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Walter Mischel: Marshmallow Man

By Shlomo Maital

Walter Mischel…

..and the marshmallow


On Sept. 12, psychologist Walter Mischel passed away, in New York City. He was 88.

Mischel became famous for what was known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. He designed a series of studies, on “ability (or willingness) to defer gratification”.   In them, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately (a marshmallow) or two small rewards (two marshmallows) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned.  

   Mischel and colleagues, in follow-up studies, found that children who were able to wait longer for the delayed rewards tended to have better life outcomes – better SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures. The logic here is simple. Achieving good results later in life demands investing effort, sacrifice and pleasure now, today. Those good at this will excel.  It is a skill imparted, in part, by parents, and improves with practice.

     Mischel fled with his family from Austria, with the rise of the Nazis, at age 6. He taught at Stanford for years, and later at Columbia.   He joined the legions of scholars who came to America as immigrants and made huge contributions to America’s scientific research and academic excellence.

       Mischel’s research is hugely relevant for today’s society. Western nations have as a whole become unable and unwilling to defer gratification. Gas lines explode in Massachusetts; bridges collapse in Genoa, Italy. Western countries seem unable to save and invest in the future, preferring present gratification.   A majority of Americans could not scrape together $400 in cash, in an emergency. The Great Divide between have-nots and millionaire/billionaires is spurring a rise of anti-democratic extreme right-wing political parties and leaders. It is ironic that the forces that led Mischel to America, have in part followed him there.



Hidden Racism: Causes and Cures

By Shlomo Maital


   How do you measure racist attitudes? Certainly, not by asking people if they dislike blacks, Jews, Arabs, Muslims or gays. People mostly know there is social disapproval for such attitudes and answer according to the norm, rather than their own intrinsic belief.

   One approach is known as the IAT – implicit association test. How does it work? On an open website, people are asked to sort faces (black and white) according to descriptions pertaining to “good” and “bad”. The decision is taken quickly, without conscious thinking. It was developed by a social psychologist named Anthony Greenwald about 20 years ago.

   The implicit-association test (IAT) is a measure within social psychology designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory. …. the Race IAT shows that more than 70% of individuals have an implicit preference for Whites over Blacks. On the other hand, only half of Black individuals prefer Blacks over Whites.   Similarly, the Age IAT generally shows that most individuals have an implicit preference for young over old, regardless of the age of the person taking the IAT.

   The IAT is part of Harvard University Project Implicit, which investigates thoughts and feelings that are largely outside of active awareness or control.  The key point here is powerful: Racism and other forms of hatred and discrimination are based primarily not on conscious thought, as per white supremacists, but unconscious attitudes driven by the social milieu and context. Perhaps this is why racism remains endemic in most societies, long after laws have become more equal for all.

     If this is so – can such racism be overcome? Can an individual overcome it, if it is in the air we breathe?   The answer is, yes, given time. Decisions taken rapidly, are driven by the limbic brain. Decisions taken thoughtfully are driven by a cognitive conscious process. Research shows, if police (as in Dever, Colorado) can take even a few seconds to think, consider, and judge, actions driven by subconscious racism can be corrected and made more equal.

     I myself am an example. I consider myself liberal, and try hard every day to respect every single person I encounter, whatever their race, religion, creed or age. Yet, recently, in a workshop I led for high school teachers, I had a participant who wore a hijab, a Muslim head covering worn by women.   “Salima” (pseudonym), I assumed instantly, would not contribute much to the Workshop. This was my subconscious speaking. That wrong racist first impression was corrected rapidly. It emerged that Salima was a Technion graduate in chemical engineering, and was the most brilliant of my Workshop participants. She contributed immensely.

     Most enlightened people strongly deny they have racist beliefs. Yet, we live in society, and society has racist beliefs. So it is hard for individuals to escape them, especially when they are ‘underground’, subterranean. The IAT tells us to be aware of the underground forces and to use our cognition to control and alter them.

Why a Bloody Pogrom in 1903

Gave Me Life in 1942

By Shlomo Maital

   The word “pogrom” is a Russian word, usually applied to anti-Jewish violence in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

     Today’s New York Times has a review of a new book by Stanford University historian Steven J. Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. The review reminded me that the reason I am alive, on this earth, is because of this horrendous pogrom.

