Tag Archives: Psychology

My Nerd Dream Team

I discovered my preferred form of intellectual hedonism by staying up past my bedtime one evening in late 2006.   I was a junior at Houghton College and hanging out with intellectual heavyweight classmates Alicia Walmus (now Clifton…bam!), Brent Chamberlain, and Chris Fiorello in the basement of Wesley Chapel.  They had just read a draft philosophy manuscript of mine and, before I knew it, Chris came out swinging, Alicia disagreed, Brent nuanced, and they were off debating whether I was right, what I had meant, and whether I was being brilliant or a totally inept monkey typist.  

At first, I was trying to jump in to lay down some wisdom.  But, thank goodness, stuttering slowed me down enough to be distracted by the conversation itself.  It riveted me.  Hours flew by.  I found myself adopting an observer role with occasional questions (remarkable only for being uncharacteristic), and something clicked:

There’s nothing more fun and weirdly addictive than listening to smarter better-informed people wrestle with your own ideas.   

Don’t get me wrong, I’m into being super virtuous and all, but the current topic is straight-up selfish infantile pleasure.  Whether it’s bashing, praising, building off my ideas, connecting them to other ones, etc., I love it when smarter people discuss my ideas and find them interesting.  (Finding them accurate is good too I guess).  Years later, I would learn that my top two strengths, according to the VIA strengths survey, are Creativity and Bravery.  Basically, this means that I like coming up with crazy shit and putting it out there.  My life can be generously described, therefore, as one sustained effort to gather smart people and hog discussion topics. 

Ten months ago, all my nerdiest dreams came true in the form of a three day event at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvannia.  I meant to blog about this sooner but I’ve been irrationally fearful.  Frankly, I have a hard time believing it happened.  In short, my tombstone will read,

Here lies Jer, who had an idea, made a top-ten list of the world’s scholars he’d most enjoy talking to about it, got them into a windowless conference room, didn’t let them leave for three days, made them talk about nothing else but the idea, and they seemed it find it super interesting.

These scholars are worth knowing about.  I want to introduce you and share a quote that gives a flavor of their thinking about primals.    

Dr. Carol Dweck
Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today. Her research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets. She has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard, and her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it. Carol is very involved in the primals initiative before and has been deeply kind to me, inviting me out to stay with her and spending hours talking to me about primals. Prior to the retreat, Carol is putting some thought into how we might organize primal world beliefs.

Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard and is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today.

Carol’s research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets.  In particular, the belief that abilities can be improved is critical to actually improving–we pursue what we think can be caught.  Her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it.

The picture above cracks me up because Carol is an incredibly kind person.  She was also one of the first to buy into the primals concept, inviting me out to stay with her in California, spending hours talking about primals, and continues to shepherd me through this crazy time.  I’m proud to call her my friend.  She says,

Beliefs are at the heart of motivation, personality, well being, and much pathology, yet this is not widely recognized. To the extent that studying primals (or core beliefs) can bring this to the fore, it could have a tremendous effect on how we conceptualize and study human nature.

Dr. Alia Crum
Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford. Her research focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality. Her research has won several awards, including the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize, the William Harris Prize, and has been featured in popular media outlets. I adore Alia. We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours. Prior to the retreat, Alia is putting some thought into meta-beliefs (beliefs about beliefs) and how primals relate to health.

Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford–one of the youngest ever.

Alia’s Mind & Body Lab focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality.  For example, our beliefs about the effects of stress changes the effects of stress and beliefs about fattening foods makes some foods more fattening.  

I adore Alia.  We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours.  We talk about examining the influence of meta-beliefs (beliefs about the usefulness of a belief), how primals relate to health, and how to navigate academia.  The main difference between our focus is that she studies beliefs that are more specific than primals (e.g. beliefs about stress rather than beliefs about everything), and she focuses on how they impact physical health.  She says,

Although some may be confused—or even overwhelmed—by the premise that we have implicit assumptions about the nature of the world and that those assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our experience of the world, it makes complete sense to those of us who study mindsets and beliefs…Primals, as Jer has defined them, are the most general beliefs of all. As such, they have the greatest potential to assert a biasing influence into our lives, for better or for worse.

