Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

So I’ve noticed how some people are strongly against socialism.

Or at least, to some interpretation of it. To the idea that a core foundation of society should involve people doing things for the good of everyone as a whole, with no direct benefit to themselves individually. To a system in which we all try to do good for each other based on what we each need, rather than what we can each afford or achieve on our own. That sounds terrible to a lot of people.

And it’s not some perverse hatred of generosity and kindness which leads them there. It’s possible, apparently, to believe that a ruggedly capitalist system, where no more is ever provided to people than what they’re able to earn and pay for, would be the optimal way to allow our most noble impulses to improve the world.

But a lot of the objections to socialist ideas and programs come from thinking too small.

Often, when people are imagining how terrible socialism would be, they’re picturing some amount of their money being taken away from them and given to someone else, because some central authority has deemed that this other person “needs” it more. And they think, hey, I earned that money, through all that tedious drudgery I have to do just to survive at that job I resent, so why does it get taken away from me by the government, to give to someone else who didn’t even work for it?

I mean, for this to make much sense, you need to pretend that people generally get paid money in relation to how hard they toil and how useful their work, which is just comical lunacy. But even so, the above paragraph is not a useful way to imagine how society could work if we were all looking after each other.

When I’m at work, earning a salary to keep me in books and cheesecake, I’d also resent the idea of chunks of it being nibbled at and taken away for things that won’t directly benefit me. I’ve kinda been numbed to it with tax and national insurance deductions by now, but they still hurt a little when I really look at my payslip. We’re a naturally loss-averse species, and I have financial commitments to worry about. Millennia of evolution have given my brain clear instructions on how infuriated it should be by the idea of something of mine being taken away from me.

But regardless of my gut reaction, helping people is a good thing to do, and in the right circumstances it can feel like it as well. If there were more of such solidarity and mutual aid going around in every direction, we’d be less worried and insecure about our own financial position, and might be able to react less violently to any possible sliver of charity we might somehow be tricked into performing.

As it stands, I’ve got bills to pay, a mortgage, animals to feed, all kinds of shit. If my or my wife’s gainful employment went away, even for a little while, I’d be panicking about our income and how we were supposed to cope. Of course I’m going to be wary of any of that vital cashflow being snatched away at the source, and I’ve got a way better and less frangible deal than many people in similar positions.

But without all those artificial worries to make me so insecure – without the capitalistic infrastructure, which massively disincentivises selflessness, and puts people in positions where actual lasting financial security is an impossible pipe dream for almost everyone – if we could just escape all that and feel safe and get the system of incentives right…

…then I’d love to work as hard to help other people as I currently do just to keep alive. And I’d take what help I can from them, too. Be part of a supportive network, a community.

As it is, chances are good that I’ll be too scared to let any of my effort go toward helping anyone else, for fear of losing out. But that attitude works both ways. So my colleagues might then be similarly disinclined to look after me when I’m sick, or keep me sheltered and fed if I lost my job or couldn’t work, or buy me a drink when I’m out of change, or work at schools where my kids will get educated, or help maintain safe roads and reliable public transport, or provide some sort of allowance to help me continue living an independent and worthwhile life when I’m old and decrepit… or any of the numerous ways that every person alive relies on the rest of the species to help them out. Because they’ve got their own lives to support and are worried about their ability to do so, even before I start free-loading.

We might all end up deciding not to let anyone else benefit from anything we could keep to ourselves, if we allow the idea of helping other people to become so abhorrent and frightening.

So if you’re worried about socialism because of what other people might take from you and how little you can afford, I understand. I totally get the feeling of financial insecurity, the urgent need to make sure you can keep a roof over your family’s heads, and put food on the table, without also being expected to take care of other people you don’t even know.

But it’s worth asking where that constant anxiety as you cling to survival comes from, and whether it’s really necessary. Is the system as it currently stands really working out so well for you? It’s made you live in fear of what you might lose out, without appreciating the vastness of the potential for you to gain. You really don’t know what you’re missing.

Especially if you live in the US and you have no perspective on how horrifying your country looks to anyone who’s grown up with socialised healthcare, I mean holy shit you need to sort that the fuck out.

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This is not a post about how you should be fixing all your own problems by yourself, by just cheering up and adopting a positive mental attitude.

There are a lot of things we can do to physically influence our mental state, without introducing any external factors like drugs or alcohol. In fact, we’re unavoidably doing it all the time.

We tend to assume that being happy makes us smile, being tired makes us slump into a pathetic heap, and so on. That’s how we imagine bodies work. In fact, the way we feel and the way we express ourselves to the world is not at all a one-way street.

For instance, if you adopt a superhero stance, or a “power pose”, it will make you feel more powerful. And adopting a withdrawn, nervous, low-power posture will make you feel more anxious and reduce your confidence. You might adopt such a position because of anxiety and low confidence, but if you do, your posture will likely reinforce it. Even if you feel great and only stand like that in order to pretend, you will still start to feel anxious and less confident, because of the way your brain takes on feedback.

Also, smiling makes you happy. Botox can both treat depression and cause depression, because it suppresses the ability to both smile and frown. Also, exercise is useful in treating depression.

