Tag Archives: psychology

On optimism

My good buddy Jeremy Tolbert has a searching and honest post about optimism, both within the context of science fiction storytelling and the wider context of the world itself:

… I used to believe in the power of sci­ence to make the world bet­ter.  And I’ve spent my entire life watch­ing peo­ple in power reduce the public’s opin­ion of sci­ence to the point where more peo­ple in the U.S. ques­tion evo­lu­tion than believe in it, which to me is basi­cally on par with dis­be­liev­ing grav­ity. The wealthy have attacked the public’s faith in sci­ence because it would have cost them money for us to believe that the planet’s cli­mate is being changed by their indus­tries.  An entire polit­i­cal arm of this coun­try dis­trusts the notion of experts.  The only sci­ence they care about is that which allows them to wring more money from the world.


Where’s my opti­mism?  Where’s my abil­ity to write sci­ence fic­tion like “The Kansas Jayhawk vs. The Midwest Monster Squad?”  Where did I leave it?  And would it be delu­sional of me to even try and adopt it again?  That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re a pes­simist and your pes­simism doesn’t come true, you get to be happy along with the opti­mists.  But if you’re an opti­mist whose pre­dic­tions prove false, then there’s lit­tle to be happy about.  The pes­simist at least gets the grim sat­is­fac­tion of being right. Even if they’re no hap­pier about the out­come than the optimist.

Jeremy mentions a video (clipped from a rather good documentary on stats from the BBC which I watched late last year) which was linked to in the comments thread of another post by Mike Brotherton; it covers (in a flamboyant data visualisation style) the sort of points I try to make a point of repeating to myself like a mantra on a regular basis: yes, on a day-to-day level, life seems pretty tough and the world looks to be high-tailing it to hell in the proverbial handbasket, but when you look at the aggregate experience of the human species over a comparatively short span of time, things have consistently improved, and show every sign of continuing to do so (paradigm-breaking Outside Context Problems or existential risk events notwithstanding). Indeed, sometimes I think our capacity to worry about the future is the strongest indicator that the here-and-now isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be.

[ To pre-empt the rejoinder that life hasn’t improved for everyone to the same degree, and that there are still places that progress – however defined – has yet to make much of a showing, and that we in the Anglophone West have by far the best deal of them all: this I understand, and I’m not trying to downplay the suffering of others. On the contrary, I’m trying to show why we should push forwards with hope and aspirations of a better life for everyone. ]

These things are observable, measurable. Why, then, as Jeremy asks, is it such a struggle to be optimistic? Is it as difficult for everyone? (As shocking as regular readers may find it, my peacenik globalist optimism is something I have to work at rather hard, and sits very much at odds with a lengthy history of depression; I know other people who seem to just bubble over with optimism, but I have no idea what effort – if any – they expend to achieve such a state.)

And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that optimism isn’t just hard work, it’s scary: it invites disillusionment, it openly courts the up-ending and down-throwing of one’s conceptions of the world. To maintain optimism, one must keep picking oneself up after the arrival of a disappointment, rebuild a new theory of the world, adjust and amend it as new data comes to light. By comparison, pessimism is easy: sit back, shake your head stoically as you predict bad things to come, and then just open a newspaper or web-browser and pick out the evidence to prove you were right. People are a lot like electricity, in that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Pessimism has a nice fat copper cable strapped straight to the psychological earth-point; the gratification of being proved right, gained with minimum emotional expenditure.

As a result of that, pessimism seems to be the more popular stance, at least at present; it therefore follows that optimism is unfashionable, not to mention easily undermined by pointing to all the short-term badness in the world. Hence optimism becomes harder still to maintain: you’re flying in the face of popular opinion, and that’s rarely a fast route to popularity and choruses of agreement.

Furthermore, I think optimism contains a component of agency – a feeling that things can be changed, and changed for the better, by doing stuff. Pessimism is predominantly fatalist, as the responses to my post about the Giffords shooting demonstrate very clearly: thinking that we can change the tone of political discourse is naive and condescending! The corporations and politicos have got it all sewn up, and there’s nothing we can do but ride it out and hope the powers that be fix it so we come out a bit better than Those People Over There (whether Over There is the next neighbourhood along, North Korea, or any other strawman enemy-of-the-moment; doesn’t matter, really, so long as there’s some way to make it look like you deserve better than they do).

