The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

Book Review-The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

It was a wintery night, and I found myself in the emergency room with my son. I was madder than I remember ever being. I felt like someone who was supposed to protect him had failed him. They had failed to do what they knew would keep him safe and were forcing to him to endure needless pain. The battle for control in my mind was palpable. On the one hand, I wanted to yell, scream, and much worse, and on the other, I realized that I had to not do this, because releasing my frustration would only cause my son more – admittedly psychological – pain. My solution was odd – to say the least. To occupy my mind, to keep my executive function firmly engaged, I designed a home security system based on Raspberry Pi devices. I never intended to build it for real, but it was a sufficiently rich and complex puzzle that my executive function could remain fully engaged. I credit this exercise with my ability to – relatively speaking – retain my cool in an awful situation.

Miles away and years ago, Walter Mischel evaluated how children could hold out for two treats instead of the one that was visible to them. His test became known as the “marshmallow test” (since marshmallows were sometimes used as treats). Investigating the factors and strategies employed that would lead to gratification was interesting research – until it became instructive. Following up on the children, he discovered the paths of the children who delayed vs. those who couldn’t wait were radically different. This simple test had predictive powers for SAT scores and wages years downstream. Explaining the background, the findings, and what to do about them is what The Marshmallow Test is all about.

The Power of Self-Control

Imagine for a moment that I told you a simple genetic test could tell you what your weight would be like as an adult. Better yet, what if I could tell you how happy you would be as an adult? Would you be interested in taking the test – or having the test done for your children? Ignoring the concern for getting bad results, who wouldn’t want to be able to get a reasonably accurate idea of where our children will end up? Most of us would. That’s what the marshmallow test tells us. It points towards whether we’ll have a healthy, well-adapted life or a maladaptive one.

It’s important to say that the marshmallow test – or genetic tests for that matter – are indicative of a probable path. They’re predictive, not prescriptive. If you fail the marshmallow test, you’re not doomed. There are things that can be done to shape your future no matter what the test says – but we’ll get to that later.

It turns out that much of what we see as success in life is the result of good self-control. Our ability to appropriately manage our weight is numerous decisions about the right foods and the right amount of exercise. Our SAT score reflects our effort more than any inherent intelligence. (See Mindset for more.) The outcomes that the marshmallow test predicts are the outcomes from our ability to control our self and plan for the long term results we want for our life. Often this self-control is called willpower. (See Willpower for more on this view of self-control.)

The Influence of Trust

The invisible presence in the room that silently tipped the scales from right now into the future was trust. The more that the children trusted they would get the extra treat, the more they would be willing to wait. Their trust influenced their ability to wait – but what influenced their trust?

Some of the protocols for the tests were intentionally designed to create trust. Creating the opportunity for the child to call the researcher back in at any time was a simple indication that they would keep their word. However, the primary factors for whether or not they would trust the researcher reached well beyond the room. Fundamentally, children had different perspectives on trust. Those from one home – with both parents – might find that their world is filled with adults that keep their commitments. Those from single-parent homes have too much experience with adults who don’t keep their word to just blindly accept that adults will keep their word.

Trust – which leads to perceived safety – is what it takes to be vulnerable, but it is also what it takes to make a long-term bet, even if the long-term bet is 15 minutes. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.) Trust and the way that it is expressed has substantial impact on organizations, cultures, and societies. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.) It’s not that surprising that it might have a profound impact on children facing tough decisions about what to do about their sugary pleasures and how they viewed them.

Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture

In the age of digital cameras, the idea of shaking a Polaroid picture is just ancient history for most. In the world of instant gratification, the Polaroid camera had the market locked in for pictures. The photo lab in a box was the staple when the pictures were needed right now – until digital cameras far outstripped them in ease of use, lower costs, and better image quality. While most people didn’t frame their polaroid pictures, changing a frame of reference can be powerful when you’re a child.

One of the powerful strategies used by children to allow them to delay their gratification was to think of the treat in front of them like it was only a picture of a treat. As one study child so aptly put it, “You can’t eat a picture.” The cognitive reframing from a treat that can be devoured to a simple abstract representation of what you’ll get was enough to cool their jets and help them wait it out until the researcher came back with their reward.

Changing the way of thinking about something – changing the frame – is enough to dramatically change the outcomes. Just as Milgram found in his experiments using adults to administer seemingly lethal shocks, small changes in the framing or power dynamics can change whether people are willing to seemingly kill someone they don’t know – or not. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more on Milgram’s work.) One way to control the framing is to ask yourself: what would someone else do?

What Would Jesus Do?

In the 1990s, bracelets and other items started popping up with the initials WWJD on them. It was a sort of inside joke and club handshake that Christians had. Without explanation, the WWJD bracelets looked like membership in a secret cult. With explanation, it was a simple – and effective – way to change behavior. WWJD was the reminder of the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” If there were a Bible story about this specific point in my life, how would Jesus respond? The idea is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, then you should do the same behavior. If he’s the moral compass by which you evaluate your decisions, then why not make it more direct and just ask what would he do?

As a tool, it’s effective. You remove the emotional component, and you simply make a pre-decision about how you’ll respond. In this case, you’ll do whatever Jesus would do. However, pre-decisions can be more than just a decision to follow what someone else would do. They can be about how you want to respond and how you identify yourself.


The battle that rages between our basial brain and our neocortex is one that is described by Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Johnathan Haidt explains it as the battle of wills between a rider and an elephant in The Happiness Hypothesis. Many people have been caught up in what has been termed “temporary insanity,” as their emotional brain grabs ahold of the controls and causes them to do things that they normally wouldn’t. (For more in the ethical and legal tangling of this idea check out The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

One powerful way to head the fight off at the pass is to make a commitment to a course of action before you’re in the heat of the moment. It’s a pre-decision. It’s a standard response to an if-then decision. It’s a way to get the emotional brain that’s effective at pattern matching to blindly connect the pattern to the if-then decision and execute that decision without a second thought. The result is that you’re not stuck in the moment of struggle trying to decide the right course of action, because the decision has already been made.

Who Am I?

Another way to short circuit the decision-making process is to decide what people like me do when they’re confronted with the choice. Made to Stick encourages us that people can make good decisions when they view the decision from the context of how people like them decide. If people like them are the ones who make the good long-term decision, then that’s what they’ll likely do. If, instead, they’re likely to live for the moment, their decision will be decidedly more focused on the current.

Helping to shape a self-image that is consistent with long-term values and high degrees of self-control will cause more decisions to be made in that way. An important corollary here is that who we are, our identity, is malleable. Dweck points out in Mindset that our way of thinking can lead us to understanding that we can fundamentally grow and change – or to decide that we’re not able to escape the orbit of our family, our environment, and our genetics. The research is clear that we can change the way we see ourselves and what we’re capable of.

Genes and Environments

The battle has raged on for century as to whether we are controlled by our genes or our environment. Judith Harris Rich exhaustively searched through the research to develop her theories about how much of what we are is from our genetics and how much is from our environment. Citing dozens of studies in her books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, she settles on the conclusion that roughly 50% is genes and roughly 50% is non-genetic. She teases out issues with what would traditionally be called environment, recognizing that there is too much to environment to neatly fit categories. Small differences in opportunity may yield vastly different people. Glasser speaks of inner, quality worlds, and how they shape how people see their world. Argyris uses a ladder metaphor, with the lowest rung of the ladder being how we choose what data we see with the implication that this filtering changes everything else about our experiences. (See Choice Theory for more on Glasser’s perspective and for more on Argyris’ ladder of inference.)

We’ve discovered that the environment can activate and deactivate our genes. While we may have a predisposition to something, it can be that this tendency never gets activated in our environment.

Tabula Rasa

It was philosopher John Locke who proposed that we’re a blank slate, and it’s only our environment that shapes us. His radical idea pushed the pendulum into a more middle state today than it was in his time, when people believed that folks were determined by their heritage. (This was before genes were discovered and understood.) This idea has been the basis for many things, including the book by Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It’s at the heart of the questions that Judith Harris Rich asks in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

In reality, what we’ve discovered is that the slate is far from blank, but rather, to use Mischel’s words, it’s “encrypted” in a way that we don’t understand. My computer science background takes slight issue with his choice of words, because though we share most of the same genes as a mouse, we are quite different. Small differences making large ones, to me, is compression – not encryption. The understanding is no less opaque between encryption and compression, but it’s compression that yields a large change in output.

Combining the compressed genetic triggers with an environment that’s necessarily personal and nuanced explains why people become such unique adults. Each adult has the things that they’re interested in and their own triggers.


Everyone has their own “hot buttons.” These are the things that will set them off, get them angry, or cause them emotional harm. For some people, it’s a negative comment about their appearance; for others, they’re particularly sensitive about feeling stupid. Others still are triggered by feeling like they’re not being heard. These triggers cause an emotional reaction that can generally be felt by anyone in the room. What Mischel’s research on self-control teaches us is that sometimes we can – and need to – put covers over our triggers so they’re harder to get to.

We’ve all seen the movie with the self-destruct button that’s covered by clear plastic, that the hero (or villain) must lift before they can slam their fist into the button itself. In old airplane dogfight movies, there are the switches that must first be flipped up before they can be activated. These are the kinds of covers we install over our emotional triggers as well.

Instead of the button sitting out in the open where anyone can hit it, the cover provides some buffer. Perhaps we’ll only react to comments about our appearance from our family or only respond to being made to feel stupid with our friends. We can contextualize our sensitivities and provide that extra layer of protection to being triggered. We need this to protect us from the often poor results that come from our poor decisions.


To have self-control, we must know and internalize the idea that there are consequences for our choices. This is the lesson that we teach and reinforce to children to help them become productive members of society. We help them first build an understanding that there are consequences – both positive and negative – to their choices in certain realms, and then we help them generalize this concept, so they know that every choice they make has consequences.

Without this solid awareness of consequences, they cannot make decisions now that lead to better outcomes in the future. It’s consequences that provides the bridge from today to tomorrow.

Our Need for Control

We all have a desire to control. We want to control the things that we get in our life. We want to say that we did this, or we created that. Most people want to control other people while simultaneously not wanting to be controlled. We are obsessed with our need to be causal in our outcomes. Our need for the illusion of control blinds us to the fact that we’re never in control of the outcomes, we’re only in control of the conditions we can create that lead to the outcome. (See Compelled to Control for more on the topic of control.)

Change or Die acknowledges our psychological need to believe we have more control than we do just to avoid the thought that all our hard work can be wiped out in an instant. We can’t think about the fact that we may be crushed by an asteroid tomorrow, or we’ll never get any work done today. We must believe that our control is greater than it is. We must believe that, where we only have influence, we actually have control.

Most people recognize that they can’t force a plant to grow. You can’t say that, if I give it soil, air, and sunlight, it must grow. Instead, we create the conditions that influence a plant to grow in the right way, and we hope that the plant will grow. We don’t control the plant into growing. By creating the right conditions for growth, we influence the outcome.

