Monday, October 29, 2012

The American Hallucination

The American Dream, New Jersey 1991, Marcel Dekker
There may be no more defining characteristic of the American identity than the so-called "American Dream", the idea of America as the land of opportunity where everyone can succeed.  This mythology, by now hundreds of years old, is as persistent as ever.  In many ways, it is an empirical question, and it is true that, as a relatively free, first-world liberal democracy, opportunity is immense.

However, there are two features required of the term opportunity.  First, it must exist as a possible avenue of action.  The opportunity to sit on the grass in a park requires there to be a park in the first place.  But second, and this is just as important, there requires the capacity in one both to desire to, as well as know how to, find the park and sit in it.  For opportunity to exist, it must be realizable objectively, as an external option, as well as subjectively, as a personal option.

In the real world, take the example of the opportunity to start a small business, the hallmark of the American Dream mythology.  Loans might be available.  Markets might be available.  But in order for the opportunity to be real, one must both have the desire and the know-how, as well as the time and energy to start it.  For many Americans, this is has been a very real, attainable opportunity.  But for many more, it has been impossible.  It isn't hard to imagine situations in which personal circumstance might prevent one, through very real obstacles, from following this path.  A single mother with childcare expenses.  Someone with a pre-existing condition for whom self-employment means losing health care coverage.

There are many for whom these kind of practical realities make the American Dream impossible.  But there is another kind of practical reality that arises from something much more complex and less talked about: personal agency.  To those without sufficient personal agency, opportunity is just as unattainable.  As an objective reality, it may exist.  But as a subjective reality, no less important, it does not.

When talking about the American Dream, and the question of opportunity, personal agency is rarely talked about explicitly.  For many, it is something that is assumed to exist in relatively equal measure among all adults.  Objective opportunity is pointed to, and its existence is assumed to be evidence that it is within the grasp of all.  The expectation is that everyone should be able to take advantage of it, and and failure to do so is simply a matter of lack of freely chosen will.

Yet there is no evidence that any such thing exists.  Wherever one looks, human behavior is driven not by free agency, but rather by complex forces of genes and environment.  Depending upon these variables, one either will or will not have the subjective capacity to take advantage of any objective opportunity that exists.

This should be obvious to every parent.  We strive to create the best possible environment within which our children might grow and develop the very best of their potential.  We know that positive environments are almost entirely determinative of future behavioral outcomes.  "Bad parenting" is defined in obvious relation to what is either "good" or "bad" for the child, profoundly effecting development - specifically their capacity for agency.

Somewhat ironically, this can be taken a step beyond.  A cascading effect occurs: "bad" parenting increases the likelihood that the child will reach maturation with a poorly developed skill-set, thus increasing the likelihood that he or she will in turn practice "bad" parenting, in turn increasingly the likelihood that their child will mature poorly, etc.  This process of cyclical, generational dysfunction is well-documented.

In Hart and Risley's classic study, Meaningful Differences, profound differences in language and cognitive development are tracked in granular detail through analyzing interaction in families of varying levels of socio-economic background.  Parent education levels correlated strongly with development of language and cognitive skills in children, which in turn varied greatly across, yet not within, socio-economic background.

In a fascinating follow-up study to Walter Mischel's study in the 1960's on child impulse control, in which children's ability to abstain from eating marshmallows found great variance in self-control as a seemingly tempermental skill, researchers recently found evidence that this skill was not nearly as innate as was once thought.  Environment was actually found to be a strong variable in a child's capacity for self-control.

This comes as no surprise given what we know about child development, and goes a long way to explaining differences in child development across socio-economic backgrounds, specifically with regard to patterns of school success across the nation.  A story emerges in which, from birth to maturation, people are heavily influenced by the environments in which they are raised.  In fact, there is little evidence that one has any capacity to transcend one's environmental or innate abilities.  The outlying cases, upon further scrutiny, always seem to turn up strong evidence of environmental factors.

