“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Campaigning Deities: Justifying the ways of Satan

Milton believed Christianity more than worthy of a poetic canon in the tradition of the classical poets, and Paradise Lost represents his effort at establishing one. What his Christian epic has offered for many readers over the centuries, however, is an invitation to weigh the actions and motivations of immortals in mortal terms. In the story, God becomes a human king, albeit one with superhuman powers, while Satan becomes an upstart subject. As Milton attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man,” he is taking it upon himself simultaneously, and inadvertently, to justify the absolute dominion of a human dictator. One of the consequences of this shift in perspective is the transformation of a philosophical tradition devoted to parsing the logic of biblical teachings into something akin to a political campaign between two rival leaders, each laying out his respective platform alongside a case against his rival. What was hitherto recondite and academic becomes in Milton’s work immediate and visceral.

Keats famously penned the wonderfully self-proving postulate, “Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses,” which leaves open the question of how an axiom might be so proved. Milton’s God responds to Satan’s approach to Earth, and his foreknowledge of Satan’s success in tempting the original pair, with a preemptive defense of his preordained punishment of Man:

…Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have. I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood though free to fall.
Such I created all th’ ethereal pow’rs
And spirits, both them who stood and who failed:
Freely they stood who stood and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere
Of true allegiance, constant faith or love
Where only what they needs must do appeared,
Not what they would? What praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid
When will and reason… had served necessity,
Not me? (3.96-111)

God is defending himself against the charge that his foreknowledge of the fall implies that Man’s decision to disobey was borne of something other than his free will. What choice could there have been if the outcome of Satan’s temptation was predetermined? If it wasn’t predetermined, how could God know what the outcome would be in advance? God’s answer—of course I granted humans free will because otherwise their obedience would mean nothing—only introduces further doubt. Now we must wonder why God cherishes Man’s obedience so fervently. Is God hungry for political power? If we conclude he is—and that conclusion seems eminently warranted—then we find ourselves on the side of Satan. It’s not so much God’s foreknowledge of Man’s fall that undermines human freedom; it’s God’s insistence on our obedience, under threat of God’s terrible punishment.

            Milton faces a still greater challenge in his attempt to justify God’s ways “upon our pulses” when it comes to the fallout of Man’s original act of disobedience. The Son argues on behalf of Man, pointing out that the original sin was brought about through temptation. If God responds by turning against Man, then Satan wins. The Son thus argues that God must do something to thwart Satan: “Or shall the Adversary thus obtain/ His end and frustrate Thine?” (3.156-7). Before laying out his plan for Man’s redemption, God explains why punishment is necessary:

            …Man disobeying
            Disloyal breaks his fealty and sins
            Against the high supremacy of Heav’n,
            Affecting godhead, and so, losing all,
            To expiate his treason hath naught left
            But to destruction sacred and devote
            He with his whole posterity must die. (3. 203-9)

The potential contradiction between foreknowledge and free choice may be abstruse enough for Milton’s character to convincingly discount: “If I foreknew/ Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault/ Which had no less proved certain unforeknown” (3.116-9). There is another contradiction, however, that Milton neglects to take on. If Man is “Sufficient to have stood though free to fall,” then God must justify his decision to punish the “whole posterity” as opposed to the individuals who choose to disobey. The Son agrees to redeem all of humanity for the offense committed by the original pair. His knowledge that every last human will disobey may not be logically incompatible with their freedom to choose; if every last human does disobey, however, the case for that freedom is severely undermined. The axiom of collective guilt precludes the axiom of freedom of choice both logically and upon our pulses.

            In characterizing disobedience as a sin worthy of severe punishment—banishment from paradise, shame, toil, death—an offense he can generously expiate for Man by sacrificing the (his) Son, God seems to be justifying his dominion by pronouncing disobedience to him evil, allowing him to claim that Man’s evil made it necessary for him to suffer a profound loss, the death of his offspring. In place of a justification for his rule, then, God resorts to a simple guilt trip.

