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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

08 OCTOBER, 2013

Mark Twain on Religion and Our Human Egotism

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“The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality.”

A large part of what made Mark Twain the greatest American satirist was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received. But one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — Twain’s grievances with “God” come fully ablaze.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

‘If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.’

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 is an indispensable trove of insight into one of modern history’s greatest minds. Complement it with the story of how Twain masterminded the middlebrow magazine, his little-known poetry, and the heart-warming fan mail he received over the course of his colorful career.

Thanks, Andrew

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03 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Pets as an Extension of Human Fashion: Virginia Woolf’s Nephew on Why Dogs Came to Outshine Cats

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“Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will.”

Given my soft spot for dogs (and the occasional cat), I was intrigued by a passage from On Human Finery (public library) — that fascinating 1947 meditation on sartorial morality and conspicuous consumption by Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew and teenage collaborator — which contrasts the cultural roles of cats and dogs in human society. Bell, an acclaimed author and historian in his own right, and his aunt’s official biographer, presents an anthropological theory of why the dog has emerged as humanity’s pet of choice, “man’s best friend,” over all other domestic animals.

His assertion, served through the lens of the psychology of fashion, appears at first an offputting affront to animal consciousness, reducing our canine companions and their genius to mere objects. But Bell’s arguments actually reveal more about the complexity of being human, driven by an endless osmosis of generosity and solipsism, and speaks to our immutable impulse to will life’s chaos into order. He writes:

The comparison between the cat and the dog is highly instructive. The cat is the most polite of the domestic animals. Its life in the home is almost a kind of symbiosis. It is very clean in its habits; on the whole it pays its way and is frequently of more service than disservice to its owner.

The dog on the other hand has not shown the cat’s adaptation to the life of cities; he belongs to the kennel, but is seldom found there when used as an ornament.

A cat of questionable politeness, from the wonderful 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for more.

Bell quotes the legendary economist and sociologist Thomas Veblen, who asserted that the dog makes up for his unclean habits by having “a service attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else.” In fact, Bell argues, this attitude of servility is the very reason for the dog’s long history as fashionable decoration:

The enormous esteem in which dogs are held and their almost universal employment as ornaments is no doubt in a large measure due to this servile attitude; also perhaps they are psychological substitutes for children (a large section of the pet-loving public … consists of women in the higher income groups).

1967 New Yorker cover by Peter Arno from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell, however, argues there are three main reasons that render dogs “modish above all other creatures”:

  1. Their connection with the futile pursuits of the chase
  2. Their sequacity which makes them in effect a part of the costume
  3. The extreme malleability of the species when subjected to selective breeding

A dog who has clearly not read Bell nor identifies as a mere ‘object’

Bell deems the third factor dogs’ greatest merit, indulging our urge to project ourselves onto the world and bend it to our will — an urge which lends itself to especial extremes when it comes to pets:

Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will. Dogs, much more than cats, can be made objects of conspicuous leisure; they can be rendered completely incapable of fending for themselves and made demonstrable objects of continual expense and care (whoever saw a cat wearing a little coat in the cold weather?) The highly-bred dog can have its whole frame twisted and distorted into shapes of the most astonishing kind. An uninstructed observer would suppose that the owners and vendors of these crippled and unhealthy animals must of necessity be exceedingly cruel. Such accusations would, however, be unjust; the torturers are genuinely devoted to their victims.

2010 New Yorker cover by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell concludes the chapter by circling back to the original lens through which he examines our attitudes towards pets — that of fashion’s morality, which he examined earlier in the book — and argues it is motive that exempts the extreme grooming of pets from the sort of moral condemnation with which we view animal testing and other experimental lab atrocities:

Fashion … has a morality of its own; and the cruelty involved in the deformation of unoffending animals, like that involved in blood sports, is redeemed by the economic futility of the motive; that involved in scientific experiments is felt to be odious because of its unpardonable utility.

Though long out-of-print, On Human Finery remains a treasure trove of timeless insight and is very much worth the used-book hunt or trip to the library. For a different cultural lens on the mesmerism of pets, pair this treat with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) and T. S. Eliot’s classic vintage verses about cats, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

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01 OCTOBER, 2013

How to Make Your Own Luck

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“All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge.”

“You are what you settle for,” Janis Joplin admonished in her final interview. “You are ONLY as much as you settle for.” In Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (public library), which comes on the heels of their indispensable guide to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine, editor Jocelyn Glei and her team at Behance’s 99U pull together another package of practical wisdom from 21 celebrated creative entrepreneurs. Despite the somewhat self-helpy, SEO-skewing title, this compendium of advice is anything but contrived. Rather, it’s a no-nonsense, experience-tested, life-approved cookbook for creative intelligence, exploring everything from harnessing the power of habit to cultivating meaningful relationships that enrich your work to overcoming the fear of failure.

In the introduction, Glei affirms the idea that, in the age of make-your-own-success and build-your-own-education, the onus and thrill of finding fulfilling work falls squarely on us, not on the “system”:

If the twentieth-century career was a ladder that we climbed from one predictable rung to the next, the twenty-first-century career is more like a broad rock face that we are all free-climbing. There’s no defined route, and we must use our own ingenuity, training, and strength to rise to the top. We must make our own luck.

Stressing the importance of staying open and alert in order to maximize your “luck quotient,” Glei cites Stanford’s Tina Seelig, who writes about the importance of cultivating awareness and embracing the unfamiliar in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20:

Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them and, therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation… Lucky people are also open to novel opportunities and willing to try things outside of their usual experiences. They’re more inclined to pick up a book on an unfamiliar subject, to travel to less familiar destinations, and to interact with people who are different than themselves.