And yet we seem to cling to the notion that humans can transcend the shackles of genes and environment.  The American Dream is alive and well, despite no evidence that it exists, and a great deal of evidence that it can't possibly.  All around us, we see the link between socio-economics and agency.  But, much like the faith in a God that makes no rational sense, we can't seem to let it go, even when surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

A recent episode of the news program 60 Minutes illustrated the American captivation to this mythology.  A Pakistani immigrant to America was profiled who, seemingly against the odds, through seemingly nothing but pluck and determination, built himself a hugely successful business and is now a multi-billionaire.  The schizophrenia of the American Dream mythology, clinging to its seductive charm, was on high display.  Shahid Khan was at first introduced as coming to America as a teenager from "the dusty streets of Lahore", with nothing but $500 to his name.  From this, he grew a small auto parts company into a profoundly successful enterprise.  A charismatic, jovial man, his optimistic attitude allowed him to become wealthy, proof positive of the American Dream, described as much by a Forbes cover story.

However, as the story quietly mentions, Khan wasn't quite the rags-to-riches story he is made out to be.  The son of a mathematics professor and businessman, he came to America after being accepted as an engineering major at the University of Illinoise.  As a college student in the US, he was clearly of higher socioeconomic status, despite his plaintive descriptions of washing dishes for minimum wage.  In Pakistan, far from the dusty streets, as we are shown, he rather grew up in a walled, two-story compound.  In a 3rd world country like Pakistan with nothing like a middle class, we're hardly taking about a poor kid.  Middle class - if such a thing can really be considered in Pakistan - is unlikely.  My guess is closer to the 1%.

Opportunity in America surely exists.  But in order to take advantage of it, one must first develop the requisite skill sets.  This doesn't happen on its own.  It takes a concerted effort of numerous environmental factors.  Social inequality translates into developmental inequality, and inequality of opportunity.  An American Dream that does not account for this is nothing but a fantasy.  Instead, maybe the American Dream ought to be a vision for all of us to do better, to reduce inequality not just of opportunity but of development of capacity to take advantage of opportunity.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Future Dishwashers of America

I teach the messed up kids.  OK, not all of them are messed up.  But a much higher portion of them are in my classes, as I teach subjects that, although core curriculum, are generally not college-track.  These are the kids that don't do their work, talk too much, have little interest in school as a priority.  Instead of taking notes, they like to break pencils and make jokes with their friends.  Anything they can do to disrupt the lesson and distract the teacher means less time spent focusing on school work.  These are students for whom passing the class with a bare-minimum D is all that matters.

Some of them are angry and mean.  But most are nice enough.  They just hate school.  Some of them truly struggle with reading and writing, and repeated failure has made them frustrated and bitter.  But most simply lack the "grit" to succeed; they cannot stay focused and often give up on completing even the simplest of tasks.

While they comprise maybe half the students in each of the subjects I teach, the other half of the students are generally hard working and genuinely interested in getting a good grade, respecting the class rules, the teacher, and their fellow students.  Many of them struggle as well with reading and writing, but unlike the failing students, they have the grit and determination that the others lack.

I am deeply convinced that the polarization in America today among liberal and conservative outlooks can be boiled down to how we view the nature of human choice, and the process of human development.

A local business woman in my neighborhood like to place bold right-wing slogans in large print in the windows of her dress shop.  Her most recent was "The government didn't build my business, I DID!", an obvious reference to the Republican campaign attack on Obama's speech in which he argued that government and social infrastructure is integral to a successful economy.  An obvious rejoinder to her slogan would be to point out that her business relied on everything from the clean streets and stoplights outside her doors, to public school and post office up the street, to the parks and libraries across town, to the well-regulated, quality neighborhood buildings, clean water, police patrolled safe streets, firefighters putting out fires, interstate highways bringing her goods, etc.

But at a deeper level, her impulse is representative of conservatism's emphasis on individual responsibility, and the corollary claim that people get what they deserve because of the choices they make.  She worked hard to build her business, and shouldn't have to pay for government expenditures on those who maybe made poor choices.  She was never (in her mind, infrastructure aside) looking for a "handout".

I recently had a conversation with a fellow teacher, an older Republican guy, who himself has taught these very same "gritless" students, who make poor choices on a daily basis, have misplaced priorities, and will statistically go on to live lives of poverty and likely dysfunction.  Many will drop out, many will resort to substance abuse, many will end up in prison.  Most will simply live out their lives in poor desperation, creating broken homes and generally living with high levels of stress and exhaustion.  "I tell my students," he said to me, "don't hate wealthy people.  They worked hard.  You can be wealthy too.  Just do your work.  Go to college."  It's a good message, but its optimism somewhat deceptively hides an ugly truth.

