Tag Archives: Self-Control

Who Gains From Grit?

I’ve often said that while foragers did what felt natural, farmer cultures used religion, conformity, self-control, and “grit,” to get farmers do less-natural-feeling things. But as we’ve become rich over the last few centuries, we’ve felt those pressures less, and revived forager-like attitudes. Today “conservatives” and “liberals” have farmer-like and forager-like attitudes, respectively. I think the following recent quotes support this view.

Tyler Cowen says workers today have less grit:

There is also a special problem for some young men, namely those with especially restless temperaments. They aren’t always well-suited to the new class of service jobs, like greeting customers or taking care of the aged, which require much discipline or sometimes even a subordination of will. (more)

There were two classes of workers fired in the great liquidity shortage of 2008-2010. The first were those revealed to be not very productive or bad for firm morale. They skew male rather than female, and young rather than old. … There really are a large number of workers who fall into the first category. (more)

Alfie Kohn says grit is overrated:

More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. … The heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-century chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” …

On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse.

But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded by those who told them to do it? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for using grades as markers of success…

Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being . . . and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” …

Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. (more)

Yes, grit is conservative, and gritty people may not be as playful, open, relaxed, or creative. Grit just helps individuals to succeed, and societies to get ugly things done, like winning their competitions with other societies. But yes, you might be happier to play video games in your parent’s basement, leaving the support of society to someone else.

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The Functions Of Faith

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian songs of 2012:

I fall into Your arms, Right where I belong, Your everlasting arms. And where would I be Without You. I’d be packin’ my bags when I need to stay.

I want to live like that. Am I proof That You are who you say. You are That grace can really change a heart.

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before. O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name. (more)

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian hymns ever:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.

Thou canst hear though from the wild, Thou canst save amid despair. Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banish’d, outcast and reviled.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee; Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! (more)

A few weeks ago I attended a Christian church service, where my dad gave the sermon, and my brother ran the music. My other brother gave a sermon at an evening service, and my mom continues to write and publish Christian novels for tween girls. Yeah, we are a pretty religious family.

I’m an atheist, and atheists usually emphasize their reasons for disagreeing with religious dogma. But attending the service, I was reminded that church is mostly not about dogma. Church services, and religion more generally, serve many useful functions for their participants. Browsing the song lyrics above helps one see such functions:

  • Acceptance – With unusual eagerness and sincerity, churches adopt the classic forager norm of heart-felt acceptance and inclusion, on nominally equal terms, of anyone who supports their community and its norms. Its ok to violate such norms sometimes, as long as you try not to. People really do deeply crave belonging somewhere.
  • High Status Ally – We are truly stressed by our conflicts with higher status others. We’d rather have even higher status allies, so we can say “He told me to do this; if you don’t like it, take it up with him.” God can be such a comforting high status ally. Christians affirm this ally relationship by showing their eagerness to submit to God’s dominance. They praise the nice things he’s done, and apologize for ways they may have disappointed him. We humans don’t just enjoy dominating others – we also sincerely enjoy submitting, at least if our target seems worthy. Especially if such an ally has a reputation for severely punishing those who oppose him.
  • Self-Control – Religion evolved from forager spirituality to help farmers resist temptations to forager-natural behaviors. Church highlights such temptations, assures folks that everyone suffers them, and offers concrete suggestions for resisting. A balance is struck between celebrating those who succeed and not overly rejecting those who fail. Gratitude toward, and a reluctance to disappoint, one’s high status ally and community, helps with self-control. Atheists often seem surprisingly lacking in such self-control.
  • Ritual – While we don’t understand how exactly rituals help and comfort it us, it seems pretty clear that they do.

When atheists try to make substitutes for religion, they often do pretty well on acceptance, and on collecting specific self-control mechanisms. But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally, the added comfort and self-control this allows, and the rituals this makes more powerful. Yes, if there isn’t a God, and you don’t believe in him, you win points for having more true beliefs. But you may well lose in your ability to get things done that you want done. There is simply no general guarantee that humans will get more done when they believe more truths.

I’d like to know more about how industry era religion differs from farmer era religion. This might help me to project how em era religion might differ yet again.

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Predict Yourself

To act more on far ideals, predict what you will do:

Asking participants to predict their future vaccination behavior … substantially increased vaccination rates among patients with high short-term vaccination barriers (who, in the absence of this intervention, have low vaccination acceptance rates). These findings are consistent with past research on temporal construal, which suggests that people asked to think about a future behavior tend to focus its abstract benefits, and disregard concrete barriers that might impede it. (more)

Consider personal prediction markets, which predict what you will do in the future, such as whether you will lose weight, get married, get an A, get promoted, etc. By allowing your associates to participate in such markets, you could let them (anonymously) tell you what they really think about what you will do. Looking often at the predictions of such markets, and asking yourself if those predictions are wrong, could help you to live up to your far ideals about what you should and will do with your life.