This is the advanced lesson for consequences. What we do only sometimes has the consequences we expect. Because we don’t have control, sometimes the consequences don’t come as we would expect – positive or negative.

The Value of Optimism

It’s not that depressed people see the world in a distorted negative way. It’s that people with depression see the world more accurately. Instead of sugar-coating their capabilities and resources, they view the world as it actually is – and that’s a bad thing. It’s no secret that the world we have in our heads isn’t the actual world. It’s a construction that our minds have made up based on the data it has – and a whole lot of assumptions. (See Incognito for more one how our minds make things up.)

Generally speaking, the advice is to see things as they really are and to accept reality instead of denying its truth. This may be one exception, however. The presence of optimism makes us more creative, more innovative, more able to cope with life – while at the same time distorting our view of the world. Optimism is layered on our awareness that we don’t have control to help us believe that we’ll have enough influence to be OK.

Patience and Perseverance

What optimism gives you is the ability to be patient. Patience is at the heart of the marshmallow test. Can I be patient enough to wait for the good things to come? Even when trust is low and when we don’t know for sure, optimism allows us to hold out hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.) Over time, we learn that, though we don’t have control, eventually if you try enough, things will work. We live in a probabilistic world, where we influence the probability of success – not guarantee it. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic world in which we live.)

Being persistently patient, persevering in our attempts to make our lives better, eventually means they’ll become that way. Grit is the way Angela Duckworth describes a set of skills that work together towards our eventual success. Optimism helps fuel the engine that allows us to stay afloat long enough to persevere, even when things aren’t going our way.

Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude

Jimmy Buffet sings a song, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – but I think he has it backwards. Moving down to warmer climates may allow you to change your attitude easier – but you can change your attitude no matter where you are. The heart of changing the results in the marshmallow test – and in life – is to change your attitude. Changing your attitude from the world being a cruel place that you must fight and claw at and take what’s available now to a world of reliability and ultimate success can make all the difference in whether you’re willing to make investments in your future.

Sometimes those investments are waiting a few minutes as a researcher leaves the room. Sometimes those investments are hours spent studying. Sometimes those investments are more traditional, like a 401k. However, you make the investments, you’ll want to make them, so you can pass the test of life. You might just get some help along the way by looking at this cheat sheet to improving your score on The Marshmallow Test.

Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

Book Review-Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

We’ve all seen the video. It’s a dog that has a toy he won’t let go of. He’s flinging his head back and forth trying to wring the life out of the lifeless toy in his mouth. At some level, we’ve all felt like the toy. We’re being tossed around with no control of our fate. We’ve felt helpless and broken.

And we’ve seen the video where someone does the seemingly impossible. They make the perfect shot. They leap to the top of the heap with apparent effortlessness. The ratio between the number – not the depth – of these two experiences defines our positive to negative ratio, and it’s the heart of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.

The Power of Positive

Our positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions have an unseen and powerful impact on our lives. It changes the way we see the world in subtle and abstract ways. Positive feelings expand our world view. We look to the corners of our consciousness and we look for larger patterns in life. Positive thinking quite literally expands our view – where negative thoughts have us focusing on the narrow and on our ability to survive.

Creative Confidence doesn’t directly state that positive thoughts lead to greater creativity, but the implication was there. The safer you feel, the more creative you become, and those thoughts are positive, life-giving thoughts. Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman all describe the psychological state of flow as a genuinely positive state – one that is both productive and engaging. There is exhaustion at the end, but the lingering positive effects of having spent time in flow can last for days.

Positive thoughts and feelings need not be larger than life to give life. They need only occur with relative frequency. They need not be a positive feeling like the birth of a child to matter in your overall mental – and physical – health. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the physical impacts of mental health.)

The Need for Negativity

If positive thoughts are good for us, then surely, we should eliminate negative thoughts. Surely negative takes the wind out of our positive sails. However, this does not seem to be the case. If we only have positive thoughts, we can’t see the world as it really is. We can’t see things accurately. Negative thoughts are like the keel on a boat, keeping things steady and grounded. The keel is what allows the boat’s sail (positivity) to catch the wind and propel the boat forward.

Negativity isn’t something that you can abolish from your life. Every life must have negativity to stay connected, grounded and rooted. The goal isn’t to eliminate negativity but to eliminate needless negativity that further disconnects us from reality and other people.

Needless Negativity

We’ve all been to the pity party of the century. We feel not good enough. We feel like we can’t get anything right. The end result is our negativity dredging up every bad thing that we’ve done in our entire lives and trying to heap it up on the counter of today.

Certainly, we must accept negativity as a part of life. However, we need not ruminate and turn over our faults, making them bigger than they really are. The closer you get to something, the larger it appears. However large problems may seem, they’re rarely fatal and rarely consistent all the time. Instead we, like all other humans, make mistakes. We shouldn’t magnify them to be larger than they really are if we want to flourish.

How to Flourish

What’s the big deal with managing our positive emotions and our negative emotions? In short, those of us who can achieve higher honest ratios of positive to negative emotions are more likely to flourish. That is, our positivity helps to drive our success in life. We begin to feel better, then do better, and then get better.

Seligman in Flourish talks about the power of positive psychology to transform your life – and Fredrickson’s work on finding the ratio of 3 to 1 where the magic happens. Drive speaks of discontinuities, places where on one side the results are almost nothing, and on the other side the results are incredible. When it comes to positive to negative ratios, that number is 3:1

Flourishing is that magical state of being more than you think you could be. It’s the enjoyment of nearly every aspect of life and a positive energy that radiates through you. It is, at its core, a change in perspective.


Have you ever wondered how someone could like something? Perhaps it’s a food that you don’t like, but others “would die for.” Perhaps it’s the pain you feel in your legs and the racing of your heart when thinking about sky diving, and your best friend does everything they can to get in just one more jump.

That’s perspective. It’s the ability to see things differently, and we all have our perspective. Getting to positivity – or flourishing – is all about subtly changing our perspective. It’s about amplifying our opportunity for positive experiences and dampening down the chances for negative experiences.

Few people would say that getting stuck at an airport is a positive experience. Few would say that they would love to be sitting in Ronald Regan Airport for eight hours just to get home. I can’t say that either; however, I can say that I had a positive experience while stranded. That was the day I picked up and read Stumbling on Happiness. I didn’t want to be there, and at some level, it was a negative experience, but my perspective on the situation allowed me to get a positive out of it.

To some degree, we all can shape our experiences, whether they’re positive or negative. We get to choose how we perceive things, what our perspective is, and then respond accordingly.

Projecting Positivity

We’ve all met that person. It feels like they’ve had so much Botox that their face is permanently in a smiling situation. They look like the criminal Joker from Batman. There’s no telling how they really feel, because their face doesn’t show it. Surely these people, the permanent smile people, should be positive and happy. They should be living the benefits of a positive life.

Well, unfortunately, their bodies know the difference between projecting an image and being something. You can’t be positive all the time. 100% positive isn’t real, and maintaining the illusion is exhausting. In my post How to Be Yourself, I speak of the effort necessary to hold a gallon of milk to your side – and how exhausting it can be. People who are permanently positive aren’t real. The stress of projecting this illusion eventually catches up with them. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress on the body.)


Changing our perspective isn’t something that is typically done directly. We can’t will ourselves into positive thinking. That sort of attempt to control our emotions generally backfires and leads to the projection of falsehood that creates stress. One of the time-honored ways of reducing stress and becoming more at peace with ourselves and our situation is meditation.

This powerful practice is used by different religions and different cultures to bring about mindfulness, awareness, and acceptance. This awareness, in turn, creates a greater gratitude for the world and levitates us out of the pit of negativity and positions us in a better place to be positive.

Loving Kindness

If you were to ask a Buddhist about meditation, it’s likely they would talk about their meditation on loving kindness in their desire to cultivate these feelings. These meditations are designed not just to broaden our mindfulness but to bring about positive feelings of love, kindness, and compassion for other living beings. This taps into more positive emotions and allows us to abide in these feelings. By soaking them in, we create the opportunity to radiate them later.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to meditate – with or without the focus of loving kindness – to be positive. I don’t routinely meditate. For me, the still-quiet space is reading, reflecting, and writing about what I’ve read and experienced. This isn’t what most people would consider meditation, but it works for me. I enter flow, and the results are similar to meditation.

Positively Social

On the one hand, meditation is an intensely individual and isolated exercise. Its definition means that you’re not interacting with others, you’re being mindful of yourself and your own inner states. While this is one tool to become more positive, it’s not the only tool. In fact, a better lift for positivity may be interacting with others.

Much of our negativity is about our fear of being disconnected from others. Much of what is positive is in our assurance that we belong, that others care, and that we’re a part of a group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.) Making deep connections with other people can create positive experiences and perspectives.

Positive Portfolio

Not all positive emotions are created the same. Each of us has our own mixture of how we perceive the world positively. One way for us to see our positive – and reinforce it – is to create a positive portfolio. Like an artist, we create mini-portfolios of each style or medium and we assemble those into the master portfolio of our work on being positive. Positivity suggests these categories for our positive portfolio:

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

More Love

It’s important to dwell on love for a moment. Love is such a powerful amplifier of each of the other foundations for positivity that it’s important to realize its ability to transform people and experiences into positive experiences. Many boyfriends and husbands will watch a “chick flick” and enjoy it because the woman that they love is there. More than trying to score, they may genuinely enjoy sharing the reaction of their significant other. Similarly, girlfriends and wives may not choose to watch a baseball game on their own, but in doing so with the person they love, they might find it exhilarating to share the experience and find it positive (or they may not).

Whether you’re generally happy and thriving, or stuck in a negative loop, you can probably use a bit more Positivity in your life. In my opinion, what the world needs is more love and ultimately more Positivity – for all our sakes.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

Book Review-Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

It was early in my career, and I was given the opportunity that most people dream about. I got to go to London for work. It was a dream, because it meant that the company was paying for me to travel “across the pond.” I thought of all the things I’d see and all that I’d do. In the end, I spent more than a day of my precious time in a hotel room wondering why I was there and when I could get back home. It was the time of the most profound loneliness I can recall. I had recently split up with my girlfriend, and in this time before Skype and cheap (or free) long-distance, calling my friends at home wasn’t a great option. It was at this point that it would have been good to have read Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

I managed to pull myself from my hotel room one evening to walk around London after dark –no one else with me. I’m not quite aware even now where I was, but I’m sure I shouldn’t have been alone. Walking by a church, I had a man come up to me and ask if I could spare any money to help his family. A hundred or so feet away, I could see a mother and two kids huddled together in the shadows of the church with just a few blankets. It was cold enough that I was wearing my winter coat, which had big pockets. I reached into one and pulled out a fistful of coins and handed them to the man.

I was in a sort of daze. I wasn’t familiar with the coins in the UK at the time, so I just dropped all my change from my excursions in my pocket, figuring I’d sort out later what was what. I honestly don’t know how much I gave the man that night, but I remembered thinking that it was sad that they had no place to go – and good that they had each other.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s not the lack of other people with us or around us or talking to us. Loneliness is a feeling that need not be congruent with our physical experiences. We can feel loneliness when no one is with us – or when there is a crowd.

