The Enlightened Caveman

The Appearance Delta and Gimmick Theory
February 11, 2005, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve written, on occasion, about the influence of looks in our society. Let me attempt to codify my thoughts. The whole thing hinges upon the generalization that individuals in America (and elsewhere, but America, in particular) respond differently to people they perceive as physically attractive versus people who come off as unattractive. I believe this is largely genetic.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends some time discussing the biases that we all have below the surface of consciousness. The point of the book is to put forth the notion that our minds are very good at “thin-slicing,” which is using a small amount of information to make decisions very quickly, and that, while this should often be embraced, it happens behind the locked door of our subconscious. He cites the intuitive behavior of successful art dealers, professional athletes, professional poker players, and military leaders to demonstrate the good side of thin slicing. However, he examines the dark side of thin slicing when he discusses how people respond to physical appearance.

In evolutionary terms, there are physical attributes that indicate fitness – tallness, healthy hair, healthy teeth, symmetry in facial features, good posture, a muscular and lean physique, and so on. Youth in females indicates fertility, so males prefer younger women. Conversely, size and brawn and chiseled features indicate virility in males, which is why females prefer “hunks.” (We’re talking about cavemen here.) The idea is that our evolutionary ancient emotions, the ones operating under the radar of consciousness, are tuned to be drawn to people with these attributes. Gladwell mentions the ex-president Warren Harding as a prime example. Here was a guy who was big with a Roman aristocracy kind of good looks, but he wasn’t especially intelligent, nor was he an impressive public speaker, and he had a long list of character flaws. Nevertheless, with the help of a clever senator, he was elected to office, presumably for nothing more than his good looks. A more contemporary example is the poll Gladwell conducted of half the companies on the Fortune 500 list.

He found that almost all CEOs are tall white males. Brevity, if I am capable of it, prevents me from detailing all of his caveats and conditions, but suffice it to say that his findings bear a stark contrast to normal demographic distributions. In short, it appears that upward mobility is easier for tall white males than it is for short ones or non-white ones or both (surprise, surprise). Of course, the argument can (and should) be made that Gladwell’s findings only betray the extent of in-group prejudice among the few who make it to the top. But, even if this is the case, how things got to be that way still warrants an explanation. For my part, I’m inclined to agree with the author that individuals whose physical appearance indicates fitness in an evolutionary sense enjoy an advantage when dealing with other people, an advantage that is largely unknown by the people conferring it upon them.

If this is true. If. Then, it means that looks do matter in society. It means that no matter how enlightened we may become, no matter how we may deliberately look beyond physical appearance, we are ill-served if we expect the same thing out in the world. We may choose to take the higher ground and assert that people who modulate their interpersonal behavior based upon something so shallow are to be ignored. But the notion that much of this appearance bias happens below the level of consciousness strains the sensibility of this approach. No, I think there’s a better option. Once again, I find myself in a situation where I need two sets of rules for how I operate. I’ve stumbled on another sort of dualist strategy.

I think of all people as falling into one of two groups – people I want long-term relationships with and people I don’t. When I first meet someone, I don’t know which category they’ll fall into, so they start out in the latter. Over time, however, if we get along, and it makes sense, they can transition into the former. The point is that I apply different interpersonal rules to the two different categories.

For the long-term relationship folks, I prefer enlightenment. I encourage looking beyond physical appearance because I know that the rewards are plentiful. Shallow people don’t make the cut. But for people with whom I have no intention or interest in any meaningful long-term relationship, I have no requirements whatsoever. I abstract them all into this group that, among other things, is defined by the least common genetic denominator. I assume that they’re all cavemen doing precisely as their genes instruct. Sure, I’m proven wrong a lot, but it’s better than assuming that they’re all highly aware of their genes’ negative influences and are compensating for them all the time. The consequences of getting this wrong are regular disappointment. Anyhow, things get interesting we we realize that sometimes we need things from these people.

I need to get one of them to like me enough to hire me for a job, for example. I assume that this person will form an instant impression of me simply by how I look, and that depending upon what he or she comes up with, I may or may not have an easy time in the interview. Just to venture into absurdity for a moment, suppose there’s a scoring system that is used by the interviewer to determine if I get a thumbs up or thumbs down, say from 1 to 10. It takes a 9 or better to get the job. If my appearance impresses him or her, I may start with a 6 or a 7. That means I only have to come up with a couple of points to ensure success. It may be my intelligence or my personality or my experience, but whatever it is, it will not be about my appearance. But suppose another applicant comes in and the interviewer is dazzled by his appearance. He may start with a nine, meaning that if he doesn’t do anything to cost himself points, the job is his. What I’m getting at here is the notion of an appearance delta.

I would define this as the difference between my appearance and the appearance that would grant me instant acceptance in any given social situation. Women like Elizabeth Hurley, for example, have no appearance delta. She’s so attractive that people fall over themselves to spend time with her. This is the bane of the beautiful but intelligent woman’s existence – she has a tough time being taken seriously simply because she’s hot. Similarly, a guy with Sean Connery’s looks experiences an entirely different version of life than I do. I’m not upset by this; it’s a fact of life. Indeed, I think recognizing this has a lot to offer in terms of enjoying what little time we have here.

