Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

The Plight of the Unfriended

February 26, 2009

I have a random acquaintance who, apparently having decided that the “random” part of the equation now significantly outweighs the “acquaintance” part, revoked our claim to facebook friendship.

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, and I have no problem with it in principle. Friendship on facebook, as in real life, is a relationship based on feelings — an arrangement that depends on mutual esteem or fellow feeling. Of course the surreal nature of facebook allows one to accumulate “friends” without actually *being* friends, and this is generally harmless. But when the feeling of friendship is completely absent, its only visible remnant a fake facebook connection lodged somewhere in the digital void, then yeah, sure, unfriending makes sense.

But here’s the rub: every time I log on to facebook, the little “friend suggestions” tab features this person’s face along with the innocent declaration that “You and _____ went to Wesleyan.” Yes, facebook. I know this. What are you trying to imply? Frankly, I find your “suggestion” a little tasteless.

When you’re not friends with someone anymore, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of that fact. It’s awkward. But I think there’s additional weirdness here that comes from another source: the obvious disconnect between real life and facebook. In real life, there’s (usually) no decisive, permanent moment of “un”friendship — you just lose touch, you “stop speaking” as it were. On facebook, however, you are privy to a permanent, written notice, and in this case a near constant reminder, of mutual apathy. This taps into the coolest aspect of online communication from an English major’s perspective, which is that digital “speech” strikes a middle ground between the verbal and the written. And when the permanence of online stuff runs up against social convention of casual verbal communication, it produces dissonance. This is particularly true because facebook has become key to the way I interact with others — it’s part of how I socialize.

Of course I’m taking this insight straight out of the ethnographic work of the incomparable Jenny Ryan, so I’ll just go ahead and quote a paragraph from her amazing MA thesis:

“While many of my informants condemned social networking sites for contributing to a perceived decline in face-to-face interaction, by and large these sites serve simply as extensions of preexisting communication practices. The ubiquity of social Internet use among younger generations has given rise to the use of online social networks for expressing friendship bonds and group affiliations, lending an explicit affirmation of belonging in the world. In one of my interviews, a student related to me that before she came to college, her older sister informed her that “you don’t exist if you’re not on Facebook.” It is precisely this mentality that may lead some to depend on these visual articulations of their social worlds, especially in times of loneliness and depression. Online social networks enable the virtual expression of longstanding offline obsessions with effectively performing one’s identity, demonstrating one’s popularity,and acquiring information about romantic interests.”

The performance of identity is a key theme of current anthropology and cultural/ethnic studies — and Jenny points out that it applies perfectly to online social networking. People are very concerned with how they present themselves, crafting a digital persona or self to perform in the online arena, just as they do in everyday life. When being “friends” with someone no longer really fits with the self you see yourself as, then you shelve the friendship. It’s perfectly natural. I just wish facebook wasn’t in my face about it all the time!

If Paulo Freire was a Brit…

October 29, 2008

and a goofy one, this is pretty much what he’d say:

Good stuff.

Of course Sir Ken’s critique can be extended to hierarchy as a form of social organization in general, not just within the education system…

“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” in Four Acts

July 25, 2008

Dramatis Personae

Chef Ramsay — Vigilante of good cooking (also posessed of copious reserves of money)
Owner — Befuddled man, his noble heart is racked with worry and tremendous debt
Manager — Fast-talking egomaniac, both lazy and overbearing
Chef — Beleaguered kitchen worker whose inspiration to cook has seeped out of him
Various Waitstaff — None-too-bright women who bemoan the lack of customers
Customers — Average Joe(s), having two functional states: very angry or very satisfied.


(Chef Ramsay arrives at a fledgling restaurant. Finds the staff engaging in Group Think)
Ramsay: Bloody hell, look at this restaurant! (tastes the food) This is the worst food I’ve ever eaten!(enters kitchen) This kitchen is without a doubt the dirtiest, most disgusting kitchen on the face of the planet!
Chef: I am nonchalant…(shrugs)
Owner: I am embarassed! (faints)
Manager: Who is this #*%& to come here and criticize my restaurant? (seethes)
Ramsay: You are all lazy, stupid, and hopeless!

