Drivers for Conformity and Originality

Adam Grant (author of Originals) says that there are two paths to achievement. One of those paths is conformity, and the other is originality. They’re the two paths that Robert Frost describes in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” While I can understand Frost’s decision like I can understand Emerson’s decision to write “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” I had no clear answers as to why one would choose one path over another. Grant doesn’t address this question in his book either, so I started digging.

From the point of view of evolution, we evolved to be social creatures, and social creatures by their very nature are created to be concerned with what others think. (See The Righteous Mind for the foundations of morality which lead us to our social nature.) Conformity is going with the flow and staying in society’s main stream. Originality sometimes runs counter to the culture and creates the potential to be kicked out of the group. Historically, getting kicked out of a community was a death sentence, as we needed the relative safety of the community to protect us from predators. Groups and the conformity that they engender are safer.

It’s All About the Safety

After turning over my thoughts and reviewing my notes on dozens of references, including Creative Confidence, Creativity, Inc., The Innovators DNA, and others, I came to the conclusion that the fork in the road between conformity and originality is all about licking and grooming. Before you wonder if I’ve lost my mind, stick with me for a moment because it’s this licking and grooming that helps us – or at least helps rats – feel safe.

Perception of Safety

Michael Meaney studied rats. That’s not all that unique amongst researchers of biological psychiatry and neurology. What’s unique is that he stumbled across a small behavior – licking and grooming – that had a profound impact on the adult lives of his rats. Mothers who licked and groomed their rat pups left them with lower stress and greater confidence for their entire lives. A simple act had a dramatic impact, quite literally changing the course of their lives. They were more independent and traveled further from their mother. (See How Children Succeed for one coverage of Meaney’s work.)

When it came time for Sapolsky to write Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he didn’t miss the work of Meaney as he described the impacts of stress on anatomy. He notes that the stress hormones (glucocorticoids) were lower in Meaney’s rats that had been given extra licking and grooming. In short, the rats had a greater perception of safety than they should have had. (After all, they lived in a lab and, as Taleb in The Black Swan pointed out, any day could be their last day.) Perception of safety is what matters, because it controls how our bodies respond and how we respond.

While rats and zebras started exposing clues to how we perceive safety, it was Reiss that revealed another piece of the puzzle by talking about the different motivators that people have.

Need for Safety

Reiss was trying to figure out why people were different. He was trying to boil the ocean of personalities down to a set of factors that could be considered. He was trying to find a small set of dimensions that could describe a person. In the end, he found sixteen motivators that he believes drives human behavior. (See The Normal Personality and Who Am I? for more details on his thoughts.) There are a few of the motivators that appear – at least on the surface – to be related to the need for safety.

Reiss’ motivators are supposed to be independent variables. They’re supposed to be unrelated; that’s the whole point of distilling the possibilities into the essential motivators. However, when you look at the motivators from the lens of safety, you see several that have influence on perceived safety. Independence is a desire for self-reliance – and therefore a greater tolerance for a lack of safety. Acceptance is the need for inclusion – and thus a higher need for safety. Status is the desire for social standing, which is complicated by originality. Status motivated people must be different – but not too different.

This need to temper differences comes from Everett Roger’s work, as revealed in Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers is famous for his bell curve with innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. He explains how some people will naturally seek out innovation – and some will resist. However, buried in the wealth of knowledge from Roger’s research is the key that, for innovations to take hold, the innovators must be different from the rest. They’ve got to be different enough to try something now but at the same time not too different. They need to be cosmopolitan but not too much so. The risk at a personal level and at the level of the diffusion of innovations is that the innovators will be too different, and the early adopters will never identify with them.

Acceptable Level

The motivators that Reiss’ distilled combine to show us a perspective of risk. Some people will have a high-risk tolerance and therefore a low need for safety, while others will have a small risk tolerance and will have a relatively higher psychological need for safety. Our need for safety and avoidance of risk isn’t a fixed point.

As we seek an acceptable level of risk – a risk homeostasis, as it were – we will adapt to taking more risk in some areas and less risk in others. (See The Medici Effect for more on risk homeostasis.) We will trade safety in some parts of our life for safety in other parts of our life, like swapping energy credits. The safer we feel in one area, the less need we’ll have for safety in other parts of our life. Effectively, we’re managing the gap between our perception of safety and our need for safety.

Mind the Gap

The driver for originality isn’t either the perception of safety or a person’s need for safety; rather, it’s the gap – or surplus – between these two. When you feel psychologically safe and have a low need for safety, you’ll tend towards being original. When you’re threatened and feel little safety, but have a high need for safety, you’ll be more conformist.

The decision between the two isn’t in the absolute of either value, but rather it’s in the relative location of your need for safety and your perception of the safety that you have. The challenge is the gap between them. The same ratio drives not just originality but all creativity.

Originality is Creativity

It’s not creative to be a conformist. It may have some psychological strain as you resolve the conflict between the world and your desires by submerging your desires. You may have to fight to keep your desires from reaching the surface like you would have to fight to keep a kick board submerged in a pool. There’s constant fighting. However, there’s no requirement to be creative when conforming. Conforming is straightforward and in some ways downright boring.

In Creative Confidence, the fear barrier – lack of safety – shows up as the primary barrier to people being more creative. The Medici Effect discusses the need for risk (perceived safety) in innovation. Beyond Genius implores you to find your courage (and lower your need for safety). Extraordinary Minds speaks about how geniuses reframe their failures to reduce their psychological impact. Creativity is risky. Creativity requires that the need for safety and the perception of safety are aligned. And originality is being creative – being willing to break the mold.

Mistakes and Mortals

No matter how much we may think of ourselves few of us think that we’re immortal. We recognize at some level that we’re human and mistakes come with the territory, though we’re painfully challenged to admit our mistakes and make changes. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) exposes some of the mechanisms that we use to protect our ego and save face. Change or Die shares the power of The Ego and Its Defenses. (All 22 major and 26 minor defenses).

One of the terrifying challenges with conformity is the possibility that it can lead to genocide. Stanley Milgram discovered that 65% of people would administer seemingly lethal shocks of electricity when they didn’t see the subject of the electrocution. (See Influencer for more about this gruesome finding.) This partially answers how people can be complicit in crimes and yet not feel the horror. (See Moral Disengagement for more on how this works.)

It would be wrong to draw a straight line between conformity and genocide. However, when conformity is wielded in the hands of an unscrupulous leader, the results can disastrous. Enron’s accounting scandal brought down both Enron and their accountants. It’s not genocide, but the result was the destruction of retirement savings of so many innocent people.

The commonality here is the inability of the right people to speak up. Their need for safety was too high or their perceived safety too low to respond in an original way to a difficult situation. Whistleblower laws aren’t enough to protect people from the harassment they’ll receive back on the job. Losing friendships with your work colleagues may be harder. That’s why it’s important to manipulate the system to create a surplus of perceived safety well in excess of the need for safety.

We’re All Original – In Our Own Minds

It’s the degree of originality that we express that’s the question. We can all point to examples where we’ve been originals. We can point to creative ideas. However, the question isn’t an either-or decision like a literal fork in the path. The question is the ratio between times that we’re compliant and when we decide to be original. It’s when we’re feeling safe enough that we’re willing to be original.

