in an unfortunate article from Newsweek. If she had set out to show us why no one ever reads the magazine any more, she has certainly succeeded.

If she believes what she is saying, then public virtue, honestly and integrity, is a sham. The only relevant distinction is between those who lie well and those who do not.

You do not even have to pretend to be a good person; you can spend your time worrying about whether or not you are going to be caught in your lies.

I would like to think that Bennett is being ironic, but I fear that she has been seduced by those who wish to glorify lying. In her words: "Liars get what they want. They avoid punishment and they win others' affections. Liars make themselves sound smart and savvy, they attain power over those of us who believe them, and they often use their lies to rise up in the professional world. Many liars have fun doing it. And many more take pride in getting away with it."

Bennett does not seem to believe that anything bad happens when people get caught in their lies. She feels that they just get away with it, as in Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer... none of whom really got away with lying.

In Bennett's world: "socially successful people... are good liars.... Lying adolescents are more popular among their peers."

What is possible compensation is left for those who insist on telling the truth?

At first glance this seems to be intuitively implausible. Do you want to hire someone who has lied on her CV? Would you keep a friend who has lied to you? Do people always get away with identity theft?

If your intuition had not put you on guard, the flimsiness of Bennett's reasoning should set off warning sirens: "Students who succeed academically get picked for the best colleges, despite the fact that ... as many as 90% of high-schoolers admit to cheating."

Is it too much to expect that an editor might have picked up the offense against reason here? Let us imagine that a large number of students cheat at one time or another. They might get outside help on a homework assignment; they might sneak a peak at someone's test answer.

Do you think that that means that students can cheat their way to Harvard or Duke? Were the best students those who were best at cheating their way through high school? Did they cheat on their SATs?

Besides, what happens if you are caught cheating? Is it an exercise in hypocrisy to punish a cheater when we are all cheaters?

The notion that successful people get away with lying is equally offensive. What about the "liar loans" that contributed mightily to our financial crisis? In the end no one really got away with lying on their mortgage applications, not the lenders, not the borrowers, not the financial system.

Unfortunately, Newsweek paints the topic so broadly that it makes us think that we do nothing but lie, and that we are lying to ourselves if we think otherwise.

But Bennett does not distinguish between flagrant falsehoods and good manners.

Being polite and well-mannered means that we engage in certain formal social rituals, like shaking hands and offering greetings.

Would you consider yourself to be a liar if you tell a friend you are happy to see him when your heart is not bursting with joy. The expression is a ritual formality; it does not even pretend to express a metaphysical truth.

If you were less than happy to see a friend and said as much, you would simply be rude. If you did it often enough you would soon become friendless. Would your passion for an abstract idea-- the truth-- compensate for your friendlessness.

Ritualized expressions of greeting are not lies; they are ritualized expressions of greeting. They affirm a social connection. Nothing more or less.

The psychologist who called them "an omnipresent white noise that we have learned how to tune out" has no real understand of how people connect in society. I am confident that the failure to perform such a ritual would immediately be noticed and would be received as the rude dismissal that it is ... in truth.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

The End of an Ethic

Longtime readers of this blog might recall that last fall I theorized that the cultural cause of the financial crisis was the loss of civic virtue, the loss of a work ethic, and the rise of an anti-ethic valuing pleasure, self-interest, and self-esteem.

There is a difference between earning what you have and believing that you deserve to have things even when you have not earned them. And there is a difference between the self-respect that you earn by your good conduct and the esteem that you claim for yourself and demand from others regardless of your accomplishments.

It seemed to me at the time, and it still seems to be the case that this kind of counter-ethic aptly describes what happened to the mortgage and housing markets. I believed then and I believe now that the origin of that counter-ethic lay in the advent of a counterculture that morphed into our current mania with political correctness.

Today I was happy to discover a more comprehensive study of the loss of the American work ethic in relation to the collapse of the financial markets and the rise of the counterculture.

Writing in "City Journal" Stephen Malanga examines the importance of civic virtue for the proper functioning of a capitalist economy and free markets. He shows how the nation inculcated civic virtues like--thrift, industry, modesty-- from its inception.

He goes on to show how the counterculture fostered an entirely different set of values. Once put into practice these values, Malanga says, created the conditions that would eventually nearly destroy the financial system. Link here.

What does it all mean? It means that the next time you tune in an episode of Mad Men and rejoice over the fact that countercultural warriors led us out of the wasteland of the early 1960s, you should think to yourself that America's flaws-- and it certainly had its share-- were not sufficiently grievous to necessitate our throwing the baby out with the bath water. Pardon the cliche.

The counterculture exploited the flaws in American society to produce what appeared to be more a revolution than a reformation.

In so doing it discarded the Protestant work ethic in favor of the Playboy philosophy, the therapy culture, and the glorification of personal self-aggrandizement.

If the counterculture were merely promoting the value of providing more work opportunities for those who had been systematically and unjustly excluded from the marketplace, that would have been one thing. It could certainly have done so while affirming the work ethic.

And if the counterculture wanted the nation to overcome the heritage of slavery and segregation, to produce more integrated and diverse communities, it could have followed the example of the one community where integration had become the rule, not the exception. That is the military.

As we know, the military was racially integrated before the rest of the nation. Today the most successful racially integrated schools exist on military bases.

But since the counterculture loved love and hated war, it could not encourage people to follow what had worked for the military.

And since the counterculture loved pleasure and hated work, it could not promote the traditional American work ethic.

As Malanga correctly notes, the new counter-ethic does not represent a great or even a revolutionary cultural advance.

In fact, it is a throwback to the old days when a hereditary aristocracy and a landed gentry did not have to work-- they had servants and slaves-- and thus could indulge the finer and more delicious things in life without having earned them and without feeling a need to enhance the common good.

Call it a revolution if you must, but the 60s counterculture, a product of a countercultural movement that had originated to oppose the Industrial Revolution and the Protestant Work Ethic, was at its core ... reactionary.

A Rational Approach to the Health Care Crisis

You may have missed this article-- I had-- about the health care crisis, but it is easily one of the best I have read, so I am happy to link it here. Link here.

Written by a man who is anything but an expert in health care, published in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled, somewhat misleadingly, "How Health Care Killed My Father" the article offers a comprehensive, temperate, and thoroughly rational approach to the problems with the American health care system.

Perhaps because the author, David Goldhill, is a consumer, not a player, in the health care system, and perhaps because he is not trying to score political points, the article has an intellectual integrity that has often been lacking in the debate currently taking place.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Is the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

For decades now sociologists and psychologists have worked to distinguish shame and guilt. My own book on the topic, "Saving Face" is pictured at the left of this blog.

Yet, there is still confusion. Researchers who should know better continue to promote the value of guilt while condemning shame. In the old days we used to say that they were guilt-tripping us.

I was reminded of this by John Tierney's article, "Guilt and Atonement on the Path to Adulthood." Link here.

Reporting on research that seemed to discover that children with a sense of guilt tended to have more impulse control, Tierney wrote that researcher June Tangney told him that it was most important to distinguish between shame and guilt.

Tierney summarized her view: "Shame, the feeling that you are the bad person because of bad behavior, has repeatedly been found to be unhealthy, she says, whereas guilty feelings focused on the behavior itself can be productive."

This is so far afield that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Shame has nothing to do with being a bad person. When a person has a sense of shame he is basically a good person. When a good person makes a mistake he feels shame, because his action is precisely not a reflection of his character.