Dr. Alan Fiske
Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Alan received his BA from Harvard, PhD from the University of Chicago, and has done fieldwork in Malawi, Congo, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso.  He’s well known for his theory of social relationships which breaks down all human relationships into four basic types.  He’s just written a new book, Virtuous Violence, in which he suggests that much violence is pursued by a genuine desire to be moral.  He helped us at the retreat by voicing some cautions.  In particular, he wants us to be careful when it comes to applying primals theory and research to other cultures.  He says,

The concept of primals is stimulating…as was evident from the animated discussions….[but] my claim [is] that concepts about the world are culturally embedded: they don’t make sense in isolation.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis
Dr. Rob DeRubeis was chair of the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the 2014 retreat. He has authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on topics that center on depression treatment. He is a recipient of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy’s Aaron T. Beck Award and the Senior Distinguished Career Award from the Society for Psychotherapy Research.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis is a depression expert, having authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on the topic.

Rob was Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the retreat, so we were lucky to have him.  He put some thought into how primals relate to depression and has also had some advice for me on how to pursue measuring primals.  

In clinical psychology, we do not adopt a hands-off attitude when one has a belief such as “I am worthless.”  We try to help the patient re-evaluate such beliefs, as they lead to poor life outcomes and nearly always are exaggerations or simply untrue.  Jer and Marty want to study the belief “the world is worthless.”  It’s imperative that we find out if this belief is also connected to poor life outcomes.

Dr. James Pawelski
Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

James is a mentor.  I love him.  We share an affinity for facial hair, philosophy, goofiness, scholarship, and we both grew up overseas the children of Christian missionaries.  He was my Master’s capstone advisor and helped launch all this.  James is one of the world’s experts on William James, a philosopher important to both psychologists and philosophers, and is building projects exploring how the humanities can be used to explore and advance subjective wellbeing.  Also, he recently figured out what “positive” means in “positive psychology” (he would hate me for saying that).  He says,

It appears that most people, most of the time, do not know their primals, even though it seems likely that they influence us in a variety of ways.  Given the promise primals research has for yielding life-changing insight and for facilitating profound individual and cultural transformation, I eagerly await the results Jer’s research will uncover.  

Dr. Crystal Park
Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Crystal’s research explores many aspects of human life (including yoga!) with a focus on how certain beliefs influence an individual’s ability to cope with hardship.  You might say that, if there was such a thing as “primals literature,” she would be one of the world’s top experts.  She knows the studies done on beliefs which are most similar to primals, she knows how to measure them, and is now helping me figure out how to measure primals too.  She’s also become a close mentor,  a constant source of expertise and encouragement, and I am deeply grateful for her.  She says,

I am quite familiar with the literature on those psychological constructs most similar to primals, and can therefore say without reservation that focusing on primals provides an opportunity to explore a fundamental element of human experience that has heretofore been minimally examined. It may be that it is so obvious that psychologists simply overlooked it… This is one of those projects that has great potential for identifying an important piece for what it means to be human.

Dr. Paul Rozin
Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul’s major research focus has been human food choice, the emotion of disgust, and cultural psychology.  It was fun to have him.  He was one of the guest professors for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program when I was a student.  Before the retreat, he put some thoughts into how primals relate to cultural differences.  He, David, and Alan shared a concern that helped us to become more nuanced.  He says,

The problem that David, Alan and I kept returning to is that there is often no adaptive general belief that works for all situations. I will use the “world is safe” proposed primal. It is appropriate to feel unsafe in the Middle East and to feel safe in Denmark. It is appropriate to feel safe with one’s family, and less safe when dealing with strangers.

Dr. Richard Reeves
Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, and former director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank. He is also the author of John Stuart Mill – Victorian Firebrand as well as many articles, radio programs, and publications on politics and policy. Richard is one of my favorite people. Funny, witty, whip smart, and English, Prior to the retreat, Richard is putting some thought into primals that have dominated historical eras.

Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, historian, philosopher, policy-maker, and former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister

Richard’s one of my favorite people in the world to have a beer with: the smartest, wittiest (most English) philosopher/historian/policy guy I know.  Richard’s policy work focuses on inequality.  The image above is from his kickass appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart earlier this year and in the video below he explains the current state of American inequality with legos.  I recommend both.  

At the retreat, Richard talked about primals across history, looking at the primals of Sparta and Athens, which was candy for a history nerd like me.  He, James, Rob, and others, are convinced that primals have relevance across academic disciplines and for policy.  He says,

There have been a few times in my professional life when an idea came along with that feeling of freshness—like putting one’s spade into genuinely new intellectual soil. This is how I feel about primals. The idea is so basic, so simple, but I really think that is has the potential to do some really good work and influence a wide range of fields.

