31 July 2018

Minds Are More Than You Think: Towards a General Definition of Attitude

We need a definition of attitude in order to talk sensibly about it. 

The simplest general definition I use is the orientation of one mind in the world of minds. 
But minds don't exist as a mere object amongst other objects like a billiard ball amongst other billiard balls on a pool table, there is more to it than just saying there is a mind amongst other minds.

According to Harvard Professor Howard Gardner in his book The Unschooled Mind, "According to our new and expanded understanding, mind exists equally within the skull, in the objects strewn about in the culture, and in the behaviors of other individuals with whom one interacts and from whom one learns."

Definition of Attitude Illustrated

Since each mind extends beyond the physical boundaries of the body and includes both objects in the environment and the behavior of others, then it follows that in some important sense our minds overlap with each other. 
Our minds are like the electromagnetic fields that carry signals to and from cell phones, wi-fi hot spots, radio and TV antennas, etc. 
Have you ever wondered about the miracle of cell phone conversations? 
When you are in a city here in the United States most of the time you can have a continuous, uninterrupted conversation with someone else even while one or both of you are driving around. 
That miraculous feat of engineering is achieved by putting lots of cell phone broadcast towers in an area so that the signal area of each tower overlaps with the signal area of many other towers. 
What makes a cell phone tower a valuable component in the network is the extent of its signal area and it would be silly to limit our evaluation of one of the towers to just the broadcast tower that sends out the signals without considering the extent of its signal area and how it relates to the signal areas of other towers in the vicinity.

Now consider how we are like cell phone towers.
What makes us who we are is not just our bodies, but our minds, as well. 
Our mind is the aspect of each of us that "thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines and wills" according to cognitive science professor George Lakoff and philosophy professor Mark Johnson in thier book Philosophy in the Flesh.
What Gardner is talking about is the fact that we are inescapably embedded in an environment, a larger context, that mutually co-creates our thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, reasoning skills, imagination, and ability to exert our will. 
To see how this fact has influenced world affairs watch Philip Zimbardo's TED Talk about the effect that the larger context had on both the students in his famous Standford Prison Experiment and in the Abu Gharib Military Prison. 

So my definition of attitude as the orientation of one mind in the world of minds, is like saying that the attitude of a cell phone tower is only meaningful when you consider it in relation to the other cell phone towers around it.
A cell phone tower is only useful if it is oriented in a way that supports the ability of the cell phone users to have uninterrupted high audio quality conversations.
If an individual cell phone tower is oriented in a way that it does not contribute to that goal, like sending all it's signals straight up into the sky, then it is worthless to the cell phone users on the ground. 
Another important aspect to consider is the maintenance of the tower, if it is neglected or abused then it will eventually become decrepit and cease to make a positive contribution to the intended result. 

This definition of attitude includes a very sensible way of thinking about minds because you cannot evaluate a single mind independent of how it relates to other minds. 
It is how the individual mind meshes, overlaps with, and integrates into the overall goals of the whole community of other minds that defines the value of its functioning. 
The individual mind has to be maintained in good health as an individual or that individual will not only cease to be a positive contributing member of the overall network, but might become destructive (which is not possible for a cell tower.) 
The orientation of one mind in the world of minds is a workable definition of attitude as long as the world of minds is understood as a holistic network that functions only to the degree that its components are integrated.
Conversely, the attitude of a mind that is not integrated into the whole network is irrelevant. 
This definition does raise the question of what counts as "functioning" in a network of minds.
My page on positive attitude provides more insight.

30 July 2018

Positive Attitude: Good Thoughts, Delusions, or a Self-Controlled Mind?

Positive attitude in the widespread pop version gives the impression that all you have to do is think the right thoughts and feel the right feelings. 

Critics of the pop version respond with the accusation that if that's all it takes then it amounts to an ego trip of self-delusion about how the world ought to be. 
Positive attitude is not just the thoughts you think nor is it just being happy or having good feelings. 
It's not just self-delusion, either. 
Properly understood it is a process of developing control over your states of mind and aligning the social, economic, ecological and political systems in which you are embedded to assist you as you navigate towards optimal states of mind. 
The ultimate positive attitude is about always learning and always connecting with both the people around you and your world.