In all these cases, your brain notices how your body is behaving, and uses that to decide how it must be feeling. It’s really not meant to work that way around. But it does.

For years now, I’ve been reading the kinds of blogs and listening to the kinds of podcasts that often talk about fascinating, important, and deeply counter-intuitive features of human psychology, so this kind of thing gets brought up a lot. And, having been saturated in it for so long, I now regularly try to incorporate it into my life.

If I’m not having the best day at work, sometimes I’ll hide in the toilet and spend a few moments grinning ridiculously and leaping around a bit, in the kind of way that could only possibly be explained by my being in a fantastically good mood. And honestly, if I let myself go along with it, this is pretty good at making me feel better. Acting like I’m really happy seems to remind me that I don’t have to be mopey by default just because I’m not actively thrilled to be in the office and I’ve got resting bitchface. My brain sees me looking goofy and bouncing around, and goes “Oh yeah! Things are pretty good apparently!” Even just remembering to stand up straighter can improve my outlook.

Science has learned some wonderfully bizarre and amazing things in this area of psychology, and there are many ways for us to take control of our own state of mind and have a significant impact on our feelings, motivations, and emotions.

That’s all good and important and if I were a more consistent writer I could fill a dozen blog posts about all this stuff.

But none of that’s the point.

The point is: it is incredibly difficult to talk about this in a way that’s actually empowering.

What I’d love to discuss is some uncontroversial scientific data, and my own recent experiences with some very light brain-hacking. What I want to do is talk about how everyone can find this data useful in their own lives, in the same way that I have.

What I’m in real danger of actually doing is patronising everyone and inadvertently blaming them for all their problems.

Because everything I’m talking about is a hair’s breadth away from terrible popular advice that everyone’s heard a million times before. People with depression or mental health issues are constantly told to just pull themselves together and get over it, by people who don’t understand what they’re experiencing. Men never seem to shut the fuck up from telling women to smile. And the supply of folk who think fat people maybe just haven’t encountered the advice “try eating less” before, and consider it their moral duty to deliver this important message to them for the first time, is apparently endless.

The thing about this advice is that it’s always about the giver, not the beneficiary. If you shout an instruction to smile at an irritated stranger, that’s not going to make them want to smile. It’s far more likely to irritate them further, and it’s hard to imagine someone not understanding that without being wilfully oblivious to other people’s actual emotions.

Ditto with “just cheer up”. Nobody says that because they think it’s going to help. They say it to try to browbeat another person into complying with their wish for a more artificially cheerful environment. They say it when somebody else is bothering them by not being in a sufficiently upbeat mood.

This is true even if the woman walking down the street being harassed from a building site really is only in a mildly bad mood for no good reason, and really could make herself feel better by changing her stance and facial expression and choosing to shake it off. Unfortunately, you’re not introducing her to a useful and empowering psychological tool in a safe environment, where she might be able to take it on board and use it to improve her life. You’re just being a selfish dick.

So how do you talk informatively about the potential for positive psychology to improve people’s lives, without just being part of that same unhelpful crowd? There are just tripwires everywhere. Already it might seem like I’m nagging at people who hide in the toilet at work to cry and feel shit about themselves, like they should do what I do instead, and just choose to put on a brave face and force themselves to feel better. That’s absolutely not my aim. I really don’t want to make anyone in that position feel worse than they already are, but it’s so hard to get a constructive point across without putting my foot in it like that.

Self-defeating emotional behaviours are innately extremely good at defending themselves from treatment. There’s so much science can tell us about how to improve ourselves as much as we claim we want to, but the problem makes us want to solve it by doing things that actually make it worse. The often insurmountable difficulty of applying solutions that work, despite their easy availability, is one of the great frustrations of the modern age.

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It takes a relatively short amount of time, and a few fairly well understood psychological techniques, to implant memories in people.

The science is basically in: Your memory is not a camera that faithfully records your experiences in the world and plays them back to you later. It’s constantly re-interpreting and re-writing itself, and can easily be fooled into taking on board fictitious details, treating them just the same as all the memories that originated from actual experiences.

People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened, as one headline puts it.

So, the next time we hear about someone confessing to a crime, and it turns out they were interrogated for eight hours by police first, using techniques known to elicit both false memories and false accusations, can we agree in advance that this confession means nothing, and that we don’t actually have to pay a damn bit of attention to their own opinion on what they did, and that we can thank the cops for screwing up the evidence if we’re unable to bring a case against anyone as a result?

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So a lot of Republican politicians are hypocrites.

I forget what prompted me to bring that up. It’s the kind of self-evident truth I think it’s okay to just throw out there, and take it as a basic, axiomatic principle. Saying “citation needed” seems redundant over something so blandly obvious.

With some regularity, some Republican politician will do something pretty messed up in a tiresomely familiar way. One thing that often happens, while their fans are busily sweeping it under the rug or denying its importance, is that their detractors will point out how much of a fuss those same Republicans and their supporters would be making, if it had been a Democrat pulling this kind of shit.

The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter. A governor buggering a bridge in revenge at a mayor. A committee on reckless spending blowing $10,000s on a cocaine and strippers party. You know, normal politician stuff.

