Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Soft Science of Positive Psychology

Modern philosophy – and more recently science and psychology – have shared the revelation that reality is all in your head. Change your head, goes one line of thought, and you change your reality.

In psychology this has spurned positive psychology: The study of the positive mindset is implicitly carried out in contrast to the study of negative mindsets, which consist of most of psychology’s history.

Positive psychology, however, remains more of a movement than an area of study. It has yet to prove itself, and most of the innovation has occurred in semantics – where, for instance, exercise might have been said to treat depression, positive psychologists would say that it provides a buffer against depression. (I wrote a bit more on the topic here.)

And it’s not as if the scientists haven’t been trying – positive psychology remains a well-funded area of research, considered in academic circles to be fresh and forward-looking. It’s just lacked many groundbreaking findings.

In all fairness, it’s still considered a new topic, with roots that go back only one or two decades. Researchers are just warming up. But as a movement, it’s already starting to outstay its welcome.

As might be expected from any movement, it’s now undergoing a backlash. Cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich recently railed against the infusion of cancer treatment and positive psychology. After being diagnosed with breast cancer
She discovered that a positive attitude was more or less compulsory. Most of her fellow sufferers thought it would help them recover. Some even said that cancer was a “gift” that helped one find life’s purpose. Ms Ehrenreich disagreed…She complained about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies and, most daringly, “sappy pink ribbons”…

More generally, Ms Ehrenreich sees an “ideological force in American culture…that encourages us to deny reality.”…At a confab for motivational speakers, she is told that anyone can achieve “infinite power” by resonating in tune with the universe. From a popular preacher in Houston, she discovers that God will give big houses and nice tables in restaurants to those who sincerely wish for them. After slogging through countless books and lectures, she learns that food doesn’t make you fat unless you think it will, and that you can solve many of life’s problems by avoiding negative people. (The Economist, 12/17/09)

Ehrenreich, along with a handful of other authors, have recently published books that mock positive psychology as a feel-good movement devoid of any true science.

Between the movement and the backlash, positive psychology has a very American feel: It has more connections to alternative medicine than to clinical science, and its practical pop-science-for-the-masses approach bears some resemblance to America’s 19th century Spiritualist and Evangelical practices.

Areas such as a positive psychology are why psychology is still – and will long be – considered a soft science. In almost any other area of science, the creation of a new field of study would be spurned by some scientific breakthrough. Not so in positive psychology. Here, the change has occurred in the researchers’ minds, where they have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive instead of the negative.

Yet in itself, explicitly redirecting your thoughts isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is what you do when you're testing assumptions: You change them and examine the consequences. This process can be powerful. It has given birth to non-Euclidian geometry and to Godel’s incompleteness theorems.

But in positive psychology it has produced very little. Highly studied emotions in positive psychology include flow, elevation, hopefulness, and appreciation. But in the current state of the things, these remain empty constructs and definitions, with few empirical connections.

The insight of empirical science is that, when increasing knowledge, we turn to the outside world. Reality is all in your head, but that does not deny the existence of a very real, concrete, palpable world outside of you. The stubborn inability to learn from this world, in politics, has led to true suffering; in business, has led to bankruptcy; in personality, has led to delusion; and in psychology, has led to positive psychology.



Media (in order of appearance)

Image: (1)Radioactive Happiness, 06/10/2006, Netsrot; (2) Woman getting massage, 12/08/2006, hop sungtrieu; (3) BP716 Rainbow and Bird, 07/14/2006, listentoreason.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Things Fall Apart

England’s anti-drug department has spent the past two years denying a freedom of information request in regard to its domestic strategy to battle drugs. The Economist reported last week that this sort of behavior is symptomatic of England’s freedom of information act, passed in 2000, which contains 23 “get outs” in order to prevent bureaus from having to hand over classified information. Too often these requests get caught up in a legal quagmire and take up to a few years to grant. What separates this case, however, is the creative justification by the Home Office for not releasing the records:
The reason is that next March the National Audit Office (NAO), a public-spending watchdog, is due to publish a report of its own on local efforts to combat drugs. The Home Office says that to have two reports about drugs out at the same time might confuse the public, and for this reason it is going to keep its report under wraps.