(commercials, and a re-cap of the situation)


Chef Ramsay:(confidently) I have hatched a plan. (To staff) You guys are terrible, but you have the potential to be better. Let’s clean the kitchen!
(Cleaning montage proceeds)
Ramsay:(cooking) I am introducing a new menu with high quality ingredients and simple, robust flavors!
Manager: (grumbles)
Chef:(raises eyebrow suggestively)
Owner:(hugs Ramsay with enthusiasm)


Ramsay: It is opening night at your new *redesigned* (new decorations unveiled) restaurant!
Manager: (paralyzed)
Chef: (skeptical)
Various Waistaff: (disorganized)
Customers: (some *very angry*, some * very satisfied*) Food!


Manager: I realize now that humility and self-discipline are positive values
Chef: I know now that I enjoy cooking.
Various Waitstaff: I like having customers to serve.
Owner: I hope I can recoup my debts before this publicity stunt is over!
Ramsay: My work here is done!


An encounter with Non-Violent Communication

June 12, 2008

Like my rambling encounter with Theater of the Oppressed from a few weeks ago, this post is mostly for my own edification — I’m trying to write out stuff that I learned recently before I forget it all!


The Ideology of Nonviolent Communication

    states the following:

  • All humans have energy that sustains life
  • This energy expresses itself in our dreams and our needs
  • If you are human, you have this spirit. If you have this spirit, you have needs. Hence, everyone has needs
  • Wants and desires are strategies to meet your needs

What is the point? Well, these are premises for developing strategies for communication that satisfies human needs. The performative quality of words implies that language itself can be a violent act (thanks Judith Butler) even when it’s only meant to be expressive. Think about the last time you asked your roommate to pick up the slack and wash his share of dirty dishes — it always comes off as a criticism, and makes you sound like an asshole. But really you feel frustrated with the kitchen and you need your roommate to help you out. So why should that be grounds for you being the asshole? It shouldn’t.

Phrasing, tone, and style are important — if you say, for example, “Hey man I really feel like you’re not doing your share of the dishes” then you are implicitly imposing a judgment upon your roommate. The emphasis placed upon the really implies disappointment, and quasi-paternal shame at your dirty roommate. Also the “you’re not doing your share of the dishes” is not actually a feeling, it’s a quite specific thought and statement about your view of the situation masked within an “I feel like…” sentence.

This is, incidentally, a favorite Wesleyan kid tactic for avoiding responsibility; you know that kid who raises his hand to proclaim “I feel like Shakespeare wrote King Lear as a metaphor for political power in general.” Damn it, you don’t “feel like” that! You think that!

But I digress. The point is that there is a judgment inadvertently entangled in that sentence about dishes — if you utter it, your roommate will be more likely to counter-attack or go on the defensive than to communicate openly. To judge a person before you’ve walked a mile in their proverbial shoes is an act of linguistic violence and it will most likely lead to a battle, roiled with sarcasm, eye-rolling, and sighs (at best).

The way to avoid this is to express your feelings and your needs clearly and simply, without casting aspersions upon the other person. NVC theory says that you should deal with others compassionately, observe what’s going on around you, and pay attention to your own feelings in particular (because they help you figure out what your needs are.) This way you can more effectively seek positive changes that work for all parties involved. Strive for no labeling, no judgment, and no violence.

A personal note to all this: Once upon a time I was experiencing serious, soul-crushing, Bell Jar-esque depression. Then I began to realize (thanks to the support of friends, family, and extraordinarily uplifting albeit un-bloggable circumstances) that this suffering was self-imposed. I had been shouldering a burden of my own narrow judgments, ignoring my own needs as well as those of loved ones, and thus actually causing my distress that had spiraled into despair.

For me, the most interesting thing about NVC theory is that it jibes with what I was thinking at that time — it is essentially the same theory that I conceptualized during the incredibly euphoric phase of my life that took shape after I climbed out of the mire. I thought: If people could know their needs and speak them to others, then individuals could act together to solve collective problems. I was thereupon *completely* convinced that I should become a counselor or therapist — the profession of helping people understand their own feelings and act upon them by making positive change in their lives.