Attitude is a combination of your state of mind and your orientation to the world around you. You can read my detailed exploration of different definitions of attitude by clicking here.
What it boils down to is 
  1. there is a literal core definition of attitude that refers to things and their orientation in space and
  2. metaphorical extensions from that literal core that refer to how our minds are oriented relative to the world and our experiences. 
The question of "positive" attitude is making sure your mind is oriented in a direction that is beneficial.

Positive Attitude vs. Negative Attitude

Positive versus negative in this case refers to whether you will benefit from your states of mind. 
The practical way to explore the benefits of different states of mind is to 
  1. develop increasing control over your states of mind and 
  2. experiment with different states of mind to find out what benefits you get from them. 
The key is developing control and that is why I promote the idea of teaching kids attitude first. 

Positive Attitude is Psychologically Inclusive

The more you can control your state of mind independent of the world around you, the more freedom you will experience. 
But, positive attitude is also about being fully engaged with the world and your experience of it. 
This is why positive attitude is not about the content of your thoughts and emotions. 
You can have thoughts that are completely out of touch with reality and you can have emotions that you cannot safely express in some situations. 
If you do not have control over your state of mind then when you have those kinds of thoughts and feelings they may prevent you from dealing effectively with reality. 

A truly positive attitude must accommodate all the thoughts, feelings and experiences that you can have, but in service to what is required to make the best of the situation you are in. 
A negative attitude separates you from the world or from aspects of yourself by denying that some thoughts, feelings or experiences are valid or appropriate. 
A positive attitude, on the other hand, connects you with the world and yourself regardless of the feelings and experiences that you have. (This is naturally assuming relatively normal variations of both good and bad situations, not severe traumas.)

Positive Attitude in Education

In education positive attitude is not mere obedience. 
Nor is it unreflective or unthinking conformity. 
A positive attitude in education is about learning to be in touch with reality, which inherently means a life long process of continuously deepening our practice of disillusionment
Disillusionment is how we see through the illusions that our minds naturally generate to help us get better and better at dealing with the infinite complexity of the world and our place in it. 
We can never gain a complete understanding of what causes the world to be the way it is nor how we cause things to happen in the world. 
But we do know that we can cause things to happen and that we must exercise responsibility for the conditions we cause in people's lives, even though we know we are not the sole cause of anything. 

The frame of reference for attitude in education should be our ability to perceive accurately, think clearly and act effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations. 
A state of mind that diminishes the accuracy of our perceptions, muddles our thinking, decreases the effectiveness of our actions, and/or interferes with our ability to select our own goals and aspirations is negative. 
A state of mind that increases the accuracy of our perceptions, clarifies our thinking, expands the effectiveness of our actions, and/or supports our ability to select our own goals and aspirations is positive. 

Assessing Positive Attitude

How do we assess or judge the difference between positive and negative attitudes? 
In general we have the common sense emotional assessment option. 
Emotions such as anger, fear, depression, and sadness are pretty universally recognized as negative states of mind if they occur with undue intensity or frequency. 
Of course, the opposite emotions of happiness, joy, ecstasy etc. can also be negative if they are too intense with too much frequency. 
The fact is that we need a social group in which to calibrate our judgment of our own and other people's states of mind because we cannot do it alone.

Collective judgments of attitude should also be based on states of mind, but more precisely on how the systems we put in place affect our states of mind. 
I believe that the most basic elements of our social systems are 
  • the structures of governance we put in place to manage our own and other people's behavior for the common good, 
  • the processes of exchange we go through with each other and our environment to meet our needs, and 
  • the patterns of consciousness that result from living within those governance structures and exchange processes.
The measure of success should be increasing the patterns of consciousness that we recognize as optimal states of mind such as purpose, optimism, cognitive order, cognitive complexity, cooperation, and agency. 
As we support each other to achieve these observable states, then we will find our perceptions become increasingly accurate, our thinking gets clearer, the effectiveness of our actions will be enlarged and we will be supported to select our own goals and aspirations. 

Positive Attitude is a Community Project
Positive attitude is the result of mutually engaging with the world and each other; provided that the engagement is based on accurately perceiving the situation, thinking clearly about the situation and acting effectively to achieve our goals. 
This means that we accurately perceive how our actions and choices have both long and short term effects on not only those in our immediate vicinity in time and space, but those who are far away and in times to come. 
Negative attitudes are the result of disengaging from the world and each other. 
When we forget or ignore our connectedness and the consequences of our actions, then we will act foolishly. 
We cannot ever know the full consequences of any action, but we can always strive to know more than we did before. 
And that is the ultimate positive attitude; always learning and connecting ever more with each other and our world.

