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Homo Prospectus: What Makes Us Human

By Shlomo Maital

   Martin Seligman is one of America’s leading psychologists, and inventor of the ‘learned helplessness’ theory, which explains why we sink into despair and apathy.   That theory, it turns out, is more than a little negative.   So Seligman took the opposite tack, and helped invent positive psychology, which is about how to be efficacious optimistic and happy.

     Seligman and a journalist, John Tierney, wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times magazine, excerpted in the global New York Times. In it they make an interesting point. Homo sapiens (wise human) is a misnomer, they say. Because – well, we humans are not that wise… Just look around the world at what we do to each other.  

     Instead, call us homo prospectus (future looking human). Because we, unlike animals, are able to imagine distant futures and things that do not yet exist.   This makes us creative.   When we make decisions, we weigh consequences, and in fractions of a second, envision future consequences of our decision and then choose or decide.   Seligman and Tierney say that “the main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgment.” Why?   You judge how you and others feel, when you ponder a behavior, and decide on that basis.

     Moreover, they cite brain imaging research, showing that when we recall a past event, we combine 3 pieces of information from 3 different parts of the brain:   what happened, when it happened and where it happened. Apparently, we use the same circuitry when we imagine a future event. Our hippocampus (a part of the brain) assembles these three pieces of prospective guessing, to create something new.   And even when we are relaxing, our brain constantly works “to recombine information and imagine the future”.

     My ‘take’ on this?   We have become a myopic society, focused on present gratification and present consumption, and far less on saving and delay of gratification. Are we degrading “homo prospectus”?   Are we degrading what truly makes us human, and in doing so, damaging our future and that of our children?  

 

Understanding Trump: Dunning-Kruger Cognitive Bias

By Shlomo Maital

     Having trouble understanding President Trump?   Read thousands of words and columns, blasting Trump, but you still (like me) do not understand who IS this guy?

     Read David Brooks (Op Ed, New York Times, May 15)….   He has figured it out. Trump has a syndrome. Dunning Kruger Cognitive Bias.

       What is it?   Here is the definition: *

     Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error.

     Meaning?   Incompetent people think they are more competent than they are, precisely because…they are incompetent. Trump highly overestimates his abilities (“best speech ever to Congress on healthcare”,   “how to fix America’s aircraft carriers”, etc.).

       People with Dunning-Kruger, who lead nations, are very very dangerous. Not knowing is one thing. Not knowing you don’t know is quite another. And when you lead the world’s most powerful, wealthy nation?   Disaster. Moreover, people around Trump cannot control him, and are fired abruptly when they oppose him, a corollary of Dunning-Kruger.  Trump is at the summit of Mount Stupid (see diagram), and since January 20, has proven to be there with blunders almost daily.

       What will happen?   Let’s see if America’s constitution and political institutions are capable and resilient enough to deal with this disastrous cognitive bias.

 

* Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec 1999, 1121-1134.

 

 

Advice from a 73-Year-Old: Go for It!

By Shlomo Maital

regrets

 In his New York Times column today, Roger Cohen writes movingly about the carnage of war and battle. He also includes a passage that caught my eye:

     It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or information, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been – these chimera always beckon.

      We are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do.

     I just turned 73. I admit that as a fairly ethical person, I am sometimes haunted by what I did. But also, as Cohen notes, I’m mainly haunted by what I did NOT do, by opportunities missed. Like, becoming an economist rather than a journalist or writer, because it seemed safer.

     I think that if young people consulted me today, the main advice I would give them is to think ahead backward. When faced with a great new opportunity, a scary one, one that involves risk – how do you decide?   Think ahead. Picture yourself a decade ahead, 2025. Imagine that you have taken this opportunity. Picture where you are, what it feels like. Feel the emotion in your gut. Does it feel right? Now, imagine yourself in 2025, and you’ve chosen NOT to take the opportunity, or chance. How does it feel? Do you sense regret? Is that sense of regret a sharp stabbing pain in your gut?  

     Do you agree with Roger Cohen, that we are pained by things we pass by and miss, rather than things we do and experience?  

   You cannot try EVERYthing. But you can try more things, and be more adventurous. Even if you fall on your face, you’ve learned, and grown, and always have the warm feeling that you had the courage to give it a shot, which for me is a big part of self-awareness and self-acceptance. And it’s never too late, even at age 73. Right?

 

Messy Desk?  Sign of Creativity

By Shlomo Maital  

messy desk

Say, is your desk messy?  Are you troubled by it?  Try to clean it up regularly, and fail?   Get hassled by your neat obsessive significant other?

   New evidence suggests – hug your messy room, don’t hassle it.  It’s a sign you have a creative mind.

    Writing in the online magazine NewsMic,  (Nov. 10),  Tom McKay reports that “There’s fairly robust psychological evidence that messiness isn’t just symptomatic of poor standards or effort, but might actually provoke creativity.  He quotes psychologist Kathleen Vohs, who wrote in the New York Times, “being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions.”

     Here is the experiment she ran.   To test this hypothesis, Vohs invited 188 adults to rooms that were either tidy or “messy, with papers and books strewn around haphazardly.”   Each adult was then presented with one of two menus from a deli that served fruit smoothies, with half of the subjects seeing a menu with one item billed as “classic” and another billed as “new.” The results (published in Psychological Science), Vohs reports, were enlightening.   As predicted, when the subjects were in the tidy room they chose the health boost more often — almost twice as often — when it had the “classic” label: that is, when it was associated with convention. Also as predicted, when the subjects were in the messy room, they chose the health boost more often — more than twice as often — when it was said to be “new”: that is, when it was associated with novelty. Thus, people greatly preferred convention in the tidy room and novelty in the messy room.  A second experiment with 48 adults found that subjects in a messy environment came up with ideas “28% more creative” while creating a list of unconventional uses for ping pong balls, even though the two groups came up with the same number of ideas. Vohs argues the results are clear: Messiness actually spurs creativity.”

The point here is obvious.  Creativity itself is MESSY, in caps.  Creativity people have messy minds, that collect random pieces of information and find new ways to link them. Creative ideas emerge from disorder and entropy, not order.  The ultimate state of order is the universe as it will be in a few hundred billion years:  All the energy will have been burnt up, and the universe will be perfectly orderly,  at a temperature of absolute zero.

So —  messy desk?  Enjoy it.   Cherish it.  And, nonetheless  — do clean it up once in a while, if only for your significant other.

 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
May 2017
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