Should we study “the world is vast”?

As many readers may know, the UPenn Primals Initiative team is right now trying to identify humanity’s primal world beliefs using several different methods, looking across history, religions, cultures, etc.  One method, but no others, identified the world is vast/small.  Awesome.  It certainly it fits the criteria; it’s about world essence, it’s descriptive, it concerns only everything, and it’s super simple.

At the same time, more than any of the other primals we have identified, we don’t expect the world is vast/small to play a major role in human thinking and behavior, at least compared to other primals like the world is safe/dangerous.  That one probably affects a good deal of everyday behavior, life decisions, how one processes information, and more.  But this 2-minute video that Alicia shared got me thinking that maybe we should keep it.  What do you think?  It certainly evoked within me a powerful, emotional, gut-level, primal belief about reality.  I’m curious if it does the same for others.  I’m also curious how others think this primal could influence human life in tangible ways.

The world seems less small with friends...(Andrew, Amy and Reb, Alicia and I)

In my experience, the world is less alarmingly large with friends (Andrew, Amy,  Reb, Alicia, me).

 


Parenting in a Scary World vs. Parenting in a Safe World

On the afternoon of Saturday December 20th, 2014, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their 10-year old son and 6-year old daughter, without adult supervision, walk home together down Georgia Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Silver Springs, Maryland, a town in Washington DC.  (I biked through there often when I lived in DC.  It seemed to me a fairly well-to-do area with a few minor rough spots.)  A neighbor spotted the two little kids alone, called the police, and the police picked them up and drove them home.  When Alexander answered the door he had what he describes as a “tense” exchange with police who demanded ID and “told him about the dangers of the world” (CBS News) expressing disgust at his negligence.

This was not the first such encounter.  Alexander and Danielle are known to leave their children unattended in public places and Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) have confronted them about it.  This included, according to Alexander, taking aside their kids at school for interviews without parental permission “and when they were talking to them, they were painting a picture of a world that is very scary.”  Danielle added that the CPS Officer asked things like, “What would you do if someone grabbed you? The world’s a scary place and there are creeps out there who want to get you.”  After this new incident, CPS threatened to take away their children.

So why has CNN, the LA Times, Fox News, the New York Times, and scores of other news outlets around the country reported this story?  Basically, by all appearances (I’ve read only about six articles on this) these parents are the opposite of negligent.  Alexander is a physicist with the NIH and Danielle is a climate scientist.  They know data, trust data, take parenting very seriously, and ascribe to a growing movement  called “free-range parenting.”  Instead of “helicopter parenting,” which involves constant and chronic parental attention in an effort to keep kids safe, their goal is to empower children through independence, experiencing the world, and learning to navigate it.

The family at the local playground.

The Meitiv family at the local playground.

“Parenthood is an exercise in risk management,” Danielle says. “Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleep­over? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”  For instance, her own kids are allowed to walk unaccompanied to specified places such as the local library and park.  “Abductions are extremely rare,” she adds.  Peter Gray, a researcher at Boston College, confirmed to the New York Times, “The actual rate of strangers abducting or molesting children is very small.  It’s more likely to happen at the hands of a relative or family friend. The statistics show no increase in childhood dangers [over recent decades]. If anything, there’s been a decrease.”

The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood.  I think it’s absolutely critical for their development — to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.   – Danielle Meitiv

And so Danielle and Alexander, while under investigation by the government, have found themselves on talk shows sharing their story.  Across the nation, reaction is mixed.  Many see them as bad parents; others as good parents.  Whatever the response, I suspect that one’s take on the Meitivs and their style of parenting depends largely on one’s primals.

I am a researcher at UPenn who studies primals, or primal world beliefs, which are our most general and simple beliefs about the nature of everything, such as life is beautiful or everything is interconnected.  These unprovable, gut-level, emotionally-laden assumptions are often so implicit we don’t even know we have them.   Together, primals form implicit worlds in which some actions make sense and others just don’t.  Why work hard, for instance, if the world’s not just?  Why be curious if the world is boring?  Why try if nothing ever changes?