When my brother died, I was surrounded by people at his visitation. The noise was deafening. It felt like everyone in the small town had come by. Officially, there are 9,000 people in the town, and, unofficially, the count of people at the visitation was 8,000. The line of people wrapped down the hall and out the door. No one would imagine that, being in such a crowd, someone could say they were lonely.

Despite this, I was lonely. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate my family or my wife. I’m saying that the feeling was pervasive and completely disconnected from the objective reality of the situation. While my loneliness was profound, it was greater for his wife. In the years since the event, we’ve shared that the same sense of loneliness descended upon us in the midst of so many people. (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more of what happened.)

Loneliness is a feeling, a mood, a perspective on life. It shapes and colors how we react to others and how we see the world. It is also a natural part of life. We all feel the sting of loneliness at times. While unpleasant, it’s not unexpected. Loneliness isn’t itself a mental disease – at least, not one recognized by DSM V. However, loneliness and depression do a two-step dance that’s hauntingly captivating.

What is Depression?

Depression may be defined by sadness and lack of energy, but the characteristic that’s the most defining and challenging is the power that depression has. It can rob you of your ability to feel joy. It’s like a thief who steals the ability to feel happy. In doing so, it sucks people in and pulls them down like the vortex created by a sinking ship.

Depression is, therefore, separate from loneliness, which is defined by the lack of connection, but it’s loneliness that can be a forebear to depression. It can predict those who are at risk, in no small part because we are designed for connections, and when you can’t make them or tend to them you end up with none – and develop depression.


The sinister scheme of loneliness – as if it could have a scheme – is that it can bias your choices towards relationships. It can make it harder to find and form the very relationships that are capable of lifting you out of the pit of loneliness. Relationships are at the heart of life. We are social creatures, who are designed by evolution to crave connections with others. (See The Blank Slate, The Righteous Mind, and Bowling Alone for more on social connections.) We survived as a species because of our ability to connect and protect one another. Our ability to band together and defend each other as a group allowed us to triumph over our evolutionary rivals and take control of this world.

Relationships are the threads that weave the tapestry of life for social creatures like humans. Despite the belief that Americans are rugged individualists, we left for the West in convoys and wagon trains. We have always huddled together and honestly struggled together. Loneliness prevents us from seeing the tapestry and the threads and, at the same time, seeks to stop us from weaving more.

For a Time

What separates “normal” from “abnormal” loneliness? The answer is in the persistence. We all experience loneliness and rejection. It’s when those feelings linger and grab ahold of us until they become a mood or even a general demeaner. Normal loneliness can be driven away by a conversation with a long-time friend. It can be held at bay by a casual conversation with a coworker. It can be vanquished for a time by an intimate conversation with a trusted colleague. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for how to get to those intimate conversations.)

However, when loneliness has a strangle hold on you, it’s hard to pick up the phone. Experience in weightlifting isn’t enough to overcome the weight of the phone, dial a number, and lift it to your ear. The muscles don’t necessarily have the strength when the mind and mood aren’t willing. You can find the persistence of loneliness a constant companion, like a dark shadow on a bright day.

Loneliness Stimulates Stress

At its core, loneliness is a compelling character. In our history, to be alone, to be outside of the community, was a death sentence. It’s no wonder that evolution taught us not to like loneliness and encouraged our desire to stay with others. After all, it’s with others that we’re the safest (on average). Loneliness necessarily triggers stressful responses and inhibits our access to the social skills that we need to develop new relationships. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impact of stress.)

Is Anyone Listening?

One of the most interesting learnings for me in quite some time is how difficult it is to receive love. So many people have closed themselves off from the ability to be loved because of an experience in their past or, more specifically, a close betrayal. For these pour souls, no matter how much love others send out to them, they can’t receive it. Loneliness has the effect of reducing our ability to receive the love and connection that others emit towards us. Loneliness drives us to question all our relationships and wonder why other people are in relationships with us – and when they might withdraw their relationships from us.

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I hint that love is intimacy. Love is the ability to be connected with someone so completely that there is no need for barriers – not that you’re enmeshed or can’t tell where you end and the other begins, but rather that you are comfortable with those distinctions and see no need to protect them.

Think about it this way. You have lockable doors between your house and the outside world. You ensure those doors are locked at night. This separates the inside from the outside. You have a door to your closet, and it may even have a handle. However, there are no locks between bedrooms and closets, because there doesn’t need to be one. Can we distinguish between the bedroom and the closet? Yes. However, there isn’t a need for protection to protect one side from the other.

Some folks have installed locks on all their doors. It’s like loneliness has caused them to expect monsters in their closets. The locks protect them – and at the same time, isolate them from the connection that can come by interacting with others.

Birth of the Social Creature

If there’s any doubt that we’re social creatures, it’s possible to consider the artifacts that evolution has left with us beyond our gathering together into communities. We can consider how we have pair bonding (male and female together) for the purposes of helping to raise a child. We come together to ensure that our progeny have a good chance at survival, and the best chance seems to be for two parents to pour their resources into children together – rather than leaving the responsibility to the mother alone.

Our massive brains may be a great advantage to us, but it simultaneously means that we must emerge from the womb as dependent creatures who rely on our parents for everything for several years. Our brains are not fully developed and take time before we can be on our own. Consider most of the animal kingdom, where animals are born and walking within minutes, to the year it takes us to take our wobbly first steps.

Genes that Made It So

A great deal has been made about heredity in No Two Alike, The Nurture Assumption, and The Blank Slate. The quick summary is that about half of us is driven by genetics. The other half is, well, anyone’s guess. We chalk it up to environment, because that the only other answer we have. That being said, most people have a misconception of genetics. Darwin is taken too literally, and we believe that survival of the fittest means every creature is competing at every level for their lives.

However, this is not the operating unit of evolution. Evolution works at the group level. It creates greater opportunity for genetic propagation through our ability to work together. Even if I don’t survive, the genes that I carry may survive through one of my relatives – that my death served to protect.

There’s compelling evidence that reciprocal altruism works best for the survival of a gene when that gene is shared by your kin – or, to a lesser extent, the tribe that you’re in. One person can die so that their genes can live on in their children, their siblings, or their extended family.

Evolution selected us to protect others in our group. In doing so, it wired us for the kind of connection necessary to be willing to do this. It made strong us vs. them distinctions and encouraged us to sacrifice – and perform violence – to protect the folks that are “us” at the expense of “them.”

Genes and Memes

Perhaps the greatest irony may be that genes aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to replication. Richard Dawkins was on to something. He coined the term “meme” as a corollary to gene in terms of cultural transmission. For me, this is interesting, because I wonder how many genes have changed during the life of ideas. Whether the idea was correct or incorrect, I wonder whether genes have come and gone inside the space of a meme.

Shared ideas may just outlast genes – and they may be able to connect us together and fight off Loneliness.

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Book Review-Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

There are plenty of reasons to study Martin Seligman’s work. The foremost authority on positive psychology, former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), and longtime researcher provides plenty of reasons to pay attention. However, the most compelling reason for me was one of kindred spirit. In the close of the book, he admits to starting the book not to write a book. He was trying to refine his thinking, and the writing process did that. He used the writing process to crystalize what he was thinking. That’s a process that I use in writing my book reviews. So, though I didn’t discover it until the end, he wasn’t trying to deliver a book to drive a cash machine, he was trying to develop and share his thoughts – I respect that.

Flourish is a book about how to take what we have in life and make it better. It’s a sign post that points down the road of happiness and fulfillment. It represents a lifetime of thinking about how wellness is not the absence of illness. It’s a clarity that the value of life isn’t in your bank account, your house, cars, or things. The value of life is in how you live it.

Authentic Happiness Recapped

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman asserts that three elements lead to happiness: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Engagement, Seligman explains, is about flow. (For more on flow, see The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow.) Meaning is a part of Pink’s idea of motivation, as expressed in Drive. Pink calls it “purpose” and is clear that purpose doesn’t need to be changing the world. It just means something that’s important to the person.

That leaves us with the positive emotion component. Seligman explains that “happiness” is inextricably bound up with being in a cheerful mood. This problem shows up when you ask people about life satisfaction, and they tend to respond related to their present mood rather than an overall satisfaction. It’s almost as if people can’t see the forest, because they’re standing too close to the trees.

One of the criticisms that Seligman levels against his own work is that it doesn’t address what people do for “their own sake.” This hearkens back to Aristotle and the difference between the means and the ends. That is, what are we doing just because we want to, and what are we doing in service of something else? What you do cannot serve another master for it to be the thing that brings you happiness. (However, the ends that you want can bring you happiness through the means of what you’re doing.)

The trick, it seems, is that, though as Aristotle said we all pursue happiness, that’s not what we really want. We want well-being. Well-being is a construct, and happiness is a thing. In my review of A Philosopher’s Notes, I discovered (but didn’t cover) the story of Lakshmi and Sarawati, which I covered in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Management. The short version of the story is that Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, who runs away when people pursue her. Her sister Sarawati is the goddess of knowledge. When you pursue her, the jealous Lakshmi comes running after you. In other words, seeking knowledge and wisdom leads to wealth, but seeking wealth directly leads to nothing. In this context, happiness is a fool’s errand. Happiness is found through well-being – not on its own. (I’ve read a lot about happiness – try Hardwiring Happiness, Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for a few examples.)


Seligman’s perspective is that well-being has five elements:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

He refers to these through the acronym PERMA. (Positive relationships is the R.)

Getting Outside of Yourself

If you were to sum up the things that make people happy, it could best be described as getting outside of yourself. Whether viewed through the lens of accomplishing something (outside of your own skin), the lens of meaning (beyond oneself), relationships (with other people, or performing a kindness for another person), the heart of happiness is getting beyond yourself.

Happiness research is split between those with a hedonistic happiness approach (live for the moment) and a eudaimonic happiness approach (live for meaning and self-realization – or value-based). The effects of hedonistic happiness are gone with the end of the experience. The effects of eudaimonic happiness are more long-lasting. (See The Time Paradox and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on this distinction.)

One of the problems that we seem to encounter in ourselves and others is the desire to patch up our poor emotional state with hedonistic approaches. We believe that we can change the way that we feel in a persistent way with a new item, a new trip, or something that we acquire. This thinking leads to the pull of addiction. (See Chasing the Scream for more on addiction.) It’s not nearly as easy or quick to find those ways to get outside of ourselves and change our persistent state of well-being.

To Be Loved

If you want to live longer, have better and more relationships. It is George Vaillant’s insight that the capacity to love has a companion: the capacity to be loved. These two together are capable of extending a person’s life. Together, loving and being loved are characteristics that make a difference.

This is expressed differently by others. Having intimate relationships would be the way that I’d describe it. (See Intimacy Anorexia and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy.) Folks like J. Keith Miller in Compelled to Control express the ability to be loved as a feeling of being worthy and not being loved as a feeling of unworthiness. Let’s start with the need to feel worthy of love.