When he feels shame, he offers an apology. If he does so the mistake is normally forgiven and he has reasserted his good character. In situations where the mistake is grievous-- a CEO who leads his company to a significant loss-- the apology is often accompanied by a withdrawal from society.

Shame involves a temporary separation from one's group. The punishment for the kind of failure that causes shame is ostracism.

People feel shame when they fail to uphold their duties and responsibilities. When you fail to do what you are supposed to do... as a responsible member of the community, as a trustworthy friend, as a loyal colleague... you should feel shame.

Shame concerns prescribed good behaviors, the positive gestures you make towards other people.
Guilt concerns prohibited behaviors.

And after all, if shame is as harmful as June Tangney thinks, would she also agree that shamelessness is a consummate virtue.

The times when someone's mistake becomes a reflection on his character are those when he fails to feel shame and fails to apologize. When that happens, then the actions can properly be considered to be intrinsic to the person's character.

Of course, the researchers are so confused that they believe that guilt can be overcome by an apology and by making amends. Guilt lands you in prison; shame lands you before the cameras apologizing to the world.

Examine the experiment they conducted. They offered a toy to a toddler. The toy was rigged to break apart as soon as the toddler touched it. (As many commenters noted, the researchers had no compunctions about traumatizing toddlers.)

Here is the way Tierney described the toddlers' reactions: "...the toddlers squirmed, avoided the experimenter's gaze, hunched their shoulders, hugged themselves and covered their faces with their hands."

Perhaps the researchers did not know that shame is classically defined as the loss of face. Obviously, the term, most commonly used on China, derives from real experience. When a toddler covers his face and avoids the gaze of others, he is experiencing a shame reaction, not a guilt reaction.

Guilt does not involve failing to do the right thing-- failing to send a thank you note, failing to be polite and courteous, failing to show up for an appointment. Guilt occurs when we break the law, violate a rule, trespass... do something that is expressly forbidden.

If you are given a toy to safeguard and the toy breaks, for whatever reason, you feel shame because you failed your responsibility.

You should feel guilt for committing crimes, for eating the forbidden fruit, for entertaining sinful wishes. Guilt involves punishment. Most serious theories of guilt describe it as the anxiety one feels when one is expecting punishment.

When you have committed a crime and are found guilty, you have to pay for it, with your time, your money, or even, your life. When the transgression does not rise to the level of breaking the law, when it merely involves sin, you overcome the guilt by punishing yourself... by atoning or by doing penance. And those are not the same as apologizing, making amends, and retiring from public life.

Self-criticism can be performed very well when you are alone. An apology is a public and ritual action performed in front of another person.

Atonement and penance often involve bodily punishment. They can involve a number of activities from fasting to self-flagellation. The psychological versions are self-criticism and self-deprecation.

If shame impels people to do the right thing-- the better to avoid shame-- guilt shows them how to control the impulse to break the laws and to transgress.

The researchers have an impoverished view of what constitutes adult behavior. They seem to believe that adult behavior is merely characterized by impulse control.

But we should know by now that unless you want to consumed by a mental drama where your impulses are constantly at war with your fear of punishment, you would do better to learn how to practice the good behaviors that make you the kind of person who is not constantly tempted to transgress.

As for the toddlers, the ones who had a budding sense of shame-- mistaken for guilt by the researchers-- grew up to have better impulse control. Perhaps that was because they had a better sense of what it meant to do the right thing.






Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is It Good to Multitask?

Do you multitask? Should you multitask? Does multitasking make you more or less efficient and effective?

For some time I have had my suspicions about the vogue of multitasking. It felt like the therapy world had found a condition it could not treat or cure-- lack of focus and concentration-- and had simply decided to rebrand it.

People were thrilled to discover that they were not just unfocused, but they were really multitasking. So they advertised the fact, made it a badge of pride, and induced others to adopt what has now been shown to be simply a bad habit.

Suspicions have no real value as evidence. Now a scientific study by researchers at Stanford University has demonstrated that multitaskers are inefficient, ineffective, more easily distracted, and less able to ignore trivial information. Link here.

This shows that calling something by another name and making that name connote something valuable does change the nature of the thing. Surely, you can influence behavior by rebranding, but you cannot change reality.

Researcher Clifford Nass noted correctly that since our society seems to encourage multitasking, his study has important social implications.

Rebranding has a long and distinguished history in the therapy culture. In the old days the therapeutic motto could have been: If you can't treat it or cure, call it something else.

Before the advent of Prozac, cognitive therapy, and coaching, therapists had a devil of a time treating depression. Considering that most therapy patients-- according to Hopkins psychologist Jerome Frank-- are suffering from demoralization, thus depression, this was no small shortcoming.

How did therapists address the problem? Simple: they rebranded their depressed patients.

When a young man presented himself as dysfunctional, alienated, and demoralized, therapists would lead him on a journey where he would discover why he felt the way he felt.

This would not cure what ailed him, so treatment success was defined as the realization that his symptoms meant that he was a budding artist looking for the right medium to express his feelings.

For ideological more than therapeutic reasons, classically trained therapists did not entertain the notion that the young man might need some guidance about how to become a functioning member of society.

When other people in the man's life suggested as much, they were roundly denounced for conspiring to repress his creative spirit. Why would they want to repress it? Because it was going to denounce them for being bourgeois sell-outs.

Rebranding did not cure or treat the young man's depression. But it certainly influenced many young people to adopt a less conventional, more rebellious lifestyle.


Why Do Executives Hire Coaches?

In today's Wall Street Journal Sarah Needleman addresses this question: Why, in the midst of an economic downturn, when everyone is cutting back, do executives hire coaches? Link here.

Happily enough, she uses a sports metaphor. Executives, as she says, are "in the game," and people who are in the game and who are good at the game know that they need help from the sidelines.

Executives hire coaches because they need a competitive edge. As one executive explained, when you have fewer client opportunities, you cannot approach a meeting casually. You have to work on your presentation and people skills.

When the world is awash in money you can get away with far more bad behavior than you can when money is tight and business is contracting.

As I have mentioned often enough on this blog, deals can be made or lost on the basis on what you might think of as minor details. I am not just talking about table manners at a lunch meeting or the courtesy involved in sending thank-you notes.

Sometimes even the way a question is worded will make or break a deal. The ancients used to call it the art of rhetoric. To my knowledge it is not taught in too many business schools.


Monday, August 24, 2009

How to Start Practicing Gratitude

In yesterday's post I approvingly quoted Brett Steenbarger's remark: "...life is a training camp."

Hopefully, some of you will forgive me the flagrant sports metaphor, but it helps us to understand the difference between classical talk therapy and life coaching.

Talk therapy sees life as a drama or a narrative. Coaching sees it as a game. In the one you are playing a role that is more or less predetermined; in the other you are playing a game where your actions influence the outcome.

As Steenbarger suggested, very tellingly, human freedom at its best exists when we see ourselves as players in a game. If we are actors on the great stage of life, we are following a script. We may deviate from the script and call it freedom, but that is not the freedom we have when we take an action that can change who wins and who loses.

By definition, life coaching helps people to see that life is a game and to learn how to play it better. But coaching is not the only practice that sees life this way.

Cognitive therapy, for one, has made use of the concept of training for a game. In place of therapy's neo-mystical search for Self, cognitive therapy recommended homework exercises.