In practical terms whatever attitude we have, positive or negative, we can (and will) seek out and find other people who will reinforce and support our attitude. 
If we shift to a new attitude after holding an old one for a long time, then we find ourselves surrounded by the people we collected around us when we developed our previous attitude, so it may be a challenge to maintain the shift if they are not shifting in a similar way. 

The key to creating a better world is improving your attitude; improving your ability to accept and deal with who you are, how you feel, whatever you experience, and the world in which those things happen to you. 
As you become better able to accept and deal effectively with yourself and the world, then you will also find support for your attitude. 

Attitude in Politics

There is one final level of attitude in groups that is worth considering, political attitudes. 
The polarity of positive versus negative in politics is one that is often noticed but I don't know that anyone has really considered it deeply. 
What would it mean to have a seriously positive politics? 
That is, not a positivity that ignores the bad, ugly, unpleasant things in the world, but a positive political message and organization that is deeply engaged with the world and makes an effective difference for the better.

The frame of reference that I think is relevant in politics is the metaphors that are used by politicians and activists to explain their vision of the world. 
A negative political vision is one in which we are stopping negative forces in the world, slowing negative movements, reacting against other people, suppressing vices, dividing groups or controlling negative human impulses. 
A positive political vision is one in which we accelerate positive movements, encourage virtuous behavior, support people to be better and improve their lives, or enabling freedom that contributes to the common good. 
Holding onto a positive attitude politically does run some risk of being used for negative purposes but only if we do not honestly observe how people's lives are actually being affected by our actions. 
But that is the risk of deceiving ourselves that we run everyday, so it is easily reduced by regular practices of empathy and compassion that help us to connect and re-connect with other people and our world. 

In order to maintain a positive attitude it is not enough to have control of your states of mind, it is also necessary to be embedded within systems of exchange and governance that are designed to support your on-going engagement with reality and supports seeking optimal states of mind. 
This is what seems to be missing in the popular culture version of the concept. 
The keys to achieving a proper attitude are control over your own states of mind (which is hinted at in the pop culture version) and actively engaging in the world to create systems of support that consistently result in more people having more control over their own states of mind, too. 
We humans are fundamentally state of mind optimizers and we are embedded within complex systems that have an alignment that can either guide us towards or divert us away from optimal states. 
So the challenge is to think about attitude in terms of the effects of embedded systems, not as an individual test of will power.

29 July 2018

Attitude Metaphor for Minds

Attitude is about minds. 

The key components are:
  1. The qualities of the mind itself,
  2. The organizational space in which the mind exists, and
  3. The principles and practices which enable the mind to relate to the organizational space.

Attitude literally refers to the position of an object in space relative to some frame of reference; a human body in a traditional ballet pose, an aircraft in relation to the horizon, or a space craft in relation to it's direction of motion. 
The metaphorical application to people' minds as objects- that-can-be-oriented requires that we establish the metaphorical space in which they exist and the metaphorical frame of reference by which we judge their orientation in that space (the attitude.)

An Example of Attitude

The question of the key components of attitude was posed on Yahoo! Answers in the category of Marketing & Sales, so let's think about a salesman. 
I have even been one on occasion in my life.

The salesman has certain qualities of mind: he has a personality (hopefully), a disposition, a lifetime of experiences, and a variety of other things that we would all expect to contribute to making up the contents of his mind. 
Let's just think of it all as his mental furniture. 
All these things in the salesman's mind are arranged in some particular way that makes him a unique individual. 
There are some qualities about his arrangement of mental furniture that affects how he interacts with the world and other people. 
What most people talk about when they talk about attitude is the arrangement of their mental furniture.

But our salesman is not existing in an empty void. 
He exists in a context from which he has acquired all of his mental furniture. 
His biology created the mental rooms he identifies with as himself through his genetic inheritance. 
His biology determined some basic parameters for all the other furniture because if the front door is small then everything that comes through it has to be small in order to fit.

The rooms are attached into a unit that he knows as his "self." 
The most useful way to think about the self is as a vessel or a vehicle, like a boat or a car. 
This self exists within a larger context, too.