It’s very useful to figure out what your appearance delta is, and I should note that it is somewhat situation dependent. To a heterosexual soldier coming home from two months of all-male field exercises, an average-looking woman has less of a delta than she does if she meets him when he’s been in the general population for a while. Nevertheless, knowing where you stand looks-wise in the minds of others has its benefits. We have to acknowledge that much of the enjoyment we get out of life has to do with interpersonal acceptance. It’s that concurrence thing I keep talking about. It’s an axiom in human endeavors that not being accepted in social situations is emotionally distressing. Sometimes, given the idea of subconscious appearance bias, the culprit can be how we look. Regardless of how distasteful this may seem, I just can’t see how there’s anything to be gained by being indignant or burying my head in the sand on this. It’s a matter of practicality.

The key to the usefulness of the appearance delta is in the notion that it can be overcome by non-physical attributes. All it takes is a gimmick, and there are all kinds. Being smart can be a gimmick, as can being funny or empathetic. Being an artist, such as musician or painter, can also serve as a gimmick, and being rich and/or powerful works, too. The point is that knowing your delta tells you how much gimmick you need in any given situation if acceptance is what you’re looking for. Harsh as it is to say, if you’re short, fat, and bald, you’re gonna need a lot more gimmick than the guy who’s tall, lean, and well coiffed. Now, you can object and refuse to participate in this ever-so-shallow game of human interaction, but you should do so at your peril.

As for me, I do what I can with what I have. I stay in shape and I try to look presentable when I’m in situations where acceptance among folks in the non-long-term relationship category will be of benefit. I pay attention to what I wear and how I carry myself. I estimate my delta and decide which kind and how much gimmick I want to employ. Shallow? You bet. Does it work? Yup. However, when I’m around members of the long-term relationship group, I’m less concerned about appearance. I don’t care if my hair is messed up and I opt for flip-flops and t-shirts instead of nicer clothes. And I don’t bother with gimmick; I’m just myself. That’s the beauty of the inner circle – you can rise above the bullshit and just live.

At the end of the day, we all want to be accepted. We all want to be in on the inside joke. And as much as we’d all (especially those who have a high delta) like it if acceptance were strictly a function of character, it just isn’t, at least not enough to sustain us. What can start as a relationship founded on looks or looks plus gimmick can turn into anything but. To close ourselves off to these opportunities simply limits the amount of acceptance we’ll enjoy in life. This doesn’t mean that we long for acceptance so much that we pursue it indiscriminately. That’s trading problems for problems. It only means that we play the shallow game to get our feet in the door and then let our criteria for separating long-termers from non-long-termers kick in. It ain’t pretty, but it works.

What Is Consciousness? A Trip Into The Mind
February 3, 2005, 4:35 pm
Filed under: My Theories, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I’m not trying to be a scientist. I’m really not. I’ve just read a wide variety of scientific topics, particularly those related to evolution, the brain, and thinking, and over the years and I’ve come to my own interpretation of, you might say, the gestalt of the mind. It’s sort of a general feel for the the physicality of it and how layers of abstraction are built upon that, a feel for its evolutionary history and the infrastructure it begat, and a feel for how all that translates into a wide swath of common behavior patterns. The probably sounds as arrogant and sure as possible. We’re inside my head right now, so bear with me. I’ll admit that if there are original ideas in my vision, they are the kind of originality you attribute to an editor. Nevertheless, if I’m being honest, my aim here is prove that my intuition is right. I really want it to be.

But I know that about myself. I’m conscious of it, and because of that, I’ve taken steps to insulate my curiosity from my bias. That’s why I’ve chosen critical rationalism as my method. I recognize up front that I can’t prove that I’m right, that I don’t have all the facts, and that my emotions could be, try as I might, confounding my conclusions. So I write; I throw out hypotheses and the evidence, shoddy as it may be at times, that I have for them. As time goes on, this gestalt is becoming clearer and clearer, which only means that I understand it enough to articulate it. I write more. The whole time, I’m hoping that people will come along and adjudicate my accuracy. (Of course, I’m hoping with arms drawn to my chest and clinched fists that it works out for me. That’d be great. I’d feel smart, or better yet, smarter.) Nevertheless, I have committed myself to finding out, one way or another, if I’m right. I figure the worst that can happen is that I’ll make a few adjustments and still end up with the satisfaction of feeling like I have a holistic, almost unifying, understanding of something seriously elusive.

The preceding two paragraphs just played out on a giant movie screen in my mind. And, as if experiencing a good movie, I was engrossed. I still am. And, like a movie, a lot of other things were and are going on that were and are escaping my attention. Interestingly, in thinking about the things that have been escaping my attention, I all of a sudden start noticing them. The sound of the heater. The visual flicker of the TV on mute. The sighs of my dog as he makes one of his countless tiny adjustments. The smell of the fireplace that still hasn’t been used this winter. My attention is flittering back and forth between the thoughts flowing from my fingertips and the surroundings I am still writing about. Scene after scene on a giant movie screen in my head. And this movie screen is, in my view, the key to consciousness.

