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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

12 APRIL, 2013

Anne Sexton’s Report Card


“She had little patience for studying … she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys.”

Thomas Edison was once called “addled” by his teachers and dropped out of school after only three months of formal education, then forever changed the course of technology and earned himself a Congressional Gold Medal. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at the age of ten after two years of study, then went on to become a polymath and a Founding Father. Albert Einstein flunked out of high school at the age of fifteen, then proceeded to build the foundation of quantum theory and win the Nobel Prize in physics. The list goes on, but hardly does the evidence for the disconnect between academic performance and genius get more delightfully visceral than in Anne Sexton’s report card, found in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library):

In the prologue to the first section of the book, covering Sexton’s early letters, Linda Gray Sexton, Anne’s daughter, and Lois Ames quote Anne’s own autobiographical recollection:

I went to Wellesley public schools, then to private schools, then back to public. By the third grade, my parents were told to give up on me. I’d never learn anything.

The editors paint a fuller picture:

When she reached the fifth grade, the school insisted that she repeat the year and she did. But the loss of familiar schoolmates left her feeling more isolated and unappreciated.

At one point, her teachers and the school authorities urged Anne’s parents to get psychiatric treatment for her. When the Harveys indicated their reluctance to embark upon such a threatening course, the school warned them that Anne might experience emotional problems later in life. Mary and Ralph Harvey decided to wait.

But Anne was masterful at disguising her suffering, both academic and emotional, with vigor:

She had little patience for studying; a precocious, headstrong adolescent, she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys. Her classmates remember her as happy, vivacious, and popular, but underneath, she later claimed, lurked exquisite pain which found an outlet in her role as the class rogue, one who laughingly braved all authority. Although her carelessness and lack of attention were the qualities most often mentioned by her various teachers, many of her report cards remarked on her verbal ability and intellectual agility as well.

Though Anne went on to become one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and thus unsnarling the mythic correlation between early academic excellence and lasting cultural influence, she never transcended her teachers’ mental health admonitions. On October 4, 1974, at the height of her literary acclaim, Sexton had lunch with her editor to go over the final manuscript of her forthcoming poetry collection The Awful Rowing Toward God. She then returned home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, and stripped her fingers bare of rings. With a glass of vodka in hand, she walked into the garage, locked the door behind her, and started the engine of the car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45.

One has to wonder when our broken education system will finally recognize that learning the essential skills of mental health has much further-reaching, lifelong benefits than performing well on standardized tests of vacant memorization.

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12 APRIL, 2013

Science vs. Scripture and the Difference Between Curiosity and Wonder


From Aristotle to St. Paul, or how rational thought and religion battled over knowledge.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning… Never lose holy curiosity,” Albert Einstein counseled in 1955. Iconic science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has hailed curiosity as the key to discovery. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, has proclaimed it central to our DNA. And yet curiosity hasn’t always enjoyed such ample cultural endorsement — in 1605, for instance, even the father of the scientific method admonished against its dark side.

In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (public library), British writer Philip Ball traces the cultural history of curiosity across its rollercoaster of popular favor:

It has always been a complaint leveled at curiosity that it is the enemy of productivity, an unwelcome distraction from our daily duties. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment’s mockers of curiosity were … often not utilitarian Gradgrinds but gossipy, solipsistic wits and libertines. And a surfeit of information has always given cause for grumbling. Alexander Pope felt that the printing press, ‘a scourge for the sins of the learned,’ would lead to ‘a deluge of Authors [that] covered the land.’ … But it is clear that the first ‘professors of curiosity’ who flourished in the century of Pope’s birth had to work tremendously hard to get their knowledge, and curiosity was, before profit or fame or reputation, their most significant motivation.

Among Ball’s most fascinating observations is the contrast between curiosity and wonder, a tension arguably reconciled in the eloquent definition of science as “systematic wonder” but an enduring tension nonetheless:

For the Greeks, curiosity was not even a clearly articulated concept. To the extent that it was acknowledged at all, it stands in contrast to its mercurial sibling, wonder. Aristotle believed that all humans naturally desire knowledge, but he felt that curiosity (periergia) had little role to play in philosophy. It was a kind of aimless, witless tendency to pry into things that didn’t concern us. Wonder (thauma) was far more significant, the true root of enquiry: ‘It is owing to their wonder,’ he wrote, ‘that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.’ … Until the seventeenth century, wonder was esteemed while curiosity was reviled.

In his popular emblem book Iconologia (1593) showing classical personifications of the human qualities, the Italian author Cesare Ripa depicted curiosity as a wild, disheveled woman, driving home the message in the caption: ‘Curiosity is the unbridled desire of those who seek to know more than they should.’

Though on the surface wonder might appear infused with the poetic energy of awe, there’s also an element of docile faith to it, contrary to the active engagement of curiosity. In fact, Bell demonstrates how this very dichotomy grew central to Christian Scripture, where the extinguishing of curiosity — as Galileo learned the hard way — became a mechanism of intellectual oppression, one necessary for preserving the “wonder” of faith:

That some knowledge was forbidden to humankind is of course central to the Christian Creation myth: this is the basis of the Fall. ‘When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God’, the serpent tells Eve of the fruit on the tree of knowledge. The transgressive aspect of curiosity is an insistent theme in Christian theology. Time and again the student of the Bible is warned to respect the limits of enquiry and to be wary of too much learning. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God’, proclaims Deuteronomy. Solomon (if it was he who wrote Ecclesiastes) cautions that:

with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more grief.


Or, as the King James version has it:

Be not curious in unnecessary matters:
For more things are shewed unto thee than men understand.

