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.

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.

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“.

Alcatraz

“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.

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.

B=f(P,E)

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.

Drivers for Conformity and Originality

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

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

It’s All About the Safety

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

Perception of Safety

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

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

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

Need for Safety

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

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

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

Acceptable Level

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

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

Mind the Gap

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

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

Originality is Creativity

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

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

Mistakes and Mortals

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

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

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

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

We’re All Original – In Our Own Minds

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

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

Manipulating the Results

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

Faith in You

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

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

Importance

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

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

Passion

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

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

Trust

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

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

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

Safety is an Abstraction

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

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

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

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

Safety Net

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

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

Polymath

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

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

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

Friends and Facebook Friends

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

Reason, Season, or a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

Frenemies

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

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

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

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

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

Intimacy

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

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

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

Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

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

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

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

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

Information Architecture

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

Neurology of Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

More Failures to Succeed

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

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

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

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

Highly Successful People (HSP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information Overload

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

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

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

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

The Impact of Information Overload

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

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

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

Focus

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

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

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

Externalization

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

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

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

Back to Success

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

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

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

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

Satisficing

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

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

Attention Switching

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

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

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

I Have It on Good Authority

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

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

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

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

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

Losing One’s Mind

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

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

Facebook Friends

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

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

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

More Than Just Entertainment

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

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

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

Grappling with Guns

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

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

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

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

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

Immoral Corporate Institutions

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

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

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

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

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

Moral Murder by the Name of Capital Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental Sustainability

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

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

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

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

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

In Sum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolving Morality

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

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

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

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

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

Founding Fathers and Slavery

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

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

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

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

Social Morality

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

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

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

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

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

Disengagement Doesn’t Alter Morality

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

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

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

Self-Efficacy

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

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

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

Grit

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

Lewin’s Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loci of Disengagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement

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

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

Logical Paradoxes

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

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

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

Bad Means for Good Ends, and the Conflict They Create

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

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

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

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

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

Training Terrorists

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

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

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

Gears of War

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

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

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

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

Morality isn’t a Bug

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

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

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

Crossing the Rubicon of Shared Intention

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

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

Partially Resolved Issues with Dunbar

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

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

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

Foundations of Morality

Haidt argues that there are six foundations for morality:

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

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

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

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

Conflict Resolution

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

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

Recognizing Morality

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

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

Nature vs. Nurture

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

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

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

Genetics and Coevolution

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

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

The Need for Communities

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

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

Looking Good vs. Being Good

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

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

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

Permission to Believe in Our Goodness

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

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

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

Press Secretary Rider

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

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

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

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)

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

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

Hive Mind

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

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

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

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

Happiness from Relationships – not Objects

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

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

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

Moral Literature is WEIRD

WEIRD is an acronym:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

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

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

Intuition First, Reason Second

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

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

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

Religions

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

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

Perspective of Compassion

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