To understand one’s response to the Meitivs I ask: Do you feel, at a gut-level, that the world is generally dangerous or safe?  For the group that answers the former, the Meitivs are not only misguided, but immoral, and the government should intervene.  For the group answering the latter, the Meitivs have got it right.

In debate, we can expect these groups to speak past each other.  For instance, my police officer friends have suggested to me that in dealing with the most malignant people in our society day after day, in order to survive and do their jobs well, many police officers, though certainly not all, come to see the world as extremely dangerous.  Many adopt a pervading posture of suspicion and have trouble understanding why others don’t do the same (whether police officers are higher in belief in a dangerous world is a testable hypothesis we hope to have data on soon).  The temptation for those who see the world as safe is to cite stats, noting low abduction rates or how children are more likely to die in car accidents; it may often be safer to let kids walk home than to go pick them up.  But it won’t work.   To someone who holds a primal that the world is dangerous, whose seen it, whose experienced it, this type of evidence falls on deaf ears, and vice versa.  Both sides “just don’t get it,” and even if stats were convincing, stats support both sides.  If there is an objectively correct position, its not clear.

So, as humanity attempts to pass good laws, be good parents, and think about what primals we want to pass on to our kids, we are left with a practical question for psychologists: which primals are most useful?  Unfortunately, we got little to say.  Primals remain understudied by psychologists and many primals have yet to be identified (i.e. the world is beautiful, fun, or declining).  If you would like to change your primals; perhaps you’re a parent who would like to see the world as more safe, a history teacher who would like to share their primal that the world is interesting, or a community organizer who would like to inspire a neighborhood that the world can change; we have no empirically-grounded ideas on how one might do that.

That is the problem the UPenn Primals Initiative is trying to solve.  In addition to looking at societal level primals, we suspect millions of individuals have unwittingly imprisoned themselves in maladaptive implicit worlds where inaction, crime, desperation, depression, anxiety, cruelty, and anti-social behavior of many types, just make sense.  As a scientist, we don’t yet know if this suspicion pans out empirically.  As a person, this is what gets me up in the morning.

In the decades ahead, science can probably never tell us which primals are true, but scientists can begin to understand the power of our answers to the simple age-old question: What sort of world is this anyway?  The UPenn Primals Initiative is one attempt to find out.

 

CH stars

The most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.   – G. K. Chesterton

 

 

 

Sources for this article include:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/maryland-couple-want-free-range-kids-but-not-all-do/2015/01/14/d406c0be-9c0f-11e4-bcfb-059ec7a93ddc_story.html

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/15/maryland-couple-investigated-for-letting-children-/

http://www.ksl.com/?nid=1009&sid=33175529

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/maryland-couple-want-free-range-kids-but-not-all-do/2015/01/14/d406c0be-9c0f-11e4-bcfb-059ec7a93ddc_story.html

http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/living/feat-md-free-range-parents-under-attack/

 


Biking Adventures: 10 lessons from 50 miles in 10 below freezing

So I’ve been wanting to get more into long-distance biking in all weather conditions.  Last Saturday, I biked 50+ miles in windy weather in 10 below freezing from west Philly, PA to Princeton, NJ. It took about five hours, with about half of that in the dark, and a half an hour of that warming my hands up at a coffee shop.  Its true that I wanted to test out my lights and night time biking on country roads, but really  I started so late because our trip to Princeton was last minute.

I listened to Florence and the Machine, Pentatonix, and a book on Theodore Roosevelt for most of the ride. No during pictures, but below are the before and after shots. Alicia & co. wanted me to get my gear back on because I looked hilarious in my ski mask, etc.  Highlights include crossing the Delaware River at Trenton and biking on country roads.  Lessons I learned:

  1. Winter-time biking can be fun with the right gear.
  2. Biking on country roads at night is awesome if you have good lights.  Cars see you easily and give a wide berth.  Though make sure you have a good external battery in case lights and iPhone start to go (my lights got pretty dim right before I made it).
  3. Winter time biking after a snow storm is dumb as toast.  All the most beautiful parts of the ride were not plowed (i.e. canal tow paths).  Also big chunks of ice on the road can make you skid out.  Good that I have my old trusty mountain bike from Taiwan with hybrid tires instead of a road bike.
  4. I think solo biking in the winter is kinda nice.  With the constant need to stop, take off gloves, check maps, adjust gear, etc., it might be annoying to do with someone (which is strange cause I usually always love adventure buddies).
  5. Bike lanes along big roads is worse than biking down residential streets.  Map your own route beforehand, only do bike paths on small roads.  And “bike routes” are bullshit.  It’s usually just a busy road with the occasional sign on it saying watch out for bikes.
  6. Either take a river or scenic trail out of a metro area or public transport to the edge of the city.  I spent 2 hours biking through North Philly.  Not so much fun.
  7. Fill up your water bags with warm water.  My insulated bike bottle froze about 45 minutes before I arrived and I got thirsty.
  8. I stopped about two hours in for bathroom, food, water fill-up, etc.  I got back on the bike without putting more layers on, and had to stop 15 minutes later (newfound love for Dunkin Donuts) because my hands were freezing.  Dethawing hands hurt and is unnecessary if you always layer up more than seems necessary before getting back on the bike (and then taking them back off after 15 minutes of biking when you get too hot).  Slight inconvenience is godliness.
  9. Have family who love you on the other end of the trip with lots of good food, warm tea, champagne, love, hugs, and a shower ready to go.
  10. Overall, totally worth doing.  Hedonic pleasure is overrated.  Adventure is forever.  Don’t stay inside all winter, friends.  Get whatever gear you need so that being outside is fun.
IMG_1478

Leaving the house with my saddle bags.

WP_20150131_20_19_36_Pro

Minutes after arriving at my Aunt’s in Princeton. Food is awesome. So is my wife and cousin : )  And my uncles super incredible champagne.  Everyone responded to my adventure appropriately: “you are weird but I’m glad you enjoyed it!”

 

 

 


Hero or asshole?

a second post in the “grad school with benefits” series, in which psych phd coursework helps me figure life out

As some may recall, a few years ago I pulled a stranger to safety who had fallen on the train tracks and was being electrified by the third rail.  Someone filmed it, posted on youtube, and in the media interviews that followed, and in my own life, people kept asking me why I acted when other people didn’t.  A year or so later, I was on a ludicrous “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show after an incident in New York, in which a man died on the subway tracks because nobody would come to his aid.  We were to explain what makes us so much better than other people.

For many reasons I’ve discussed, this is nonsense, but in my social psych readings for tomorrow, new light has been shed on this very question: “Why do some people act in emergencies when others don’t?”

In a 1968 paper, Latane and Darley note that most emergencies begin ambiguously.  A staggering man may be having a heart attack, or just drunk.  Smoke coming from a building may be a fire, or just steam.  In these ambiguous circumstances, we look around to get a clue from each other.  In so doing, a fascinating and circular social effect develops: “if each member of a group is, at the same time, trying to appear calm and also looking around at the other members to gauge their reactions, all members may be led (or misled) by each other to define the situation as less critical than they would if alone.”  This creates the bystander effect, where nobody is acting because nobody is acting.

So Latane and Darly did an experiment.  They had subjects fill out a dummy-survey in a waiting room and let some smoke come out one of the floor vents, simulating an emergency.  In one group, subjects were alone.  In a second group, individual subjects were joined by two fake subjects who were trained to fill out the survey while ignoring the smoke.  For the alone group, 75% of subjects acted super-reasonably (out of only 22 subjects, lets not get carried away with generalizability): they noticed the smoke within 5 seconds, got up, investigated, and 51% poked their head out to inform others within 2 minutes of first seeing smoke.  The group with two “fake” people took four times as long to even notice smoke, and 9 out of 10 sat there as the room filled up with smoke, so that six minutes in, after visibility was greatly reduced and people were coughing, the experiment had to be ended.