Now I know that this isn’t necessarily the case; rather, I can work to affect positive change through communication in all sorts of other, broader ways too. Even though I stumbled upon NVC by myself and in my own original way, others have been working on developing its applications for years. And I hope to be part of generating this discourse.

an encounter with Theatre of the Oppressed

May 19, 2008

Last Thursday I broke my routine threefold: (1) I left work early, (2) I squeezed awkwardly aboard the jam-packed 1 train to the Upper West side, and (3) I witnessed a revelation. Concerning (3): Brazilian community activist and writer Augusto Boal gave a brief lecture and demonstration, in front of more than three hundred curious folks including myself, gathered in a Riverside church basement. The topic was Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal’s method for social awareness, therapy and action which has become a worldwide phenomenon.

I want to briefly sum up what he was talking about before I forget…

OK. So Boal started off with the story (apparently from Dostoyevsky?) of the bureaucrat who did not save a baby that was being attacked by a dog on the grass in a public park. The rule was “Don’t walk on the grass” hence he was legally unable to do anything without seeking approval from the park ranger, by which time it would be too late to save the child. The idea is that we’ve been desensitized. We’re trained by society not only to follow the rules and trust the experts, but also to be atomized, profoundly isolated and self-serving and pathologically unsympathetic towards everyone else.

The bureaucrat is so in tune with the ‘letter’ of the law that he has no feeling for the ‘spirit’ of keeping off the grass — such a thing is irrelevant to him. In this example, Boal says, words are the crucial instrument of oppression. Now I was silly enough to major in English at a liberal arts school, so I’ve heard this kind of theory before. The general idea is that language, this stucture for symbolic communication that we use, tends to conceal its power for stucturing our minds as well. Consider the paradox that powerful men invented the word “justice” to justify their crimes. Or that the word “democracy” never truly described government for and by the people, certainly not in ancient Athens where women and slaves were barred from political participation.

So perhaps, according to Boal, we should move towards aesthetics –> communication through the senses. Theatre of the Oppressed is the aesthetic expression of needs rather than the verbal description of them. In order to make this theoretical jump you have to maintain, as Boal does, that every human being is an artist. The goal of this particular form of art is to regain our sensibility; first to see ourselves and then to try to change.

If your goal is to play the piano perfectly, you practice. If your goal is to regain your sensibility, you pay attention to what you are feeling. For Boal, the next step is to act out your emotions.

Boal used the group to demonstrate one technique, among the many that Theatre of the Opressed calls upon for this purpose, called Rainbow of Desire.  Basically you (the protagonist) select an incident or recurring situation in your life that causes you great feeling. This invariably involves conflict, hence a second party. Then you try to isolate the different elements of your own desire in the situation. (If you pause to think about it, desires are always complex — never pure.) Choose a member of the audience to act as the second party, along with a few others to physically represent your various desires with respect to that person. Position them around the second party in whatever way seems correct. Allow the scene to play out as it will, calling on your second party to speak their mind, as each of your various desires also articulates their distinct point of view in whichever sequence you choose. Keeping this in mind, you ask yourself: how has the second party seen you up until now? How would you want him or her to see you in the future? In response to these questions you change the scene to what you’d like it to be, rather than what it is now. The audience is encouraged to participate as much as possible in this process. So rather than being passive spectators, we must become “spect-actors” both observing and shaping our own lives.

Why employ theatre for this kind of change? Boal says: “Theatre is both concrete (physical) and very abstract. The beauty and danger of theatre is that you must go deep inside yourself. Sometimes I don’t see myself. The multiple mirror of the regard of others allows me to see myself. Theatre can be a mirror in this way.”

We have to be protagonists in this process. And to be a protagonist is to run a risk. Boal points out (along with other gurus I admire like Chomsky, Eve Ensler and J. Krishnamurti) that Western culture in general and American culture in particular is obsessed with security. Contrary to what your TV tells you, you will get neither immediate nor complete relief. But you and I know that we *can* become much more than what we are, and of course it’s by doing that we become.

Breaking the cycle

May 8, 2008

Here’s a theory that seems to be true across a variety of disciplines: Once a system or structure for activity is in place, it’s much more difficult to break out of it or change it than simply to continue on in the same way. This is because systems tend to be self-reinforcing. Is that too obvious/vague to be interesting?

