Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Making Rational Decisions

Are rational and irrational the new right and wrong?

Most people would believe that the rational thing is the right thing, but it is also true that one person’s rational decision is another person’s error. It might be rational to do one thing in one’s own self-interest, but it might be rational to do another thing because it is best for one’s family. Surely, altruistic actions can also be rational.

And, of course, who is to decide what is or is not rational, and for whom? Doing the right thing might feel automatic, as though rational reflection has not entered the decisions making process.

After all, there are good habits and bad habits. All of them are often performed as though without reflection. They might promote your best interest, but you need not be doing them because you made a rational decision. For all we know people develop good habits because they are brought up that way, because their parents encourage them or because they don't know any better.

Recently, behavioral economists have addressed the problem of human decision-making. They have tried to answer this question: Are human beings fundamentally rational animals who make decisions based on their self-interest, or are they buffeted hither and yon, making irrational, and presumably wrong decisions, for reasons that have nothing to do with their self-interest?

Angela Chen summarized the research in the Wall Street Journal:

Behavioral economics, which has gained ground among academic economists over the past several decades, departs from traditional notions by assuming that individuals don't always behave rationally and act in their own best interests. Thus we have market bubbles in which investors inflate stocks or homes way above their rational value.

Of course, we can ask what the rational value is, and who decides it. If the rational value involves a stock’s future earnings, we should recognize that predicting the future is a notoriously difficult task. We may understand the probabilities and the probabilities may point in one direction, but what if instinct says otherwise? And what if Warren Buffet’s instinct leads him to a different conclusion?

Market bubbles are much easier to identify retrospectively. If there were a human being who could predict the future with perfect or even near-perfect accuracy, he would not be teaching in a university.

People who invest at the top of market bubbles are following what has been called the madness of crowds. But, is it rational or irrational to participate in an activity that has netted many people vast sums of money? After all, some people exit a bubble market before the collapse; some don’t.

And let us not imagine that scientists have a monopoly on good investment advice. No less than Isaac Newton was ruined by investing in the South Seas Company in the early eighteenth century.

In the past, before behavioral economics, at a time when we left ethical issues to the non-scientists, people would have said that those who get caught in a market bubble have been done in by their greed. They would have committed one of the seven deadly sins, the sin of avarice.

But then, the man who was so avaricious that he kept his money hidden in a vault, thus, who refused to chase a market bubble might also be considered as having committed a deadly sin.

In ethics, the difference between wise investment decisions and greed is one of degree, not of kind. The same is true of most of the deadly sins.

To take another problem: procrastination. How do you know when you are procrastinating and when you are working on making a judicious decision? Some situations require quick, decisive actions. Others demand more sober reflection. How do you know which is which?

Keep in mind, one person’s snap decision might be spot on while another’s might be folly. The difference, of course, lies in experience.

Behavioral economists have approached these problems by looking at the  inner workings of the human brain. They want to be able to observe what the brain does when decision-making takes place.

Chen summarizes:

Psychologist Dr. Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics for research into decision-making in 2002, says it is very difficult to overcome our split-second irrational reactions. "Much of it is automatic," he says. "Preferences come to mind and emotions arise, and we're not aware that we're making [decisions and assumptions] and therefore cannot control them."

Of course, it is not at all self-evident that the mind (really, the brain) under observation functions as it does when it is not being observed... by being hooked up to electrodes of being subjected to a PET scan?

Thinking that feels automatic is not necessarily irrational. An experienced baseball player will know much quicker than you or I whether the pitch that is coming at him is a fastball or a slider. He will be using intuitive and instinctive knowledge, knowledge that he has gained from experience. He can surely be tricked, but less often than you or I.

When it comes to moral responsibility, the inner process is far less important than the outward behavior. You are known for what you do, not for what you were or were not thinking before you did it. As I was arguing yesterday, the concept of free will means that you are responsible for your actions, regardless of your motives or of the temptations you faced.

John Horgan made the same point recently on the Scientific American blog:

The concept of free will underpins all our ethics and morality; it forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or a divine plan. 

Whatever our reservations about behavioral economics and its forays into decision-making and ethics, it is important to note that, until recently, the conventional wisdom, foisted on us by the therapy culture, did not concern itself with how people go about making good decisions or with how they make and implement plans.

Similarly, where the therapy culture, thanks to Dr. Freud, taught people to look back into their past, the new techniques of decision making involve projecting oneself into the future.

Therapists have been more obsessed with telling people to figure out how they really feel than what is the right thing to do. If they offer advice, then tend to follow mindless mantras, like: follow your bliss.

You don’t think that those who invest in bubble markets are not following their bliss?

Surely, it is better to manage your emotions and to think through  your decisions, even to follow through on them, than to follow your instinct when it is leading you over the cliff.

And yet, when you are involved in a conversation, for example, you do not think through everything you say before you say it. A good conversation does not feel that it is being directed by an inner genie. It feels like it has a life of its own.

There is, as the scientists have pointed out and as I have argued often on this blog, nothing wrong with talking about feelings. Emotion is information in a different form.

People run into trouble when they start believing that their emotions are key to understanding a situation.  Behavioral economists are correct when they tell people to step back from their feelings, to consider them objectively as though they were someone else’s. Then again, this does not feel like an original thought.

How do you learn how to do it? Perhaps the behavioral economists have invented some new mental exercises, but the old way, taking advice from someone who is wiser and more experienced, has a pretty good track record, too.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Fatalistic about Fat?