How do we create more original moments? We get our perception of safety higher and our need for safety lower. That’s manipulating our results by manipulating the factors.

Manipulating the Results

The same psychology that warns us of the dangers of conformity gives us clues on how to ensure that the need for conformity doesn’t overwhelm our ability to speak courageously when times call for it. (See Find Your Courage for more on speaking courageously.)

Faith in You

There’s an old Kenny Rogers song “She Believes in Me” that speaks of a guitarist performer who returns home to find a woman that believes in him. The song relates the strength that she imparts with her belief. His belief in his potential to be different and to be successful in changing the world is changed by her belief in him. She raises his perception of safety by reducing the chances of failure.

Having other people have faith in you increases your willingness to embark on a journey to change the world.

Importance

If you were faced with an important mission that you believed that you were created to do, how much risk would you take to do it? How willing would you be to stand up on a soapbox and shout your truth to the rest of the world? Most of us would be emboldened with the sense of importance in our goal – in our mission – that we’d throw aside our fears and concerns and charge headlong into unsafe waters.

The importance of the mission can push down our need for safety. Our safety can seem small in comparison with the mission that we were created to fulfill. By pushing down the need for safety, we can create the opportunity for originality. It’s this ability to set people free that has authors and experts practically begging us to create a sense of importance in all we do with everyone around us. (See Start with Why for one example.)

Passion

Importance may be about the destination, but it’s passion that is the fuel that helps you get there. Passion is what prompts us to be original now. We may have something important burning inside of us, and it may on its own push down our need for safety and create the opportunity to be original; however, it’s passion that gives us the swift kick in the pants that says be original now.

When someone really buys into the compelling mission and releases themselves to the idea that it must be done, then passion can follow. This passion suppresses, reduces, or merely holds at bay our need for safety.

Trust

If you want to make a big change in your behavior from conformity to creativity and originality, the big lever is trust. Trust is the major way to directly impact our perception of safety. Trust creates safety. Trust is, however, not well understood.

Ask anyone what trust is, and you’re quite likely to get a response like “meeting commitments.” In other words, trust is earned. While trustworthy people are people who do what they say they will do, this is about someone being trustworthy – not about trust. Trust is a choice and a gift that is independent of whether the other person is trustworthy or not.

Being a choice, you get to decide whether you’re interested in trusting others – whether they are worthy of it or not. The confusing part is that by trusting others – appropriately – you’ll increase your perception of safety. Measured trust quite literally attunes our mind to a belief that the world is inherently safer. Making a conscious effort to gift others with our trust pays us rewards beyond the confines of our relationship.

Safety is an Abstraction

While we have spoken about safety as a single thing, it is really a collection of feelings about safety. We may feel safe driving our own car – so we feel like a safe driver. However, change the car, add snow to the road, or change the amount of traffic, and suddenly our sense of safety changes. And even if we believe we’re safe drivers we may—or may not – believe we’re safe boat captains or pilots. Safety is contextual and related to the things that we’re doing.

There are many factors that influence our perception of safety that are below our conscious awareness. We feel less safe at work, because we’re struggling with a child at home. We feel more comfortable in our favorite outfit and less comfortable when we must wear a dress suit. We can be more original by simply wearing our favorite clothes – even if that is a suit.

It’s easy to describe in broad terms the need for safety or explain the perception of safety. Both, however, work at a macro and a micro level. We can generally feel safe but feel less safe in a specific situation because of factors that we aren’t even aware of. Perhaps the person we’re speaking with wears a bow tie, and we were scared (traumatized) by someone in a bow tie in the past.

When considering safety, we have to remember that it’s much more nuanced and situational than one broad, sweeping statement. However, the overall perception and need for safety will influence specific circumstances. Some people with a high general perception of and a low need for safety can do something risky like sky diving where others could not. This is true even when they know the instructor personally, they’ve reviewed the safety record of the school, and looked at all the details. Their situational safety may not be powerful enough to override their overall temperament on safety.

Safety Net

If you want to change someone’s temperament for safety, the best thing you can do is create a safety net for them and wait. Wait for them to fall into the net. It might be a simple thing like a meltdown while moving into an apartment or something like buying a tank of gas when they’re completely out of cash. They’re small things, but when they’re well-timed – in a time of need – they’re powerful reprogramming of our minds. Suddenly the world isn’t a scary awful place, it’s a place where there are helpful people.

Safety nets are about helping others know they will be OK. It’s not about the tank of gas, it’s about the way that the support fuels their hearts and minds and reminds them that they don’t have to go through the world alone.

Polymath

The people who were the most original could be considered polymaths. That is, they were experts in multiple areas. They chose to learn and grow and walk their own path. Da Vinci is perhaps the most well-known with his various forms of art; but don’t forget that he deferred painting the Mona Lisa until he had finished tinkering with optics. If you want to be more creative, more original, maybe it is found not by walking a path, but instead by wandering between passions and trying to figure out your own path from your interests.

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.”

Frenemies

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.

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.)

Focus

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

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.

Satisficing

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-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.

Terrorism

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

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.”

Grit

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.

Book Review-The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Morality isn’t a place where most people stumble – or rather, it’s not a place where most people stumble into their reading. Plenty of people struggle with other people’s morality while quietly sweeping their own under the rug. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion doesn’t give away that the book is about moral principles and what is – and isn’t – moral. However, this is the core of the work. I stumbled on it while researching some other topics and realizing that Jonathan Haidt had written it. His previous work, The Happiness Hypothesis, contains the single-most useful tool in my tool bag for understanding myself and others. That is his Rider-Elephant-Path model. (The path is an extension by Dan and Chip Heath that shows up in Switch.) On this alone, I would have picked up the book.

However, I had another reason to read it. I was trying to reconcile Predictably Irrational’s statement that we love the stuff we have more than the things we don’t – and the knowledge that we have covetousness in our societies. While I didn’t resolve this discrepancy, I feel like I’ve made progress on understanding how one set of foundations can lead us to two different conclusions.

Morality isn’t a Bug

Before we set to understanding how morality works, it’s important to recognize that morality was built into humans. It’s the product of natural selection – not an unintended side effect. While Darwin believed in “survival of the fittest,” he was also fascinated with morality and how humans could develop it. The answer to Darwin’s puzzle seems to be that groups that collaborate internally are better prepared to compete with other groups who are not as good at collaborating.

Morality, it seems, is a system put in place to enhance our ability to work together as cohesive units. Group effectiveness is enhanced by collaboration and our ability to set aside our individual needs for the needs of the greater good. (For more on collaboration, see Collaborative Intelligence.) All things being equal, those groups of animals who are best able to collaborate and function as a single, multi-part organism are best suited for survival. Early human tribes and societies survived because of their ability to work together.

It seems that the idea of reciprocal altruism is woven into the fabric of our genes. Somewhere we picked up the skill of bonding into groups and leveraging our ability to give to others as a way for everyone in the group to gain more benefits. Something about this reciprocal altruism was different than our animal kingdom peers.