When I was getting my divorce, I was struggling with whether I was lovable. If this marriage didn’t work out, and God hates divorce, then what if I wasn’t lovable – what if I wasn’t worthy of love? (See God Loves You: He Always Has and Always Will for a good reset of this perspective.) Before I could be ready to be loved – to let it in – I had to accept that I was lovable. If other people are pouring love all over you, but you believe that you are at your core an unlovable person, then it will simply wash over you and go away.

In Spiritual Evolution, Dr. Vaillant speaks of a Dr. Carson (a pseudonym), who had glowing letters of love from his patients – that he couldn’t bring himself to read. (Yes, it’s the same Dr. Vaillant that Seligman speaks of in Flourish.) He couldn’t let that love in – he couldn’t hold it in his consciousness.

Social Evolution

The greatest evolutionary trick and adaption is the trick of socialization. Altruism, it turns out, can mean the survival of the species (see The Blank Slate and The Righteous Mind for more about altruism), whether it’s survival of chimpanzees (see Spiritual Evolution for survival of chimpanzees’ genes based on social skills) or survival of colonies of ants or bees (see The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for more on insect altruism).

From insects to primates, we’re evolved to be social. So much so that Robin Dunbar noticed a correlation between prefrontal cortex in primates and the size of their social groups. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s Number.)

Generating Gratitude

If you want to be happier, be grateful. It doesn’t matter what you’re grateful for, gratitude has its own power. Studies confirm that the impact of keeping a gratitude journal is positive for your general mood. In truth, we often overlook small acts of kindness and small wins. However, it’s these small things that outweigh by volume the great evils that exist in the world. The Blank Slate quotes Gould describing “The Great Asymmetry” as “we perform 10,000 acts of small and unrecorded kindness for each surpassingly rare, but sadly balancing, moment of cruelty.” In other words, we can see the bad things that happen to us and around the world, because they’re big, bold, and easy. What is sometimes more difficult is to focus on and savor the small positive things that make up daily life.

It is certainly possible to create a gratitude journal and fill it with items that you’re grateful for without ever experiencing the positive mood. As we rolled through the American holiday Thanksgiving, our children could express appreciation for food and for shelter, but would do so in a way that’s entirely intellectual. “It sure would be bad if we were hungry.” Rather than bringing the feeling of warmth that comes from a meal and turning over the taste in their mind, the way that it made their tummy just a bit warmer. Experiencing gratitude is more than a checkbox. “I’ve got one more thing to do today to get a perfect score. I have to make three entries in my gratitude journal.”

Gratitude is something that must be experienced in its emotional state – not something that can be considered in a cold, sterile, rational consideration. When you allow the gratitude to dwell within you for a moment, it changes your outlook on the rest of life. Like water carving the Grand Canyon, the effects may not be immediately visible, but over time the impact can be enormous.

Curing Depression

Depression is the costliest disease in the world – at least according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With an average cost of $5,000 per year to treat, it’s simply expensive to treat the symptoms. The real tragedy is, however, that the psychiatry and psychology industries have given up on finding a cure.

All medicines can be classified as curative – they cure the disease – or cosmetic – they hide the effects. The medicines that we have available to us for depression are cosmetic. When the drug is removed, the symptoms return. Every single drug in the psychopharmacopoeia is cosmetic. The idea of curing depression has largely been abandoned. More concerning is that the efficacy of psychoactive drugs is only marginally better than placebos. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for the dangers of psychiatric drugs.)

The work on the behavioral side of treating depression has some positive points, but a cure is far from certain, with many people languishing in a depressed or near-depressed state for their entire lives. (See The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering What Works in Therapy, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and House of Cards for more on what does and doesn’t work in therapy.) In fact, depression is about ten times more common now than it was fifty years ago. Once someone gets depressed, they’re tending to stay depressed.

Dealing with Dysphorias

Dysphoria is from the Greek language, and it means a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction. It is often a generic term to describe depression and anxiety. If the professionals have largely given up on curing depression, and many of the drugs that we have available to us have only marginally better results than a placebo, where does that leave us?

In short, it’s learning to deal with the dysphoria and continue to operate as best we can. It’s not quite “fake it until you make it,” but there is a degree to which we’re looking for people to behave in ways that are incongruent with their feelings. This might mean going to the store when you don’t feel like it. If we can help folks with depression to simply do healthy behaviors, it’s possible to halt the descent into the depths of depression.

The trick is that feelings and behavior aren’t a one-way street. It’s not that our feelings or moods cause our behaviors. Our behaviors can feed back into our moods. By doing the behaviors, it’s possible to influence the feelings and moods. Depending upon the severity of the problem and the degree of effort expended, it’s possible to reverse the effects of depression.

One problem that is often cited when people are “just dealing with it” is that they feel like they’re being fake. Often the perception is that they aren’t being real when they’re putting on “a happy face” and going about life. However, the truth is that they’re behaving as they want to feel. They’re not “faking it” as much as they’re making a conscious decision to pull their mood in the direction of happiness.

Negative Nelly

What makes some relationships feel like they’re life-giving but others sucking the life out of you? The answer may reside in part with the ratio of positive to negative comments. Relationships with a positive to negative ratio of 3 (2.9) up to 13:1 are positive. (Above 13:1 the positive comments aren’t believed.) The Losada ratio, as it is called, is corroborated by Gottman’s work with couples, who suggests that a 5:1 positive to negative comment ratio is necessary to keep a couple’s marriage healthy. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

While it seems like even higher ratios of positive to negative comments might be helpful, when the number gets above about 13, it begins to feel ingenuine. It seems like the negative comments are required to hold the relationship together – but in an appropriate ratio to the positive and affirming comments.

Values in Action Signature Strengths

At the heart of Seligman’s perspective on flourishing is the ability to use your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses. The Values in Action Signature Strengths test is available for free at This test ranks the strengths that you have, indicating which strength the test believes is the most valuable in your life. The core concept is that you should focus your development efforts on making these strengths more powerful in your life.

While, in general, I agree that it’s a good thing to focus on strengths and avoid feeling shame about our weaknesses, I worry that Seligman’s approach may not lead to peak performance of humans. (See Peak for more.) Peak performers use coaches to help them see weaknesses in their performance that’s holding them back. I’m concerned that only focusing on strengths may lead us to believe that we don’t need to address our blocking weaknesses.


Blood alcohol content is abbreviated BAC; but so too is Our Beliefs (B) about an Adversity (A) – and not the adversity itself – cause the consequent (C) feelings. This is a subtle but important point. It’s not the problem, it’s how we react and respond to the problem, our fundamental beliefs about the adversity – or the situation – that really matter. A day can be good or bad based on our beliefs about it.

So if we want to change our feelings, we need to consider (and challenge) or beliefs.

Achievement = Skill * Effort

As was addressed in my review of Grit, a work ethic puts everyone ahead. We saw this in Peak as well. People need to work to get good at what they’re doing. Dweck echoes this same sentiment in Mindset. Everywhere we turn, we find the effects of work – or effort. Still, one could argue, skill has an impact on achievement. We can’t ignore that part of our simple equation – but we can when we consider that skill is the previous achievement. Skill is the outcome of the last time through the equation. So if we were to use basic algebraic substitution, skill is, at some level, some factor of effort.

All achievement is then based on effort and effort alone. Arguments will be made for natural talent, but scientists haven’t found enough natural talent to matter much when compared to the weight of effort on achievement. So, as we’re looking at our lives and trying to find ways to flourish, we need to try. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and work – to put the effort in.

Brake Specialists

When looking at flourishing, it seems odd to talk about holding back – and how holding people back can save them from themselves. Seligman recounts a story of a professor who learned to be slower. He quotes Dr. Ed Hallowell speaking to a child with ADHD: “You have a Ferrari of a mind, and I’m a brake specialist. I am here to help you learn to apply the brakes.” Anyone who has spent any time with a child afflicted by ADHD will tell you that a brake specialist is a great idea. However, how does this help them flourish? The answer seems to be in the idea of going slow – to go fast.

One of the greatest minds of our time, Albert Einstein, was – relatively speaking – slow. He wasn’t a gifted learner and he had to expend great effort to stay on task. He credited this need to stay on task to his ability to make such profound observations. Everyone else ran ahead, and they missed the implication of shining a flashlight while riding on a beam of light.

To be effective in our world, we sometimes need to slow down and stay with a problem long enough that we can thoroughly work through the problem.

For the Common Good

Everyone believes that Darwin thought that we were out for ourselves. After all, he said, “Survival of the fittest,” right? Yes – but only sort of. The unit of natural selection isn’t the individual. The unit of natural selection is the group. In fact, he said, “A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

Said differently, it’s possible for selfless genes to replicate if they replicate through the rest of the tribe or social group. It’s possible that the best thing that a person can do to ensure the survival of their genes is to sacrifice themselves for their family. By extending the definition of family, what they do for their country, community, or friends, helps to preserve their genes even in their death.

Good, God

Sidestepping the issue of whether God does exist or not, people who have a higher level of spirituality have a greater well-being. Those who live by a code that includes serving others or believing that they’re a part of something larger has a positive effect on their well-being and reduces mortality. In The Blank Slate, Pinker claims that someone else praying for you seems to have no effect. However, praying for yourself seems to have an impact. Our belief in things larger than ourselves creates an opportunity for us to be happier.

Said sort of paradoxically, whether you believe in God or not, you should believe in God if you want to have a better and longer life. One could argue that the safest answer – not knowing for certain whether God exists or not – is to accept that God exists if for no other reason than to get the benefits in this life.

It’s All Pointless

We’ve all had those moments when we’ve wondered if all of our hard work has been pointless. Families whose homes are crushed by a tornado. Businessmen who see their fortunes washed away in a blink of an eye by a tsunami. Farmers who lose entire flocks of chickens due to infection. When our world comes crashing in with something beyond our control, it’s natural to wonder whether it makes any sense to go on. We have an illusion of control. (See Incognito.)

Sometimes reality confronts us with the truth that we are not in control. We only have the illusion of control. We live in a probabilistic world (see The Halo Effect), and we can’t guarantee outcomes. Some people get despondent after their world has been crushed. That’s normal before recovering. (See On Death and Dying for more of the cycle.)


If you want to predict which soldiers are going to be afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), all you need to do is assess them prior to the stress. The more mentally healthy they are, the more likely they’ll grow from a stressful experience. Those with good coping skills and a generally optimistic disposition will see some level of post-traumatic growth.

We’re back to the fact that it’s not the adversity that leads to the results – it’s our attitude about the adversity that matters. If the adversity as seen as temporary, changeable, and local, we’re more likely to grow as a result of a stress. It’s only optimism that predicted who would – and who would not – have a heart attack.

Great Men with Great Struggles

There are times that we think there can be no greatness in life without happiness, but some of the greatest leaders that this world has ever known struggled with depression and negative emotions. It wasn’t that there was no struggle or sorrow in their worlds. Rather it was this struggle that they turned into a power for good.

