Book Review-The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t (Predictions)

People make predictions all the time. They predict that their team will win the Super Bowl, or they’ll win the lottery. These predictions are based on little more than hope. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail- but Some Don’t seeks to set us on the right path to understanding what we can learn from data, what we can infer from data, and what we can’t. By looking at the power and weaknesses of statistics, including both using the wrong model and supplying bad data, we can see how statistics has the power to improve our lives through productive forecasts and predictions.

In this part of the two-part review, we’ll look at predictions.

Forecasts and Predictions

Sometimes in our rush to be amazed at something, we simplify the questions we ask. We fail to recognize that our brain has simplified the thing that we’re trying to sort out (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on substitution). In the case of looking into the future, what we really want is prediction, and what statistics gives us most frequently is a forecast. Forecasts necessarily have a certain amount of error and involve statistical relationships. Forecasts become predictions when they become specific and precise.

Each day when we look at the weather, what we want is a soothsayer to predict what the weather will be like. However, what they offer us is a forecast based on models that result in a chance of rain somewhere between zero and 100%. We look at economists and seek the answer about whether we’ll make more money next year – or not. We want to know whether a risky investment will be worth it. However, economists and meteorologists are subject to the same rules as any other statistician.

While it’s true that statistics can predict – as long as we’re using this in a general sense of the word – events that are to happen in the future, there must always be some level of uncertainty as to whether the event will happen – or not. Predictions are just an attempt to refine forecasts into specific, tangible probable outcomes. Sometimes that process is successful but often it is not.

Falsifiable by Prediction

Karl Popper suggested that every forecast should be falsifiable via prediction. To test a model, you needed to be able to make some sort of a prediction with it that then could be proven false. In this way, you could create a test to ensure that your model was accurate and useful. A model that doesn’t forecast appropriately and that you can’t make a prediction from doesn’t do much good.

Everything Regresses to the Mean

One thing about statistics is that it can tell you with relative authority things you want to know with less precision than is useful. Statisticians can forecast the economy but not predict whether you will get a raise or not. The Black Swan artfully points out the challenges of statistics and modeling when the sampling size is insufficient. Until you’ve seen a black swan, you’ve not sampled enough to make the statistical models work. Until you’ve sampled enough, the noise will dramatically pull your results askew.

With large sample sizes, everything regresses to the mean. We no longer see the outlier, even as something that is distinct and that does happen, rather it gets lost in the law of averages. Tragic events like 9/11 are never forecast using the wrong model. They’re not perceived as possible if they’re averaged into the data. It’s like the proverbial statistician drowning in a river that is, on average, only 3 feet deep – all the depth of the data was averaged out.

Right Model, Right Results

Perhaps the most difficult challenge when working with data is not the data collection process. Collecting data is tedious and needs to be done with meticulous attention to detail; however, it’s not necessarily imaginative, creative, or insightful. It’s the work that must be done to get to the magic moment when the right model is uncovered for working with data. Though statisticians have ways of evaluating different models for their ability to predict the data, they must see some inherent signal in the noise.

For a long time, we couldn’t find planets outside of our solar system. One day, someone identified a detection model – that is, they discovered a theory for the strange oscillations in the light frequency from distant stars. The theory proposed that super-massive planets in close orbit were causing the star to move. This created a Doppler effect with the light from the star causing what we perceived as light frequency oscillations. Consensus coalesced, and the scientific community agreed that this was indeed what was happening. We had found the first extra-solar planet. Almost immediately, we found nearly a dozen more.

These super-massive planets were hiding in the data we already had. We had already captured and recorded the data to indicate the presence of other planets, but we didn’t have a model to process the data that we had to allow us to understand it.

There were plenty of ideas, thoughts, theories, and models which were tried to explain the light variations, but it wasn’t until the consideration of a super-massive planet that we settled on a model that was right.

The Failure of Predictions

We got lucky finding extra-solar planets. The right idea at the right time. It was a good fit model. It wasn’t a specific prediction. With predictions, our luck is very, very poor. The old joke goes, “Economists have predicted nine of the last six recessions.” They predicted a recession where none happened. Earthquakes and other disastrous cataclysmic events are predicted with startling frequency. It seems that everyone has some prediction of something. Sometimes the predictions are harmless enough, like whose team will win the super bowl. Sometimes the consequences are much direr.


When you think in systems, delays are a very bad thing. Delays make it harder for the system to react to a change in circumstances. In the case of the SR-71 Blackbird, the delays in a mechanical system made engine unstarts a regular occurrence. Reduce the delay with electronic controls and the unstart problem is dramatically reduced. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more.) In the creation of vaccines, the delay is great. To scale up production and get enough doses for the country, it takes six months.

What makes the vaccination “game” worse is that vaccines are designed to target specific viral strains. If the virus mutates, the hard work of creating the vaccine may be wasted, as it may become ineffective at protecting against the new strain. Each year, the vaccine makers attempt to predict which variations of influenza will be the most challenging. They start cooking up batches of vaccines to combat the most virulent.

What happens, however, when you get noise in the identification of the influenza that will be the most impactful? From 1918 to 1920, swine flu afflicted roughly one-third of humanity and killed over 50 million. So when there was an apparent outbreak of a strain of it at Fort Dix, who can blame President Ford for encouraging the vaccine industry to create a vaccine for it and encouraging every American to do their part in preventing the spread of the disease by getting vaccinated – and hopefully increasing the herd immunity?

It turns out it was all a bad call. Issues with the vaccine caused Guillain–Barré disease in some. The virus strain turned out to not be that virulent. The noise at Fort Dix that had produced the scare wasn’t a result of the virus’s potential but was instead a result of environmental and cultural factors that allowed the disease to spread at Fort Dix but weren’t generalizable to the population.


A classic statistical way of modeling diseases is the SIR model, which is an acronym for susceptible, infected, and recovered. The assumption is made that everyone who is recovered is not susceptible again, and everyone has an equal level of susceptibility. This simplified model works relatively OK for measles, but fails to account for natural variations in susceptibility in humans. More importantly, the model fails to account for the connections that we have with each other. It fails to account for how we interact.

Another classic example of disease was cholera in London, but it didn’t seem to have any connections. There was no discernable pattern – that is, until John Snow discovered a connection in the Broad Street well and removed the pump handle. The disease slowly dissipated, as Snow had correctly identified the root cause. However, his job wasn’t easy, because people who were far away from the pump were getting sick. Those who weren’t close to the Broad Street pump had hidden connections. Sometimes they lived near the pump in the past and still used it for their main water source; in other cases, they had relatives close by. The problem with forecasting diseases is the hidden patterns that make it hard to see the root cause. To correctly forecast, we need to find and then use a correct model.

An Inconvenient Truth

It’s an inconvenient truth that, in the decade when An Inconvenient Truth was released, there was no substantial change in temperatures across the planet – in truth, there was an infinitesimal reduction in temperature from 2001 to 2011. However, Gore wasn’t the first to claim that there were problems. In 1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb. It was 1974 when Donella Meadows (who also wrote Thinking in Systems), Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows first published Limits to Growth. (It’s still on my reading list.) These books both sought to predict our future – one with which the authors were most concerned. Of course, population is increasing, but it’s far from a bomb, and we’ve not yet reached the feared limits to growth.

These predictions missed what Everett Rogers discovered when working with innovations. In
Diffusion of Innovations
, he talks about the breakdown of society created by the introduction of steel axe heads in aboriginal tribes in Australia. They missed the counter-balancing forces that cause us to avoid catastrophe. However, presenting a balanced and well-reasoned point of view isn’t sensational, and therefore doesn’t sell books, nor does it make TV exciting. The McLaughlin Group pundits’ forecasts about political elections are not at all well-reasoned, balanced, or even accurate – but that doesn’t stop people from tuning into what amounts to be a circus performance every week.

So the real inconvenient truth is that our predictions fail. That we overestimate, and we ignore competing forces that attempt to bring a system into balance. In fairness to Gore, the global temperature on a much longer trend seems to be climbing at 1.5 degrees centigrade per year. It’s just that there’s so much noise in the signal of temperatures that it’s hard to see – even over the course of a decade. We need to be concerned, but the sky isn’t falling.

Watching the Weather

If you want to find a prediction that’s guaranteed to be wrong, it’s got to be the weather. The oft quoted remark “What job can you be wrong most of the time and still keep your job?” refers to meteorologists. However, in truth, forecasts are substantially better than they were even a decade ago. They’ve done a startlingly good job of eliminating the problems with the mathematical models that generate weather forecasts. Increases in processing power has made it more possible to create more accurate and more precise forecasts. And they’re still frequently wrong. A wise weatherman goes outside and looks at the sky before going on air to share their predictions, because they know that the computer models can be wrong.

The problem isn’t the model. The problem isn’t our ability to model what will happen with the forces of nature. The problem is in our ability to measure precisely the inputs for the model and the inherent dynamic instability of the systems. It was Lorenz that first started the conversation about the butterfly effect. That is, a butterfly in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. That’s a mighty powerful butterfly – or the result of an inherently unstable and dynamic system. A very small change in input has a very large change in output.

As a quick aside, this is where the hash algorithms have their roots. We use hash algorithms to ensure that messages aren’t tampered with. They work by small changes in input resulting in large changes in the output.

The problem with predicting the weather, then, isn’t that we don’t know how to process the signal and arrive at the desired outcome. The problem is that we can’t get a precise enough signal to eliminate all the noise.

Overfitting and Underfitting

In attempts to find the models that perfectly describe the data, we run the risk of two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we can overfit the data and try to account for every variation in the dataset. Or we can look for mathematical purity and simplicity and ignore the outliers – this is “underfitting.”

“Overfitting” mistakes noise for signal. An attempt is made to account for the randomness of noise inside the signal we’re trying to process. The result is that our ultimate predictions try to copy the same randomness that we saw in our sample data. In other words, we’ve mistaken the noise for the signal and could not eliminate it.

Underfitting, on the opposite side of the coin, is the inability to distinguish the signal in the noise. That is, we ignore data that is real signal, because it looks like noise. In a quest for mathematical simplicity, we ignore data that is inconvenient.

Brené Brown speaks of her scientific approach to shame and vulnerability as grounded theory and the need to fit every single piece of data into the framework. (See The Gifts of Imperfection for more.) When I first read this, it stood in stark contrast to what I saw with scientists ignoring data that didn’t fit their model. It seems like too many scientists are willing to ignore the outliers, because their theory doesn’t explain it. In other words, most scientists, in my experience, tend to underfit the data. They are willing to allow data to slip through their fingers for the elegance of a simpler model. Brown and those who follow the grounded theory approach may be making the opposite error in overfitting their data.

Statistical Models

In the next part of this review, we’ll talk about models and statistics.

Book Review-A Spy’s Guide to Thinking

I never wanted to be a spy. Astronaut, yes. Spy, no. I’m not sure why. Spies are glamorized in the movies (unless it is Spies Like Us), but it wasn’t my thing. When the short book A Spy’s Guide to Thinking came across my path, I thought it was worth looking into. It’s a short book, a quick read, and more of an interesting aside than it is hard-hitting details about how spies think. Still, there are some interesting things from the book to consider.

Side of Paranoia

In my head, being a spy means being at least a little bit paranoid. You’ve got to be on guard for people discovering who you really are and your mission. While this wasn’t an acknowledged component, the book centered around one encounter on a subway – which had nothing to do with being a spy, but could provide insight to how a spy thinks. Generally, the word would be “paranoid.”

The entire encounter kept asking the question about whether the other person knew he was a spy was. Great. He’d rule out that the other person was a spy catcher and then retest that observation over and over again. I suppose that is what makes a good spy. They’re paranoid.

Observe, Orient, Decision, Action

Throughout the book, our spy did a loop: observe (data), orient (analysis), decision, and finally, action. The origin of this loop is John Boyd. He talked about how the most successful pilots can run the loop quicker than their peers. It’s not smarter that matters, it’s quicker through the loops.

Whether you use the word “observe” or “data,” “orient” or “analysis,” the result is the same. You observe the situation, assess or orient to the data you have, and then make a decision and act upon it. The loop – the slightly paranoid loop – was running frighteningly fast.

Zero, Positive, Negative

There are only three types of games we can play. Those that are net positive, those that are net negative, and those that are zero-sum. When we play a net positive game, more is created – it may not be evenly distributed, but more is created through the game. In zero-sum games, one person may win, but the other person loses by the same amount. In net negative games, someone always loses something.

It’s interesting to view life through the lens of a spy, always wondering who knows what. A Spy’s Guide to Thinking really does get you thinking – about whether you could be a spy or not.

