Who Am I?

LevineIn Stranger in the Mirror, Robert Levine argues that the self is unfixed, constantly changing, and, ultimately, a fiction. The way we see ourselves and the version of ourselves we present to others can vary widely from moment to moment.

To see his theory in action, there is an easy psychological test you can try, described in Chapter 14 of the book. On a blank sheet of paper, write “Who am I?” at the top and then answer that question 20 times. Next, have two others answer “Who is (your name)?” 20 times. Where do the answers align? Where are they different? What accounts for those differences? The results will be an interesting insight into what makes you, you.

According to Levine, Americans tend to come up with 20 answers about themselves fairly quickly, usually in the form of sweeping psychological traits (kind, outgoing). Stephen Cousins, a social psychologist who worked for a time in Japan, found that people there had a harder time with the test. They did not come up with answers as quickly, and the answers they did come up with were general and not very informative. They listed physical traits, their professions etc. They rarely listed psychological traits. However, when Cousins changed the test and asked “Who am I at home” or “Who am I at school,” the Japanese test subjects responded with more detail than the Americans did. In Japan, the self is all about context. Robert Levine goes into much more detail on the different ideas of “self” across cultures in Chapter 15 of Stranger in the Mirror.

For another snippet from the book, check out our poll on the PUP Facebook.

If you’ve ever wondered about the possibilities and limits of the self, then Robert Levine’s intriguing book is for you.

Robert Levine: The self is an act of creation

levine jacket stranger in the mirrorAre we all multiple personalities? In Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self, award-winning professor of psychology Robert Levine explores the malleability of the self, showing how transformation is the human condition at virtually every level. Recently he took the time to answer a few questions about Stranger in the Mirror.

You’ve been teaching and writing about social psychology for close to forty years. Your books have targeted one interesting topic after another, ranging from how different cultures keep time and which countries are most helpful toward strangers to the psychology of persuasion, cults and mind control. Yet you say this was the most interesting project you’ve ever worked on. Why?

RL: Not only the most interesting but, quite unexpectedly, the longest. I began this book a good ten years ago and I’d been studying many of the issues for a three decades before that. I initially expected it to be a one or two year project. I was going to write a book about the malleability of the self from the perspective of my home discipline of social psychology. It would be a treatise in the spirit of our guiding mantra: the power of the situation to transform people in ways that often take them by surprise, sometimes for the better but all too often for the catastrophically worse. For background, however, I thought I’d dabble into a few key discoveries through the lenses of the hard sciences—anatomy, genetics, medicine, neuroscience and the like. Once I opened these doors, however, the notion of dabbling went out the window. I was absolutely blown away by what I discovered. Every step led to a new story or a research program or piece of writing or artwork that topped the one before. It’s been a remarkable journey–as you say, the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on.

Can you give me an example?

RL: Here’s one from early on. I was working on a chapter about identical twins. I was interested in what the presence of a genetic duplicate does to one’s sense of individuality and selfhood. What does it say about the boundary between self and other? This led me to a small group of identical twins who’d been raised apart but, for one reason or another, had met up in adulthood. I was fascinated by the stories they told about what it was like to set eyes on a person who was not only their physical mirror-image but oftentimes their behavioral clone.

This led me to dig deeper into the genetics of twin-hood, at which point I was introduced to a condition whereby an individual consists of a mosaic of two distinct genomes. One woman I write about, for example, endured accusations of fraud when a test (in preparation for a kidney donation) revealed that her DNA didn’t match that of her son. Fortunately, a curious physician decided to conduct more detailed tests where it was discovered that the woman was composed of a mosaic of distinctly different DNA. Some of her organs showed the originally-found DNA pattern but others revealed a second pattern and this second pattern matched that of her son. The woman was a human chimera. She was, literally, biological twins. Now what does that mean for one’s notion of a self?