And the whole “you’d be throwing a fit if the tables were turned” argument often looks pretty sound. Republicans grabbing any opportunity to score petty political points over the supposed misdeeds of their opponents? Once again, citation surplus to requirements. But people mostly seem to draw entirely the wrong conclusion from it.

Because the accusation tends to be hurled at the opposing team in exactly the kind of point-scoring tactic supposedly being decried. Not nearly enough blame is apportioned to the tribalistic party political system as a whole, in which we’re urged to pick a coloured hat to wear, fanatically join forces with anyone else wearing the same colour hat as us, and dedicate ourselves to proving the superiority of our particular colour of headwear. This last duty is generally engaged with more zeal than we end up applying to the job of representing the people, or doing anything to improve the world.

Observing that “Republican politicians suck and are hypocrites” is not especially challenging or interesting. Refining your observation to “Republican politicians, finding themselves quagmired in the system we’ve currently decided to use to make our decisions, are massively incentivised to rationalise ludicrous double-standards and to defend their base at the expense of any kind of logic or basic decency, if they want their careers to survive” is a slight improvement.

As soon as you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you start veering toward these kind of defensive thought processes. You start giving your in-group the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the worst of the outsiders. You start filtering what information makes it through to your consciousness, until it becomes easy to believe that some bunch of assholes got together over there and decided just to be bad, you guys, not like us nice folk over here, who are very similarly entrenched on the other side of the battlezone but are good for totally legitimate reasons that don’t require any selective or motivated reasoning whatever I’m sure.

Once you pick a side, that’s the path you start going down. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person. You’re smart and witty and thoughtful and you look great, you’ve been working out, I can tell. It’s because this is how humans are hard-wired. There is no escaping these traps. The best we can do is to be consciously aware of them, and notice when they might unconsciously be swaying us.

Yeah, you’re right. Republicans probably would have gone crazy if a Democrat had pulled that kind of shit. That’s what you get when a species that’s been building these patterns of behaviour into our brain for millions of years insists on still living in tribes.

People are not generally the antagonists of their own narrative. Very rarely do you find a group genuinely comprised of self-identified baddies intent on committing foul villainy upon the land. Only one springs immediately to mind – and whatever you might like to think, the GOP is not Slytherin.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Why’d I have to pick the Republicans as the purported antagonists here? Isn’t that too easy and crowd-pleasing? Aren’t I giving away my own tribalistic biases there, as I denounce them in others?

2. So what’s the solution, if we don’t like the two-party system? Just add more tribes? Isn’t that just going to distribute the problem over a wider area?

3. Honestly though, can you think of anything to spend $10,000s of taxpayer money on that’s better than a cocaine and strippers party?

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Recently I experienced one of the shockingly few occasions, in my thirty years and change on this world, in which death wasn’t just an abstract concept for me to vaguely understand from an intellectual distance.

Our guinea pigs died a little over a week ago, and as such, this blog is now sadly mascotless.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the loss of Kirsty’s cat Bruno, in a post critically acclaimed and highly lauded by a wide audience of in-laws who’d known Bruno for years longer than I had and were also sad that he’d gone.

This isn’t a eulogy post for Higgs and Boson in the same way that that was for Bruno. But I wanted to write about a few things that I noticed, in the immediate aftermath of that time I wandered outside to give our furry friends some fresh water and grass, only to discover two motionless corpses.

1. I was surprised how bothered I was that they were dead.

I say “surprised” because this was undoubtedly a less significant and tragic moment than when my cat housemate died in 2011. This is true even though I’d only lived with him for his last couple of shaky months, while the pigs had been around for a few years.

I mean, guinea pigs? C’mon. Not to diminish anyone else’s attachment to their own furry rodents, but they’re a bit rubbish.

Higgs and Boson were squeaky idiots without a great deal of personality, lacking the brainpower to even conceptualise who I was in any meaningful way which might have let me delude myself that they cared about me. Not like cats. Cats are very good at forcing that delusion upon you, especially when they’re hungry.

Our pig-interest had drifted notably in recent months, anyway, especially since Pi came along and was way more interesting. We kept them fed and watered and safe from wild animal attacks, but we hadn’t had much socialising time with them lately. Aside from bringing them in to splash around in the bath while I was cleaning out their hutch a little while ago, we hadn’t really ventured very far above the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of piggy needs. They were fluffy and cute, and a regular part of my life – just not a hugely important or stimulating one.

But for nearly a week, my mind kept wandering back to the fact that they were gone, and feeling horrible about it. Several times a day my face and throat would start doing that thing like when my wife sees a John Lewis advert or a lonely owl.

I’ve never actually lost anything that’s been as big a part of my life as they were. Which sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s true. Nothing else has been there so constantly and consistently – checking their water and food just about every day, letting them run about in the grass while their hutch gets cleaned out most weekends, making sure they’re tucked in safe every time the wind and the rain picked up – and then suddenly not been anywhere any more.

This was the first death of a pet that was really mine. Not like Bruno; I was just his fellow lodger for a couple of months. But I went with Kirsty to pick Higgs and Boson out from the pet shop. And I dug a hole to bury them in at the bottom of the garden.