Book Review-The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

It was years ago. I was working on a billing system. It was designed to bill based on the amount of time used. It billed in six second increments – 10ths of a minute. It was late, and I noticed something odd. There was a bit of math, but it didn’t add up – or rather it added up a bit too much. It’s typical to have to adjust mathematical errors in code. If someone started and ended in the same tick, you charge them for not zero ticks, as end minus start would imply if they’re the same. Instead, you add one to the math equation to say that there was non-zero utilization. However, the code was written in a way that added this adjustment in twice. As a result, the billing was always two tenths of a minute at minimum.

The problem wasn’t discovering the error, it was the comment that prohibited developers from fixing the bug and an instruction to speak with the manager if there were questions. The double addition could have been an accidental mistake. I remember the math being broken into two places and the correction made in both places. However, the note made it clear that the bug was a known bug. One that was charging people for an extra six seconds for every call. It wasn’t much per transaction. Maybe a few pennies. However, as the story line of Office Space can attest, those pennies add up.

This subtle math “error” is the kind of thing that we encounter all the time, and it’s the subject of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. It’s not about the radical changes in direction that are placed outside our conscious view, but rather the subtle tilting of the scales by placing a finger or two on the final outcome. It’s fundamentally about System 1 lying to System 2, to use Khaneman’s language from Thinking: Fast, and Slow.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Brain

We think that we’re in control. We’re wrong. Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis describes the Elephant-Rider-Path model (which is also covered in Switch). It clearly illustrates that a big elephant (or emotions, System 1, Lizard-brain, or whatever you want to call it) is in charge. The rider gets the illusion of being in control so long as the elephant allows it. Incognito demonstrates through visual illusions and thoughtful stories how much we fool ourselves. It’s spooky how much we believe we understand reality and how much our mind plays tricks on us.

Paul Ekman would undoubtedly, at the very least, have concern about saying that our hidden brain (again, System 1, or whatever you want to call it) lies to our rational brain. In Telling Lies, he clarifies that the liar needs to know that he’s lying. In fact, the stress that lying produces because people know it’s not true is how the polygraph works. (Ekman is perhaps best known for his work in detecting lies or, more accurately, emotions through monitoring involuntary facial muscle movement. You can learn more about his life in Nonverbal Messages.) However, our hidden brain keeps taking shortcuts, tilting the scales, and not letting us in that it’s doing it. It’s lying to us – even if we aren’t conscious of it.

Rules of Thumb

In general, heuristics are great. Heuristics are simplifications. They’re “rules of thumb” that you can use to make complicated things simple enough to be understood. Our brains are great at creating them. It’s hardwired into us to find associations and correlations to see if we can simplify the world. If there were no heuristics, there would be no comedy, as comedy and jokes use heuristics to create the wrong impression. (See Inside Jokes for more on how comedy uses heuristics.) The problem isn’t in using heuristics; they’re a great tool to allow us to comprehend the world around us. The problem is when we use a heuristic that doesn’t apply, or the heuristic hides a bias.

I’m biased to people with straight hair compared to curly– at least, that’s what the Implicit Association Test says. (It’s available at if you want to take it for a spin.) How strong is the bias? I don’t know. The test doesn’t say. It simply says a bias exists. If I were to be interviewing two people for a job, I’d have an ever so small bias to the person with straight hair. I’d be applying a heuristic bias that I like straight-haired people more – and I wouldn’t know I was doing it.

Pervasive Biases

I’m not alone in being biased. You are too. Perhaps not in the same ways, but biased. Consider the work of Dr. Clark who gave white children two different dolls – one of a light skin and one of darker skin – and the children called the dark-skinned doll “dirty” and “bad.” It seems like a clear-cut case of racism. That is, until you realize that the black children he tested next had the same general response. It wasn’t racism per se. It was a generalized bias that permeated culture. It’s wrong, I agree. However, to call it racism would be calling black children racist against their own race. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more on these tests.)

On a much lighter note, waitresses who subtly mimicked their customers tended to get larger tips – 140% larger tips. We have a bias towards people that “get us.” We want to be understood, and those that understand us are more valuable to us – both in general and, apparently, monetarily as well. The subtle act of mimicry is interpreted by the hidden brain as understanding and is valued – even if we aren’t informed that the bias is happening.

Competitive or Complementary

Gottman predicted divorce rates at 91% accuracy by watching a short fight. (See The Science of Trust for more.) This was impressive to say the least. He identified factors that he believed signaled intimacy longevity and those that drove couples away from one another. (See Intimacy Anorexia and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy.) However, Abraham Tesser found something else that is different and intriguing. Tesser found that people find joy in others’ success – unless their success was in the same area as they were seeking success. In those areas, if their partner or close friend was successful, they became jealous. Couples that who weren’t emotionally close allowed success in a common field to become the wedge that drove them apart. However, emotionally close couples instinctively found complementary ways of dividing up their tasks.

In essence, they found a way to convert competition into cooperation. Richard Hackman is clear about how to build collaborative teams in Collaborative Intelligence. He explains that systems that create a competitive spirit within the team are corrosive to collaboration. It seems like emotionally close couples sense this and unconsciously move into complementary positions, where they could stay a part of a well-functioning team. Instead of a wedge, it becomes a binding that makes them more dependent upon one another.

Talk is Cheap

William Wundt started a branch of psychology that relied on introspection. The behaviorists, led by B.F. Skinner, didn’t like it, because it couldn’t be objectively measured. Even Wundt’s successor William James struggled with introspection not because it couldn’t be objectively measured – that is, it couldn’t be observed. James’ struggle was that one could not hope to be without bias for thoughts and feelings occurring inside themselves.

This is the basis of the hidden brain. Much of what happens in our brains isn’t accessible to our consciousness. Even if it was, it would be distorted to protect our ego. (See Change or Die for more on The Ego and Its Defenses.) We can’t directly access our hidden brain through reflection or introspection. We’ve got to get to it another way.

Recently, we’ve begun to discover planets in solar systems other than our own. We’re discovering them not because we can see them. We can only see the effect that they’re having on their stars. Super massive planets in close orbit to their stars cause the star to wobble. This wobble is discovered in a slight shifting of the light spectrum from the star in a repeatable pattern – the Doppler effect on a stellar scale. We can find planets, but only by looking for them indirectly.

We find our hidden beliefs by looking at our self-talk and using tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to change that self-talk. We don’t change the hidden brain directly, but rather we train the rider how to better control and regulate the elephant in certain conditions. In general, CBT has been found to be effective. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more on CBT and efficacy.)

Kids Say the Darndest Things

One of Art Linkletter’s gifts to culture is a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” That is, they respond in a “cute” way. Sometimes they didn’t understand the question as an adult would. Sometimes they answered in an honest way that an adult never would. Young children and adults are both guided by the hidden brain, and both have the same biases. The difference is that children will say what their hidden brain thinks where adults have learned to restrain their responses. Responses that in children are “cute” would be appalling from an adult. Often the answers are true – but uncomfortable.

There are plenty of examples of celebrities becoming overwhelmed and saying inappropriate things. There’s even a line of commercials from Snickers talking about people who need a snack. They’ve become other people due to their hunger. Researchers have found that much of this isn’t hunger but low blood sugar. They’ve we able to reduce apparent adult prejudice by simply giving them more sugar.

Carried by Currents

Instinctively, we wait. We wait for some sort of consensus to form. The fire alarm may be ringing. The air raid or tornado siren may be blaring. The overhead announcement may be confirming that we need to evacuate the building. Rather than moving immediately, we’ll instinctively pause, survey the group, and attempt to determine what the consensus is before acting. The larger the group, the longer the delay to reach some semblance of consensus – and the more likely we are to have a problem.

We all think that we’re independently protecting our own self-interests when, in reality, we’re waiting on the herd to move so we can keep from being singled out. Even in non-emergency situations, we by default will go with the flow. We’ll assume that our decisions are ours alone; but if you’re always going with the group, how can you be sure that you’re really making your own decisions? If you’re always swimming with the current, you’ll believe that you’re a better swimmer than you are.

Good Samaritans

The good Samaritan story is relatively well known. A stranger, a Samaritan, saves a man on the road by taking him to an inn and agreeing to pay the fee for keeping them there. (I spoke of this in Book Revisited-Theory U, Organizational Traps, and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.) The funny thing is that the research shows you’re better off having one Samaritan come by rather than two. It turns out people are more willing to help out when they’re the only one. Whether it’s picking up pencils or something more serious, the more people there are, the lower the expectation of individual intervention.

Similarly, giving to support a single person is easy. Giving to a cause that would save dozens is harder. Somehow our compassion is easily overwhelmed by a dozen when helping one seems easy. It’s almost as if there’s an internal governor that wants to make sure that our efforts are enough to save a “reasonable” portion of the total. If we can’t get to the belief that we’ll make a substantial difference, we’ll do nothing.

Psycho Suicide Bombers

We assume that anyone that is willing to be a suicide bomber must be mentally unstable. How else could we explain their strange and unthinkable behavior? The answer is that they’re living in an alternative universe of their making. They interact with people who focus them in a direction and they’re teleported along a path until their beliefs and behaviors seem unthinkable to the general public.

It doesn’t take religion to perform this conversion. It doesn’t take mental illness. All it takes to create a suicide warrior is to separate them from the rest of reality and slowly move them to a new reality. Terrorists aren’t recruited by terrorist groups. They volunteer because their ideas have become so distorted that the terrorist group seems like the best option.

Groups of people get together and insulate themselves from the outside world while creating a tight mesh of their reality. The band of brothers is formed through shared experiences. One man marries the sister of his good friend. This happens over and over again until the network of people mostly interacts with itself and not with the outside world – the “real” world. Progressively, their attitudes adjust in ways that don’t make sense to most of us.

In the case of suicide bombers, they come to believe that they’re part of something, that their life will have meaning, that they’ll make a difference. While the terrorists rarely come from humiliation itself, they often empathize with persecuted groups and want to make their humiliation and pain go away. They see their role as minimizing or eliminating those inhumanities.

Don’t Drink the Grape Kool-Aid

Certainly, cults show the same tunnel behavior and cut off ties to the outside world. One tragic example is The People’s Temple religious group, whose leader, Jim Jones, warped reality such that parents killed their children and themselves with cyanide-laced grape-flavored Kool Aid, because they believed that they were going to be captured and tortured. Their struggle was over.

They’re not alone. The Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves March 25th, 1997 believing that they would be picked up by an alien space ship following the Hale-Bopp comet. Most of us believe that this is an odd way to get aboard a space ship, but the shaping of their belief system was so complete that 39 members of the cult followed orders and killed themselves.

Assault on Ourselves

Too often, our hidden brain ignores the statistics, the logic, and the rational in its pursuit of simplicity. Too often, we do things that statistically make no sense. We’ll drive instead of fly, because we perceive it to be safer when it, in actuality, is much less safe. We purchase guns to defend ourselves when the statistics say that our risk of death is much higher when we have guns in the house. It turns out suicide is a much bigger problem than murder – but our hidden brains are assuaged.

We continue to march on, following the orders of our hidden brain. Perhaps if we learn more about The Hidden Brain, we’ll be able to make better decisions both morally and logically.

Book Review-Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius

Somewhere deep in the recesses of our mind are the recesses from our grade school. Buried by decades of cruft, these memories and others call us back to the state that we had back then when we knew we were creative. It’s a time that we knew we were creative, before we got tied up with how others view us and before the need to be productive and rational. This is the place of Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius.

Claude Baudelaire wrote once, “Genius is the capacity to retrieve childhood at will.” Perhaps that’s why it’s no wonder that Einstein considered his genius the result of remaining childlike into his adult life.

Information Processing

Children learn differently than adults. That’s the primary premise of The Adult Learner. It’s not just that adults have more complex mental models (see The Art of Explanation), adults fundamentally learn differently. The neurology of our brain has changed, and we’re not forming the number of new neural connections that we did as a child. However, more importantly, we’ve developed a usefulness filter for what we learn.

Somewhere along the line, we got exposed to so much information that a switch flipped, and we started filtering what we learned. (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more on the information overload world we live in today.) The switch that flipped made us more discerning consumers of information. Instead of learning everything, we learned that there were things that we didn’t need to know. We didn’t need to know the number of atoms in a liter of gas at standard pressure. We’d look it up when we needed it – or, in today’s terms, we’d just google it.

So, quite literally, we filter everything coming into our brain for awareness – to fight information overload – and for retention to see if we need to reserve precious brain space for the information, or if we can look up the information again when we need it next. That’s different than what we did as children when everything was interesting.