Dr. David Sloan Wilson
Dr. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionist at the University of Binghamton who studies all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world. His books include Darwin's Cathedral (2002), Does Altruism Exist? (2015), and Evolution for Everyone (2007).

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, President of the Evolution Institute, studies evolution at the University of Binghamton, examining all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world.

You’ve probably heard of David’s books.  He’s written Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), Evolution for Everyone (2007), and, his latest, Does Altruism Exist? (2015).  In a room of top scholars, David’s breadth of knowledge across disciplines stood out.  In addition to putting some thought into the relationship between primals and evolution, David had a suggestion for us,

Primals might not describe human and cultural universals. Instead, they might be culturally specific…vital for some cultures but marginal or even absent in others. [This] does not detract from the importance of the concept—especially if primals are found primarily in modern cultures, which are most relevant for improving human welfare in the future.

Dr. Chandra Sripada
Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences. He received his PhD in philosophy from Rutgers and completed residency training in psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Chandra has been very useful in talking about the connection between primals and values. He's also an incredibly encouraging human being, having supported me in key moments.

Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences.

Chandra is an incredibly encouraging human being and has supported me in key moments over the year.  He had a great deal to say about values, which he thinks are really important to consider in conjunction with primals, and what was great is that he could talk about his stuff so deeply from both a philosophical and empirical perspective.  He says,

I deeply hope that this project continues and that we come to identify these primal world views, measure them, and come to understand how they influence our lives. The results could be extraordinarily useful, not just in psychology, but also for other academic disciplines.

What Fun! 

Honestly, bringing these folks together is an honor and privilege I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Writing these posts, and seeing  photographic evidence of us in windowless conference rooms bathed in warm fluorescence, I’m starting to believe it actually happened.

In the next post, I’ll share more about what we did at the retreat itself.  Spoiler alert: Where’s Marty Seligman?  In the meantime, here’s two group shots.

This group picture we took of ourselves in the middle of our talks because Marty just got out of surgery and we wanted to send him a picture and our love.

Primals Research Retreat Participants left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),

Crew left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),

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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/

 


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.


The First Philosophy Debate Ever

In previous work, I traced the history of the concept of universal assessments (overall judgements of the world) in German philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.  But this week while listening to the lecture series “The Story of Psychology” by Todd Daniel, I realized that UAs go back way WAY further than I thought.

But I am skeptical of me.

Since studying UAs, I’ve started seeing them everywhere.  I’m currently reading through all of my childhood Calvin & Hobbes books and finding tons.  For example, here’s a strip from It’s a Magical World (the title itself a UA) the last image of which is the cover of another of Watterson’s books:

treasure

As I go through life talking to people, watching movies, and reading books, I find myself constantly writing down UAs and a new universal assessment is growing in me faster than bamboo.  It says “there’s UAs (subset of treasure) everywhere.”  But the mark of a mediocre theorist is that they form the UA that there theory explains everything all the time.

So I’m skeptical.  I might be seeing things.  But I think I’ve made an important connection: the first debate in philosophy was over universal assessments.

In most survey history books, western philosophy begins in Athens, where Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle tutored a young Alexander of Macedon, Alex conquered the known world becoming “Great,” and Greek culture spread and dominated. The focus of these early thinkers was on how one should live.  But, outside philosophy students, many do not realize that this focus on people and society was a somewhat new topic in philosophy and represented a transition away from a prior discussion among an eclectic group now called the Pre-socratics.

These guys are overlooked for good reasons.  We know very little about them, they left behind scant literature — fragments really, and, instead of being part of a single story based in the important city of Athens, they lived in far-flung parts of the greek-speaking world.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all that we don’t talk alot about the Pre-socratics is because their major topic of conversation, and most of the conclusions they draw, strike us as silly/irrelevant.  But their not.  This week I have been thinking about the possibility that philosophy was birthed out of a desire to use reason to form UAs.

“What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos.”  — Donald Palmer in Looking at Philosophy, 2001, p. 11

Really?  The first inkling of philosophy as we know it was about characterizing existence as a whole?  To investigate, I created the following short summary of all the major Pre-socratics and all their big ideas.  These are not just their UA-related ideas.  Rather, all their big ideas seem to be UAs.  Its nuts!