2. I think the pigs have kinda acted as a proxy for something I’ve had very little experience of having to face directly.

There’s something ideologically offensive about the idea of something, which once was, just suddenly ending like that. The guinea pigs turning up dead has been a reminder that this is something which can just happen, out of nowhere, to me and to things in my life. Even if pigs rank pretty low on the heartbreak scale, I’m going to lose things I love.

I didn’t so much miss them and want them back – they’re guinea pigs, there’s not a lot to miss – but I wanted this whole thing not to have happened. And let’s be honest: I wanted it not to have happened to me. It was a selfish feeling, more than something based on real sympathy for the pigs’ own plight.

It makes everything feels less certain and stable, in a way that I’m pretty sure you’re meant to figure out when you’re about six, but which I seem to have missed.

3. Often, your physical response determines your emotions more than the other way around.

The phrase to Google if you want to find out the fascinating story here seems to be “misattribution of arousal“. Basically, various physiological states such as fear and excitement have a lot in common, as far as what’s going on in terms of your body chemistry – and whether you’re frightened or excited in any given moment is, to a surprising extent, something your brain can just decide for itself, rather than being entirely determined by the situation you’re in.

This is why horror movies and roller coasters are good first date ideas. The actual reason someone’s pulse is racing might be because they’re being flung through the air, or screaming at an actress not to go outside alone because she’s going to get eviscerated – but on some level, all they know is that they’re sat next to you, and they’re manifesting all the same physical symptoms of romantic interest and excitement, so they unconsciously make up a story to explain why you appear to get them all hot and bothered.

I’ve been able to watch something similar happening to my own emotions. When I was back at work a couple of days after burying the pigs (it was a long bank holiday weekend, I didn’t take compassionate leave), there were a couple of moments when I walked briskly across the office, sat down, felt a bit out of breath (because I walk fast and my body is a frail bundle of out-of-shape twigs) – and suddenly felt sad about them again.

The natural assumption, if I were still labouring under the common misconception that I have any innate understanding of my own thoughts and feelings, would be that my grief sometimes causes me to feel physically lethargic and run-down. What’s actually happening far more often is that, after some minor physical exhaustion, my brain notices that slight feeling of sagging due to being a bit puffed, and decides after the fact that I must be feeling sad about the pigs, so it conjures up some appropriate emotions to suit my physical state.

Sometimes, I’m not crying because I feel sad; I feel sad because I’m crying. This is a ridiculous way for a conscious mind to arrange things. But it’s also seriously empowering to know that, if your mood’s kinda low, maybe you just haven’t stood up straight, adopted a Superman pose, and forced a smile in too long – and that such easy fixes can really make a big difference.

4. I gave blood again last week.

It was my fifth time, and it’s still an important, easy, wonderful thing that you can probably do too. It hurts less than banging your toe on a door, which I’ve also done this week, only this way you save lives and you get a free biscuit.

And although that’s still all true, and I believe and stand by my usual spiel as much as ever… I believe it as an idea, on an intellectual level, at a remove from what it means.

When I exhort you to find a blood donation centre near you, and go along sometime to chat about your suitability to donate with some wonderfully professional and friendly nurses, and let them look after you every step of the way while you stop people from dying, just by having a bit of a lie down and then a snack… I’m not really feeling the emotional impact of what I’m talking about.

I absolutely mean every word. Giving blood is good, saving lives is wonderful, and people are important. I’ve been sad, and I’ve missed people, and there are people in my life who I really don’t want to die.

But these two guinea pigs are about the greatest loss I’ve ever actually had to personally deal with.

What it’s actually like – the actual sensations, the qualia, the damnable phenomena and experiences we’re trying to prevent, the aching hollowness, the bewildering sense of loss and being lost, the disorientation of stumbling on a missing stair… that’s all still new to me. It shouldn’t be, for someone my age, given the inevitability of having to face it, and the lack of notice with which it may come. But there it is.

And if it scales up proportionately – from unremarkable whiffly balls of hair who it’s been quite nice to have around, up to, like, people, with brains full of personalities and agency and hopes and clich├ęs and all the rest – then holy crap. Death sucks.

Yep. That’s why you come here. For the frequent updates, and for the profound and original insights into the human condition.

That’ll do, pigs. That’ll do.

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When I wrote this – about the assumption that people who haven’t achieved as much as you are inherently less virtuous – I missed one of the most interesting observations.

The key assumption behind, say, asking what other people’s excuse is for not reaching the same heights you have, and overcoming hurdles and problems like you did, is that success is entirely about determination, grit, mettle, tenacity, fortitude, and other internal merits. Any attribution of failure to external influences – even to some small degree – is written off as excuse-making.

Which is clearly nonsense. It’s not simply a matter of having some innate thing called “character”, and triumphing by pure will, totally disconnected and independent from the outside world. The people we are, and the “determination” or whatever that we’re capable of displaying, is massively shaped by what the world does to us.