            Man shall not quite be lost but saved who will,
            Yet not of will in him but grace in me
            Freely vouchsafed. Once more I will renew
            His lapsed pow’rs though forfeit and enthralled
            By sin to foul exorbitant desires.
            Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
            On even ground against his mortal foe,
            By me upheld that he may know how frail
            His fall’n condition is and to me owe
            All his deliv’rance, and to none but me. (3.173-83)

Having decided to take on the burden of repairing the damage wrought by Man’s disobedience to him, God explains his plan:

            Die he or justice must, unless for him
            Some other as able and as willing pay
            The rigid satisfaction, death for death. (3.210-3)

He then asks for a volunteer. In an echo of an earlier episode in the poem which has Satan asking for a volunteer to leave hell on a mission of exploration, there is a moment of hesitation before the Son offers himself up to die on Man’s behalf.

            …On Me let thine anger fall.
            Account Me Man. I for his sake will leave
            Thy bosom and this glory next to Thee
            Freely put off and for him lastly die
            Well pleased. On Me let Death wreck all his rage! (3.37-42)

This great sacrifice, which is supposed to be the basis of the Son’s privileged status over the angels, is immediately undermined because he knows he won’t stay dead for long: “Yet that debt paid/ Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave” (246-7). The Son will only die momentarily. This sacrifice doesn’t stack up well against the real risks and sacrifices made by Satan.

            All the poetry about obedience and freedom and debt never takes on the central questionSatan’s rebellion forces readers to ponder: Does God deserve our obedience? Or are the labels of good and evil applied arbitrarily? The original pair was forbidden from eating from the Tree of Knowledge—could they possibly have been right to contravene the interdiction? Since it is God being discussed, however, the assumption that his dominion requires no justification, that it is instead simply in the nature of things, might prevail among some readers, as it does for the angels who refuse to join Satan’s rebellion. The angels, after all, owe their very existence to God, as Abdiel insists to Satan. Who, then, are any of them to question his authority? This argument sets the stage for Satan’s remarkable rebuttal:

                        …Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? Remember’st thou
Thy making while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now,
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quick’ning power…
Our puissance is our own. Our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds by proof to try
Who is our equal. (5.855-66)

Just as a pharaoh could claim credit for all the monuments and infrastructure he had commissioned the construction of, any king or dictator might try to convince his subjects that his deeds far exceed what he is truly capable of. If there’s no record and no witness—or if the records have been doctored and the witnesses silenced—the subjects have to take the king’s word for it.

            That God’s dominion depends on some natural order, which he himself presumably put in place, makes his tendency to protect knowledge deeply suspicious. Even the angels ultimately have to take God’s claims to have created the universe and them along with it solely on faith. Because that same unquestioning faith is precisely what Satan and the readers of Paradise Lost are seeking a justification for, they could be forgiven for finding the answer tautological and unsatisfying. It is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat fruit from. When Adam, after hearing Raphael’s recounting of the war in heaven, asks the angel how the earth was created, he does receive an answer, but only after a suspicious preamble:

                        …such commission from above
            I have received to answer thy desire
            Of knowledge with bounds. Beyond abstain
            To ask nor let thine own inventions hope
            Things not revealed which the invisible King
            Only omniscient hath suppressed in night,
            To none communicable in Earth or Heaven:
            Enough is left besides to search and know. (7.118-125)

Raphael goes on to compare knowledge to food, suggesting that excessively indulging curiosity is unhealthy. This proscription of knowledge reminded Shelley of the Prometheus myth. It might remind modern readers of The Wizard of Oz—“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”—or to the space monkeys in Fight Club, who repeatedly remind us that “The first rule of Project Mayhem is, you do not ask questions.” It may also resonate with news about dictators in Asia or the Middle East trying to desperately to keep social media outlets from spreading word of their atrocities.

            Like the protesters of the Arab Spring, Satan is putting himself at great risk by challenging God’s authority. If God’s dominion over Man and the angels is evidence not of his benevolence but of his supreme selfishness, then Satan’srebellion becomes an attempt at altruistic punishment. The extrapolation from economic experiments like the ultimatum and dictator games to efforts to topple dictators may seem like a stretch, especially if humans are predisposed to forming and accepting positions in hierarchies, as a casual survey of virtually any modern organization suggests is the case.