Our salesman belongs to an organization that expects him to sell things. 
The title of his job is a key determinant of how he will know how to behave. 
The company will tell stories that give the salesman a variety of examples of how people called salesmen are supposed to behave. 
As long as he is consistent in his desire to be a salesman, he will adjust his behavior to do what he understands a salesman is supposed to do. 
There are particular principles and practices that are associated to the job title.

The space in which he exists has far more than one dimension. 
He is also an employee, a citizen, a man, and a vast number of other things, too. 
In this sense the organizational space is not just the company he is employed by, but the whole set of organizations in which he is embedded, family, company, county, nation, etc. 
But even taking only the company context his role will have a potentially very high number of dimensions. 
But for simplicity let's just think of our salesman as a boat on the company ocean.

The boat is sailing around and doing what he thinks he is supposed to do. 
But, as we all know, people do not just do what they are supposed to do for the company, they have a variety of other needs, wants, and desires that distract them from what the company wants them to do. 
So the company is not just a glassy pond, it is an ocean with waves and currents that influence the boats.

If the salesman/boat is not careful he can get swamped. 
Sometimes the waves will get intense and if the saleman has not battened down the hatches and kept everything in ship shape, then his furniture might get tossed around.

The point here is that you have to attend to not only the mental furniture in your boat/mind, but also to the trim of your boat/mind and where you sail your boat/mind. 
If you try to sail the seven seas then you can expect some rough seas on occasion. If you stick to a small lake then you shouldn't expect to get very far.

28 July 2018

Rereading Man's Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl

Here's the famous attitude quote from Viktor Frankl's book Man’s Search for Meaning:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. 
They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Victor Frankl observed the behavior of giving bread and providing comfort, but what is really awe-inspiring is the fact that those behaviors in that situation were virtually meaningless. 
It is not merely the behavior that was remarkable, it was the objective meaninglessness of the behaviors in that particular context that made them remarkable. 
Those individuals enacted behavior that was in any critical analysis of the situation, pointless. 
The people they fed were most likely going to die anyway. 
The glimmer of comfort they provided would most likely be overshadowed by the unspeakable cruelty and deprivations that defined their everyday, moment-to-moment existence in the concentration camps. 

Rereading Viktor Frankl’s classic book has caused me to reflect on my life since the first time I read the book many years ago. 
In particular I remember that when I read the famous passage above I realized that attitude was the subject that I was striving to learn and teach. 
Mainly because I felt that it was a gaping hole in my own schooling.

As I mention in the introduction to the book I was not expecting to explore fundamental principles but originally set out to simply describe attitude and what influences it, to sketch a map of it. 
What I discovered was a rabbit hole that kept going deeper and deeper until I wound up with enough material for several books. 
What became my first book was merely a small section of the larger conceptual mapping that I had made in the process of exploring the relevant terrain around the idea of attitude. 

Since I was on a college track throughout most of my school years I had a whole suite of expectations about school and how necessary it was supposed to be. 
When I left college after three years I was doing so mainly because I could not reconcile my behavior with the expectations that I had learned. 
Just one example of this was around writing.

Schooling convinced me that I was a poor writer. 
As much as I tried I could not find any redeeming value in all the writing I felt forced to do and the process of producing it was such a struggle that it seemed the epitome of foolishness to go through such mental and emotional contortions for something that I neither cared about nor succeeded in doing well. 
(If you dislike my writing now, be thankful you didn’t read what I wrote back then.) 
What I eventually discovered is that most people with nothing to say are poor writers. 

School also convinced me that I was undisciplined. 
I was told repeatedly from a very young age that with my “obvious” intelligence I had the potential to get excellent grades if only I could apply myself. 
It was clear from the discrepancy between the school accounts of my performance and my “potential” that in spite of my best efforts I must be too undisciplined to succeed. 
It was only after three or four years of intensive martial arts training when a friend remarked on the high level of discipline required for such accomplishment that I realized my conclusion about being undisciplined might be wrong. 

Below is the passage from Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning that got me thinking about all this again. 
This is later in the same section of the book as the famous passage about attitude. 
He is refuting the possibility that the appalling and cruel behaviors he observed in the concentrations camps should be blamed on the external circumstances alone. 
He is making the case that while the circumstances certainly favored terrible behavior it was ultimately a decision made by individuals as proven by the examples of those who chose to live and die with some form of dignity that defied all the circumstantial momentum towards depravity.