I can remember playing with paper clips and rubber bands just to see how they work – well, in truth, just to be fiddling with something. It’s been a long time since those days. Now, it seems like everything that I’m working on has some productive or at least semi-productive reason for being.


Too many people have books which are screaming to get out. Too many people want to be more than they are today. Edgar Lee Masters, a poet, laments, “Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances. Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.” (See Start with Why and How Will You Measure Your Life? for more on finding purpose.) The problem with ambition, with the desire to be greater, is that, if you try, you’ll know for sure if you can make it – or not.

In How to Be Yourself, I shared the awareness that it’s easier to project a false image than to be real. Being real means that when you’re rejected you’re really rejected. Ambition is the same thing. You don’t have to face your ego if you don’t try. Try and fail, and there’s a reconciliation that must happen with the ego to figure out why you didn’t achieve your goals. But if you don’t try, there’s no hard conversations to have with yourself. (See Change or Die for more on your ego.)

Masters concludes, “To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness, but life without meaning is the torture of restlessness and vague desire – it is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

Corporate Creativity

There’s a crisis in boardrooms across the country. The crisis isn’t capital. The crisis isn’t communication. The crisis is creativity. Following the rules, being in fear of the next layoff has driven creativity out of the corporate culture, and it may be exactly the thing that organizations need to survive. (See Drivers for Conformity and Originality for more.)

IBM chief executives found that they believed the critical activities for the future included taking balanced risks, considering unheard-of ways, comfort with ambiguity, courage, and different assumptions. These skills are the heart of creativity, and they’re missing.

Creativity springs from safety, as Creative Confidence
compellingly explains. The rounds of cutbacks. The layoffs and restructurings in corporate America have left employees shell-shocked in their own form of post-traumatic stress disorder that has them walking from meeting to meeting like zombies awaiting the zombie apocalypse.

Creating Creativity

Beyond creating safety to try and fail, there are other tools that you can use to encourage creativity. If you’re willing to do the things that you least like to do – in service of important goals or responsibilities – you’ll put your brain on tilt and typically generate unique ideas.

Originals explains that it’s quantity that produces quality. That the best works of artists have come in the periods of their greatest productivity. We can get more creativity by creating more opportunities to produce – without pressing so hard that there is stress on the deadline.

Creativity comes from curiosity. It comes from “can I do that?”, “how did they do that?”, and “what’s making that happen?” If you can instill a sense of curiosity in yourself, you’ll find that you’ve recaptured a bit of your childhood and have opened the door to creativity.


Standing strong against the winds of conformity requires strength. It’s a strength of character that’s rare. When confronted with someone who exhibits character, most people generate respect for that person – even when that person has diametrically opposing views. You can appreciate the conviction of someone’s beliefs whether you agree or not. In fact, this respect is the way that things used to be done.

Before the digital age, when we’re fascinated with the latest tweet about a ham sandwich, the latest Instagram picture of the ham sandwich, and the Facebook post about how you had a ham sandwich two years ago, we used to watch behaviors over a long time. We’d see how people acted when people weren’t watching and use this to judge their character. Now we can see people become popular because of one post. We don’t assume that people aren’t watching, because we know they always are.

We used to have to have conviction to develop a reputation. Today, it is all too easy to manipulate the news stream to capitalize on a meme, someone else’s post, or some passing fad. We don’t build respect that same way that we used to.

The people that we used to learn to respect had one thing on their heart. It was something that they cared deeply for and for which they were willing to toil and sacrifice for. No more.

Lines of Varying Lengths

It was Solomon Asch who was curious about conformity and why people would give up their perceptions for the perceptions of others. In an ingenious experiment, he filled a room with test subjects and collaborators. When the collaborators answered truthfully about the length of line that matched the length of line they were still seeing as a reference, the subjects answered truthfully. As he added collaborators that spoke the wrong answer, he found that his subjects would report the wrong answer like the others had given. This progressed from some of the time to over 75 percent conformity at least once with three collaborators or more answering incorrectly.

It wasn’t that the subjects couldn’t literally see the right answer. It was that they literally couldn’t see the right answer. That is, visually, they saw the same information as before, but the image in their mind’s eye was manipulated to match what the collaborators had said. (See Incognito for more about our mind’s eye.)

Closing in on Creativity

I have no way of knowing what is blocking your creativity. For me, I know there’s a part of it that’s the logical sequential thinking that was the start of my career as a developer. Allowing free thinking isn’t always easy for me. Being unproductive feels like a waste. However, sometimes I need to Unthink. Maybe you do too.

Book Review-Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

It was 7th grade. My science teacher wasn’t interested in science. It was where he got assigned to teach. It was his first year. He would read a chapter or two ahead of the class so that he could teach us. He was a good man but was in a bad spot. One day, he was teaching about how heat was an invisible liquid. I – quite untactfully – told him he was wrong. I told him what I knew that heat was the kinetic energy of molecules bumping into one another. He responded well, but honestly, what can you do when you’re embarrassed in front of the class?

Well, in this case, you offer the student the opportunity to play with radioactive materials in the teacher’s work area in the science department. You hand them a Geiger counter and say, “Go have fun.” The radioactive materials were very low-grade materials (as one would expect in a junior high school) so I wasn’t in any danger. However, I didn’t forget the lessons I learned from that teacher. I learned that learning was fun. It was more fun than I knew to that point.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World isn’t about the people who get sent out of the class by their teachers. It’s about how people decide to be original and why the “originals” are so desperately needed.

Conformity and Originality

There are, according to Grant, two paths to achievement. The first is conformity, and the second is originality. Conformity is the easy way. We’re wired with the need for social connection. We’re wired for conformity. Being different – being original – is risky. If you were original, you ran the risk of being run out of the community; historically, that was a death sentence. As much as we would like to believe that we’re independent today, as humans we’ve always been social – and we continue to need that social connection.

Changing Systems

Steve Jobs came back to Apple to save the organization he started from the failure of his NeXT project, which wasn’t exactly a roaring success. The campaign that he and his team created to revitalize the company was “Think Different.” That’s what originals do: they think different. But there’s more to it than that. A reasonable man recognizes that his views are incompatible with the world and changes them. An original sees that the world is incompatible with his views and sets out to change the world. Jobs described this as putting his “ding” on the universe.

Originals realize that the world is a series of systems, and if you can find the right lever, you can move the world. This is a reference to Archimedes, who said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Originals look for the systems in things – beyond the mechanical world as Archimedes understood it – and seek to make the right changes in the system to get the resulting changes they want. (See Thinking in Systems for how systems work.)

Vuja De

There’s a running joke around my house that my neighborhood has the fastest home builders. On our walks, my wife is constantly talking about all the new houses that are being built in the neighborhood. Ours is an established neighborhood that finished any meaningful construction over 40 years ago. However, as we’re walking and talking and exploring new ideas, she’s seeing the neighborhood with new eyes and seeing houses differently. These “new” houses aren’t new construction but are a new construction – or awareness – in her mind. She’s literally seeing the same things differently.

We’ve all heard of déjà vu, where we experience something like it happened before; but originals experience “vuja de,” where they experience the same thing differently. It might be a walk in the park, a warm cup of coffee, a Monday morning staff meeting, or some other mundane, trivial experience that we all have. However, they experience it differently.

Bearer of Risk

I’ve been in business (this time around) for over a dozen years. By now, it’s become just what I do. It’s the only world I’ve known for most of my career. Frequently, when I talk to someone, particularly someone in a large corporate job, they say, “I could never do that. There’s too much risk.” I get a similar response when I explain that I took a standup comedy course. (See I Am a Comedian.) The thing is, I don’t perceive my world to be particularly risky.

The word “entrepreneur” was coined by economist Richard Cantillon. It literally means “bearer of risk.” An entrepreneur literally bears the risk for some endeavor. The degree to which they and others, like investors, bear the risk may be up for debate, but inherently entrepreneurs bear risk.

The funny thing is that all the entrepreneurs I know are risk-avoidant. They’ve got it coming out their ears and they’re sick of it. The guys and gals I know work very hard to systematically reduce, eliminate, and mitigate risk. Entrepreneurs may be the bearers of risk, but they’re willing to get rid of it at a moment’s notice if they can.

Idea Selection

There’s a popular myth that original people, or creative people, have better ideas. I’d say that this is false. What originals have is more ideas, or, more properly, they have more ideas they allow to flow and be shared. Originals don’t self-censor themselves out of the ideas in their head. They share them, adapt them, and build upon them.

Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc., shares how at Pixar all movies suck to start. It’s not that the mastery of Toy Story comes fully-formed out of the mental womb. The process that Pixar uses is designed to refine and improve the story until it’s good. Other organizations employ filtering mechanisms to reduce the abundance of good ideas into a set that can be considered for implementation.

Truly original people can have a dozen ideas that they share while sitting at breakfast. Two things separate the successful entrepreneur original from the rest. First, they let the ideas flow. Second, they select the few best ideas and they execute on them.

Entrenched in Our Ideas

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, explains the Stockdale paradox. It is unwavering faith and the willingness to listen. On the one hand, remaining committed to the original idea; on the other hand, being aware of the absolute need for other people’s perspectives, so that we can inform our direction and our actions.

The problem with all of us is that, as we become experts, we build schemas in our minds – mental models – of how the world works. (See The Art of Explanation for more on our schemas.) More experience means a richer model. The problem is that our models are necessarily incomplete and in some places incorrect. However, the more time that we spend building our model of how the world works, the less likely we are to change it.

Whether it’s the model that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the world is flat, or something more mundane, our view of the world can make it hard to see it as it really is. It means that experts have a hard time contributing anything new to their disciplines after the first few years. Einstein said that if someone hadn’t contributed to science by the age of 30, they never will. While this is potentially outdated and over stated, the point remains that it’s very difficult to shake up the establishment when you are a part of it.

Playing the Portfolio

How do originals avoid the risk and avoid getting entrenched in ideas? The answer is that they intentionally pull in ideas from multiple disciplines. Edison brought in experts in gas lighting, metallurgy, and dozens of other areas of expertise to create his light bulb. He wanted this diversity of thought both externally in the case of experts, but also internally as he sought to build expertise in multiple domains.

By building expertise in multiple domains, he could allow the mental models of the established professions to gently – and sometimes violently – collide and disrupt the idea that there was one right way of viewing the world.

Originals frequently put down multiple bets on the table to spread their risk around.

Playing the Field

Imagine for a moment a roulette wheel like none you’ll ever find in Las Vegas. A roulette wheel can have 38 positions that the ball can fall into (in the US). What if you were guaranteed to get a 70:1 return on your bets? The problem is you can only bet on 10 positions at a time. What would you do?

A typical safe-bet-type person wouldn’t play. They’d look at their odds and say, “I have only a 10:38 (or 1:3.8) chance of winning – those aren’t good odds. I don’t want to risk it.” An original says, “As long as I’m willing to stay at the table for six or eight turns, I’ll come out ahead – way ahead.” The odds are substantially in their favor that, over the long run, they’ll more than double their money. An entrepreneur makes the 10 bets each time. For each square, they place 1:60th of what they’re willing to lose.

Odds are that, within the first four games, they’ll have received their payout. Entrepreneurs use this to change how much they bet.

Pitch Imperfect

Colonel Sanders, the founder and icon of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is said to have heard “no” to his pitch for a chicken franchise 1,009 times before he heard a “yes.” He is said to have pitched his chicken restaurant franchising concept more than 1,000 times before he got the pitch right. (See Pitch Anything if you want more to learn more about pitching.) What did he learn the first thousand times? Like Edison, he learned what didn’t work. Through purposeful practice and deliberate attempts, he eventually found an approach that worked. (See Peak for more on deliberate practice.)

Colonel Sanders was an original not in his idea of franchising. He wasn’t an original in his spices – though they were original. He was an original because he was willing to work hard to execute on his one idea.


In general, procrastination is viewed negatively. We believe that “the early bird gets the worm” and other clichés that have been around since Ben Franklin’s time. However, what if procrastination had a purpose? There is anecdotal evidence and research that, in some cases, procrastination may be a better option if you’re looking for creativity.

It’s important to point out that it’s a specific kind of procrastination. It’s procrastination which is not trying to force a solution before it’s right. It’s starting to process the work to be done and allowing the fact that your solution is incomplete to trigger the Zeigarnik effect. That is, things that are left incomplete and undone have a greater impact in our brains. Our subconscious continues to mull over the problem looking for a solution, even while our conscious processing is otherwise occupied. Our subconscious looks for that bit of dopamine we’ll get when we solve the puzzle.