Crossing the Rubicon of Shared Intention

Points of distinct change are related back to the Roman army crossing the Rubicon river towards Rome – something Caesar did that broke Roman law. The Rubicon crossing became known as a defining moment or a signal of an important change. In searching for the moment when humans became collaborative, scientists and historians have sought this “Rubicon crossing”. Many scientists believe that it was the introduction of language that allowed us to start to work together and therefore collaborate. However, Haidt argues that the real Rubicon was slightly earlier, when we picked up a neat little trick of shared intention.

With the trick of shared intention, we could look into each other’s minds and see a singular idea that was shared. Our hunter-gatherer forefathers could suddenly work together on a hunt and reap the collective rewards. This was the true transition for us. Language came later as a natural consequence of our desire to take the shared intention we could visually communicate into something that was easier to achieve.

Partially Resolved Issues with Dunbar

With this, I struggle to resolve the claim that humans are the only animals with shared intention, and therefore the need to be hyper-social, as indicated by Robin Dunbar’s work equating neocortex size in primates with the size of their social groups. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s number.) If you can predict the sociability of primates through neocortex size, then how can shared intention be a characteristic of only humans? At some level socialization has to be about shared intent, right?

Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, uttered, “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” It seems like this would be a basic form of cooperation and collaboration, but chimps don’t do it. They can’t manage the neuro-social concept of shared intention. While it may be hard for you and your brother coordinate when to lift and where to set down a couch, chimps have no capacity for it at all.

To resolve this discrepancy, I reviewed Dunbar’s writings and found that his article “The Social Brain Hypothesis” raises the question about shared intentionality. He refers to the human capacity as “theory of mind.” Dunbar describes this as “intentionality 2.0,” with chimps being capable of something like “intentionality 1.5.” In short, I don’t feel as if this discrepancy is fully addressed, but do accept that it’s one of the contested areas of anthropology and one which hopefully will become clearer soon. After all, it can be that this discrepancy may be part of why humans have been able to control our planet.

Foundations of Morality

Haidt argues that there are six foundations for morality:

  1. Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  2. Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  4. Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness and respect for those things of deity and avoidance for those things which are figuratively unclean.
  6. Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Interestingly, we each view these individual foundations with different importance. While nearly everyone accepts the bedrock foundation of care/harm as a formation for morality, political liberals lean more heavily on only the first two (care/harm, fairness/cheating), political conservatives rely on the next three (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation).

It’s worth noting that the sixth foundation evolved after some of the initial research, so liberty/oppression isn’t represented in the comparisons of liberals and conservatives. Of the first five, care/harm and fairness/cheating were more highly regarded by all But when asked about endorsements, conservatives were more interested in authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression above the concerns for care/harm and fairness/cheating – at least in the very conservative camp.

The difference in the relevance and importance of these foundations seems to cause a great deal of conflict – particularly in politics.

Conflict Resolution

When I speak about conflict resolution, I argue that all conflict only has one of two causes. It either is because of a value difference or a perspective difference. In doing so, I typically use Reiss’ model from Who Am I? and The Normal Personality to describe the 16 factors that influence behavior. However, when I mapped out the alignment between Haidt’s morality foundations and Reiss’ model, I found that the care/harm foundation seemed to have no allegory in Reiss’ work, and several of Reiss’ basic desires seemed to have no moral foundation (curiosity, saving, romance, eating, physical activity, and tranquility).

It seems that these moral foundations don’t match Reiss’ research on motivations very well. While we may be moral creatures, our morality isn’t always defined as a basic desire.

Recognizing Morality

While researching morality, and when children first develop their sense of morality, it becomes apparent that a child’s conception of morality is incomplete – and it changes. When hearing stories or asked about morality, children initially base their sense of morality on whether the person is punished or not. Except, it seems, when someone in the story is directly harmed. However, quickly in childhood development they develop a sense between those things which are “special, important, unalterable, and universal” rules that must always be followed and which ones are seemingly arbitrary and changeable.

For instance, rules about hair styles, food, clothing, and the like are social conventions rather than something which is based on a strong moral foundation. This insight – the difference between moral imperatives and social conventions – is what allowed the Jesuits to so effectively navigate the waters of their initial posts into other societies. Heroic Leadership recounts that there were several situations where the Jesuits had to step outside of their traditional religious trappings like clothing and adopt an approach that was more socially acceptable – while at the same time remaining true to their core moral beliefs.

Nature vs. Nurture

If children’s views on morality seem to have some basis in what they’ve known since birth, but then change over time, where does that leave us on the nature vs. nurture question? An ingenious model for nature and nurture was devised by Gary Marcus. He says, “nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.” That is, we start with something, but our experiences – particularly our peer experiences – can rewire the functioning.

He goes on to suggest an analogy: “The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood.” I would add here that it’s not just the genes that influence the brain’s development. Prenatal conditions – particularly stress conditions – can dramatically influence the structure of the developing fetus, leading to non-genetic changes in the development. (Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers discussed fetal origins of adult disease – which explains how this works.)

It seems like genetics can account for one-third to one-half of the variability among people’s political attitudes – the rest of the differences in political perspective can be explained by their experiences in life. However, nurture – or our environment – plays a role in shaping genetics as well. It’s not a one-way street.

Genetics and Coevolution

Humans, as we began to live in agrarian societies, developed an odd genetic change. As we domesticated animals which produced milk consistently, we had access to lactose, the kind of sugar in milk. Typically, mammals lose their ability to use lactose after childhood. However, when there’s a ready supply of milk, those who can process the lactose in milk have an advantage against starvation compared to those who can’t process lactose. Thus, it is believed that humans (most of us) developed the ability to continue to use the sugar in milk, even as adults.

This is just one of the many ways where our genes coevolved with the way that we created societies. For instance, Tibetans have genetic changes to create blood more conducive to their high-altitude living. As we change how – and where – we live, our genes change.

The Need for Communities

There are some unique challenges that happen once we collaborate. The benefit of having a group of people working together creates additional value that spills over to every member of the group – even if one member of the group isn’t doing anything to help the group. More broadly, when we’re building communities, we must address anyone who isn’t helping the group. This can range from the slacker, who simply isn’t doing their share; to the free-rider, who is doing nothing; to people who are actively trying to extract value at the cost of other members, the cheaters who undermine the trust and altruism that drives the ability for the community to function. Collaboration calls this problem “social loafing”. The problem operates at every level of group, from the largest organizations to the smallest teams.

We evolved with a bias towards communities that were working, and therefore we developed a set of morals that supported the development of those communities. Trust discusses one of the positive factors for community development. Trust removes the friction of operating with others. The other side of keeping communities together is less glamorous. The need to punish members of a community for behaviors like social loafing that reduce the social capital of the community is an unfortunate necessary. (See Bowling Alone for more on social capital.)

Looking Good vs. Being Good

We develop a set of moral foundations that supports our ability to work together. While we personally only have the desire to appear good – not to actually be good – we collectively create a set of foundations to keep people to at least creating the appearance of doing good. If people are caught, they know there are punishments (or sanctions), so they maintain the attempt to appear good.

The foundation of community is reciprocal altruism, which amounts to “tit-for-tat.” That is, we are willing to sacrifice to the degree that we expect others will be willing to do the same for us. (See The Science of Trust for a more in-depth conversation of advanced models for cooperation.) For this to function, we don’t have to be good. We just must look good. That’s one of the reasons that we’re so interested in what other people think.