Cognitive therapists instruct depressed patients to write down their a negative, self-deprecatory thought, and then to write down three instances that prove it and three that disprove it.

The purpose: to train the mind to overcome negative thinking and to make a habit of a more balanced thought.

Today I would draw your attention to Alan Lurie's recent post about the practice of gratitude. Taking a page from cognitive therapy and coaching exercises, Lurie recommends that we work to improve our morale by outreaching, as I would call it, or by getting into the habit of expressing gratitude. Link here.

This involves systematically saying Thank You for gifts and favors, but it also involves counting your blessings, on a daily basis, until the feeling of being connected with others becomes second nature.

A simple Thank You is the most elementary form of giving back. Thus, it is the place to start, not in terms of gaining insight but of instituting a new practice.

Once you see how much others are giving to you, then you should also find it easier to give to them, to break out of the kind of defensive posture we too often fall into when we have been traumatized.

Gratitude sees life as a game of reciprocal exchanges of gifts. The gift you give may be your good company, your wisdom, your warm feelings, or even a flower. But life requires such gifts to keep us connected and to keep us sane.

There is no drama in the reciprocal exchange of gifts. Drama begins with ingratitude, with the failure to participate in the exchange, and with the relentless search for the meaning of said failure.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

How to Avoid Mental Fatigue

This morning I was reading Brett Steenbarger's post on mental fatigue, what it is and how to avoid it. Link here.

In his words: "We have free will only to the degree that we can direct ourselves in goal-oriented ways. When we are burned out, overwhelmed, or just plain tired, we lose that capacity for direction. We drift, rather than act with intent. Even our minds drift, rather than stay focused on goals."

This excellent description connects well with points I have been making about "drift" and its antidote "grit." Link to the post on drift here.
Link to the post on grit here.

Steenbarger adds another important point: "... fatigue is not just something that happens to us, but something that we actively do: we fatigue ourselves with low-yield activities, negative self-talk, and the frustration of unmet needs."

As he says, the solution requires proper nutrition, sufficient exercise, and hard work.

Following the work of Jim Loehr, he concludes: "life is a training camp for elite performers; that is what gets them to the next level."

On these points, see my previous post about Steenbarger and Loehr. Link here. A recent discussion by Loehr is linked here.

If life is a training camp, it is not an extended therapeutic exploration of self. Nor is it a permanent psychodrama or the expression of some master narrative.

I am especially impressed by Steenbarger's notion that we create our own fatigue by involving ourselves in futile exercises, make-work projects, endless self-criticism, and constant drama.

As I sure we have all noted, people who dramatize problems-- as opposed to solving them-- exhaust themselves and have nothing to show for it.

So, there are two kinds of fatigue. The one comes from futility, the other from hard work. The first leaves us demoralized because we have nothing to show for our effort. The second leaves us contented with a job well done.

It is easy to see how people dramatize problems. If someone is late for dinner or has otherwise been rude, you expect an apology. If it is offered, this formal and ritualized expression puts the slight in the past and helps us to avoid exhausting and purposeless conflict.

An apology solves a problem. For that reason we normally accept the apology and let the matter drop.

Sometimes, however, someone might refuse an apology. He might want to have it out, to discuss the matter in detail, to plumb the depths of its meaning, and to work it through. If he succeeds, he will have drained all of the positive energy from his relationship.

The drama is unnecessary. It is solely our creation. It distracts from the task at hand and fatigues both parties... for nothing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jim Cramer and the Obama Disapproval Indicator

Early last October I wrote a post about the mind of Jim Cramer. Link here.

While Cramer was defending the candidacy of Barack Obama on the grounds that he would be better for the stock market, I noted the strange correlation between Obama's poll numbers and the market averages.

At the time I noted-- and I think I was among the first to remark this-- that the market began its most precipitous decline on the day that Obama took the lead in the polls. The more the polls, the political futures market, and the election predicted and then confirmed an Obama victory, the market entered into free fall.

However much Cramer's Wall Street friends believed that Obama would be better for the markets, the markets seemed to be thinking otherwise.

When I suggested this, a number of people wrote me to explain that I had mistaken correlation for causation, that it was the oldest mistake in the book, and that I should have known better. Some expressed the same thought in far less civil terms.

But, considering that there are serious market players who believe that market direction is influenced by astrological conjunctions, I do not think it is outrageous to suggest that a new president's fiscal policies might influence the minds of investors and traders.

Why do I bring up this unpleasant incident again. Well, it turns out that Jim Cramer has just discovered the Obama Disapproval Index.

Juxtaposing Obama's disapproval ratings and the S & P 500 average, Cramer noted that they correlated precisely. The greater the public disapproval of Obama, the higher the market averages go. For a clip of Cramer's performance and some commentary by Ed Morrissey, link here.

So I am happy to note that Jim Cramer has come over to the dark side.

Of course, as Morrissey notes, disapproval ratings have a limited downside. He suggests that this means that the indicator will have a limited value.

In my view the indicator will work until people begin to take it seriously. As long as people dismiss it, it has better chance of being useful.

I would conclude that if the public continues to disapprove of Obama, then the market will continue to advance. But if Obama's approval ratings begin to rise, that will be a time to sell stocks and even to short the market.




Friday, August 21, 2009

Should She Tell Him About Her Sexual Past?

Faced with a common dilemma a woman asked the advice of relationship experts Tamsen Fadal and Matt Titus.

In her previous relationships she had always been open and honest about her sexual past. Now, she has a new lover and feels some reluctance about revealing this information. Link here.

Before examining the expert advice, take special note of the woman's reluctance. She fears that if she tells this man about her sexual past, she might ruin their relationship.

What is this feeling telling her? It might mean that her past openness and honesty had a negative effect on her relationships. After all, none of them still exist. She may simply have learned from past experience.

Or else, the reluctance might mean that she senses that her new love does not want to know about her past. Her hesitation might simply be a way of respecting his wishes.

Unfortunately, the experts did not listen to what the woman was saying. They offered a ready-made response.

In their words: "Any man who has a problem with an experienced and mature woman, who knows exactly what she wants, needs to stay in his white picket fence of a fantasy world."

Perhaps they are trying to boost her self-esteem by telling her that she need not feel ashamed of her sexual past. Now she can instruct her new lovers to treat her as her best past lovers did. Surely, that will boost their confidence.

Beyond that, these experts are feeding the woman's narcissism. They show no consideration for her man's feelings. They are saying that she is such a wondrous creature-- she knows what she wants-- that he must get with the program or be discarded as a hopeless relic.

Such flagrant narcissism is the road to celibacy.

So, the experts have no respect for the man's feelings. And they have no sense that a relationship involves negotiation, not imposing oneself on the other person.

Women who hesitate to recount their sexual history often have very good reasons for not doing so. They want to maintain a veil of mystery about their sexuality, the better to elicit desire. And they do not want their men to start visualizing them in someone else's bed.

And then, does she want to hear about his sexual past? If she offers a rundown of her lovers he would normally feel obliged to reciprocate. If she tells about her childhood pets and adolescent petting he will feel obliged to share similar information. Does she really want to hear it?

Many women have told me that they do not want to reveal their past sexual history because their men will immediately ask themselves: Why is she telling me this?

Recounting a sexual history places the man as one of a series of men. This does not make him feel special or unique... it just tells him that he is the latest.