So what does this mean?  Possibly lots.  First, we may pay less attention to what is going on when in groups.  Second, when alone, we can each be expected to be more responsive in an emergency.   Third, and most importantly for the present purpose, group emergency situations are not magical windows through which inner virtue is revealed.  Rather, we misinterpret group emergency situations because we are all getting our cues from each other.  Group emergency situations, in other words, measure if we check-in with the people around us and, if we do, care what they think.  Fortunately for the world, 1 of 10 of us are egotistical assholes who obligingly give no thought to the feelings of others.

Wesley+Autrey+Bush+Delivers+2007+State+Union+Fcrpj-u9mXul

Hero or egotistical asshole?  Wesley Autrey,  a subway hero, was honored by GW Bush at his second SOTU.  Believe me, it’s hard for the torrent of praise and adoration not to go to your head–exactly what the egotist needs.

This resonates profoundly with my own experience.  On that day, I distinctly remember listening to some podcast when I heard screams.  I remember turning, seeing a man lifeless, laying down on the tracks.  I remember, with no pause whatsoever, really not a second-thought, immediately turning and running towards him, flinging off my iPod, flip flops, sunglasses, and backpack, and getting ready to jump down to him.  I have no memory of looking at the people around me, and trying to get a sense from them what was gong on,or how I should behave.

So am I hero or an egotistical asshole who doesn’t care what other people think?  Obviously this is a false dichotomy, but I think there is an important truth here.  In most situations, taking our social cues from others is a good idea.  Fortunately, we also have the occasional weirdo who won’t, but let’s not completely misconstrue weird egotism for bravery.

I will be posting on the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat in which 12 eminent scholars from around the country came together to discuss primals research.  I know many of you have been asking about this incredible experience, and you deserve some juicy details.  More to come!  


4 Reasons Evolution is (a tad) Useless

My PhD program has started and I’m in this awesome social psych class; brilliant classmates, brilliant professor, and we are required to read shit-tons and bring questions for discussion.  It’s great, except we don’t have time to get to everyone’s questions, and some of my most interesting questions go unaddressed.  That won’t do.  Quick…to the blog-mobile!

Context: Basically, the piece was about why evolution is the bees knees.  Scholar-dudes Tooby & Cosmides (2005 I believe) argue that evolution can explain all psychological phenomena and should be the basis of psychological theory, even textbook layouts.  They see reason for optimism because, among other things, scholars have recently learned more about “ancestral environments,” which means how we lived hundreds of thousands of years ago (e.g. we grouped in bands of 20-100, there was a division of labor between sexes, etc).  Tooby & Cosmides outright state that the human mind is a computer with programming that we can identify as we disassemble the brain’s mechanisms and identify cognitive processes and how they evolved.

My question: do we really know our past well enough for evolution to be the springboard for psychological theory?  For five reasons, I’m weirdly skeptical (someone please set me straight).

First, and perhaps most obviously, evolution-based theories easily make contradictory predictions.

Second, hunter-gather societies today likely differ enormously from our more fecund ancestors (e.g. they inhabit extremely marginalized land).

Most of our ancestors likely lived in more fertile places, and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.

The great majority of our ancestors lived in more fertile places than the Kalahari Desert , and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.  Yet we seem to study indigenous Kalahari people and extrapolate.

Third, ancient culture, “a potentially potent selective force in biological evolution” (Kitiyama & Uskul, 2010, p. 12) is lost to us. Consider, would we know of Easter Islanders strange priorities without their conveniently enduring monuments? Indeed, every culture values weird and unpredictable things, especially in picking sex partners.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot the island.  Creating them apparently destroyed their habitat's eco-system, and eventually the human population.  We don't know the cultural values that led to this.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot Easter Island. Creating them apparently destroyed the local ecosystem, and eventually the human population. We don’t know the cultural values that led to this, but we know they did, only because their “weird” cultural values left its mark in stone.  Such anonymous values alter evolutionary history.

Fourth, humans, defined by flexibility, neuroplasticity, and prospection (imagining the future and acting in light of it), are omnivores who migrate, learn new things, and adjust to starkly different environments.  In this process, “computer programming” would have been erased and rewritten ad infinitum to the point that tracing a program back to its source seems hopeless.