Step back: the reason I thought of UAs in the first place is that I observed humans may at times treat existence as one big fat object and our relationship to that object could be both causally independent and connected to our relationship with individual objects within the universe.  It turns out that when we emerged from the cave of pre-history, we sought first to understand the wide world as one object, and only later to turn our attention to individual objects within it (after UAs, I believe the other three components of worldview are the self, others, and nature) when our initial project failed.

Locating UAs even bigger font.001

If you really want to understand how UAs fit in with other big concepts, here is Figure 1 (from my thesis) entitled “Locating Universal Assessments.”  The diagram categorizes belief types in order to visualize where UAs fit. Schemas are the largest subset; they consist of beliefs regarding any number of objects and object types, some of which can be composite. For example, a schema regarding New York City apartments might incorporate specific schemas about component parts, such as New York City bedrooms and balconies. Because the world is an exceptionally large composite object, worldview is a schema with a large number of sub-schemas regarding component parts, the four most important of which are assumed to be the self, other people, the natural world, and existence as a whole (UAs). Also, please note that because worldviews are comprehensive, no complete examples can be provided. Nonetheless, religions, historical narratives, and moral philosophies are examples of traditions or voices that can at times effectively describe much of a worldview or its major components.

Thales of Miletus, the first ever western philosopher (about 580 BC), lived on the coast of what today is Turkey.  He argued that the universe is characterized by change.  However, there is also an underlying unity, which he conjectured might be water because it is the element that is most conducive to change.  He writes, “the first principle and basic nature of all things is water” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 1966, p. 44).  For Thales, water is literally the underlying element of everything, but it is the foundation of everything because of its more abstract qualities — because, like all things, water changes and yet remains the same.   This conceptual blending of material and its associated poetic qualities is common among the Pre-socratics.  Thus their pursuit of UAs had a quasi-scientific feel to them.

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Anaximander of Miletus, a student of Thales, thought that there was something bigger and better than water underlying the four elements which he called “the boundless.”  It was unlimited, unspecific, and sought balance.  Creation itself was an imbalance that would eventually “correct” itself in the destruction of all things.  In my original thesis, I  identified “the world is declining/improving” as one of 13 UAs likely conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to “the boundless.”

Anaximenes (545 BC) and others thought “the boundless” was a useless concept — to abstact– and instead put forth air as the element underlying all things.  Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes constitute the major thinkers of the Milesian school and sought simple understandings that made sense of the universe’s complexity (Palmer, 2001).  In so doing they established a UA most of us believe to this day: the simpler answer is probably more reflective of the true nature of existence (Ockham’s Razor).   Sadly, when Persia conquered Miletus in 494 BC the Milesian school ended.

Pythagoras (572-500 BC) of Samos (island in the Aegean) thought that, instead of a physical substance, all things are numerical in nature and the universe functions according to laws and principles that is ultimately understandable and expressible through mathematics.  For example, he is attributed to have discovered the pythagorean theorem which we all learned in middle school when finding the lenghts of the sides of triangles:

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Who would have thought that the relationships between sides of triangles were so mathematically exact?  The discovery of this theorm is likely an early example of how a specific UA led to a positive outcome, in this case advances in geometry.  (Throughout history, if the reflections of the great scientists themselves are to be believed, the belief in universal orderliness and comprehensibility seems to aid, and even drive, scientific advancement.)

Pythagoras also thought that the universe was saturated by music so loud we cannot hear it.  It was produced by the movement (the idea was that all movement produced sound) of the biggest things he knew about: the 10 planets.  Usually, humans can only hear everyday sounds of individual objects.  However, sometimes we can transcend the particular and hear the universe’s vast harmonious song — the music of the spheres.  His views implies several UAs such as “the world is beautiful” and, in the case of his emphasis on mathematics, “the world is comprehensible.”  Both of these UAs I identified in my thesis as key for the development of the ‘good life.’  Another might be, “the world is interconnected.”  Pythagoras and the Dalai Lama would have gotten along I think.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (470 BC) thought fire was the basis of all things.  But his understanding was more figurative.  He thought everything was characterized by unceasing change, flux, creation, and destruction.  He writes, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright, p. 70) and “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Ring, p. 70).  The only thing that does not change is that everything changes.  The river is different the moment you step out of it.  However, this change is governed by logos, a logic, that makes the universe less than chaotic.  In this, Heraclitus’ views can be captured in several different UAs, two of which were part of my original 13: the world is malleable/unchangeable and the world is comprehensible/incomprehensible.  Another might be “the world is bad.”  Heraclitus often bemoaned how the state of the world is constantly becoming foreign.  In other words, one can never come home.  All is unfamiliar.

