The observable examined

Archive for the ‘human nature’ Category

attitudes, learning, and motivation

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As a parent of a teenager, one of my major concerns has to do with equipping my child with the right set of tools to navigate Life and be “successful”.  The yardstick of success, for most parents, is for their child to attend a prestigious or Ivy league school leading to a well paying industry or academic job. If it comes with tremendous fame and fortune, all the better. Nothing wrong with that per se.  But the hyper competitive environment prevalent in high schools today, chasing that yardstick, creates tremendous pressure on the kids. The situation is further exacerbated by Tiger moms and dads (everyone of whom uniformly believes their kid is a child prodigy or at the very least, super smart) orchestrating their child’s every experience and resume, with the purported goal of gaining them entry into the “top notch” colleges.

There is a bigger problem lurking with this game plan. Because parents think their children are prodigies, they think success is automatic. They do not anticipate that there could be setbacks. And when they happen, the parents, and more importantly, the kids, are not setup to deal with the situation. If they are not careful, it could lead to a download spiral of lost confidence, lowering of self esteem, and self doubt on the child’s part.

Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of Mathematics (supposedly identified as a “genius” at an young age) in a recent commentary wrote “This can be a hard lesson for the prodigies themselves. It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter. And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren’t Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn’t shine in Math Olympiad; didn’t go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you’re the best, you start to believe you’re the best.” His overall point is that geniuses are not the only successful people in the world. Hard work, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck are important ingredients for success.

Which brings me to the part about tools for navigating Life.

The first is about finding an internal compass that is directed by intrinsic motivation and not just about coming out ahead in the rat race. That this sets you up for success much better than goals that are externally motivated was made evident in a recent study of of West point graduates. The researchers found that cadets motivated by internal drives fared a lot better than those seeking external rewards. They write  ” ….The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success. “

The second is about enjoying what you do. Attitude – how you think and approach the task on hand is hugely important for success, one of the key messages in Pirsig’s  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, recognize that education is more than academic schooling. Allison Gopnik illustrates this with a nice anecdote of  her interactions with her grandson. Finally, know that the path to success is not a straight line but is going to be potentially fraught with missed expectations and setbacks deriving from a variety of factors. When that happens, having a strong internal compass, is absolutely critical to staying motivated and maintaining focus on reaching goals.


Written by asterix98

July 5, 2014 at 7:59 pm

How America lost common sense

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This cartoon succintly captures the role lawyers have played in stripping us Americans of common sense

I love this cartoon. It is a great commentary on the litigious nature of our society and how lawyers have contributed to a systematic erosion of common sense among the populace. It places enormous burdens on our society, in terms of costs incurred, to safeguard ourselves from other peoples mistakes. While accountability is important, individual responsibility  should have equal merit.

Disclaimer :  I retrieved this cartoon from the San Jose Mercury News website, published on Sunday Sept. 23, 2012 and is copyright of the cartoonist.



Written by asterix98

September 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Subjectivity of our existence

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As computer users, we are all familiar with the “sleep” or “hibernate” function. Essentially, the computer maintains its current state while “powering down” different parts of the system to conserve power. When you “wake up” the computer, it lets you pick up what you were doing from where you left off. The “sleep” and “wake” nomenclature for this behavior is not happenstance but is a direct analogy to how brains function. But there is one crucial difference. In computers, it is a very well understood process. The current state of the system is stored in non-volatile memory and reinstated on waking up. In brains, this analogous process has the magical property of consciousness – subjectivity.  Below I have excerpted a  passage from Antonio Damasio’s book – The Self Comes to Mind,  that  beautifully captures the essence of this difference (if you had not thought of it in these terms, it will be a true wake up call – sorry, I could not help the pun).