The reality is that none of us – whether we’re looking historically or into our own lives – are completely good. Research has proven that we’ll cheat to the level that we believe we can get away with it – and the degree to which we can convince ourselves that it’s OK.

Permission to Believe in Our Goodness

We are seeking permission to believe that we’re good. Typically, we’re not looking for ways that we’ve not been good but rather how we can justify our behaviors in the cloak of goodness. We don’t think of things that disprove or disprove our beliefs. We have a serious confirmation bias, which blinds us to things that don’t fit into our existing thoughts. (Confirmation bias is spoken of repeatedly in the literature. You can find out more by starting at Choice Theory.)

The truth is that you can find evidence for whatever you want to prove. Even if it’s wrong, someone will have produced some shred of evidence that you could refer to with the purpose of proving your point. For instance, though thoroughly discredited and retracted from publication, a single “study” showed a link between vaccination and autism. The stigma remains about vaccinations, despite all the work that has been done to reverse it. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.)

We don’t want the truth; we want a truth that we can believe in. We want a story that we can tell to make it ok.

Press Secretary Rider

Our elephant, the emotional, most primitive basis of our mind, wasn’t equipped for working in a social world as large and complex as humans created. That’s why we have a larger neocortex, which accounts for 50-80% of our brain mass. The neocortex is our rational rider, our logical, thinking brain, except the rider isn’t exactly logical.

The rider is more like a press secretary who must justify, explain, and create stories for whatever the elephant has decided. It fills in the missing pieces with whatever happens to be around. (See Incognito for more.) This rider is useful in social circles – so the elephant keeps the rider around and transports it from place to place. After all, having your own public relations firm becomes a necessity when you need everyone to believe you’re good – when you’re not completely good.

Being social and truly committed to a group takes quite a bit of neurological work and it’s at the heart of nations.

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)

Printed on American money is the Latin phrase, E pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.” This is the essential magical act that every successful nation must perform. It’s the transformation of some – or all – of our will from individual-serving people to nation-serving people. This magical act transforms individuals into groups who are capable of supporting one another – and sacrificing for one-another.

The transformation from individuals who have their own selfish needs into one nation is powerful. It’s a conversion that most nations pull off only partially. We’re willing to commit some of our personal will and resources towards the nation – but only a portion. In contrast, ants and bees have E pluribus unum down.

Hive Mind

Ants and bees are interesting creatures. They work together in a single community where there is specialization of roles and massive selflessness. There is a queen bee who creates all the eggs but whose specialization makes her dependent upon the rest of the hive. Workers and drones manage production (pollen retrieval) and protection so that the queen can continue to lay eggs and grow the hive. Each member does their job – even if it leads to their own personal death – in service to the community.

Humans are all too often self-full creatures who are interested in their own needs and desires instead of the needs of their community. However, what if we could flip this on its head? What if, at times, our community instinct was so powerful that it could cause us to behave in selfless ways? As it turns out there is an evolutionary switch that does this. We can be selfless and serve the community.

In The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire, Kotler (and Wheal) speak of group flow. In this state, the individual fades away and the whole team functions as a single unit. In the context of Navy SEALs, it allows them to be an effective team working for the good of the entire team (and the mission). The ability to switch a bunch of individuals into a single, multi-person organism exists, but it isn’t easy to get fully engaged.

It doesn’t require being a Navy SEAL and their power of group flow to flip the hive switch and feel connected to other members of your team. The armed forces do this through synchronized drills designed to align everyone’s physical movements into a single coordinated action. This synchronization helps drive the awareness of the larger group to which someone belongs. We’re wired to get happiness from our relationship with other people so flipping the hive switch is a solid way to improve happiness. This explains how armed forces in combat situations can feel good – despite external circumstances.

Happiness from Relationships – not Objects

In America, we live in a consumer culture, where you can be happy if you just own this kind of car, this kind of watch, these shoes, or the next gadget. Advertising is sending us the message that we’re not good enough – but we can be if we’re willing to acquire another object or two or three.

The problem is that this isn’t true, at least in a lasting way. The truth is that we’re happy when we’re connected to other humans. Study after study reveals that we have less health issues, we live longer, and by every survey instrument we’re happier – when we’re in a relationship. While we may be amused and interested in our latest “toy,” the luster quickly fades and the new car becomes passé, the shoes worn out.

The truth is that the “WEIRDer” we are, the more likely we are to see ourselves as separate from others and see the world as a series of objects. The harder it is for us to have true happiness.

Moral Literature is WEIRD

WEIRD is an acronym:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

Most of the moral literature that has been written is based on studies that were performed on WEIRD people – they are, after all, the people who have the time to consider such things. Their peers and most accessible people to those studying morality are those who are similar to themselves and are WEIRD as well.

These sorts of people believe in reason and that reason is the root of morality; but the truth is that the rider follows where the elephant leads – not the other way around.

Intuition First, Reason Second

Our press secretary riders are constantly explaining and excusing what the elephant is doing. The elephant (our basal brain, including emotions) is evolutionarily wired to make snap judgements, and those judgements have a bias towards the negative. This was beneficial to our development as a species. However, it means that our intuition comes first and then we reason with a decision that has already been partially made.

We start by rationalizing and starting to verbalize our “gut feel” for a situation. Most of the time, it stops there. We develop some excuse for what’s going on. Too few people, too few of the times, have the capacity to peer into the intuition of the elephant to see the underlying meaning.

Haidt acknowledges that much of the Judeo-Christian Bible is about evolutionarily useful cleanliness practices. Raised in these environments, artifacts exist to warn us of harm that may not exist – or may no longer exist.

Religions

Perhaps the greatest advocate for morality is organized religion, and, at the same time, it’s organized religion that has done the most damage to the noble effort of morality. Gandhi once remarked to an English friend, “I don’t think much of your Christianity, but I like your Christ.” The things that organized religions have done in service to deities who are the pillars of moral certainty is frightening. Somewhere, religions have fallen into blind trust of religious leaders. (The quote is pulled from Spiritual Evolution.)

Budha remarked that, according to the Dali Lama, if religion is proven wrong by findings through investigation and experimentation, then religion must change. (See Emotional Awareness.) This is the heart of developing a religion rooted in reality and one for which the moral compass can be adjusted to accept the changing awareness of the world that we live in.

Perspective of Compassion

Religion is the engine for delivering up the kind of long-term social stability that has served our species so well. Religion was supposed to, and sometimes does, engender compassion. It’s this compassion that drives us to investigate The Righteous Mind of others.

Book Review-Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

It’s an odd title for a book. Why would a psychologist title a book Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health? The answer lies in the belief that drugs are not the answer to all of the mental health problems of the day, and that in truth many – if not all – of the mental health problems that we have today can be traced back to a single source: unhappiness. While happiness itself is hard to define and even harder to find, the lack of happiness seems to manifest problems in our mental states as well as our physical bodies.

Dr. Glaser has written several books including two books that I’ve previously reviewed: Schools Without Failure and Choice Theory. Fundamentally, Dr. Glaser believes that we all have choices to make, and it’s understanding those choices that frees us from the bonds of unhappiness. Here, he extends his views into the ills of psychiatric drugs.