Abraham Lincoln’s struggles in general, in the death of his mother and in his marriage to his wife, are well-documented. Despite these enormous burdens to his mood, he is regarded as one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever known. What few people know is that Lincoln failed many, many times before becoming the successful president he was.

Winston Churchill is another great leader who struggled with depression and somehow rose above the depression and led England through the second world war.


It’s not a measure of money that holds the key to flourishing. It’s somehow this arrangement of optimism, gratitude, relationships, and building emotional resilience that leads us to be able to flourish. One way to build these in ourselves is to read Flourish.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Book Review-The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – The Implications

In part 1 of this book review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I focused on the basics of the argument. We learned about the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. In this part, I focus on what the implications are of disproving these ideas.

Intelligent Design

The argument for intelligent design is how could it possibly be that such beauty and complexity could emerge spontaneously? The comforting thought is that there’s an unseen hand that has helped guide evolution to its current point. However, what we know from the historical evidence is that the process of evolution often is wasteful and cruel. It’s a robust system that can unnecessarily take out species or a people in the service of the greater good – or at least in the response to the randomness of time.

It may be comforting to think that there’s a hand compassionately guiding the process of evolution, but the evidence seems to point to a process that wouldn’t be considered compassionate.

Genetic Variation

Biologists expect genetic variation. They expect that overtime the number of variations will stack up within a species. The problem is that all the diversity that we have in the human species doesn’t add up. We focus on differences (see The Difference), but the reality is that there’s really not much in the way of genetic diversity. In fact, from a biologist’s point of view, our race should be much smaller.

The cause of the lack of diversity may be in our population explosion. Roughly ten thousand years ago, we discovered agriculture, and the caloric surplus that it afforded us allowed us to rapidly increase in number. Instead of a steady increase in numbers, we have a slow increase followed by rapid growth. The result is a relatively small degree of diversity.

Taboo Items

As was covered in The Righteous Mind, there are some things that, though they leave everyone better off, can still be considered taboo. Pinker reminds us that it’s illegal to sell your vote, organ, or children – but some could argue that both parties would benefit. It’s difficult to consider these items without getting caught up in the hidden feelings. Haidt uses the following story, which Pinker quotes:

Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So, what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?

Haidt shares that people try to create reasons for their discomfort with the story. It just feels bad – and it is hard to put our finger on why. Most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable with vegetables grown in sanitized human waste or an elevator with a glass floor – not because we logically believe they’re risky, but instead because the ideas just give us “the willies.”


Discrimination is really differentiating between two things. It’s discernment. However, we often use it when we take one trait and use it to predict the behavior of someone. Pinker share a perspective on discrimination: “It would be reprehensible for a bank to hire a man over a woman as a manager for the reason that he is less likely to quit after having a child. Would it also be reprehensible for a couple to hire a woman over a man as a nanny for their daughter because she is less likely to sexually abuse the child?” Again, this sits the wrong way with most moral people. We know that we leap to conclusions, and we simplify, and that discrimination is a part of that process – whether we like it or not. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.)

Inside and Outside (Our Group)

The Lucifer Effect chronicles the issues that came from the Stanford Prison Experiment, which took normal students and split them into a guard and a prisoner group. The results were telling in our ability to harm folks who are not in our group. The line we draw between us and them isn’t factual; it can be drawn at random, and we’ll accept it. We’ll treat outsiders with disrespect and contempt. We’ll try to conquer them – unless we trade with them. You can’t trade with someone, kill them, and continue to trade with them.

The specialization of skills and the need to trade may have helped to buffer us from the constant fighting and bickering that could have destroyed us as a species. As it is, there are some tribes where males’ deaths can be attributed to war more than half of the time.

It’s this tendency that has the Dalai Lama encouraging us to expand our circle of us – our circle of compassion – to everyone. (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)

Responsibility and Accountability

One of the challenges with accepting that 50% (or so) of our behavior is driven by genes is the concern that it will absolve people of responsibility for their actions. After all, my genes made me do it. What’s next? “My genes ate my homework?” There’s no biological exoneration of wrong-doers.

We tend to not blame people who make bad decisions if they could not have seen the consequences. We tend to punish only the believed intent of the actions. We believe there’s a lower level of accountability to be extracted from those who couldn’t have known better. If someone couldn’t have known better because of their genes – or their raising – can we really hold them accountable? The point of holding people responsible is to prevent others from committing similar acts. What happens when that deterrent doesn’t work? (See Moral Disengagement for more.)

The Moment of Ensoulment

When you believe there’s a ghost inside the machine – an immortal soul – the question comes when that soul is installed in the body. Catholics believe that this moment is the moment of conception. However, this is a convenient line to draw. As I mentioned in Fractal Along the Edges, sometimes the lines aren’t all that clear. Pinker points out that sometimes it can take a day after the fertilization of an egg for the genes to become merged and more time for the merged genome to control the cell.

Using conception – or fertilization – as the moment of ensoulment, then what happens to the roughly 3/4ths of the fertilized eggs that never implant in the uterus or are spontaneously aborted for no clear reason? Are these souls lost or returned to the pool of available souls?

My point isn’t to dislodge the belief of ensoulment but rather to share that our view on the process is naïve and incomplete.

Tit-for-Tat and Reciprocity

Our evolution seems to have been dominated by tit-for-tat as a bargaining approach. If you do bad to someone, then bad will be done to you, so we’ve been conditioned to be mostly fair but slightly selfish. We know that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind, but we’re conditioned to it anyway. We believe in reciprocity. We want it in our losses, and we seek it in the gifts that we give.

Studies have shown that we’re more generous to those that we believe are in a position to be more generous to us. We are more willing to give when we think that we’ll get something in return.

Backwards and Forwards

When we look backwards at our memories, we look not at the reality that existed back then, but instead we look at an idealized image of the past that has been distorted and changed by the lenses of our current thinking. Memories are far from infallible. (See Incognito.) Despite this, viewing our current state of moral progress and society is best measured against a distorted past than it is against an idealized future. We cannot expect that we’ll be at some utopian vision of how society can be – we’ll always fall short by that measure. Instead, as we look at where we are, we should look at the progress we’re making towards becoming better, more moral, more caring, and further enlightened.

Anticipated Costs

At some level, our society is held together by a set of expectations. We enforce behaviors that are socially desirable by creating stiff consequences for undesirable behaviors. We attempt to ensure enforcement of these consequences so that the calculus of whether someone should do a socially undesirable behavior or not is clearly weighted towards the desirable behavior. The higher the cost and the more certain the enforcement, the less likely that it is that someone will attempt the behavior. Like any conditioned behavior, once the behavior pattern has been established, it’s possible to remove or reduce the external consequences, because they will be internalized.

That’s why strict parenting creates in children an internalized sense of social norms that leads the children to – on average – not have as many skirmishes with the law.


Democracy is the worst kind of government – except for all the other kinds of government that we have tried. (That is according to Winston Churchill.) Marxist ideas may have been a good idea. Communism may have its place – in a colony of ants. It doesn’t work with humans, but other species may be able to leverage the ideas.

Caring for the Poor

Status is a zero-sum game. As we strive for status, we create a gap between us and others. As others struggle for status, they close the gap, and we must find new and more exotic things to recreate the separation. Thus, there’s a natural rise in the standard. Even the poorest today are better off than the aristocracy of yesterday, but we don’t measure worth against a time years ago. We measure against others – we measure our status relative to our peers.

As a result, we don’t really want to care for the poor. If we care for the poor, then we raise their status, making it necessary to further elevate our status.

Media and Violence

Albert Bandura is famous for his research on televised violence and its impact on children. This is one of the topics that is covered in his book Moral Disengagement. The problem is Pinker cites research and situations that contradict Bandura’s beliefs and findings. Jonathan Freedman did his review and found that there seemed to be little or no effect of televised violence on actual violence. This makes rational sense, as violent crimes were on the decline in the 1990s – at the height of the increased violence on TV and in video games. Places like St. Helena first got television in 1995, and there wasn’t any discernable increase in violence.

Sometimes, even with respectable scientists, the confirmation bias is just too strong. We tend to find what we’re looking for. (See Confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Do Guns Kill People

There’s a popular mantra that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Of course, at some level, guns make this prospect easier. Pinker comes down on the opposite side of the issue of gun control as Bandura. Where Bandura sees that guns make people less safe, Pinker sees guns as a deterrent that is effective at discouraging violence. There are studies that seem to prove both points. Which author is subject to confirmation bias? Both. In many cases, Pinker makes compelling arguments that some of the places with the most guns (per capita) have lower homicide rates. That seems to indicate that guns don’t mean more murders – they could even mean fewer.

My perspective is that it’s neither good nor bad. My perspective is the impact of the availability of guns to generally well-behaving functional members of society have limited positive or negative effects. In short – it doesn’t matter as much as people matter.

Feminists and Wage-Earning Gap

According to Pinker, most women don’t believe they’re feminists – except that they believe the core beliefs of feminism. Originals covered the tendency for a movement to be known by its most extreme members. Pinker explains that there are two kinds of feminism – equality and gender. The first is focused on the lack of fairness to women, and the second is focused on the perceived system of male dominance. Thus, most women (and men) believe in equality – but few believe in gender feminism.

The gender feminists point to the wage-earning gap between women and men, which is often quoted in the 70 cents per dollar range. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that the wages of childless women were 98 cents to every dollar a man makes. Basically 2% off. The wage discrepancy may (or may not) be because women exit the workforce temporarily or permanently to raise children – and thus have less time to generate work experience than men do.

Birth Order

One consideration for the influence of personalities is birth order. However, most of the studies of birth order used surveys of family members. These studies seemed to indicate differences in personality traits based on birth order. However, these effects seemed to disappear when neutral third parties were surveyed.

The Writing Is on The Wall, We Just Can’t Read It

The Blank Slate doesn’t leave us with clear answers as to exactly how our minds are formed. We know that some part of it is genetics, and some part is environment, and there’s a substantial amount that falls into the category of we just don’t know. Just as two “identical” twins will have different fingerprints, we know they’re different. We know that they’re shaped in important ways with subtle cues from their environment. In the case of fingerprints, we know that it’s pressure waves during gestation, and those waves impact the two twins differently. In terms of their personalities, who they are, the answers are not clear.

What is clear is that though we can expose ourselves to things that help us grow and improve, things like reading The Blank Slate.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Book Review-The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – The Basics

What makes a man a man? What drives our behavior? What makes us us? These are the questions that Steven Pinker tries to answer in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The answers are surprisingly entangled in religion and our belief in our own free will. The book, when it was originally released, was labeled “controversial.” In other words, Pinker challenged the status quo. What we believe intuitively or through faith didn’t mesh with his decomposition and recompositing of the discoveries of science. This review will be broken into two parts: the first where we cover the basics of The Blank Slate, and the second where I talk about the implications.

The Heart of Human Nature

The Blank Slate is in service of understanding human nature better, how we and our fellow humans make our decisions, and how we grow to be a service to our society. Some authors who have tackled this topic have broken the mind down into lower- and higher-level functions – like Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Others have looked at the problem with metaphors such as the Rider-Elephant-Path model as written in Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt follows up The Happiness Hypothesis with The Righteous Mind, where he seeks to uncover the fundamental sources from which I morality arises.