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Is Culture Far?

Humans are culturally pliable – raise us different, and we become different. But we are not infinitely pliable; there seem to be many human universals. So what sets the limits of how culture can change humans? My guess today: culture mainly changes our far feelings, not our near feelings. Consider:

  1. While we hold laughter as one our highest ideals, our farmer ancestors held it in lower regard. They were not to laugh in public, while we like to hear public laughter. But I’ll bet their experience of laughing was pretty similar to ours.
  2. To our farmer ancestors, romantic love wasn’t required for marriage, but sexual fidelity was extremely important. To us, romance is needed for marriage, but we are much more forgiving about sexual promiscuity. Yet I’ll bet that what sex and love felt like to them was pretty similar to how they feel to us.
  3. Western culture looks down on conformity, and celebrates independence. But more Eastern cultures, and our farmer ancestors, thought well of conformity. Yet I’ll bet we get a similar raw feeling of comfort from knowing that others are doing the same thing we are.
  4. Our ancestors swore allegiance to lords and kings, while we are proud to live in a democracy without formal classes or rulers; we must bow to no one. Yet I’ll bet we feel a similar resentment at having to acknowledge the higher status of someone who was once our equal (such as an old college friend who is now a CEO), and feel a similar ease at showing our submission to someone with far higher status (like a president or movie star).

In all these cases our basic near feelings haven’t changed much, even though we have changed our far opinions on which feelings we respect or feel guilty about, which seem pure or dirty, which are to be public or private, etc.

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why schools try hard to promote a far view, to make students more culturally pliable. It might also help explain why we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

Added 3p: In these terms near and far minds resemble Freud’s id and super-ego.

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Fear Made Farmers

Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers. A key enabler seems to have been increased self-control to follow social norms. But what allowed this increased self-control?

One source was moving from vague spirituality to religions with powerful and morally-outraged gods who punish norm violators. In addition (as I’ll explain tomorrow), high densities and larger social networks made stronger credible threats to ostracize folks for specific deviant acts.  Yes both these mechanisms require the fear that norm violations could lead to great harm, even death. But for poor farmers living on edge, such threats were easy to come by.

Interestingly, this death-threat pressure could work even without farmers being conscious of the relevant threats or fears. In fact, farming society probably worked better with homo hypocritus farmers, consciously denying that strong social pressures pushed them to do what would otherwise feel unnatural.

A large robust literature makes it clear that inducing people to unconsciously think about death pushes them to more strongly obey and defend cultural norms, especially norms framed as disgust at animal-like behavior.  Today, fear of death encourages folks to obey authorities, and be more loyal to their communities and spouses, all strong farmer norms:

Empirical support for [Terror management theory] has originated from more than 175 published experiments which have been conducted cross-culturally both nationally and internationally. … People, when reminded of their own inevitable death, will cling more strongly to their cultural worldviews. …. Nations or persons who have experienced traumas are more attracted to strong leaders who express traditional, pro-establishment, authoritarian viewpoints. … Many terror management studies have examined elicited affect as a covariate to mortality salience, and only one reviewed study has found elicited affect (fear) in the terror management process. Why? Terror management is a non-conscious process. …

Research corroborates the link between love and the fear of death. Studies reveal an association between close relationship seeking and mortality salience. Moreover, further studies demonstrate that the desire for close relationships under conditions of mortality salience trumps other needs including self-esteem and maintenance (pride) or avoidance (shame/guilt) … [Researchers] find the rejection of animality or creatureliness to function as the central tendency driving disgust … Studies demonstrate that mortality salience is associated with the rejection of animal traits. (more)

Subtle reminders of death on a subconscious level motivates a statistically significant number of subjects to exhibit biased and xenophobic type behaviors, such as gravitating toward those who they perceive as culturally similar to themselves and holding higher negative feelings and judgments toward those they perceive as culturally dissimilar to themselves. (more)

Note that fear-of-death based norm-enforcement mechanisms should work better on poor folk for whom death is a more immediate threat. Farming culture took advantage of a prior natural fear of death to push farming ways, but as farmers got richer, such pressures weakened, inclining folks to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways.

I suspect that social scientists, even those favoring “behavioral” explanations, consistently neglect fear of (thinking about) death as an explanation of social phenomena. Social scientists also don’t like to think about death, and thinking about explanations involving fear of death makes social scientists think too much about death.

Added: tijmz points out an ’08 Science study showing more fear-sensitive folks are more conservative:

Individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism,and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

Bryan reminded he that he pointed out this essay arguing that “authoritarian personalities” looks more like “old-fashioned personalities”, a fact which emphasizes just how much opinion has moved in a less conservative direction over time.