“….We all have free access to consciousness, bubbling so easily and abundantly in our minds that without hesitation or apprehension we let  it be turned off every night when we go to sleep and allow it to return every morning when the alarm clock rings, at least 365 times a year, not counting naps. And yet few things about our beings are as remarkable, foundational, and seemingly mysterious as consciousness. Without consciousness-that is, a mind endowed with subjectivity-you would have no way of knowing that you exist, let alone know who you are and what you think. Had subjectivity not begun, even if very modestly at first, in living creatures far simpler than we are, memory and reasoning are not likely to have expanded in the prodigious way they did, and the evolutionary road for language and the elaborate human version of consciousness we now possess would not have been paved. Creativity would not have flourished. There would have been no song, no painting, and no literature. Love would never have been love, just sex. Friendship would have been mere cooperative convenience. Pain would never have become suffering-not a bad thing, come to think of it but an equivocal advantage given that pleasure would not have become bliss either. Had subjectivity not made its radical appearance, there would have been no knowing and no one to take notice, and consequently there would have been no history of what creatures did through the ages, no culture at all.”

The discovery of mirror neurons in the early nineties and subsequent research to understand their role in social cognition is offering tantalizing insights into the neural substrates underlying this subjectivity – the hallmark of human existence.

Written by asterix98

September 8, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Cliff’s Notes for compassionate behavior

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Social psychologist David DeSteno and his colleagues have figured out the secret sauce for everyday compassionate behavior.  Based on insights derived from some clever experiments, DeSteno writes in Compassion Made Easy “…effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. …Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity….”

To put it differently, we should constantly strive to find ways to include our fellow human beings in our in-group. I think this is a nice little message. But, I disagree with DeSteno’s phrasing ” .. something as easy as…” . For the general populace, practicing this may be more difficult than the moral prescriptions he labels as “effortful adherence” simply because realigning your compassion compass by thinking differently about others also requires cognitive effort.

Written by asterix98

July 16, 2012 at 2:26 am

Are we all cheaters?

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We are all cheaters and liars: to a degree. At least, that is what Ariely would have us believe. The relevant article appeared a little over a week ago in the WSJ and is pompously titled – Why we lie? Ironically, the title itself is a bit of lie because Ariely makes no attempt to really settle the issue, as the title would lead us to believe. But the hook surely served the editor’s or Ariely’s purpose of attracting eyeballs.

That there is cheating among the populace is not entirely news. It runs the whole gamut from “very minor” to Wall Street style mega embezzlement. Collectively, corporations lose Millions (I think it is more like Billions) when employees help themselves to office supplies for personal use. There are others who misuse customer service provisions, such as the 30-day return policy, when the requirements for a particular item are short term. Such egregious behavior among the lay folk is rampant and the list of situations is pretty long.  This behavior cuts across socioeconomic and educational boundaries.

What is novel in Ariely’s research is that he and his collaborators have systematically catalogued how and to what extent people cheat. While the research is fascinating, the explanations provided for the underlying causes are, in my opinion, superficial or weak. For example, in the studies cited in the article, the basic task assigned to the subjects is to complete as many Math matrices as possible in a finite time. Reporting of number of matrices completed is based on an honor system. The amount of money offered is 50 cents per completed matrix. In this case, subjects cheat by over-reporting number of matrices completed. When the stakes are raised to $10 per matrix, cheating is reduced. The explanation offered is that the participant sense of integrity balances out his/her instinct to cheat. Alternatively, we could argue that a smaller prize may have been suggesting that the task is easy and so fewer solved matrices must imply poor cognitive ability – a blow to self esteem, higher monies must mean a difficult task and solving fewer means self-esteem intact. Tversky and Kahneman (fantastic research on judgment and decision making), I suspect, would have preferred to explain this as at least in part, a framing bias: the setup of the problem and instructions biases the subjects. I wonder what the behavior would be if subjects are paid a fixed amount no matter how many matrices they complete.

The answer to why we lie is unlikely to be a simple one. It must surely involve our sense of morality (already we are on a slippery slope here), sense of entitlement, situational demands (such as hiding uncomfortable truths from the dying), sense of fairness, cultural sensibilities, to name a few. I am pretty sure, the morality line for every individual, lies just to the right of her (meaning it moves with his/her own actions).  But ultimately the explanation must come from the underlying biology and evolutionary pressures and adaptations.  Paul Zak has written about the “moral molecule” –oxytocin and its central importance in building trusting relationships. A second book by Christopher Boehm tackles morality from a anthropologist’s viewpoint. An excellent review of both books can be found here – Kin and kindness. Both of these books are a step in that direction.