Others, like Greenleaf in Servant Leadership and Scharmer in Theory U, seek to nudge human nature in a better direction. Without trying to explain how we came to be the people we are, they propose a different way of thinking.

Instead of hypothetical models of how we operate, Pinker explores two historical perspectives on how humans evolved and how our brain works before systemically walking through the research and the implications. The first of the three historic views of human nature is that we’re a blank slate, and we’re shaped entirely by our environment. The second view is that we’re all noble savages who are altruistic at our core. The discovery of seemingly peaceful native tribes led to the belief that we’re corrupted by our society. The third view is that there’s a ghost in the machine. That is, there’s a soul that inhabits our bodies and frees us from the bonds of biology. The blank slate is first.

The Blank Slate

Before we understood genetics to the level we do today, we knew that everything about a person couldn’t be encoded into our genes. This gave rise to the idea that the brain was a blank slate, a new computer with nothing loaded. Through our experiences, we became who we are. Some of this was the environments that we surrounded ourselves with and some of it was the choices we made.

The blank slate is a good place to start because it means that it’s possible to hold people accountable for the choices that they make. If they’re a product of their environment and choices, it’s easy enough to hold people accountable for their choices. It’s the blank slate that our legal system is based on.

However, the blank slate is not supported by research. It seems that there’s something in our genes that influences who we are.

The Noble Savage

The Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman had a conversation recorded in Destructive Emotions where they considered whether humans were rational egoists, selfish and compassionate, or compassionate and selfish. There was no answer to this puzzle, only three different views. This captures the heart of the noble savage. Some believe that we’re generally peaceful creatures who are perverted by our environment in ways that lead us to selfishness and narcissism.

The very idea of a noble savage was disproved. As the study into the cultures that were initially thought to be peaceful was deepened, it became more apparent that the conflict between people and peoples exists everywhere. Conflict, in fact, exists in all of nature, up to and including humans.

However, it’s a convenient and comforting belief that we can blame our infirmities and weaknesses on our environment.

The Ghost in the Machine

The ghost in the machine is our soul. It’s the timeless, endless, undying part of ourselves that continues after this life. (See Soul Keeping for an attempt at defining what the soul is.) The ghost in the machine is a healthy buttress against nihilism and the belief that our lives are without purpose. If we live and we die but leave nothing behind, then what’s the point? Why would we care if we add to society or take from it?

The idea that we have an immortal soul serves to continue to press into the service of humanity. Whether it’s the Jewish and Christian belief in heaven, or a belief in reincarnation where you get to come back as a higher form of animal, most religious institutions believe in the ghost in the machine and use this belief to drive forward progress of the species.

Genes Turning On and Off

What we’ve learned through our study of genetics is that gene sequences can be turned on and off. That is, our environment and our internal thinking literally changes our genes. This makes it difficult to isolate a single factor as the cause of a condition. We live in a probabilistic world, where the presence of a gene only indicates a change in possibility for a condition – not a certainty that it will or won’t appear.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers spends considerable time explaining how we can transmit stresses across generational lines without the direct expression of genes.

Human Clockwork

Humans are – in essence – a machine like any other. They’re like a complex clock, whose function and operation can be determined through a detailed understanding of the component parts. This is a scary proposition for those who hold dear the idea that our bodies are just temporary containers for our soul. If we can reduce everything to chemical reactions, then where do we have room left for us to have a soul.

This is a common concern. In Mindreading, much of the criticism against mental models was leveled because of tendency to decompose the magic of the mind into a set of constituent components with sufficiently limited complexity to be understood how we might model them. The more we can peer into the depths of how the mental machinery works, the less mystery there is.

Perhaps equally scary is the idea that, if we’re a biological clockwork, we should start with the best clocks to begin with. We shouldn’t take care of the weak or inferior, we should end their lives move on to moving the species forward. This was the heart of the Nazi attempted genocide of the Jewish people. As scary as it is, this is not the first nor last attempted genocide in history.


If it makes sense to end lives that are not adding value to society, shouldn’t we also only allow those to breed who have superior genes and therefore represent a better clock? This is the idea of eugenics, which seeks to deny reproductive capacity to those who were deemed inferior. In Indiana, we had eugenics laws from 1907 for about 70 years, sterilizing 2,500 people. These laws are long off the books but represent a time when Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin, had substantial influence on the policies and thoughts of the leaders of the state.

The pendulum swung from the blank slate to everything is programmed in our genes and weaker genes should be prevented from replicating.

Battle of the Sexes: Animal Kingdom

If you’re going to work your way through evolutionary biology to get to the impact of passing genetic code on through procreation, you’re going to get to sex and how the two sexes view the act. With mammals, the difference is striking. Males have very little energy expended in the reproductive act. While the actual sexual act may be more physical exertion for the male, the actual act of raising children is substantially more burdensome for the female, who, in most species, takes primary responsibility for raising the young that she carries.

From a sheer glucose management point of view, the female is substantially more involved in the reproductive act and therefore must be choosier with whom she mates. She should make the right choice, because her choices are going to be very large bets on the scales of life. Mating with the right male can give her children an advantage. Mating with the wrong male can reduce the chances of her offspring making it and the survival of her genetic code.

Males, on the other hand, are best served by finding many female mates, thereby spreading their chances across a variety of female partners. Thus, females seek to maximize the quality of the partner, where males seek to maximize the quantity (number) of partners.

Sex, Children, and Contraceptives

In a world without effective contraception, the biological desire for sex and the love of children is enough to support the propagation of genes. In the world of contraception, we’ve got things turned around a bit. Thoughtful intellectuals leverage their greater self-control and more consistently use contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, while those with less self-control are not using contraception and get pregnant at much higher rates. This means we may have stalled or reversed the impacts of natural selection.

When well-reasoned people aren’t reproducing as fast as folks who cause burdens on the social systems, it’s not hard to see how someone might consider the eugenics laws – even if they aren’t appropriate.

Nature vs. Nurture

In the raging battle of whether our personalities are driven by genetics, the environment, or both, the answer seems to be a qualified both. The qualification is that the environment as we think of it – “they came from a good home” – seems to have less impact than we believe. We have genetics setting the development process on a path, but it seems that the path can be influenced.

Estimates vary, but you can say that roughly 40-50% of our personalities are generated by our genetics. There’s about a 0-10% swing based on what we classically believe about the environment. The other 40-50% of what makes up the development of our personalities is undefined. Research doesn’t show us what makes this component up.

Personally, I believe it has to do with random openings of receptiveness. That is, I believe there are times when we’re more susceptible to input and learning and times when we’re not open to learning from our experiences. So, something that may be impactful to one person might not be impactful to the person standing next to them. Unfortunately, saying that people have periods of open and closed time for learning does nothing to illuminate the situation until you can define, describe, or detect those times.

Environments and Learning

Neural plasticity is a popular term. It refers to the idea that our brains aren’t fixed and then remain unchanged through our adult lives. D.O. Hebb said, “neurons that fire together wire together; neurons out of synch fail to link.” In truth, neurons form connections to other neurons based on the firing pattern – which is driven by both internal processing and sensory input. As we gain new experiences, or we sit and meditate, we generate new connections that didn’t exist before.

We learn and grow – that is, we grow new neural connections that allow unrelated concepts to become linked and go together. The way that we learn really does shape our mind. It shapes the internal structure.

Good and Bad

Every generation – over the last several at least – believes that society is going downhill. They believe that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket.” However, it’s not clear whether that’s literal truth, or whether we’re just getting more negative news than we used to. When something awful happened beyond the scope of our community, we never used to hear about it. Now, with traditional and social media sharing and amplifying bad events, it’s certainly possible to believe that the world is getting worse.

However, what the media doesn’t share are the thousands of small kindnesses that are done every day. This is what Gould calls “The Great Asymmetry.” We do thousands of small “goods,” and they’re balanced out by a few truly heinous acts. Humans have the capacity for great love and kindness as well as discouraging evil and harm.

What’s It All Mean?

So much for our conceptions of how we think and how we should hold people accountable. In Part 2 of this review, I walk through some of the implications of our minds not being The Blank Slate.

Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretence, Self-Awareness, and Understanding Other Minds

Book Review-Mindreading

Mindreading – it’s the stuff of comic books and science fiction. At the same time, Dr. Paul Ekman struggles with the implications of his discovery of micro-expressions and the emotions they reveal (see Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies). All the while, Jonathan Haidt believes our ability to read others’ intentions is the point at which we became the truly social and cooperative species we are today. (See The Righteous Mind.)

Somewhere between the superhero capacities and the reality of our evolution lies questions. The question is, how does it work? How is it that we have any capacity to read another’s mind? What is it that allows us to “know” what is in someone else’s head? This is the question that plunged me into the academic writing of Mindreading.

Making Models

Other than Steven Pinker, I don’t know anyone who claims to know exactly How the Mind Works. In his book with the same title, Pinker attempts to walk through the topic, but my initial journey through the material was called on the account of boredom. It’s back on my list to try to read again, but I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it. The neurology books I’ve read can describe the firing of neurons and their structure – but not how they work together to produce consciousness. (See Emotional Intelligence, Incognito, and The End of Memory.)

Psychology has its problems too. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and The Heart and Soul of Change are both clear that psychology doesn’t have all the answers for how the mind works. The DSM-5 is a manual of all the manifestations of problems with psychological development without any understanding of what’s broken or what to do about it. It’s sort of like a categorized list of all of the complaints that people have had with their car when they take it to an auto mechanic. Warning: Psychiatry can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health speaks of the rise of the use of drugs – with limited, if any, efficacy – and how we still don’t effectively know how to treat mental health problems.

With all these problems, one might reasonably wonder why we bother making models at all. The answer lies in a simple statement. The statistician George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some models are useful.” The fact that each model moves us closer to an approximation of reality is why we make models. Much of Mindreading is spent exploring the author’s model of mind reading and comparing it to the models that others have proposed – and how the author’s model builds on the models of others.

Telling Lies

I ended my review of Telling Lies with the idea of stealing the truth. That is, how detection of lies could be used to steal the truth from those who wished to keep the truth secret. This is, for me, an interesting moral dilemma. Our ability to read minds – to have shared intentionality – allowed us to progress as a species. It was an essential difference, just as was our ability to use tools. At the same time, we believe that we should have a right to keep our thoughts private.

Mind reading, or shared intentionality, has been one of the greatest factors in our growth as a species and at the same time we struggle with what it means.

Understanding Beliefs

Show a small child of one or two years old what’s in a box, and close it. Watch as their playmate enters the room, and ask them what their playmate will believe is in the box, and they’ll confidently explain the item you showed them. Of course, the playmate has no idea what’s in the box. Young children are unable to comprehend that the beliefs that they have aren’t the beliefs that everyone has. They believe the illusion that their brains are creating. (See Incognito for more.) However, somewhere around three years old, if you revisit this test, you’ll find the child identifies that their perceptions and those of their playmate are not the same.