I feel intrepid in this domain of consciousness, mainly because no one knows for sure what’s going on. In short, I like my chances on this. If I apply the knowledge I’ve gleaned from Stuart Kauffman’s work in, At Home In The Universe (self-organization theory), and apply it to the physical function of neural networks, and to the structural organization of the brain, and then I infuse all that into Daniel Dennett’s, Consciousness Explained, I come up with the following explanation.

Neural networks are the building blocks of mental organs. Some mental organs we share with other animals. They operate in the lower, simpler levels of abstraction, near our brain stem, serving to facilitate our basic survival and reproductive success. Examples would be autonomic body functions and basic emotions, such as love, fear, anger, sadness, and jealousy. These emotions are not feelings in the usual sense. They are physiological responses that elicit particular behaviors. Imagine that the mind is in a steady state when it is calm and nothing out of ordinary is perturbing it. Then, when something happens that requires a physical response, like say a tiger is approaching, these simple programs, these emotions induce physiological reactions, which prompt the impulse to assuage them, to get back to a steady state. Each physiological reaction elicits its own physical response. The collection of these programs is sufficient to keep us alive and reproducing.

They’re instinctive. Over eons of time, however, these survival programs have been co-opted and abstracted (via self-organization) into higher and higher levels of complexity, levels that call upon more and more information in their execution processes. The higher level networks are larger, more distributed, both vertically (in and out of lower levels and higher levels) and horizontally (pulling from a wider and wider body of data). They contain our cognitive programs and our complex emotions, and they store vast networks of information. The complex programs make it possible to override the basic programs, sometimes temporarily, just long enough to deliberate for a bit, sometimes permanently, allowing us to adopt a different course of action all together. The networks at this level also enable the use of logic and rationality. Then, and this is the best part, at the very top (figuratively speaking), all of these networks of networks self-assemble into the giant movie screen. Consciousness is upon us.

The movie, however, is really a gigantic closed-circuit TV. It’s as if a wide angle camera is mounted at the very top of this vast sea of neural networks in our brain, some of which are tightly coupled so as to resemble distinct entities (organs, you might say), while others, the majority, are stretched across multiple organs, serving as organs themselves. Interspersed throughout are countless relational and hierarchical databases of information. But the camera can only see so deep.

It doesn’t have access to the lowest levels, to the simplest of programs. It’s view is limited to the upper reaches of abstraction, where complex thought and emotions reside. Of course, the lower levels can manifest themselves in the upper levels (such as when we notice a loud sound), seeing as how they’re all connected, but the low-level data is edited at that point. The important thing is that where the camera is pointed is the result of a contest between competing information networks and the organs that exploit them.

Hordes of the complex programs below are shouting for their chance to be on camera. They’re always shouting. They’re always executing their programs at their highest voice. These mental organs are yelling out the input they’re receiving and the conclusions they’ve reached, which are often perceived as recommended courses of action. The heater is vying for my attention, and it has just gotten it. “The heater makes a low hum: think about my body temperature, think about the temp in the baby’s room, do nothing.” Before this, it was my concern for the words ahead that dominated the camera’s lens. It’s recommendation: read back over the last paragraph…

I’m back.

As I was saying, as the camera scans the networks below, it is drawn to the loudest network, and an interesting thing happens when the camera focuses on a particular network or set of networks – the shouting there intensifies. That means that when it latches onto it, it is held captive, if you will, staying on the screen until something distracts it off. That something might be a cognitive program that is ruminating over some past memories, or it might be the reverberations of a low-level emotional program that has perceived an itch on the arm. Whatever wins the competition gets screen time and the consideration of its conclusions and recommendations. It is the existence of the screen, the camera, and what passes through it that constitutes consciousness.

The beautiful thing is what happens when an amazing idea flashes across the screen – I can control the camera. I can control the camera! Free will is born. Now the conscious awareness, the camera, has turned to a remote spot in the data grid, that which corresponds to the concept of the self. High level programs instantly begin connecting to this new network, factoring the notion of self (including its newly discovered ability to control what appears on the screen) into their routines, into their conclusions, and into their recommendations for action. Suddenly, with free will at the helm, and a mind imbued with the awareness of self, the camera comes off of auto-pilot. The content on the movie screen becomes a matter of choice. But even then, the recommendations on the screen may not control the actions taken.

There are still low-level programs at work. They’re there all the time, perceiving, processing, and executing, just as they have in humans for countless centuries. And a key attribute of them is that they work very fast, so fast that they regularly spur us into action long before we realize why we’re acting or exactly what we’re doing. If a beautiful, sexy girl walks past a straight 16-year old boy, his eyes will saccade their way over her time and again before he ever actually thinks to stare at her. His low-level programs are doing their job. If he’s absorbed in a conversation, he may not even notice her, at least not consciously. His mind, however, knows she’s there. Similarly, if an intruder crashes through my door, it will not be free will driving my bus. Before the shape of his face ever passes over my movie screen, my body will be reacting. I will effectively be on auto-pilot, at least for a few seconds. But as the situation resolves, free will will once again take the helm, slowly but surely.