Heraclitus was often called the "Dark One" because his thoughts were depressing.  Cough...his UAs may lead to certain life outcomes.  : )

Heraclitus was often called the “Dark One” because his thoughts were depressing. COUGH (UAs may lead to certain life outcomes).

Parmenides (515-440 BC) was the anti-Herclitus.  He said that change is completely illusory.  In fact, “you cannot step into the same river once” because you can’t do anything at all.    Only truths and concepts exist.  They are uncreated, indestructible, eternal, and indivisible — one big Being.  There is no such thing as nothing.  There is only being.  This is similar to Aristotle’s idea, “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Zeno of Elea (490 BCE) agreed with Parmenides and came up with a series of paradoxes (Zeno’s Paradoxes) to show that change was illusory.  The universe, it turns out, is fixed (a UA) and cannot be truly comprehended via the senses but through the mind (another UA that I would call a universal policy assessment which concerns how the universe should be best dealt with).

R6Fig01

Achilles and a tortoise are racing.  Achilles, being the great warrior, gives the tortoise a head start. But, to catch up, Achilles must get to where the toroise used to be, at which point the tortoise will have moved on.  But he can only ever get to where the tortoise used to be.  Thus, Achilles can never catch up. The fact that we see fast runners overtaking slower runners just means that the senses can’t be trusted.

Zeno and Parmenides convinced many and people started to question the UA assumption that all philosophers had held.  Is the universe not reducible to one thing?  If it was reducible, change seemed likely to be illusory.  So they gave it up, monism faded, and they started composing theories that assumed the universe was composed of multiple things.

Empedocles of Acragas (440 BC…and keep in mind that all these dates are quasi bullshit) was the first pluralist.  He thought that all four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were irreducible and two forces (love and strife) moved them around.  In fact, from these UAs emerged an idea of evolution over 2,200 years before Darwin: strife and love produced all kinds of crazy creatures and mutations with three arms, four eyes, etc., “and those that could survive, did survive” (Palmer, 2001).  Empedocles put forth the UA that as a result of the cosmic war between love and strife much in the universe was left to chance.  Aristotle would later reject this notion, saying that the universe was not so characterized by randomness.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC), another pluralist, said that the world is not in some mythic struggle.  Instead, like Pythagoras, he asserted that everything is ordered according to mind and rational law (I’ve stopped noting UAs cause I feel like they all are).  These laws govern the behavior of “infinite seeds” that can be ordered in different ways to create different things.  Mind can also inhabit some of these seed constructions, which is the case with the human body.

Leucippus and Democritus (460-370 BC) were known as the atomists and they built on Anaxagoras’ idea of ‘infinite seeds.’  They said that these seeds, called “atomons,” cannot be split.  Each was a little piece of Parmedian Being (indivisible, indestructible, eternals, etc.) and the motions of these little atomons determined reality.  The universe, they thought, was fixed and deterministic.  There was no space for free will.

At this point, the pre-socratics had worn down tradition and created, on balance, confusion and uncertainty about the true reality of the universe.  In this void stepped the Sophists, who embraced the confusion, used reason to argue their points, and hired out their intellectual abilities to aid whoever could pay (they were often lawyers actually).  I’ll mention five Sophists.  First, Protagoras (490-422 BC), perhaps the most famous sophist, argued that man is the measure of all things.  Human customs, traditions, and even closely held beliefs such as UAs, were subject to expediency.  The universe should be interpreted according to the needs of humans, and that there is no ‘truth’ out there to understand except what is helpful for people.  You might say his UA is “whatever works.”  Second, Gorgias (483-375 BC) wanted to replace philosophy with rhetoric.  He argued for three truths:

  1. There is nothing.
  2. If there were anything, no one could know it.
  3. If anyone did know it, no would could communicate it.

He “proved” these points not to convince people of their truthfulness, but to convince people that searching for truth is a stupid enterprise.  If these idiotic statements can be proven, anything can.  Third, Thrasymachus argued that “justice is always in the interest of the stronger” or might makes right.  Fourth, Callicles claimed that traditional morality was the masses’ way of constraining the strong.  Therefore, the strong should throw off their shackles.  Finally, Critias, a famous tyrant, argued that fear of nonexistent gods should be used to control the masses.  (Its incredible how these ideas mirror Nietzsche’s Will to Power, nihilism, and the road to postmodernity.)  The result of the UA discussion of the pre-socratics was subjectivism, skepticism, and nihilism.  There was also a turn from the nature of the universe, which seemed out of reach, towards more immediate human concerns.  At least that might be graspable.