But just look at history: we have changed the tone of politics, many many times over, and we will do so again. And those who change it will be the ones who didn’t just sit back and sigh, imagining the inevitable dystopia just around the corner. This is not a partisan point, either: activism works. But it’s also work. I’m reminded of the apocryphal slogan of Generation X (the source of which escapes me): “Can’t win, so why try?” Maybe that’s why being optimistic is a struggle; perhaps it’s just generationally out of fashion.

Of course, this is all easily portrayed as conjecture and hypothesis on my part, mixed with a generous handful of self-justification… and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps pessimism really is the more rationally valid and sustainable attitude: after all, the universe is a machine for creating entropy. But I’m going to struggle on being optimistic as best I can, regardless: for one thing, my mind needs the exercise.

And for another, I’ve never been one for following the herd. 🙂

Generic brands and self-esteem

The anti-Apple snarker in me wants to claim this as some sort of victory (“See – this is why Macbook owners are so damn smug!”), but that’s just me airing my own (admittedly irrational) prejudices*. I think there may be something far more important to tease out from the discovery that generic non-brand products have a damaging effect on the self-esteem of those who buy them:

“Even incidentally used cheaper, generic products have the ironic consequence of harming one’s self-image via a sense of worthlessness,” Yin-Hsien Chao and Wen-Bin Chiou report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found this dampening of self-esteem has potentially negative consequences in the realms of both money and romance.

Of course, all such statements must come with caveats:

… it’s worth noting that in these experiments, the use of a generic product was both involuntary and public. The results may or may not hold true for someone who makes the choice himself, and does so in a private setting.

Nevertheless, it’s striking that in these experiments, using a non-brand-name item for a just few minutes had a measurable negative impact. This suggests “we should not overlook the possible backlash of using generic products,” the researchers warn.

This says something pretty powerful about the effects of branding and media saturation, though we’d have to do a lot more work to find out how and why it happens. But the link between consumer choices and self-identity seems clear, and fits with a great deal of media theory from the last four decades or so; what I’d like to know is whether those effects are stronger in the infinite-duplex-channels landscape of the networked world than they were in the golden era of limited simplex broadcast media (TV and radio). How much influence does the opinion of our fellow consumers have? Are we more influenced by those closest to us, or by those more distant figures we aspire to be like?

[ * More seriously, I think the stark polarity between Apple fanpersons and Apple detractors is a really good illustration of the complexity I’m talking about, there: what is it about Apple products that causes some people to identify with them so strongly, and others to reject them equally forcefully? Branding must be a big part of it, but there are definitely more factors in play. ]

Do nothing, get paid: the “Michelangelos of work avoidance”

Interesting piece at Forbes here about a sort of person we’ve all known – or maybe even been, to a greater or lesser extent* – in our working careers: they are the “Michelangelos of work avoidance” [via BigThink]:

Work-avoidance Michelangelos know how to stay idle while suffering no consequences or, in some cases, even getting promoted. June lasted in her job for more than a decade before finally being laid off, and when her termination came it had little to do with her lack of productivity. The office was automating her job.

One of her skills was spending little time at her desk or anywhere near the department where she supposedly worked, so that her bosses didn’t even think about her much. Out of sight, out of mind, you might say. “If people don’t think of you, they can’t give you work,” Abrahamson says. Other ways to accomplish that: Arrive at different, unpredictable times of day. Work from home. Set up your schedule so that you frequently change locations.


If your boss does manage to track you down and try to give you some work, you can strategically deploy a kind of good-natured cluelessness. “The principal here is that you try to give work to a person and come to the conclusion that they can’t even understand the instructions,” Abrahamson explains. In such a case most bosses will figure it’s easier to do the work themselves.

If you perform a specialized function within your office, you can distort the time it takes to get it done. Among June’s supposed jobs was keeping time sheets for her department’s staff. No one else knew the system she’d set up or how long keeping the data took. Thus she could make a task that took minutes appear to consume hours of toil. People with computer expertise who work among Luddites can easily exploit this tactic.

Then there’s what Abrahamson calls the anticipatory screw-up. Make it clear to your boss, in the most pleasant way possible, that you will fail at the assignment she wants to give you. “You don’t have to fail,” advises Abrahamson. “You just have to be clear that you’re going to fail.” Most smart bosses will then give the job to someone else.