This is my conceptualization of the human mind, from neural network to consciousness. This is what pushes me insistently away from dualism. This is what makes me believe that understanding our lowest level emotions, by aiming the camera wherever they manifest themselves, is the key to harnessing and managing them. This is why I believe that enlightening the caveman is both necessary and possible. Our basic emotions – our fear, our quest for status, our affinity for cooperation (read: concurrence), and our sex strategies – have the advantage. They spur us to action while they’re below the level of consciousness, under the radar of awareness, unless we either inadvertantly develop high-level programs that override their recommendations or we deliberately scan the visible networks for evidence of their influences and we deliberately override them.

An example of the former would be a priest taking a vow of chastity. Even if he has no concept of human evolution and the sexual programming that resides down near his brain stem, the high-level programming that corresponds to his commitment to the cloth could easily suppress his response to a lovely female parishioner. (Unless he’s a…nevermind.) An example of the latter would be a sky-diver standing in the door of a plane. He realizes that it is perfectly rational to be afraid. He is aware of his elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, and he knows why they’re there. But he reasons that his parachute is safe and his training has prepared him, so he jumps. He deliberately overrides his lower-level survival programming.

There are two takeaways from this.

The first is that culture can tune our high-level programming, even if we never know it’s happening. School for young children does exactly this. There is no reason for this tuning to ever pass across a child’s movie screen. The more “cultured” the child becomes, the less the basic survival programs govern his or her actions. The reverse is also true. Children who are not instructed on how to be human beings in a modern world become an almost cartoon-like caricature of our cave-dwelling ancestors. You can see it on any busy playground.

The second thing, the important thing, is that the conscious intent to override basic emotional programming is extremely powerful. If we turn our camera upon our concept of self, and it includes an understanding of what is happening down below, on our screen flashes the idea that we can control much more than we ever knew – thus bringing more detail to the picture and a longer list of available options- regarding action and inaction. This is a good news story. Nothing is determined. We’re in charge. If we do not exercise this power, we leave our fate in the hands of our genetic heritage. But if we do, our genetic heritage becomes irrelevant.

The clock just passed across my movie screen. Recommendation: publish and crash.

Life, Einstein, and Texas Hold Em
January 15, 2005, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Hijinks, My Theories

Having been in Las Vegas for the week on business, my mind has been swirling around gambling. Something occurred to me as I was watching some folks play cards in the MGM Grand. Actually, as my main objective was to get a bit loose, I was trying to do the math on which was the better financial move – dropping $10 a drink every half hour or losing money gambling while getting free drinks. This kind of absurd contemplation is not abnormal for me – I often don’t realize it’s happening until something shakes me from it. This time, it happened when I realized that there are insights to be found in thinking about life as a hand of Texas Hold Em poker (hereafter simply referred to as “poker”).

I’ll admit up front that this analogy is limited in its reach, however, the similarities are actually pretty interesting. In “poker,” players are dealt two cards face down. Think of those as genes. Then, the dealer proceeds to reveal three cards, known as the flop. Then another card, the turn, and then a final card, the river, are revealed. The flop, the turn, and the river are communal cards, so players combine any three of them with their two cards to make a hand of poker. In between each of these revelations, players have the opportunity to bet on their hand, even though they don’t know the outcome until they see the river card. Think of communal cards as the environment. So, essentially, the object of the game is for players to play their two cards in conjunction with the right combination of communal cards to win the hand. Here we see stark parallels between “poker” and life.

The first and most dramatic similarity is this – even if you start out with the best two cards available (two aces, for example), it’s still possible to lose. On the other hand (forgive the pun), you can start out with what appears to be nothing (say, a two of hearts and a four of clubs) and end up winning. Such is life. But before we get too far, maybe it’s worth considering what it means to win.

In poker, there’s no confusion about this. In life, however, not so. To some people, a lot of people, winning means getting rich or becoming powerful. To others, winning is being well liked. To still others, winning means nothing more than not losing. To me, winning means spending as much time as possible living the good life, which is living a life inspired by love, guided by knowledge, and free from unnecessary constraints. The love and knowledge part, which is the most uncommon of common sense, comes from Bertrand Russell (“What I Believe,” essay from 1925. Now found in Why I Am Not A Christian, Touchstone, 1957). The freedom from unnecessary constraint part comes from me.

I believe people erect all sorts of mental barriers to their enjoyment of life. They buy into social pressures and unreasonable traditions without fully examining them, which dramatically reduces their assessment of the options available to them. Take, for example, the notion that you must have a 9-5 job to be responsible. It is a rare case indeed for someone who chooses an “unorthodox” career to not be inundated with warnings and disapproving advice from people who supposedly have their best interests at heart. And these are the few who make it over the barrier. We’ll never know how many aspire to, but do not. But this is about “poker.”

Suppose you’re dealt two aces right from the start. This would be the equivalent of being born with natural talent and/or good looks. But in life, just as in poker, the environment ultimately tells the tale. You can be very smart and/or good looking and it will amount to nothing if you’re born into poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. In poker, two aces will end up yielding a measly pair if the communal cards don’t work with them. (It’s such a letdown to see 3,5,7,9,10 when you start out with such a bang.) But sometimes, you can start with nada and come out on top.