In this dark philosophical climate steps Socrates, who started talking constructively about what it meant to be a good person, have a good life, and live in a good society.  He talked about understanding the self (the unexamined life is not worth living) and others (Plato’s Republic).

As he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Even as he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Aristotle would also start the process of cataloguing and understanding other objects in the universe–not the forest but at least the trees.  These objects (the self, others, and nature) were tackled, it seems, only after philosophers had failed in courting their first love: understanding existence as a whole.  Of the four components of worldview, they wanted UAs first, and spent over 200 years in nearly exclusively UA-focused debate.

Of course, UAs continued to be debated.  Plato would argue that endurable and perfect ideas are the true reality and the world is a copy of it (his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, etc.) and Aristotle would argue that the world is as diverse as it appears.  And these UAs mattered: they led to different practical approaches in understanding the world (different policies towards existence are universal policy assessments).  Plato advocated for more thinking and Aristotle wanted more observation (major oversimplification of course).

But, at least for the next few hundred years, UAs became less and less important as a topic, though I can’t say much more at present.  I am now in a process, a side project, of rediscovering the history of philosophy via this UA lens and finding it fascinating.  I had no idea that understanding nature of the universe as a whole was our first philosophical pursuit and that we only moved on when we failed to find satisfying answers to the UA question.

I’ll end with this: should we ask their question again?  Unlike the sophists,  I do not believe that the universe must remain an utter mystery.  If anything I’m quite pumped to try to understand the true nature of the universe again.  Though we don’t know much, we certainly know more than we did 2,500 years ago.  (Perhaps that is how Descartes felt about his modern project.)

However, for the next few years, I’ve decided to be just Aristotle with a dash of sophism.  I want to observe and understand what UAs we hold and how they affect our lives.   This does not mean that I have given up on the truth of the matter.  Rather, thoroughly rigorous empirical research is Act I.

Act II: The Return to the Pre-socratics – what is the true nature of the universe?  Give me a decade or so and I’ll get to it.


Is my WIFE Good, and Does it Matter?

My wife pisses me off. She has made me feel stupid hundreds of times. She has this strange ability to make me cry those uber-pathetic hiccup sobs that just make me look like an idiot.

And she brings me joy. I adore her. She makes me smile and laugh more than anyone else. She loves me, expresses her affection effusively, and helps me engage in activities that make me feel alive. In fact, she brings me more joy than arguably all my other relationships combined.

Alicia, Spring of 2013, Washington DC

Alicia, Spring of 2013, Washington DC

Why am I talking about this?

In my last post, “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?” I mentioned my opinion that the world is, in fact, good, and believing so can potentially lead to a better life. Since then, a number of blog readers, such as Eddie the Erudite, have written me with questions like, “what about sin?” and “what about suffering in the world?” and, my favorite, “what about immense suckiness?” Good questions!

Eddie, “The world is good” is one example of a type of judgement I call a “universal assessment” (UA), which are overall judgements we make about the universe. Example? My friend Dan Black is writing a dissertation on 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Two days ago he told me about an assertion made by a music critic in 1987 while comparing Liszt to Wagner. “For Liszt,” the critic said, “the ‘reality’ is the divine vision; for Wagner the ‘reality’ is a cruel world.” (P. Merrick) This difference in their assessment of the world played out in the emotional valence of their musical compositions.

Before Franz Liszt died in 1886, he was a pianist, composer, and famous teacher —of Wagner and others—and a Franciscan.

Before Franz Liszt died in 1886, he was a pianist, composer, and famous teacher —of Wagner and others—and a Franciscan.

My idea is simple: our universal assessments like “the world is cruel” matter in a variety ways—even musical expression. In order to answer Eddie’s question, however, I must dive a little deeper into what UAs are exactly.

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.

Universal assessments are not simply any belief one has about the universe. A few nights ago, I got out my logic textbook from college (logic class is sexy), and remembered that one can mean at least three different things when making a statement like the “the world is good.”