The Secret to Success is Timing

The argument could be made that Colonel Sanders didn’t improve his pitch. The argument could be made that it was just the right time. When you accept that life isn’t deterministic but is instead probabilistic, as explained in The Halo Effect, you consider that sometimes there’s just a right time for things. You throw the dice and hope for the right results, sure. However, you’ve also got to wonder whether some of what’s happening is just based on timing.

Many of the entrepreneurs I know will admit to a degree of luck and probabilistic determination that allowed them to succeed. A few more recognize that there are times when ideas will work and when they won’t. For instance, when gas prices are low, we can consider transportation optimization solutions. Organizations in general have available funds to make investments. However, the oil and gas industry shuts down all elective projects, because they don’t have the available capital to invest in optimizations.

Friends and Frenemies

We may have been told to keep our friends close and our enemies closer, but what happens when you can’t tell one from the other? The research points to increased anxiety. When our friends seem to randomly betray us, the result is stress. If we know someone is not to be trusted, that’s easy. We may not like it, but we understand where we stand. However, when someone acts like Brutus and stabs us in the back while pretending to be our friend, our anxieties are raised.

If we want to lower the stress in our world, it is through escaping (or jettisoning) the so-called “friends” who can’t consistently be real with us by supporting us when appropriate and challenging us appropriately when necessary.

The Gilded Frame

When trying to get buy-in for an original idea, sometimes the direct approach is not the best approach. (See Buy-In for more ideas on how to get buy in for your ideas.) Sometimes we need to package our idea in a way that helps others see that achieving our goals is a way of achieving theirs. People are more likely to support us when they believe that it serves their own needs and values.

Sometimes our ideas are so “out there” that we must create a bridge from where we want to go to where people are now. That bridge can be their goals; it can also be moderating the original idea to the point where it becomes more palatable with the expectation that we’ll be able to reveal more of the idea as things happen. This makes the “crazy” original idea easier to accept and allows people to start walking the path to understand where things should lead – not just how different and scary the world might look.

The Logic of Appropriateness

If one were to use the logic of consequences, no one would ever do anything original. It’s simple. Conformity isn’t risky. Originality is. Conformity is the only choice if you’re evaluating from the lens of consequences. However, that is not the only perspective. Another perspective that breathes life into those who would be called “original” is the lens of appropriateness. From this perspective, we have the option of looking not at the risk of the situation but the need for impact, the need to change the world to make it more appropriate.

Originals look for appropriateness over consequence. They choose to stand out and stand up when it’s appropriate (and necessary) to make the world a better place.

Order of Originality

Just as age impacts our beliefs over time, so to do things like birth order. If you want to make someone care more about relationships, tell them they have only a few years to live, either through a specific communication like the diagnosis of a mortal illness or through the constant subtle reminder of their age. The result is a greater emphasis on relationships and a deemphasis on things. That isn’t to say that the natural biases built up over a lifetime are wiped from the slate, it’s just that a bias is introduced.

So, too, can birth order subtly shift perceptions and lead towards, but not to, different outcomes. Later in birth order, children grow up with fewer rules than their older siblings. In fact, it may be that older siblings are providing some of the child-rearing and in doing so tend to be more lenient.

The impact of these differences in their upbringing seems to be that they are more original. It seems that children who are later in the birth sequence tend to be more original than their older siblings. It’s not that all first-born children are not original or that all later-in-birth-sequence children are original, it’s just that they trend in that direction.

Character Praise, Skill Praise

Carol Dweck’s work on mindset cautions us about instilling a fixed mindset into our children by complementing them for their achievements. (See Mindset for more.) However, the growth mindset that we seek to instill is primarily focused on the ability to help children know that their results can be changed with hard work, and that it’s not some inherent capability that they can’t change.

However, there are some places where introducing some fixed qualities around character can be valuable. Even Dweck recommends praising children for their hard work. This is really to say that we’re praising the child’s character by saying they’re a hard worker. We can similarly praise their courage in being a non-conformist. We can encourage their honor by recognizing their honorable actions and pointing to their character.

Establishing a high moral bar takes advantage of the fact that children tend to rise to the level to which they’ve been labeled. If they’re labeled as a good student, they live that label until they’re challenged. If they’re labeled as a hard worker, they can carry that forward forever.

Cohesion, Collaboration, and Conformity

Richard Hackman talks about challenging intelligence community-based collaboration in Collaborative Intelligence. He speaks of the need for teams to be cohesive and have direction and a level of permeability. He suggests that there needs to be the right level of discomfort in the group coupled with a great deal of trust and respect.

There has been some discussion about how close a group should get with one another for the risk that Irving Janis’ groupthink would show up – however, Hackman doesn’t see it this way. He sees the need for diversity of thought, and that a group would eventually start to think alike not because they got too friendly, but because they had the same experiences.

The idea that groups can become too collegial and unwilling to push back on each other has been refuted, but it’s important to recognize that Hackman’s suggestion for regular small changes to bring in fresh perspectives is important.

Thoughtful Disagreements

“The greatest tragedy of mankind,” says Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, “is the inability for people to have thoughtful disagreements about what’s true.” I’d encourage you to pick up Originals and develop a disagreement about what’s true.

Book Review-The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload – Facebook Friends

In the first part of the review of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, I addressed the direct impact of information overload (it’s here). However, there were many lose ends in the book as it pertains to relationships and how we live with others that bears addressing. We’re not isolated individuals living in bubbles that never intersect. We’re social creatures, and information overload is changing how we relate.

Friends and Facebook Friends

I’ve spoken before about friends. I’ve spoken of the analysis of friends in my review of Analyzing the Social Web, of how technology changes our friendships in my review of Alone Together, and of Robin Dunbar’s work on mapping the need for social connections in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving to name just a few places. Friendship has a fuzzy boundary. What differentiates an acquaintance from a friend from a Facebook friend?

Reason, Season, or a Lifetime

The answer is more contextual and nuanced than we might like to believe. It has been said that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.

Most of us can speak fondly of ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends not because of a lingering longing for them, but because we are acutely aware of how they helped us grow, change, and become better people. In short, they were in our lives for a reason.

All of us can share stories of friends that we had in elementary school who we’re no longer in touch with. In fact, this is the natural state. We’ve culled them from our current friend roster not because we don’t value the bond we had, but simply because our lives have been pulled apart. For some of these friends, we could resume where we left off if they were to suddenly move back into our lives – and for some, we wouldn’t.

There are a few friendships that have stood the test of time that we can truly say are with us for a lifetime. We’ve got old teachers and elementary friends that, though we may not speak with daily, still remain active in the roster of people we would call “friends.”


As I explained in The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, even our “enemies” become our friends with shared history. We find the nostalgia of our shared past a way to connect, and in doing so, we make friends of the very people that we would have never associated with.

Friendships, then, aren’t about some single vision of what a friend should be, but are instead a rough understanding of people who have a concern for us. The degree to which they share a concern for our well-being and our assessment of this fact mediates the veracity with which we’ll claim they are a friend.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty is the sonnet “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus, as a part of the effort to raise money for the pedestal for the statue. The second stanza is:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In determining friendship, we consider how far away from others we are, how far from home we are, and how tired and poor we are. The more alone we feel, the more disconnected, the more likely we are to call someone a friend. We don’t hold one standard for what defines a friend, we have a vague sense of this permeable group. The closest we can get to criteria seems to be intimacy.


Ideally, friends are people with whom you can share a level of intimacy. However, intimacy doesn’t mean the same thing it used to – and doesn’t mean the same things that it means in other cultures. Remember that, historically, we’ve spent 99% of our time as Homo sapiens scraping just to get by. It’s been in the last 1% of our time on the planet that we’ve heard the language from the declaration of independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The idea that we had the opportunity to pursue liberty or happiness was a new discovery in the 18th century. (See The Righteous Mind for more about liberty as a moral foundation.)

Happiness, which is the focus of great attention, wasn’t something that most folks aspired to. They were happy with survival. They couldn’t think of what it would be like to be happy. Perhaps that’s why intimacy wasn’t the same thing that it is now. We know that “the presence of a satisfying intimate relationship is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and emotional well-being that has ever been measured.” If intimacy leads to happiness and we had no ability to get to happiness, it’s no wonder that intimacy was different – and is still different in some cultures.

Personally, I believe that intimacy makes more a difference to my life than anything else. I cherish my close friendships and my relationship with my wife and our children. (See Intimacy Anorexia for more on what it means to not have intimacy and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy on how to develop it.)

Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

While there’s room for argument, the most powerful advancement in the whole of human history is the concept of time. It is connected to everything we do – though quite covertly. Consider Sapolsky’s work, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which describes our ability to simulate potential future events as the root of our challenges with sustained stress. We all have our own perspectives on time, as The Time Paradox explains. The Rise of Superman explains how flow shuts down parts of our brain, disrupting our sense of time. Time may be the singularly most powerful advancement of humans.

Over the years, we’ve refined time. Railroad accidents caused us to reach a more precise sense of time. We realized that having each local community establishing “time” wasn’t going to work, so we unified our sense of time. We’ve further refined time to allow us to position ourselves anywhere on the earth. At the heart of the GPS system is a very precise time signal, with which, using some math for measuring the propagation delay and multiple signals, we can locate our nearly exact position on the Earth. Our understanding of and fascination with time was what allowed us to make extraordinary discoveries.

However, our sense of time has a more personal impact. It allows us to consider the consequences of our actions and exercise impulse control. (See Willpower for more.) We’re able to see the possible consequences and thereby prevent ourselves from going down that path.

It also allows us to set aside benefits in the present for better benefits in the future. We’re able to pass the marshmallow test. We’ll leave one marshmallow alone for now to get to two marshmallows in the future. This delayed gratification is what allows us to work together to build amazing things. It’s what allows us to work on projects that will pay dividends in the future – even when it’s toil today.

Information Architecture

It’s been years since I started my work on information architecture and how to organize things. Back in 2011, I posted Information Architecture Resources and Questions, which summarized some of the work I was doing on information architecture and the six books that I had read to that point on information architecture. Over the years, a few more might make the list (for instance, The Information Diet). When I started reading The Organized Mind, I expected that I’d find more information about information architecture. I expected to get tips and tricks for organizing information, but I really didn’t get much to help with how to categorize information.

Neurology of Sleep

Sleep seems, on the surface, to be a complete waste of time. After all, nothing happens when you’re sleeping, right? Well, not so fast. Our brains need a way to rehearse what happened during the day and to build links to the things that we learned. Sleep is the critical key to making sure that we don’t lose the experience we gained during the day. Perhaps it’s wasteful to spend a day learning and not sleep.

One of the sad but true facts about structured adult learning is that there’s a “forgetting” curve. That is, you’ll forget some of what you’ve learned over time. There are techniques to minimize the loss of learning, but some loss is inevitable. The hard fact is that after 2 weeks, you’ll have lost about 80% of what you learned – unless you have some reinforcement. That’s assuming you get a decent night’s sleep.

Our brains have been described as a computer, with our memory operating like a hard drive. While there are plenty of holes in this analogy – not the least of which is that our memories are changed and rewritten – but the analogy does hold some value. Our brains are vast warehouses of encoded information. The problem isn’t storage of information. The problem is a retrieval problem. The problem is how do you access those memories that you need when you need them?

Why can a scent remind you of your grandmother’s closet with her mothballs or cedar-lined walls? Why can’t you remember the name of the first girl (or guy) that you ever kissed? What happened to those memories of teachers who inspired you? The answer isn’t that the memories are gone. The problem is that the memories aren’t findable. The threads that lead you from one thought to the next don’t lead to those memories like they used to. The good news is that, during sleep, our brains rehearse and connect the thoughts of the day to other thoughts. Links are built for colors, smells, similar ideas, etc. It’s these links that ensure that we’ll be able to get back to the memories.

The particularly interesting note from The Organized Mind is that each day’s experiences are integrated over a series of nights. It’s not just that first night that is important. It’s important to get good sleep over the next few days. I’ve noticed conference fatigue. By the third or fourth day of the conference, everyone is dragging. It’s like they’re in a bit of a haze. That makes sense if their brains are trying to integrate their learning from the week. If they’re not used to that much learning, then they’re probably exceeding their learning capacity. Said differently, they’re likely to be exceeding the ability of their sleep to integrate their learning.

More Failures to Succeed

Like many other books, The Organized Mind talks about highly successful people as being persistent. However, there’s an important twist. There’s a recognition that you must try many things to see how to become successful. I am reminded that Edison’s first patent was a commercial failure. I’m reminded how many different approaches that my successful colleagues tried before they became successful. Maybe you can start by reading The Organized Mind – it might be just what you need to be able to get more organized and become more effective in your life.