Organized institutions, however, are a recent development in terms of human evolution. The English missionary Lucas Bridges wrote about his experiences with the Ona foragers in Tierra del Fuego in his 1948 book Uttermost Part of the Earth, and he expresses his amusement at his fellow outsiders’ befuddlement when they learn about the Ona’s political dynamics:

A certain scientist visited our part of the world and, in answer to his inquiries on this matter, I told him that the Ona had no chieftains, as we understand the word. Seeing that he did not believe me, I summoned Kankoat, who by that time spoke some Spanish. When the visitor repeated his question, Kankoat, too polite to answer in the negative, said: “Yes, senor, we, the Ona, have many chiefs. The men are all captains and all the women are sailors” (quoted in Boehm 62).

At least among Ona men, it seems there was no clear hierarchy. The anthropologist Richard Lee discovered a similar dynamic operating among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari. In order to ensure that no one in the group can attain an elevated status which would allow him to dominate the others, several leveling mechanisms are in place. Lee quotes one of his informants:

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (quoted in Boehm 45)

These examples of egalitarianism among nomadic foragers are part of anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s survey of every known group of hunter-gatherers. His central finding is that “A distinctively egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (35-36). This finding bears on any discussion of human evolution and human nature because small groups like these constituted the whole of humanity for all but what amounts to the final instants of geological time.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Lyrical Refutation of Thomas Kinkade

Thomas Kinkade- Christmas Moonlight- courtesy of scenicreflections.com

I was eager to get out when I saw the storm, the swarm of small shadowed blurs descending
in swerves to create
a limn of white, out into the soft glowing sky of a winter night, peering through the
dark as those blurs
become streaking dabs as they pass through spheres of yellow lamplight, countless, endlessly
falling, engulfing
those sad, drooping, fiery lenses depending on their stoic posts.

I think of those Thomas Kinkade pictures my mom loves so much—everybody’s mom
loves so much—
and I have to admit they almost manage to signal it, that feeling, that mood.

Cold, brutal, uncaring wind, and a blanketing blankness of white struggled through
by the yellow and orange
warm vibrant doings of unseen humans, those quaint stone bridges over unimaginably
frigid, deathly chilling water,
somehow in their quaintness, in their suggestion of, insistence on, human ingenuity,
human doggedness, those scenes
hold out the promise of an end to the coldness, an end to the white nothing that fails,
year after year, to blot out world.

Those pictures are lies though—in almost conveying the feeling, the mood, they
do it an injustice.
In willfully ignoring the barren, venous, upward clawing, fleshed branches that rake
the eerily luminescent wind-crowned sky,
and failing to find a symbol to adequately suggest the paradoxical pace of the flakes
falling, endlessly falling
through those yellow, orange spheres of light—hurried but hypnotically slow, frantic
but easily, gracefully falling,
adjusting their cant to invisible, unforeseen and unforeseeable forces.

The story of human warmth defying the frigid, impersonal harshness of a colorless,
lifeless cosmos—
in trying desperately to please, just to please, those pictures offend—that’s
only half the story.
The woman who lit the fire sending out its light through the windows, she’s aging—
every covering of snow
is another year in the ceaseless procession, and the man, who worked so doggedly
at building a scaffold
and laying the stones for that charming bridge, he’s beyond reach of the snow, two or three
generations gone since his generous feat.

The absence of heat is its own type of energy. The wet-lashing night air is charged with it,
like the pause after a breath
awaiting the inevitable inhale—but it holds off, and holds off. Inevitable? Meanwhile,
those charged particles
of shocking white, tiny, but with visible weight—they’d kiss your cheek if you
opened your coat
and you’d know you’d been kissed by someone not alive. The ceaseless falling
and steady accumulation,
hours and days and years—humans create watches and clocks to defy time, but
this relentless rolling over
of green to white, warm to cold, thrilling, rejuvenating spring to contemplative, resigned
autumn, this we watch helplessly,
hopefully, hurtling toward those homes so far beneath the snow.

The air is charged, every flake a tiny ghost—no tinier, though, than any of us merits—
haunting the slippery medium
of night we might glide through so slow, so effortless, so sealed up to keep in our warmth,
turned inward on ourselves.
The hush, the silent yawn, is haunted with humanity’s piled up heap of here and gone,
and haunted too with
our own homeless, friendless, impossibly frightening future.