To conservatism, people have no one to blame but themselves.  They could have studied harder.  They could have put their own pain aside.  They could have reached down deeper, focused harder, sacrificed more, and put in the work to become successful.  History, they'll remind us, is filled with examples of people who have come from little, faced enormous odds, and found a way to overcome.

Yet these are exceptions.  I see it daily with my students.  Many of them have terrible stories, and yet they manage to buckle down and keep pushing to success.  But the vast majority of those who truly face disadvantages - broken homes, negligent parents, wayward peers, etc. - do not find success.  For them, the best they can do, amid the multitude of teenage distractions, is keep their head above water, struggling to complete just enough assignments to pass their classes by a hair.

So what is it about the exceptions, those who diligently do their work and seem to have a vision for themselves of a better life, that is different?  With 130 students, it is impossible to know all of their stories.  But there are many clues.  They tend to have more supportive parents.  They are more mature.  They tend to have a quietness about them that speaks to lower levels of stress coursing through their brains.  They are often preternaturally more introverted, more academically oriented, seeing a definition of self in terms of intellectual, rather than social pursuits.  They have a better sense of self-esteem, not feeling the need to measure themselves up against others through constant attention seeking.

In poor, disadvantaged, broken communities, seeking external validation means adopting what are often destructive and unhealthy norms.  Internal validation, unlike external validation which is subjective, and a constantly moving target, is more objective.  It gives one reliable, immediate feedback against intrinsically rewarding goals that are self-reinforcing.  Making art, reading books, playing sports, getting good grades involve the building of skills that are not only easily identifiable but progressive and generally highly valued by wider society outside of the local, dysfunctional community - especially that of superficial and status-driven teenagehood.  And in a poor neighborhood, where so many peers are going to have lower capital and developing dysfunctional coping mechanisms, external validation is a constant driver of community destruction.

It is hard to disentangle the genetic and environmental factors in either students who manage to "rise above", or those who do not.  But it is undeniable that it is developmental forces that have created them.  They cannot be said to be "making their own choices" in a sense in which their actions can be separated from their background, life-experiences and temperament.  Whether at 16, 12, 7 or 5, each student has a specific developmental history that is entirely dependent on his own genetic and environmental story.

When zooming out to a larger, macro social level, the pattern is all the more distinct.  Socio-economics is completely determinative of a student population's exhibition of successful or unsuccessful characteristics.  At schools in which parents are better educated, have better jobs, and whose families are more intact, the student populations will always be much more mature, have more self-control and emotional management, have better world knowledge, better cognitive skills, better academic performance.

Can these students be said to "choose" their developmental abilities?  Can they in elementary school?  Middle school?  High school?  They can't choose their genes or their environment.  They cannot be said to have chosen their development of emotional and cognitive skills.

So how can they be said to "choose" their ability to act beyond their developmental capacity?  How can they be said to possess the ability to have more self-control than they do?  How can they be said to have the ability to choose to have more intrinsic than extrinsic motivation?  How can they be said to have the ability to be more loving and compassionate than they know how to be?

There is a classic Mad TV skit in which Bob Newhart plays a therapist whose basic technique is to simply tell his patients, "Stop it!  Stop doing it!"
While there is some truth to the notion that such simple advice can be effective in certain situations, the basic premise, that all manner of psychodynamic and developmental patterns of conscious behavior can be reduced to such a simplistic either or choice, is absurd.  Over 100 years of psychological research, as well as the burgeoning field of neuroscience provides ample evidence that such a view is laughably naive.  Equally, social science research into the enormous variety of factors that contribute to the ways we end up living our lives paints the same picture at a social level.  If it were so simple, nearly all social problems would be neatly resolved, billions of dollars and countless hours of productivity would be spared.  Nothing less than world peace would be accomplished by the simple admonishment, "Stop it."