Let us assume that the man already knows that this woman has a sexual past. Is there anything she can say about it without revealing too much?

Actually, there is. She can let slip that she has never had an experience like that before. When it comes to male sexuality, flattery is a potent aphrodisiac.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Employed or Unemployed, This Is Good Advice

In today's Wall Street Journal Christina Binkley lights on several of my favorite themes. She directs her advice to those who have recently been laid off, but it applies as well to those who are still employed. Link here.

In her words: "The way people comport themselves after losing a job can make all the difference in what comes next. From how they convey the news to colleagues, to the type of clothes they wear and how they punctuate emails, the newly jobless must use careful footwork to navigate the job hunt."

Binkley wants people to let their good character show, not just in job interviews, but all the time. She recommends decorum, propriety, courtesy, civility, good manners, and correct punctuation.

Overall she recommends that people get over their "presumptuous and free-wheeling style." She wants them to overcome a casual, put-on confidence and project the image of people who are serious, responsible, reliable, and competent.

A good place to start is with more formal dress. Some people will find it strange, but a suit shows respect, for others and for yourself.

Also, exercise more control over the image you project on your Facebook page. Do you want people to see you as a party boy or as a person of consequence?

Even if it is only going to be seen by your 300 closest friends, the image you choose to project can stick to you like a rash.

I was intrigued by Binkley's suggestion that job seekers start punctuating their emails. She is telling them not to dash off emails that are cool, casual, and insouciant, but to take the time to write real sentences.

It is more respectful and allows you to formulate a coherent thought.

Among the larger issues, Binkley cautions people against bad-mouthing their old job or their old colleagues. Of course, that includes posting a rant on YouTube.

In effect, it is best not to vent to anyone. The chances are that whatever you say will get back to the wrong people-- past or prospective employers. Worse yet, when you take pride in your ability to put on a histrionic display you are telling yourself that you are an angry person.

If you do, when you go to an interview you will either lose your composure at the wrong moment or be forced to struggle against your natural tendency to vent.

Nor should you offer detailed explanations about why you are unemployed. Be circumspect, do not share the gory details, retain a stiff upper lip and move forward.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Memories, Begone: Getting Over a Lost Love

Here is the way she tells her story:

They were together for years. They were an established couple. She loved him; he loved her. They both enjoyed their life together and had spoken of continuing it.

Then one day, with no warning, he just picked up and left. Within a few months she was hearing that he had found a new love.

She feels bereft, abandoned, alone, rejected, and thoroughly embarrassed.

We all know about the feelings of loss and solitude that accompany a lost love. We are less likely to recognize the embarrassment that comes along with it.

She is embarrassed that she had not see it coming; she is embarrassed that she invested so much of herself in a deeply flawed relationship. Now she has to announce it to friends and family, to hear their questions and consolations, and to discover that they had never liked him anyway.

When they tell her that they did not like him they are trying to console her. She hears it through the filter of her shame. How could she have been so blind? How did she not see what was obvious to everyone else?

Everyone wants to help. They want to help her to think through what went wrong. Yet, the more they want to talk about him, the less she wants to see any of them.

As if that was not bad enough, she cannot get him out of her head. When she tries to go to sleep, she keeps thinking of him. When she wakes up, he is on her mind.

She keeps asking herself what went wrong; she rehashes the relationship day by day, minute by minute, to see if she missed the warning signs; she feels tormented and oppressed.

Of course, memories of a long relationship do not vanish overnight.

Time heals, but time takes its time to heal. If she was truly in love, then her inability to forget him would be a sign that her love was not true. If she could flick a switch and forget her lover that would say that her love was frivolous and superficial. She will not accept that he left because she did not truly love him.

Strange as it may seem, she has a stake in feeling tormented. Her inability to get over him speaks well of her. It confirms the truth of her love.

Still and all, the memories are always there. And they are undermining her, distracting her from her job, making her feel like a martyr to love.

So she decides that the proper mourning period has passed. Enough is enough.

She wants to know what she can do to make them stop.

The answer is both simple and complex. On the one hand she has to revise many of her thought patterns. If she was thinking and talking of we, now she needs to start thinking and talking of I. If her dreams and plans included him, she needs to learn how to visualize events and experiences in which he is not present.

This mental reconstruction will surely take some time. It is very much like replacing bad mental habits with good ones.

But memories are not always produced automatically. They can be provoked or evoked by external cues and stimuli. Most importantly, she she can exercise a greater degree of control over these cues than she over what does or does not flash into her mind.

If, every time she opens the front door she sees his old umbrella in her umbrella stand, then the object will evoke a memory of him. If his picture is on her dresser or if she is wearing his old shirt to clean the bathtub... then these will conspire to keep his memory alive.

And what has she done with his gifts? Is she still wearing the necklace he gave her on their first anniversary? Does she have mementos from their vacations arrayed on the mantelpiecee? Can she sit on the couch without recalling the times she cuddled there with him? Does she still sense his odor in the throw cushions?

All of this to say that hiding or disposing of these objects will help her to stop thinking of him.

She must also reconstruct the rhythm of her life. When two people are involved in a long term relationship, they develop a myriad of routines in common. Perhaps they get up together and have breakfast together. Perhaps one has to wait for the other before using the bathroom. Perhaps they read the Sunday paper in bed every Saturday night. Perhaps they speak on the phone every day during lunch.

Just as objects remind us of lost loves, so do the routines that we construct with them. Once she can identify those routines, it will be much easier for her to create new habits that are her habits, not their habits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Wages of Porn

If you're old enough to remember the day the first issue of Playboy hit the stands (in 1953) you probably don't get it. Even if you're not quite that old, you probably do not understand how today's teenagers experience sexuality.

Teenagers know more about sex, have seen more sex, and have probably had more sexual experiences than prior generations. If life is a competition to see who can have the most sexual pleasure, today's teens are leaving the rest of us in the dust.

To some adults this is a wonderful thing, a sign of human progress. To others it is a sign of an impending apocalypse. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Wherever it is, we are all going to have to live with a younger generation that has been sexually educated by porn.

Children no longer learn about sex from sex ed courses. Or from biology or hygiene. Certainly not from their parents. By far the greatest source of adolescent sexual information is pornography.

Details magazine reports that there are some 400,000,000 pages of porn on the internet. And 90% of children between 8 and 16 have viewed it. Link here.

Traditionally, porn, like golf, has been largely a male domain. Yet, Details reports that more and more teenage girls want to emulate porn stars. In England a survey showed that 25% of teenage girls aspire to become lap dancers.

According to Details, teenagers today are thoroughly conversant in the language of porn. They will happily discuss facials, fisting, bestiality, auto-asphyxiation, cream pies, bukkake, and BDSM. Some have even made a point of pride to try out what they have seen online.

Details is surprised that there are so many willing female participants. As am I. Many young women considered sexual prowess a necessity. Some even consider that part of growing up is mastering the art of the blow job.

I suspect that there is an element of exaggeration and alarmism in these numbers. Yet, a significant percentage of girls have been persuaded that they can best prove their love for their boyfriends by text-messaging pornographic images of their private parts.

Does this mean that girls have been liberated from their classical aversion to porn? Have they attained a level of sexual freedom that their mothers never even aspired to? Or is something else going on here?

Women have disliked porn because their sexual power resides in their ability to exercise some level of control over men's access to sexual experience. Being masters of sexual cues and stimuli they can somewhat control male sexual response. And if men are conditioned to believe that sexual pleasure must involve a partner, then women can say Yes or No to that too.