The homes of neighbors friendly donning matching caps, alike in our mutual blanketing, our
mutual muting.
Those paintings of cozy lit houses in the winter harshness remind me of the juxtaposition
            of fright and absence of true threat,
those opposites we feel when young, the trick, the gift of some masterful ghost story,
            properly told in such a scene,
and this night, snow creaking underfoot like those ill-hinged doors opening all on
their own, raising chills,
this night is haunted too, but less with presence than with utter absence, here and gone,
            all those troubled souls,
their existence of no more consequence than the intricacy suddenly annihilated as it
            collides with the flesh
just beneath my eye, collides and instantly transforms into something more medium
than message and
no sooner lands than begins to evaporate.
Firelight Cottage - Nathan Stillie

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Intuition vs. Science: What's Wrong with Your Thinking, Fast and Slow

From Completely Useless to Moderately Useful
            In 1955, a twenty-one-year-old Daniel Kahneman was assigned the formidable task of creating an interview procedure to assess the fitness of recruits for the Israeli army. Kahneman’s only qualification was his bachelor’s degree in psychology, but the state of Israel had only been around for seven years at the time so the Defense Forces were forced to satisfice. In the course of his undergraduate studies, Kahneman had discovered the writings of a psychoanalyst named Paul Meehl, whose essays he would go on to “almost memorize” as a graduate student. Meehl’s work gave Kahneman a clear sense of how he should go about developing his interview technique.

If you polled psychologists today to get their predictions for how successful a young lieutenant inspired by a book written by a psychoanalyst would be in designing a personality assessment protocol—assuming you left out the names—you would probably get some dire forecasts. But Paul Meehl wasn’t just any psychoanalyst, and Daniel Kahneman has gone on to become one of the most influential psychologists in the world. The book whose findings Kahneman applied to his interview procedure was Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence, which Meehl lovingly referred to as “my disturbing little book.” Kahneman explains,

Meehl reviewed the results of 20 studies that had analyzed whether clinical predictions based on the subjective impressions of trained professionals were more accurate than statistical predictions made by combining a few scores or ratings according to a rule. In a typical study, trained counselors predicted the grades of freshmen at the end of the school year. The counselors interviewed each student for forty-five minutes. They also had access to high school grades, several aptitude tests, and a four-page personal statement. The statistical algorithm used only a fraction of this information: high school grades and one aptitude test. (222)

Daniel Kahneman
The findings for this prototypical study are consistent with those arrived at by researchers over the decades since Meehl released his book:

The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tantamount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convincingly documented. (223)       

            Kahneman designed the interview process by coming up with six traits he thought would have direct bearing on a soldier’s success or failure, and he instructed the interviewers to assess the recruits on each dimension in sequence. His goal was to make the process as systematic as possible, thus reducing the role of intuition. The response of the recruitment team will come as no surprise to anyone: “The interviewers came close to mutiny” (231). They complained that their knowledge and experience were being given short shrift, that they were being turned into robots. Eventually, Kahneman was forced to compromise, creating a final dimension that was holistic and subjective. The scores on this additional scale, however, seemed to be highly influenced by scores on the previous scales.

When commanding officers evaluated the new recruits a few months later, the team compared the evaluations with their predictions based on Kahneman’s six scales. “As Meehl’s book had suggested,” he writes, “the new interview procedure was a substantial improvement over the old one… We had progressed from ‘completely useless’ to ‘moderately useful’” (231).   

Amos Tversky
            Kahneman recalls this story at about the midpoint of his magnificent, encyclopedic book Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is just one in a long series of run-ins with people who don’t understand or can’t accept the research findings he presents to them, and it is neatly woven into his discussions of those findings. Each topic and each chapter feature a short test that allows you to see where you fall in relation to the experimental subjects. The remaining thread in the tapestry is the one most readers familiar with Kahneman’s work most anxiously anticipated—his friendship with AmosTversky, with whom he shared the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

Most of the ideas that led to experiments that led to theories which made the two famous and contributed to the founding of an entire new field, behavioral economics, were borne of casual but thrilling conversations both found intrinsically rewarding in their own right. Reading this book, as intimidating as it appears at a glance, you get glimmers of Kahneman’s wonder at the bizarre intricacies of his own and others’ minds, flashes of frustration at how obstinately or casually people avoid the implications of psychology and statistics, and intimations of the deep fondness and admiration he felt toward Tversky, who died in 1996 at the age of 59.