Do you believe in fate? Do you believe that outside (or inside) forces determine the course of your life? Do you believe that supernatural powers direct your actions and behaviors? Do you believe that your destiny is written in stone and that it will play itself out, regardless of what you do?

Few will admit it but many people believe in fate. It seems like an innocent enough belief, like believing in Santa Claus.

But, ask yourself this: how does your belief in fate influence the way you conduct your life.

Researchers in Australia studied the question in relation to people who were in serious need of weight reduction.All of the participants knew that the only way to lose weight, and to save their lives, was to change their personal habits. They needed, as everyone knows, to exercise more and to eat less.

The study wanted to find out why some people are perfectly capable of changing their conduct while others resist change. Why can some people become motivated to lose weight while others seem resigned to their obesity?

The study discovered that subjects who believed in fate were less likely to undertake the necessary behavior changes. Fatalistic to a fault, they were less likely to believe that they could change. Why try to make significant changes in the way you conduct your life when you believe that it will not make any difference anyway?

Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark led the study. She emphasized that the difference between the two groups had nothing to do with whether or not they were well-informed about the dangers of obesity and about what they needed to do to help themselves.

In her words:

The main policy response to the obesity epidemic has been the provision of better information, but information alone is insufficient to change people’s eating habits.

More and better information did not influence people who believed in fate. Their belief system, their ideology made overrode their knowledge of what needed to be done and stifled their will to change.

By their lights it was futile to change because they knew that they could not fight destiny.

People who believe in fate or destiny, or who hold to doctrines of predestination, tend to disparage the concept of free will. Those who believe in free will accept that their choices and decisions can alter the direction of their lives, so they are far more likely to work on changing the way they conduct themselves.

Some reject free will on religious grounds. Some reject it because they believe that science can disprove it. In either case they will be leaving the course of their lives in the hands of powers they cannot control, cannot even hope to control: God’s will or brain chemistry.

As you know, the argument about free will and predestination goes back at least to the time of Augustine of Hippo. Since free will itself dates to the story of Adam and Eve, it is fair to consider it the moral cornerstone of Judeo-Christianity, thus of Western Civilization.

If free will is a metaphysical concept, it cannot be proved or disproved by empirical research. Even if we imagine that brain scans can highlight the temptations that influence our decision, this does not-- and did not, even in the time of Adam and Eve-- eliminate anyone’s free will or responsibility.

Many psychologists further undermine free will by insisting that your life is an unfolding narrative. They tell us that it’s all about the story—as though stories were scientific facts.

If life is a story we are all condemned to play out roles in a script. If that is true—and even if it is not—believing it will drain your initiative about changing the course or outcome of the narrative.

Strangely, sophisticate modern scientists are promoting an idea that very closely resembles Freud’s. Keep in mind, Freud believed that free will was an illusion. He had to. If we have free will we are not be condemned to live out our lives according to this or that Greek tragedy… the story of Oedipus or the story of Narcissus.

The alternative to the life-is-a-narrative theory is the idea that life is like a game. Modern proponents of this idea include Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle.

True enough, games like football, baseball, chess and solitaire have rules, but the course of any game and its outcome are not predetermined. If your play can influence the outcome of a game decisively, you have every incentive to improve. If you are losing more than winning, you will not believe that fate has it in for you, but that you should work harder.

If life is a game you will not only be more likely to follow a healthy diet but you will be less likely to turn to the astrology charts to find out what fate has in store for you today.

Since PET scans and brain chemistry cannot tell us whether or not we have free will, we do better to ask, as the Australian researchers did, what consequences befall those who believe in free will and what consequences befall those who believe in fate.

Apparently, it is a better bet to believe in free will than to believe in fate. It's healthier, to boot.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Psychoanalysis and the Art of Misery

I don’t know how I missed it, but Cloe Madanes’s article about the art of misery is an instant classic.

The article is long, detailed and positively brilliant. I cannot summarize it adequately, but Madanes begins with the idea that some people might actually want to make themselves miserable. Or better, that some people have cultivated and mastered habits that are guaranteed to produce misery.

For my part, I cannot help but see that these habits coincide perfectly with Freudian psychoanalysis, at least, with the French and Argentinian versions of same.

We assume, Madanes says, that everyone is seeking happiness or at the least some form of contentment. But then, she continues, we discover that some people seem to be hard at work at making themselves miserable. Perhaps they do not think of it this way.

They might be so unconscious that they do not even know that they are following a set of rules. Nevertheless, their behavior is so perfectly comprised by Madanes’s rules, that the conclusion is inescapable.

Madanes writes:

After perusing the output of some of the finest brains in the therapy profession, I’ve come to the conclusion that misery is an art form, and the satisfaction people seem to find in it reflects the creative effort required to cultivate it. In other words, when your living conditions are stable, peaceful, and prosperous—no civil wars raging in your streets, no mass hunger, no epidemic disease, no vexation from poverty—making yourself miserable is a craft all its own, requiring imagination, vision, and ingenuity. It can even give life a distinctive meaning.

If everyone is pursing happiness and you are pursuing misery, you become distinctly and uniquely individual. You become one of a kind. You might be attracting the wrong kind of attention but you will be attracting attention.

Some people will hold you up as an example of what not to do, but they will be talking about you. They will be interested. They will be concerned. They might even want to help. Unless they become so fed up that they tune out.