Say you’re dealt a two of clubs and five of hearts. This isn’t encouraging. Many people will fold, which is not at all insignificant. In life, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that winners are winners because they’ve had it good from the start. Sure, this is the case sometimes. But, especially in America, how you start out has a lot less influence than what you do with what you’ve got.

In “poker,” with a two and a five, if the flop shows three fives, you’ve got yourself four of a kind, regardless of what happens with the turn and the river. It’s very likely that you’re going to win, even though you started with pretty much nothing. Oh, if life could be so easy. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it is, sometimes, for some people. But, usually, life comes with the following sinister complication: you may indeed have a winning hand (that is, your genes and the environment in which they find themselves), yet you may never enjoy the fruits of it. This is where the limitations of this analogy begin to reveal themselves. Luckily, however, other poker games offer the opportunity to further mix some already slightly pureed metaphors.

In Texas Hold Em, at least from what I’ve seen, after the river card is shown, you reveal your cards and it’s obvious who has won. If it isn’t, the dealer makes the call. But there are some poker games, like seven card stud, where you have to proclaim what you have in your hand. If you mistake what you have, you can lose, even if your cards are better than anyone else’s. As a silly example, if you claim three of a kind when you have a full house, you’ll get beat if someone has something better than your three of a kind, even if it won’t beat a full house. This is a lot like life.
I’ve known so many people with wonderful talents and attributes who didn’t recognize them because they were focused on the talents and attributes they didn’t have. Far from making the best of the cards in their hand, they spent their time lamenting that they did not have the cards they wanted. And in those occasional moments of truth, they looked down at their cards and saw a pair when they had a straight. They acted accordingly…and lost, which means they failed to realize their aspirations (which were misplaced to begin with). It needn’t have been this way.

The value of the poker analogy (strained as it is in places) is that we can infer two very practical rules about winning at life. The first is simple – it aint over till the last card is overturned. Things may not start out pretty, but that doesn’t mean we’re destined to lose. From this, we derive determination and hope. Conversely, if we start out with all the cards, we should take care not to assume that we will still have all the cards when the chips are pulled from the middle of the table. From this, we learn humility and an appreciation for accomplishment. The second big takeaway is a mandate of sorts.

In the card game of life, we must play the cards in our hand, not anyone else’s. We must play them; we cannot allow them to play us. Our environment will, in many cases, be beyond our control. Our best chances for winning come from working with it, not against it. Therefore, we must make the most of our cards, which, more than anything else, requires us to see them for what they are. If we start with a five and a two off-suit (or bushy eyebrows, crazy hair, and an ostensible inability to mentally focus on anything for long), we can’t be shooting for a royal flush (or a life on the red carpet). It will never happen, so any communal cards that offer false hope to that end must be ignored – better to see our cards for what they are and be on the lookout for communal cards that compliment them. Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work as a patent clerk in Switzerland. Had he lamented that a teaching position was not in his cards, he may not have had the motivation or energy to dwell on the toughest questions that have ever faced mankind. Instead, he exploited his environment to make the most of his extraordinary genes, and we are all the better for it.

As for me, I took a seat at the bar. The cards in my hand were shaped like dollar bills and I didn’t have enough of them to risk my buzz on bad luck. Such is life in pursuit of the option

Being Poor is Whose Fault? The Time Horizon of Maturity Reprise
December 20, 2004, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, My Theories, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
Neal Boortz, my favorite radio guy, is fond of saying that poverty is a mental disease, that poor people are poor because they keep doing things that make people poor. It’s all about choices, says the talkmaster. I tend to agree, but there’s more to it than that. I concede that making bad decisions is the fastest way to get poor and stay poor. However, the question on my mind has to do with the culpability of people who consistently make bad decisions. What if the reason so many folks make consistently bad decisions is beyond their control? Then what? Then is it reasonable to advocate a social system that dooms these truly unfortunate souls to the perpetual motion machine of poverty?

I can almost hear the gasps. Here I am, one who pleads regularly for more personal responsibility, taking the blame off the individual. Allow me to elaborate. As I’ve mentioned before, a major component of human development is what I call the time horizon of maturity. This basically refers to one’s ability to project him or herself into the future to actually envision the consequences of actions that are being taken in the present. Children have a very short time horizon, and this is mostly a function of their limited understanding of the concept of time in general. As they grow up, however, they come to understand time, and if they’re raised in the right kind of environment, they come to be able to imagine themselves in the future. This is the key to making good decisions.

Many liberal-minded people think of conservatives as heartless because conservatives don’t often display a great deal of sympathy for people who have had the chance to do something with their lives but they simply haven’t. Indeed, as I myself have said many times, I went to public school. I could have kicked back and lived the high life (literally) every day , but I wanted a future that would not allow it. How is it fair that someone should be rewarded with part of my success (in the form of benefits that come from my tax dollars) for doing nothing, for contributing nothing? Though it has been a bit discomforting, the idea has been steadily dawning on me over the last year or so that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the libs have gotten this one right…at least partly right – they’ve correctly identified the problem.