Placebo

I’ve addressed before the powerful effects of placebos and my belief that they’re driven by hope. (See The Heart and Soul of Change.) Dr. Glaser shares that, in some studies, patients who were getting better immediately relapse when they’re given the news that they’ve been receiving a placebo. It’s too difficult for them to accept that they were getting better based on their beliefs not on an external drug. Placebos work because we believe that what is being done has the capacity to heal us, to make us better, and to make it alright. If we just take the blue pill, we’ll find that we’re alright soon enough.

While ethicists that I know don’t believe that we should always give patients a placebo and tell them it’s an experimental new therapy that might work in their case, I’m not so sure. Perhaps my ethical boundaries get a bit blurry when we’re talking about eliminating human suffering. Perhaps I’m underestimating the damage to trust that it would do to tell someone they’re in an experimental program. However, I’ve got a strong desire to experiment with how effective I could get placebos to be by infusing patients with hope.

Efficacy

Efficacy is interesting in clinical studies. In order to be significant, there needs to be a sufficient difference between the control group receiving the placebo and the study group that’s receiving treatment. Unfortunately for psychiatric drug manufacturers the placebo effect is quite large. This means that drugs have to show a very high degree of efficacy in order to have a significant effect.

Some studies for some drugs have shown these larger effects, but the effects aren’t nearly as large as people would like you to believe. While drug companies can claim that 50-60% of people taking their wonder drug got better, they neglect to mention that 47-50% of people got better on placebo. Basically, there’s a maximum of a 13% difference – and a mean of 6.5%. A lot of money is being spent on small chances at making things better.

Long Term Effects

What is worse is that the long-term effects of these drugs are known to be potentially very bad. For instance, 25% of people treated for five years with schizophrenia medications will develop tardive dyskinesia, which is characterized by repetitive, involuntary, purposeless movements. Stopping medications won’t stop tardive dyskinesia. Once the damage has been done, it can’t be reversed.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are another class of drugs that, while widely-used, have questionable long-term impact and incredibly short (6 weeks!) studies of their efficacy. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about SSRIs.) Some animal studies have shown the prolonged exposure to SSRIs causes the brain to down-regulate the number of serotonin receptors that the brain has.

Study Sources

It gets worse. The studies that we do have to prove marginal effectiveness of these drugs are sponsored in most cases by the very pharmaceutical companies that want to sell the drugs to the market. While this is in some ways to be expected, because they have the financial advantage if it sells well, it also raises the very real concern about undue influence in the study results.

If you don’t believe it can happen, consider the incorrect link assigned between vaccinations and autism. It was an article in The Lancet has since been retracted: the collaborators on the article indicated that they weren’t aware of the lead author’s ties to a group trying to prove that vaccines were harmful. The lead author, Andrew Wakefield, has lost his license to practice medicine and in professional circles has been thoroughly discredited. However, the myth of the correlation between vaccinations and autism persists. Millions of children each year aren’t vaccinated due to one bad author and the one bad study.

Study Issues

Even if you accept honorable intentions, it’s estimated that 40% of peer-reviewed published research articles contain statistical errors. That’s just statistical errors. That doesn’t account for any leakage of information, accidental bias, or other introductions into the study which unduly influenced the results. If you run enough studies over a long enough period of time, you’ll eventually find a way to prove what you want to prove. Some hidden variable will appear in the data and you won’t be able to factor it out. (See The Black Swan for more on unexpected events.)

Having been in and around the publication of a few studies myself, I can say that all too often what is in the study design and what makes it into the paper is a small fraction of the important factors that led to the results. The reason that folks want multiple studies confirming the same thing is that too often studies are proven to be false or insufficient to demonstrate the effect that was expected.

A Better Alternative

So while insurance companies pay for the prescriptions to these psychological drugs for years and years, rarely do they pay for more than a few therapy sessions. While there is support for a limit to the number of sessions for effectiveness, the insurance minimums are often too short to provide any real impact. Instead the insurance company will pay for drugs for years and years.

Again, my proximity has led me to the awareness that insurance companies don’t expect members to be in the plan long enough to take on substantial upfront costs – like counseling – when low-level, long-term costs are sufficient. In short, they’re willing to keep people on drugs that mask the symptoms rather than solve the root cause, because their cost over the time they expect to retain the member is lower. (Talk about disincentives.)

If people could resolve their unhappiness, they wouldn’t need continuous drugs. In fact, George Brooks found that medication wasn’t enough to allow schizophrenic patients to leave the hospital. They needed psychosocial rehabilitation – at the end of which the drugs were no longer needed.

Let’s Get Together, Yea, Yea, Yea

The theme song for The Parent Trap says, “Let’s get together, yea, yea, yea” and it hides a certain truth: that we are social creatures, and that much of our happiness is gained in our relationships with other people, whether it’s understanding the different levels at which people relate as I discussed in High Orbit – Respecting Grieving or The Gifts of Imperfection.

A Science magazine article indicates that isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” (See The Psychology of Hope for more.) Clearly we have to be in relationship with other people to be healthy physically.

Don’t Worry Be Happy Now

It would be great if it were as easy as deciding to be happy and suddenly you would become happy. It would be amazing to be able to make the decision to transform your life from one of stress and anxiety to one of peace and tranquility. In truth, this is sort of the case. Ultimately it’s a decision to view the world differently and choose different behaviors; however, the process is neither simple nor easy. It’s not as easy to, as Bobby McFerrin says, “don’t worry, be happy now,” but it is possible.

The process sometimes requires the assistance of drugs in the short term to lift someone out of the pit of depression. The drugs provide enough support for someone to do the work to change their perspective. Once sufficiently lifted from the clutches of depression, Dr. Glaser believes in his Choice Theory, which states that it’s our attempt to control others that makes us unhappy.

In short, if we can just allow other people to be separate people, and not try to control them, then we’ll be much happier. Though this is easier said than done, it is something that can be transformational.

Transformational Breakthrough or Emotional Breakdown

Looking from the outside in, it’s quite difficult to distinguish between a transformational breakthrough and an emotional breakdown. The observable behaviors are the same. We see a rapid transformation in someone. Often, there is a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth in both scenarios. It’s not a pleasant experience. However, after a transformational breakthrough, the clouds part and the skies are bright and shiny. With an emotional breakdown, there’s no clearing of the skies, and often the person feels stuck.

It’s very little wonder that a psychiatrist can’t tell the difference between a transformation and a breakdown. In the appendices, Dr. Glaser provides space for some other authors to share their stories. In one of the stories, a professional shares how he was himself on the wrong side of the profession. He was almost committed by his colleagues and spouse into institutions, and he was able to experience what it is really like to be a patient. His only recourse was to voluntarily commit himself so that he could leave on his own.

The triggering event in this case was really about questioning the path to recovery of patients. In questioning the status quo and transforming his thinking, he was considered to have a mental disease. His colleagues and spouse couldn’t see that he was gaining a new level of understanding – perhaps because this would have meant that they were missing something.

Conversion Disorder

Glaser believes that our psychological ills – our unhappiness or lack of mental health – causes our bodies to react in negative ways. This is consistent with the research of Spolsky in Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. His belief is that many – if not all – of the diagnoses in the DSM-V (DSM-IV at the time of his writing) can be explained by the fact that people are unhappy, and the diagnoses in DSM-V are simply manifestations of that unhappiness.