Madanes excludes the more obvious ways of making yourself miserable: like drugs and crime. She is too sensitive to say it, but people who use drugs and who commit crimes are not working to make themselves miserable: they are seeking a semi-permanent state of bliss.

To perfect the art of misery you need to make it appear that you are not seeking it:

Subtler strategies, ones that won’t lead anyone to suspect that you’re acting deliberately, can be highly effective. But you need to pretend that you want to be happy, like everybody else, or people won’t take your misery seriously. The real art is to behave in ways that’ll bring on misery while allowing you to claim that you’re an innocent victim, ideally of the very people from whom you’re forcibly extracting compassion and pity.

Naturally, you will be sharing the pain. Misery loves company, so it begins by alienating those near and dear to you.

Madanes writes:

It’s inevitable that as you make yourself miserable, you’ll be making those around you miserable also, at least until they leave you—which will give you another reason to feel miserable. So it’s important to keep in mind the benefits you’re accruing in your misery.

She lists some of the advantages that accrue to those who make themselves miserable.

First, everyone around you will feel sorry for you. Better yet, some people might feel guilty about your condition, as though they were responsible. If they do, you will have helped make someone else miserable.

Second, if you never expect that anything good will happen to you, you will never be disappointed. A fair point, we all agree.

Third, and perhaps most importantly in some circles— I know them well— misery will make you feel morally and intellectually superior to those who are happy.

Madanes describes this character type accurately:

Being miserable can give the impression that you’re a wise and worldly person, especially if you’re miserable not just about your life, but about society in general. You can project an aura of someone burdened by a form of profound, tragic, existential knowledge that happy, shallow people can’t possibly appreciate.

I cannot, in the short space of a blog post, summarize all the habits that Madanes suggests, but here are a few.

Surely, fear of loss, especially fear of financial loss must top the list. If you are contented with what you have, you might feel good about yourself. So, go out and focus on what you can lose.

Or, as Janis Joplin once sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

It helps if you can perfect the art of wasting time, of feeling useless. Television and some social media are at the ready to help you out here. The less you accomplish the more miserable you will feel.

And then, give yourself a negative identity. Madanes explains how you can cultivate this habit:

If you feel depressed, become a Depressed Person; if you suffer from social anxiety or a phobia, assume the identity of a Phobic Person or a Person with Anxiety Disorder. Make your condition the focus of your life. Talk about it to everybody, and make sure to read up on the symptoms so you can speak about them knowledgeably and endlessly. Practice the behaviors most associated with that condition, particularly when it’ll interfere with regular activities and relationships. Focus on how depressed you are and become weepy, if that’s your identity of choice. Refuse to go places or try new things because they make you too anxious. Work yourself into panic attacks in places it’ll cause the most commotion. It’s important to show that you don’t enjoy these states or behaviors, but that there’s nothing you can do to prevent them.

To advance your cause, you should learn how to mistreat other people. The more people you can alienate the more you will feel rejected.

So, you want to take every opportunity to fight and bicker. You want to criticize people mercilessly for their faults, real and imagined. And you must also think the worst of everyone by impugning their motives. And you want to perfect the art of whining and complaining. It also helps to be late for appointments, to fail to return messages and to be rude to those you come into contact with.

If you succeed, you can feel that you have good reason to be an ingrate and to care only about yourself.

If you should be involved in a romantic relationship, do not be satisfied with your lover as he or she is. Set out to change him or her.  

Naturally, it helps to blame other people for everything that has ever gone wrong. Start by blaming your parents; surely, you had a miserably upbringing. Now, that makes you feel worse already.

It is also good to withdraw into your mind and introspect:

Spend a great deal of time focused on yourself. Worry constantly about the causes of your behavior, analyze your defects, and chew on your problems. This will help you foster a pessimistic view of your life. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by any positive experience or influence. The point is to ensure that even minor upsets and difficulties appear huge and portentous.

When you introspect, you must focus on the past. You can tell yourself that your past has been filled with insurmountable and crippling traumas. Or else, you can believe that it was so wonderful that you will never see its like. Either way, obsessing about the past is a good way to make yourself miserable.

If this list does not remind you of Freudian psychoanalysis, you have, as Lacan used to say, completely misread Freud.

The Dumbest Quote of the Year

From Gerard Vanderleun,, at American Digest, the winner of the "dumbest quote of the year:" 


Friday, December 27, 2013

As Turkey Implodes

The few media outlets that are covering Turkey are focusing on the corruption scandals and the political theatrics. As noted yesterday, they deserve credit for reporting on the failed American policy in Turkey.

But, that’s not even the most important thing that’s happening in turkey. David Goldman, aka Spengler is altering us to the fact that the country is in the midst of an economic collapse.

Goldman has been predicting this outcome for some time now and he deserves credit for an excellent call. For the record he was well ahead of everyone else in his analysis of the situation in Egypt, too.

In a column today Goldman explains that Turkey is in the midst of  a political and economic implosion:

Turkey is coming apart. The Islamist coalition that crushed the secular military and political establishment–between Tayip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and the Islamist movement around Fethullah Gulen–has cracked. The Gulenists, who predominate in the security forces, have arrested the sons of top government ministers for helping Iran to launder money and circumvent sanctions, and ten members of Erdogan’s cabinet have resigned. Turkey’s currency is in free fall, and that’s just the beginning of the country’s troubles: about two-fifths of corporate debt is in foreign currencies, so the cost of servicing it jumps whenever the Turkish lira declines. Turkish stocks have crashed (and were down another 5% in dollar terms in early trading Friday). So much for Turkey’s miracle economy.