Not really surprising that as complex a system as corporate capitalism should have provided niches for freeloaders, nor that human beings – with their innate gravitation towards maximum rewards for minimum outlay – should have taken to them so successfully.

And before you think I’m beating on capitalism alone, I’m pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour goes all the way back into the dawn of history; I suspect shamanism may have arisen due to one or two people per tribe being smart enough to see a way to game the social system. (“Sorry, can’t go hunting with you this week, guys; waaaaaay too busy communing with the gods. But they did tell me that y’all might want to try your luck beyond the third hill to the North…”)

[ * Not me, obviously; I was always a model employee wherever I worked before becoming freelance. SRSLY. ]

The real cognitive dissonance

“You keep using that phrase; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’ll raise my hand to a mea culpa on this one; cognitive dissonance is a concept whose discovery and explication I owe to none other than William Gibson, and I doubt I’m alone in that among the readership of Futurismic.

Thing is, like a lot of complex psychological concepts, the vernacular conception of cogDiss doesn’t quite match up with the original idea. Take it away, Ars Technica:

…within psychology, [cognitive dissonance] describes a somewhat distinct process, where people are forced to reject an item they actually like. Given this bit of awkwardness, people are prone to dealing with it in a fairly simple manner: they conclude that they never really liked the item that much in the first place. This finding, which implies that behavior can drive belief instead of the other way around, has remained controversial, but researchers are now claiming to have identified the neural activity that drives cognitive dissonance.


As expected, the authors are able to demonstrate cognitive dissonance in action: once an individual has chosen against an item, their ratings of it plunge. This effect was much, much smaller when a computer made a choice for an individual, although the later personal choice offered these subjects restored a bit of its impact. So, the researchers have confirmed both the previous work on cognitive dissonance and that of its critics: some fraction of the effect seems to be driven by people actually having stronger preferences than they state, but not all of it.

This is – like most neuroscience at this point – simply the first step on a long road of discovery, and things will doubtless turn out to be yet more complex. But in case you’re wondering why this research matters…

… the study pretty clearly shows that behavior isn’t driven simply by what we believe; our actions can feed back and alter our beliefs. Which, really, shouldn’t have surprised anyone, given the degree of post-hoc rationalization that most people engage in. However, as the authors note, this fact seemed to have escaped those who developed the economic systems that assume that people are rational actors.

I believe the word is “zing”.

The myth of willpower

Same thing happens every year; I completely forget just how quiet the intertubes go when our American friends are sleeping off the Thanksgiving indulgences. Well, for those of you who’re still reading (and those of you not in the US, of course), here’s a tenuously topical link: do those who manage to push away that last few slices of turkey have more willpower than those who scoff the lot? Or is willpower one of those words we have for something that doesn’t really exist in the way we think it does? [via BigThink]

Think of it this way: Our ancestors didn’t need willpower to go for a run because the only time they ran was when they were chasing something or something was chasing them. When we run today, it’s usually to stay in shape. We don’t have that motivating factor of trying to catch our dinner as it hops away, or the fear of death as a polar bear nips at our heels. We use willpower instead—a more modern and, in some ways, unnatural notion.

Which is why willpower, says Hirsch, is weak. Compared to these basic, primitive drives, it has trouble holding up. In fact, willpower may be so weak that it is not even “a meaningful idea,” says Hirsch, when it comes to understanding how to make change in our lives.

Instead, current neuroscience holds that “impulse control” is more accurate than willpower—a slight but important distinction. The idea of impulse control is a much more specific vision of what’s happening in the brain when we experience the tug of old habits, whether it’s food or sex or drugs or booze. It’s the ability to mitigate any stimulus that sets off the brain’s reward circuitry. Unlike willpower, impulse control is not a judgment about the strength of one’s character. This is not just a politically correct revision. The concept of impulse control comes from a better understanding of the brain mechanisms that underlie self-restraint.

The idea here is that framing one’s attempts to change one’s habitual behaviours as ‘impulse control’ is psychologically beneficial, because framing it as a willpower issue implies a character flaw as opposed to a mastering of momentary drives. Whether that will make it any easier to haul my Seasonal Affective Disorder’d carcass out of bed on these cold dark nearly-winter mornings remains to be seen.