But supposedly, it’s unacceptable to pass any shred of one’s shortcomings onto circumstances beyond one’s control, or to expect to be helped along by any kind of intervention from outside your own personal driving force to succeed. Stepping in to help someone out, simply through altruism (it’d be different if you were investing in a business proposition) is beyond the pale; some few exceptional individuals have made sacrifices and overcome obstacles to reach success, and anyone who wants to do the same should just follow that example and not expect any hand-outs.

Except, that’s not how the people who reason this way actually behave. They do make intervention’s into people’s lives, get involved with people’s efforts to succeed, and make contributions in an effort to affect and shape other people’s chances of success.

It’s just that their only intervention is what’s evident in blog posts like the one I linked to which irritated me so much.

Their intervention is to scold, and to chastise, and to spread this message that success or failure is decided entirely within your own mind.

The one contribuion that Matt Walsh guy thought it was worthwhile making, to the lives of women who’ve had children and haven’t got themselves into the same shape that Maria Kang did, was to tell them to be inspired by her message, and to quit whining if they were offended, and to stop coming up with feeble excuses for not already having reached a pinnacle of perceived physical success.

What was he expecting this to achieve?

Did he think it might affect someone’s behaviour, and give them a mental boost that’d help them to work harder and achieve everything they’re capable of? It seems like his intention was something along those lines. But if such hectoring is capable of influencing people’s path, of impacting on their decisions and swaying their chances of success, then why shouldn’t other factors outside a person’s own psyche have a similar effect?

The tone of the article acts as if people are expected to simply be superior human beings by their own force of will – but simultaneously, pointing out their current state of inferiority is presumed to motivate them and steer their actions, in a manner which its whole argument says is impossible.

If no valid excuse for failure is acceptable, then there can be literally nothing in the physical universe which could have any impact on what somebody achieves. And then you get into a kind of weird predeterminism which I don’t think anybody actually adheres to. Black people should stop complaining about being targeted by the police and just knuckle down to work harder and compensate for it. Non-violent drug offenders should get a shave and a haircut and rise above that criminal record which might stop less determined individuals from getting a worthwhile job. Anyone in Somalia who hasn’t managed to net themselves a nice little summerhouse in the Hamptons by now is just lazy.

If you can acknowledge that the preceding paragraph’s conclusions are insane, then you can’t deny that you – along with the rest of the world around us – have the power to influence other people’s chances of success, by making things easier or harder for them to achieve what they aim for, and making them more or less likely to possess the kind of will, determination, and self-awareness to be able to work meaningfully toward their goals in the first place.

One way to do that is by telling them to stop making excuses and work harder for their rewards like other people have. Another way might involve being less of a dick.

But if there’s any justification for intervening in people’s lives with a nagging article like that one, then there’s no reason to be down on other ways of helping people, or of understanding the circumstances in which they might not be living up to their full potential, and might deserve help.

Classroom discussion questions

1. What might be a valid excuse for not looking like Maria Kang when your kids are the same age as hers?

2. How do you balance the importance of personal autonomy against acceptance of fate and circumstance?

3. Am I being unfair characterising this as a largely right-libertarian position?

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What I don’t want to talk about, more than I have to, is the incredibly condescending tone of an article I read recently, and the way it dismisses any criticisms of its message as the irrational ravings of hateful monsters.

There’s an attempt at logic and argument in there, buried under a mountain of disingenuous rhetoric. And while the latter is what originally made me grumpy, I don’t want to respond emotionally in the way that first occurred to me.

Instead, I want to talk directly about the item being defended with such sneering derision for those who took umbrage to it. This item:

If you’re anything like me, and haven’t seen this before (apparently I missed the Twitterstorm when it first made the rounds), you’re probably feeling some things quite strongly after taking all that in. Notice what you’re feeling and how your hindbrain wants to react. Mull that instinctive response over. It’s important, but you need to not stop there.

Maria Kang actually seems to be a decent person. She’s overcome adversities in her life and succeeded despite them, and she seems to genuinely want to encourage other people to do the same. There’s a significant understanding gap evident in the above picture, and the caption is massively misjudged, but I think there was very little malice to her intentions.

However, there is an implication to the words she chose to use. In her blog entries discussing it later, she acknowledges the way her message was interpreted by many, but never really takes ownership of it. And the unsympathetic, compassionless, impatient, victim-blaming overtones – even if they’re not at all what she intended – represent a tragically common worldview. A worldview in which there are no “reasons” when it comes to absolutely any level of shortcoming or failure, only “excuses”.

Let’s pretend that I’m somebody being asked the question, by somebody who takes this “no excuses” attitude (which I acknowledge is not that of Maria Kang herself). Here’s how I might answer:

What’s my excuse?

My excuse is that different people’s bodies react to stimuli in different ways. Different people get saddled with different genetic backgrounds, as well as upbringings which teach them different life lessons, so they end up with massively different mental and physical responses to certain situations.

Some people find some things difficult or painful which are a positive delight to others. Some people are passionately devoted to interests and hobbies which bore the pants off 99% of their fellows. Some people have an arrangement of chemicals in their brain which behaves in an entirely different way from the arrangement of chemicals in yours.

I am a different person from you. I have different goals, different loves, different struggles, different expectations, different capabilities, different talents. The ways in which you and I might vary are numerous.