Book Review-The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload – Information Overload

There’s a sort of irony in the fact that the first thing I have to say about the book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is that it seems unorganized. To be fair, I think that whenever you’re bringing together multiple areas of expertise and you’re trying to synthesize THE answer as compared to solving some specific problem in a well-defined area, you’re going to struggle. That’s part of the organization process. You try things, some work – and some don’t.

Despite my criticism that The Organized Mind makes it hard to see the organizing theme for the book throughout its pages, there is a great deal of material there. It’s not a short read, but if you’re interested in organizing information, how people think, or you just want to understand yourself better, there are pieces of the puzzle in its pages. I’ve split my review into two pieces. This review will focus on the problem of information overload. The second will focus on the impact to friendships.

Highly Successful People (HSP)

Before going on a journey – whether in life or in learning – you must know where your destination is. You’ve got to put that one spot on the map that says where you want to go or at least get a good idea of where you’re headed. One option for looking for a place to land in life is to look at highly successful people and seek to join them wherever they are.

When looking for highly successful people, the challenge becomes how you define “highly successful people.” It’s got to be more than money and material success. Shouldn’t the ultimate measure of a successful person be their happiness or the impact they leave on the world? In a word, yes.

The good news when finding a place to go with our quest is that highly successful people tend to be people who are getting things done, who are making an impact on their world, and who are happy. It’s not that these things occur individually. They tend to occur as a cluster of characteristics in the folks that are the most successful.

Financial wealth can be measured easily. Simply look at a bank account or watch as the buildings named after someone pile up – because buildings tend to be named after the people who give the most money. Financial success, while easy to measure, may not be the best measure to define a successful person. After all, what about those who care more about family and community than they do material things and the status that they bring? (See The Normal Personality for more on Reiss’ 16 motivating factors.)

A better measure might be how folks are making their impact in the world. Daniel Pink in Drive describes how to motivate people. The three tools are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It is purpose that drives us to make an impact in the world. Purpose need not be a Mother Theresa kind of change the world or the peaceful resistance of Gandhi. Purpose can be to lead a family or to raise a child. Your purpose may even be to spread happiness. That could be done with a simple smile delivered with a meal. Because purpose – or impact on the world – is so varied and so unique to each individual, it’s immeasurable. (Even if Douglas Hubbard would disagree, as the title of his book How to Measure Anything implies.)

Happiness is similarly difficult to measure. Many scholars, philosophers and authors have sought to find the secret to happiness. Titles like Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Hardwiring Happiness may hold clues on what happiness looks, like but they offer little help in finding it in others other than trite remarks about people having a smile on their face. Happiness too is hard to measure and therefore is often ignored in the quest to find highly successful people.

Because we perceive impact and happiness to be immeasurable, we often ignore this factor. We focus on what is easy and use the heuristic “what you see is all there is.” (See Incognito and Thinking: Fast, and Slow for more on WYSIATI.) We settle on this, because we’re all in a state of information overload. We settle on measuring wealth because it’s easy, and when we’re overwhelmed we want easy.

Information Overload

It’s hard to escape information overload. In 1976, there were roughly 9,000 unique products in your local supermarket. The aisles were tight and the lights were dim. Today, the typical store is larger, brighter, with wider aisles and 40,000 products. Consider that most people get 80-85% of our needs met with only 150 items, and you might wonder why our stores have exploded with products.

This overwhelming number of options reoccurs in nearly every aspect of our life. In 2011, Americans – on average – took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986, a fivefold increase in just 25 years. Science has discovered more in the last 20 years than all the discoveries prior to that, all the way back to the beginning of language. Information is a tsunami, and we’re standing on the beach.

The problem of overload is even more pervasive when it comes to news and information. The Information Diet encourages us to think more responsibly about the information that we consume; but how can you do that when the amount of information vehicles, including blogs and YouTube, continue exploding? In my post The Rise and Fall of a Blog, I shared some of my statistics and global statistics on the number of blogs and blog posts. By the end of 2013, WordPress had over 50 million posts and 16 billion reads of articles, and both posts and reads are continuing to climb.

Our brains were simply not designed to come with the sheer amount of information that we’re being confronted with every single day. Evolution takes time. For the first 99% of our history, all we did was procreate and survive. In the last 1%, we’ve begun to accumulate knowledge and generate diversity of thought. We’re caught in the explosion of information. Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice how paralyzing it can be to have so many choices, and so much information.

The Impact of Information Overload

At first glance, choice is good. More information leads to better decisions. More information is less uncertainty. However, this is the view of the economist, who believes that we make rational decisions. What we’ve found out is that we’re not at all rational like we want to believe, and few of us behave as the “econs” that economists believe we are. (See Nudge for more about the economist view of the human as an econ.)

We are, as we have come to find out, irrational creatures who behave in odd ways. Sometimes we’re Predictably Irrational, and sometimes we ignore our blind spots, as Incognito points out. However, more important, our rationality is a small rider sitting on a large, emotional elephant. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for the Rider-Elephant-Path model.) Our rationality gets tired and the elephant begins to wander aimlessly. Instead of information freeing us, it imprisons us. Our riders can’t keep up, and exhaustion has us turning over the reins. We literally fatigue of making decisions, forcing ourselves to adhere to our commitments, and other rational decisions. (See Willpower for more.)

Odd consequences come from information overload. Daniel Gilbert (of Stumbling on Happiness) says that the fundamental attribution error is amplified by information overload. That is, our belief that others’ behaviors are a result of their character becomes more impactful when we’re overloaded. (See The Advantage for more on the fundamental attribution error.)


In this world, where information overload is the norm, we have few options to help us cope. One option is to work on our focus, as The Information Diet suggests. This is a set of strategies, including walling ourselves off from media that we don’t find valuable. “News” and “journalism” like the National Enquirer, and even magazines like People, add little value to our personal lives. I’ve chosen these magazines from hundreds that I might be able to select, because unless you’re a celebrity, they’re unlikely to be speaking about people you know personally and rarely deal with topics which are of global importance – unless you’re particularly concerned about alien abductions.

For most of us, focus is more than just avoiding a few magazines. Focus is more than just avoiding the avoidable situations. Like an alcoholic, just avoiding bars won’t make you not be an alcoholic. Alcohol is everywhere and so is information. We’ve got to learn how to focus our attention on relevant information wherever we are. Our reticular activating system (RAS) regulates attention (see Change or Die for more on the RAS), but it’s overwhelmed with the information that’s coming at us. (If you’re looking for a way to share communications that focus an organization, you may want to look at our white paper, Effective Internal Communication Channels.)

Focus may be a limited coping mechanism. Just like too much focus would have been a threat to our ancestors since they would not be able to monitor for threats in the environment, we may find that hyper focus leaves us vulnerable as well. (The evolutionary dance of flow is an interesting topic for another day.) Today, it’s not just managing the information that we’re exposed to and trying to shape it to enrich our lives, it’s perhaps more important to manage the information that we have seen. That requires a strategy for externalization.


Externalization is the process of getting things out of your head and into supporting systems that we can leverage when we need them. We instinctively do this. Couples partition off responsibilities for certain things – like a social calendar – to one of the partners. This allows the other partner to focus on something else. It’s this externalization of processing, information, and skills that leads widows and widowers to honestly not know how to do things. Perhaps their spouse paid the bills. Perhaps they did the grocery shopping. Whatever it was that their spouse managed, they’ve almost literally lost a part of their brain when they’ve lost their spouse. They must reintegrate these skills.

In a professional world, the externalization to other people is much less dramatic. In my SharePoint work, I know there are certain specific questions that I can ask of specific people. I’ve got people to talk to about the latest software development options, search, profiles, HTTP throttling, etc. These are all things that I know something about – but I know the person who knows more about it than I do. I know the person I can ask the details so I don’t have to remember them. This allows me to focus on other things.

Most of us rely on people more than electronic systems. Though there have been many attempts to build knowledge management systems, many of them fail. They find that it’s incredibly difficult to convert the tacit knowledge that’s in someone’s head into explicit knowledge that can be coded into a system. Gary Klein’s study of firefighters and their ability to just “know” how a fire was going to behave lead to his book Sources of Power and the awareness that tacit knowledge is something based on a lifetime of experience, which is difficult to codify. While I rely on a deep – and extensive – system of notes and blog posts for all the books that I’ve read, I recognize that there are some things which are simply difficult to capture. (See Research in the age of electrons for more about my systems.)

Back to Success

Coming back to highly successful people (HSPs) for a moment, what do they do to be successful? They seem to focus and externalize. HSPs have “people” to take care of trivial, mundane, or out-of-focus things for them. From the simple externalization like hiring out housekeeping or lawn maintenance to the more complicated administrative support, HSPs work to minimize the things that they must focus on and leverage both people and systems to do it.

Whether it’s an administrative assistant or living by their calendar, HSPs don’t worry about where they need to be next. They assume their calendar will remind them when it’s time, or their administrative assistant will come get them for their next appointment. They don’t have to pay any attention to time. (Which is good if they are trying to get into flow; see The Rise of Superman for more.)

HSPs leverage people and systems to have answers that they don’t have. Whether it’s a network of colleagues that they can depend on to have answers they don’t have, extensive notes from the work that they’ve done in the past, or some other solution, HSPs work hard to build systems around them to make it possible for them to be successful.

Not that I’m a HSP, but I can say that I write these blog posts to help me integrate my thoughts about what I’m reading. I write blog posts with the detailed technical things and the random stuff I experience so that I can find it later. I’m not going to remember the specific TCP/IP packet sequence when an SSL certificate is bad – but I can refer back to my blog post to find out what it is, if I need to. It’s a behavior of HSPs that I’ve been adopting for years.


Herbert Simon coined the term “satisficing,” but I was introduced to it by Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice. It’s all about doing just enough. It’s not obsessing about something, just doing what it takes to make the problem or situation go away. It’s a coping skill and an unconscious strategy to deal with the problem of information overload. It’s a great idea for some things but a horrible idea for the things that we desire to be experts in. For that, we need the opposite strategy: “maximizing.” Peak explains that, to be the best at something, we’ve got to be continually trying to be better through deliberate practice. This deliberate practice is maximizing. It’s the quest to achieve more than we can achieve today.

However, satisficing has a place in the quest to become highly successful. Satisficing is the strategy to deal with everything that’s not our goal so that we can maximize our energies to the areas in our life that we want to be at the peak of our game.

Attention Switching

Multitasking is one of the new plagues of our information crazed society. Folks have Twitter, Facebook, three chat programs, and a newsfeed going on their computer, a TV on in the background, and they believe that they’re able to effectively multitask across all these channels of media. However, the research says something different. Multitasking decreases IQ. Multitasking causes information to be stored in the wrong place in our brains. Multitasking is rapid task switching, which reduces our overall efficiency and at the same time leads to our feeling exhausted.

Despite this, we’re designing our lives around the idea that we can be constantly overstimulated and multitasking. A simple example is simply email notifications. We believe we can stay focused on what we’re doing while watching an email notification come in. In truth, we can’t stay focused when an attention-grabbing subject line comes through. We switch our attention to the email and back to what we were doing, and it costs us productivity. Despite this, too few of us turn off our notifications. (Here’s how to turn off your notifications in Outlook if you’re interested.)

Our ability to focus our attention on something is a limited capacity. Like willpower, it can be exhausted. We need our ability to switch our attention at times to take care of truly urgent things – or in some roles where picking a single instrument out of a crowd. (I mentioned how audio engineers need to do this in my review on Hardwiring Happiness.)

I Have It on Good Authority

It used to be that when you read something in the newspaper or in a book, you had it on good authority. Journalists adhered to standards. Book publishers made sure that authors were experts before working with them on a book project – because to not do so was too financially risky. However, times have changed.

Many of us don’t get our news and article content from journalists any longer. Despite blogs being passé, we find answers on blogs. We leverage search to find the information we want and don’t bother to check the credentials of the person who wrote it. We find a journal article and don’t have any idea whether it’s been peer-reviewed or not. Even if we presumed for a moment that all journalists were reputable and upheld high standards of reporting, it wouldn’t matter because we just don’t get our information that way any longer.

Books are no better. Today, anyone who has an idea and a few hundred dollars can publish a book and have it show up in distribution just like any other book. I wrote about my self-publishing experience in 2009 in my post Self-Publishing with Lulu. While I’ve got over a dozen books published with traditional publishers, many of my more recent works are self-published. There’s not anything special about my ability to self-publish. Anyone can do it – and that’s the problem. How do you know whether the person you’re reading really knows what they’re talking about? You don’t. You assume, because they’ve written a book that they do.