That led to an even more astonishing finding. A geneticist I was interviewing steered me toward ongoing work on a condition known as microchimerism. It turns out that, as a result of blood exchange in utero, many of us—some researchers now believe almost all of us—contain a cadre of our mother’s genetically distinct cells and she contains a cadre of ours. Psychologists argue about conditions like so-called multiple personality disorder. But could it be that we are all, literally, multiple people?

Does this mean you became less interested in the psychology?

RL: Not at all. These perspectives reframed, redirected and pushed me beyond what I thought I knew about the self from the perspective of psychology. I was surprised, in fact, at how seamlessly the questions raised at the level of microbiology sparked new questions at the level of human experience. This led to other multidisciplinary journeys that carried me not only to academic social and behavioral science research but to the insights of writers and philosophers and, from there, to the revolutions created by current technology. To continue with the genetics example: The notion of biologically multiple people led me to the world of doppelgangers and, in particular, to the razor sharp insights of writers like Dostoevsky and Robert Louis Stevenson (as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

But wait, I thought. Who needs fictional doppelgangers when almost anyone can now create their very own avatar? And once you begin looking into avatars it becomes clear that, before long, technology will allow our virtual creations to manifest as three dimensional holograms who walk among us. They won’t only appear to be real, they’ll be able to move and sound exactly like a real person—including like yourself if you so choose. As many of you as you want. How will this alter our sense of self and individuality? I then conducted my own research to answer questions like these.

A lot of your earlier writing, notably your book “A Geography of Time,” compares the mindsets of different countries and cultures. Does culture bear on the notion of a self?

RL: Absolutely and in the most fundamental ways. People raised in the United States, for example, tend to think of themselves as unique and independent. “A man’s got to be what a man’s got to be,” as the old John Wayne cowboy used to say. But in many parts of the world—most parts, in fact—there is a much fuzzier boundary between one’s self and other people. It’s what we refer to in social psychology as an interdependent view of the self. In one of our own studies, for example, we asked people from different countries to draw a circle representing themselves and a series of additional circles representing other people in their lives, and to then arrange the circles in a drawing that expressed how all of them fit together. Americans usually drew the biggest circle for themselves and placed it in the center of the picture, so that the other circles flared out like little satellites in their social universe. And, most telling, they almost always left spaces between the circles.

But when I showed the American drawings to my colleague Hong Ni, who grew up in China, she found it hard to believe Americans really think this way. “The self is too big,” she said. And, “Why are there spaces between the circles?,” she asked. Hong’s comments pretty well described the drawings we got from people in countries like Japan and China, where the self was rarely the biggest circle and it almost always overlapped with one or more of the others.

Other studies have found, in fact, that people in cultures like these find it hard to answer sweeping questions like “Who are you?” They need to be offered a specific context. They have little trouble, for example, answering questions like “Who are you when you’re with your mother?” or “Who are you when you’re with your best friend?” Americans, on the other hand, can rattle off answers to the question “Who are you?” with little trouble.

Think about this. If you were raised in the United States, you will probably spend your life feeling that you are an independent, ultimately separate human being at the center of your personal universe. If you’d happen to have been raised in Japan or China, however, you’d have little sense of personal identity except in your relationships to other people. Uniqueness and individuality wouldn’t matter much to you. It would be a fundamentally different sense of what it means to be you.

Your book obviously takes a wide-ranging view of the self. You tackle the issues from an extraordinarily broad range of disciplines at multiple levels. You also shift from academic research to case studies, anecdotes and personal experience. This can make for interesting reading but did you feel like any of it fit together?