But “luck,” it turns out, is a grab-bag term composed of many interrelated elements, each dissected in a different chapter. In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott H. Young echoes William James and recaps the science of rewiring your “habit loops”, reminding us how routines dictate our days:

If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.

Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.

Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.

We can’t, however, simply will ourselves into better habits. Since willpower is a limited resource, whenever we’ve overexerted our self-discipline in one domain, a concept known as “ego depletion” kicks in and renders us mindless automata in another. Instead, Young suggests, the key to changing a habit is to invest heavily in the early stages of habit-formation so that the behavior becomes automated and we later default into it rather than exhausting our willpower wrestling with it. Young also cautions that it’s a self-defeating strategy to try changing several habits at once. Rather, he advises, spend one month on each habit alone before moving on to the next — a method reminiscent of the cognitive strategy of “chunking” that allows our brains to commit more new information to memory.

As both a lover of notable diaries and the daily keeper of a very unnotable one, I was especially delighted to find an entire section dedicated to how a diary boosts your creativity — something Virginia Woolf famously championed, later echoed by Anaïs Nin’s case for the diary as a vital sandbox for writing and Joan Didion’s conviction that keeping a notebook gives you better access to yourself.

Though the chapter, penned by Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, co-authors of The Progress Principle, along with 13-year IDEO veteran Ela Ben-Ur, frames the primary benefit of a diary as a purely pragmatic record of your workday productivity and progress — while most dedicated diarists would counter that the core benefits are spiritual and psychoemotional — it does offer some valuable insight into the psychology of how journaling elevates our experience of everyday life:

This is one of the most important reasons to keep a diary: it can make you more aware of your own progress, thus becoming a wellspring of joy in your workday.

Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, the authors point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:

On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.

Even more importantly, however, they argue that a diary offers an invaluable feedback loop:

Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.

This, they suggest, can yield profound insights into the inner workings of your own mind — especially if you look for specific clues and patterns, trying to identify the richest sources of meaning in your work and the types of projects that truly make your heart sing. Once you understand what motivates you most powerfully, you’ll be able to prioritize this type of work in going forward. Just as important, however, is cultivating a gratitude practice and acknowledging your own accomplishments in the diary:

This is your life; savor it. Hold on to the threads across days that, when woven together, reveal the rich tapestry of what you are achieving and who you are becoming. The best part is that, seeing the story line appearing, you can actively create what it — and you — will become.

The lack of a straight story line, however, might also be a good thing. That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance and creator of the wonderful Good Life Project, explores in another chapter:

Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Echoing John Keats’s assertion that “negative capability” is essential to the creative process Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s assertion that the role of great scientists is to remain uncertain, and Anaïs Nin’s insistence that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Fields reminds us of what Orson Welles so memorably termed “the gift of ignorance”:

Those who are doggedly attached to the idea they began with may well execute on that idea. And do it well and fast. But along the way, they often miss so many unanticipated possibilities, options, alternatives, and paths that would’ve taken them away from that linear focus on executing on the vision, and sent them back into a place of creative dissidence and uncertainty, but also very likely yielded something orders of magnitude better.

All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge. They need to stay and act in that place relentlessly through the first, most obvious wave of ideas.

Fields argues that if we move along the Uncertainty Curve either too fast or too slowly, we risk either robbing the project of its creative potential and ending up in mediocrity. Instead, becoming mindful of the psychology of that process allows us to pace ourselves better and master that vital osmosis between freedom and constraint. He sums up both the promise and the peril of this delicate dance beautifully:

Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity , was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.

In another section, Stanford psychology Ph.D. candidate Michael Schwalbe turns to the intricate dance of risk-taking and the fear of failure. Citing the work of psychologists Daniel Gilbert, whose exploration of the art-science of happiness remains indispensable, and Timothy Wilson, whose work has revolutionized the way we think about psychological change, Schwalbe reminds us of the “impact bias” — our tendency to greatly overestimate the intensity and extent of our emotional reactions, which causes us to expect failures to be more painful than they actually are and thus to fear them more than we should. Schwalbe explains:

Gilbert and Wilson highlight two phenomena to explain this bias. The first is immune neglect. Just as we have a physical immune system to fight threats to our body, we have a psychological immune system to fight threats to our mental health. We identify silver linings, rationalize our actions, and find meaning in our setbacks. We don’t realize how effective this immune system is, however, because it operates largely beneath our conscious awareness. When we think about taking a risk, we rarely consider how good we will be at reframing a disappointing outcome. In short, we underestimate our resilience.

The second reason is focalism. When we contemplate failure from afar, according to Gilbert and Wilson, we tend to overemphasize the focal event (i.e., failure) and overlook all the other episodic details of daily life that help us move on and feel better. The threat of failure is so vivid that it consumes our attention. This happens in part because the areas of the brain we use to perceive the present are the same ones we employ to imagine the future. When we feel afraid of failing at a new business or anxious about the shame of letting investors down and what our peers will think, it’s hard to also imagine the pleasure we will get from our next venture and the other everyday activities that are a necessary and enjoyable part of life.

And yet Schwalbe reminds us that social science has invariably recorded that what people regret the most as they look back on their lives isn’t what they attempted and failed at, but what they never tried in the first place:

Of the many regrets people describe, regrets of inaction outnumber those of action by nearly two to one. … We are left with a paradox of inaction. On one hand we instinctively tend to stick with the default, or go with the herd. Researchers call it the status quo bias. We feel safe in our comfort zones, where we can avoid the sting of regret. And yet, at the same time, we regret most those actions and risks we did not take.

The solution, as a wise woman poignantly put it, seems to be: “Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.”

Complement Maximize Your Potential with its equally insightful prequel, Manage Your Day-to-Day — but don’t let yourself forget that the good life, the meaningful life, the truly fulfilling life, is the life of presence, not of productivity.

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