Caveat: I don’t know the literature, I’m making shit up, and, quite likely, there are reasonable responses to all these points.  However, it seems to me that a little knowledge of ancestral environments is a dangerous thing.  If the mind is indeed a computer, it’s one designed by a million engineers who keep switching goals.  Perhaps it is more productive to study the mind “as is” while keeping an eye on evolutionary plausibility.  The nice thing about living humans is at least we can observe them directly.

I will let you know if we get to my question in class.  I hope someone sets me straight.

By the way, Alicia and I just celebrated six years of marriage!  She is my buddy…til death do us part.  

 

From our recent Ireland trip, Alicia kicked butt.  This is at the end of a grueling 9-hour hike.  We just turned the last bend in the ridge and could see the town we were staying in.  That's joy : )

From our recent hiking trip in Ireland trip…this is at the end of a grueling 9-hour, 19 mile hike. We just turned the last bend in the ridge and for the first time could see the town we were staying in.  Alicia rocked it.


Please Rename My Life’s Work

I need to re-name what I plan to study for the next couple decades.  I asked friends on Facebook, and got over a hundred ideas in a few hours.  Thanks so much!  Incredibly helpful!  Here’s more details on what I’m looking for.

Definition: I study our most basic, highly-generalized, adjectival beliefs about the world we live in and how it works.  Examples include: the world is interesting/boring, getting worse/better, good/bad, safe/dangerous, etc.  All such beliefs answers that most basic human question, “What is this place?” on the cosmic scale.  Long term, I want to see if some of these beliefs are helpful, design interventions, and scale change.  For the past year, I’ve called them “universal assessments” (UAs).  This, it turns out, is horrible, and I’m amazed so many people have gotten so interested in the UA concept anyway.

What’s wrong with universal assessment?  There’s trouble with both words.  First, assessments usually means ‘test’ or ‘survey’ in the social sciences.  Second, “universal” can mean ‘everyone,’ like ‘universal healthcare,’ rather than ‘everything.’  Also, “world” is likely a better approximation of the object about which we have these beliefs.  “Belief” is good, but UAs are more visceral and underlying than the term “belief” implies (or “assessments” for that matter).  Across the country, psychologists I respect have confirmed for me that my term should be changed before I’m too committed.

7 Criteria: Ideally the new term should be…

  1. Memorable
  2. Self-explanatory (e.g. I can say “I study ____” and people know what I am talking about)
  3. Works for both social scientists & a popular audience
  4. Builds on related ideas in the literature…but distinctiveness can be useful
  5. Not condescending (like “assumption”)
  6. Not making a claim I can’t yet (like “most-important-belief belief”)
  7. Not words I stutter on!

Today’s Top 7:

  1. world beliefs   –   basic…a fan favorite…safe choice…Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who invented fixed/growth mindset likes it
  2. world impressions   –   Alicia’s idea…makes it a little more unique…then when I get to a general audience and create a comprehensive assessment tool we could call someone’s UA profile their “iWorld”
  3. cosmic outlooks   –   an idea from positive psychology founder Marty Seligman
  4. worldviews   –   lots of people I respect are rooting for this one like David Yaden, Seligman, Alejandro Adler…but there is a TON of baggage with this term as it refers to religion/moral systems/nationalism/views on abortion etc….it would have to be re-appropriated VERY strategically
  5. elemental worldviews   –  by use of the term “elemental” or something else we could distinguish from other forms of worldview
  6. worldlook   –   we could make a neologism that is similar to worldview but different (worldsense, worldgist, world take, etc.)
  7. pan-beliefs  –  maybe…”pan” or “panta” means ‘everything’ in greek…I like this one because I can see myself saying it and its fairly self-explanatory

Other options: megabeliefs, world conclusions, cosmic conclusions, world judgements, cosmic convictions, world characteristics, adjectival worldview, stark world beliefs, cosmic impression, total world beliefs, state of everything beliefs, total existence beliefs, pan-existence beliefs, existential inklings, world hunches, world schemas, totalized schemas, everything judgements, world nature, underlying world beliefs, world suppositions, habitus beliefs

Perhaps a neologism: worldset, omnitraits, ubiquitraits, omni-understandings, omni-judgments, worldjectives, omni-beliefs, omniristics, world nature, omniliefs, sublets, world meta-view, world looks, pan-beliefs, metaschema, worldschema,

Terms in the literature you would think refer to UAs but don’t quite: global beliefs, world hypothesis, world assumptions, etc.