Why does this matter? The Obama administration, and also the Bush administration, pinned their hopes on Erdogan. They believed that he would serve as the example of an Islamist leader who could direct an advanced economy.

For some time it looked as though Erdogan’s Turkey was a great economic success. Unfortunately, Goldman analyzes, the Turkish economic miracle was smoke and mirrors:

Erdogan’s much-vaunted economic miracle stemmed mainly from vast credit expansion to fuel an import boom, leaving the country with a current account deficit of 7 % of GDP (about the same as Greece before it went bankrupt) and a mushrooming pile of short-term foreign debt. The Gulf States kept financing Erdogan’s import bill, evidently because they wanted to keep a Sunni power in business as a counterweight to Iran; perhaps they have tired of Turkey’s double-dealing with the Persians. And credulous investors kept piling into Turkish stocks.

Why was it inevitable that Turkey implode?

In Goldman’s words:

Turkey is a mediocre economy at best with a poorly-educated workforce, no high tech capacity, and shrinking markets in depressed Europe and the unstable Arab world. Its future might well be as an economic tributary of China, as the “New Silk Road” extends high-speed rail lines to the Bosporus.

For the past ten years we have heard ad nauseum about the “Turkish model” of “Muslim democracy.” The George W. Bush administration courted Erdogan even before he became prime minister, and Obama went out of his way to make Erdogan his principal pal in foreign policy. I have been ridiculing this notion for years, for example in this 2010 essay for Tablet.

The whole notion was flawed from top to bottom. Turkey was not in line to become an economic power of any kind: it lacked the people and skills to do anything better than medium-tech manufacturing. Its Islamists never were democrats.

If Turkey cannot serve as a role model for the floundering states in the Middle East, what nation can?

You guessed it: Israel.

One understands why political leaders staked so much hope on the Turkish miracle. They knew that most of the region’s Muslims would rather die than emulate the Jewish state.

Thus, Goldman sees little cause for optimism:

Now the hashish smoke has cleared, Erdogan’s Cave of Wonders has turned back into a sandpit, and the foreign policy establishment has nothing to show for years of propitiation of this Anatolian wannabe except a headache.

Now that Turkey is coming unstuck, along with Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, we should conclude that the entire project of bringing stability to the Muslim world was a hookah-dream to begin with. Except for the State of Israel and a couple of Sunni monarchies that survive by dint of their oil wealth, we are witnessing the unraveling of the Middle East. The best we can do is to insulate ourselves from the spillover effect.

Obamacare Cures the Republican Party

Obamacare has been a boon for Republicans. It’s been the ultimate Christmas present, beyond Republicans’ fondest wishes.

President Obama’s signature program may not be bringing affordable health insurance to the middle class but it has cured what was ailing the Republican Party.

Two months ago, following the government shutdown and Republican histrionics, Democrats led Republicans 50-42 in the generic congressional ballot.

Today, according to CNN/ORC, the Republicans have a 49-44 advantage over Democrats.

Obviously, these polls only show a trend, but the change is radical.

Now, Republicans need to find a way not to self-destruct with primary races. They need to nominate candidates that the electorate can take seriously and to formulate a positive agenda, something like the Contract with America.

Is that too much to ask?

Rejecting the Boycott

Strangely enough, more and more universities are rejecting the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection has been keeping track of the pushback. Link here.

This morning the story made the New York Times:

The American Studies Association’s endorsement this month of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions continues to stir passions, with four colleges and universities announcing their withdrawal from the association, a second leading higher-education association denouncing the boycott and a rising tide of college presidents speaking out against it.

One after the other, prominent university presidents and academic leaders have issued condemnations over the last week that emphasize the importance of academic freedom.

“Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars,” said Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard.

The executive committee of the American Association of Universities, an organization of the most prestigious research institutions, joined the American Association of University Professors in opposing the boycott. It said the boycott would violate the academic freedom “not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it.”

We conclude that the American Studies Association overreached. There are limits beyond which even liberal academics are unwilling to go.

When it comes to American universities, one needs to be thankful for the small things… because that is all we are going to get.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Malaise in France

If you think that you have it bad, if you think that America’s national mood is foul and fetid, look across the ocean to France.

Perhaps it’s not an accident that the word malaise is French. If you suspect that the French are really good at malaise you are right.

After all, a nation that still clings to psychoanalysis and that manages to consume more psychiatric medication per capita than anyone else is not likely to be in a very good mood.

The French Interior Ministry recently analyzed the French malaise:

A climate of pain and a feeling of despondency reign, which block any self-projection into a better future. It's the compost in which a possible social explosion is fermenting. Attention is called to the difficulty elected officials are having in creating a sense of proportion and inspiring confidence. This climate of pessimism and defiance is feeding extremist arguments about the impotence of the authorities.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal John Vinocur says that the French are suffering from a “self-inflicted grief.” What could that mean except that they are suffering the consequences of their votes? Or perhaps the French are discovering that socialist policies undermine initiative and deprive people of the chance to earn success.