As happens with any resource, scarcity increases the value of the resource. If a man can find adequate sexual stimuli at will online, then the value of a woman's sexuality is diminished.

This explains why women tend to shun any woman who is giving it away for free, or even cheaply.

But once everyone seems to be doing it, the distinction between good girls and bad girls starts breaking down. Female sexuality is no longer a mysterious domain; it is public knowledge.

As feminists have pointed out, if your sex is on public display you are going to lose respect and respectability.

All of this free and openly-available sex has a price. And the reputation of young women is just part of it.

Nowadays a boy can learn everything he ever wanted to know about sex, and then some, without ever going out on a date or developing a relationship or even paying a prostitute. He can become an expert in female anatomy without having to gain the permission, to say nothing of the affections, of a real woman.

Admittedly, he might find himself mired in a depressing solitude and social withdrawal.

But teenage boys did not have await the arrival of the internet to practice what Woody Allen called: sex with someone you love.

In the past, however, they had to content themselves with the imaginative reworking of suggestive stimuli. Now, they do not even have to deploy their imaginative powers. It is all there, out in the open, always available, all the time. It is mostly free and it never says No.

When imagination was an important aspect of self-pleasure, the mystery of female sexuality remained a territory that could only be explored with the permission of a real girl.

Nowadays, what is a high school girl to do? She is probably looking for a boyfriend. She wants a relationship. How can she deal with these porn-addled creatures? And how can she compete for their attention with Jenna Jameson and Tera Patrick?

Apparently, she will try to adapt. When she sends nude images of herself to her boyfriend, she is saying that the male object of her affections need not be contented with someone he cannot touch. She can do better than Jenna and Tera; she can provide both visual stimuli and the real thing.

Assuming that he still desires it. The pervasiveness of porn has wrung most of the mystery out of sex. Without the mystery desire will begin to wane. We might end up with a generation of young people that has so completely demystified sex that it has little desire left for the real thing.

Porn produces another problem in young men, one that is rarely recognized. Young men take instruction from porn because they are suffering from a form of sexual performance anxiety. They feel that if they know the best moves they will become highly proficient, even irresistible, lovers.

But then, the young man who is learning how to please a woman by watching porn will inevitably be comparing himself to the competition: Peter North, Ron Jeremy, and the Rabbit. And this is not going to boost his confidence.

So, he knows how to please a woman, but he is afraid that he is inadequate, or worse, that he will be laughed at. This is not going to make him more likely to go out to find a girlfriend.

Perhaps you were wondering why there is so much television advertising for male enhancement products. And I am not just talking about Viagra and Cialis, which are being sold to aging boomers.

If I had to venture a guess, I believe that the over-the-counter male enhancement products, the ones that promise that you will make love like a porn star, are appealing to a generation of young men who feel that they have to outperform Peter North and the Rabbit.

Given the nature of the internet, and given the value of the free flow of information, there is no way that porn is going to be shut down or covered up.

Let us say that internet porn is here to stay. And that it is not wholly a bad thing. Think of it like red wine. In moderation it will lower your cholesterol and raise your spirits. In excess it will eat your liver.

The outcome is up to you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Managing Your Boss

When we think of managing we usually think top/down. We see the boss managing his staff or his team.

Rarely do we think of managing as bottoms/up. We do not see an employee being responsible for managing his boss.

Yet, if you are going to succeed in business, how you manage your relationship with your boss is crucial.

Behavioral strategist Joe Takash has some suggestions to help you here, and they are a good place to begin. Link here.

The basic concept is simple: your relationship with your boss is professional and formal, not intimate and personal.

Unless you have been explicitly invited to do so, you should not just drop into his office for a chat. And if you are having a scheduled meeting, stick to the agenda. Do not offer to share information about your private life.

I would not say that it never happens that employer and employee share personal information, but the boss should always be the one to take the initiative.

Formality requires that if you need to bring something to your boss's attention, you begin by making an appointment. Then, you show up punctually and prepared.

Takash emphasizes the preparation. Know what you want to get accomplished in the meeting; prepare any materials that may be needed; get right to the point. If need be, practice your presentation before you get to the meeting.

After you have exchanged greetings, be ready to present your problem in a single sentence. A meeting with your boss is a good place to practice what you have learned about "high concept."

All of this shows that you respect your boss's time and position.

Preparation is vital, and not just to have a one sentence summary. If you are looking for guidance about how to handle a complex situation, you must show that you have analyzed the problem and have arrived at two or three possible solutions. If need be, you should be ready to explain the possible outcomes of each approach.

Be prepared to tell your boss how you see things, what you think, and what the options are. You might express a preference for one or the other. That is your job. Your boss's job is choosing between them.

When your boss makes a decision, or even if he suggests that you go with your own recommendation, Takash suggests that you make a follow-up appointment to discuss the results.

No matter what your boss decides, implement the policy with energy and enthusiasm. You are not going to be given more leadership responsibility if you show that you cannot follow instructions.

You will implement with energy and enthusiasm because if things do not work out as planned, you do not want it to look as though you tried to sabotage a decision with which you disagreed.

If things do not work out well you should not criticize your boss or remind him that you favored a different approach. If he suggests that he was wrong, reply that, once you had thought it over, you had come to prefer his decision.

If you make your boss feel that he has lost face, even if only in your eyes, you will be jeopardizing your job. It is better to forget all prior discussions and to suggest ways to change course.

If things work out well, then you should thank your boss for his help.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why Are Women Attracted to Attached Men?

Apparently, Angelina Jolie is not as much of an anomaly as we had all thought.

According to the London Daily Telegraph, researchers from Oklahoma State University have discovered that women prefer attached over unattached men. 90% of women were attracted to men they were told were attached, while only 59% were drawn to men they knew were unattached.
Link here.

This research suggests that sexual attraction is not merely something that happens to people while they are not paying attention. It involves conscious decision-making.

But why would women choose to be more attracted to unavailable men? The psychoanalytically-correct interpretation would have it that this proves that people have an Oedipus complex, thus, that they are more attracted to the forbidden than to the available.

Of course, this interpretation demeans women, suggesting that they are drawn to futile exercises or are unconsciously involved in self-sabotage.

The fact that an interpretation casts aspersions on someone's character or intelligence does not make it true.

I should mention in passing that once this issue moves out of the laboratory and into the world, things become more complicated. We know that there are attached men and women who are also available, and that there are unattached men and women who are thoroughly unavailable. There is no necessary correlation between attached and unavailable.

Happily, the researchers at Oklahoma State University did not fall back on the psychoanalytically-correct conclusion. They note correctly that when a woman knows a man is attached she also knows that he is capable of being in a relationship, and that he has effectively been "pre-screened."

This is not foolproof. It simply reduces the risk of falling for Mr. Wrong.

A second reason might be this. As happened in the case of Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, when a woman gets involved with an attached man, the relationship will develop slowly and deliberately, without there being any immediate demands for sexual favors. Many women have a decided preference for such a gradualist approach to romance.

Why do women today need to have men pre-screened?

In the past when people lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else, everyone knew who was a good prospective mate and who was not. Reputation was a known quantity and could be relied on when choosing a mate.

In a small community a woman would have access to extensive information about a young man, his habits, his predilections, his family, his friends, his accomplishments, and so on.