RL: Perhaps the most remarkable discovery I made along this ten-plus-year journey was how effortlessly the findings from so many disparate disciplines led to the same overarching conclusions or, at least, the same questions. Let me list four: First, the boundaries that separate self from non-self are vague, quirky, and fickle. This seems to be true no matter where we look–from the microscopic biological level, where we are literally part us, part other, all the way up to the level of personal experience, where the boundaries of the self may be perceived as anywhere from the confines of one’s body to an entire village depending on who you are and how you were educated. Second, we are more like a republic than an individual, a collection of the many and diverse. We see this in everything from our genetic underpinnings, to the voices in our heads, to the persona we present to the world. And these various selves often seem to have minds of their own. They can be self-centered, pigheaded, and unconcerned with what happens to other facets of ourselves. Sometimes, in fact, the subselves go into battle with each other, our own personal civil wars. Third, we are malleable to the core. Everything about us, from our bodies to our neural circuitry to our personalities, from situation to situation and one time frame to another, is ever-changing.

Just who are we, then?

RL: You mean, is there such a thing as a real self? Not really, at least not as we imagine it to be. The self is story we tell ourselves, a narrative that gives our life meaning. It creates an identity that allows us to maneuver the world. But good storytelling shouldn’t be confused with factual reporting. The realities are vague, arbitrary, and utterly intangible.

This is starting to sound depressing. Is that what you’re suggesting?

RL: Am I saying we should all just pack up and go to the beach? Not in the least. Our changeability, in fact, is where the possibilities begin. This brings me to my fourth theme. Fluidity creates malleability and this malleability unleashes a wealth of potential. The very features of our self that can be so problematic—its arbitrary boundaries, multiplicity, and malleability—create possibilities for change. And this, too, emerges at multiple levels, from the micro to the macro. We discover new visions of our possible selves in epigenetics, bacterial implants, organ transplants, virtual reality and other artificial technology and, I’m proud to say, through new breakthroughs in my own discipline of psychology. The self is what we make of it. It is an act of creation. As we teach in one program I work with: Everyone is, literally, a hero-in-waiting.

Robert V. Levine is an award-winning professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno. He is former president of the Western Psychological Association and the author of A Geography of Time (Basic) and The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (Wiley). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Scientist, Discover, and other publications. He divides his time between Gualala and Fresno, California. His most recent book is Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self.

Joel Brockner on “bad process” in the Yahoo layoffs

Many feel that upper management in some of the most prominent companies has lost touch with how to care for employees on every rung of the ladder.  In his book The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success, Joel Brockner addresses managers who want to promote a high-quality work environment for employees. Today he writes about the problem of management manipulation in the case of Yahoo’s recent, unexpected rash of layoffs. Brockner insists that it was the method used by management rather than the action of firing the employees that lead to such an outcry.

Yahoo Lawsuits Begin Over Management Manipulation

by Joel Brockner

Process matters jacketYahoo has been going through tough times so we shouldn’t be surprised to hear, as the New York Times recently reported that, “More than one-third of the company’s work force has left voluntarily or involuntarily over the last year.” It also comes as little surprise that among the involuntarily departed, some are suing for wrongful termination. It’s tempting to chalk up the negative reactions of former employees to economic considerations. After all, when people’s livelihood is at stake, it’s understandable for them to be looking elsewhere or for giving their former employers hell to pay.

However, many studies show that it’s not simply decisions that are economically unfavorable that are causing the upset. Rather, the combination of economically tough decisions and people’s perceptions of the decisions being handled poorly are putting them over the edge. Those filing suit at Yahoo claim that the way in which the layoffs were implemented was unfair, in several respects. First, the layoffs allegedly violated both state and Federal law which requires 60 days advance notice. Furthermore, there was considerable consternation about how it was decided which employees would be laid off and which would remain. On paper, it is hard to argue with Yahoo’s method: based on their Quarterly Performance Review (QPR), those people who received the least favorable evaluations were the ones targeted for dismissal.

The problem, however, is not with making layoff decisions on the basis of (de)merit, but rather, with people’s perceptions of the way in which the QPR was done. According to the New York Times, “The Q.P.R. process was opaque and the employees did not know who was making the final decisions, what numbers were being assigned by whom along the way, or why those numbers were being changed,” the lawsuit says. “This manipulation of the Q.P.R. process permitted employment decisions, including terminations, to be made on the basis of personal biases and stereotyping.”