All the world’s love and debauchery will not overcome the torpor inflicted by a socialist government.
With unemployment hovering at 11% French men and women are despondent about their socialist president, Francois Hollande, the man that they all voted for:

Vinocur explains:

Seventy-four percent of the French think France is on the decline and 83% think that President Fran├žois Hollande's blurry reform policies are "ineffectual," according to reputable polling organizations. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, says "French competitiveness remains insufficient and strengthening public finances can no longer rely on tax increases."

You might imagine that the French psychoanalytic establishment knows what it takes to improve everyone’s mental health. And yet, French analysts supported Hollande’s candidacy to a man and to a woman. Some prominent French analysts were happy to tell the world how much they detested former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Of course, anyone who still believes that psychoanalysis shows the way to mental health needs to grow out of that illusion. It's probably not an accident that the French have lost the ability to project themselves into the future. After all, Freudian psychoanalysis teaches you primarily to focus on the past. 

I do not emphasize French psychoanalysis because I know it so well. The French press did not need me to ask whether President Hollande can be cured by a few thousand hours on the couch.

I have no information about President Hollande’s experience with mental health professionals, but I would venture that he has spent some time consulting with psychoanalysts. In his world everyone does it. Why shouldn’t he?

Vinocur described the way the story is being told by French newsmagazines:

This plays into newsmagazine covers like one that portrayed Sigmund Freud staring at President Hollande across the page with a headline reading: "Hollande, as Shrinks See Him—Can He Change?"; or another with a picture of a troubled-looking Mr. Hollande and the accompanying line, "At the Edge of Chaos: From A to Z, the Inventory of His Failures."

Of course, they have gotten the story wrong. Voting for a psychoanalyst’s favorite candidate will do nothing to improve anyone’s mental health. Haven’t the French figured out that psychoanalysis neither treats nor cures?

In France psychoanalysis is not the solution; it's the problem.

What has psychoanalysis done for France? It has infected the public mood with the dysthymia that it has long since been selling.

What Is Toastmasters?

In the old days, anyone who was afraid of standing before a crowd and delivering a speech would check in to therapy. He would examine in his issues and try to work out why he feared public speaking.

The process would probably not produce any notable benefit. We recall Janet Malcolm’s study of the case of an analyst dubbed “Aaron Green” in her book The Impossible Profession.

Green had undergone psychoanalysis as part of his professional training. When he began analysis he was very afraid of speaking in public. When he finished analysis he was very afraid of speaking in public.

Let’s not call it a great success.

Today, people who are afraid to speak in public will often sign up with a group called Toastmasters. Recently, New York Times reporter Henry Alford did just that.

At Toastmasters meetings people do not sit around talking about why they are afraid to speak up in public. They stand up and speak to the assembled group.

Moreover they do not just learn about the psychological side of the issue; they learn how to construct an effective speech.

Alford explains correctly that no one can overcome a fear of public speaking without doing a great deal of public speaking. One suspects, for example, that teachers conquer their fear of public speaking by doing their job.

The result: Toastmasters did not eliminate all of Alford’s anxiety, but it helped him get it under control. It taught him how to give an engaging speech.

Without having further information one does not know how well the approach would work with people who are suffering from phobias about public speaking. Nevertheless, Toastmasters is therapeutic in ways that many forms of therapy are not.

Nearly everyone will, at some point or another, be called upon to deliver a speech in public. It might not be before an audience of thousands, but you will surely be called on to present a report to a committee or to pitch some new business to a prospective client.  

Whatever the case, it’s a good to learn how to deliver a speech.

Like many phobias, fear of public speaking has a rational basis. It makes sense that people would feel less than comfortable about standing up in public and exposing themselves to scrutiny. As famed psychologist Aaron Beck pointed out, most of the situations and objects that provoke intense fear are dangerous: snakes, spiders, heights and crowds.
A phobia is a rational fear taken to an extreme. Despite what psychoanalysts used to believe, it is not about nothing.

In any event, Toastmasters should count as a quasi-cognitive-behavioral treatment for those whose inability to deliver an effective speech has been inhibiting their career advancement.

Obama's Middle East Policy Unravels

We all remember President Obama’s grand vision for the Middle East.

Democracy in Egypt was one of the highlights. The administration was so happy that Egypt held a democratic election that it was willing to overlook the fact that the winner belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the first foreign dignitary to visit with newly elected president Mohamed Morsi was none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The administration’s role model for Islamic democracy was the increasingly repressive regime of Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, President Erdogan became Obama’s best friend in the Middle East.

How’s it all working out.

Well, two days ago the government of Egypt branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

The BBC reported:

Deputy Prime Minister Hossam Eissa announced the move, which will give the authorities more power to crack down on the Brotherhood.

He said that those who belonged to the group, financed it or promoted its activities would face punishment.

The action was in response to Tuesday's suicide bombing of a police headquarters in Mansoura, in the Nile Delta, which killed 16 people and wounded more than 100, he said.

"Egypt was horrified from north to south by the hideous crime committed by the Muslim Brotherhood group," Mr Eissa said.

"This was in context of dangerous escalation to violence against Egypt and Egyptians and a clear declaration by the Muslim Brotherhood group that it still knows nothing but violence.

"It's not possible for Egypt the state nor Egypt the people to submit to the Muslim Brotherhood terrorism."

As for the U. S. relationship with Turkey, it has been going downhill at a rapid clip.

The New York Times explains the diplomatic debacle:

It was only a couple of years ago that President Obama, struggling for an American response to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria, was said to be speaking with Mr. Erdogan more than the American president was to any world leader, with the exception of the British prime minister, David Cameron. And it was a source of pride for Turks: One newspaper at the time hailed the frequent conversations as a sign of Turkey’s “ascent in the international arena.”