There’s a transition between the belief that everything is the same for everyone to a more nuanced understanding that your beliefs and others’ are different. However, differentiating between you having a belief and someone else not having it – or having a different one – doesn’t help to understand their desires.

Reading Desire

Understanding different desires is something different entirely. It’s one thing to understand that someone else doesn’t know what’s in a box but something entirely different to understand that not everyone loves brussels sprouts. Young children tilt their heads like a confused puppy when you tell them that you don’t desire something that they do.

Soon after they’re able to accept the principle that you don’t have the same desires they have, they start to try to figure out what your desires are. They begin the process of looking for markers in behavior that either confirm or disconfirm that your desires match theirs. They look for whether you take the brussels sprouts from the buffet.

Desire is inferred from behavior or lack of behavior more or less like adults assess others’ desires. The models that we have in our head and the number of markers that we’re able to use expands, but, fundamentally, it’s the same process. Where we get off track is more frequently reading intentions.

Reading Intention

“Fundamental attribution error” is the name that Kahneman gave the tendency to attribute intentions to others. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow). It’s our tendency to leap to conclusions. It’s our tendency to reach out and make the wrong leap about what other people were intending.

When it comes to leaping, Chris Argyris has a ladder. His Ladder of Inference describes how we make assumptions and conclusions about other people and what is going on inside of them. Most of the time, when we talk about the Ladder of Inference, we’re talking about the problems that it causes. (See Choice Theory.) We’re talking about where it misses the mark. However, the inferences we can make to read the intention of someone else is a marvelous piece of mental machinery.

Consider Gary Klein’s work in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t, which lay out the mental models we use to simulate the world around us. Reading intentions means that we model the mental processing of other people. This sort of box within a box has been mastered by virtualization software, but wasn’t popular for the first several decades of computer technology. We know that a mind can simulate the processing of another mind – but how?

What’s the Harm in a Thought?

Research has shown that thoughts can be harmful. They can lead to stress responses and harm. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.) However, a thought or belief can rewrite history. People struggle with the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation for more). We simply don’t see how people couldn’t realize that the round wheel is best. Our awareness of the current state shapes our perception.

Andrew Carnegie is perhaps my best example of a man who understood the power of a thought. In his time, he was called a “robber baron.” He was reviled. However, through his gift of public libraries, he shaped people’s perceptions of him – for generations. The thought that he is a benefactor of public knowledge pushes out the incompatible robber baron thought.

Thoughts are substantially more powerful than we give them credit for. They can change our biology. They can change our world, and, ultimately, they can change the world. Incompatible thoughts wage a war inside our heads, duking it out to see which one gets to survive. Einstein described “genius” as the ability to hold two incompatible thoughts inside our head at the same time.

The harm in a thought can be how it pushes out other thoughts – necessary thoughts. (See Beyond Boundaries for more on confirmation bias.)

Possible World Box – The Heart of Simulation

At the heart of our ability to project the future and to simulate situations is the possible world box. In this box, the bounds of our perception of reality are weakened. We copy our thoughts and expectations into this box from our belief box – but inside the possible world box, anything is possible. We can overwrite our beliefs. We can change our world view – at least for a moment. The possible world box is where we simulate. We simulate the future. We simulate other people and other situations.

Without the possible world box (or some equivalent), we would not be able to simulate at all. We’d be limited to the experiences that are directly within our perception. With a possible world box, we can create flights of fancy and any sort of world or simulation we might like – including what might be going on inside another human.

It’s this ability to simulate that is unique to our human existence, and it’s one fraught with problems. Many of these problems revolve around the challenge of cognitive quarantine.

Cognitive Quarantine

It’s great that we have a possible world to run simulations in, but what do we do with the results of those simulations? If we had complete cognitive quarantine, there would be no way to migrate the output of our simulations into our belief system. So, we clearly need to take things from the possible world box – or the output of the simulations we run in the possible world box to our beliefs. This gets us into trouble.

Suddenly, it’s possible to get things from the possible world box – which aren’t constrained by reality – into our belief system. The mental mechanisms that regulate this process are far from perfect. In fact, we know through research that the introduction of information into a simulation can bleed into beliefs about the real world.

I wonder whether schizophrenia as we understand it is really a failure of the mechanisms designed to limit, regulate, and control the flow of information out of the possible world box in such a way as the possible world leaks into our real world and our real beliefs. Once that happens, it becomes fascinatingly hard to loosen the belief. (See Change or Die for more.)

Displacing the False Belief

Let’s say you are placed in a situation of seeing a set of suicide notes – some fake and some real. You’re asked to sort them into fake and real. You’re told that your sorting is very good – much larger than chance. Then later, you’re told that the feedback was wrong. In truth, all the suicide notes were fake. The whole experiment wasn’t about sorting suicide letters. It was about persistence of beliefs. And then you were asked whether you were good at sorting suicide notes between the fake and the real.

Your perception will have changed. You’ll believe that you’re good (or better than average) at sorting real suicide letters from the fake. You’ve been told, by the same researcher that told you were good, that they were lying. You should – if you’re completely rational – not hold any belief about your ability to sort suicide letters. However, the research shows that you will. You’ll hang on to the lingering belief that you are good at this sorting.

In this very controlled experiment, you received direct evidence that you are not good at the task, and yet the belief persists. What does this say for the beliefs that leak out of the possible world box? How difficult would it to be to displace a bad belief if you don’t have direct, disconfirming evidence? Would it even be possible? In many cases, it isn’t.

Inference Mechanisms

We’ve got finely-tuned inference engines. We ascribe our thoughts to others. In fact, this is something all young children can do. Shortly after they discover object permanence – that is, that an object doesn’t disappear when it moves out of their field of view – they start to expect that what they know is something everyone knows. If they see an object move behind another until it’s hidden, they expect that other children who didn’t see the object get hidden will know where it is. They infer that, because they know it, then everyone should know it.

As we get older, our inferences get more complex. We move from being able to identify the number missing in a series to being able to infer what someone else believes based on their behaviors. We test possible beliefs in the possible world box until we can find a belief set that could create the behaviors we’re observing.

Behavior Prediction

In many ways, our mental systems evolved in ways that allow us to predict the behaviors of others. That is, we want to know what to expect out of others. We predict behaviors, because, as social animals, we know that our safety is dependent upon how others behave.

Our behavior prediction engine is fed information through play and through our experiences. (See Play for more on the role of play.) As we amass more data, we expect that our ability to predict others’ behaviors improves. We do this because, by predicting the behavior of others, we can learn to work together and stay safe.

Failure of Prediction

Though we’re good at predicting other people’s behavior, our failure to predict their behavior is inevitable.

The more certain we are of how we believe someone will behave, the more hurt and betrayed we feel with they don’t meet our expectations. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more clarity.) In evolutionary history, we needed to know how someone would behave, because it quite literally could mean the difference between life and death.

Kurt Lewin tried to expose a simple model for behavior prediction. Behavior, he said is a function of both person and environment. So, it’s not possible to predict behavior without considering both the person and the environment. Folks like Steven Reiss have worked to characterize the personal factor of behavior by isolating and identifying the 16 basic motivators – sort of like a periodic table of elements for motivation. (See The Normal Personality.) Others have proposed other ways of categorizing people to make the explicit prediction of behaviors easier. (You can find more in The Cult of Personality Testing.)

Despite all of these tools and models, we still fail to predict others behavior. Caesar Agustus asking “et tu Brute?” is perhaps the most historic example of a betrayal that cost a life. The good news is that every failure to predict isn’t a life or death situation. Sometimes it’s trivial.

Pretense – Something and Not at the Same Time

Have you ever picked up a banana, held it to your head, and started to talk into it like a phone? Or have you seen a child pick up a block and talk into it like a cell phone? These are examples of pretense. It’s the basic forerunner of our ability to simulate the mind of others and the start of the possible world box. We can simultaneously accept that what we’re “talking on” can’t make calls – and at the same time pretend to be doing just that.

The interesting part of this is that we can imbue the attributes of the target item, the phone, to the source item, the banana, while at the same time recognizing that the banana is still a banana. This bit of cognitive distinction is why the possible world box makes so much sense. We can pin our beliefs into a possible world and recognize our beliefs that are “real.”

So, we start by pretending one thing is another. And we end up with a way that we can read other people’s minds. It may not be the stuff of comic books. However, Mindreading is pretty cool – and something worth learning more about.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – Normal Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil left me with a terrifying thought. What if we are all evil? What if we don’t turn people evil? What if, instead, we’re all evil and only briefly rise to be good?

This is the third and final post on The Lucifer Effect. The first post was The Devil Made Me Do It, and the second was Constructing a Prison.

The Evidence

Let’s look at the evidence. The kids in the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) were normal, healthy, moderately affluent kids. Milgram’s shock experiments were done with a random cross section of people. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on Milgram.) Asch’s perception experiments were likewise randomized. (See Unthink for more on Asch.) Despite study controls for normalcy, we found the capacity to warp our perceptions and cause harm with relatively little brainwashing.

If we take a step back from research, and we instead review actual events and the analysis of the aftermath, we see that here, too, we find normal. Adolf Eichmann was responsible for managing the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. His trial in 1961 was a spectacle. It was set on the world stage. Eichmann considered himself not guilty of the atrocities that he had committed. One would think that he was delusional. He clearly had worked diligently to lead so many Jews to their death, and yet he claimed that he had no special role. He was doing what was required of him.

“Delusional” is a word that could be used to describe the situation. The problem is that the psychology of Eichmann wasn’t the delusional sort. The problem was, in fact, that his psychological workup found a normal man. It didn’t find a monster. The problem for all of us is that he “wasn’t a bad guy.” He was just a guy swept up into a very bad system.

The Implication

The line between good and evil seems bright and hard to miss. The line between the good guys and the bad guys was as easy to tell as the white hats the good guys wore and the black hats the bad guys wore in old movies. It should be simple. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. The problem is it’s not that simple. The problem is, time after time, we find that good people and bad people are most often separated by time, not distance. The problem is that the same person – each of us – is both good and bad. We are neither saint or sinner, we’re both.

Bandura in Moral Disengagement explains how the high and mighty fall to the depths of depravity and harm to one another. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) explains how we can acknowledge our faults and assign the blame to others. Change or Die speaks about the discrepancy between what we know we need to change and why we don’t – the same schism between truth and perception that fuels our inhumane treatment of others.

So What Now?

We’re not a lost cause. We’re not relegated to the immoral behavior and split identity of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, we cannot deny our nature. We cannot deny that we have the capacity for both good and evil. However, on the other hand, we must accept that we need to cultivate the kind of mental states that make us more resistant to the fall into the abyss of evil. We can cultivate compassion (see The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for more). The fall into evil is precipitated by the dehumanization of others. Compassion seeks to anchor all people as innately human and always worthy of our concern.

We can guard against our beliefs that the ends justify the means. That our actions are noble, honorable, and right – even if people are harmed or killed by them. We must accept that whatever good may come from the end, the harm comes now and disproportionally.