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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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All Together Now

In the classic dystopian novels, 1984 and Brave New World, societies encourage conformity by discouraging strong personal relationships. For example, in Brave New World:

The maxim “everyone belongs to everyone else” is repeated often, and the idea of a “family” is considered pornographic; sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are rendered obsolete because they are no longer needed.

Since schools are a big way we now train “self-control” to conform to social pressure, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that schools now discourage close friendships:

Increasingly, some educators and other professionals who work with children are asking a question that might surprise their parents: Should a child really have a best friend? … The classic best-friend bond — the two special pals who share secrets and exploits, who gravitate to each other on the playground and who head out the door together every day after school — signals potential trouble for school officials intent on discouraging anything that hints of exclusivity, in part because of concerns about cliques and bullying.

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling … “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.” … If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know. …

Such an attitude worries some psychologists who fear that children will be denied the strong emotional support and security that comes with intimate friendships. …

School officials admit they watch close friendships carefully for adverse effects. “When two children discover a special bond between them, we honor that bond, provided that neither child overtly or covertly excludes or rejects others.”

HT Robert Koslover.

Added 21June: Bryan weighs in.

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School Status Moves

As I was blogging about school, I happened across a fantastic film:

The beauty of The Class is that it puts the lie to the one-teacher-can-make-a-difference myth propagated by so many other films; Bégaudeau may well have an impact on his students, but he and the film have the wisdom to understand that some kids can’t be reached, and teachers often find that cultural or bureaucratic conditions leave their hands tied.

By the director of the also great Heading South, The Class is about:

Lessons schoolchildren learn on their way to the office, factory, shop, unemployment line and perhaps even prison: sit down, raise your hand, stand up, get in line, keep quiet. … The Class slides its points in at an angle, letting them emerge from the children’s chatter.

Watching this film twice made it clear to me that the main classroom dynamic, at least in inner city classrooms, is status moves. Teachers struggle to maintain control and respect, while students struggle to one-up one another and to avoid being dominated by teachers. When getting lower grades is the price of preserving their pride, it is a price most students are willing to pay. Students may not learn much about conjugating French verbs, but they learn lots about how best to gain respect and when they can and can’t resist domination.

Some describe such students as “impulsive,” or “present-oriented,” for sacrificing long-term success to gain momentary pleasures of defiance. But this seems to me to miss the point. I mostly did what I was told in school, but not because I weighed distant future success against current humiliation. I didn’t frame obeying the teacher as humiliation; I framed teacher-praise as raising my status, not as selling out to the man. And I didn’t see my teachers as representatives of a ruling class that unfairly keeps my people down.

I’m not sure where these framings come from, but to me this mildly confirms that one of the main functions of school is to get kids to accept the sorts of ranking and dominance that are common in industrial societies.

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Self-Control Is Slavery

I’ve been pondering 3 related points.  1) Self-Control Is Culture-Control:

It seems to me that … the key change after farming [was] an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations. … This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.

2) Fogel & Engerman’s economic classic analysis of US slavery:

Plantation agriculture based upon slave labor … may have been significantly more efficient than family farming. … The typical slave field-hand may have been more productive than a free, white field-hand. … Slavery was not incompatible with industrial production. … Slave-labor farms were 28 percent more productive than southern free-labor farms and 40 percent more productive than northern free-labor farms. …

Plantation operators strove for a disciplined, specialized and coordinated labor force. Labor was organized into something like the assembly line operations in industry. This involved “driving” the slaves’ efforts to maintain a pace of production. The “drivers” or foremen were slaves themselves. …

Plantations had a much higher rate of labor force participation, two thirds, as compared with a free population, one third. This was achieved by finding productive pursuits for the young and the elderly and maintaining nurseries so that slave women could work.

3) The latest AER on designing work to aid self-control:

The Industrial Revolution involved workers moving from agriculture to manufacturing; from working on their own to working with others in factories; and from flexible work-hours to rigid work-days. … Some work-place arrangements may make self-control problems more severe, while others may ameliorate them. … The firm … can use regular compensation to … make the returns to effort more immediate. Firms can also create disproportionate penalties for certain types of low efforts … so as to create sharp self-control incentives. … Conforming to an externally set pace, however, can decrease these self-control costs. … Workers planting rice-fields often find it helpful to synchronize movements to music or to beats. In industrial production, the assembly line may serve a similar purpose. … An intrinsic competitive drive may make the momentary self exert more effort when surrounded by hard-working coworkers. Young boys run races faster when running alongside another boy than when running alone. …