“There was a honeymoon from 2010 until the summer of 2013,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It was guided by the personal rapport Obama and Erdogan had established.”

That now seems a long time ago here. The reality, say analysts, is that the two countries’ foreign policies have been notably diverging, and that the blowup over the corruption investigation and the American diplomatic contingent is being taken as the latest sign of a deepening distrust.

They are at odds over Egypt, where Turkey had been a strong supporter of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, and where the United States has sought a relationship with Egypt’s new military rulers.

In Syria, Turkey has aggressively backed and armed rebel fighters, and felt betrayed when the United States backed away from military action against the Syrian government in September. In Iraq, American officials believe the Turks, by signing oil contracts with the northern Kurdish region that cut out the central government in Baghdad, are pursuing a policy that could lead to the country’s breakup.

Naturally, the Obama administration has lost control of the situation. Foreign policy is not for amateurs.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Joshua Bell and the Young People's Chorus of New York perform Silent Night:

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mastering the Art of Conversation

Just in time for Christmas and New Year’s: a column explaining how to get along with other people. (Via Maggie's Farm)

Whatever the value of the advice, Eric Barker’s first sentence sets an infelicitous tone: he wants you to learn how “to make people like you.”

Why do you want to make people feel a certain way toward you? If they come to suspect that you have been using some clever scientific tools to manipulate their feelings, the chances are good that they are not going to like you very much at all.

In truth, the best way to elicit positive feelings in another person is to show positive feelings toward that person. Extending a hand of friendship is better than trying to seduce people into doing something that they might not want to do. Remember the old line: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

I would venture that you would rather not have your mind manipulated by other people.

These caveats having been stated, let’s examine some of the recommendations that Barker has gleaned from contemporary psychology.

First on the list: encourage other people to talk about themselves. 

One finds it hard to disagree with this tidbit of wisdom. I would add that when someone is talking about himself, you must show interest. If you look bored you will give the impression that the other person is not sufficiently entertaining.

Whatever your new acquaintance is talking about, you want him to feel like he has all your attention.

I would add, politely, that if you ask another person to talk about himself you had best be ready to reciprocate. If you ask too many questions you will end up sounding like an inquisitor. It’s no way to make friends and influence people.

If the other person spends most of your conversation talking about himself, he might eventually feel that he has been performing for an audience of one. It’s no way to make friends and influence people.

I quote Barker’s next suggestion:

If you use questions to guide people toward the errors in their thinking process and allow them to come up with the solution themselves, they're less likely to feel threatened and more likely to follow through.

What makes you think that someone will like you if you are trying to correct the errors in their thinking? And what makes you think that you are right and they are wrong? Who do you think you are? A schoolmarm?

The master of this technique was, of course, Socrates. We know how that worked out.

I don’t want to sound too contrary, but when trying to connect with another human being it is better to establish areas where you agree, not ways to correct the other person’s errors.

The third suggestion is this: ask for advice.

Wharton professor Adam Grant explained:

Asking for advice encouraged greater cooperation and information sharing, turning a potentially contentious negotiation into a win-win deal. Studies demonstrate that across the manufacturing, financial services, insurance and pharmaceuticals industries, seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates.

Ironically, asking for advice is not the same as helping another person to see the error of his ways. Thus, this suggestion contradicts the previous one, but, why quibble.

When you ask for advice you are showing respect for the other person. You are also humbling yourself in front of him. And you are showing yourself willing to engage in a cooperative enterprise.

All told, it’s good to ask for advice. It’s even better when you take it.

Most people find it very difficult to take advice. It is an acquired skill, one that you should have mastered before you ask for advice. Otherwise, your interlocutor will think that you are just going through the motions of asking for advice because someone told you that it was a good conversational ploy.

Barker’s version of the fourth suggestion goes like this:

Ask them about something positive in their life. Only after they reply should you ask them how they're feeling about life in general.

For my taste this all sounds inquisitorial. You should think of what you can offer, not what you can extract. If you offer something positive about your life, your new friend is likely, according to the law of reciprocity, to do the same.

If someone walks up to you at a cocktail party and asks you to say something positive about your life, you are likely to feel put upon. If he asks you how you are feeling about life in general, you are also likely to feel put upon. Besides, isn't it slightly idiotic to ask someone how he feels about life in general?

This line of question, which Barker calls a two-step, feels intrusive and invasive.

You should be connecting with the other person, not manipulating him.

Next, Barker suggests that you repeat the last three words of your interlocutor’s sentences.

Apparently, this works well in hostage negotiations.

Yet, the minute your interlocutor figures out what you are doing he risks being grievously insulted. Sounding like someone’s echo chamber might massage his narcissism, but it is no substitute for the ability to find points where the two of you agree.

Finding common ground is far more productive than trying to manipulate someone’s feelings.

The last suggestion is to gossip, but positively:

So, say positive and pleasant things about friends and colleagues, and you are seen as a nice person. In contrast, constantly complain about their failings, and people will unconsciously apply the negative traits and incompetence to you. 

Obviously, it’s better to be positive than to whine. It’s better to see the good in people than to obsess about their faults, foibles and flaws.

If you like the way one person is dressed and do not like the way another person is dressed, focus first on the first more than the second.