Imagine an 8-year old white boy named Jimmy. His father left shortly after he was born. His mother, Lila, has tried to work but she’s been fired again and again for poor attendance – some due to looking after Jimmy, some due to looking after herself a little too much. Now she’s on welfare. She gets food stamps and a check every month. They also live in government housing. Jimmy’s neighborhood is tough, even for 8-year olds. Most of the kids hate school and ditch it whenever they can. Jimmy is no different. When the school calls home to notify Lila, she’s too engrossed in daytime TV to care. Besides, she never exactly liked school herself. Now, the question, the one I can’t shake is this: when 20 years goes by and Jimmy is a derelict in his neighborhood (if he’s still alive), was it his fault that he never got his act together?

The answer revolves around whether or not he possesses the ability to see the future…with himself in it. I am more and more convinced that most people in poverty simply do not. If you say to someone, “You must study for this test in order to pass this course,” it means nothing if passing the course means nothing to that person. Passing a course is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end. In order for one to be motivated by this line of reasoning, he or she must be able to internalize the personal significance of passing the course. More importantly, the significance has to be more powerful than whatever immediate gratification must be foregone in the studying. So you can’t just pound home the platitude that you have to stay in school to succeed in life. It’s like a foreign language to one who cannot see the future, and we cannot hold this person responsible for not speaking a language that they have no experience with. This, more than anything else, is the poverty problem, and our society is not addressing it at all.

What are we to do? This is the big question. Here, I must side with my fiscally conservative brethren in saying that income redistribution is not the answer, at least not as it is done today. You can’t give money to someone who lives for today and expect them to do anything but spend it as fast as possible. This is the phenomenon that explains the staggering number of lottery winners who end up in jail for failing to pay taxes on everything they buy and for defaulting on massive debts. No, money is not the answer. We need widespread prognostication education.

One way or another, we have to get to the people currently in poverty and teach them to envision themselves experiencing the consequences of their decisions. We have to teach them to teach their children the same thing. We have to go back to basics. It’s all about action and reaction. As we do when teaching anything complex, we must start small and work our way up. We need to be able to diagnose where people are and then get them in a program to see further and further into the future. When we have a nation of amateur prognosticators, we can feel justified in holding them accountable for their actions. Until that time, we should be careful with our judgement. We should thank luck and circumstance that it is not we who see tomorrow so much fuzzier than we see today.

Who Am I?
September 19, 2004, 3:29 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Caveman Concept, My Theories, Science

Though the nature of consciousness is still very much an open question, it seems clear that the notion of self is a central feature. In other words, our consciousness is at least partly defined by our awareness of ourselves. And if we are aware of ourselves, it’s reasonable to suppose that we can know ourselves. But a question arises. How exactly do we go about getting to know ourselves?

I suppose we do it like we go about getting to know others. In fact, it probably happens in that order. I would bet that infants know their parents before they recognize that they are people, too. So how do we get to know others? We watch what they do and listen to what they say. Over time, we get a feel for their history, for how their mind works, with whether they mean what they say, and with what they care about. It’s pretty much the same with getting to know ourselves. But, in that endeavor, we have access to a fortuitous additional bit of information.

We have the benefit of knowing our thoughts. So, we know what we think, which means we really know what matters to us. Coupled with the knowledge of our actions, we have all that we need to know ourselves very well. Or do we?

Knowing what crosses our minds only gives us a truer glimpse into how our motivations translate into actions. To be sure, that understanding is key to knowing ourselves. But we still don’t know what we really need to know, which is why what crosses our minds crosses our minds. For this, we cannot rely solely upon introspection. We need science, specifically evolutionary psychology.

The science of evolutionary psychology deals with the human mind by exploring its origins from an evolutionary standpoint. At the heart of it is the notion that the human mind was designed by natural selection to facilitate the survival of humans on earth anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago. Understanding what life was like back then, so they say, tells us a great deal about why our minds work the way they do. With the help of evolutionary psychology, we can now understand why we think many of the thoughts we think.

We now know that social status for our cave-dwelling ancestors was of paramount importance. We know that being a part of the in-group was essential to survival. With those kinds of requirements, and the easy separation of those who could get along and those who could not, natural selection easily and permanently installed in the human mind the tendencies to pursue status and interpersonal acceptability. This has serious implications on our quest to know ourselves.

We have to wonder how much of what we think is somehow driven by our genetic need to fit in and be recognized as worthy among our peers. We have to wonder how it is we go about figuring out what groups to fit into. After all, in our modern world, there are lots to choose from. And we also have to wonder how it is we go about picking the people we admire and the people we despise. If the evolutionary psychologists are right, then, from a mental perspective, we are far more at the mercy of genes that any of us would like to believe. But this is not a bad news story.

Quite the opposite. The beautiful thing about being conscious is that we are not only aware of ourselves and our thoughts, we have the power to change what we think about. Given what we know about our caveman origins, it is clear to me that there’s work to be done. We have to rationally consider what matters to us, and, just as importantly, who matters. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a trivial matter. It takes a lot of courage to look inward with the intent to accept what we find. But once we do, we have a baseline from which to evaluate our thoughts.

