Monthly Archives: June 2010

Non-Conformists Conform

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian:  You’re all different!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes, we are all different!
Man in Crowd: I’m not.           (The Life of Brian)

People care what others think about them. In fact they usually care a lot, more than they care to admit. Since caring less is considered admirable in our society, people often say and signal that they care less than others care. But I think it is misleading to talk in terms of conformists, who care lots what others think, versus individualists, who care less.

It sees to me that while people do vary in conformity, this variation is less in how much folks care about others’ evaluations, and more about which others they care about. “Conformists” tend to care about a common standard status audience – a usual mix of people weighted by a standard status. “Non-conformists,” in contrast, “march to the beat of a different drummer” by caring about non-standard status audiences.

For example, as an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone.

This seems to be the case with most interesting “non-conformists” I know.   They are human, and surely care deeply about the opinions of others. But their special care for the opinions of particular others often leads them to disapproval by ordinary others. Sometimes you can’t please everyone, and must choose whom to please. It seems to me that the main difference between folks is that “non-conformists” try to please less standard audiences.  Viva la difference.

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Read A Classic

I love donuts, and so also the people who make donuts. (Krispy Kreme is tops.) Donuts can be “part of a balanced diet” as they say; eaten in moderation, donuts can make your life better overall. Nevertheless, if I made donuts I might worry sometimes that I was tempting folks away from a balanced diet, to eat too many tasty donuts.

Similarly, as a blog author, while I realize that blog posts can be part of a balanced intellectual diet, I worry that I tempt readers to fill their intellectual diet with too much of the fashionably new, relative to the old and intellectually nutritious. Until you reach the state of the art, and are ready to be at the very forefront of advancing human knowledge, most of what you should read to get to that forefront isn’t today’s news, or even today’s blogger musings. Read classic books and articles, textbooks, review articles. Then maybe read focused publications (including perhaps some blog posts) on your chosen focus topic(s).

Of course you should allow yourself some breaks and leisure. And my blog can be part of such leisure. But never confuse leisure that makes you sweat with work.

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Contrasting Contrarians

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach … gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change. The early meetings were stormy. “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!” one of the Christs yelled. “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!” another snapped back. “No two men are Jesus Christs. … I am the Good Lord!” the third interjected, barely concealing his anger. …

Very little seems to shift the identities of the self-appointed Messiahs. They debate, argue, at one point come to blows, but show few signs that their beliefs have become any less intense. Only Leon seems to waver, eventually asking to be addressed as “Dr Righteous Idealed Dung” instead of his previous moniker of “Dr Domino dominorum et Rex rexarum, Simplis Christianus Puer Mentalis Doctor, reincarnation of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Rokeach interprets this more as an attempt to avoid conflict than a reflection of any genuine identity change. The Christs explain one another’s claims to divinity in predictably idiosyncratic ways: Clyde, an elderly gentleman, declares that his companions are, in fact, dead, and that it is the “machines” inside them that produce their false claims, while the other two explain the contradiction by noting that their companions are “crazy” or “duped” or that they don’t really mean what they say. …

Whether scientist or psychiatric patient, we assume others are more likely to be biased or misled than we are, and we take for granted that our own beliefs are based on sound reasoning and observation. This may be the nearest we can get to revelation—the understanding that our most cherished beliefs could be wrong. (more)

Political and religious groups often save their strongest antagonism for groups with similar but a bit different positions. (Think “Judea People’s Front” vs. “People’s Front of Judea.”)  Similarly, contrarian groups tend to be made most uncomfortable not by exposure to mainstream authorities that disagree, but by exposure to other contrarian groups that look similar from a distance, but who have unpalatable beliefs.

For example, contrarians with academic support are happy to discount the non-academic majority, while contrarians opposed by academics are happy to say academics are clueless.  But contrarians with academic support are made uncomfortable by other unpalatable contrarians who also have academic support.

So to help you question your contrarian beliefs, look for other contrarian groups that look similar from a distance, with beliefs you are reluctant to endorse.  Look for groups with similar members or leaders, i.e., similar age, gender, income, academic credentials, tech-orientation, political leaning, years devoted to topic, etc.  If you can’t swallow their beliefs, you’ll have to admit you can’t attribute their mistake to such features.