Of course, commentaries about your surroundings, the weather and the Super Bowl are not gossip.

But, keep in mind, it is not a good thing to present yourself as a gossip. If you reveal too much information, positive or negative, about your friends and colleagues you are announcing to your new acquaintance that you cannot keep secrets. That tells him that you are indiscreet and borderline disloyal. No one wants a friend who is indiscreet and disloyal.

Down With the Boycott

Several weeks ago the academics who belong to the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities.

It was an appalling action, well worthy of the label of anti-Semitic.

And yet, some good has come out of it. The ASA has been marginalized and shunned by many universities, some of which have withdrawn from the ASA. More importantly, the Association of American Universities has issued a strong denunciation of the ASA (via Legal Insurrection blog):

The Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Three U.S. scholarly organizations have now expressed support for such a boycott. Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general.

Academic freedom is the freedom of university faculty responsibly to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint. It is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations. American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.

Efforts to address political issues, or to address restrictions on academic freedom, should not themselves infringe upon academic freedom. Restrictions imposed on the ability of scholars of any particular country to work with their fellow academics in other countries, participate in meetings and organizations, or otherwise carry out their scholarly activities violate academic freedom. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions therefore clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it. We urge American scholars and scholars around the world who believe in academic freedom to oppose this and other such academic boycotts.

William C. Powers, President, The University of Texas at Austin – Chair
Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania – Vice Chair
Scott S. Cowen, President, Tulane University – Past Chair
Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University
Michael V. Drake, Chancellor, University of California, Irvine
Bernadette Gray-Little, The University of Kansas
Mark A. Nordenberg, Chancellor, University of Pittsburgh
Morton O. Schapiro, President, Northwestern University
Lou Anna K. Simon, President, Michigan State University
David Skorton, President, Cornell University
Hunter R. Rawlings III, President, Association of American Universities – ex-officio

Among the others who also rejected the boycott were the leaders of Wesleyan University, Willamette University, Boston University and the University of California at San Diego.

Add to that the statement by the American Association ofUniversity Professors and many others, and you see a ray of light breaking through the clouds that had descended on the American academy.

It’s far too soon to say that it represents a trend—in all likelihood it doesn’t-- but, as the old saying goes, every journey begins with one step.

The Arab Spring, Three Years On

With the third anniversary of the Arab Spring fast approaching, The Economist takes a cold look at what it has really accomplished.

We all remember those heady days, when Timesmen Tom Friedman and Nick Kristof were camped out in Tahrir Square breathing the air of the oncoming democracy.

We remember those who saw the Arab Spring as the apotheosis of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda.

But, we all knew that the crack Obama/Clinton foreign policy team was managing the crisis. What could go wrong? Or, should I say: what could go right?

The Economist offers a sobering assessment:

Yet the fact is that three years after a despairing Tunisian barrow boy named Muhammad Bouazizi (pictured in the poster above) set himself on fire, kindling a region-wide sequence of revolts that some dubbed the Arab spring, a sense of deep disappointment has settled on the Middle East. It is not hard to see why.

What those popular uprisings demanded was an end to despotism, an end to humiliation at the hands of the powerful, and a better lot for everyone.

But the turmoil has brought few tangible rewards. Aside from such momentary thrills as watching dictators tumble, and marching shoulder to brotherly shoulder with one’s fellows, bellowing insults in a fleeting chorus of unified purpose, it has mostly brought trouble. "Revolution?" snorts a barber in Cairo. "It was a revolution against the people."

In the countries shaken directly by revolts—Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria—living standards have uniformly fallen. In some cases—particularly for the poorest and most disadvantaged, they have fallen precipitously. Mr Bouazizi’s hometown, Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment pushed 25% before the unrest, suffers an even higher rate now, and joblessness has surged in other countries, too. Nowhere have the stark divides between classes that underpinned political resentment, and which fueled not only revolution but religious extremism and violence, been addressed meaningfully.

And how could we overlook what has been happening in Syria:

And this is not to mention the cost in blood of the Arab revolts, let alone the utter calamity that has befallen Syria’s 23m people, and increasingly many of their neighbours. Not only have at least 130,000 Syrians perished, and as many as 11m been forced to flee their homes. There is no end in sight to their misery. The concatenation of factors feeding into the Syrian morass, from meddling foreign powers to sectarian and class schisms, have created a perfect storm that may only be tamed by consuming itself.

Of course, there was also Benghazi, but it looks as though the Obama administration is going to succeed in making it go away.

By now, everyone is doing his best to forget the Arab Spring. It’s a good reason to keep it in mind. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Man Who Hated Men

Beware of ideology masquerading as science.

Remember behavioral economics, a branch of neuroscience, the latest and greatest contribution to human knowledge.

If behavioral economists can persuade you, as they have persuaded themselves, that human beings do not have free will and often make irrational decisions, you would be forced to conclude that most people do not know what is good for them. You might think that people are acting on their own rational self-interest but they are really being manipulated by brain chemistry.

If so, people need a master, preferably working for the government, who will force—I mean, nudge—them toward a good that they will eventually recognizes to be the best for them.

Put all of that in a pot, stir often and you come up with Obamacare. Of course, it is one giant leap toward socializing the insurance market, but its proponents presented it as grounded in scientific fact.

That’s why the remaining few who defend the program insist that once you learn what you get you will not mind losing your insurance and your doctor.

Now, famed Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky offers an opinion on another important matter. He tells us that human males are “pathetic” and “ludicrous.”