I suppose we also shouldn’t be terribly surprised to hear that the combination of a bad outcome and a bad process makes people very upset. After all, there is an expression in everyday life that captures such a state of affairs: “Adding insult to injury.” People feel injured by the bad outcome, and they are insulted by the way in which it was carried out. However, one thing we are learning from research and experience is that the expression, “adding insult to injury” doesn’t do justice to how aggrieved people feel when they find themselves in that situation. In mathematical terms, the expression, “multiplying insult times injury” is more like it. This is why I advise people in authority positions (executives, as well as teachers and parents) that whenever they have to make the tough decisions they should do whatever they can to ensure that the process for making and carrying them out is as high-quality as possible. This is not to say that that those on the receiving end will be happy; grudging acceptance comes closer to how most people will take it. But, grudging acceptance is a lot better than what authorities are likely to encounter when those on the receiving end feel like they have had the injury of an unfavorable outcome multiplied by the insult of an unfair or otherwise flawed process.

So, the Yahoos of the world who are faced with having to be the bearers of bad news have a choice. By investing in a well-handled process, they can minimize (read: not eliminate) the ire that translates into actions like lawsuits. Alternatively, by ignoring the quality of the process, they are at peril for more lawsuits or other expressions of discontent. Over and above the ethical imperative of handling the process well, there is an economic one: would you rather spend resources needed to handle the process well, or the far greater resources you are likely to need to defend yourself in a court of law?

Joel Brockner
 is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts. His most recent book is The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

New video trailer for The Secret of Our Success by Joe Henrich

Henrich jacketThe premise of Survivor, in which 16 previously unacquainted humans were routinely abandoned in forbidding locations to brave the elements, was no doubt wildly popular because of the simple fact that we humans, on our own, are virtually helpless. We aren’t particularly adept at building shelter, fending off predatory animals, and the thought of having to procure a meal with nothing but our bare hands and our wits is enough to make many of us run for our nearest Whole Foods. How on earth have we managed to dominate the globe when we can’t survive in the wild? As Joseph Henrich points out, human groups are far less hopeless than lone individuals, and our collective brains have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have not only allowed us to inhabit diverse environments, but have actually shaped biology. Check out the trailer for his new book, The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating our Species, and Making Us Smarter.

 

 

 

Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

Jonathan Zimmerman: How consensual is casual sex on campus?

zimmerman jacketIn a recent op ed in Washington Post on the question of consensual sex on college campuses, Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, writes, “… if we want to protect our students, not just their colleges, we will have to begin a deeper dialogue about the meaning of sex itself.” In an approach that departs from debates that have focused on what constitutes ‘legal’ sex, Zimmerman questions the ability of students to emotionally connect in such an intimate setting in extremely limited periods of time:

We might succeed in cajoling more students into some kind of verbal consent. But that’s a script, a bedroom contract between sexual vendors. Yes, it will make the whole transaction legal. But consensual? Really? If you met somebody an hour ago, how can you tell what they want? And since you know so little about them, aren’t you more likely to do something that they don’t want, no matter what kind of “consent” they have given?

According to Zimmerman, university online courses, workshops and informational resources about consensual sex on campus fail to emphasize the vital notions of emotional connection and communication. Due to this lack of communication, he suggests that although female students may verbally give consent, they are still pressured to do things they would normally avert.

Read Zimmerman’s full piece in the Washington Post here.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of Education and History at New York University. He has also authored Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American.

New Brain & Cognitive Science Catalog

We invite you to scroll through the 2016 Brain & Cognitive Science catalog below.

Phishing for PhoolsDon’t miss Phishing for Phools! Nobel Prize-winning economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller challenge the traditional idea that the free market is inherently benign and show us through numerous stories how sellers can manipulate and deceive us.