Pointless Punishments and Invisible Statistics

            When Kahneman begins a chapter by saying, “I had one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of my career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training” (175), it’s hard to avoid imagining how he might have relayed the incident to Amos years later. It’s also hard to avoid speculating about what the book might’ve looked like, or if it ever would have been written, if he were still alive. The eureka experience Kahneman had in this chapter came about, as many of them apparently did, when one of the instructors objected to his assertion, in this case that “rewards for improved performance work better than punishment of mistakes.” The instructor insisted that over the long course of his career he’d routinely witnessed pilots perform worse after praise and better after being screamed at. “So please,” the instructor said with evident contempt, “don’t tell us that reward works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” Kahneman, characteristically charming and disarming, calls this “a joyous moment of insight” (175).

            The epiphany came from connecting a familiar statistical observation with the perceptions of an observer, in this case the flight instructor. The problem is that we all have a tendency to discount the role of chance in success or failure. Kahneman explains that the instructor’s observations were correct, but his interpretation couldn’t have been more wrong.

Francis Galton, who first
described regression to the mean
What he observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of performance. Naturally, he only praised a cadet whose performance was far better than average. But the cadet was probably just lucky on that particular attempt and therefore likely to deteriorate regardless of whether or not he was praised. Similarly, the instructor would shout into the cadet’s earphones only when the cadet’s performance was unusually bad and therefore likely to improve regardless of what the instructor did. The instructor had attached a causal interpretation to the inevitable fluctuations of a random process. (175-6)

The roster of domains in which we fail to account for regression to the mean is disturbingly deep. Even after you’ve learned about the phenomenon it’s still difficult to recognize the situations you should apply your understanding of it to. Kahneman quotes statistician David Freedman to the effect that whenever regression becomes pertinent in a civil or criminal trial the side that has to explain it will pretty much always lose the case. Not understanding regression, however, and not appreciating how it distorts our impressions has implications for even the minutest details of our daily experiences. “Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us,” Kahneman writes, “and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty” (176). Probability is a bitch.

The Illusion of Skill in Stock-Picking

            Probability can be expensive too. Kahneman recalls being invited to give a lecture to advisers at an investment firm. To prepare for the lecture, he asked for some data on the advisers’ performances and was given a spreadsheet for investment outcomes over eight years. When he compared the numbers statistically, he found that none of the investors was consistently more successful than the others. The correlation between the outcomes from year to year was nil. When he attended a dinner the night before the lecture “with some of the top executives of the firm, the people who decide on the size of bonuses,” he knew from experience how tough a time he was going to have convincing them that “at least when it came to building portfolios, the firm was rewarding luck as if it were a skill.” Still, he was amazed by the execs’ lack of shock:

We all went on calmly with our dinner, and I have no doubt that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before. The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions—and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem—are simply not absorbed. (216)

The scene that follows echoes the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s classic paean to skepticism Demon-Haunted World, where Sagan recounts being bombarded with questions about science by a driver who was taking him from the airport to an auditorium where he was giving a lecture. He found himself explaining to the driver again and again that what he thought was science—Atlantis, aliens, crystals—was, in fact, not. "As we drove through the rain," Sagan writes, "I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life" (4). In Kahneman’s recollection of his drive back to the airport after his lecture, he writes of a conversation he had with his own driver, one of the execs he’d dined with the night before. 

He told me, with a trace of defensiveness, “I have done very well for the firm and no one can take that away from me.” I smiled and said nothing. But I thought, “Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it? (216)

Blinking at the Power of Intuitive Thinking

Malcolm Gladwell
            It wouldn’t surprise Kahneman at all to discover how much stories like these resonate. Indeed, he must’ve considered it a daunting challenge to conceive of a sensible, cognitively easy way to get all of his vast knowledge of biases and heuristics and unconscious, automatic thinking into a book worthy of the science—and worthy too of his own reputation—while at the same time tying it all together with some intuitive overarching theme, something that would make it read more like a novel than an encyclopedia. Malcolm Gladwell faced a similar challenge in writing Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking, but he had the advantages of a less scholarly readership, no obligation to be comprehensive, and the freedom afforded to someone writing about a field he isn’t one of the acknowledged leaders and creators of. Ultimately, Gladwell’s book painted a pleasing if somewhat incoherent picture of intuitive thinking. The power he refers to in the title is over the thoughts and actions of the thinker, not, as many must have presumed, to arrive at accurate conclusions.