I will vigorously defend Sapolsky’s right to an opinion. I would even defend his right to indulge in self-flagellation and call himself pathetic and ludicrous.

And yet, for Sapolsky to offer his opinions as though they were science takes it too far. People who pretend that their ideological prejudices are scientific fact are manipulative. By the way, why isn’t it bigotry to call men pathetic and ludicrous?

Anyway, Sapolsky is intrigued by a phenomenon that he apparently does not understand: College bowl games.

It seems that his neuroscience knows nothing about group pride gained through competition.

Sapolsky doesn’t get bowl games. It’s his constitutionally protected right. I assume that he doesn’t get the Super Bowl and doesn’t get warfare or economic competition, either.

Apparently, his pacifist soul dreams of a world filled with peace and harmony, beyond conflict and beyond winners and losers.

Again, Sapolsky has the right, based on his delicate and guilt-ridden  sensibility not to understand manliness. Let’s not call his opinion science.

Thus, he is somewhat perplexed by the latest from neuroscience:

When women are present or when men are prompted to think about women, they act differently, research shows. Well, duh. But in unexpected ways. A 2008 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology showed that in the mere presence of women as witnesses, men become more likely to jaywalk and to wait until the last second to dash on to a bus. This reflects, no doubt, the well-known belief among men that jaywalking means you're a Roman gladiator of irrepressible virility. As I said, pathetic.

Judgmental, don’t you think?

Why should any of these behaviors be “unexpected.” Men like to show off to impress women. Who knew? Men like to draw women’s attention to themselves by performing feats of derring do. Amazing! In particular, single men, the ones who are looking to mate, take more risks and behave more aggressively in order to show women that they can compete in the arena. OMG.

You have to stand in awe of modern neuroscience.

It makes good sense. A man who shows off in front of a woman is auditioning for the role of protector. Apparently, the impulse to protect women is hardwired into the male of the human species.

Nothing about it should surprise anyone. It is perfectly consistent with the science of evolutionary psychology… which, Sapolsky acknowledges.

Yet, Sapolsky places ideology ahead of science and decides that men need to be ridiculed. Again, that is not science.

As an interesting sidelight, Sapolsky adds that the same effect is not present in women:

By contrast, these studies uniformly report that cues about males have no such effects on women.

Surely, this suggests that the difference between the sexes that is hard-wired. Sheryl Sandberg notwithstanding women do not compete for men by showing off their prowess in risk-taking behaviors.

I am not sure that we needed science to tell us that either, but surely it is worth more than the passing glance that Sapolsky gives it.

Bu then there is this. It turns out that the male impulse to show off in front of women extends to the realm of generosity, to charitable giving:

But now comes research carried out by Mark van Vugt and Wendy Iredale and reported last year in the British Journal of Psychology. In the presence of women (but not other men), men became more generous in an economic game: They made more contributions to public goods and volunteered more time for charitable causes. In fact, the size of their charitable contributions increased in the presence of women they rated as more attractive. 

Potlatch, anyone?

Science has now shown that men are not merely programmed to compete in the arena. They show off for women in other areas. It seems that they are also programmed to provide for their families. When they succeed in accumulating money or profit, their impulse is not to spend it on themselves, but on their families or on the neediest. I am not sure why this is news either.

As a fundamental moral principle, generosity or magnanimity goes back to Confucius and Aristotle.

The philosophers were inclined to see it as a moral duty. Now we know that men seem to be hardwired to perform benevolent actions. Happily for them, duty and instinct coincide.

Examining the information gleaned from the latest studies, Sapolsky draws a rather strange conclusion:

The allure of the opposite sex makes men more violent, but only, it seems, in circumstances where violence is rewarded with higher status. When status can be achieved in a more socially desirable way, things work differently. In short, with the right social arrangements, this ludicrous tendency of men can be harnessed not only to encourage a ferocious goal-line stand but to make the world a kinder place.

This paragraph is also not science. Sapolsky is making a value judgment. He does it first by choosing the word “violent.” Were we to examine his first examples, quoted above, we see that male risk-taking involves jaywalking and running to catch a bus. Why are these signs of a violent disposition?

Men are more competitive, they take more risks when they are trying to impress comely women. It is true that men engage aggressive behavior in order to compete for status, but calling it “violent” puts a negative connotation on it.

If human males, like other primates, compete for position on a status hierarchy, this must count as a scientific fact. Wearing his scientist hat Sapolsky has no business pronouncing it “ludicrous.”

Would any scientist say that it is ludicrous that the earth revolves around the sun?

Apparently, Sapolsky dreams of a world where “status can be achieved in a more socially desirable way.” One would like to know who is going to decide what is and is not socially desirable, but we would all agree that college football is more desirable than war. And didn’t William James already suggest that economic competition is “the moral equivalent of war?”

One does not know which kind of social arrangements Sapolsky would favor, but he ought to know, as we all know, that people who renounce aggressive behavior are more than likely to become victimized by those who have not.

If the male impulse to compete aggressively is hardwired into the organism, what makes anyone think that one person’s renunciation of violence or forced replacement of aggressive competition with charitable giving is going to be reciprocated by those who are waiting for just the right moment to take what you have?

Isn’t Sapolsky saying that the nation would be better if people worked and competed less and if the government engaged itself in a grand scheme to redistribute income?

He is certainly entitled to his opinion, but let’s not call it science.