Nothing like a little brush with death to provide some perspective on life…

Biking home in DC, zipping down the bike lane with my helmet on (cough!), and a taxi door opens. I love that pause before the crunch. You see it coming, but you have no control. I flew maybe 12 or so feet. Epic crash. Loud. About 20 people rush up…and I’m laying there in shock yet without a scratch on me. Ok, my chest is a bit bruised (where the door hit), but yeah. Crazy unscathed. The people were super nice about it, and I learned a valuable lesson:

Care about the right shit. I think I was thinking about dirty dishes that needed doing right before I crashed. Now I’m breathing, and again, and that’s pretty fucking cool. You’re breathing too. Celebrate with me.


An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.


Stutterers Revenge Part VII: Jer Strikes Back on Live Radio

Last week I joined Nick Hernandez on his radio show Community Matters on KZUM 89.3FM for a 20 minute conversation.  I’m sharing the link to his podcasts and I should be at or near the top of the page.  Nick likes to interview people doing interesting research and chat about how their strengths integrate into their work.  He also likes community development issues, so it was a pretty neat to get to know him.  We chatted for  a while afterwards, which made me feel extra special : )

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Nick’s show is all about positive psychology, character strengths, and community building.

Also, I continue to find it hilarious that I’m doing media appearances with a stutter.  I wonder if I’ll ever get over that.  I think I’m going to start naming my media appearances as sequels in a “Stutterers Revenge” series.  (Cue evil laughter.)


The Clifton SexPlex

These days I am writing grant proposals, applying to grad schools, and reading about the history of psychology.  But I thought I would take a little break from universal assessments to add a new installment to the “Old Jer Ideas” series.

Individuals are products of their environments.  Overstatement?  Yes.  Interesting?  Not really.  We’ve heard it before.  What’s more interesting to me is how communities, and especially the nuclear family, are products of the environment too.  One factor that plays a huge role in forming our community is also often overlooked: the physical buildings  we live in.  For example, Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania thinks that French people get more exercise via walking because getting the car out involves opening manual parking garage gates.  Walking is just easier.  The physical environment encourages healthy behavior across time.

This is the main insight of Dan Beuttner, founder of Blue Zones.  He’s travelled to the happiest and longest-living communities on the planet and written books about it.  It turns out happy communities don’t read self-help books or go to the gym.  Rather, their lives are designed (often accidentally) in such a way that incentivizes routines that includes exercise, community-building, and other healthy habits.  I got to work a bit with Dan and Blue Zones last year.  They have packaged a series of customizable changes (hundreds of options) that communities can use to encourage healthy behaviors and are using them to change the world one community at a time.  Currently they are working  with the governor of Iowa to make simple changes to communities across the state. Two environmental change examples: 1) instead of encouraging people to exercise, town governments can connect all sidewalks, which is tied to X more time spent outside and X more calories burnt a year, 2) instead of encouraging people to “eat less you idiot and you’ll stop being fat,” individual families can replace their 12-inch dinner plates with 10-inch plates, which results in X less pounds of fat gained each year.  In this way, they identify heaps of super easy changes to the environment which produces effects that aggregate across a lifetime.  

This, it turns out, is the same principle my colleagues and I used to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.  You can’t tell slumlords to be better people, but if you make the street a sensible investment, they will often want to fix up their properties on their own.  