It’s entirely possible that Gladwell’s misleading title came about deliberately, since there’s a considerable market for the message that intuition reigns supreme over science and critical thinking. But there are points in his book where it seems like Gladwell himself is confused. Robert Cialdini, Steve Marin, and Noah Goldstein cover some of the same research Kahneman and Gladwell do, but their book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive is arranged in a list format, with each chapter serving as its own independent mini-essay.

Robert Cialdini
Early in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces us to two characters, System 1 and System 2, who pass the controls of our minds back and forth between themselves according the expertise and competency demanded by current exigency or enterprise. System 1 is the more intuitive, easygoing guy, the one who does what Gladwell refers to as “thin-slicing,” the fast thinking of the title. System 2 works deliberately and takes effort on the part of the thinker. Most people find having to engage their System 2—multiply 17 by 24—unpleasant to one degree or another.

The middle part of the book introduces readers to two other characters, ones whose very names serve as a challenge to the field of economics. Econs are the beings market models and forecasts are based on. They are rational, selfish, and difficult to trick. Humans, the other category, show inconsistent preferences, changing their minds depending on how choices are worded or presented, are much more sensitive to the threat of loss than the promise of gain, are sometimes selfless, and not only can be tricked with ease but routinely trick themselves. Finally, Kahneman introduces us to our “Two Selves,” the two ways we have of thinking about our lives, either moment-to-moment—experiences he, along with Mihaly Csikzentmihhalyi (author of Flow) pioneered the study of—or in abstract hindsight. It’s not surprising at this point that there are important ways in which the two selves tend to disagree.

Intuition and Cerebration

 The Econs versus Humans distinction, with its rhetorical purpose embedded in the terms, is plenty intuitive. The two selves idea, despite being a little too redolent of psychoanalysis, also works well. But the discussions about System 1 and System 2 are never anything but ethereal and abstruse. Kahneman’s stated goal was to discuss each of the systems as if they were characters in a plot, but he’s far too concerned with scientifically precise definitions to run with the metaphor. The term system is too bloodless and too suggestive of computer components; it’s too much of the realm of System 2 to be at all satisfying to System 1. The collection of characteristics Thinking links to the first system (see a list below) is lengthy and fascinating and not easily summed up or captured in any neat metaphor. But we all know what Kahneman is talking about. We could use mythological figures, perhaps Achilles or Orpheus for System 1 and Odysseus or Hephaestus for System 2, but each of those characters comes with his own narrative baggage. Not everyone’s System 1 is full of rage like Achilles, or musical like Orpheus. Maybe we could assign our System 1s idiosyncratic totem animals.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi
But I think the most familiar and the most versatile term we have for System 1 is intuition. It is a hairy and unpredictable beast, but we all recognize it. System 2 is actually the harder to name because people so often mistake their intuitions for logical thought. Kahneman explains why this is the case—because our cognitive resources are limited our intuition often offers up simple questions as substitutes from more complicated ones—but we must still have a term that doesn’t suggest complete independence from intuition and that doesn’t imply deliberate thinking operates flawlessly, like a calculator. I propose cerebration. The cerebral cortex rests on a substrate of other complex neurological structures. It’s more developed in humans than in any other animal. And the way it rolls trippingly off the tongue is as eminently appropriate as the swish of intuition. Both terms work well as verbs too. You can intuit, or you can cerebrate. And when your intuition is working in integrated harmony with your cerebration you are likely in the state of flow Csikzentmihalyi pioneered the study of.