Who could believe such a silly notion.  Well, conservatives, for one.  Again and again, this basic premise underlies many forms of conservative rhetoric.  I built it.  I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.  I played by the rules.  I worked hard.  I never asked for a handout.  I abstained from sex.  I never did drugs (or if I did, I quit on my own).  I studied hard in school.  I never needed anyone's help.  I found God.  It isn't easy, but one faces a choice between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.  You have no one to blame but yourself.

All of this sounds good.  And these are mostly good words to live by.  But, even though they feel true, they aren't.  The choices we make seem simple at the time, but our ability to make them is dependent both on a lifetime of development as well as the specific situation we find ourselves in at any given time.  Even though feel as though, at any given point in time, we are completely free - seemingly omnipotent - agents of every choice we make, we are just the opposite.  We are merely the conduits, second by fleeting second, of all that has gone before, into all that will come to be.

This is a profound perspective.  The absence of free will, classically defined, strikes many as utterly contrary to common sense.  But, just as it was once common sense to believe the Sun circled the earth once a day, once the evidence is gathered, and the theory becomes better supported by fact, it is increasingly understood with a "new common sense".

There are a number of claims made in opposition to the notion that we do not have free will, but they are rather easily dispatched.  The first claim is often that this leads to fatalism; if we are mere conduits of time and biology, then what is our purpose?  Well, what purpose is there anyway?  Any evidence of purpose with free will is the same without.  This is because although we may be conduits, our brains have evolved a consciousness that is dependent on a model of ourselves as agents, functioning within a limited range of knowledge of choice at any given moment.  There is a vast, incomprehensible reservoir of stimulus operating on every conscious thought that arises within us.  We will only ever be capable of understanding a small fraction of it, and most of us will spend the majority of our days not giving it a second thought.  In fact, one of the strengths of consciousness is the ability not to get caught up in self-reflection and over-analysis of one every thought.  Many mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety , are actually marked by a tendency to over-think one's problems, real or imagined.  People with a capacity for minimal self-reflection can often be much more successful, focusing only on the positive aspects of life, as opposed to both the positive as well as the negative.  In general, while we do not have free will, we cannot but act as though we do have it.  We are thus subject to the same pleasures and pains that would drive our behavior and give us purpose regardless.

A second common claim against the idea that we don't have free will is that personal responsibility would disappear, and we would thus have no mechanism for justice or social order; people would be free to do what they wish, with no accountability, being as they could no longer be considered free actors.  The first part of this claim is certainly true; personal responsibility, in the sense that one could have done differently, does disappear.  But the latter does not follow, that social order would break down.  The concepts of deterrence and reward would still apply, as would the utilitarian notion of protecting society from the dangerous among us.  Interestingly, the concept of deterrence and reward are actually behavioral concepts that rely on an certain absence of free will; if one truly has free will, at least the psychological effects deterrence and reward would not exist.  Obviously, they do.  We do not have to believe that one could have done otherwise to allow the intelligent and hard-working to be rewarded for their productivity.  But we would acknowledge that their ability to work hard and apply their highly developed cognition and self-control was not consciously made, but rather the product of genetic and social forces that created in them the capacity for behavior that society holds in high regard.  Likewise, we do not have to believe one could have done otherwise to punish criminal behavior, or provide more limited pay to those who have only developed limited cognitive capacity, or the capacity for much self-control.  But we would acknowledge in them as well the centrality of genetic and social forces, and thus ensure that their lives are as meaningful and dignified as possible.

I can't simply tell my students to "Stop it!"  Although I certainly do, on a daily, hourly basis.  But I am merely one behavioral mechanism in their river of development.  With the current level of resources at the disposal of government, acting as an agent for larger social policy, one teacher can only do so much.  When my students leave my classroom, when they leave my school, they will return to the environment that created them.

In a recent conversation with a couple of well-intentioned, yet struggling students, I was described home lives that were developmentally crushing.  One child described being yanked about by a father high on methamphetamines.  His later conflict with a step-father drove him to rebellion in middle school.  To this day he struggles to find his priorities.  All day long, his teachers have told him to "Stop it!"  But after talking with me, the next day something in him beamed with intrinsic desire to be successful.  He needed me to listen to him.  It was by no means everything he needs, but it was a start.  Another student told me everyone in his family has been to prison (likely for drugs).  He does no work in school, and spoke of being depressed.  But he has never wanted to do drugs himself, seeing how it affected his family.  After we spoke, he too expressed an interest in finally doing enough work to at least pass the class.  He told me he felt like none of his other teachers listened to him.  They were probably too busy telling him to Stop it!  In a classroom of 30 students, there isn't much time for anything else.