Option 1: I might be saying that the entire universe is characterized by goodness (and thus nothing is bad). This is the potential meaning Eddie the Erudite found concerning. The assertion can be represented by the category statement, “All X is Y.” In fact, since we are talking about the universe, the class of “X” consists of everything that exists—you, me, the box fan that is keeping me cool as I type this, and everything else. Thus we can simplify the category statement to “All is Y” or “All is good.”

Option 2: The second meaning of “the world is good” might be that there is some unknown measure of goodness in the world. This can be represented by the category statement, “Some is Y.” This means nearly nothing. In logic, “some” can mean hardly anything or almost everything.

Option 3: If one asserts “the universe is good” they might mean something like, “Most is Y.” This is closer.

When I say, “the world is good” I want to assert that the world’s moral valence, its gist, its core, its essence, its balance, its je ne sais quoi, is good. In doing so, we have to weigh all the world’s shittiness…

  • 1.6 billion people lack a safe and healthy place to sleep at night (Habitat for Humanity Intl).
  • 870 million people in the world do not get enough food to eat.
  • The 2009 USA Reinvestment Act spent 831 billion dollars by printing money and taking out loans.
  • The West Wing has been off the air for 7 years!

…against all the world’s awesomeness.

  • 5.5 billion people slept last night in a safe and healthy place (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
  • 6.2 billion people get plenty of food to eat (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
  • For every dollar spent in the 2009 Reinvestment Act, there are nearly 100,000 trees. Seriously, according to NASA there are about 400 billion adult trees in the world. At about 200,000 leaves per tree, that is 80 thousand quadrillion leaves (real word—I looked it up—it goes billion, trillion, then quadrillion). I love leaves. They are beautiful. Each one would be mounted in places of honor if they weren’t so damn abundant.
  • I have all seven seasons of The West Wing on my computer!

These stats barely scratch the surface of what is relevant to a universal assessment, but it’s clear enough that there is vast goodness and badness in the universe. Thus asserting the existence of some goodness or some badness (option 2) in the universe is boring because it’s obviously true, and asserting that existence is 100% good or 100% bad (option 1) is boring because it’s obviously false. The interesting question instead is which side wins (option 3). What side is bigger, more weighty, or more numerous?

our earth from the moon

our earth from the moon

Sidestepping the metaphors of size, kilograms, or quantity, at the heart of a universal assessment is some sort of balance point. There is a threshold which must be achieved before a given aspect of an object becomes characteristic of that object. In forming UAs, therefore, we treat existence as a single thing and assess its defining qualities.

So, in response to Eddie the Erudite: yes, sin, suffering and ugliness are huge. But just because they are huge, does not mean they are defining. Of course it is difficult to assess a data set that is so… large.

But we do it. We do it all the time. And it matters.

I met my wife 10 years ago the very first day of college. We were close for a year and a half, dated for three and a half years, and have now been married for almost five years! This decade has created a vast army of pros — the gross tonnage of awesomeness that I see in Alicia — and a monster force of opposing cons — all the shit-tastic things she does that piss me off. In other words, my wife is a large data set. Some is good, some is bad, but what is more defining? Is my wife good? Is she worthwhile? Do I like her?

The Honeymoon Shot: Jer and Alicia, 2008, Tobermory, Canada

The Honeymoon Shot: Jer and Alicia, 2008, Tobermory, Canada

Yes. I do. Thank God! The good radically outweighs the bad. In fact, the good outweighs the bad to such an enormous extent, that I am not afraid that the bad might outweigh the good any time soon. My wife is good. Whew!

And it matters. I have no data to support this, except a violently strong feeling in my gut that reaches from my jaw to my tailbone: my “wife assessment” has an enormous effect on my relationship to her. If I imagine, even for a second, a world in which I thought my wife was an ass, I quickly see relationship dynamics slipping into aggression, resignation, and divorce.

And just kidding! Psychologists actually do have data, lots of it, to support the notion that overall beliefs about one’s significant other affects one’s relationship. In one study, thinking your partner was “perfect” correlated with relationship health and longevity (Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E. M., 2002). In another study (Showers, C. J., & Limke, A, 2006), researchers found that beliefs about a partner are related to breaking-up. And lots of work indicates that one’s overall disposition towards something affects one’s interactions with it — we make “school assessments,” “church assessments,” “friend assessments,” “job assessments,” etc., and they matter.