While Kahneman’s division of thought into two systems never really resolves into an intuitively manageable dynamic, something he does throughout the book, which I initially thought was silly, seems now a quite clever stroke of brilliance. Kahneman has no faith in our ability to clean up our thinking. He’s an expert on all the ways thinking goes awry, and even he catches himself making all the common mistakes time and again. In the introduction, he proposes a way around the impenetrable wall of cognitive illusion and self-justification. If all the people gossiping around the water cooler are well-versed in the language describing biases and heuristics and errors of intuition, we may all benefit because anticipating gossip can have a profound effect on behavior. No one wants to be spoken of as the fool.

Kahneman writes, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.” It’s not easy to tell from his straightforward prose, but I imagine him writing lines like that with a wry grin on his face. He goes on,

Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others. Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters. The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home. (3)

So we encourage the education of others to trick ourselves into trying to be smarter in their eyes. Toward that end, Kahneman ends each chapter with a list of sentences in quotation marks—lines you might overhear passing that water cooler if everyone where you work read his book.  I think he’s overly ambitious. At some point in the future, you may hear lines like “They’re counting on denominator neglect” (333) in a boardroom—where people are trying to impress colleagues and superiors—but I seriously doubt you’ll hear it in the break room. Really, what he’s hoping is that people will start talking more like behavioral economists. Though some undoubtedly will, Thinking, Fast and Slow probably won’t ever be as widely read as, say, Freud’s lurid pseudoscientific On the Interpretation of Dreams. That’s a tragedy.

Still, it’s pleasant to think about a group of friends and colleagues talking about something other than football and American Idol.

Characteristics of System 1 (105): Try to come up with a good metaphor.

·         generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions
·         operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control
·         can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when particular patterns are detected (search)
·         executes skilled responses and generates skilled intuitions, after adequate training
·         creates a coherent pattern of activated ideas in associative memory
·         links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance
·         distinguishes the surprising from the normal
·         infers and invents causes and intentions
·         neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
·         is biased to believe and confirm
·         exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
·         focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
·         generates a limited set of basic assessments
·         represents sets by norms and prototypes, does not integrate
·         matches intensities across scales (e.g., size and loudness)
·         computes more than intended (mental shotgun)
·         sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)
·         is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)
·         overweights low probabilities.
·         shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity (psychophysics)
·         responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
·         frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In Honor of Charles Dickens on the 200th Anniversary of His Birth

Dickens' writing desk. Image Courtesy of dickenslit.com


He wakes up every day and reads
most days only for a few minutes
before he has to work the fields.

He always plans to read more
before he goes to sleep but
the candlelight and exhaustion
put the plan neatly away.

He hates the reading,
wonders if he should find
something other than
Great Expectations.

But he doesn’t have
any other books,
and he thinks of reading
like he thinks of church.

And one Sunday after sleeping
through the sermon,
he comes home and picks up
his one book.

He finds his place
planning to read just
those few minutes
but goes on and on.

The line that gets him
is about how “our worst
weaknesses and meanness”
are “for the sake of” those
“we most despise.”

He reads it over and over
and then goes on intent
on making sense of the words
and finding that they make their own.

After a while he stops to consider
beginning the entire book again
feeling he’s missed too much
but he goes back to where he left off.

The next day in the field he puts
everything he sees into silent words
and that night he reads for the first time
before falling asleep.

The next day in the field he describes
to himself his feelings about his work
and later holds things in their places
with words as he moves around in time.

The words are the only constant,
as even their objects can shift
through his life, childhood,
senility, and through the life of the land.

He wants to write down his days on paper
because he believes if he does then he can
go anywhere, do anything, and yet still
there he’ll be.

It’s not that Dickens was right that got him,
but that he was wrong—
even Pip must’ve known his worst
wasn’t for anyone but Estella,
nor his best.

One day could stretch to a whole
book of bound pages like the one
in his hands, or it could start and finish
on just one.

He imagines writing right over
the grand typeset words of Dickens'
on page one, “Hard to believe,
I woke up, excited to read.
I wished I could keep reading all day.”