So, can we apply this same principle of changing the human environment to the buildings in which we live?  I think so.  I think we could design living arrangements highly conducive to holistic human flourishing.  And I have.  It’s called the Clifton SexPlex!  (Note: it’s not an empirically verified positive intervention and could be hazardous for your health.)

First, its great because it has “sex” in the title.  Second, its great because I thought of this idea and told all my friends about it before I knew anything about positive psychology and the science of human well-being and they gave it this awesome name.  Third, its great because of what it is:  a small apartment building for six families intentionally designed to strike a balance between the commune and the individualist’s free-standing castle.  Several friends have already claimed spots (I’m talking about you, Dan & Grace Black).

Context: I grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Everyday, on the way to school, I biked past rice patties.

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At the center of these rice patties were often traditional Chinese compounds.  As generations grew up, farmers would add buildings around a common square until three or four generations lived not quite in the same house but not separately either.

Compounds started out looking like this.

Compounds started out looking like this.

Right next to the compound I passed each day was their family graveyard (connection to community across time) and a sacred Banyan tree (connection to community across dimensions) (that, sadly, I couldn’t show Alicia when we visited Taiwan last summer.  The compound had been knocked down and all the rice patties cleared for construction : (  On the plus side: I got some real night market food!)

Jer getting some seriously awesome sweet Taiwanese sausage at a night market in Taichung, July 2013.

Jer getting some seriously awesome sweet Taiwanese sausage at a night market in Taichung, July 2013.

These family compounds are a typical Chinese model (this guy calls it the “chinese unit”).  Often walled, they were useful in defending your family against petty banditry and wild animals.  Below is a typical layout.

chinese courtyardIndeed, even in major cities.  This arrangement, living groups of 20 or so in substantial family compounds, was the norm.

urban fabricAfter finishing college in 2007, having lived in apartment buildings, dorms, row homes, and townhouses, I became a community organizer in inner-city Buffalo and discovered the monolithically individualistic architecture of America that permeates suburban and urban space.

!!!!!!-citylife-SuburbsBy day, I was becoming an expert in catalyzing revitalization in struggling inner-city neighborhoods.  By night, I donned an intellectual cape and form-fitting spandex in order to effectively think about what sort of community I wanted to live in.  I wanted more.

The problem, as I see it, was that I was afflicted with affection for other humanoids.  I liked them.  I wanted to be with them.  But I was now a young adult doing two very mature grown-up things: 1) I was too busy and never had time for friends even if they lived just blocks away and 2)  all social interaction happened in the context of planned events that went on your calendar in advance and involved an enticing (often fattening) activity that you very well might not be in the mood for.  What happened to “hanging out,” to non-planned interactions that had the potential to be uninteresting or food-less?  They’re gone.  Now we pull on cardigans, go to non-routine special times, stay on our best behavior, drink a bit so that we don’t feel how weird it all is, and chat with nominal strangers.  The prevalence of social anxiety in modern America makes sense to me when every “community-building” activity is a stage for showmanship.  And thus we lose out on the deep desire of our hearts: the most basic awareness that a dozen or so good people know you deeply, desperately want to keep knowing you, and want you in their group.  In real community, the show has to stop sometime.  That’s kinda the whole point.  

More troubling, I was shocked at the remarkable and seemingly preventable dysfunction that pervaded my friends’ nuclear families.  Sociologists tell us that small groups are always inherently unstable (I could cite this but I’m lazy).  They have fewer connections, so when one goes bad (for example, your brother pisses you off for getting you in trouble), you have more people to mediate reconciliation.  But beyond mere group size, the modern American family lends itself to dysfunction because they often have 1) no access to the inner-working of how other model families live and 2) no feedback from outsiders bout how they treat family members and each other.

All of us fall into dysfunctional patterns without realizing it.   We need feedback.  Loving effectively depends on it.  Indeed, perhaps the most important benefit of two-parent households is the check on executive power.  One parent, who obviously really knows the situation well, can say to the other, “Honey, in all honesty, are you sure how you are treating junior is constitutional (or in keeping with our desire to avoid smothering our child)?”  To put it in another crude way, families need outside consulting.  Once, when Alicia and I had a little tiff in public, a friend told me that it was triggered by me inadvertently signaling disrespect.  This single piece of feedback helps our relationship enormously everyday when it consistently engenders in me humility whenever Alicia responds emotionally to what, I thought, was  “clearly” an unemotional question.