Many of the non-specific cause illnesses he attributes to a lack of mental health. He suggests that, as people learn to be happier, their physical symptoms will eventually subside. While I am certainly not qualified to speak for every physical condition, I can say that I’ve personally seen remarkable changes with people who have become happier. Their physical issues are reduced.

At the heart of these changes and the increased happiness is a connection with others.

Group Think

One of the interesting structural decisions for the book was that it follows the path of a couple who were struggling with their own selfish and controlling needs through their recovery and sharing their discoveries with a group of their friends in a book club. The structure of the book is different than most in that it follows a story arc from the initial awareness of the ideas to how those same ideas apply to others in different situations.

Ultimately the book seeks to create groups – self-supporting, no-fee groups – that speak about Choice Theory and how it can positively transform lives. While I don’t believe this movement ever gained ground, it is a noble idea. The idea that groups – much like the concept of an AA group – could help improve the health of its members and provide them with the connections they need to become healthier is certainly an idea worth trying.

In fact, just reading and pondering on the thoughts inside of Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health is a worthy endeavor as well. After all, difficult or not, you do have a choice to be happy.

The Largest Gap in the World – Between Saying and Doing

The largest gap on the planet Earth isn’t the Mariana Trench or the Grand Canyon. The largest gap is between saying and doing. The largest gap exists between what people say they do and what they actually do. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend to do what we say, but sometimes we don’t. Some of us more than others tolerate the gap between doing what we say we will do – and actually doing it. If you want to close the gap, or at least understand it better, you have to understand why saying is easy and doing is hard.

Saying is Easy

Despite the substantial effort that goes into the art of speaking with others, it’s relatively easy. Within our first few years of life, most of us have a reasonable command of the language that our parents speak. (For me, this was English.) While English classes continued through high school, these were really not English classes as much as they were teaching me the appreciation of literature and improving my ability to express myself.

School and life prepare us for verbally communicating our beliefs and desires. We learn how to speak, and eventually we find the process relatively easy. With work, we can even have Crucial Conversations with relative ease.

Doing is Hard

There’s a saying that people might “talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?” Why is that? The answer is that it’s easy to say that you’re going to skip dessert but harder to do it. After all, we are driven by the glucose imperative. (See Habits – Goals and Limits for more on the glucose imperative.) What can be said in a few words may be very difficult to do. Consider President Kennedy’s address to Congress, where he outlined the objective of transporting man to the moon and returning him safely home. He literally said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” The cost was $25.4 billion in the dozen years that followed his speech. The words took Kennedy approximately 11 seconds to say.

It’s nothing to say that one will get a college degree but, as many students will attest while studying and trudging through the cold weather, it’s easier said than done. It’s not the big things that are harder to do than they are to say. Everything, from the simple “I’ll make dinner” to “I’ll take out the trash,” is easier to say than to do.

Should Say, Can’t Do

Many times our prognostications about what we will do in the future aren’t based on what we want or believe but instead on what we believe we “should” do. Whether this is based on societal expectations or expectations of our friends and family, these “shoulds” separate us from what we genuinely want to do. Instead, they cause us to make commitments that aren’t aligned with our true desires.

The problem is that when the time comes to actually do the “should” instead of just say it, our inner conflict kicks in and there are always other more pressing things that need to happen instead of the “should.”

Being Someone Else

Many of us have a need to portray ourselves as someone other than who we really are. Somewhere along the line, right or wrong, we’ve discovered that we should be someone else, because people don’t like the person that we are. We’ve heard that we’re not good enough. (See Daring Greatly for more on being enough.) We’ve heard criticism about one of the characteristics of our personality that defines us and gives us strength but is also at the heart of our weakness – and we decided to change.

This attempt to be someone else – someone more likable or prettier or more sensitive or whatever – causes us to deny our true selves and hold ourselves out to be someone else. We are the shiny, stained glass people that show no blemishes; but in doing this, we’ve made it harder to connect what we say and what we do. (See How to Be Yourself for more about being someone else.)

Cognitive Dissonance

You know those times when you know you really need to do something. Maybe it’s your taxes. There’s no escaping the task needing to be done, and yet you take the day that you were going to work on taxes and suddenly decide to reorganize your collection of belly button lint? Out of the blue, the tasks that you least like – besides taxes – seem to be the ones that you want to get done.

You’re experiencing the inner conflict of cognitive dissonance. You know what you need to do, but dislike it enough that you’re electing to do other painful – but still less painful – tasks in order to avoid the thing you don’t want to do. That’s cognitive dissonance. That’s you trying to avoid doing what you know needs to be done. I once organized my collection of CDs – a somewhat extensive collection – to avoid doing another task – one that I don’t even remember at this point.

Settle Down Elle

With cognitive dissonance, we recognize that we’re not of one mind but of two. Whether you like the System 1/System 2 perspective of Thinking, Fast and Slow, or you’re partial to Johnathan Haidt’s model of the rider, elephant, and path, we are not of a single mind. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the rider, elephant, path model.) The difference between the rational rider’s (System 2) perspective on the “should” and the elephant’s (System 1) experience creates some of the gap between saying and doing.

The elephant, with trumpets blaring, may declare what you’re going to do – what you’re going to make happen. Later, when the elephant is calm and the rider is trying to save face, the weight of the statement that was made emotionally may come to full awareness. The internal voice asks, “Why did I say I would do that?”

This is the opposite side of the coin of the elephant making a commitment that the rider tries to carry out: instead, the rider makes a commitment that the elephant bristles at, leading to the kind of cognitive dissonance described above.

Whether the elephant is excited in the making of the commitment or the execution of the commitment, people who aren’t able to meet their commitments often suffer from a gap between their elephant and their rider.

Commitment Cancer

On a few occasions I’ve written about the curse of “commitment cancer”. This is the downward spiral where people make but fail to meet their commitments to one another (see Running Users Groups and The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices). The problem with missing a
commitment isn’t the single commitment that’s missed, it’s the chain reaction of missed commitments that creates the challenge.

While I’m not a fan of the game “worst case scenario,” it explains the problem. The first missed commitment leads to the next, and then the next, and eventually the fabric of the organization falls away because the commitments, which are the fabric of the organization, are too frail to continue to hold it together.

The end game of the kind of commitment cancer that spreads and infects the organization is no organization at all.

Causes and Cures

I’ve listed just some of the many reasons why people make commitments that they don’t keep and have highlighted the end result of too many missed commitments. But I’ve not really directly addressed what to do to change the importance of meeting commitments and the ease at which that is done.

A good start is accepting Pacta sunt servanda (Latin for “agreements must be kept”) as a fundamental truth. If you don’t believe that it’s important for agreements to be kept – for commitments to be kept – then there’s little hope in change. If, in the back of your head, there’s the nagging voice, or there’s the devil on your shoulder saying, “but there are exceptions”, you may not fully appreciate the need to keep your agreements/commitments. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions and barriers and difficulties. I’m saying that your first position should be that part of making the commitment is recognizing that the exceptions exist, and it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with them.