If I rationally conclude that being a nice and genuine person is of the highest ethical value, then, in evaluating my contemporaries, I have no choice but to put a consideration of that above a consideration of something less ethically important, such as what someone does for a living. Then, when status-oriented thoughts, such as, “Ooh, he’s a television star.” cross my mind, I know that I must put them aside and ask, “Yes, but is he a nice person? Does he seem genuine or fake?” Believe it or not, these kinds of personal thought control exercises are actually quite easy, especially when you can count on the legitimacy of the rationale behind them. In fact, everyone is skilled at doing this. The problem is that too many people push out the right thoughts as they simultaneously nurture the wrong ones.

For them, just as for all of us, the solution is simply to learn to tell the difference between the thoughts that matter and the thoughts that are remnants of our ancient heritage, of a time that has long since passed. So, to the question in the title of this, Who Am I?

I am a modern human with the mind of a caveman. I am aware of the needs of my ancestors with regards to the social group, and I am aware that many of those needs no longer exist. I have assessed what it means to live the good life, and I have rationally set a course to obtain it. In doing so, I have committed to extricate my mind of the thoughts that weigh it down. I have committed my mind to truth and all its consequences. I have learned to spot wayward anachronistic emotions and to compensate for them. I cannot say that I have arrived. But I can say that I am not lost.

Status and Self-Hatred
September 4, 2004, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Enlightened Living, My Theories

Original Post
OK, maybe it’s time for something a little more serious. A little more personal.

Do you love yourself? You should. You’re the only with your exact pattern of DNA that has interacted with your environment in exactly the way that you have. Sure, being unique isn’t necessarily a reason to love yourself. But having unique DNA with limitless possibilities…now that’s a good reason to be bullish on your personal stock. Of course, if you’re going to make anything of your life, you’ll have to overcome whatever unnecessary hurdles your genes are throwing into your path.

One area where our genes are seriously working against us is in how we view ourselves. In caveman days, the status hierarchy in the tribe was everything. Those at the top had food, shelter, and mates. Those who were not suffered and died a childless death. That was the harsh reality of our ancestors’ environment. Natural selection navigated that environmental pitfall by installing in humans the tendency to pay attention to status and to do what it took to get it. If you’re here to read this today, we can be sure of one thing – your ancestors were good at this. But now, this same mechanism that kept our ancestors alive is crippling us when it comes to feeling good about ourselves.

The fact is that there are far too many people in this world who hate themselves, and I would venture to say that the percentages in the US dwarf the percentages anywhere else on the planet. This is very simply because of the quest for status. Humans, in looking for a way to the top of the totem pole, continuously assess their environment (and in America, there are more ways to the top and more definitions of being at the top than anywhere). We determine who has status by seeing who gets the most attention, who has the most of whatever happens to be valuable, and, of course, by which guys have the best girls, and which girls have the best guys. We then naturally compare whatever attributes we think contribute most to the success of these high-status inividuals to whatever we have going on. If we don’t measure up, we feel bad about ourselves. This was a good thing in caveman days. It’s anything but good today.

Back when our ancestors were angling for position in a tribe with limited slots, being attuned to status made all the difference. Today, however, status means nothing. Those who are the top of the ranks in our society are there for reasons that do not matter at all to us personally. For example, though so many focus on the super-rich, being wealthy in itself is no indication of anything but money. There are as many jerks among the rich as there are among any other demographic. And they are no more happy than any other group – trust me, they are consuming more Prozac than anyone. So, why should we care if we don’t stack up with them? The same is true for the beautiful people.

The current trend these days is toward being beautiful at all costs. The question I always want to ask these folks on the make-over shows is this: why do you want to be beautiful? Of course, I know the answer – to get people to notice me/like me/love me, and so on. This is silly. Even if it works, you’ll have people who care about you for your looks. That’s a pretty flimsy foundation for a relationship. Sure, some people believe that being attractive will give them to chance to show off that wonderful personality to people who have previously not been willing to give them a look. But again, why cater to these kinds of people? They’re obviously shallow and lacking in the kind of character we should be in search of. Alas, however, this is the caveman mind at work.

We clamor for status – unconsciously, in most cases. But there’s a fix. The first thing to do is to reject what society deems important. Society at large is one big market. We can’t forget that that which sells isn’t necessarily valuable. So while society is raving about fake boobs, the ladies with flat chests and low self-esteem are hating themselves as they figure out how to finance the operation that they believe will solve all of their problems. Suppose being flat-chested comes into style, then the situation will reverse. Can you imaging the silicon queens rushing to get their boobs removed? How could one’s self-esteem be tied to something as fickle as the social acceptability? No, self-esteem has to be tied to something deeper.