St Paul was considered to have echoed this sentiment in the admonition ‘Seek not to know high things.’ The fact that he did not actually write this at all speaks volumes in itself, suggesting that the mistranslation fitted with prevailing prejudice. … ‘Do not take pride in the arts or sciences,’ wrote Thomas à Kempis in the fifteenth century, ‘rather, fear what has been told to you.’

Wonder, on the other hand, had an element of unquestioning submission that resonated with the religious tradition:

The central problem with curiosity was that it was thought to be motivated by excessive pride. The accumulation of pointless learning ran the risk not that one would become another Lucifer but that one would primp and preen rather than bow one’s head before the Lord. ‘O curiosity! O vanity!’, cried the late twelfth-century theologian Alexander Neckam. ‘O vain curiosity! O curious vanity!’

The imperative of pious humility was what commended wonder to Augustine at the same time as it indicted curiosity. There was nothing frivolous or hedonistic about wonder. It instilled awe, reminding us of our powerlessness and insignificance before the glory of God. That is why wonder in the face of nature’s splendour was seen as the educated response, and a willingness to believe in marvels and prodigies was not only praiseworthy but virtually a religious duty. Curiosity, like scepticism, was a sign that you lacked devotion and faith.

The remainder of Curiosity challenges common assumptions about the Scientific Revolution, exploring much like Vannevar Bush did more than half a century ago, the evolving role of curiosity in the face of “the knee-trembling quantity of information we have at our fingertips” through the lives and minds of such revered scientists as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.

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10 APRIL, 2013

Givers, Takers, and Matchers: The Surprising Science of Success


Counterintuitive insight on what makes people thrive from the wunderkind of organizational psychology.

“The principle of give and take; that is diplomacy— give one and take ten,” Mark Twain famously smirked. But for every such cynicism, there’s a heartening meditation on the art of asking and the beautiful osmosis of altruism. “The world is just,” Amelia Barr admonished in her rules for success, “it may, it does, patronize quacks; but it never puts them on a level with true men.” After all, it pays to be nice because, as Austin Kleon put it, “the world is a small town,” right?

Well, maybe — maybe not. Just as the world may be, how givers and takers fare in matters of success proves to be more complicated. So argues organizational psychology wunderkind Adam Grant (remember him?), the youngest-tenured and highest-rated Wharton professor at my alma mater, in Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (public library).

Grant’s extensive research has shed light on a crucial element of success, debunking some enduring tenets of cultural mythology:

According to conventional wisdom, highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. If we want to succeed, we need a combination of hard work, talent, and luck. [But there is] a fourth ingredient, one that’s critical but often neglected: success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?

At the heart of his insight is a dichotomy of behavioral styles people adopt in pursuing success:

Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one will.”

Grant contrasts takers with givers:

In the workplace, givers are a relatively rare breed. They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them. These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you’re a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs. Alternatively, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return. If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.

Outside the workplace, Grant argues by citing Yale psychologist Margaret Clark’s research, most of us are givers in close relationships like marriages and friendships, contributing without preoccupation with keeping score. In the workplace, however, few of us are purely givers or takers — rather, what dominates is a third style:

We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.

True to psychologists’ repeated insistence that personality is fluid rather than fixed, Grant notes:

Giving, taking, and matching are three fundamental styles of social interaction, but the lines between them aren’t hard and fast. You might find that you shift from one reciprocity style to another as you travel across different work roles and relationships. It wouldn’t be surprising if you act like a taker when negotiating your salary, a giver when mentoring someone with less experience than you, and a matcher when sharing expertise with a colleague. But evidence shows that at work, the vast majority of people develop a primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most of the people most of the time. And this primary style can play as much of a role in our success as hard work, talent, and luck.

So who, then, is at the bottom of the success ladder? The answer seems at first unfortunate:

Professionally, all three reciprocity styles have their own benefits and drawbacks. But there’s one style that proves more costly than the other two. … Research demonstrates that givers sink to the bottom of the success ladder. Across a wide range of important occupations, givers are at a disadvantage: they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.

In the world of engineering, the least productive and effective engineers are givers. In one study, when more than 160 professional engineers in California rated one another on help given and received, the least successful engineers were those who gave more than they received. These givers had the worst objective scores in their firm for the number of tasks, technical reports, and drawings completed— not to mention errors made, deadlines missed, and money wasted. Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done.


Across occupations, it appears that givers are just too caring, too trusting, and too willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others. There’s even evidence that compared with takers, on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant.

But just as you begin to think that perhaps it’s our conception of work that needs to change in order to right this social wrong, something curious emerges: If givers are the bottom, then who’s on top, takers or matchers? Neither, it turns out. Grant’s data reveal that it’s the givers who occupy the upper echelons as well.

The worst performers and the best performers are givers; takers and matchers are more likely to land in the middle.


Givers dominate the bottom and the top of the success ladder. Across occupations, if you examine the link between reciprocity styles and success, the givers are more likely to become champs — not only chumps.

Central to Grant’s theory, no doubt to William James’s assent, is the notion of choice:

The answer is less about raw talent or aptitude, and more about the strategies givers use and the choices they make. … We all have goals for our own individual achievements, and it turns out that successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers. They simply have a different way of pursuing their goals.

Most powerful of all, however, is the exponential nature of givers’ success:

Givers, takers, and matchers all can— and do— achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when [givers] win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. You’ll see that the difference lies in how giver success creates value, instead of just claiming it.

In the rest of Give and Take, Grant sets out to demonstrate, through studies and stories across law, engineering, education, entrepreneurship, corporate management, and more, that we tend to underestimate the success of givers, then explores what it is that makes their success so unique and powerful. Complement it with Susan Dominus’s fantastic profile of Grant in The New York Times Magazine.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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