The Economist calls this “the most inventive interpretation to date” with regard to the FOI act:
This is believed to be the first time that a public body has openly refused to release information in order to manage the news better. The department argues that releasing its internal analysis now “risks misinterpretation of the findings of the [National Audit Office] report”, because its own analysis is from 2007 and predates the NAO’s findings. The argument uses section 36 of the FOI act, which provides a broad exemption for information that could “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

It’s a bit ironic that a law passed to increase transparency is being enacted in a manner that’s anything but. Were this a bank hiding info from their shareholders, the public might be angrier.

But what’s more revealing about this case is the way in which laws breakdown overtime.

One of the most admirable accomplishments of the founders was to create a foundation that would stand the test of time. The constitution is in a sense radical, but it is also practical and realistic in its approach. A lack of long-term foresight is one of the largest underestimated factors playing into new legislation. Too often the debate surrounds the magnitude of the problem rather than on the solution.

The idea that we can fix deep problems like healthcare or the economy in one bill is not only unrealistic, but it underestimates the dynamic nature of the problem. A close analogy is found in large struggling firms which seek to rectify their problems with a silver bullet: They’ll hire an outsider CEO, pursue large mergers and acquisitions, or try extreme new strategies.

In a report this week on Toyota, The Economist discusses how often the best solutions are the least flashy and exciting. The subject of the report is Toyota, whose CEO worries they are on the path to failure and is working carefully to rectify the situation. He is reportedly working with tips from Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall. In the book, Collins
advocates old-fashioned management virtues such as determination, discipline, calmness under pressure and strategic decision-making based on careful sifting of the evidence. Often, the leader best able to halt a downward spiral will be an insider who knows how to build on proven strengths while simultaneously identifying and eradicating weaknesses.

In line with this, continues The Economist:
Mr Toyoda’s approach is not visionary. It is simple, incremental and requires painstaking attention to what the customers want. That is its virtue.

Occasionally I’ll be watching late night (or early morning) business TV, and news anchors will often ask CEOs “How did you do it? What’s your secret?” And by now it’s a cliché for the CEO to answer that there are no secrets and the only recipe to success is doing a good job, taking care of fundamentals, and perhaps an ounce of fortune here or there.

In a sense, the sentiment that there must be some secret to success is even more fascinating than the fact that there is isn’t. The sentiment is somewhat understandable, especially given how many perceived geniuses see the world in a radically unique manner.

But there is something different from such academic or theoretical smarts and business smarts. What distinguishes the latter is not clarity of mind and vision, but an ability to be completely in tune with the details of their products and with what people want. From this perspective, it’s obvious why radical shifts make the least amount of sense, particularly when it looks like they’re being done for the sake of change, rather than to alter the underlying content. Rather it’s a question of inspecting resources, using them to their full potential, seeing how they’ve worked in the past, and making the sort of detailed tweaks here and there that, say, an inquisitive public looking for an overarching secret to success wouldn’t be interested in.

It’s also, once again, an issue of focusing on the solution not the problem. A radical problem – even a crisis – need not always require a radical solution. An appliance that won’t turn might just have a minor wiring problem. Debilitating diseases are often rectified by targeting just one type of molecule.

Too often these sorts of small but effective solutions are confused with finding a silver bullet to solve a whole problem. The smarter solutions are distinguished however in their scope, their maximized use of available resources, and their ability to work within the system rather than to replace it. For instance, we do have an advanced healthcare system, and it can align patients’ needs with doctors. But we do not have enough doctors. An analogy is to a new computer which won’t turn on because it’s unplugged.

It is this sort of nuanced thinking which needs to be applied to legislation: An eye for the long-term effects – when deciding on item prices, Costco CEO Jim Senigal thinks about the effect they will have 20 years down the road – maximizing current resources, and a careful expert look at the details involved and how they work. Where these approaches can't be used due to the nature of politics - say, a lack of expertise in government, or an inability to be flexible - then the solution needs to be reformulated or dropped. A half-assed solution is the worst kind.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Toyota Camry, 02/26/2009, ogieabatillas; (2)Akio Toyoda, 10/24/2009, Shimoken; (3)Weird Al in Line at Costco, 12/26/2006, Vaguely Artistic.