Nowadays, in the great cosmopolitan metropolis or on your average university campus women seeking mates do not have the benefit of this pre-screening. A man might be good looking or hot, but if he comes from an entirely different culture, he is effectively a cipher.

Young women are more vulnerable, at greater risk, and have more invested in the mating process, so they are quicker to adapt to these new circumstances. They do so by choosing to be attracted to men who have been vetted and vouched for by other women. It may not be good news, but it makes good sense.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Getting Up from the Couch

Why did Freud want his patients to assume a supine posture on his kilim-covered couch? Why did he refuse to face them or to allow them to face him?

Saying that this arrangement fit within his comfort zone does not feel like an adequate explanation of his psychology.

Anyway, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists who want their patients to introspect have continued to use the couch. Presumably, the less you see of your listener, the more you will not even try to read his reactions. And the less you are trying to connect with your listener, the more you will allow your words to flow freely from your mind to the air.

Today, I was reading about some new research from Texas A & M University that suggests a different interpretation. Link here.

I should emphasize that the researchers did not apply the results of their study to the psychoanalytic couch. For that I take full responsibility.

The study I was reading showed that when people were insulted they were more likely to want to retaliate when they were standing up, and less likely to retaliate when they were lying down.

Thus, when people say that you should not take it lying down, they are expressing a basic psychological truth.

One researcher suggested that since people who are reclining are more likely to brood, thus, to introspect, they will be more likely to feel the emotion and not think to act on it.

Thus, it is easier to get away with insulting someone who is lying down than someone who is standing up and facing you. You will be less inhibited when the person is lying down; more cautious when the person is looking you in the eye.

To apply this to psychoanalysis, we need merely understand that telling someone that he has an Oedipus complex is an insult.

When a psychoanalyst tells you that your good behavior, your good character, your basic decency are merely a way to keep your heart's desire-- to murder your father and to copulate with your mother--out of consciousness, he is insulting you.

He is diminishing you, demeaning you, and attempting to lower you in your own regard.
A person who harbors such outrageous criminal impulses must have very low self-esteem.

If Freud had started out saying these kinds of things to people's faces, he would have faced significant anger, and perhaps would have better understood that what he took to be a wise and profound interpretation was really a nasty and gratuitous piece of slander.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Complaint Free Life

Jaded New York intellectual that I am, I had happily ignored the hubbub swirling around Rick Warren's book: "The Purpose Driven Life."

And then one day in 2005 a convict named Brian Nichols overpowered a guard in an Atlanta courtroom and murdered three people. After fleeing the courthouse he also murdered a federal customs agent.

Finally, Nichols met up with a pretty blond South Carolina meth addict named Ashley Smith and took her hostage.

You know the rest of the story. Smith did not cower in fear. She did not even fight back. Instead, she read to Nichols from the book that was on her nightstand: "The Purpose Driven Life." Then she offered to pray with him. Eventually, she persuaded him to turn himself in. She was unharmed.

We might want to scoff at Pastor Warren, but clearly his words and his approach worked. In and of itself that should command our respect.

These were my first thoughts when I read Valerie Frankel's article about how she tried to follow the instructions contained in a book called: "A Complaint Free World" written by a Missouri pastor named Will Bowen. Link here.

In her article Frankel offers an amusing view of how her family tried for a week to learn the basics of a complaint free life. Frankel did not merely try to go cold-turkey on complaining, but she enlisted her husband and children in the enterprise.

At the end of a week, Frankel discovered that she could not break her bad habit of complaining, and that it was a good thing she couldn't because that was who she really was.

Trying not to complain made Frankel miserable, so she stopped. She concluded that a complaint free life was not for her. The experiment was a failure, and thus, the pastor's advice is not going to make you happy. It is going to alienate you from your true self, to say nothing of your friends and family.

However compelling Frankel's story, it does not prove the futility of trying to stop complaining. The more salient truth is that you cannot break a bad habit in a week. Under any circumstances, no matter who you are.

If you have spent your life badmouthing everyone and everything, you cannot just flick a switch and become the soul of kindness. Considering the amount of work you probably put into developing your skill at complaining and whining you cannot just shed it like some much dead skin. And considering that everyone you know expects you to complain, you cannot just stop doing it. Your friends will think you have lost your mind.

Given her expertise at complaining, Frankel has many complaints about Bowen's program. Among the worst: she had to repress her impulse to revel in the exchange of catty gossip. Apparently, such exchanges are legal tender among Frankel and her closest friends.

Once she stopped badmouthing people, Frankel felt like an alien being. The feeling was uncomfortable to the point of being painful. Saying nice things was wringing the fun out of her life.

Of course, this makes it sound like Bowen's book was tailor-made for Valerie Frankel.

Her complaints about her week-long experiment, however, are simply a description of the process that anyone would undergo while trying to replace a bad habit with a good one.

If an alcoholic tried to stay off alcohol for a few days, he might well say that he did not feel very good about the experience, that his friends no longer recognized him, and that he needed alcohol to put the fun back in his life.

If stopping addictive behavior felt good, a lot more people would do it. The greatest obstacles to overcoming addiction are that once you stop it: you do not feel normal; you will need to create a new circle of friends; and your life will feel like a lot less fun.

A few days ago, while blogging about Alan Lurie's article about complaining, I suggested that our therapy culture had helped us to perfect the art of complaining.

While Bowen and Lurie, among others, are fighting the good fight to help people overcome this insidious habit, Frankel represents the view of the therapy culture. Her article might have been called: The Empire Strikes Back.

Admittedly, card carrying members of the intelligentsia cannot take minister Bowen's ideas very seriously. And while it may be true that Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold tens of millions of copies, I can assure you that these copies have not been bought in the tonier precincts where the intellectual elites live and prosper.

And yet, as I like to remind myself, the most effective treatment for the scourge of alcoholism was not dreamed up by a great European psychoanalyst or philosopher. The twelve step program that is most likely to treat addiction was cobbled together by a couple of drunks in Akron, Ohio.

On that humbling word, I will close this post.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Are Markets the Problem or the Solution?

Our most important public debates today center around the question: Are markets the problem or the solution?

Did the free market create the financial crisis, or did government intervention prevent the market from doing its work?

Can the free market solve our health care problems, or should it step out of the way and let government tackle it?

Beyond that we find another series of questions. Are markets efficient or ineffective? Do they act fairly to distribute goods and services or are they skewed to favor one group or another? Do they have a life of their own or are they simply the expression of the nature of those who participate in them?

Recently I was rereading Niall Ferguson's essay on what happened to the financial markets last fall. I have linked the article before, and am still impressed by its clarity and concision. It is worth another link. Here.

Examine this thought. Ferguson wrote: "Zoological imagery is an integral part of Planet Finance. Optimistic buyers are 'bulls;' pessimistic sellers are 'bears.' The real point, however, is that stock markets are mirrors of the human psyche. Like Homo sapiens they can become depressed. They can even suffer complete breakdowns."

I agree that it is no accident that animal imagery is so important to the financial world. Yet, it is not just about imagery.

Bull and bear might also be used as animal totems, each of which symbolizes a tribe. And let's not forget the gold bugs... another tribe with its own totem.

Once you join one of these tribes, it is very, very difficult to change sides. Markets seem to have something to do with the way humans behave in groups.