If a student doesn't work hard in school, his prospects for success in life are severely dimmed.  Society is rife with inequality.  Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to remain disadvantaged.  Those from privileged backgrounds are much more likely to remain privileged. 

In a recent column, Steven Pinker described how conservative thinkers such as Thomas Sowell and David Pinker characterize the right-wing view of humanity as having
a Tragic Vision of human nature, in which people are permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason. Human beings are perennially tempted by aggression, which can be prevented only by the deterrence of a strong military, of citizens resolved to defend themselves and of the prospect of harsh criminal punishment. No central planner is wise or knowledgeable enough to manage an entire economy, which is better left to the invisible hand of the market, in which intelligence is distributed across a network of hundreds of millions of individuals implicitly transmitting information about scarcity and abundance through the prices they negotiate. Humanity is always in danger of backsliding into barbarism, so we should respect customs in sexuality, religion and public propriety, even if no one can articulate their rationale, because they are time-tested workarounds for our innate shortcomings.
This Tragic Vision might also be summed up as the Stop it! vision; the choice between hard-work and sloth, barbarism and civilization, sin and sainthood, comes down to a simple choice.  The simplicity of the choice implies an ease which needs to complex social science or psychology to understand: that who make the wrong one have made a choice and thus must face the consequences.  In this vision, inequality is not structural, but rather personal.  Thus, it dismisses any sense of collective culpability, either in contributing to the original inequality, or the failure to adequately correct for it.

The Tragic Vision is built upon intuitions, and denies mountains of scientific evidence that paint a far more complex and nuanced picture of social structure and human development.  It appeals to a certain kind of common sense about the degree of power one has over his own life.  It appeals to basic human emotions about wrong-doing and causality, where the person-hood of others is understood to be the rough equivalent of ourselves, and imagined to be operating within a similar context of agency; if I were you, I would Stop it!  So why can't you?  It appeals to a sense that humans all have roughly the same capacity for action, regardless of genes or environment.  It denies the complexity of human behavior, and the facts we know about development.  It supports the status quo, where millions of Americans who grew up poor are imprisoned, addicted to drugs, or raising children by themselves, their children statistically destined to repeat the story of their parents.  It supports the status quo, where the millions of wealthy and middle class Americans grew up in educated, intact families from nice neighborhoods, with health insurance and safe childhoods filled with enrichment and positive stimulation.  It supports the notion of "I got mine, and I don't have to care about you", by pretending that "you can to" because developmental capacity doesn't matter.

This is the essential underlying belief of the Republican party, who in the current election are enjoying the support of 50% of American voters.  This is what half of the country believes.  According to them, the rich deserve to be rich because they knew how to Stop it!, and the low-skilled, low-income workers deserve to be poor as long as they continue to refuse to Stop it!  As long as this particular brand of common sense, this intuition unrestrained by fact, this unscientific fantasy, is alive and well in America, there will be no hope for my struggling students, who clearly don't possess the capacity to do better in school, despite what some of their teachers, voters and politicians continue to assume about them.  And that is a truly tragic vision.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Unicorn Politics

Virgin and Unicorn, Domenichino (1605)
One of the fundamental disagreements in politics today is over the degree to which society can afford to spend tax dollars on social goods.  In some areas, such as welfare or food stamps, it is argued that the spending itself is counter-productive because it promotes negative behavior; it promotes dependency instead of forcing people to create their own productivity.

But in most areas, government spending isn't argued to be promoting bad behavior.  Instead, it is simply argued to be a luxury we cannot afford.  Things like bridges (such as the project New Jersey Governor Chris Christie famously axed "because we can't afford it"), schools, libraries, parks, police, firefighters, social security or medicare are all forms of government spending that nearly everyone supports.  Yet while they are valued, it is argued that they must be limited because we cannot afford them.  As Mitt Romney famously said, "I love Big Bird... but I don't want to borrow from China to pay for him".