In some circles, exploiting the instant credibility that comes with having written a book is leveraged to people’s advantage. Speakers and consultants pay to have folks help them write their book in the form of writing coaches, vanity presses, and the like. It’s worth it to them. It’s a marketing expense to be perceived as the expert.

On the consumer side, this means you never really know the authority of the sources of information that you’re reading. Before the internet became popular in the 1990s, if you wanted information you had to work hard to find it. Now the challenge is not finding the information. Now the challenge is validating that the information is correct and comes from a reputable source. We use comments and reviews as a proxy, but the technique of astroturfing has become so popular that we don’t know if the comments that we’re reading to validate something are real or if they’re sponsored. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)

Losing One’s Mind

Until the 1600s, families lived in one-room houses – with most of their relatives huddling around the stove in the center of the room to keep warm. Now we have so many things that we can’t remember where we put them. The average person today owns thousands of times more things than our hunter-gather ancestors. We buy duplicates of things so we don’t have to carry them from place to place. Now three out of four Americans admit to having so much stuff in their garages that they couldn’t put their car in them.

It’s little wonder that we can’t find things. It’s little wonder that we have no idea where we left our keys or our glasses – that is, unless, of course, we have purchased something to create a place for those things to go. These “affordances,” as they’re called, create places for things. By spending money on the affordances – thereby further increasing the things we have – we can sometimes create a place for the other things that we keep losing. If it seems like we’re losing our mind to buy things to have a place for other things, you’ve just discovered the container store market.

Facebook Friends

In the next installment of The Organized Mind, I’ll talk about our relationships with other people.

Book Review-Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Angela Duckworth’s work on grit has come up in my research more than a few times. Her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance was most recently mentioned in The Gift of Failure, and it was then that I realized that I couldn’t delay reading it any longer, despite having made a mistake.

My Mistake

Slightly less than a year ago, I was flipping through an email from with a list of books that were discounted. I saw the book Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up and bought it. I at some point noticed the author wasn’t Angela Duckworth and was confused until I realized that it wasn’t the book I thought it was.

Compared to Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up pales. Not that it doesn’t still have value, just that there’s a richness in Duckworth’s writing that just isn’t there in the other title.

One Leads

If you’re looking for a single metric that measures the ability for someone to become successful in life, it might be grit – but, as the title of the book indicates, grit is an aggregate indicator. It encompasses both passion and perseverance. So, which comes first? Does passion come first or does perseverance? The answer is both – sort of.

Passion develops after people have been able to experience life and discover what it is that’s truly important to them. Passion is like a blazing bonfire. But it doesn’t start out that way. It’s cultivated from a small spark, then a fragile flame. Passion, which ultimately can provide great power to someone’s life, starts small.

What fans the flames of passion? Perseverance. It’s perseverance that nurtures the gentle flame until it becomes a solid fire. Paradoxically, perseverance is itself fragile. Like willpower, it’s an exhaustible resource that isn’t limitless (see Willpower). Perseverance can only last so long, but the warm fire of a burning passion can reenergize it and create more perseverance. So they lead to one another.

However, the relationship between perseverance and passion is even more complicated than this. While passion doesn’t develop until you’ve had a variety of experiences and the opportunity to find the ones which are the most important to you, it’s perseverance that allows you to discover your passion, as it keeps you exploring the world and seeking new experiences.

So perseverance is the genesis of grit, but perseverance without passion will eventually run out of steam. Perhaps it runs out of steam because it requires a degree of hope.

Gritty Stages

Duckworth explains that grit starts with interest. Our reticular activating system (RAS) flags an experience as interesting. (See Change or Die for more.) From there, a bit of enjoyment will cause us to come back and do more. I’d soften Duckworth’s statement a bit. I don’t think that the genesis must be a specific interest in an activity. I’ve seen people develop passions that were sparked initially by their zeal for life and not necessarily archery, serving at a soup kitchen, etc.. Their interest was substantially more diffuse than seems to be suggested.

After interest comes the capacity to practice. Ericsson explains in Peak that deliberate practice is essential for becoming the top of your field. It is, and Duckworth agrees, the constant drive to become better at one specific, measurable aspect of something, which allows people to become great at what they do. Duckworth is careful to say that deliberate practice isn’t any fun. It’s not the part that folks enjoy.

The third stage of grit is purpose. This is the belief that your work matters. Purpose may be small, like providing for my family – or large, like reducing pollution of the Earth; but fundamentally, purpose means that what you’re doing matters. That’s true even if it only seems to matter to you.

Duckworth describes hope as the last stage – but also a part of every stage. Hope as an end stage is the belief that you’ll rise to the occasion – that you’ll overcome. She’s also cautious to say that you need hope at every stage.

Hopefully Filled with Grit

The Psychology of Hope explains that hope is created from two components. The first is willpower – that is, the decision to make things happen (or not happen). The second is waypower – that is, the skills, talents, time, and treasures to make it happen. Because of the waypower component, the more skills you develop, the more hopeful you become. The more hopeful you become, the more likely you are to be gritty.

Even the most hopeful people in the world are faced with despair from time to time. There are times when hope fades and what you’re left with is only willpower and the unflinching desire to make it work – whatever it is. That’s the heart of grit. It means working when you don’t feel like it. It means working when you don’t know whether you’ll make it or not – but you’re convinced that you must try. It also means knowing what you can sustain.

Work Ethic

Duckworth calls it “effort.” It figures in twice to her equation for grit. The first part is in the development of skill. She says that talent multiplied by effort equals skill. She goes on to say that skill multiplied by effort equals achievement. If you want to achieve something in life, effort counts exponentially more than talent. This is a conclusion that other researchers have reached as well. Carol Dweck’s work, discussed in Mindset, lays out how even just changing your perspective to one where work matters more than results can have profound impacts in your life.

In Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, Bob Pozen talks about the hard work that he put in – and still puts in. Despite the lack of a grand plan for his life, he’s done well. He has done well because he’s worked at it.

Will Smith said, “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period.” It’s not a coincidence that he’s one of the most popular entertainers of all time. It’s that dedication to working hard that pays off over the long term.

Work isn’t about short bursts of limitless energy. It’s not the all-nighters that matter. It’s the things that you do consistently. It’s the things that you do day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. If you look deeply at the success of most people, you’ll find years and years of toil and turmoil. Though a work ethic can’t guarantee success, it can change the odds.

Sausage Making

The awareness that it is the work ethic that matters isn’t enough to change our biased desires for talent. We like the idea that someone has it made, that they’re good because they’re good. This belief shields us from a need to work, to do deliberate practice, and to transform ourselves into something better.

We don’t want to see the hard work that goes into the process of greatness. We don’t want to see every swim at 4AM. We don’t want to see all the failed attempts. It takes away the mystery. If you see all the preparation to become great, it makes greatness achievable – and something that we’ve not done. If we see only the end, only the final piece – then we see magic. That’s what we want to see. We want to see the magic of what humans can really do. (See The Rise of Superman for more.)

Peak and Flow

As someone who has read Ericsson’s work in Peak and Csikszentmihalyi’s work in Flow and Finding Flow, I was intrigued by something that is seemingly a contradiction that Duckworth noticed. Ericsson speaks about deliberate practice being the thing that allows people to reach the peak of their professions. He describes it as uncomfortable, deliberate work that those committed to their craft endure to improve.

Csikszentmihalyi speaks of flow as this effortless, highly-productive state where it feels good. How can it be both intentional, repetitive, and time-taking – and thoughtless and free-flowing, where time seems to disappear.

The initial answer that Duckworth comes to – after seeing the two “debate” their differing perspectives – is that Ericsson speaks of what experts do. Csikszentmihalyi speaks of how they feel. However, that is not the complete answer.

The complete answer that she comes to is that peak performers do the hard work of deliberate practice so they can get into flow. Deliberate practice is for preparation and building skills. Flow is for performance – for the act of using those skills. They are not contradictory as they may seem on the surface. They’re actually complementary views of people who are driven to demonstrate what they can do for the world.

Work on Strengths or Work on Weaknesses

One of the areas where there is some disagreement when it comes to self-help psychology books is whether you should work on your strengths or whether you should work on your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll hear that you should ignore your weaknesses and compensate for them by engaging other people, shifting work, or in other ways minimizing weaknesses’ impact. The reasoning goes that you’ll make more progress working on the things that you’re already good at. You’ll be able to stand out if you do one thing truly greatly. (For some examples, look at books like Strengths Finder, The ONE Thing, and The Innovator’s DNA.)

Conversely, some books speak of your Achilles’ heel. They talk about the things that are holding you back that you must break free from. These things, they argue, are the greatest leverage to improving your life. If you can just fix them, then you won’t be cleaning up so many messes.

So, the question is which one is right? They can’t both be right, can they? The answer may be both yes and no.

If you have the capacity to work on your limitations, you may make your greatest gains there. Moving from deficient to passable may be enough. (See Willpower when considering your capacity.) In truth, you can improve at any aspect of your world if you’re able to work on it. It’s just that it’s sometimes harder (requires more grit) to work on the things that we’re not good at. If we can really work on it rather than practicing cognitive dissonance (see The Largest Gap in the World – Between Saying and Doing for more), then we can make great gains. Conversely, if we can’t, then we should work on our strengths, because we can make those better with the need for less grit.

Goal Hierarchy

Often from the outside looking in, it appears that gritty people become singularly focused on everything they do and they force those things to happen. This obviously can’t be correct, because you can’t focus on everything – that’s a lack of focus. However, you can focus on what matters and become unwavering in your desire to get what really matters done.

We speak of goals, but all goals really aren’t created equal. Some goals are in support of other goals. In fact, some goals are means to an end. For instance, though people speak of a desire for training, people don’t intrinsically want training. Training is always a means to an end. For an employer, it might be greater productivity. For an employee, it might be a better job making more money or doing something that is more intrinsically rewarding. For a person, the reason for training may be learning. In every case, no one really wants training – that’s the means. Employers would be fine if employees were more productive and they didn’t have to pay to send people through training.

Sometimes we set goals to finish homework so that we get a good grade in the course… so that we get our degree… so we can get a good job… so we can get married to someone great… so that we can raise great kids. In these, we’re focused on the means to get to the end that we want. Gritty people don’t get focused on the means. They stay focused on the ends.

It may be that you can’t finish your homework. You might even fail a course. Gritty people decide whether they can take the course again and pass it – or find an alternative course that still allows them to meet their higher-level goals. If one of the lower-level goals that are simply a means to an end fail, they simply shift. They decide to look someplace else.

I look at our highest-level goals as our mission in life. This is the “why” from Start with Why. (How Will You Measure Your Life? may also be helpful in finding this mission.) Under our mission are a set of goals that I call “strategies” – we believe that if these high-level things happen, then our mission will be successful. Under these strategies are goals which I’ll call “tactics.” These tactics lead us to the strategies. For each tactic, there are a set of tasks that need to be done for the tactic to succeed.

Failing at a task, tactic, or strategy causes gritty people to evaluate whether they want to try a different approach – or whether they need to redouble their efforts in this task, tactic, or strategy. Failing at a mission causes gritty people to get up and dust themselves off. They follow the Japanese saying, “fall seven, rise eight.”

Maybe you’ve been knocked down again. Maybe you’re wondering how to be grittier. Or maybe you’re just wondering how gritty you are. Maybe it’s the time to dust yourself off and pick up Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Book Review-Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Live with Themselves – The Cases

In part 1 of this review, we talked about the mechanisms which allow good people to execute Moral Disengagement. In this part of the review, we’ll talk about the second half of the book, which discusses moral disengagement in a variety of topics. These are hot button issues in today’s society. Some of them are straightforward situations where moral disengagement is happening. In other cases, it could be that Bandura is using his platform to push his agenda.

More Than Just Entertainment

Bandura has had a persistent conflict with the media industry, particularly with television, because of his views that television violence leads to more violence in society. The Bobo doll experiment suggested that when children watched violence, they imitated it. Television is filled with gratuitous violence despite the awareness that situation comedies are the reigning champion of ratings.

Bandura starts a list of six foci on moral disengagement in practice with the impacts of television violence. He argues that television sanitizes immoral acts and repeated exposure desensitizes people. While there is research that children imitate what they see adults do, the research is less clear about the impact on adults. While Bandura makes a compelling point about needing to limit the amount of violence on TV, particularly for children, I’m hard-pressed to argue the point in either direction.