 

 

ThriveIn Thrive, Richard Layard and David M. Clark argue that the economic and social advantages of investing in modern psychological therapies more than make up for the cost, and that we cannot afford to ignore an issue that affects at least 20% of people in developed countries.

 

 

future of the brainThe Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, is a collection of essays that explore the exciting advances that will allow us to understand the brain as we never have before.

 

 

 

Secret of our SuccessJoseph Henrich makes the case that our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to socially connect with each other and benefit from a collective intelligence in The Secret of Our Success.

 

 

 

For these and many more titles in cognitive science, see our catalog above! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off on select titles through November 13, 2015.

Fall Sale

Finally, if you’ll be attending the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago from October 17-21, visit us at booth 126. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #SfN15!

Paul Krugman hosting free discussion at Cooper Union with authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketTonight, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman will host a free public discussion at Cooper Union with Richard Layard & David M. Clark, co-authors of Thrive: How Better Mental Health Care Transforms Lives and Saves Money. Richard Layard discussed the book with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Surveillance here, and both authors answered some questions on mental health policy for the PUP blog here.

Mental illness is a leading cause of suffering in the modern world. In sheer numbers, it afflicts at least 20 percent of people in developed countries. It reduces life expectancy as much as smoking does, accounts for nearly half of all disability claims, is behind half of all worker sick days, and affects educational achievement and income. There are effective tools for alleviating mental illness, but most sufferers remain untreated or undertreated. What should be done to change this? In Thrive, Richard Layard and David Clark argue for fresh policy approaches to how we think about and deal with mental illness, and they explore effective solutions to its miseries and injustices.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords. He is the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which has been translated into twenty languages.

David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Paul Krugman is an author and economist who teaches at Princeton, the London School of Economics and elsewhere. He won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. He is also an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times.

 
September 29, 2015 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
 
The Great Hall
Foundation Building
7 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003
USA
 

Please RSVP here.

Introducing the new video trailer for PHISHING FOR PHOOLS by Robert Shiller & George Akerlof

Phishing for Phools jacketDo you have a weakness? Of course you do. Which means, according to Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, you have probably been “phished” for a “phool.”

We tend to think of phishing as the invisible malevolence that led our grandparents to wire money to Nigeria, or inspired us to click on a Valentine’s day link that promised, “someone loves you,” and then promptly crashed our hard drive. But more generally understood, “phishing” is inseparable from the market economy of everyday life. As long as there is profit to be made, psychological weaknesses will be exploited. For example, overly optimistic information results in false conclusions and untenable purchases in houses and cars. Health clubs offer overpriced contracts to well-intentioned, but not terribly athletic athletes. Credit cards feed dramatic levels of debt. And phishing occurs in financial markets as well: Think of the legacy of mischief at work in the financial crises from accounting fraud through junk bonds and the marketing of derivatives.

Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that the invisible hand of free markets provides us with material well-being. In Phishing for Phools, Akerlof and Shiller challenge this insight, arguing that markets are far from being essentially benign and don’t always create the greater good. In fact, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps.

We are thrilled to introduce this new video trailer in which Robert Shiller talks about his new book with George Akerlof, Phishing for Phools:

 

A Q&A with Richard Layard and David Clark, authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketHow can mental illness—an affliction that affects at least 20 percent of people in developed countries, reduces life expectancy, and wrecks havoc on educational potential—remain chronically under-treated? The answer is simple: mental and physical pain are not viewed equally, and even in a relatively progressive culture, the former remains profoundly stigmatized. As a result, most who suffer from mental health issues suffer in silence, or receive inadequate support. Can this change? Richard Layard and David Clark say it can.

In Thrive, Layard and Clark look at the practical politics of increasing access to mental health care, arguing that the therapies that exist—and work—are available at little to no cost. Recently, both took the time to answer some questions about the book, and the transformative power of mental health care.

What is the message of your book?