So, is our fate then, according to those with this view, to live in a chronically underfunded state, with over-crowded classrooms, dilapidated libraries and parks, inadequate roads and bridges, clogged courts, and thinly stretched police forces, and denial of health care and social security to millions of seniors?

Here's where we get into the realm of unicorn politics.  Depending on which brilliant economist you ask, the government can either afford these things or it cannot.  Some will say that, like many Western countries, we can have all of these things through better regulations and higher taxes.  Others will say that more regulations and higher taxes will only inhibit growth, reducing the tax base even further and limiting our ability to spend.  The details are enormously complex, and it is nearly impossible for a layperson to realistically discriminate between the competing perspectives.  "Common sense" is irrelevant to such complexity.

So what do we do?  We have faith in our own intuitions.  We all have basic moral instincts about the role of government and social justice, what is fair.  For instance, if you tend to feel that one's income and net-worth is an accurate expression of his real worth - how hard he has worked and what he thus justly deserves - then you are more likely to feel that asking him to pay more of his money in taxes for the good of the rest of society is unfair and immoral.  If you feel that his income and net-worth have been determined not only by his hard work but by larger social forces that have enabled him to attain more wealth at the expense of others, then you are more likely to feel that he ought to pay a higher tax rate back to the society in which has privileged him so.

Unpacking the mechanics of these two very different assessments is complicated.  Serious economic and sociological arguments can be made to support either, but much of it seems to be intuition about one's fellow man.  Asking someone why they are a liberal or a conservative rather than vice-versa, is akin to asking a Catholic why they are not a Protestant, or for that matter a Muslim or Hindu.

To what extent do we simply have intuitions about what is fair, and then find post hoc rationalizations to make them fit into something that feels reasonable?  Sure, I can (and regularly do, on this blog) make a compelling case for why my perspective is based more on reality than on mythology.  But to what extent is the unicorn grazing beside my eloquence?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Letting the Light In

According to Wikipedia, the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias works thusly:
[it] is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).
We see this both on the left and right, as especially partisan liberals and conservatives often seem immune to facts.  The stories they tell, their ideological narratives seem both lacking in nuance and introspection.  In the Bush administration, the president was evil incarnate, a racist xenophobe intent on establishing a Born-Again Christian Caliphate.  Today, the president is a Socialist Muslim.  In both cases, policy objections are based on legitimate political and social philosophies.  Yet these deeper convictions become buried in unserious, often outright untrue and tribal attacks.

So, where does this come from?  It seems to be a cognitive style, and one that can be consciously guarded against.  If my view on an issue is quite strong, confirmation bias theory would predict that I would be more accepting of facts that seem to support it, and less accepting of facts that seem to contradict it.  Positive facts will reinforce my pre-existing narrative, as I will remember and incorporate them into my story.  Negative facts, on the other hand, will be more likely to be dismissed and forgotten. 

No one wants to be biased.  They want to be thinking clearly, bravely adjusting their beliefs according to evidence and reality, not illusion.  Yet given the universal nature of biased thought, and its terribly insidious nature, we must all admit that it is an unavoidable part of being a thinking human.  Because of its unconscious nature, unless we are actively setting ourselves on guard against it, recognizing its patterns in our own cognitive habits, its work will go unnoticed.  Daniel Kahneman talks about fast and slow thinking, in which most of our thought - conscious as though it appears to be at first glance - is actually being prepared in a largely unconscious manner, cooked up in the hidden kitchens of our primal brain, our conscious perception of it only served up as a final product at the last second.  Studies have shown that these pre-conscious, pre-formed thoughts actually begin their creation up to multiple minutes before they reach consciousness.  Yet our awareness of them feels instantaneous. 

One of the remarkable feats of he human mind is its ability to simulate multiple orders of consciousness.  Not only can we self-reflect on our own person-hood, we can imagine in others a model of person-hood.  We can assume, for instance, that if a piece of sweets tastes good to us, another person would also find it delicious.  We can then take this further, and imagine that another person has the same capacity, and imagine in them an ability to anticipate the response of a third party.  In his book, Unconscious, Leonard Mlodinov describes how writers often do an amazing set of mental gymnastics in not only imagining their reader's perspective, but imagining their reader's imagining of the story's narrator's perspective, and in turn of the perspective of the characters in the book.  Quite a hall of mirrors.