I watch almost no TV and very few movies. I’m simply not qualified to say whether TV is causing violence or isn’t. I can say, and Bandura confirms this, that the greatest incidence of violence comes in the form of cartoons. The Saturday morning favorites from my childhood had Wile E. Coyote getting blown up, thrown, flattened, etc., in seemingly every episode. Violence in TV has been a challenge for a long time, and in truth violence is going down in the US – even while there’s the perception that violence is going up and coverage of real violence has been more prevalent.

Grappling with Guns

The second industry that comes under Bandura’s focus is the gun industry and, in particular, the National Rifle Association (NRA). An organization that used to be focused on hunting and sportsmanship has lost its way as a lobbying group. The fight for gun rights has stopped being about hunting and sportsmanship and has become a fight for the right to protection.

Here, Bandura points out that interesting facts about gun ownership. There are more deaths due to gun suicide than by gun homicide. Most homicides are a result of heated disputes among family members, acquaintances, and relatives than criminal encounters. In short, you’re more likely to kill yourself or someone you know than the random criminal breaking in to your home. In an age of paranoia created by increasing news coverage of break-ins and harm wrought on home owners, it makes sense that more people are looking to protect themselves than ever before. The randomness of the crimes makes people feel it’s necessary to protect themselves.

Bandura makes some claims which I realize are not correct. He speaks of the need for police to escalate their level of armament based on the arms that criminals acquire. The police may have had to get access to armor-piercing rounds because criminals started wearing body armor but that isn’t responding to threat with threat. It’s responding to the greater defenses criminals started wearing. In reality, most police carry a 9MM weapon – or in some cases a 40 caliber weapon (which is larger). However, Bandura ignores the fact that the standard-issue military handgun in World War II was a 1911 – a .45 caliber weapon (bigger still than a .40 caliber).

He makes the point effectively that relatively few criminals get their guns illegally – but some do. He’s also quite right that we’re increasing our spending on housing criminals at a greater rate than on education. However, this ignores the impact of the “War on Drugs” on prison populations. (See Chasing the Scream for more.)

Conversely, the evidence that states with more lax gun laws have higher rates of gun violence is disturbing. However, a few minutes of deeper researching the topic reveals that there are many other factors that are also correlated with high gun death rates. None of the research or commentary I saw could convert the correlation to causation. As a result, it’s unclear whether more or less gun control leads to a safer – or less safe – environment. Bandura’s position is clearly articulated but not compelling to me.

Immoral Corporate Institutions

If you’re looking for moral disengagement, corporations are an easy place to start. There are so many scandals of organizations where the employees – and particularly the leadership – suspend their morals to worship at the altar of corporate profits. The financial markets meltdown that we had a few years ago was a result of the greed in the financial sector.

Subprime mortgages were being issued to people without the ability to pay. These were wrapped up and sold as financial derivatives – bundling of a bunch of different things. Ultimately, when people couldn’t pay for their houses, the mortgages went into default, the houses weren’t worth what was owed, and the system came apart at the seams. Warren Buffet called derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.” Given the carnage when the system fell apart, I can see why.

The problem is most (but not all) of the people involved in the creation of the mess walked away without any losses. They didn’t see the inside of a jail cell. They took their big paychecks and even bigger bonuses and walked away. Even after the government had to step in, they were still taking bonuses, even though the organization would have died had it not been “too big to fail.” There were no consequences for the bad behaviors leading up to – or during – the debacle.

Underlings do, in some cases, get convicted of fraud. Executives walk off scot-free. They leverage plausible deniability. In many cases, they actively avoided knowing what was going on. (Not exactly Servant Leadership or the kind of leader from In Search of Excellence.) We’ve created what William Black called a “criminogenic environment.” He said this term in the 1980s when we were bailing out the savings and loans.

The financial sector isn’t the only place where corporate greed runs rampant. The tobacco industry is the only industry where the product kills half of its users. It was targeted towards teenagers – because if they make it through their teen years without smoking, it’s unlikely that they’ll start later in life. The industry worked hard to undermine solid science that tobacco was killing people. They dumped in pseudoscience and tried to forestall the truth getting out. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for a perspective on pseudoscience.)

Moral Murder by the Name of Capital Punishment

Bandura shares his belief that capital punishment is wrong. Certainly, when looked at directly from a care/harm foundation (see The Righteous Mind), it’s pretty clear that killing is bad. However, I’m reminded of a story from Emotional Awareness, where the Dalai Lama relates a story of a bodhisattva on a boat with a mass murder who he cannot convince not to kill the rest of the passengers – so the bodhisattva kills him. The context of this is that a bodhisattva desires to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all living beings. The point is that the bodhisattva is – in the Lama’s estimation – operating under the principles of Buddha.

This for me establishes the moral bounds for which one could take another person’s life. Though it smacks of utilitarian moral disengagement, it remains true to the greatest good (care) and the least evil (harm). Despite Bandura’s admonishment that only 3% of shootings are in self-defense, I have no qualms about defending myself and my family from an intruder including, if necessary, taking the life of the intruder. (Note the linguistic cleaning by not saying “kill.”) So, it’s morally acceptable to defend oneself, and it’s potentially acceptable to prevent greater harm. Where’s the rub?

The rub is in the first step in the bodhisattva’s boat story. The first step was to attempt to convince the murderer to not murder. He attempted to change the mind of the murderer, to reeducate them in compassion for other human beings. The rub is we don’t know how to do that.

The more I learn about neurology, the more I realize that we’re literally of two minds. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and Incognito for more.) Even if I could address the neurological issues, I realize that our understanding of psychology is primitive. We’re still fumbling around in the dark. House of Cards, The Cult of Personality Testing, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, and even The Heart and Soul of Change all agree. We just don’t know what works. The best we can say is that if you like your therapist (perhaps because they’re using Motivational Interviewing), you’re likely to have greater success. Change or Die even covers the high rates of failure to change when a person’s own life depends upon it.

In short, we don’t have a reliable way of attempting to implore the death row inmate to change. This raises the question whether life in prison or a death sentence is the more compassionate thing. One could easily answer that a swift and painless death is more compassionate – except that it fails to account for the possibility of someone becoming remorseful. It also ignores the problem that there are innocent people on death row.

I’m not talking about the people who are guilty but are unable to accept that reality (when the ego and its defenses won’t allow it – see Change or Die). I’m speaking of the legitimately victimized people who went through the legal system and got a raw deal. How do you justify their death when they’ve done nothing wrong?

Bandura leans on Milgram’s work (which I discussed in my review of Influencer) to explain that the execution process is diffused among many people. Even the final injections are typically done by multiple people who have only a part of the deadly cocktail to minimize the moral self-sanctions that might prevent them from completing the execution. He correctly points out that if a single person (say a juror) had to be the one to “throw the switch,” they’d be much less willing to sentence a person to the death penalty.

In the context of Moral Disengagement, I believe that the system is designed to reduce the emotional burden on the workers who participate in the execution of convicted and sentenced criminals. They’re free to leverage the mechanisms of disengagement to make it easier to sleep at night.


My first real memory of terrorism wasn’t one of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings, though certainly they were happening during my formative years. My first memory of terrorism was mixed in with my memories of my favorite airplane. It was the SR-71 Blackbird that took the pictures that proved that we had decimated terrorist training camps in Libya. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more on the aircraft and 1986 United States bombing of Libya for more on that mission.)

Like most of the US, I thought that terrorism was something that happened “over there.” It wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks that terrorism felt real and close to home – though, admittedly, in Indiana I wasn’t close to any of the attacks. It was still close enough to be real. That’s the point of terrorism – to induce terror into people by creating fear that terror might strike them personally at any time.

Terrorist organizations need to recruit and train members who are willing to perform suicide actions in the name of their cause. They must be willing to accept the cause as greater than their own life for either secular or religious reasons. In the religious reasons, they’ve got to be able to cause recruits to look past the logical paradoxes that exist.

Most religions aren’t in favor of murder. Most are not supportive of torture or harming others. (Spiritual Evolution is a wonderful journey into why religions have standards that are useful to sustaining social life.) Somehow leaders must convince themselves and the recruits that those rules aren’t intended for times like these. They’re not intended for situations like theirs.

I suppose one condolence that can be offered for the suicide bombers is that they don’t have to live with themselves if they didn’t accomplish their mission. In that way, there wouldn’t be post-action self-doubt. However, with something so final, it’s important to be really sure that you’re right – which is why previous suicide bombers are revered as heroes whether or not they accomplished their mission. Not doing so would tear the fabric of the organization.

Environmental Sustainability

The idea that we’re creating problems for planet Earth isn’t new. My reading backlog includes Limits to Growth, which was originally published in 1972. There was much less data than was in Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but the point is essentially the same. We can’t keep doing like we have been doing. It’s not sustainable. There’s too much population. There’s too much pollution. There’s just too much.

Donella Meadows and her colleagues were looking at the problem from a systems standpoint. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) We simply couldn’t expect that the environmental systems would accept the strain we’re placing on them. And it appears that they’re right.

From the perspective of Bandura, the question is less about the environmental sustainability problem and more about how people diffuse their moral responsibility. In this case, the indirect effects and the introduction of false “evidence” by those who have a vested interest in not addressing the environmental issues are powerful forces that lead too many people towards indecision and inaction.

On a personal level, I don’t drive a hybrid car. With the home office on the property here, I walk to work. I do have most (but not quite all) of the bulbs here in the house swapped over to LED. The furnace/heat pump combination units in both buildings are the most efficient I could buy. The windows in the office are as efficient as they come. Despite that, I’m quite clear that I’m consuming more energy than most folks. We look for ways to save, but the kids and the business require a lot of power.

I cautiously believe that there are issues to address with the environment and that we need to do them to maintain survivability on the planet – even when that’s a hard thought when we’re having colder winters than I can remember in 25 years of living in the Indianapolis area.

In Sum

While I don’t agree with Bandura’s assertions in every argument, I appreciate the fact that Moral Disengagement is willing to address hard topics and walk through why some of the topics are hard in the first place. Though it’s a difficult read, it’s worth looking at our own morality and making sure that we don’t get stuck into Moral Disengagement.

Book Review-Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Live with Themselves – The Mechanisms

If you want to talk about moral behavior, at some point Albert Bandura’s name is going to come up. He’s done a great deal of work trying to understand people. His research in 1961 showed that children imitate the aggressive behavior they see adults doing. However, when Moral Disengagement: How Good People Can Do Harm and Feel Good About Themselves became available, it wasn’t immediately on my reading list – it was on Terri’s. Some of her mentors are quite the fan of Bandura’s work, and she was intrigued.

We both started reading it when she picked it up. Unfortunately, while Bandura is a great scholar and has advanced the field of psychology and morality greatly, he’s hard to understand at times. While I wouldn’t say that he’s as hard to read as Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership, there were definitely places when I had to reread the text a few times to make sure I knew what he was trying to say. Some of it may have been poor writing – but I found that, more often than not, it was the nuanced understanding and complex schemata that he has for the topic. It took me some time to discern what he was trying to tell me. (See The Art of Explanation for more about the curse of knowledge and complex schema.)

Because it was a hard read, I didn’t read it as fast as some other books. In a way, I’m glad. It allowed me to read The Righteous Mind, which provided a framework for the foundations of morality. This allowed me to see how morality was defined and based before watching Bandura explain how morality was systemically torn down by dictators and armies, industries and entertainment, and our disconnected nature. (See Alone Together for more about how we’re more alone and more connected at the same time.)

My review is broken into two parts. This first part will deal with the mechanisms of moral disengagement, where the second part will deal with the hot topics that Bandura writes about to demonstrate the mechanisms in action.

Evolving Morality

Before getting to how morality is specifically formed, it’s important to realize that morality is relative. It’s relative to the culture that we live in. It’s relative to the times that we’re living in. While (hopefully) most of us would find owning a slave morally reprehensible, it was (unfortunately) an accepted practice a few hundred years ago. This is a striking example of how our morality changes over time.

Morality doesn’t, however, evolve with our genes. Morality evolves as we have greater margin in our lives. We can have greater compassion because we ourselves are not struggling. We can have higher standards, because we’re not struggling for the necessities of life.

Prior to the mid-1940s, women were expected to have a role only in the home – and not outside the home. As we entered World War II and we needed more labor capacity due to the large number of men sent off to fight in the war, women were allowed and even encouraged to enter the workforce. “Rosie the Riveter” was a propaganda character that drew women into defense industries. When the war was over, many women lost their jobs, but the taste of independence and respect lingered in their souls. By the 1950s and 1960s, women started entering the workforce again, but this time for good. Before the 1940s, it was not socially acceptable for women to be working in professional careers outside the home. Today, it’s expected.