Some examples:

  • Biology. The production of hormones, enzymes, and other substances in an organism is usually governed by feedback loops; this way the end product of the loop starts it all over again. Once a feedback loop is established to produce whatever chemical or protein, it’s generally easier to keep producing it than it would otherwise be.
  • Psychology. Habits are hard to break. Because chemical chain reactions in the brain become more stable and cellular pathways more permanent with each repetition, habitual behavior is more deeply ingrained as time goes on.
  • Social Studies. There are plenty of systematic problems here (overpopulation, the ailing finance system, nationalism, etc.) but I’ll pick one: studies show that the prison system in the United States is screwed up in a variety of ways not least because building and running jail houses has become a major industry. (Check out Eric “Fast Food Nation” Schlosser’s old article on the Prison Industrial Complex.) And yet the effort to persuade public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy hasn’t yielded any concrete results. It takes a huge amount of work to offset a system that’s already running.
  • International Affairs. The World Bank continues to pump many billions of dollars into big dam projects in India that have proven themselves dangerous, inhumane, and, to be more precise, disastrous. Why do they continue to invest? Because everyone is corrupt and politicians are evil? No…it’s because they have *already* invested billions, along with all their time and energy. They need to see some kind of return. There are people who make their living allocating these funds after all; they have a vested interest in their own success.
  • Agriculture. I have blogged before about how chemical agriculture is on the verge of collapse. Instead of re-tooling the system on a massive scale, the solution has been to introduce genetically engineered pesticide-resistant crops. It would be much harder to dismantle chemical agriculture and build a new system than it is to just go about business as usual.
  • Humanities. A genre is a type or category of storytelling, governed by an unspoken set of implicit rules that guide the story. When a genre becomes dominant in the publishing world, everything either fits into the generic rules or reacts to them in some way. For example, the novel developed as a huge genre in English literature beginning in the 18th century, stealing the thunder of its French counterparts, and as a result you’ll be hard pressed to find any British prose that doesn’t enter into some kind of dialogue with that genre system. Even more salient is the example of the genres that sprung out of the heyday of the Hollywood studios; that genre system is still going strong. While art house movies are still challenging and responding to it, it would take an enormous shift in the industry to change it significantly.

I could go on…

I was thinking about this theory yesterday when I saw this NYTimes article about making new habits. According to this article, “brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks. ” New pathways form in parallel to old ones. So instead of trying to boldly uproot unsatisfactory old habits, perhaps its better to consciously try to make new ones.

The article also proposes that “the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.” So trying to develop new habits spurs creativity, which in turn would stimulate you to carry new endeavors even further.

This insight about habits might be usefully applied to other non-brain systems that one might wish to change.  Small steps towards a new system could stimulate a cascade of new possibilities, without requiring the huge investment of energy of a large scale change. I think that’s a cool idea.

With regard to social/political issues, I’ve said before that people respond to incentives. So perhaps instead of advocating for environmental utopia, maybe I should advocate for changing the current incentives little by little for new behavioral systems to come into play.  Check out New Rules for more along these lines…

It also appears that creativity bears an important relationship to happiness and long term brain function, as well as forming new habits. So maybe Burning Man, the annual festival centered around self-expression, creativity, and self-reliance, is predicated upon a useful idea, rather than just fun?

Bookstores and Behavioral Economics!

March 7, 2008

So I was hanging out in the Park Slope Barnes and Noble all day on Wednesday, thanks to a hilarious “Reach out and Read” fund raiser which I could pawn off as work. ROR is a literacy program based around giving out books and reading to children in hospitals and doctor’s office waiting rooms– community outreach for anything to do with health care should count as work, since I’m a Sunset Park Community HealthCorps member. Anyway, what’s hilarious about it is that we all got dressed up as books and wandered around outside giving out book vouchers in the bitter cold, to promote family literacy. The Community Programs director at B&N, who bore the ridiculous name of Peaches, shoo-ed us away from fund raising in the store or directly outside of it. (When one of our crew went in to B&N without removing her book costume, I was forced to admonish, “Wait dude! Take off your book! Peaches is going to get pissed off!”) In the afternoon there were a couple ear-splitting performances by the Harbor Hill Senior Center Chinese Choir; Believe me, there is nothing quite as amusing as 20 enthusiastic eighty year olds bleating Chinese songs in a key so improbable that dogs will come running.