This capacity for imagining the other, maybe loosely described as empathy, is generally a highly-valued human trait, begetting wisdom and fostering trust and authority.  What more do we often desire in others than their ability to understand, to "get" us? 

And it is difficult.  As similar as most humans are, our different cultures foster different experiences.  Our different personalities and temperaments find us emerging as often quite dissimilar.  This can make empathy hard to develop.  Imagining second, third and fourth order personhood is often utterly impossible.  If we cannot understand another, to get into his mind and imagine life from behind his eyes, how can we imagine how he might imagine what lies behind our own?  How strange we must seem to him?  How might the extrovert imagine the world of an introvert, and how might the extrovert imagine an introvert might perceive him?

In learning theory, new thoughts, ideas and facts are more likely to be retained if they are placed within context of one's prior knowledge.  New information is more readily incorporated into old if there is a context within which new connections can be made. If one is unable to develop even second order empathy with sufficient accuracy with another, how is one to incorporate their ideas into their own? 

If every one was the same, it would be rather easy to accomplish this task.  This explains why we so enjoy hanging around people who are similar to us, who see things the way we do.  All we have to do is imagine what we would think if we were them, and - presto! - we get a fairly accurate idea of what they might be thinking.  When we meet someone of sufficiently different personality, culture or temperament, our capacity for empathy is suddenly lost.  Climbing into the space behind their eyes, it is as if we are climbing into the abyss.  Their words come at us as if from the darkness, attached to nothing we can relate to in our own experience.

Politics is the process of sharing power.  When we engage in political thought we are not only developing our own responses to how we want to shape society, but at the same time developing our response to the desire of others to shape society as they see fit.  If we believe that truth and facts are essential to shaping a society that is good, fair and just, then we must seek the most honest accounting possible of whence our ideas come.  Because we have no alternative but to rely on second, third, etc. imaginings of person-hood, we must endeavor to develop empathy with constant vigilance.

Unfortunately, this process is not only difficult when attempted with conscious purpose, it is hard to remember to attempt in the first place.  Therefore we must develop it as a cognitive habit.  In order to truly see the world as others see it, our minds must be as open as possible.

A number of obstacles stand in the way of developing an empathetic imagination.  As we saw earlier, confirmation bias makes empathy difficult from the outset, keeping us from being open to new ideas.  The more rigid we are, the more prone to reinforcement of preconceptions, even if the preconceptions are wrong.  If we surround ourselves only with those who think like us, we may feel more comfortable emotionally, and feel less taxed by the process of having to constantly negotiate unfamiliar personhoods.  Engaging with those who have very different and contradictory sets of values and beliefs can often leave one feeling numerous negative emotions such as frustration, confusion, anger and even sadness.

So it makes sense for us to choose to spend our time with those with whom we feel a kinship.  Yet what then to do when we are faced with political thought that has direct bearing on the society we all share?  If we cannot bear to actually be friends with others who see the world so differently, how are we ever to understand them well enough to experience their truth?

I think much of the answer lies in developing a cognitive style that is able to both and give and to receive political thought that is purposefully open-minded and attune to natural proclivities towards bias, not just in others but in ourselves.  We must in a sense develop our own second-order person-hood that resides within ourselves and exists in constant dialogue with new thought.  Much like an objective moderator of a debate, this "person" acts as an impartial arbiter of truth not by pronouncing on the accuracy of a given thought, but rather as a referee who's job it is to be on the look out for bias and other forms of mental laziness.

In order to develop such a cognitive style, however, one must expend extra time and mental energy.  This type of thinking is necessarily "slow" - it requires not just thinking the first-order thought, but performing the calculations for the second-order construct, and then in turn processing it and incorporating it into the original ideation.  In much of daily life it simply isn't practical; decisions and responses must occur more rapidly than time for sufficient second-order processing might allow. 