Video: (1)Video, MrAlstec channel, of the song "Things Fall Apart" by Built to Spill from their 2009 album There is No Enemy.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lateral Transmissions: Steam Engenious

The Beatles got it right at the end of Sgt. Pepper, ending A Day in the Life – the contemplative fragmented waltz – with a dissonant orchestral crescendo.

I think that the next great step in pop music will be to integrate dissonance.

It’s almost ironic that The Beatles were the first – and possibly last – band to have such a famous song centered on dissonance. And even though it's only the end of the track that's notorious, the whole song really is structured around that climax.

Pop songs have clean melodic structures that are as condensed as possible. No one knew this better than The Beatles. From Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to She’s Leaving Home, they had an uncanny ability to immerse you in a whole world in only a few minutes, catchy, compact like poetry, almost dense, like a song from a musical but better.

It’s fitting that on A Day in the Life, they went to such lengths to try to snap you out of their pristine songs, ending on a nightmarish almost unsatisfying crescendo, as surreal and dirty as their songs tend to be pleasant and sweet.

Wrote producer George Martin about that famous last chord:
What I did there was to write ... the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note...near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar ... Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.

This proved to be only the start for John Lennon, who later went to absurd lengths to embody a sort of over-realism: his experiment with psychotherapeutic primal screaming – it sounds as odd as it looks on paper – and posing nude on an album cover.

Dissonance is an odd term, at once technical and completely subjective. It simply refers to a combination of notes that sounds unstable or unpleasant. You know it when you hear it, yet what is considered dissonant shifts across culture and time. Like all things when you study music, it’s about context, structure and temporal relation. When it’s employed well, it can provide a sort of driving force to music. Roger Kamien (quoted on Wikipedia) has a stimulating explanation:
An unstable tone combination is a dissonance; its tension demands an onward motion to a stable chord. Thus dissonant chords are 'active'; traditionally they have been considered harsh and have expressed pain, grief, and conflict.
You can hear dissonance here and there on the radio, but surprisingly few rock and roll bands have really integrated it into their songs. Used well and it’s as if an artist is harnessing a wild force.
Used poorly and you have nails on a chalkboard.

Going back to Kamien’s definition, when I’m in the right mood – say, listening to the right song while driving my car at night – it seems like there’s an underlying dissonance which drives intelligence and clarity of mind. In a sense, the drive for knowledge is predicated on not being content with the current state of things. In a world of perfect contentment, there’d be no need to learn more. In this sense there’s a truth to the archetype of the happy idiot, though I’m not sure whether it says more about man or knowledge. The inability to just be content seems to have a biological correlate as well.

I just finished Robert Clark’s In Defense of Self: How the Immune System Really Works, and like the best of books it left me both satiated and thirsty for more. The first part of the book is theoretical – it lays down the general principles, introduces you to the main characters, etc. And the second, and longer, part is applied – it covers disease and immune conditions.

Naturally I assumed that the second part would build on the first, by applying the theory. On the contrary, the applied portion of the book simply went on and on like the theoretical portion. I doubt this is a shortcoming of the author, as it’s more likely a reflection of the beast itself. But I found it rather thought provoking that there should be such a sharp disconnect to begin with.

It was a bit like learning English – or what I imagine learning English must be like: There are principles, structures, and rules, but after you master them, you then spend even more time learning about nuances and exceptions.

Certainly there are theoretical principles and natural laws, but the impression that one gets is that based on some primitive defense-system, mother nature was just making shit up as it went along, constantly responding to new threats and stumbling upon new weapons, necessity giving birth some pretty wild inventions, a patchwork quilt of defense systems.

The analogy to dissonance of course is a stretch – but it’s not as much a stretch as one might think at first. Both lend creed to the a-posteri ever-changing being-at-work-staying-onself/coming-into-being approach to knowledge.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Album cover of Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; (2)Moon up, 07/05/2009, [kane]; (3)Ralph Steadman, self-portrait.

Video: (1)Music video of the song Forever by Drake; (2)Music video, Two-Headed Baby channel, of the song Steam Engenious by Modest Mouse from their 2007 album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank; (3)Music video, cdiamond channel, of the song A Day in the Life by The Beatles from their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
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