Getting Caught Up

We all have the capacity for evil within us. Our grander notions of ourselves are able to keep this evil away from our interactions with others most of the time – some more than others. We must accept that, in some circumstances, our natural fight of the evil within us becomes weary and tenuous. We must keep from getting caught up in The Lucifer Effect.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – Prison Construction

It seems as if the construction of prisons is all about the bricks, mortar, and iron bars. On the surface, constructing a prison is about preventing break outs. However, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil explains that the real construction of the prison isn’t in the walls and bars. The real construction is in the beliefs.

This is the second in a series of three posts about The Lucifer Effect. The first was The Devil Made Me Do It, and the final post in the series will be “Normal Evil“.


“The Rock.” It’s a short name for a tiny island in the middle of San Francisco bay that once served as a maximum-security prison. Even if prisoners escaped their cells, the water currents and relative distance of the shore meant near-certain death to anyone willing to attempt it. It’s not that people didn’t try to escape; however, their bodies were never found. As a result, the record of Alcatraz as an inescapable prison remains.

Alcatraz was a formidable prison. The “Battle for Alcatraz” attempted breakout, however, proved that, even if it was not escapable, it was possible for the prisoners to overpower the guards – at least temporarily. The real walls in the prison weren’t the ones made of concrete. The real walls were the ones that were created in the prisoner’s minds. The most troublesome and notorious prisoners called Alcatraz their temporary home and ultimately succumbed to the power of The Rock, a power that wasn’t expressed in its concrete structures, but instead in its relational power structures.

Power Structures

Lord John Dalberg-Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s the structure of power that makes a prison run. If there are too few controls, limits, expectations, and monitoring, the power of the guards spirals up and the power of the prisoners down. The result is the temporary corruption of the guards into tyrannical monsters.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), as it came to be known, showed how minimal oversight and poor limits on guard behavior caused them to emotionally torment the prisoners. In the Abu Ghraib, the conditions weren’t simulated and the results were real. Much to the military’s disgrace, the conditions established at this and other prisons had guards doing unthinkable things to prisoners.

When the Geneva Conventions were removed by changing the status of the prisoners from prisoners of war to unlawful combatants, the safety valves were shut off, and the power of the guards was allowed to escalate to impossible levels. Add to this mixture of circumstances, poor supervision, and a severe lack of resources, and the power structure became unsustainably out of balance.

Even good men and women who had faithfully served their country began to disengage their morality (see Moral Disengagement) and do unspeakable things. Lord Acton’s statement had become all too real. These guards had been corrupted by the power that they held over other people’s lives.

Not every guard changes at the same rate. Not everyone’s moral beliefs and boundaries are bent, moved, or disengaged so quickly – but, ultimately, it seems that everyone’s beliefs are “adjusted.” Most frequently, the adjustments are in a failure to speak up. They’re not acts of commission, but are instead acts of omission.

Acts of Omission

To understand the power of the group and how hard it is to speak up for what’s right, we have to step back in time to 1955 and the work of Solomon Asch at Swarthmore College. Imagine you’ve been recruited with other volunteers to study perception. The challenge is easy. You’re there to compare the length of lines. One reference line and three possible lines, one of which matches the length of the first. You might expect this to be the sort of visual illusion test that is designed to test how we process visual information and some of the hidden flaws. (See Incognito for more.)

However, of the eight participants in each experiment, only you were a volunteer. The other seven people were confederates of Asch. They were there to see how you could be influenced by your desire for conformity. It turns out that, on a test that expected a very low error rate, 75% of the subjects gave at least one incorrect response when pressured by incorrect answers by the other confederates.

Instead of speaking up and giving the correct answer – one that was easy to identify – they gave an incorrect answer. The repetitions of the experiment, with the aid of fMRI machines, indicate that the areas of activation aren’t about conflict but are in areas of visual perception. This says that, literally, the person’s perception of the line was changed.

How can you express your true perceptions when you no longer have true perceptions – your perceptions are literally changed?

On Your Death Bed

If you listen carefully to the regrets of the dying, you’ll find, as Bonnie Ware did, that number three on the list is “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” She records this in The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Everyone wants to know what they’ll regret most. Perhaps more interesting is that another variation of the regret of omission is number one on the list – “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” That is, they regret that they couldn’t be themselves – to express themselves completely more frequently.

Private Prisons

Back in the SPE, even the most morally-strong failed to speak out against the abuses that were happening. The prisoner who was on a hunger strike couldn’t rally the support of the other prisoners. Part of that was due to a lack of communication and rapport building, but at least some of it was tied up in the power of conformity. The Hidden Brain relates the story of the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit, where in August 1995, a woman was brutally beaten while people all around did nothing.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of Kitty Genovese in The Tipping Point. Kitty was stabbed to death. Thirty-eight people ultimately admitted to hearing her screams, and exactly zero called the police.

The morally-conflicted guards disengaged, performed small acts of kindness towards the prisoners, but failed to elevate their concerns either by confronting the aggressors or reporting the concerns through the chain of command at the mock prison.

Prison Building 101

The great lesson from the SPE is that to build a prison you need no walls. You need no bars. You need only those capacities within the human mind to succumb to group pressure and the lack of initiative needed to stand up and fight for what is right. President Franklin Roosevelt said it best: “Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own mind.” Perhaps the real prison is doing nothing to test the walls in our mind. Perhaps doing nothing is The Lucifer Effect.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Book Review-The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil – The Devil Made Me Do It

Young children can say things that adults could never get away with. Ask a child why they did something wrong, and one answer you may get is, “The devil made me do it.” The personification of evil, they proclaim, can override their free will and cause them to take one more cookie after they’ve been told no more. We laugh at this childish idea. Of course, no one can make you do something against your will. Hypnotists reportedly can’t get you to do something you don’t want to do. So how silly is it that “the devil made me do it?” The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil tries to help us understand that this may not be as far-fetched as we’d like to believe, but the devil isn’t in the details – the devil is in the system.

This is the first of three posts about The Lucifer Effect. The second post will address constructing a prison, and the third about “normal evil“.

Studies at Stanford

The linchpin of The Lucifer Effect is the study that Philip Zimbardo ran at Stanford University. The study randomly assigned healthy students into either a guard or a prisoner role. The situation was structured to create anonymity, deindividualization, and dehumanization. The structure worked too well. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely, because it was spinning out of control, as the mock guards were abusing the mock prisoners. (As a sidebar, Zimbardo has done other things as well, but none more popular than this experiment. One of his other books, The Time Paradox, is one I read years ago.)

Somehow, the reality that this was an experiment was lost and everyone descended into the belief that the prisoners and the guards were real. They started to act like the situation wasn’t contrived but was instead a result of misdeeds by the prisoners. The escape hatches (metaphorically speaking) to get out of the study were easy enough to realize, but, strikingly, no one reached for them, because no one seemed to believe that they could use them.

In this experiment, the power of the situation – or the system – overwhelmed the good senses of the guards and the prisoners and plunged them both into behaviors that weren’t characteristically theirs. Instead, these students’ behavior was shaped, as Kurt Lewin would say, by their environment.


Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist who contributed greatly to our ability to understand how people behave. His famous equation is B[ehavior] = f[unction](P[erson], E[nvironment]). Put simply, the behavior of anyone is a function of both their person – their unique traits and personality – and the environment that they’re placed in. The mathematics of the function itself is unknown. The complexity of the person and the complexity of their environment make it difficult to predict how someone will really behave. (See Leading Successful Change for more discussion on Lewin’s equation.)

Our legal system rests on the notion that people are responsible for their behaviors, and the environment has no impact on our behavior. (See Incognito for more on this foundation.) However, Lewin says that this is incorrect. In Incognito, Eagleman explains how our will is far from free. Kahneman shares similar concerns in Thinking, Fast and Slow. He goes so far as to say that System 1 (automatic or emotional processing) lies to System 2 (higher-order reasoning.) The result of that deception is that we’re not really in control, we just think we are.

This is the dual-control model that Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis about the rational rider and the emotional elephant. Our laws are constructed for the rational rider without the awareness that the rider isn’t really in control. We make only occasional allowances in our system of government for temporary insanity. This is the slightest acknowledgement where there are times that our emotions get the better of us – and would get the better of anyone.

However, the other variable to the equation is more challenging. Defining the environment is about what courts see as extenuating circumstances – even if they don’t exonerate people – that are worth considering. Zimbardo proves the power of the structural influences on the behavior of carefully screened, well-functioning students. However, he’s not alone in raising the alarm about how good people can be made to do bad things.

Shocking Authority

In the post-World War II world, it’s hard to understand how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party could exterminate so many Jewish people. It’s unthinkable – yet it happened. The question was why people would agree to do such awful things. Stanley Milgram, as a Jew himself, was curious as to what people would do when they were told to. How quickly and easily would people bend to the power of authority. The experiment was simple in structure. Two volunteers would be selected and paired so that one was the teacher and the other was the learner. The teacher would be assessing the effect of electric shocks on the ability to improve learning retention.

At least it looked simple. The real assessment was whether normal people would be willing to administer what they believed to be life-threatening shocks to someone hidden from them. The learner was not a volunteer at all. The learner was a conspirator (or agent) of Milgram’s. The teacher would feel a small shock, then the learner and the teacher would be separated and would communicate through audio only. The teacher would administer what they thought were progressively larger and larger voltage to the learner – while he’d scream, indicate concerns for his heart, and generally indicate his displeasure.

In the presence of a researcher who pressured the teacher to press on, over 90% of people administered what they thought to be potentially lethal shocks to someone in another room. Of course, there were no shocks after the test shock the teacher received. However, the actual outcome of the research was that it was all too easy to get people to disengage their morals in the presence of a false authority. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this terrifying research.)

Moral Disengagement

Bandura artfully explains the mechanisms that allow for Moral Disengagement. The tools of moral disengagement are the same tools that Zimbardo used to construct his mock prison experiment. The system setup for the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed – effectively – to disengage normal, healthy people’s moral safeguards. Free of these bonds, they were free to do anything. The study design in effect created a bubble of reality, of society, of culture that was free to evolve separate from the “real world” outside of the walls of the mock prison.

Bandura affirms that morality is relative to the environment that a person is in. In Paul Ekman’s autobiographical book Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code of My Life’s Pursuit, he shares how a chief’s statement that he would eat Ekman when he died made him a respected man. In this culture, the statement of eating a dead man caused him to achieve respect, while in most cultures, this idea would be repulsive.

Perhaps the greatest surprise wasn’t that morality was relative to culture, it was the speed with which the prison’s culture evolved on its own. It took hours to start to form and days to have a firm hold. By the end of the first week, it was strong enough to have psychologically broken three prisoners and to have shaken Zimbardo’s awareness of his responsibility for controls.

The Devil is the System

Maybe the childish beliefs aren’t so strange. Maybe the devil really did make them do it. However, maybe it’s the systems that we put in place that are the real devil. Maybe it’s the system that is The Lucifer Effect.