Oliver Burkeman reviews Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir:
"Scarcity captures the mind," explain Mullainathan and Shafir. It promotes tunnel vision, helping us focus on the crisis at hand but making us "less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled". Wise long-term decisions and willpower require cognitive resources. Poverty leaves far less of those resources at our disposal.
Their most arresting claim is that the same effects kick in – albeit not always with such grave implications – in any conditions of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, also demonstrate impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. Lonely people, suffering from a scarcity of social contact, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviours that render it worse.
In one sense, Mullainathan and Shafir concede, scarcity is so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. But the feeling of scarcity – of not having as much of something as you believe you need – is something more specific and agonising. To use the authors’ favourite metaphor, life under such conditions is like packing a tiny suitcase for a trip. It entails a ceaseless focus on difficult trade-offs: the umbrella or the extra sweater? The greatest freedom that money can buy is the freedom from thinking about money – or, to quote Henry David Thoreau, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone”.
Uncomfortable in Our Skin, Eva Wiseman’s intelligent report on the pressures distorting the way we think and feel:
Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson (who has succeeded in pulling a number of L’Oréal ad campaigns for being unrealistic) is one of a growing group of people whose campaigning indicates that [body image is] something worth worrying about. Last year I attended every session of her government inquiry into body image, the results of which were published in a report this month. She cited research showing how current “airbrushing” culture leads to huge self-esteem problems – half of all 16- to 21-year-old women would consider cosmetic surgery and in the past 15 years eating disorders have doubled. Young people, she said, don’t perform actively in class when they’re not feeling confident about their appearance.
It is research backed up by a new documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation, about the under-representation of women in positions of power – women who are high “self objectifiers” have low political power. They’re less likely to run in politics, and less likely to vote: if value lies in their imperfect bodies, they feel disempowered. The long-term effects, the piling on of pressures one by one, like a dangerous Jenga tower, means women’s – and increasingly men’s, 69% of whom “often” wish they looked like someone else – lives are being damaged, not by the way they look but by the way they feel about the way they look. It’s complicated.
Kathryn Schultz, on the nature of our internal clocks:
Among species, we humans are to time what Polish villagers have long been to place: unhappy subjects of multiple competing regimes. The first regime is internal time: the schedule established by our bodies. The second is sun time: the schedule established by light and darkness. These two we share with houseplants and virtually every other living being. But we are also governed by a third regime: social time. That sounds benign enough, like afternoon tea with a friend. But don’t be fooled. Social time is the villain in this drama, out to turn you against health, happiness, nature, sanity, even your own inner self. […]
Ultimately, though, [German scientist Till] Roenneberg is more interested in what he calls “social jet lag”: the exhaustion produced by the gap between internal and social time. You can, should you choose, quantify your social jet lag. Simply calculate the difference between the midpoint of your average night’s sleep on a workday and a day off. Say on workdays you fall asleep at eleven and wake up at six: Your midpoint is 2:30 a.m. On weekends, you fall asleep at one and wake up at nine: Your midpoint is 4:30 — and you’ve got two hours of social jet lag. You might as well fly from New York to Utah.Read more at New York Magazine.
Social jet lag, unlike real jet lag, is chronic. Its chief symptom is sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation is — surely I do not need to tell you this — ghastly. It leaves you with the equilibrium of a despot, the attention span of a toddler, and the working memory of a fire hydrant. It’s one of the few human conditions that can make the characteristics of the tomb — dark, quiet, horizontal — seem unbelievably desirable. Not for nothing are torturers so fond of it.
Stanford neuroscientists host the world’s first love competition, asking contestants between the ages of 10 and 75 to spend 5 minutes in an fMRI machine thinking deeply about the person they love. The results are certain to bring a tear to your eye.
Complementary reading: 5 essential books on the psychology of love.
“ The scientists analyzed billions of words from Twitter, a half-century of music lyrics, 20 years of The New York Times, and millions of books going back to 1520. After finding the 10,222 most frequently used English words from these four sources, they asked a group of volunteers to rate the emotional temperature of these words… There was an overwhelming preponderance of happier words among the top 5,000 words in each of the sources.
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active. This mechanism fulfils an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly correlated to the development of mental disorders. In short, dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories.
Websites are increasingly encouraging readers to leave comments but with users able to hide behind aliases, often such attempts at discussion end in hate-filled bile and a mob mentality. Here’s Tim Adams for the Guardian, How the Internet created an age of rage:
The psychologists call it “deindividuation”. It’s what happens when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed. The classic deindividuation experiment concerned American children at Halloween. Trick-or-treaters were invited to take sweets left in the hall of a house on a table on which there was also a sum of money. When children arrived singly, and not wearing masks, only 8% of them stole any of the money. When they were in larger groups, with their identities concealed by fancy dress, that number rose to 80%. The combination of a faceless crowd and personal anonymity provoked individuals into breaking rules that under “normal” circumstances they would not have considered.As a former online community manager, I know this proclivity uncomfortably well.
Deindividuation is what happens when we get behind the wheel of a car and feel moved to scream abuse at the woman in front who is slow in turning right. It is what motivates a responsible father in a football crowd to yell crude sexual hatred at the opposition or the referee. And it’s why under the cover of an alias or an avatar on a website or a blog – surrounded by virtual strangers – conventionally restrained individuals might be moved to suggest a comedian should suffer all manner of violent torture because they don’t like his jokes, or his face.