“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. 
But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. 
A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. 
But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. 
If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. 
Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. 
Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

The key to this passage is in understanding the metaphor Viktor Frankl is laying out. 
First he portrays the obvious span between active creative living as opposed to passive enjoyment of life. 
He says that each of these two aspects have certain inherent and assumed sets of value that, though different, provide equal access to meaning and purpose. 
Where meaning and purpose are the necessary ingredients of fulfillment which are necessary to a worthwhile life. 
Then Viktor Frankl introduces a third extreme in this metaphoric structure, suffering, which he implies has previously been assumed to be effectively barren of any ingredients for worth in life, or for “high moral behavior” as he puts it. 
Making his point he asserts authoritatively that meaning is not the exclusive province of just the two extremes of creativity and enjoyment. 

His concept is that life is a container in which meaning and purpose reside. 
He is saying that meaning and purpose are pervasive throughout the container of life, therefore, as a consequence of simply being within the container of life, suffering also has meaning and purpose. 
Contrary to popular belief, he asserts, suffering cannot negate nor restrict access to meaning and purpose. 

Viktor Frankl is saying that we have a generally accepted idea that life is inherently meaningful except for the areas of life in which suffering occurs. 
When you observe a person in a state of suffering you get the impression that meaning and purpose are absent or that the suffering person is prevented from accessing them. 
Viktor Frankl assumes that life is inherently meaningful, so he points out how suffering must also be meaningful because of the fact that it is part of life, ipso facto. 
Since life is inherently meaningful then any assumption that is made about the inherent meaninglessness or purposelessness of suffering is false, an illusion. 

Viktor Frankl, writing before the development of cognitive sciences, insisted meaning is inherent in life, but as I read cognitive science and from my own philosophical explorations it is more accurate to say that what gives life meaning is a meaning making consciousness, like our human consciousness. 
Life is not inherently meaningful; life, in and of itself, is meaningless until there is a consciousness that assigns meaning to it. 
Life is not in and of itself fulfilling until there is a consciousness that makes it fulfilling. 
Life is not literally a container and can only metaphorically be a container if a consciousness conceives of it that way. 
What fills life with anything at all is a consciousness that conceives of life as a container that can be filled with something, which is exactly what we humans do. 
We conceive of life as a container and then fill it with meaning and purpose, unless there is a different story or metaphor that we choose instead. 

The question this raises is how to understand the differentiation between those who behaved with dignity under the circumstances of the concentration camps from those who behaved with depravity. 
If meaning is what we give to life, then how do we understand the concentration camps? 

I believe that what distinguishes those who behaved cruelly or without dignity and those who expressed compassion or retained their dignity is in their understanding of the situations in which they found themselves. 
The majority of people accepted the socially reinforced view of the plight of prisoners as devoid of meaning and value whereas the rare few asserted their inherent meaning making powers and chose an attitude that defied the socially reinforced view of the situation. 
In either case the meaning of the situation was imposed by those who were taking action, either taking the “easy” route of accepting what others have told them about the situation or the “hard” route of asserting a different meaning. 

I put the quotes around the words “easy” and “hard” because I also suspect that what distinguishes one person’s ability to assert meaning in the face of other incompatible meanings is mostly practice, not disposition or conscious deliberation. 
Thus, if a person has grown up in situations that have repeatedly encouraged them to assert meaning then they will have developed a habit that can serve them under more trying circumstances. 
If my suspicion is correct then everyone takes the “easy” route, from the perspective of their own personal experience. 
What makes the “hard” route “hard” is the fact that someone who has not developed the habits of mind for creating meaning will not have access to that option and it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible.

School taught me to accept the meanings I was given. 
I did a pretty good job of that until I could not make sense of my life given the meanings I had accepted. 
I have been doing my best to get into the habits of meaning making ever since. 
And I fully encourage my clients to engage in that practice, as well. 

What schools taught me was a story about reality (as opposed to helping me develop a practice for discerning reality.) 
That story did not match up with reality very well, in my case at least. 
The reality of who I am did not fit with the stories I was taught to believe about me. 
I spent a long time struggling to change the reality of who I am to fit the stories, and I eventually found that it is really much more interesting and fun to discern reality as best I can and search for communities that already tell stories that seem to match the reality I am finding. 