[Farming] creates difficult self-control problems. First, it involves long time horizons — farmers must tend their land constantly for months before reaping benefits at harvest. These lags can generate suboptimal effort in early stages of production. Financially, farmers may also fail to save enough money out of lumpy harvest payments to make efficient investments during the production cycle, further affecting labor supply returns and output. Second, agriculture often involves self-employment or very small firms. As a result, there are rarely firms or large employers to mitigate the self-control problem. Tasks cannot be structured, compensation altered, or work intensity regulated. Finally, agrarian production by nature is also geographically dispersed, which makes colocation of workers difficult. … This can help explain the observation that work hours appear to be low in modern-day subsistence agriculture. …

In the workshop system, workers rented floor space or machinery in factories, received pure piece rates for output … Clark presents evidence that workers under the workshop system had very unsteady attendance and hours, spent a lot of time socializing at work, and concentrated effort in the latter half of the week leading up to paydays. Clark argues that this led firms to transition to the factory discipline system to solve self-control problems.

OK, now let’s put it all together.  Apparently, factory-like methods that greatly increase farming productivity have long been feasible.  (First known factory: Venice Arsenal, 1104.)  Yet it took slaves to actually implemented such methods in farming. Even after ten thousand years of Malthusian competition, a farming method that could support a much larger population per land area did not displace other methods.  (And if factory-fortified foraging was possible, the timescale problem gets much worse.)

The introduction of farming was associated with important new elements, like religion, that encouraged more “self-control,” i.e. sensitivity to social norms.  However, those additions were not sufficient to achieve factory-like farming — most humans had too little self-control to make themselves behave that way, and too strong an anti-dominance norm to let rulers enforce such behavior.

This dramatically illustrates the huge self-control innovations that came with industry. School, propaganda, mass media, and who knows what else have greatly changed human nature, enabling a system of industrial submission and control that proud farmers and foragers simply would not tolerate – they would (and did) starve first.  In contrast, industry workers had enough self/culture-control to act as only slaves would before – working long hours in harsh alien environments, and showing up on time and doing what they were told.

So what made industry workers so much more willing to increase their self-control, relative to farmers?  One guess: the productivity gains from worker self-control were far larger in industry than in farming. Instead of a 50% gain, it might have been a factor of two or more. Self-controlled workers and societies gained a big enough productivity advantage to compensate for lost pride.

Humans are an increasingly self-domesticated species. Foragers could cooperate in non-kin groups of unprecedented size, farmers could enforce norms to induce many behaviors unnatural for foragers, and the schooled humans of industry would willingly obey like enslaved farmers. Our descendants may evolve even stronger self/culture-control of behavior.

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School Is Far

Bryan Caplan:

Robin’s been warming up to Bowles and Gintis’ classic Schooling in Capitalist America. The usual summary of B&G is that our educational system is basically a factory that makes good cogs for the capitalists’ social machine.

As a product of Los Angeles public schools, this story strikes me as wildly implausible. The most obvious problem: If capitalists ran the school system, they’d impose much stricter discipline. … Furthermore, if capitalists ran the school system, they wouldn’t teach poetry, art, history, music, etc. Performance in these subjects does signal desirable traits, but if the capitalists were in charge, they might as well impose a curriculum that lets students signal and build job skills at the same time.

My comments:

  1. My self-control hypothesis, that “school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination,” isn’t about capitalism in particular – it makes sense for any industrial society, where the organization of work requires workers to often take orders.
  2. This is a hypothesis about an overall tendency in industrial societies; it needn’t apply well to each and every industry school at all times.  Maybe LA in 90s was different.
  3. Schools could have evolved to achieve this dominance-acceptance function without anyone explicitly designing them that way.  Thousands of school system variations have been tried over the centuries, and those that lead to more prosperous or powerful societies were probably copied more often.
  4. I’m not claiming this is the only function schools perform.

I also suspect that many apparently useless aspects of school, like “poetry, art, history, music”, actually help kids build self-control, by encouraging far views. In fact, I suspect that schools evolved in many ways to encourage far views. Consider these 16 ways schools do so:

  • focus on large scales of space, time, society
  • focus on broad abstract categories/concepts
  • neglect of concrete practical skills
  • offer high confidence in theories taught
  • neglect large deviations of reality from theory
  • emphasize central ideal moral concerns
  • neglect common detailed practical constraints
  • praise supporting underdogs, taking chances
  • push polite language over slang, grunts
  • use large group to enhance social shame
  • make kids feel destined for high status/power
  • focus on positive over negative moods, reasons
  • focus on words over pictures
  • focus on sight, sound over taste, touch, smell
  • repeatedly introduce novel tasks
  • typically bored, with weak motivation

The “broad-minded” schooled are oft contrasted with the “small-minded” and the “provincial.” When you imagine a less schooled person, you imagine someone less interested in far away or abstract things. It seems school evolved to encourage far views, which not only signals individual and society status, but also strengthens self-control, which is especially useful in industrial workers.

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