      On Easter in 1903, mobs of anti-Semites tore through the Jewish section of Kishinev, a provincial town on the western edge of the Russian empire. In just 1 1/2 days, in a cluster of streets and alleyways, they murdered 49 Jews, raped scores of women and girls, ransacked stores and homes, and shredded the sacred Torah. Many children were killed. That event came to define “pogrom” — a word derived from the Russian for thunderstorm — and to represent the worst horrors perpetrated against Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.   Its reverberations would reshape the image of czarist Russia, alter U.S. immigration policy, bring Jews into the Russian revolutionary movement and even help launch the NAACP.   “It was a moment,” Stanford historian Steven J. Zipperstein writes, “that cast a shadow so deep, wide and variegated as to leave its imprint on Jews, on Jew-haters, and on wounds licked ever since.”

  My late mother was born in 1909, six years after the pogrom, in a small rural Jewish village, Dombroven, in Bessarabia, 300 kms. (180 miles) from Kishinev. (Bessarabia is now called Moldova, and It is the poorest nation in Europe). My father was also born in Dombroven, in 1904, just after the pogrom.

   The pogrom made it clear to the Jews of Dombroven that they had no future there. This, even though Dombroven had a small Jewish militia that circled the village at night and guarded it from the marauding Cossacks. My grandfather Israel, my father’s father, left for America. His mission: Raise money to bring the family over. (The Kishinev pogrom, as Zipperstein notes, did help open the immigration doors of both Canada and the US). He worked very hard, even though he was a Talmud scholar by nature, and made enough money to pay for the family’s passage. He missed his family terribly. He sent the money by mail – and it was lost in transit when World War I broke out, in 1914. My grandfather died in Pittsburgh in 1918, during the global influenza epidemic. I believe he simply died of a broken heart. I once searched for and found his grave, up on the old Jewish cemetary on Mt. Liberty.  I am named (Yisrael Shlomo) for him.  

   So, with my grandmother Rivka a widow, it was up to my father, the oldest, to make the journey to Canada. He left in 1920; he was only 16. Grandmother Rivka insisted that he take his sister, Dora, age 12 with him. The two young people were stranded for an entire winter in Antwerp, because Canadian immigration claimed my father had an eye disease (he didn’t). In the Spring, the Jewish community in Antwerp helped, arranged a visa, and the pair left for Canada by ship, landing in Montreal, and travelling by train to Regina, Saskatchewan, where relatives had settled earlier. My mother had emigrated earlier to Canada, with her mother and father, in 1910, when she was only a year old.

   Many Jewish people did not emigrate. They were wiped out by the Nazis during World War II.   So, my mother and father, grandmother Rivka, grandfather David, and grandmother Sassi Feige, and aunts and uncles, were saved because the pogrom made them desperate to migrate, and because Canada and the US welcomed them, partly as a result of the widely publicized bloody pogrom.

   How terrible was the 1903 Kishinev pogram? Israel’s national poet Haim Nachman Bialik, who at the time lived nearby, in Odessa, (now Ukraine), wrote a poem, The Slaughter, about the pogrom, including these striking last lines: “A curse on any who says, Avenge this! For revenge for the blood of a child, Satan himself has not yet invented”.

  I was born in Regina, Sask., in 1942. Had my father not made the perilous journey to Canada, with his little sister, and had he not survived that awful cold winter in Antwerp, I would not be here.

       Every time I read about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, or children torn from their migrant mothers and fathers in Texas, or Syrians bombed and gassed, or Israel trying to expel Eritreans and Sudanese against their will, I feel deep physical pain. I can only believe that there is a punishment for those who mistreat hapless homeless migrants, and that one day, somehow, it will be meted out with justice.




Working Hypothesis That Changed My Life:

Every Problem Has a Solution

By Shlomo Maital

   I have written another book on creativity: Dismantle! How to Deconstruct Your Mind and Build a Personal Creativity Machine. It will be published by Harper Collins (India) in October. Why India? I’ve discovered Indian publishers are superb at editing and printing books and the market price is a fraction of that in the US. Besides, Indian people still do read books.

   Here is the opening prologue of my book. It makes a point that I learned from a former student and co-author Arie Ruttenberg: Creativity is widening the range of choice. You always have a choice. Every problem does have a creative solution. But only if you first believe that – and begin your search. This principle has changed my life. Perhaps it can change yours?