Fortunately, through sustained development, this type of slow-thinking cognition becomes more adept and itself becomes a piece of first-order thinking.  That is, it becomes less and less conscious.  New ideas are sent directly to this kind of "quality control" for processing as matter of course.  As we age and develop, we all become wiser; children have limited capacity for second-order thinking (however this is an important skill that can be fostered to a great degree in the earliest years).  When we think of "wisdom", what we generally envision is both an incorporation of slow thought processing such that it is nearly automatic, but at the same time a patient vigilance towards steady observation of nuance.  The more you know, the wise phrase goes, the less you know.

But how much of a role does ideology play a role in one's development of cognitive style?  As mentioned previously, both the left and the right have their share of fast-thinkers, both with a subsequent array of embarrassingly retarded ideas.  Yet the two ideologies seem to directly engender different levels of cognitive processing.  The left seems in many ways to be almost designed for slow-thinking, while the right does not.  One would think that this would not be something to be proud of, however the right actually promotes itself, and denigrates the left, as being just so. 

Right-wing critiques of the left are often that it is too open-minded, "relativist", or tolerant.  These are seen as weaknesses.  The left is seen as being too compassionate, too forgiving, too willing to cooperate with others, to let down its defenses and accept others.  These are all critiques that, at their core, are about empathy, or second and third-order thinking.  When Supreme Court Justice Sotomeyer was in the nomination process, Obama's publicly stated desire for a judge with "empathy" was pounced on by conservative critics as emblematic of everything wrong with liberalism. 

There is a reason religious fundamentalists are right-wing, not left-wing.  They are enormously rigid.  They see the world in black and white.  They abhor nuance and embrace literalism.  Their main cause is protecting what is traditional, preserving what is known and familiar. 

Progressivism is anathema to this state of mind.  It seeks to challenge existing dogmas and the concept of "common sense".  It promotes the new, the process of change, the deconstruction of old ideas and the concept of reinvention.  It embraces nuance and reinterpretation.  It abhors literalism and revels in the unknown and unfamiliar.

Of course, these are two poles, and most of us are somewhere between them.  But the driving impulses are real enough, and inform both ideological perspectives.  And both have serious implications for one's cognitive style.  The degree to which one embraces nuance, relativism, change and challenges to existing paradigms, one will be more comfortable with slow thinking.  The degree to which one embraces rigidity, literalism, tradition and conformity, one will be less comfortable with slow-thinking.

In this sense, one's degree of bias is built-in to their political ideology.  Liberals will indeed be more biased to the degree to which they, whether consciously or not, adopt the right-wing principles of rigidity and conformity.  Conservatives will be less biased to the degree to which they adopt left-wing principles of change, nuance and relativity.

All of us, if we agree that knowing truth is dependent on seeing reality - and seeing our own seeing of reality - from as many angles as possible, will endeavor to be vigilant against mental laziness and cognitive bias, to open our minds and let the light in.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fixing Poverty through Pharmaceuticals

An article in the NY Times this morning describes the growing trend to treat poor children with medication to modify their behavior at school.  It presents a doctor's and parents point of view that when a child is failing academically because of his behavior, there is little they feel they can do.  They have a point.

The achievement gap in education is about poverty, not teaching. Poor kids have much higher needs, due to a wide variety of circumstances correlated with poverty. Race to the top and NCLB, teacher accountability, test scores, etc. have done nothing to differentiate the classroom environment for them. They need smaller classes, more attention, more mentoring and nurturance. Requiring them to conform to behavioral expectations designed for middle class children sets them up for failure.

The sooner we as a society recognize this, and begin to put into place targeted, specialized support systems that identify and provide these children adequate environments that are responsive to their emotional and behavioral needs, the less drugs we'll need and better academic outcomes we'll see.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Quick Debate Thoughts...

Understanding the true effect of the debate probably requires removing everything you know about policy, political philosophy, and most actual facts.  Voters in the middle seem to have little interest in any of that.   I think Romney's performance was appealing in that he seemed level-headed, passionate about his alternative to Obama, and smart.  I think all the policy stuff is irrelevant to swing voters, who likely are going to go with who "felt" better.  On this measure, Romney came off as a fresh challenge to Obama, who looked tired and weakened by what these voters might just view as his failures.