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Schools Aren’t Creative

A few weeks ago I reported:

In forming my view that school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination, I rediscovered the view of the ‘76 book Schooling In Capitalist America:

Here is some evidence from that book:

Getzels and Jackson … subjected a group of 449 high school students to an IQ test and a battery of exams which purport to measure creativity. They found no appreciable correlation between measured IQ and measured creativity. The top 20 percent in IQ on the one hand, and in creativity on the other, were singled out and asked to rank certain personality traits (a) on the degree to which they would like to have these traits, and (b) on the degree to which they believed teachers would like the student to have. … While the high IQs “preferred traits” correspond closely to their perception of the teachers’ values, the high creatives’ ranking of preferred traits was actually inversely related to the perceived teachers’ ranking. The high creatives do not fail to conform; rather they do not wish to conform. …

[Our] review of this literature … support[s] the following interpretation. Students are rewarded for exhibiting discipline, subordinacy, intellectually as opposed to emotionally oriented behavior, and hard work independent from intrinsic task motivation. Moreover, these traits are rewarded independently of any effect of “proper demeanor” on scholastic achievement. …

John L. Holland undertook a study of the determinants of high school success among a group of 639 National Merit Scholarship finalists. … While the group’s high academic rank is doubtless related to their above-average IQs, difference in scholastic achievement among them were not significantly related to their grades. … Many of the personality variables were significantly and positively related to grades. Most important were teachers’ ratings of the students’ Citizenship and the students’ self-evalution of Drive to Achieve. Neither of these variables and any significant impact on actual achievement measures! …

Students who are ranked by their teachers as high on Citizenship and Drive to Achieve are indeed more likely to be diligent … and socially popular … But they are, in fact, significantly below average on measures of creativity and mental flexibility. … These same traits of creativity and mental flexibility are directly penalized in terms of school grades, holding constant test scores, Citizenship, and Drive to Achieve. (p40,41)

This all fits with my Myth of Creativity oped. The modern economy doesn’t want much creativity; it instead rewards self-control (= social control).

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More Reliable Cars

The most recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that five-year-old vehicles had about one-third fewer problems than the five-year-old vehicles we studied in April 2005. In fact, owners of about two-thirds of those vehicles reported no problems. And serious repairs, such as engine or transmission replacement, were quite rare. (p.15, June ’10, Consumer Reports)

Car problem rates falling 1/3 in five years is change you might not notice, but if you think about it, its a pretty big deal.  Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different.   Besides a few big changes, most things seem pretty similar. But this is illusory – most change happens behind the scenes. In fact, one of the reasons why change can be so fast is that most of it happens behind the scenes. If ordinary people had to notice and deal with more changes, we just couldn’t change this much.

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Aus Law Innovations

How to make sure politicians aren’t accused of lying:

Acting speaker Brenton Best ruled that no member of the Tasmanian Parliament could use the words liar, lie or lying anywhere within the House of Assembly. (more)

How to reduce the cost of legal procedures:

Premier Anna Bligh announced the new powers for police to issue on-the-spot notices for public nuisance offences … The move would increase efficiency, save time and fast-track more important matters in the courts by stopping minor public nuisance offenders from clogging the justice system. She said the measures, targeting offences such as public urination, disorderly conduct and abusive language, would save the Government between $18 million and $30 million.  The power to issue on-the-spot fines of between $100 and $300 could result in public nuisance prosecutions soaring 20 per cent. … That could see 5500 more people slapped with the offence across Queensland each year. (more; HT)

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Difference Wisdom

Seek serenity to accept what you cannot change, courage to change what you can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Imagine that you were thinking of buying or building a house. Now consider various possible hypothesis you might have about your degree of influence over this resulting house.

At one extreme, you might fatalistically assume you had no influence. For example, you might think your spouse will pick the neighborhood, house, and all later home improvements, and that you’d have zero input. If this assumption were mistaken, you might later regret that you’d invested little effort in thinking about what you wanted, or what was feasible.

At the other extreme, you might assume you had budget and approval for a huge estate and mansion anywhere you wanted.   So you might sketch out elaborate designs – the bowling alley goes here, ballroom to the south, the helipad over there, and so on. If your budget was actually far smaller, however, most of this effort might be wasted.

Yes, it can be good to spend a bit of time considering a wide range of influence levels. Sure, sometimes you might think about what you’d do if you won the lottery, or if you were locked in jail for decades. But surely most of your planning should be done matched to the scale of your actual degree of influence. Not much point in shopping for the best private jet if you can barely afford a car.

The same principle applies to our strongest relations, such as romance and friendship. These matter greatly deal to us, and so we’d very much like to control them. We make lists of what we want in our mates and allies, we rehearse what we will and won’t accept from partners, and we analyze our interactions to assure ourselves we understand what is happening.

But much of this is illusory overconfidence and over-reach; we usually have far less control over and understanding of our relations than we think. Sure we can list features we like and dislike, all else equal. And we might be mostly correct about which way those features influence our attraction. Even so, we mostly just don’t know why we like some and dislike others. Sometimes we don’t even realize who it is we like and dislike.