     If you are like me, you tend to skip through non-fiction books rather quickly, searching for the essence and picking the ripe ‘cherries’ from the tree, when most of the ‘fruit’ in the book is not yet ripe or relevant or interesting or non-obvious.

   Here, then, is a quick overview of this book. As you read on, please feel free to cherry-pick.

     But before we begin our journey to re-energized creativity, I’d like to emphasize a key point—literally, the key to unlocking your creative skills.

     Scientific research begins with a hypothesis—a supposition about what the research may reveal. For example, a scientist sought to find the number of neurons (brain cells) in the human brain, starting off with the assumption that the number was 100 billion; that was the commonly believed number. The assumption was false. It turned out that there are 86 billion neurons in the brain.  

     We all make assumptions. Most of the time they are hidden, ill-defined and below the threshold of our awareness.   When we tackle hard problems we often harbour a hidden assumption, such as, ‘there is no solution to this’, and come to the conclusion: Live with it, as is.    

       Humans are wonderfully resilient and are skilled at adapting and adjusting to difficulties and unmet needs. This resilience, or acceptance, is a highly positive quality. But it also can be harmful.

         I urge every reader to embrace a very different hypothesis. I would like my readers to assume that for every challenge, every problem, every unmet need and unsatisfied want, there is a solution—at least one. Every problem has a solution.   It is simply a matter of finding it and implementing it. By assuming there is a solution rather than that there is not one, we have taken a major first step towards effective creativity.

Try it. Tackle hard problems. Think creatively. Dive deep into the essence of the problem. Try wild ideas. You may fail. But the effort is glorious and praiseworthy. And you might just succeed.

p.s. the quote is by Donna Karan, who launched a wonderful creative fashion company. Louis Vuitton recently sold the DKNY brand for $650 million.

Why We Do What We Do – Putting it All Together

By Shlomo Maital

Sometimes things just seem to come together, naturally.

  1. I recently taught a Workshop for a wonderful group of high school science teachers. They all told me, their key problem is – motivating their students. Motvating them to learn.
  2. I recently received a research paper from McKinsey, titled “How to improve student educational outcomes: New insights from data analytics”. In this study McKinsey researchers used machine learning (an offshoot of artificial intelligence) to analyze a massive data set — the PISA surveys of 15 year old high school students and their understanding of science and math. The key finding: Student mindsets are twice as predictive of students’ PISA scores than even their home environments. Mindset means “a student’s sense of belonging, motivation and expectations”. This result is robust across the entire world.

The graph shows the % of predictive power of students’ performance. The top two rectangles (orange and purple) represent “mindset” (motivation), for the five different geographical areas.

  1. My wife’s copy of the American Psychological Association magazine Monitor just arrived. In it, 33 leading psychologists were asked, “What is the next big question psychology needs to answer?” The first person quoted was Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work on growth mindsets (the idea that talent and talent can grow in a nurturing education environment) was seminal. She said we need “an integrative theory of motivation” and “a framework for …effective intervention [to boost motivation].

   These three circles converge. They teach us that how well we motivate ourselves, and those we work with, are THE crucial variables. Because motivated people can do anything (did you watch the Croatia soccer team at the World Cup?). And those without motivation can do nothing.

     Let’s look inward and ask, what lights our spark?   And then look outward and ask, how can we light the sparks of others who work with us?