Sometimes I find that the stories I learned in school are guiding my life despite my best efforts to live in the stories that I have found are better suited to reality. 
But this is a tricky business because I don’t have any choice about living within a story, so the question is what kind of story is guiding my life from moment-to-moment. 
Am I living a story that I accepted or one that I have chosen? 
Is the story guiding my actions consistent with my purposes in life or am I living out a story deeply embedded within me that contradicts my chosen intentions for living? 
The power of choosing your attitude is the ultimate in self-generation of your own story, but you still have to operate within the narrative conventions of your culture and society. 
We are not radically free to do absolutely anything (despite what some pop philosophers claim.) 
The surest route to insanity is to make a complete break with the conventions of your culture and society; because insanity really is just an individual living within a story no one else can understand. 

There are two logical perspectives on the concentration camps that Viktor Frankl presents and I believe a third is more accurate given my understanding. 
The first is what Fankl posits as the common view that meaning and purpose are found in creative work and passive enjoyment but not in suffering thus the camps are simply areas of the world that are devoid of meaning and purpose. 

Viktor Frankl disputes this perspective by observing that rare individuals in the camps must have connected with meaning and purpose to behave with dignity and compassion. 
He asserts that meaning and purpose are pervasive in the world therefore since suffering is in the world it has meaning and purpose. 
Viktor Frankl believes that psychological health and the ability to determine your own attitude are determined by individual ability to perceive the meaning and purpose that are in the world. 
Thus he explains the dignity and compassion of those few in the camps as caused by their particular ability to perceive meaning and purpose. 
Viktor Frankl developed his professional practice as a psychologist based on assisting people to perceive meaning in the world. 
He saw that everyone can make a conscious deliberate choice to perceive the meaning and purpose that pervades life if given the right opportunity.

Viktor Frankl's work came before the cognitive sciences, therefore his explanation is generally acceptable given his time. 
However, since cognitive science has challenged certain fundamental notions that Frankl took for granted it is useful to examine how to reframe his explanation from the new perspective. 

The basic problem is the assumption that meaning and purpose are in the world. 
This is not true. 
To take the paradigmatic example of color, what we know as red is a by-product of our particular cognitive structure, not some objective quality in the world. 
While under some conditions there is a correlation between certain wavelengths of light and the concept of red, under other conditions that correlation fails. 
The same is true of everything we can talk about, while there are some conditions in which we all agree on what is real, true, good and meaningful, there are other circumstances when we will not agree, even though the objective conditions might be the same. 

If purpose and meaning are in us and not the world, then how do we explain the behavior of those who acted with dignity and compassion in the concentration camps? 
I believe that what made the difference are habits of mind. 
Thus, the converse question is important to consider, given that meaning and purpose are in us then how do we explain the pervasive sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness that Frankl is arguing against? 
I believe that while we each have the power to assign meaning and purpose, we also have the option of accepting the opposite. 
We can assign meaninglessness and purposelessness to life as easily as meaningfulness and purposefulness. 
The pervasive view of the camps derives from a broadly accepted social attitude; a set of aggregated ideas about the camps that influenced how most individuals understood the situation. 

We are embedded in the world. 
We are influenced by levels both above and below us. 
Under the circumstances of the camps there are a number of factors that create a kind of momentum towards meaninglessness and purposelessness. 
Given the deprivations and the pervasive attitudes of those wielding authority then it is easy to see that at both levels above and below there are influences that are thwarting any effort to think independently about the situation. 
But, no matter what the objective circumstances, we are still wired for the ability to create meaning, therefore the question is what range of options are available. 
Most people are in the habit of flowing with the momentum of their circumstances and accept a situation according to how it’s understanding is prompted from outside themselves (from both lower and higher levels.) 
Some people, however, have developed the habit of deciding for themselves. 
These people are still aware of the influences from outside, but they have somehow reinforced the necessary brain circuitry for making independent decisions about the meaning and purpose of their situation. 
These people, therefore have a greater capacity to navigate their circumstances with more freedom, they have the ability to discern more behavioral options in any given situation. 