If we calculate that it would be in our interest to like or dislike someone more, we have only a very limited ability to actually make ourselves do this. Even when we decide we’d be better off breaking it off a relation, we can find that quite hard to actually do so. More likely we’ll break something off and then make up reasons about why that was a good idea.

I’m not saying to never think about your relations; I’m saying such thinking is more useful when you are more realistic about your influence. Of course if others get wind of your realism they may respect you less, or think they can walk all over you. So in that way it might be in your interest to be somewhat deluded about your influence. And you won’t get to be a famous inspirational speaker on relationships by speaking honestly about them.  But be careful to not take your confident image too seriously.

The same principle also applies in futurism. It is tempting to think we can remake the universe to be anything we now collectively want, and so to spend great efforts wondering how exactly we would want the universe to be if we had our druthers. But if we are actually very constrained in our influence, most of this effort will be wasted. Oh it might be a helpful exercise in far-mode thinking, to affirm far values and assert confidence in our abilities.  But it might not do much for the future.

When our ability to influence the future is quite limited, then our first priority must be to make a best guess of what the future will actually be like, if we exert no influence. This best guess should not be a wishful assertion of our far values, it should be a near-real description of how we would actually bet, if the asset at risk in the bet wer something we really cared about strongly. And yes, that description may well be “cynical.”

With such a cynical would-bet best guess, one should then spend most of one’s efforts asking which small variations on this scenario one would most prefer, and what kinds of actions could most usefully and reliably move the future toward these preferred scenarios. (Econ marginal analysis can help here.)  And then one should start doing such things.  Yes this approach seems less noble, fun, and optimistic, and talking this way won’t make you an inspirational futurist, speaking at all the hip conferences. Even so, those small shifts are what would actually most help the future.

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Why Be Shy

Many people are shy. Shy folks are not only easily embarrassed, they are also embarrassed by the fact that they are easily embarrassed. They tend to assume that shyness is unattractive, and that it mainly indicates lack of courage or strength. They wish they weren’t shy.

If you are shy and this is how you think, I have good news for you: shyness has important positive aspects. In particular: shyness promotes intimacy. Intimacy is a feeling of closeness, based in part on mutual vulnerability.  A person who is comfortable around most folks, talking or doing most anything, finds it harder to create mutual vulnerability. How can you tell such a person is comfortable with you, as opposed to conformable with everything?

In contrast, a shy person who is awkward and embarrassed around most folks, or when talking about many topics, can more easily show that they treat you differently. If they are less awkward around you, and are willing to talk to you less awkwardly about usually-awkward topics, you can take that as a good sign that you have achieved some level of intimacy. They treat you with less caution, presumably because they are less afraid you will hurt them. In this way, a shy person can more easily show you that you are special to them.

To better bond, be shy.  Reserve some topics as ones you will not talk with just anyone about, and some activities as ones you will not do with just anyone.  Then by selectively talking and doing, you can signal your intimacy with some relative to others.

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Group Norms

I regularly bike on a five mile path encircling Burke Lake, near my home. Since bikes share the narrow path with pedestrians, I ring a bell as I come behind pedestrians going in the same direction. When there are several of them together, it is safest if they all move to the same side of the path; this gives the most distance between the bike and then nearest pedestrian. Sometimes, however, a group splits, with some of them moving to one side and some moving to the other side. Then I have to slow down more in order to safely move between them.

We can interpret the desired behavior here as following a “group norm”, i.e., a social norm that specifies the behavior of groups, rather than the behavior of individuals. An individual norm might be to move to the side of the path when you hear a bike bell, while a group norm might be to move your group together to one side of the path when you hear a bike bell.

It seems to me that while asians are a minority of the pedestrian groups on my path, they are the majority of the groups who split, moving to both sides of the path. This suggests that asians are less familiar with the concept of a group norm, at least for informal groups like “people walking together on a path.” I asked an asian friend who confirmed this – they couldn’t think of an asian group norm. This seems interesting given that asians are often said to be more “group oriented.” Perhaps they attend more to behaving correctly toward groups, but less to making sure their group behaves correctly.

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Tourism Isn’t About Culture

Tyler:

Berlin is evidence that most tourists don’t actually care so much about history, culture, and museums, as it is not for most people a major tourist destination, despite having world-class offerings in each of those areas.  Mostly tourists like large, visually spectacular sites, or family activities, combined with the feeling that they are taking in culture or seeing something important.

I come across way too many signaling examples to post them all, but I should at least post some of them.

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