We need a common denominator here, one that will stay intact regardless of what society prefers. And we have one – it’s called character. That’s step two – work on who you really are as a person. Learn to be kind, honest, fair, trustworthy, knowledgeable, disciplined, forward-thinking, and open-minded. These are attributes that can endure anything. More importantly, these are the kinds of things to love about yourself.
The sad and ironic fact is that I know scores of people who have most or all of these characteristics (even if they’re sometimes hard to spot), yet they hate themselves. Their caveman genes have such a grip on them that they focus entirely on the yardstick (or sticks, as it were) of social acceptability and ignore the things that really matter. You know how I know? Because they are the ones who are constantly putting other people down. They are constantly trying to shatter anyone’s good news. They are constantly looking for evidence of weakness or inferiority in their acquaintances and friends. Anything to take the focus off of themselves and how much they loathe what they see when they look in the mirror. It’s sad but I see it all the time.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or beautiful or have sought-after talents. Sure, these attributes can be helpful in living a fun life, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing them. You just have to make sure that they are, in no way, tied to your self-esteem. In this respect, they simply do not matter. What matters is relationships. And you only get good relationships by loving yourself for being a good person and then demanding that others love you for the same reason. If you’re not the good person you want to be, get to work, and love yourself for being a work in progress, and for having the commitment to become who you want to be. And don’t be afraid to be yourself. It doesn’t matter what you’re into. You can be a cross-dressing, ping-pong champion and I guarantee that there are folks with whom you’ll click and form deep meaningful relationships. You just have to let go of what your genes tell you and decide to love yourself, no matter who you are.

Education and the Time Horizon of Maturity
August 20, 2004, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Education, Enlightened Living, My Theories, Politics

Original Post (and comments)
Over time, I have become increasingly convinced that maturity is a function of how much considerations of the future play into one’s decision-making process. Now that I am a father and am able to witness the development of a little human from birth, my belief is stronger than ever. My nine month old son is light years from mature, and it shows by the fact that his actions are dictated entirely by whatever happens to be occupying his attention at any given moment. As he grows, I expect that he’ll start to develop the ability to see into the future to predict the consequences of his actions. This will happen as he learns the physics of this world – action and reaction. Right now, he presses keys on the piano to make a sound. Before long, he’ll press specific keys to make specific sounds. Then he’ll transition into being aware of time. This, in my view, will be the real start of his maturity, and it will continue to progress as the time horizon of his considerations gets longer and longer.

My job as a parent, beyond seeing to it that my son knows he is number one to me and my wife, is primarily to ensure that he grasps the concept of consequences, but not just immediate consequences. If he is to reach maturity, he will have to develop the ability to consider both the long-term and short-term consequences of his actions, which implies that he’ll be concerned about the future. The short-term consequence of doing something dangerous may be having a good time. However, the longer-term consequence is likely to be a severe beating. Just kidding. He’ll actually be facing some sort of undesirable punishment, and the nature of that punishment will have to be consistent with his concept of time if it is to be effective. I can’t expect a three-year old to be swayed by the threat of missing a birthday party that is a week away. Five minutes of time-out (man, do I hate that phrase) will do nicely. The point of all this is that our society is chocked full of immature individuals, individuals who have a very short time horizon.

It is a commonly held view in many circles that poverty is a mental problem. I am inclined to agree. The vast majority of individuals who are poor are that way because of the choices they have made in life. But the point that I never hear about this is that the root cause of their poor decisions is their inability to see far enough into the future. For whatever reason, these people do not respond to arguments such as, “If you don’t study for the test you have tomorrow, you won’t be able to get a job that is years away.” This, to them, is no different than threatening a toddler with punishment that will not take place for a week. So, it isn’t helpful to just point out that these people chose to goof off when they should have been studying. And since the problem is deeper than that, so must the solution be.

I believe our educations systems need a time-horizon component to them. At the beginning of every school year, children need to be reminded that each advance in grade brings with it a requirement for more consideration of the future. Again, they should be held responsible for considering time horizons that are realistic for their ages. But the key is to make sure that the concept of time horizons is one that is pounded into their heads on a continuous basis. When children engage in actions that demonstrate their failure to sufficiently consider the future, they need to be counseled immediately. But this has some implications that our current educators seem unprepared to accept.

The current trend in education is focused on the self-esteem of all students, and it is virtually guaranteeing that the children emerging from US schools will be the most immature that this country has ever seen. If failing makes kids feel bad about themselves, and feeling bad about one’s self is unacceptable, the only option is to see to it that no one fails. That is exactly what is happening. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t care about self-esteem. It cares about results. That means we have to abandon this touchy-feely approach to education, and we have to do it right away.
The consequences for failure as a child are minimal. So what if you fail a spelling test in third grade. In fact, failure, in the presence of skilled educators, is a good thing. It makes for the best possible object lessons. Kids should be allowed to fail so that they can be instructed as to what they did wrong and how to avoid failing the next time. It is a mistake to assume that failure automatically means feeling bad about one’s self. That’s where skilled educators come in. When a child fails, he or she must be made to understand that failure is explicable. Rarely does it boil down to inherent inferiority. It is almost always a function of effort, education, or mindset. The educator’s job is to figure out which is the culprit and then to guide the student to the solution, all the while reinforcing the time horizon component of the equation. If this simple little change happens, we’ll see our test scores relative to the rest of the world come up dramatically in almost no time. More importantly, we’ll graduate students with the ability to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. Given the aging population and the fact that when these kids are adults, there will be more retired people than working people, this is something that we simply cannot live without.