Maybe you were already keen on fitness before having kids, and had become familiar with the routine of it, surrounding yourself by other people and immersing yourself in a culture which also focused on exercise and healthy living, familiarising yourself with the lifestyle, all of which made it easier for you to slide back into it after your pregnancy. Maybe I was in decent shape before having children and had other interests beyond putting in the effort to do much better than that, and have been struggling to get started since then, unfamiliar as I am with the complexities of the fitness industry, and never having previously learned to identify and make efficient use of the most healthy foods.

Maybe you have family who live nearby who’ve been able to help out with childcare now and then, which let you find some spare time to do the things that matter to you, like keeping in shape. Maybe I don’t have anyone around like that, and have had less free time for such things outside of work and raising my children.

Maybe your innate physiology was such that your body handled several pregnancies well, and allowed you to recover quickly with few ill effects each time. Maybe I had a different body structure from yours, received different medical treatment, and experienced more complications during the process, so that after giving birth I’d lost a lot of blood, was scarred and depressed, and needed a longer period of recovery before I could reasonably be expected to start living a normal life at a reasonable pace again.

Maybe when I attempted to implement exactly the same workout regime as you, I was reaching beyond the options nature made available to me, and spent a half-hour throwing up from the over-exertion after five minutes, thereafter being quite reasonably put off from making any more serious attempts to get back in shape for a while.

Maybe you’re a shit-ton richer than me and so have a lot more options open to you, in the way that money tends to do, as well as avoiding a lot of the negative health effects of the stress that I face from my day-to-day worries of whether I’m going to be able to cover the rent next month after paying for my kids’ food and healthcare bills.

Maybe there’s quite a lot of evidence that a person’s physical fitness and the kind of body they can attain are largely determined by genetics, which are completely beyond anyone’s control.

Maybe there are resources available in the area where you live which aren’t accessible to me.

Maybe something else. Maybe none of these. I don’t know you or what your deal is, after all.

But maybe, in short, your disingenuously posited question actually has quite a lot of perfectly valid answers, and to imply otherwise is petty and mean-spirited and cruel.

(And we haven’t even touched on the idea that maybe everyone else excusing themselves for not being more like you isn’t even necessary. Maybe we neither want nor need to aspire to your alleged optimal state. Maybe my excuse is that I’m fine just the way I am and don’t want to meet your standards for how a person should apparently look if they oughtn’t to feel bad about themselves.)

So that’s enough maybes.

Obviously not all of them will apply. But some of them could, and they don’t deserve to be drowned out by the sound of yet another game of “find someone who’s already achieved something impressive despite ostensibly having things at least as tough as you”.

That game can be a malevolent force when it starts being used to promote the “everyone can do anything if they just try” ideology at the expense of actually existing human beings. After all, what does it say about people who fail? People who encounter setbacks from which they never recover? People who don’t “win the fight” against illness or circumstances, who never reach what you insist on calling their full potential?

They could’ve thrived if they’d just put in the effort – look at all these other people with the same condition who did – but they failed. So they must not have been trying hard enough. So, really, they didn’t deserve any better than they got.

This is an unkind and damaging way of thinking.

And in response to another obvious objection: None of the above diminishes your achievement of attaining the body you presumably want while successfully raising three happy, healthy children. If you’re proud of having worked hard to accomplish what you consider worthwhile, then that’s great. I have no desire to take any of that away, and if we hadn’t got off on kinda the wrong foot I’d be totally happy for you. None of this is about hating anyone for their success.

Suggesting that maybe some people had less free time than you doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker. Wondering whether some folk might have suffered greater financial hardships than you doesn’t imply that you haven’t worked hard to use your own limited funds efficiently. It may well be that you accomplished something which required a great deal of bravery and strength and hard work; but you completely undermine your own merits if you refuse to accept that it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect everyone else to be capable of the same results.

It’s not that the attitudes you find fault with don’t exist. There is such a thing as making excuses, and refusing to take responsibility, and stubbornly blaming all your own failings on the world fucking you over. But there is also such a thing as being fucked over by the world. And you’re massively over-simplifying the way the universe operates, in quite an offensive and patronising way, to endorse the line of reasoning: “I worked hard and got what I wanted; therefore the only reason most people don’t get what they want is that they don’t work hard.”

It’s a very right-libertarian thing, but that’s a tirade for another time. This has gone on far too ramblingly long already, so here’s where I’ll draw the bottom line:

Telling someone “You can achieve anything” can be encouraging and empowering.

Following it up with “So why haven’t you?” just makes you a dick.

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I’ve launched a new blog today, titled There Are No Others. It’s intended to document cases of in-group bias in public discourse, and suggest more humanistic ways of addressing the problems and disputes we face.

It’s based on an idea that’s been recurrently tickling my interest for long enough that I’m going to explore it in more depth, and see if it continues to seem worthwhile.

I’ll probably cross-post things between blogs intermittently for a while, but go ahead and add http://therearenoothers.wordpress.com to an RSS feed reader or some such to keep up with that side of things first-hand.