In the US, divorce rates in the 1920s were about 1.5 per thousand people. In the early 1980s it peaked at about 5.25 per thousand people before settling back down to a new level at about 4 per thousand people. (See Divorce for more of this data.) The greater independence of women, changing divorce laws (like allowing for those due to irreconcilable differences), and greater prosperity made divorce more socially acceptable.

Genes don’t evolve substantially in a single generation, but our sense of morality did – and still does.

Founding Fathers and Slavery

If you were to make a list of people that you felt like had a firm moral foundation, the founding fathers of the United States are likely to make the list. After all, they created the great American nation. They declared that all men were created equal and that they were born with certain inalienable rights – well, except in reality. The Three-Fifths Compromise was worked out for how to represent black slaves as people.

In a strange twist, the Southerners wanted slaves counted for purposes of the House of Representatives representation: equally. This would have given them a larger number of seats in the House of Representatives. The Northerners wanted the slaves treated as property and thus not eligible for representation.

Patrick Henry, who is famous for saying, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” owned slaves. He admitted the contradiction in his values: “I will not – I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.” However, he’s not alone. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all owned slaves as well.

It seems that even our most heroic figures and pillars of morality would not fare well if their actions were evaluated with today’s standards.

Social Morality

Moral standards are formed personally but are influenced socially through both legal and social sanctions. We believe that things which are against the law are largely immortal. The law is a legal sanction that inhibits socially-undesirable behavior through its effect on self-sanctions. There are, however, some situations when lawlessness is seen as desirable and where legal sanctions lose their power, such as the situation described in Change or Die and the famous Delancey Street work.

Social sanctions were discussed in The Righteous Mind as “social conventions.” These are what society expects of its citizens but doesn’t legislate. Social sanctions have a less inhibitive effect than legal sanctions. Still, social conventions have a powerful effect on us. Few of us would stand with our backs to the door of an elevator voluntarily and without reason. We’re conditioned that the right way to face is towards the door which will open.

Legal and social sanctions are called “fear controls.” They function by fear of reprisal. Legal sanctions carry the threat of legal recourse, including imprisonment. Social sanctions carry the threat of being ostracized by the group – which historically meant death.

Moral control rooted in self-sanctions are called “guilt controls,” because they work on the avoidance of guilt that violating the standards will mean. Self-sanctions are the ultimate endpoint in moral disengagement. In the end, you need to be able to live with yourself in the morning.

Bandura makes the point that moral agency – that is, moral influence on behavior – can be either inhibitive or proactive. The inhibitive form manifests itself in the resistance from behaving inhumanely. The proactive form manifests itself in compassion. Compassion is that humanitarian ethic. It’s the care for other human beings. (See My Spiritual Journey for more on compassion.)

Disengagement Doesn’t Alter Morality

One of the key questions that everyone asks is “How can good people can do bad things?” This question is followed by “Don’t they believe it’s wrong?” The heart of these questions is whether the other person (or people) have the same set of moral beliefs that we have.

As we discovered in The Righteous Mind, it’s possible that they don’t have the same beliefs – or, more precisely, they don’t evaluate the moral foundations in the same way that we do. However, Bandura asserts that, in most cases of moral disengagement, they have the same moral beliefs that they started with.

They still believe, for instance, that killing another human is wrong. What they’ve done is they’ve changed the other person into a non-person. They’ve dehumanized them to the point where they don’t believe they’re really people any longer. This is just one of many ways that a person can at one moment believe that killing another human is wrong and to be able to kill a person. This is the same thing that we see in Change or Die. That is, our ego has a massive system of defenses that allow us to see ourselves as good – even in the face of the wrong we’ve done.


Self-efficacy, the belief that what you do matters, is critical to the development of morality. If your actions don’t matter because you’re not in control or because they will have no effect, there is no need for morality, which controls behaviors and thereby influences outcomes.

The Time Paradox speaks of those who are focused hedonistically in the present – seeing limited consequences for their choices today. Morality has a reduced impact on them due to their inability to connect how their actions change the outcomes. Mindset looks at it through the lens of whether you believe you are fixed or whether you can grow. If you are fixed (called “present fatalism” in the language of The Time Paradox), then you need not take responsibility for your moral indiscretions. The Psychology of Hope describes self-efficacy as the “waypower” component of hope. (The other component is willpower.) Self-efficacy is the ability to do something and be successful.

More importantly – and from a different direction – if you believe that you can succeed in the context of your moral values, there is no conflict. However, if you don’t believe you can succeed without disengaging your morality, you may very well just do that. Those who, in Reiss’ terms, are not strongly motivated by honor (see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality) will be relegated to expediency – and moral disengagement is expedient. Bandura describes people with a low honor desire as “people with weak commitment to personal standards.”


To proceed with your morals when you doubt that you’ll be successful – when the alternative is a quick and easy moral disengagement – takes grit. It takes a persistence to continue to try to make things work, even when it appears that they ultimately won’t. When you doubt that you’ll be successful without a bit of moral disengagement (notice the minimization in my language), you’re likely to eventually succumb to a bit of moral disengagement. (See Grit for more on persistence through grit.) After all, willpower is an exhaustible resource, and constantly having to press on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is exhausting. (See Willpower for more.)

Lewin’s Behavior

Kurt Lewin famously said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. That is, how people behave is the outcome of the relationship and interaction between their personality and the environment. You can create environments that lead to more moral behavior and in the case of savings and loans, Enron, MCI, and others, you can generate environments that encourage immoral behaviors. While neither of the environments guarantees the behavior will align with the environment, they do tend to lead in one direction or another.

There are three types of environments that people find themselves in:

  • Imposed – Environments where the person has little or no control
  • Selected – Those environments that they’ve picked
  • Created – The environments that they’ve created

This is interesting, because, in most cases, we’ve not been in an imposed environment after childhood. We’ve largely selected or created the environments that we’re in. Our jobs are selected, where we live is selected. Our rooms we’ve created. We controlled the furniture and the decorations. We’ve chosen our environments.

The fact that we’ve selected – or often created – our environments means that we have substantial influence in our behavior (but not absolute) and our behaviors are sometimes a result of longer-term decisions than we typically believe. The decisions we make about our environment influence our behaviors as well. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy where I speak about longitudinal situational decision-making.)

A friend of mine says that I have an uncanny ability to leave a situation before it started to get – in his terms – “wild.” I don’t know that I ever thought about it. I somehow, I have tended to unconsciously sense that an environment is going to turn into something bad and leave – before it actually got bad. Not that I’m not capable of bad behaviors, I just avoid situations that would lead me to them and try to exhibit emotional awareness to shape my behaviors. (See Emotional Awareness for more on emotional awareness.)

Loci of Disengagement

There are three basic loci – or foci – of disengagement:

  • Agency – Displacement of responsibility to others, or diffusing it so widely that no one bears responsibility.
  • Outcome – Minimization, disregard, distortion, or dispute of the injurious effects.
  • Victim – Divestiture of a victim humanity, or belief that one is a victim and therefore justified in retaliation.

I believe that these loci are actually very difficult to understand – and, in the case of victim, two radically different mechanisms are grouped together. From my point of view, the agency locus is about responsibility. That is, agency deals with how individuals accept, reject, or defer responsibility for the morality of their actions.

I believe that the outcome locus is about negative effects. That is, it is about how the person sees the effects.

I believe that what Bandura describes as the “victim locus” really encompasses two concepts. First, there’s the compassion effect – that is, a lack of the compassion for others dehumanizes and devalues them to the point where you can do immoral things to them.

Second, there’s the vengeance effect – that is, I’m a victim because I’ve been harmed so I’m justified in harming others. Reiss speaks of vengeance as a basic desire. (Again, for more, see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality.) Vengeance should be clarified as different than “temporary insanity” or “amygdala hijack,” because it occurs over a much longer period of time. (See Emotional Intelligence for more about emotional or amygdala hijacking.)

Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement

Bandura highlights eight mechanisms which can disengage moral self-sanctions. They are:

  • Moral Justification – Attaching honorable purposes. I.e., “The ends justify the means.”
  • Palliative Comparison – Comparing their actions (or the proposed lack of action ) to the actions of others and the hypothesized negative results.
  • Euphemistic Labeling – Cloaks harmful behavior in innocuous language and removes humanity.
  • Minimizing Consequences – Minimization of the consequences of the action to minimize the violation of moral standards.
  • Ignoring Consequences – Completely ignoring the consequences of the action to make the behavior morally acceptable.
  • Misconstruing Consequences – Assigning the consequences to “externalities” rather than to one’s own behavior.
  • Dehumanization – Removal of the humanity of the victim and introduction of animalistic tendencies.
  • Attribution of Blame – Shifting of the blame to someone or something else.
  • Displacement of Responsibility – Focus on execution of tasks rather than the implications of the actions. I.e., “I was just following orders.”
  • Diffusion of Responsibility – Separating responsibility into so many parties as to make no one person wholly responsible.

Logical Paradoxes

Moral compromises lead to logical paradoxes. They seem to work on the surface, but if anyone would dig down deep into them, it would be impossible not to see that they can’t make sense together. Mastering Logical Fallacies provides a catalog of the kind of fallacies that others might attempt to use on us during a debate. Many of the arguments provided by terrorist organizations suffer from these situations. Radical religious groups use terrorism, which inflicts suffering and death on innocent people – yet their religion prohibits it. All causes – including those that use terrorism – must persuade people to join their cause or die out quickly.

Perhaps the best mechanism in use for avoiding the logical paradoxes is the use of projection. That is, the harm being inflicted by the terrorist is projected (or deflected) onto the perceived oppressor. The hostages would be home with their families if the oppressor had simply met our demands. It’s their fault that we’re having to hold the hostages so long – not ours.

This – and many other techniques – allow the logical paradoxes to persist despite their obvious falsehood. Somehow, there has to be a way to justify it – even if the justification is skewed.

Bad Means for Good Ends, and the Conflict They Create

“The ends justify the means” is an often-quoted saying. It’s a bit of linguistically-sanitary way of saying that we’re going to do bad – but for outcomes that are good. This is a utilitarian view of morality. So long as the end is good, whatever bad you do is acceptable. While this is convenient, it’s a house of cards that comes crashing down with great flair.

Consider the Vietnam War. All war is necessarily anti-moral at the most detailed level. The firmest foundation of morality is the care/harm foundation. War – in the traditional sense – means taking lives. This is typically justified because the cause is just. However, what happens when the cause isn’t just? What happens when an entire American culture decides that the war was wrong, it was unjustified, it wasn’t morally right? The veterans who faithfully served their country found out. They paid the price with greater emotional suffering as they returned from a war that the American people didn’t want or believe in. Veterans weren’t welcomed with open arms to fill jobs. Instead, they were shunned.

Deep in their own minds, they had post-traumatic stress disorder. They remembered the faces of the people they had killed – in greater numbers than those from prior wars. Their moral disengagement had been stripped, because the ends no longer seemed to justify the means.

The problem is that this disengagement is typically used in the absence of trying to get the ends without the negative means. Non-violent or more measured approaches are abandoned as being insufficient for change before they’ve been tried. (We’ve learned quite a bit about influencing change without resorting to violence or morally questionable behavior – Influencer is a good start to look for some of these tools.)

Second, the comparison tends to minimize the moral impact of the means and overestimate the moral benefits of the ends. We’re predictably irrational when it comes to justifying the beliefs that we want to cling to. (See Predictably Irrational for more.)

Training Terrorists

When most of us think about terrorists, we imagine the downtrodden teenager living in a middle eastern country whose family is barely scraping by. They set out to make the world more right by joining an organization that offers to change the world. Part of their mechanism for changing the world is through terrorism. The problem with this view of terrorism is that it’s wrong.

We think that terrorists are mentally unstable people who are willing to sacrifice their own life for no good reason. Their belief that their death is in service to a higher power eludes us. We can’t imagine how a sane person could believe this to be true, much less carry out an act of what we perceive to be senseless violence. However, terrorists are not, as a lot, lunatics who are constantly on the edge of breaking. Such instability wouldn’t be tolerated, since it would jeopardize the terrorist organization. This view, too, is wrong.

Terrorists typically come from middle- or upper-class families with a decent education and a desire to change the world to make it better. When coupled with a firm belief that you’ll be rewarded in heaven if you lay down your life for the cause of your God here on Earth, it becomes easier to see how terrorists are created.

Gears of War

These are the mechanisms of Moral Disengagement. These are the gears that allow wars to happen. In the second part of this review, we’ll walk through Bandura’s hot topics and see how we disengage our morals on those topics.