Now, ask yourself this: If the market mirrors human behavior, does it mimic normal human behavior or does it indulge the extremes of possible human behavior? Does it naturally revert to the mean or the norm... or is it destined to swing from one extreme to another, like a human psyche suffering from bipolar illness?

What applies to the individual also applies to groups. Humans always join groups, whether they be communities, tribes, or crowds. Sometimes they are swept along on a wave of madness because everyone in the group is thinking a certain way. And sometimes they retreat into despair because everyone else is feeling down.

But, these are not normal behaviors, for individuals or for groups. Groups that indulge mass euphoria or mass despair soon become dysfunctional.

To put it another way, when a group becomes prey to excessive optimism the market, by its nature, will bring it back to earth. Unfortunately, the descent may end in a crash.

It is worth mentioning that most people and most markets do not get caught up in these extremes. Possibilities are not truths.

When Ferguson analyzes the way that markets mirror the human psyche, he refers to Charles Kindleberger's description of market manias.

I am tempted to call the swing between market mania and depression an expression of bipolar illness, but I think it is more accurate to say that it mirrors a human mind that is addicted to drugs.

Kindleberger's five phases are: displacement, euphoria, mania, distress, and revulsion.

Compare this to what happens when someone becomes addicted to drugs.

The individual starts down the road to addiction when he experiences something new and apparently profitable. Often enough, he takes it as an initiation rite. Taking the new drug makes him part of a new group.

The individual and his companions will next experience a type of euphoria, as though they are special and have found the answer to all of their troubles. As long as they are together and as long as they are taking their drug, they feel liberated from suffering.

Eventually, they will come to the point where the drug ceases to perform its magic. They will decide that they can regain their euphoria by taking more and more of the drug. This is a manic stage where the addict retains his hope that his new strategy of extreme indulgence will restore his fleeting euphoria.

As it begins to dawn on the addict that the drug is ceasing to work, he will start seeing that his habit and his new friends are costing him dearly. Then he will enter a stage of distress and disillusionment. He will keep taking the drug to avoid those feelings of despair.

From there it is often only a matter of time before he ends up in the gutter and reaches rock bottom. At that point he might be ready to begin the work of recovery.

If the market has been behaving like a group of addicts, then what is the drug? According to Ferguson it is cheap money or better, free money. The supplier, again according to Ferguson, was the Federal Reserve, and the users where the inhabitants of Planet Finance.

So, one day last Fall it seemed that someone had simply removed the supply of drugs. And the market, like an addict going into a forced withdrawal, began to crash.

Then, the Federal Reserve opened the monetary spigots with even more cheap money. And people were wondering how a problem that had been created by cheap money was going to be solved by cheaper money?

If we want to work the analogy, we can say that some addicts would not survive a fast withdrawal. It may feel heroic to allow someone to go through extreme withdrawal, but some people simply do not survive the experience.

The more important point, I believe, is that while human beings and markets can go through addictive cycles, these cycles are not the truth of the human psyche or of the markets. They are aberrations, unpleasant possibilities that define some of the extremes of human conduct.






Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How to Succeed in Business: Lessons from "Mad Men"

With the passing of "The Sopranos" the mantle of television cult classic has fallen on "Mad Men." With the show's third season starting this Sunday the media is filling up with commentaries about it.

Among the best is an article by Emma Pearse on The Daily Beast. Link here.

Raised to be a feminist Pearse looks slightly askance at the women of "Mad Men." Yet, however distasteful she finds their conduct she tries to use it to guide her own conduct as an executive assistant.

Given her background, Pearse found that being an executive assistant was nothing less than "basic submission."

The first thing she brought to her job was a bad attitude, a rebellious spirit, an ideologically-driven antipathy. In her words: "One could call it a persecution complex. Or call me a spoiled brat. But try as I might, I couldn't breathe away the feeling that with every warm photocopy came proof that I was not where I wanted to be. And I didn't stop there: Every cup of coffee, every lunch reservation, was proof to me that women and gender politics were not where they should be."

Evidently, the situation was unstable. She turned to "Mad Men" for guidance. And she concluded that if you want to be successful you need to do your best at what you are doing, and put aside your resentment over not immediately being where you want to be.

As she writes: "...my predecessor...made an art out of assisting and was promoted to a managing position based on it."

Describing her new insight in more detail she says: "What I didn't understand, though, was that I didn't need liquor to bond with my boss; I needed to be good at the secretarial tasks that, performed with efficiency and aplomb, actually helped him to do his job. What I should have learned from 'Mad Men' is that if I really could be a man's right-hand woman, I stood to gain his respect."

More succinctly, she concludes: "I needed to stop thinking about where I wanted to be and start being where I was."

In the end, Pearse cannot quite make it as an efficient, engaged, competent assistant. She was simply not cut out for it. Perhaps it had something to do with her upbringing.

She understands this well: "Sometimes I wonder whether my feminism has become so second nature that I'm blind to when it is getting in the way. Sexism was Betty, Joan, and Peggy's cross to bear: mine is when to distinguish between gender inequality and reality."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Marriage in a Time of Layoffs

Elizabeth Bernstein's title says it well: "You Drive Me Crazy: What Layoffs Do to a Marriage." Link here.

Most especially Bernstein wants to know what this kind of trauma does to a marriage and how a marriage can survive it.

A layoff is a trauma. Compared to what therapists usually call traumas, layoffs have the distinction of being no-fault traumas.

The standard therapeutic approach identifies the person who suffers a trauma as the victim of abuse. If that is true, then cure must involve the denunciation and prosecution of the abuser. In this classical view of trauma, the cure is justice.

Bernstein does not subscribe to this approach. She does not see the depression people feel when they are laid off or the marital problems that arise as functions of some hidden psychic defect or even a predisposition to neurosis.

Read her description of the effects of trauma on someone who has lost his job: "... if someone is sitting home all day with out a job, is it any wonder that he becomes stir crazy and needy? Couples dealing with this must contend with the new structure of their days-- or the lack of it. Suddenly one or both members is at home with not much to do (especially if they're not trying not to spend money) and no one to do it with. When they are talking to their friends, these pals are often still working, and therefore, busy."

To analyze the real situation that causes the psychological disruption, Bernstein emphasizes
the similarity between people who have lost their jobs and retirees.

When the husband of a stay-at-home wife retires or loses his job, his presence at home will feel disruptive and invasive.

It does not much matter what he is doing at home; his wife will feel it as an intrusion. His mere presence will disrupt her routines and make her feel that she is being surveyed and overseen.

But then, how can she explain to a man who, as often happens, has earned the money that has purchased the home, who has been living there, on nights and weekends, for decades, that his presence now feels intrusive?

For his part the husband will surely feel unwelcome. But how can he be unwelcome in his own home?

If this man finds himself hanging around the house because he has lost his job, he will additionally feel a quantity of embarrassment. This might make him withdrawn and defensive. Then he might read his wife's dissatisfaction as a judgment of his own inadequacy.

When routines are disrupted, people experience it as traumatic, even when no one is at fault.

For that reason a therapy that emphasizes finding fault will never really be able to address the underlying issue or to help craft a solution.

Or take a case Bernstein recounts. A woman who has worked all her adult life is suddenly laid off. Her husband is still working, but she is alone around the house for the entire day.

She suffers a profound social deprivation, missing the normal social interactions that accompany a job, and her status as a valuable, participating member of society.