                                                Sunday, June 22, 2008, 11:43 am.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gracie - Invisible Fences

Invisible Fences

I hated Tony’s parents even more than I had before when I heard about the “invisible
fence” for Gracie.
They were altogether too strict, overly vigilant, intrusive in their son’s, my friend’s, life,
            and so unjustifiedly.
He and I were the shy ones, the bookish, artistic, sensitive ones—really both of us were
            conscientious to a fault.
What we needed was encouragement, always some sort of bolstering, but what Tony got
            was questioned and stifled.

And here was Gracie, a German shorthair, damn good dog, spirited, set to be broken by
            similarly unjustified treatment.
As dumb kids we of course had to sample the “mild shock” Gracie would receive should
            she venture too near the property line.
It seemed not so mild to me, a teenager, with big dreams, held back, I felt, by myriad
unnecessary qualities of myself—
qualities I must master, vanquish—and yet here were Tony’s parents, putting up still
            more arbitrary boundaries.

I could barely stand to hear about Gracie’s march of shameful submission, conditioning
            to a high-pitched warning.
She started whimpering and shaking, and looking up with plangent eyes at her merciless
or misguided master—
this by the second lap along the border of the yard, so she’d learn never to get shocked—
it was all “for her own good.”
The line infuriated me more than any lie I’d ever heard, as there was no question whose
convenience was really being served.

That first day after Gracie had been trained as directed, Tony and I were walking away
            from his house,
and I looked back, stopping, to see her longingly looking, desperately watching us leave
her, leaving me sighing.
I shook my head, frowned, subtly slumped, which maybe she saw, because just then a
change came over her.
She fell silent, her ears fell flat to her brown, bullet-shaped head, her body tensed as she
lifted herself from her haunches.

And then she shot forth her willowy, maculated body in long, determined strides, but
keeping low all the while,
as if somehow intuiting that the impending pain was simply a manifestation of her
master’s hand to be ducked under.
My mouth fell open in thrilled astonishment, and as she neared the buried line, I shouted,
            “Yeah Gracie! Come on!”
Tony likewise thrilled to the feat his old friend was about to perform, shouting alongside
me, “Come on girl! You can make it!”
About the time Gracie would have been heedlessly hearing the warning beep, my
excitement turned darker.
Simultaneous with the shock I barked, “Go Gracie! Fuck ‘em!” with a maniacal,
demoniacal, spitting abandon.
Without the slightest whimper Gracie broke through the boundary, ducked under the
blow, defying her master’s dictates.
“Yeah! Fuck ‘em!” I enjoined again, my head jolting, thrashing out the words, erupting
            with all the force of self-loathing.
If Tony had any apprehensions about hearing his parents so cursed he never voiced them
—was I really cursing them?
Gracie approached atremble, all frenzy from her jolting accomplishment and now met
by our wild acclaim and eager praise,
or not praise so much as gratitude, as she anxiously darted between and around us as if
disoriented, reeling, overwhelmed.
But Tony and I knew exactly what we had just witnessed, the toppling of guilt’s tyranny,
            a spirit’s willful, gasping escape.

Our deliverance lasted hours, while we idly ambled about and between neighborhoods,
casting spiteful glances
along the endless demarcations of land, owned, separated, displayed, individual
kingdoms, badges of well-lived,
well-governed lives—I wanted to tromp through all those manicured front lawns, my
            every step spreading pestilence
to the too-green grass we weren’t supposed to walk on lest it wear a trail, ruining the
pristine quality of ownership.

Our march of euphoric defiance inspired by Gracie’s coup de grace could only go on for
            so long, though—
we were newly free, but free to do what?—before we’d have to return home for a meal,
            shelter, electronic entertainment.
As the sun sank, I began to have the sense of squandered opportunity, dreading the end
            of my reprieve from invisible impediments.
Back toward Tony’s house we hesitantly made our way, but all the while I kept the image
            of Gracie’s escape fresh in mind.

My friend and I took up conversing as we neared the stretch of road by his house, ranging
            widely and irreverently—
our discourses having served as our sole escape up to then—in the tone and spirit of
seeing right through everything.
We were both halfway up Tony’s driveway before we noticed that Gracie was no longer
            keeping pace with us.
…She was turning tight circles in the street, whimpering, anxious, and seeing her, Tony
and I exchanged a look I’ll never forget.
Even after removing the device from Gracie’s neck, we still had to lift her, squirming
desperately, over the line to get her home.