Update [07/09/12] – There is a very interesting review of Jay Magill’s book Sincerity in today’s WSJ. For those interested, I think this will complement the discussion here. The review also mentions Dan Ariely’s new book – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Written by asterix98

June 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

Of molecules and (wo)men

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In this past weekend’s edition of WSJ review, the following article appeared

The Trust Molecule

(click above to go to article)

Why are some of us caring and some of us cruel, some generous and some greedy? Paul J. Zak on the new science of morality— and how it could be used to create a more virtuous society

The basic message is oxytocin can foster trust and increase social bonding. Zak writes “…oxytocin orchestrates the kind of generous and caring behavior that every culture endorses as the right way to live—the cooperative, benign, pro-social way of living that every culture on the planet describes as “moral.” The Golden Rule is a lesson that the body already knows, and when we get it right, we feel the rewards immediately….”

This all sounded very good and seemed like the only thing left for us to do was inject ourselves with oxytocin and the whole world would be one large Berkeley hippie commune. Obviously, this would be too easy. I was not entirely satisfied and tried to find out what others had to say on this topic. I found this on the APA site “…

Oxytocin has been on a joy ride for 20 years, ever since animal studies first linked the hormone to bonding between mother and newborn, as well as between mating adults. Dubbed the “cuddle” or “love” hormone by the popular press, more recently it has earned attention for its role in promoting trust.

One company, Vero Labs in Boca Raton, Fla., has even put it in a cologne-like spray, marketed as “Liquid Trust”: Fifty dollars buys a two-month supply that promises consumers “confidence in a bottle,” according to its website….”

Oxytocin doses seem to help children with autism cope much better socially. But some researchers warn that it does have a darker side. From the same APA article …”More evidence of oxytocin’s downside comes from Mount Sinai School of Medicine psychologist Jennifer Bartz, PhD. In a study published online in November in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, she and her colleagues examined whether oxytocin might boost trust and cooperation, as measured with a well-studied economic game, among men and women with borderline personality disorder, who tend to have volatile relationships. She found that rather than increasing trust and teamwork, a dose of oxytocin decreased those feelings compared with a placebo.”

While the jury is still out on the how, why and what of oxytocin, Zak has happily dubbed it the “moral” molecule and in new age style advocates a bunch of behaviors that can enhance social bonding, hugs being his most favorite one. I have to note here that as I was reading these articles, I was reminded of this lady who is fondly referred to as Amma(Mother), by her followers. She apparently can heal, just by hugging and touching. In fact, the byline on her website (link above) says – Embracing the World. The oxytocin definitely must be free flowing in that commune.

Another chemical doing the rounds in the news is dopamine. Researchers have figured out the more adventurous (“scout”)bees in a colony have lower amounts of dopamine making them less averse to novel experiences. Incidentally, in humans it is just the opposite, higher dopamine levels lead to novelty seeking behaviors. As Spock would say, Fascinating!

Written by asterix98

May 3, 2012 at 1:08 am

We are Oh! so predictable

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Imagine a banyan tree full of monkeys. There are some monkeys at the top, some at the bottom, and many more at varying heights. The monkeys from the top look down at smiling faces…but  all the ones below can look up and only see a**holes!!

– Adapted from The Jokecenter

Actually, this is an old joke that pokes fun at management  in organizations. But as someone noted long time ago , the truth is often said in jest.  Matt Ridley’s piece – Now You Know Why Your Boss Is Such An Ape – is a nice review of a new book out called “Games Primates Play” by Dario Maestripieri. There are interesting analogies of how dominance hierarchies amongst humans parallels what we see in the ape world. Only we have a huge repertoire of dominance behaviors ranging from the subtle (corporations) to the not so subtle (school bullying, extortion, threats etc.,). In fact, many of our dominance behaviors are culturally sanctioned. When I visited Paris, I learned that, for a powerful person, it was ok to arrive late to an appointment. In fact, how late you arrive is an index of your power. Business school professors also study power in organizations. I attended a brilliant lecture on this topic and wrote about it here.

I have always held the belief that we are fundamentally animals. We are fooled into thinking otherwise because societal norms impose a veneer of sophistication on our behaviors. Probably the best example is territorial fights (homes to nations – only group size differs). I will explore this topic in greater detail in a future blog.

Written by asterix98

April 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

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