Depression and anxiety disorders are the biggest single cause of misery in Western societies. They also cause enormous damage to the economy. But they are curable, in most cases, by modern evidence-based psychological therapy. The shocking thing is that very few of those who need it get any help and fewer still get help based on evidence. In England such help is now becoming available to many of millions who need it. As we show, this help involves no net cost to society. It’s a no-brainer.

What is the scale of the problem?

Surveys of households in rich countries show that around 1 in 6 adults have depression or anxiety disorders severe enough to cause major distress and impair the person’s functioning. Only a quarter of these people are in any form of treatment, most usually medication. This is shocking. For surveys show that mental illness is the biggest single reason why people feel dissatisfied with their lives – accounting for more of the misery in our societies than either poverty or unemployment do.

What is its economic cost?

Mental illness accounts for nearly a half of all absenteeism from work and for nearly a half of all those who do not work because of disability. This imposes huge costs on employers and taxpayers. Mental illness also increases the use of physical healthcare. People with a given physical illness of a given severity use 50% more physical healthcare if they are also mentally ill. This is a huge cost to those who fund healthcare.

Does psychological therapy help?

In the last 40 years considerable progress has been made in developing effective psychological therapies. The most studied therapy is CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a broad heading for therapies which focus on directly influencing thoughts and behaviours – in order to affect the quality of human experience. In hundreds of randomised controlled trials CBT has been shown to produce recovery rates of over 50% for depression and anxiety disorders. For anxiety, recovery is generally sustained; for depression, the risk of relapse is greatly reduced.

The range of therapies which have been shown to work has been surveyed internationally by the Cochrane Collaboration and in England by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Besides CBT, NICE also recommend for all depressions Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) and, for mild to moderate depression, Brief Psychodynamic Therapy, Couples Therapy and Counselling. Modern psychological therapies have also been shown to be effective in a wide range of other mental health conditions.

Do these therapies really cost nothing?

Yes. If delivered to a representative group of patients they pay for themselves twice over. First, they pay in reduced invalidity benefits and lost taxes due to invalidity. We know this from a series of controlled trials. Second, they pay for themselves in reduced costs of physical healthcare. Again we know this from controlled trials. It is so partly because the typical cost of an evidence-based course of treatment is only about $2,000.

How can these therapies become more widely available?

Two things are needed. First, there have to be enough people trained to deliver these therapies. This is the responsibility of universities and colleges, including of course supervised on-the-job training. Second, there have to be effective frameworks where trained people can be employed. The evidence is that recovery rates are higher where people are employed in teams where they can get supervision, in-service training, and clear career progression.

Those who fund healthcare have in the USA and UK the legal obligation to provide parity of esteem for mental and physical healthcare, and this requires that they are willing to fund high quality evidence-based therapies that are made easily available and provide the necessary duration of treatment, based on evidence. Insurers never fund half a hip replacement and they should not fund only half a proper course of psychological therapy.

What can be learnt from the English experience?

The English National Health Service has in recent years developed a totally new service to deliver evidence-based psychological therapies. (It’s called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)). This service has, over six years, trained altogether 6,000 therapists and is now treating nearly half a million people a year, with a recovery rate of 46% and rising. The prestigious journal Nature has called it “world-beating”.

How can we prevent mental illness in the first place?

First we must of course treat it as soon as it appears. This is often in childhood, where the same evidence-based treatments for depression and anxiety disorders apply as in adulthood. For children’s behaviour problems, parent training and family therapy are recommended.

But we must also reduce the overall prevalence of mental illness. This requires major changes throughout society. First, more support and education for parents. Second, schools which give more priority to the well-being of children. Third, employers who treat their workers with appreciation and encouragement and not as income-maximising machines. Fourth, more positively-oriented media. And finally, a new citizens’ culture giving more priority to compassion, both as an emotion and as a spring for action.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords.  David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Read chapter one here.

Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary aftertheshooting.com, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.

How?

JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.

Who?

JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.