Here’s what I’ve said about the idea of “othering” in the blog’s inaugural post:

By “othering”, we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

This psychological tactic may have had its uses in our tribal past. Group cohesion was crucially important in the early days of human civilisation, and required strong demarcation between our allies and our enemies. To thrive, we needed to be part of a close-knit tribe who’d look out for us, in exchange for knowing that we’d help to look out for them in kind. People in your tribe, who live in the same community as you, are more likely to be closely related to you and consequently share your genes.

As a result, there’s a powerful evolutionary drive to identify in some way with a tribe of people who are “like you”, and to feel a stronger connection and allegiance to them than to anyone else. Today, this tribe might not be a local and insular community you grew up with, but can be, for instance, fellow supporters of a sports team or political party.

It’s probably not quite as simple as the just-so story we’re describing here. But there’s no doubt that grouping people into certain stereotyped classes, who we then treat differently based on the classes we’ve sorted them into, is a deeply rooted aspect of human nature. Intergroup bias is a well established psychological trait.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a simple heuristic people often use to decide whether someone is part of their tribe or not. If you are, then you can be expected to toe the line in certain ways if you don’t want to be ejected; if you’re not, you can be dismissed and hated as an “other”, the enemy.

A number of psychological experiments, such as the Asch Conformity Experiment, demonstrate the extent to which we feel compelled to make sure we fit in, as part of the tribe, in some situations.

Other research into, for instance, the Benjamin Franklin effect, shows that we have a startling tendency to come to hate people who we treat badly. If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them.

Political partisanship is a common area for othering to be found, and will likely be a prominent focus on this site. Any American readers will surely have noticed a tendency in many of their countryfolk to speak of “Democrats” or “Republicans” with derision, imagining this “other” to be a homogeneous group. The desire to associate with one party or the other is so strong that people will even support the other party’s policies, when they believe they’re identifying with their own group. To some extent, one’s political allegiances seem to have more to do with the label somebody has adopted than their actual opinions. (This has also been noted by Howard Stern, although he seemed to miss the point that this is something we’re all capable of, not just Obama supporters in Harlem.)

Furthermore, experiments such as the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes exercise demonstrate just how readily we can be swept up in a group identity, learning to embrace only those of our tribe and reject the “others”, even when the difference is entirely arbitrary and meaningless.

The concept behind this site, then, is that a) humans have an undeniable and insidious inclination to engage in “othering” thought patterns for the purpose of self-preservation, and b) learning to avoid and counteract these thought patterns is integral to greatly reducing the world’s hatred and suffering. Our intent is to raise people’s consciousness about othering behaviour, to make them more alert to these thought patterns, and to encourage alternative ways of addressing the problems that we often seek to avoid by dehumanising any one group.

This site is still in the early stages of its development, and is not created or maintained by any experts in psychology, or anything else for that matter. We will be as science-based as possible, but if you want to read some more about the relevant psychological subjects by browsing around on Wikipedia for a while, this might be a good place to start.

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As you may have noticed, there’s been rioting in certain areas of London, which has spread across the UK, for the last couple of nights.

Vehicles and buildings have been burnt, windows have been smashed, shops have been looted. People have died.

It’s been horrible.

So you’ll be pleased to know that I’m here to explain exactly why it’s all been happening and what we can do to sort it all out.

Not really.

In fact, there may not even be a question to ask. Maybe we don’t need so many Guardian-reading bleeding-heart liberals asking why these violent scum do what they do. Perhaps they’re just evil, and these constant attempts to excuse evil is why liberalism is the greatest blight on modern society. The Prime Minister described the destruction as “criminality, pure and simple“. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

As another commentator notes:

What we are seeing in London and other English cities is an outpouring of evil. To try to explain evil as the result of something else is almost always a mistake. The urge to do evil is a primary motivation, not the indirect consequence of something else… The British riots, like similar events in any time and place, are a reminder that while the existence of God may be debatable, the existence of the Devil is not.

Theological sound-bites aside, the message is clear: some people are just plain bad, evil, rotten to the core. Nothing provokes them to their evil actions except their own twisted purpose and selfishness, and any response except to forcibly restrain their capacity to inflict their malevolence on the rest of us is futile.

As an explanation for what’s going on, it’s reassuringly easy to understand, and provides a satisfyingly retributive solution for dealing with those rampaging hoodies out there. They’re probably all hoodies, aren’t they? And chavs. And other bad sorts like that.

Very satisfying. But it raises some awkward questions.

If some people are “just evil”, with no prior root cause except an inbuilt and irreparable inhumanity, you’d presumably expect them to be evenly distributed among our species, by whatever chance or unknown force systematically removes some people’s empathy for their fellow man. You wouldn’t expect this evil to occur mostly in socially disadvantaged ethnic minorities, where unemployment is unusually high, benefits are being cut, and residents have long since been complaining of having no prospects and being treated unfairly by police.

It seems odd that this inherent evil seems to be so demographically weighted. Almost as if social demographics played some sort of role in social unrest.

It seems even odder that so many separate incidents of rioting broke out in so many different parts of London, and then in further-flung parts of the UK, in such quick succession. It would be a tremendous coincidence for so many evil people to decide it was time to do some evil in such close succession, if they weren’t in some way responding to external events. It’s also strange that Bromley, which had had some looting the night before and rumours of an escalation yesterday, ended up being so quiet last night. Could the evilly motivated evil-doers have been steered away from all that evil by the large police numbers on the high street?