But I am especially excited about the comparison of “spouse assessments” for understanding UAs because: 1) Spouses are crazy personal. 2) They create an unfathomably large data set. 3) One has no idea how to “count” good and bad aspects. 4) Yet we make overall assessments of spouses all the time because we know its absolutely necessary for the health of our relationship. My own “spouse assessment,” my gut feeling about whether Alicia is in fact good or not, affects my life, and ultimately whether or not I choose to stay married. Likewise, perhaps my universal assessment affects my life, whether or not I choose to stay alive in it, and even add life to it.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. — Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus

While our own existence is thrust upon us without our consent, we can choose whether or not to pass this existence on to our possible offspring. Presumably, this choice will reflect our judgment as to the worthwhileness of existence.  — James Pawelski (my friend, professor, & thesis advisor)

Beyond suicide and procreation, perhaps my UAs also affect how I get busy living.  Will I suffer through life like a depressed spouse in an abusive relationship (world), or is there another option? Can I be head over heels in love with the universe and thankful for this gift of life? (I got chills when I wrote this.)  Is it possible to be passionately, meaningfully, and levelheadedly in love with life like I am, or try to be, with my wife? I am not sure.

We’ll see…

IMG_3872


My Life is Good for You

Next year I am going to be studying at the University of Pennsylvania in an episode of “Missionary Kid Meets Ivy League.”  I am very excited about it for many reasons, not least of which is the topic itself: positive psychology.

You probably have never heard of it.  That’s fine.  Positive psychology is a very new field which was started by Dr. Martin Seligman when he was President of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s.  He is widely seen as the father of the movement, but there are a number of other significant figures.  The Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP program) that I am in is the brainchild of Seligman.  Throughout the curriculum he brings in other leading positive psychologists from around the country.  Students come from everywhere, from all disciplines, and so there is great cross-discplinary discussion of application and theory.  Also, most of the students are already well into their professional careers.  At 27, I expect to be on the younger side (and possibly the poorer side too).  Finally, the books I am reading in preparation for my studies are already changing my life and making me happier.  This is because positive psychology is fun to learn about—and it’s powerful shit.

I have heard it explained in many ways, but I think this is best: positive psychology is the  neglected half of psychology.  Since psychology’s inception with Freud, psychology has been mostly about psychosis—how to get mentally sick people tolerably functional and how to identify disease and understand how and why it arises.  In truth, I suppose you could call conventional psychology “negative psychology,” because it focuses on the negative aspects of mental health.  In contrast, positive psychology is the study of how to make mentally sick people, as well as normal, even high-functioning people, thrive and acheive optimal well-being, contentment, and meaning.  Additionally, it aims to identify the symptoms of strengths and look at how and why they arise, and how they can be built on and expanded.  Strengths might include resilience (the art of bouncing back), patience (why some people are more patient than others), positivity, gratefulness, etc.

You might say positive psychology is trying to put some science in the world of self-help books, or more accurately the vast world of self-help books is a response to a felt need that academia has, until recently, been neglecting.  Not anymore.  Positive psychologists are making progress and getting loads of funding for lots of studies.  More and more, there are emerging simple strategies and exercises one can use to bolster and maintain high-levels of well-being.  These strategies have been tested scientifically, with double-blinds, placebo-controlled groups, and all the rest.

Science is finally looking at joy and it is about damn time.  I think it is quickly going to become a very very big deal globally.

Today, if I came up to you and said, “Holy nut buckets, I hate this toothache!  I seem to have cavities all the time now,” you might ask me if I brushed my teeth regularly.  If I said “no,” you would rightfully ostracize me a bit.

Brushing your teeth is an intervention that we have all come to accept as part of our routines and completely necessary for staving off important problems.  Similarly, I predict that some interventions that positive psychology is identifying will someday become as normal for society as brushing our teeth.  If someone is depressed, but is not “brushing their teeth” as positive psychologists would have us do, then rightly or wrongly it just won’t be culturally acceptable.

Over the next year, I will be describing some of those strategies and interventions.  Perhaps even more interesting to me, I will be struggling with enormous ethical, political, economic, philosophical, and even theological implications of positive psychology.  What is happiness?  What is the role of the church when science has a more reliable record of pointing people towards well-being?  What happens when rich people, who previously have not been much happier despite their wealth, now have access to education which can make them happier?  How do we apply positive psychology to my work in economic development and strategic planning?  What does positive psychology mean for inner-city streets and community organizing?

As I ask these questions, I hope to post about them, and maybe you can help me sort them out and benefit from what I am learning too.  I think you will find that my life is good for you.   I know it will be good for me.

This is going to be a great year!