I now pursue writing in spite of everything that I learned in school. 
I also know that I frequently apply myself with extraordinary intensity to activities that matter to me. 
I have always succeeded at everything that I really set my mind on succeeding at and I have rarely set my mind on succeeding in terms that impress the rest of the world. 
Therefore, I am not rich, I am not famous, but I am living a life that is fulfilling and worthwhile. 
I may not be up to the level of withstanding the deprivations of a concentration camp, but I am certainly doing my best to develop independent habits of mind, so that the inevitable hardships of life are less likely to overwhelm me.

27 July 2018

Parenting Advice: Absurd or True?

Can we trust expert parenting advice?

What's a parent to do when parenting experts disagree?

Take these two statements from Psychology professors at the highly respected universities of MIT and Harvard.

    "[P]arents don't matter. What matters, other than genes, is a child's peer group."

         MIT Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker

    "[T]here is ample evidence that, for better or worse, parents do shape their children."

        Harvard Professor of Psychology, Jerome Kagan

What's going on here?

And how is it even possible to seriously propose the idea that parents don't matter?

The Pinker quote is from his introduction to Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption, which makes a very convincing case against important parts of the expert parenting advice of recent times.

Conventional wisdom would have us all believe that parents can cause children irreparable lifelong psychological harm if they do the wrong things and can convey significant advantage if they do all the right ones.

A Closer Look at Expert Parenting Advice

But is it true?

That's what scientists like Pinker and Kagan have been trying to puzzle out for decades.

They have amassed a lot of data to work with.

And herein lies the problem.

There are great volumes of data and Harris turned a skeptical eye to the data.

She made a careful reclassification of the existing studies and found that a lot of it was effectively useless.

Let me explain.

Let's pretend we have a collection of this kind of data on a bunch of normal kids.

Notice that this will not tell us about abuse or neglect because those are not normal and all the studies have gathered their data this way.

And what we would find is that they are distributed in a couple of interesting ways.

The Two Dimensions of Children's Data 

First the kids have varying levels of affection which ranges from being warm to cool, and second they vary according to how impulsive they are which ranges from assertive to reserved.

Now what we also find is that if we tilt our scales a little then the altitude becomes a pretty reliable predictor of later success in life.

Adding the Third Predictive Dimension to Children's Data

This predicts that someone who is both warm and assertive is the most successful kind of person while someone who is assertive but rather cold will do better than someone who is warm but reserved.

(If you have read my parenting styles page then this will look familiar.)

Finally, of course, if someone is both cold and reserved, then they are the least successful.

Dissecting Expert Parenting Advice

So the important question is what caused them to be that way?

Is it in their inherent, inborn nature or is it how they have been nurtured?

Is it hereditary or is it the environment?

Expert parenting advice is bought and sold in vast quantities on the assumption that the family environment is the most important factor.

Before I go on I have to point out that this data is NOT about the whole child, it is only about the measurable qualities of intelligence and personality that psychological tests and observations can record.

So there are two things to that are very important to notice:

First, this is data about a narrow part of what normal people are like, it does not reflect everything about what we may really think makes people who they are.
Second, it is data that is analyzed in a population. It is not about individuals, it is about a group.
Scientists have been puzzling out the differences between genes and learning for years and found that they cannot make any headway looking at individuals.

What Harris did that was remarkable was she used the data to show that heredity is more important that it was assumed to be and she also called into question who it is that is doing the nurturing.

So now, instead of just looking for the effects of just genes versus the environment, we are looking for the effects of genes versus the family environment versus the non-family environment.

They are normally called the shared vs. the unique environment.

Unique or shared in the sense of what is unique or shared within a family unit because that was assumed to be the most important factor.

And what this data makes available is NOT an accounting of which of the causes put someone in a particular place in the data set, it tells us how much each of the three causes contributes to the variance in the population.

So what we have in the whole data set is 100% of the variance.

Three Causal Factors in Children's Data

Then, when the data is analyzed properly the data shows that the unique environment accounts for 50% of the variance.

What that means is that if I was somehow miraculously able to know exactly how genes and your family determined your position in the set, then we would know that your actual position is going to be somewhere within a circle this big.

1st 50% of Causal Influence on Children is Unique Experiences & Chance

As you can see we can make only a limited prediction about future prospects.

Essentially, what this shows is that when they have examined the personalities and intelligence of identical twins they vary this much and no more because of the unique experiences that they each have.

That’s a lot of room to move.

Now if somehow I was able to determine exactly how unique experiences and genes determined your position but still did not have a handle on the shared family environment which is essentially the effect of parenting behaviors, then how much variance is there going to be?