Next, remember the words of Shakespeare “to thine own self be true.” If you’re struggling to be your true authentic person, you’ll never have the willpower (see Willpower) to keep your commitments. Likewise, if you’re failing to accept others for who they are, you make it difficult for them to be themselves and therefore keep their commitments. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on accepting and allowing others to be who they need to be.)

Finally, practice building trust – because building trust is making, renegotiating, and meeting commitments. (See my post Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet.) To build trust and strengthen the fabric of whatever organization you’re in, all you need to do is make and meet commitments – and in the process, strengthen the trust that you and your colleagues have.

Book Review-Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Reading a child rearing book originally written in the late 60s and published in 1970 seems like a departure from my reading list. I don’t typically read child rearing books for good reason. I disagree with quite a bit of what is written. Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, is no exception. However, there’s an important reason for reading it. The reason is because his discussions of active listening underpin motivational interviewing. (For more see my review of Motivational Interviewing.) Though I had been exposed to active listening – as most folks have – I wanted to know more about its roots and to understand it more.

The best lesson from Parent Effectiveness Training for me was that I can deeply respect some views and insights of someone and vehemently disagree with some of their other views. I’ve mentioned some minor disagreements in previous reviews (For instance, see Daring Greatly) but here I’ll share strong feelings for the insight that Dr. Gordon has and my concerns about where I think incorrect conclusions have been reached.

Spock

I start not with Dr. Gordon’s beliefs, but with the recognition that the grandfather of parenting books is Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book Baby and Child Care has been the classic handbook of parenting for over 65 years. However, Finding Flow reports that he expressed some concerns that training children to be unfettered individualists may have had unforeseen negative consequences. Spock encouraged parents to allow children to grow at their own pace. However, we’ve seen that public programs like Sesame Street can have substantial positive impacts by helping particularly under-resourced children learn and grow more quickly and reliably – beyond their own pace. (See “G” is for Growing for more about Sesame Street‘s approach and impact.)

Personally, I feel like we’re seeing a wave of entitlement in our children that represents a threat to our culture and productivity. (See America’s Generations for more about the shifts in generational values.) I remain concerned with the need to balance perspectives instead of accepting one single truth. I don’t believe that any author or professional has the answer for every situation. Some have answers that are applicable to more situations than others.

United Fronts

Very early on, Dr. Gordon criticizes the idea that parents should “always be together in their feelings, presenting a united parental front to their children.” He says about it, “this is nonsense.” On this point, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Gordon. I believe that the consistency of getting the same answers from either parent is important to minimize confusion in the mind of the child. (Later, he strongly encourages parental consistency.) I think that the error is in the word “always.” I think the importance is to strive to be on the same page.

This demonstrates to children that the parents work together to reach a consensus approach. I can say from my own marriage and my own children that this isn’t easy, but it is something that the children appreciate. They know that my wife and I generally present a united front about things. What they don’t know is that sometimes I don’t agree with our position. However, I always accept and support it.

Understanding the need of accepting shared decisions and supporting them is something I learned from Dr. Gottman’s work. Dr. Gottman criticizes the suggestion that couples should use active listening when communicating with each other, because it requires a high degree of skill that most couples don’t possess. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s research and perspectives.) Gottman has a very high success rate of predicting the stability of a marriage based on a few minutes of observation of arguments. He’s intimately acquainted with disagreements in couples and the resolutions. I’ve never read in his works that parents shouldn’t attempt to reach consensus because it’s too hard – his work seems to travel in the opposite direction.

Dr. Gordon and Dr. Gottman together may highlight the one key about presenting a united front that may invalidate the technique. The ability to separate agreement with acceptance isn’t a skill that everyone has. If you can’t accept the united front without necessarily agreeing completely, then don’t try to pull it off. The children will see this as a lack of integrity, and rather than demonstrating consistency, it will cause them to focus on the discrepancy they are seeing but can’t explain.

Ultimately, presenting the united front delivers consistency in the short term and teaches the need to reach consensus and develop acceptance in the absence of agreement – these are all critical social skills that our children need, despite Gordon’s belief that it’s “nonsense”. He has a similar discord with the idea that you can accept the child but not their behaviors.

Accept the Child Not the Behavior

Cloud and Townsend made popular the idea of boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. They identified the need to separate ourselves from things that are not ourselves and to protect ourselves. They defined boundaries as being either “temporary protective” boundaries or “defining” boundaries. Temporary protective boundaries exist to protect ourselves for a time. In Dr. Gordon’s language, he speaks of the impact that one person’s behaviors has on another, and discussing the impacts so that the other person knows how they’re impacting you. This is letting others know what your temporary boundaries are and why you have them.

Here, Dr. Gordon is concerned with the parents’ authenticity. He believes that this idea “prevents parents from being real.” Here, I think that Dr. Gordon has missed the idea of compassion or love. Agape love – love for all – and philos love – love for our group or family – can exist even when we’re not accepting (or allowing) another person’s behaviors. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about accepting and allowing.) I believe the ability to prioritize your compassion and love for your children above your need to accept their behaviors is an advanced skill that Dr. Gordon may have not seen frequently (or at all) in his work.

I firmly believe that you can love the child and accept them as a person while expecting (and requiring) different behaviors from them. I say this with caution out of fear that I’ll be misunderstood. I’m not saying that you should kick your child out if they develop an addiction. I’m suggesting that you come to them in love to support them as people while preventing the impact of the behaviors from impacting you.

The Need for Privacy

Dr. Gordon believes that checking up on children demonstrates a non-acceptance of children, which he finds to be harmful. He believes that children have the right to privacy. Here, I disagree because of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian proverbs “doveryai, no proveryai”: that is, “trust, but verify.” In our house, children’s privacy is not a right, but an earned privilege. That is, if they demonstrate their trustworthiness, we offer them trust that they’re utilizing the resources that we provide appropriately. When they violate our trust, or signal to us that they are hiding something, and the privilege of privacy is temporarily rescinded.

In practical terms, we almost never intrude into the lives of our children. We have applied internet monitoring software on their devices to prevent access to inappropriate internet sites. We reserve the right to look at their phones at any time to review what they’ve been looking at or the conversations they’re having with their girlfriends and boyfriends – but we almost never do.

I don’t believe this is about acceptance of them as a person but is about what is an isn’t acceptable uses of the resources that we provide. So here, too, I believe that Gordon’s view isn’t sufficiently nuanced to identify the core concept that is the concern – acceptance of the person. Instead, he uses one situation that can be handled inappropriately and can convey a lack of acceptance, but one that doesn’t necessarily have to.

At this moment one of our children has his hair dyed blue. My wife dyed his hair for him. We accept his need to define his individuality and accept him, though neither of us are interested in turning our own hair blue.

Impact on Us

One area of confusion is when parents believe that their children’s expressions of themselves will become judgements on how good – or poor – they are as parents. They believe that the way the child behaves reflects on the parent’s ability to parent. In some cases, as in the case of the preacher’s kids (PKs), there are certain stresses that exist that don’t exist for most folks. I know several friends who grew up as PKs, and they talk about how they had to learn at a very young age to assess how others might view their behaviors.

In my observation, the larger the family is, the less that the parents see the behaviors of any one of their children as their failings as a parent. Typically, the question becomes, what did we do wrong with this one, and isn’t generalized to being bad parents. However, with nuclear family sizes decreasing, there’s an increasing tendency to see the decisions and failures of children as a reflection on the parents.