An American’s Vision Healed – in India
            By Shlomo Maital

Kristos Stavropoulos
Kristos Stavropoulos is Chief Information & Technology Officer at Maguire Investments.  The only reason I mention this, is that I assume he has the resources to get top-flight medical care anywhere in the US. 
   Instead he went to … India.
   Stavropoulos recounts that he had a corneal scar – a scar on the thin transparent layer that covers the iris and pupil of the eye and refracts light.   A scar on the cornea can be a major problem.  Caused by an eye infection, the scar affected his vision – rather crucial in his line of work.  So he travelled all the way to Hyderabad, in southern India, to the L V Prasad Eye Institute.    (I have visited LVPEI several times, and recently met with its amazing founder, Dr. G. N. Rao,  in Israel).  
    At LVPEI   Stavropoulos consulted Dr. Sayan Basu.  She is an expert in a highly complex and revolutionary treatment, that uses stem cells to regrow and repair corneas.  Stem cells are human cells that have the ability to become whatever is needed – include corneal tissue – depending where they are.  But they are notoriously difficult to work with.   Here is what Stavropoulos said, after successful treatment:
     “My experience at LVPEI has been exceptional.  When you think of surgery, it’s scary, especially with eyes.  But the great thing about this institute is the positivity and expertise  that the doctors and the team have.  Most importantly, I trusted Dr. Basu and was assured about the success of the treatment that I was provided.”
    So far, over 1,600 innovative stem cell procedures have been performed at LVPEI, Patients from India, and from all over the world, have benefited from these innovative procedures.  At LVPEI,  wealthy patients pay for patients who have no money.  But everybody, EVERYbody, gets the same quality of medical care.  And the enormous scale of the medical care means that even experimental high-tech procedures can be tried, improved, studied – and made standard.
      At LVPEI I learned about an even more amazing technology under development – use of stem cells to regrow RETINAL cells (the retina is the kind of mirror, or light receptor, at the back of the eye, subject to retinal detachment, or macular degeneration [e.g. holes in the retina] ). 
    So, if you have eye disease, and if your doctors tell you they can’t treat it – check out LVPEI.   Because Indian people have so many eye diseases and problems,  LVPEI experts have vast experience – and creativity plus experience leads to innovative medical care that pushes frontiers to amazing places.  In the past 31 years, LVPEI has treated 28 million people, many of them from very poor villages. 
     By the way, Dr. Rao is now working to establish an LVPEI-type clinic in Monrovia, Liberia.  This,  despite Liberia’s strong links with the United States (it was founded by former American slaves).  It is hard for even top American doctors to understand how to establish medical care centers in very poor countries – but LVPEI knows how.  Liberia’s legendary former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,  who heard of LVPEI and whose close relative was successfully treated there, visited LVPEI, made the request – and LVPEI responded.

Rescue Dogs – Rescue Children
By Shlomo Maital 

Seven years ago, our daughter in law came upon a puppy in Tel Aviv. A mixed-breed Yorkshire,  the four-month-old puppy jumped on her, on a Tel Aviv Street.  Dafna could find no owner, and brought her home, bathed her, cleaned her up (she was full of fleas and ticks), took her to the vet for shots…and asked us if we could help find her a home, as a rescue dog.   I met Pixie (the name we gave her) when I came home from a working trip to Europe.  As I came in the door, she jumped into my arms and licked my face… instant love, after 3 microseconds.  At that instant, my wife and I decided we would keep her.  Since then Pixie has made us laugh every single morning and with her antics, made the awful news in the New York Times and Ha’aretz bearable.   
     Pixie IS a rescue dog.  She rescued us, in a sense.  She takes us for walks and offers unconditional love, rain or shine – and an incredible greeting every time we come home, as if we were long-lost siblings.
    Several of our friends have rescue dogs, too.   One has a beautiful placid huge golden retriever, female,  she (the dog) carries herself with dignity worthy of Pope Francis.    Taking home a rescue dog is truly worthwhile and meaningful —  often, it keeps the dog from being put down, in rescue kennels that are vastly overcrowded, because so many unworthy people bring home puppies for children and then suddenly discover dogs need care, feeding and walking ..and abandon them. 
     So yes – great that we love rescue dogs.
     But what about rescue kids?  Writing in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof points out that America is neglecting kids – and not just those of immigrants. 
“It’s not just the kids at the border.  America systematically shortchanges tens of millions of children, including homegrown kids. The upshot is that American kids are more likely to be poor, to drop out of high school and even to die young than in other advanced countries.”
    So —  What about a program for rescue kids?   Resources for education, food. (Republicans now seek to cut a food stamp program that has fed millions – including one child in five who lives in poverty in America,  a Third World statistic).   Even, perhaps, adoption, when justified. 
   Kids are as lovable as dogs. And they deserve just as much love.

p.s. this is blog # 1,500.  Thanks to all my readers. 

How Teddy Bear Got Its Name

By Shlomo Maital

Did you ever wonder how the teddy bear got its name?   The answer: President Theodore Roosevelt.

   Here’s the story.

     In 1902, President Roosevelt was invited by Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino to go on a bear hunt. After a long day, Roosevelt saw no bears and retired to sleep. But a group of Roosevelt’s assistants cornered, clubbed, and tied an American black bear to a tree after a long exhausting chase with dogs.