Can machines think? That is, would it ever be possible to construct a computer so sophisticated that it could actually be said to be thinking, to be intelligent, to have a mind? And if indeed there were, someday, such a machine: how would we know? This is what the Turing Test sets out to answer:
We once thought humans were unique for using language, but this seems less certain each year; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this claim also erodes with ongoing animal-behavior research; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.
Where is the keep of our selfhood?
The story of the 21st century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of these battle lines, the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked by beast and machine, pinned between meat and math.
Beyond its use as a technological benchmark, the Turing Test is, at bottom, about the act of communication. I see its deepest questions as practical ones: How do we connect meaningfully with each other, as meaningfully as possible, within the limits of language and time? How does empathy work? What is the process by which someone enters into our life and comes to mean something to us? These, to me, are the test’s most central questions — the most central questions of being human.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman takes us on an enlightening tour of all that our brains are up to behind our backs in his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. In an interview with Wired Magazine, Eagleman explains how even time can teach us about our brains:
One of the experiments we did a few years ago showed that if we inject a small delay between your motor act and some sensory feedback, then when we remove that delay, you’ll have the impression that the feedback happened before you did the act. So, if you press a button and that causes a flash of light to go off, you quickly learn that you are causing the flash of light. Now if we insert a small delay so that when you press the button, there’s a tenth of a second before the flash, you don’t notice that delay, but your brain starts to adjust for it. Then, if we suddenly remove that delay, you’ll hit the button, the flash of light will happen immediately, but you will swear the flash of light happened before you pressed the button.
This is an illusory reversal of action and effect. What people say in this situation is, “It wasn’t me. The flash happened before I pressed the button.” And that struck me as very interesting because this is something that we see in schizophrenia. Schizophrenics will do what’s called credit misattribution where they will make an act, and they will claim that they are not the ones responsible for it.
So that immediately got me thinking that maybe what’s happening in schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time perception. Because if you’re putting out actions into the world and you’re getting feedback, but you’re not getting the timing correct, then you will have cognitive fragmentation, which is what schizophrenics have.
We always talk to ourselves internally and listen to ourselves — we have an internal monologue going on. Now imagine that the talking and the hearing that’s going on internally, imagine that the order got reversed. Well, you would have to attribute that voice to somebody else. That’s an auditory hallucination, and that’s another thing that characterizes schizophrenia.
Do narcissists have insight into the negative aspects of their personality and reputation?
Using both clinical and subclinical measures of narcissism, the authors examined others’ perceptions, self-perceptions, and meta-perceptions of narcissists across a wide range of traits for a new acquaintance and close other (Study 1), longitudinally with a group of new acquaintances (Study 2), and among coworkers (Study 3).
Results bring three surprising conclusions about narcissists: (a) they understand that others see them less positively than they see themselves (i.e., their meta-perceptions are less biased than are their self-perceptions), (b) they have some insight into the fact that they make positive first impressions that deteriorate over time, and (c) they have insight into their narcissistic personality (e.g., they describe themselves as arrogant). These findings shed light on some of the psychological mechanisms underlying narcissism.
It turns out that the answer has much to do with how well attached we were to our caregivers during infancy:
Scientists out of the University of Minnesota have been following a group of subjects since the mid-1970s and recently had them come into the lab with their romantic partners. Couples were asked to discuss something they disagreed on, and then they were given a cool-down period, talking about something they both liked. The researchers noticed a trend during these innocuous cool downs. Some couples, no matter how intense the fighting, could very easily transition to a happy conversation, where as other couples—could be one or both individuals—seemed stuck on the disagreement and were incapable of moving on.
Researchers studied subject histories and found that those who were securely attached to their caregivers during infancy were better at recovering from fights 20 years later.
While I recognize there may be many short-term benefits to cognitive behavioral therapy, I also know first-hand that it’s capable of mechanizing dysfunction. It can be like repurposing broken pieces to craft something new, unfamiliar — and not necessarily better. The latest issue of Intelligent Life addresses this limitation:
The irony is that in becoming more “scientific”, CBT becomes less therapeutic. Now, Freud himself liked to be thought of as a scientist (he began his career in neurology, working on the spinal ganglia), but it’s the non-scientific features that make psychoanalysis the more, not the less, powerful. I’m referring to the therapeutic relationship itself. Although like psychoanalysis largely a talking cure, CBT prefers to set aside the emotions in play between doctor and patient. Psychoanalysis does the reverse. To the annoyance no doubt of many a psychoanalytic patient, the very interaction between the two becomes the subject-matter of the therapy.
This emotional muddling between analyst and patient is known in the trade as “transference”, and it’s important because it’s the way most of our relationships play out in the real world—as ambiguously defined contracts. This isn’t to say the analyst is short of techniques for managing that muddle, but it is to say that there’s no naively “clinical” position to be assumed. The consulting room thus transforms itself into a laboratory in which patients can learn about their impact on someone else in real time, and thus grow in self-awareness—which is the prerequisite for self-improvement.
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