So, adrift without feedback for decades on end, small American families form little dysfunctional worlds.  Kids often don’t realize the extent of this dysfunction until they go to college, start their own families, or get married and gain perspective on their own family dynamics via the foil of discovering the family patterns of their in-laws.  Then they start their own family in near total ignorance having known the inner-dynamics of approximately two insular families.  This seems an entirely stupid way to design a flourishing society.  (Fortunately I am overstating all over the place.)

And besides curbing dysfunction and encouraging non-planned social time, I want inter-generational friendships.  I want adult mentors for my kids that are neither educators or family members, and a host of other benefits that come with village-like life.

So I want intentional community, but not the way weirdos do it.  I want to build the modern urban version of the traditional Chinese farm compound.

  • It would consist of a two-story building around an enclosed central courtyard containing a playground.
  • On the outside would be a large yard with many raised beds, a compost pile, fruit trees, and a chicken tractor.
  • The east, west, and north, wing would be divided up into six or seven apartments of various sizes (that could be fairly easily rearranged).  It would likely include one 4-bedroom apartment, two 3-bedrooms, two 2-bedrooms, one 1-bedroom, and a studio for guests.
  • With two exceptions, each apartment would be its own individualistic/western style apartment with a full kitchen and large dinning area.  1) It would have no living/entertaining space.  The idea is that this would encourage people out, to the courtyard and common spaces.  2) It would have no private entrance.
  • To get to your apartment, everyone would walk through the front door in the south wing into one big room complete with wood stove, a few small comfortable spaces, and one massive dining table.  
  • Passing through this room one would get to the kitchen, with easy access to the courtyard so that parents could cook while watching kids.  I imagine community life including families taking turns hosting dinner once every two weeks (meaning there would be 3 communal meals a week for 20-30 people plus guests).
  • Above the big dinning room and kitchen would be four rooms, a small prayer room, a small fitness  room, a substantial library with fire place, and a theater for movies, community performances, and presentations.
  • While the building would be owned by one of the families and the others would rent, the community would have a democratic governing structure likely more typical of the neighborhood association than the Quaker meeting.
  • I imagine that families would help raise each others kids (we would take turns babysitting 1 day of the week perhaps).  Those who love gardening would garden.  Others cook.  Others would pay more.  All would contribute.
  • Beyond that, everyone would make a living outside the community and would otherwise live normal lives.  Without trying too hard, I think this environment would foster healthy, intimate community and inter-generational relationships.

Don’t get me wrong.  Community is messy.  People piss each other off.  The SexPlex would have plenty of drama and conflict.  My solution?  I have none.  Getting along is a crucible for growth.  I need to be more humble anyway.  I need to learn to share anyway.  I need to mature.  I need to get better at loving my family.  And I need to relentlessly pursue engagement and cooperation as an example to my kids.

Obviously, most of these ideas are not new, but perhaps my specific take on it is.  The Clifton SexPlex could have something to offer the world besides the unfortunately rapey name.  Now I just need to build it.  Which is where you can help!  Please make your checks payable to…or rather just keep an eye out.  We may be moving to Philly next year.

  1. Anyone know of any buildings for sale near Penn that could be turned into something like the SexPlex?  In DC, it has not been an option because of housing prices.
  2. Has anyone done something like this before or can connect me to people who have?
  3. Most importantly, does anyone know an architecture student interested in positive psychology, positive sociology, or community building interested in translating the Chinese traditional compound into the fabric of the modern American city?  Perhaps cities of the future, wishing to build on the findings (most not yet found) of positive psychology, will be designed using community-encouraging architecture.  Perhaps we just need a brilliant first design and some successful prototype communities.

(Apologies!  The world keeps encouraging my crazy big dreaming and scheming.  I blame Jesus and Bob Easton.)