     They called Roosevelt to the site and said that he should shoot it.  He refused to shoot the bear himself, saying it was unsportsmanlike, but said that the bear be killed to put it out of its misery (the bear was way underweight and scraggly).

     Clifford Berryman did a cartoon on the incident in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902.     Later issues of that and other Berryman cartoons made the bear smaller and cuter than it really was. Today, we would say that cartoon went ‘viral’.

     Morris Michtom saw the drawing of Roosevelt and created a tiny soft bear cub and put it in the shop window with a sign “Teddy’s bear,” after Teddy Roosevelt gave his permission to use his name.   The toys were a huge success.   As a result Michtom founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. and became wealthy.

   A BBC program called “Witness” told this story recently.




Blue Collars Lose Ground – Don’t Blame Trade

By Shlomo Maital


     Led by the Trump Administration in the US, worldwide there is a counter-revolution against globalization. Right wing governments are being elected in Hungary, Italy, Austria, partly in Germany, and elsewhere, reacting against the ravages of globalization – particularly, the claim that blue collar workers are being scalped by it – by migrants (free flow of labor) and by trade (free flow of goods).

     America, which invented this amazing system that made many emerging economies wealthy (East Asia, primarily) now leads the charge against it.

     And this whole counter-revolution is based on a falsehood. Don’t blame trade. Blue collar woes have another primary cause, according to Harvard University Professor Elhanan Helpman, in his new book Globalization and Inequality. It was not primarily free trade (globalization) that caused the large gap between blue collar and white collar wages.

     Earlier, in 2016, Helpman published an NBER working paper * showing this (typically understated, as academic researchers are wont to do):

       Trade played an appreciable role in increasing wage inequality, but its cumulative effect has      

       been modest, …globalization does not explain the preponderance of the rise in wage inequality

            within countries.

   What, then, does explain it? Technology and productivity.

     Studies show that the premium for a college education (i.e. skilled workers) was 63%.   The blue collar/white collar wage gap results from basic supply and demand factors, “…the dominant cause was an increase in the relative demand for skilled workers”.

   OK – so who is to blame?   American political leadership, for failing to find ways to upgrade the skills of blue-collar workers, especially in America’s failing and failed educational system.   And, as New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks has noted – the educated elite simply ignored the plight of the non-educated elite – and the price they pay is the election of Donald Trump.

* Elhanan Helpman. “Globalization and wage inequality”.   NBER working paper 22944, Dec. 2016.

CRISPR Will Change Our Lives

By Shlomo Maital

   Some time ago, I wrote about a technology known as Blockchain that will undoubtedly change our lives – and has already. Blockchain is simply a way to record transactions, that is secure, unhackable and ‘disintermediated’ (no need for banks or other financial middlemen). It is now widely used to create digital money.

   Now comes CRISPR. It stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.     What is it? Simply, a way of editing genes – like we edit blogs or emails. Erase this group of words. Replace it with another, better one.   In the case of DNA: “Erase” (snip away) this (bad) piece of DNA, a gene that causes problems – and replace with a ‘good’ gene, that will not cause disease or problems.

   A palindrome is a word that reads the same forward and backward.   E.g. “civic”. So pieces of DNA are inserted into longer pieces, such that the inserted pieces read the same forward or backward, so it doesn’t matter which way they are inserted. The method originated with studying how viruses ‘snip’ DNA – and using viruses to do the same in constructive way.

     We now know the genetic causes of many diseases. But until now we have not had the ability to repair bad genes. Now CRISPR makes it possible. This will create an entirely new branch of medicine, immunotherapy, in which gene therapy is used to both treat illness, when identified, and mainly, to prevent it — an individual can now have his or her genome analyzed, and potential ‘bad’ genes identified. No point in doing this, so far, because there was no real way to ‘edit’ bad genes. Now, with CRISPR, there is.

     I would like to mention one of the scientists responsible for CRISPR, the young MIT scientist Feng Zhang. He was born in China and is only 36; he does research at the famous Broad (pronounced Brode) institute in Cambridge, MA. Increasingly bright foreign students are encountering US visa problems and are going elsewhere, e.g. Canada. It is America’s loss.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2018
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