Some parents take the opposite view and seek to live their lives vicariously through their children. If they never made it as a track star, they’re going to make sure that their son is. If they weren’t the beauty queen, they’re going to make sure that their daughter is. These are the parents who are at the greatest risk of feeling the impact of their children. They’re accepting responsibility for the good things in their children’s life and blurring the child’s individuality with theirs.

There are three fundamental truths about how our children’s behavior impacts us that we would do well to consider:

  1. Failure isn’t an option, it’s essential and necessary for growth. (See Raise your Line for more.)
  2. We are not our children. They have their own individual lives outside of us. We can neither take credit for their successes nor their faults. (See The Available Parent for more.)
  3. The world is probabilistic. There are no one right set of things to help our children grow up as contributing citizens. We can only influence the outcomes. We can’t control them. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of the world.)

In the end, we can recognize that the child is a separate person full of their own faults and foibles – just like us – but those faults and foibles aren’t the result of our actions or inactions as parents.

Separating the Person and the Action or Belief

When I teach people conflict resolution skills I often teach the clear distinction between the person – who is inherently valuable because they are human – and the action or behavior that they’re exhibiting, which may or may not be something you agree with or even find acceptable. This separates the value the person has from the perspective on what they’re doing.

People can – and sometimes should – rightly disagree with other humans. However, the disagreement should be about the action or belief, and not about the value of the other person. I can disagree with Dr. Gordon about some of his views while at the same time respect him as a person. I can even disagree with some of his beliefs while agreeing with others. I’ve separated the person and the value of the person from how I value the idea. This is all too often missing in conflicts, whether they occur between business people or within a family.

Our ego uses defensive routines to defend us against external threats. (See Change or Die for more on our ego and its defenses, and Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together – Defensive Routines for more on our defensive routines.) However, in many people, this defensive response happens even when the person we’re conversing with isn’t attacking us but is instead is disagreeing with our idea. (See How Children Succeed for more on HPA Axis issues which lead to more active defenses.)

We can observe that our children have dirty dishes in their rooms. That’s an observation and verifiable fact. To say that they’re a slob because they have dirty dishes in their room is a judgement about their character – and a disrespectful one at that. In our conversations with our children, it’s important to distinguish between the behaviors and how we see the child.

Problem Ownership

Key to Dr. Gordon’s approach is the development of an expectation on the part of the child that the problem – whatever it is – is the child’s problem. The parent is there to help, but the child is expected to participate in the problem-solving process. The solutions don’t “come down from on high.” Instead they’re the result of a collaboration between the parent and the child.

Ultimately, the parent wants the child to own their own problems. Eventually, the child will be here on this planet and the parents will be gone. While the parent can be a source of support, they cannot be the one with all the answers. (See Our Kids for more about the support that parents can provide.) To manage the long-term results for our children, we must teach them to accept ownership of their problems. We do that through the process of active listening (and facilitated problem solving).

Active Listening

Active listening starts with an attitude. It’s an attitude of interest in the child and their world. While children may not be experts on many things, they are the undisputed experts of their inner world. (What Glassier calls “quality” world in Choice Theory.) When they choose to share their world with parents, they are doing so because they believe the benefits and the trust in the parents exceed the perceived risks. The parents need to accept that the child is bringing something to the table as it relates to the solution to whatever problem they have. They also have to accept that sometimes the “problem” is simply the need to process their world by “talking it out.”

With the belief that the child is bringing something valuable, it’s easier to see that your role is simply to support through acceptance of the child and a desire to be helpful to them. The key here is that the parent isn’t assuming ownership of the problem. They’re in the supporting role.

Sometimes maintaining the perception of the supporting role is very hard – at least for me. Sometimes the problems that my children present are so obvious to me that I just want to tell them the answer and move on. However, I know that this is far too often detrimental to trust, because it signals them that I don’t trust them to take care of their own issues.

It’s much harder to reflect what they’re saying and gently guide them towards a greater awareness of the challenges they’re facing and the resources they need to solve the problem. It takes more time, but it helps them to develop the skill of solving problems on their own. I’ve literally heard our children repeat back their processing on topics we’ve not discussed and recognize the ownership that they took in the problem. With that level of ownership, they didn’t need to come ask for help processing. (Though they did want validation that they had done good work processing it themselves.)

Active listening starts with reflecting back what the child has said. The more advanced active listening attempts to decode the meaning behind the message and reflects that message back to the child, so that it’s apparent to the child that they’re understood not just for the content of their message but the meaning – and typically the feelings – behind it.

One of the greatest fears that children and adults share is whether they are understood and accepted. Often the concern for acceptance is focused around their feelings. They believe that they shouldn’t have the feelings that they do, or that somehow their feelings are wrong or bad.

Feelings are Friendly

It’s important for everyone to understand that feelings aren’t good or bad. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Ekman discussed afflictive and non-afflictive emotions. In the end, however, there was an awareness that the emotions that people feel aren’t afflictive or non-afflictive in the moment that they’re felt. They’re afflictive if they are retained for an inappropriate amount of time. Thus, all emotions – all feelings – are acceptable at least in the short term. The important point isn’t that you have a feeling. It’s what you do with the feeling that matters. All feelings are acceptable – and non-afflictive, at least in the short term – but not all behaviors are acceptable.

We are all concerned about how others will view our feelings and emotions, when in reality there’s little need to be concerned whether our feelings are appropriate or not.

Three Methods

Dr. Gordon sees that there are three methods of parenting:

  1. Parent Wins – This authoritative approach has the child always losing and the parent always getting their needs met, sometimes at the expense of the child.
  2. Child Wins – This permissive approach has the child always winning and getting their needs met at the expense of others.
  3. Win-Win – This approach seeks compromise and to understand the deeper needs to create solutions that meet everyone’s true needs instead of just their expressed needs.

Gordon’s assertion is that parents should be using method 3 – Win-Win – and this makes rational sense. While he acknowledges that there may be times – such as the child running in front of a car where method 1 (Parent Wins) is necessary – he explains that this generally means the method 3 conversation that should have happened before the incident didn’t.

He also acknowledges that children raised in method 2 homes find it difficult to adapt at school, because most schools use method 1. (For more about how to run schools differently see Schools Without Failure.) Further, he acknowledges that sometimes raising creative, independent children happens with method 2 homes, but sometimes at the expense of the parents actually liking their children.

I’m all for finding ways to negotiate and find solutions where everyone wins at times, but I think it goes too far to say it should always be used. Sometimes there is just insufficient time to work through the details of negotiation and listening to get to a win-win situation. Unfortunately, there are limits to our time which requires an approach that has quicker results. You can’t use method 1 every time, but using it sometimes makes sense.

And we’re back full-circle to Spock and the reality that we need to encourage our children to be individuals. We need to encourage and support their expression of themselves both in voice and in action – while simultaneously creating an understanding of the world they will live in, where they will have bosses and they will be told how things are going to be from time to time. The objective with Parent Effectiveness Training should be to help expose children to the most advantageous environment – which for me means a blend of Method 1 and Method 3. It’s absolutely worth reading – as long as you’re willing to evaluate what to keep, what to discard, and what to incorporate in part.