The data show that the shared environment accounts for zero to ten percent of the variance depending on which studies are used.

Psychological Causation in Children (0-10% is Parental Behavior)
This is what is meant when someone giving expert parenting advice says that parents don't make a difference.

The Truth Behind Expert Parenting Advice

They mean that when you try to predict the intelligence and personalities of whole populations by observing parenting practices you don’t get good predictions.

As long as you are looking at normal kids, then it doesn’t matter what the parents are doing (within the normal range), the children's success in adult life will be a result of a combination of genetic endowment, their unique experiences and the chance events that occur to them.

Harris work is directed primarily at researchers to make the very important point that if they don’t give heredity it’s due and forget that a child's environment extends beyond the family then their data is bad, their analysis will be useless and the resulting expert parenting advice will be worthless, or even worse it might put an unnecessary guilt trip on parents for not being good enough.

Beware of Expert Parenting Advice in Sound Bites

So the controversy is really a red herring.

No one has actually suggested that parents don't matter AT ALL, they have only said that parenting behaviors don't influence the success that a child will attain as an adult due to his or her intelligence and personality.

No matter what you do directly to your child as a normal parent you cannot permanently change your child’s intelligence nor their personality,despite what some expert parenting advice will say.

So while Steven Pinker’s controversial statement was based on the truth, the combination of taking it out of context and his overstating the case makes it an absurdly provocative sound bite.

Redeeming Pinker's Expert Parenting Advice

And, therefore, Jerome Kagan's statement is perfectly true, as well.

In fairness I will let Steven Pinker redeem himself with this excerpt from his book The Blank Slate:

"Not everyone is ... accepting of fate, or of the other forces beyond a parent's control, like genes and peers.

'I hope to God this isn't true,' one mother said in the Chicago Tribune.

'The thought that all this love that I’m pouring into him counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.'

As with other discoveries about human nature, people hope to God it isn’'t true.

"[Remember]… a parent and a child have a human relationship.

No one ever asks, 'So you’re saying it doesn't matter how I treat my husband or wife?' even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one's spouse.

Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other’s personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship.

Imagine [you] told [me] that [I] cannot revamp the personality of [my] wife and [I] replied, 'The thought that all this love I'm pouring into … her counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.'

So it is with parents and children: one person’s behavior toward another has consequences for the quality of the relationship between them.

"Yes, it is disappointing that there is no algorithm for growing a happy and successful child.

But would we really want to specify the traits of our children in advance.…

People are appalled by human cloning and it's dubious promise that parents can design their children by genetic engineering.

But how different is that from the fantasy that parents can design their children by how they bring them up?

Realistic parents would be less anxious parents.

They could enjoy their time with their children rather than constantly trying to stimulate them, socialize them, and improve their characters.

"[These insights into parenting are] rescuing mothers from the fatuous theories that blame them for every misfortune that befalls their children, and from the censorious know-it-alls who make them feel like ogres if they slip out of the house to work or skip a reading of Goodnight Moon.

And the theory assigns us all a collective responsibility for the health of the neighborhoods and culture in which peer groups are embedded.

"Parents wield enormous power over their children, and their actions can make a big difference to their happiness.

Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility.

It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one.

As Harris writes, 'We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.'"

Professor Pinker and Judith Rich Harris have both looked deeply at the data and helped to illuminate what we all knew deep down to be true from the beginning.

Our moral responsibility begins with compassion.

Regardless of what expert parenting advice you get, your first and foremost duty in this life is to attend to the well-being of your family.

Neither you nor your children will thrive for very long in the community if you can’t first manage to get along within your family.

Discerning Good Expert Parenting Advice

Here are ways that parents do make a difference:

  • Parents protect their children from abuse and neglect that might cause permanent psychological harm.
  • Parents are responsible for what children learn about how to be in a family.
  • Most importantly parents have an inherently intimate relationship with their children, therefore they have a unique opportunity to be a strong presence in their children’s lives.

So it is absurd to say that parents don't matter.

But expert parenting advice for improving your child's intelligence or personality is also a waste of time and money.

In the end the most important parenting investment is creating the best possible relationship with your kids.

Not to be different than you are; not to make them different than they are; but to acknowledge and honor that you are each doing the best you can do with what you got, even when it's not perfect.