Having worked all her adult life, she does not have a circle of friends and neighbors with whom to spend time. Since she is also somewhat embarrassed for having been laid off, she does not seek out new friends to whom she might have to explain what happened.

Alone and isolated she has a single source of human social contact: her husband. The minute he walks through the door in the evening he is met with an avalanche of questions and comments, of neediness and demands.

In sense there is nothing very abnormal in her reaction. She requires social activity; she requires a feeling of participating actively in society and business. Unfortunately, she seeks it all from a single individual, and no individual can provide it.

How can couples deal with layoffs more constructively?

First, by understanding that they are suffering and stressed through no fault of their own. The strains on a marriage under these circumstances are normal, not a sign that something is wrong with the marriage.

Second, by reorganizing their lives and creating new routines and new activities.

Two social beings have lost their moorings. They will regain what they have lost once they reconstruct their social life and regain their place in society.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Complaining Does Not Help

You can complain about your problems or you can solve them, but you cannot do both at the same time.

As Alan Lurie wrote: "Someone who is actively working to bring about positive change through deliberate action is not a complainer, but is one who sees problems as calls to actions, and as possibilities for growth and transformation." Link here.

Lurie defines complaining as: "The disparaging observation about a person, event, or phenomenon, for which the complainer has no ability or intention to act in order to create positive change."

According to this definition, people complain about two kinds of problems. First, problems they have no capacity to change. Second, problems that they refuse to address through action.

We can complain about the weather or the behavior of other people, but there is nothing we can do about either of them.

If we choose to prepare for good or bad weather or learn to choose our friends better, then we are taking action, not complaining.

We can also complain about our past, about our parents, our childhood, or injustices visited on our ancestors... but again, complaining will not change what happened. It will make us feel that action is futile.

Why do people indulge the unfortunate, off-putting, and energy-draining habit of complaining? Lurie offers several cogent explanations.

First, people complain because they want to excuse themselves for not taking action. Then, complaining gives you a false sense that you are doing something.

Complaining produces drama; perhaps it is intended to produce drama. If the world is all drama, then attempts to engage consequential action are futile. When you are watching a movie or a play there is nothing you can do to change the outcome.

Second, people complain because it is better to blame others than to ask ourselves what we can do to change things.

Here, Lurie emphasizes correctly that complaining is a rationalization for inaction.

Third, people complain because it makes them feel morally superior to those who take action, get their hands dirty, and who might succeed or fail.

In complaining people who specialize in talking, feeling, and finding fault assert that they are superior to those who do the real work.

How can we all work to overcome our habit of complaining? Lurie offers some good suggestions.

The first is simple. When you are tempted to complain, ask yourself whether there is anything you can do that would change the situation.

Second, when you encounter realities that cannot be changed, then make it a habit to stop complaining about them.

Third, ask yourself whether complaining is improving your relationships and making you more effective. Does complaining make you a better person?

But how did we get to be a nation of complainers? How did it happen that a man could sit down next to Alan Lurie at a concert, and, with the slightest provocation, launch into a litany of complaints? Why would anyone consider this to be acceptable social behavior?

Readers of this blog probably know that I am going to say that our culture of complaint has been actively fostered by the therapy culture.

When you go to consult with a therapist, she will most likely not direct your attention to the positive actions you can take to change your life. More likely, she will invite you to vent and emote?

She might also encourage you to explore your past experiences, the ones you can do nothing about, the ones that damaged and harmed you. And if you become fully aware of all the bad things that have happened in days of yore, what can you do but complain about them.

What better way to get lost on the path to action.

If that is your therapist's approach-- and it corresponds reasonably well to Paul Weston's approach in the television program "In Treatment"-- then the only skill you are going to develop in treatment is the ability to complain, with force, and with gusto. When you complete therapy you will even feel good about yourself for doing it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dating Advice From a Matchmaker

Matchmaking is coming back. And not just because people are so busy at work that they do not have the time to troll the local bars looking for mates.

People are turning to matchmakers because the dating scene is unmanageable. In a great cosmopolitan metropolis a young person can meet so many potential mates that sorting through them would be a full time job.

A matchmaker makes the selection process manageable. It is easier to choose among a dozen possible mates than it is to choose among a cast of thousands.

As economists have discovered, the more options you have the less likely you are to make any decision at all. You will be saying to yourself that you have not yet exhausted the possibilities, thus, that the perfect one might be just around the corner.

Unfortunately, this embarrassment of riches has turned some young people into serial daters. This is a problem. If you are too good at dating you will likely be less adept at conducting a relationship.

So says Patti Stanger, star of the television show "The Millionaire Matchmaker."

To her comment I would only add that people who serially date suffer serial disappointment and rejection. Serial daters have often been serially traumatized to the point where their priority is not how to find a mate, but how to avoid another trauma.

Given that most people want to form relationships, matchmaker Stanger has written an article apprising young women of their more common dating mistakes. While I would prefer that young people not think about avoiding mistakes-- because it is better to embrace good habits than to avoid bad habits-- Stanger makes some excellent points. Link here.

Among others she tells young women that they should not expect to meet men when they go out to dinner in packs. Few men will risk intruding on a group of a dozen women.

Men will simply not want to take the risk. A woman who is involved in a closed conversation with a bunch of her closest friends is saying that she has chosen to spend the evening with them.

Stanger recommends that a young woman go out by herself, sit down at a bar, and open a copy of "The Da Vinci Code."

It may be a good conversation starter, and it is certainly better than reading the latest issue of Marie Claire, but most men will find it strange that a woman would be reading an outdated book.

I also disagree because Stanger seems to be advising young women simply to go to the other extreme from going out in a large group. If the latter makes a woman too invulnerable, sitting alone at a bar will often make her feel too vulnerable.

It is better to find the mean between these extremes, and to amble through a museum, browse a bookstore, or better, attend a class or a wine tasting where you have an opportunity to meet other people naturally.

Next, Stanger offers some excellent advice. Too many women, she says, overshare. After a few drinks and an animated conversation they think they have found a soul mate and pour out their heart and soul to him.

Once a woman does that-- making herself too vulnerable, as it happens-- she will expect that her date will reciprocate. And there is some truth behind her expectation. Human relationships are based on reciprocity; we connect by exchanging gifts and reciprocating when people offer us hospitality.

But if you take things too far, if you offer too much of yourself to someone who is not inclined to share as much with you, then your confession is really a demand.

Once something is implicitly and imperiously demanded, it cannot be offered freely.

Turn the situation around. When a man overspends on a woman-- men are far less likely to overshare-- is he not trying to put her in a position where she will feel obligated to offer her favors in return?

Most women will reject men who are trying to buy them with extravagant gifts. The same applies when a man is faced with a woman who is giving out too much personal information. He will reject her.

That is the only way he can feel that he is not being bought.

Once you understand how reciprocity works in a relationship or on a date you can use your knowledge to keep the situations under control.

If you want to know the other person better, begin by making a small offering, a small piece of information about yourself. Then sit back and wait to see if it is reciprocated.

If you mention something about an incident with your pet snake you should expect your date to disclose something about his own experience with pets, even if it is his regret at never having had a gerbil.

If your disclosure is not reciprocated, you know that you have overstepped. Then you should shift the conversation away from childhood memories on to more neutral ground... sports, the weather, a good book, the financial crisis. Anything will do, as long as it is less personal and less direct.

One thing for sure: do not follow up your oversharing with the inquisition you believe you have just earned the right to inflict on him.