And there seems little doubt that a crucial catalytic factor to the riots was that Mark Duggan was shot dead in Tottenham a few days ago. He was a local resident, and there was no evidence that he fired any shots himself, before being killed by a single bullet fired by police.

That so much evil – which, remember, is not a result of anything else – would suddenly burst out in Tottenham, a relatively disadvantaged area with a large population of ethnic minorities, who have already complained of feeling antagonised by the authorities, such a short time after a young black man is deliberately killed by the police… well, it’s almost too tremendous a coincidence to be believed.

It must be, though. I mean, you can’t allow for any external explanation of any of these violent actions, or let yourself understand how a sense of frustration and disenfranchisement and political impotence might have arisen in some people. If you go down that road, you’re basically absolving all blame and justifying every stolen TV and incinerated bus in the country. Right?

I’m losing track of my own use of irony here. It may be time to stop being disingenuous.

Here’s my main thesis, for want of a less pretentious word:

“Evil” is the political equivalent of “Goddidit“.

It saves you from having to think any further about what’s happening, and provides a nice uncomplicated explanation for everything that seems scary and uncertain. But it rests on an immeasurable, unverifiable assumption, which stops any potentially fruitful discussion dead in its tracks.

It’s neat and tidy, but shouldn’t we care if it’s also true?

I can’t imagine anyone arguing there were no external factors at all that influenced the exact details of the recent rioting. The geography and timing of the various incidents make it impossible to write them off as a series of isolated, independent events, simply evil things done by evil people for evil’s sake. However evil they are, the rioters are very likely to have been influenced by factors such as the presence of police, the availability of suitable targets for aggression, the prevalence of other rioters, and so on.

It also flies in the face of everything we understand about human psychology to assume there was no impact at all from the broken windows effect, the bystander effect, or deindividuation in crowds, to name but a few fascinating and well established nuggets of research into human behaviour. Anyone passingly familiar with the field of psychology will be aware of Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures, which gave alarming insight into how far people can be persuaded into performing immoral acts they would never usually condone, if the surrounding circumstances are conducive to it.

And if you can acknowledge this, then it hardly seems implausible that some rioters’ behaviour might have been influenced by less immediate factors, perhaps present in their social background. That the extremely well-off and secure are less likely ever to break shop windows and assault passers-by is supported both by reality and common sense.

It’d be very, very strange if the kinds of social factors I’ve mentioned didn’t play some part, in some people, in fomenting a sense of injustice and anger. The kind of anger which might build, directionless and impotent, toward some kind of boiling point, a threshold of poorly expressed fury and manic, stupid delight at watching destruction reign.

If the problem is simply one of evil, the solution is comfortably simple to understand – but also limited. It means we can reassure ourselves that the perpetrators are “not like us”, but it means they must be abandoned as being beyond hope of salvation. It also means that there’s nothing we can do to prevent more truly black souls from arising in the future; we just have to wait until they can be identified by some sufficiently evil act, like mugging an injured man, or throwing a brick in a public venue to the cheers of their friends, or whatever other unquestionably evil criteria can be agreed upon.

On the other hand, the paradigm that allows for the effect of social factors, although it requires a more complex human psychology to be considered, offers hope for the future. It says that there are circumstances which exacerbate and promote the kind of dissatisfaction that leads to such civil unrest, and that these circumstances can be changed so that fewer such events are induced in the future.

Understanding does not equal condoning. There have been acts of vandalism, violence, arson, and thuggery committed, and there deserve to be arrests made and prosecutions brought. I expect some people will and should be jailed for what they did. But it’s a fantasy to imagine that the yearning to angrily set fire to buildings was with them since the womb. If we want to make our society better for everyone, we need to figure out how to do exactly that: make it better for everyone. Even the ones who sometimes seem to want to make it worse.

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Right. I’m back to a more regular schedule of actually blogging in my blog now. I’ve been struggling rather pathetically through quite a mild illness recently, and have intermittently been distracted by my very lovely girlfriend, who is still more interesting than you lot. But there’s a place for you all in my busy life, with some better time management on my part, so don’t get jealous.

Anyway. Here’s the first of a few things I would have been writing about here recently, had I not been coughing violently and/or in an actual time-consuming grown-up relationship: Bruce Hood will be presenting the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Good news, everybody!

These lectures happen every year, spread over several days around Christmas time, and have an illustrious history stretching back as far as my early childhood. In fact, I’m told they may even have started before that time, with some bloke called Michael Faraday. They’re generally made and presented with children in mind, and the bulk of the audience tends to be kids eager to volunteer for the hands-on experiments, but they’re wonderfully informative and engaging for anyone with an interest in whatever field of study they focus on, or simply in learning about the world.

And Bruce Hood is a great choice to present this year’s lectures. His book Supersense has become a fixture of the skeptical canon, examining the way supernatural thinking is built in to the human brain’s normal functioning, and the extent to which it can be examined by the brain’s own rational analysis. The lecture series which he now has to get to work preparing is called Meet Your Brain. Should be good.

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