While taking a break from all the RORing, I picked up a book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely entitled, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions”. Why would a book like that warrant any level of excitement? Because it’s perfect fodder for blogging my debate with Bill!

The topic of the debate is this:How do people make choices?

The common sense idea that people decide things based primarily upon their preferences is the cornerstone of free-market economic theory, my understanding of which goes *a little something* like this:

In an effort to become better off, people constantly make choices concerning what to buy from and sell to others. The collective sum of these choices is known as the market. Given that possible choices are many, resources are scarce, and people are unencumbered in their choices, the market tend towards an equilibrium based on mutual satisfaction.

The mechanism which guides this tendency is called price. Price has very powerful and predictable effects on the choices of both producer and consumer: The Law of Supply states that the higher the price of a good or product, the more the producer will supply. Meanwhile, the Law of Demand says that the higher the price of said good or product, the less the consumer will demand. This is known as the Supply and Demand model. The result in this model is that markets tend towards equilibrium prices, a point such that both consumers and producers are satisfied.

Of course this only holds true in a situation of “perfect competition,” in which producers compete against each other and consumers have many possible choices.

Because firms are competing with each other to make production cheaper and more efficient, an unfettered, perfectly competitive market encourages creativity and innovation. It also elevates quality of life for the consumer, who is always provided with goods of competitive quality at a competitive price. Indeed, since the free market stimulates the growth of industry and the economy in general, which is good for everybody, the role of government should be simply to allow the market to thrive.

Shout outz to Prof. Richie Adelstein for your Econ 101 class, as well as to Bill and to the anonymous authors of Wikipedia for filling in the gaps in my memory.


So Ariely challenges this model by saying that what consumers are willing to pay can be easily manipulated; consumers don’t necessarily have a good handle on their own preferences when it comes to making decisions. This is because human decision-making behavior is often influenced by hidden forces. Now, sociology/anthropology types might think that when Ariely mentions invisible factors that cause you to make decisions contrary to your preferences, he’s referring to the myriad pressures arising from social structures like class, race, gender, etc. BUT NO! He’s talking straight up psychology.

Like the goslings in Konrad Lorenz’s famous work on imprinting, humans are suggestible. We are susceptible to all kinds of cues. Not only that! We are creatures of habit. So once we’ve accepted an idea, no matter how arbitrary, we’re inclined to believe it and base decisions upon it, like the baby goslings who accepted Lorenz as their mother and subsequently followed him around everywhere. We have a desire for coherence, even if it’s not based on anything rational; Ariely calls this “arbitrary coherence”.

Ariely provides a wide variety of examples of human behavior subject to arbitrary coherence, all of which are based on his own research. There’s one experiment in which students are asked to write down the first two digits of their social security number, then asked to give an appropriate price for a set selection of products. There was a strong correlation such that the kids who had the higher numbers as “anchors” put down higher prices; lower SSN’s went for lower prices. So choices are often affected by random initial anchors, rather than pleasure according to preference.

Because of this arbitrary coherence behavior, people are very susceptible to advertising. They also will adapt to higher prices in a way that the Law of Demand wouldn’t predict, as in the classic case of Starbucks– coffee goes from $1.00 a cup to $4.00 but people are OK with it because of plush couches, fancy french presses, and “hip” music. The point is that, according to Ariely, market prices readily influence the consumers willingness to pay rather than vice versa.

Free-market economic theory is based on the idea that we are in touch with our preferences such that we can estimate the amount of pleasure a trade will give us vs. its price. If we can’t accurately compute these pleasure values, then it is not clear that having the opportunity to trade is going to make us better off. Policies should take the fact that human behavior is irrational into account!

(Eventually I’ll continue to blog on this train of thought and critique capitalism for a variety of other reasons, including the following: corporate dominance, ignoring biodiversity, and encouraging so-called one-dimensional thinking.)