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“In the great chess-board of human society,
every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.”
— Adam Smith
One of our favorite dictums, much referenced here, is an idea by Joseph Tussman, about getting the world to do the work for you:
“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”
By aligning with the world, as it really is and not as we wish it to be, we get it to do the work for us.
Tussman's idea has at least one predecessor: Adam Smith.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith excoriates the “Men of System” who have decided on an inflexible ideology of how the world should work, and try to fit the societies they lead into a Procrustean Bed of their choosing — the Mao Zedong-type leaders who would allow millions to die rather than sacrifice an inch of ideology (although Smith's book predates Maoism by almost 200 years).
In his great wisdom, Smith perfectly explains the futility of swimming “against the tide” of how the world really works and the benefit of going “with the tide” whenever possible. He recognizes that people are not chess pieces, to be moved around as desired.
Instead, he encourages us to remember that everyone we deal with has their own goals, feelings, aspirations, and motivations, many of them not always immediately obvious. We must construct human systems with human nature in full view, fully harnessed, fully acknowledged.
Any system of human relations that doesn't accept this truth will always be fighting the world, rather than getting it to work for them.
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.
He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.
If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Think of how many policies, procedures and systems of organization which forget this basic truth; systems of political control, price control, social control and behavioral control — from bad workplaces to bad governments – which have failed so miserably because they refused to account for the underlying motivations of the people in the system, and failed to do a second-step analysis of the consequences of their policies.
It's just as true in personal relations: How often do we fail to treat others correctly because we haven't taken their point of view, motivations, aspirations, and desires properly into account? How often is our own “system of relations” built on faulty assumptions that don't actually work for us? (The old marriage advice “You can either be right, or be happy” is pure gold wisdom in this sense.)
Smith's counsel offers us a nice out, though. If our own system for dealing with people and their own “principles of motion” are the same, then we are likely to get a harmonious result! If not? We get misery.
The choice is ours.
Do you know anyone that's really, really competent? Like really, ridiculously competent?
They seem to have a work ethic that's twice as powerful as yours, they get things done as asked, going “above and beyond” the call of duty almost always, and always within a reasonable time. They come up with creative solutions, or absent that, simply know how to get to a solution to keep the process moving. They keep going when others stop.
They're Competent, with a capital “C”.
Now ask yourself, regardless of the other traits you like or dislike about them, is that person at risk of losing their job, whatever it may be? Are they at risk of “wallowing in the shallows” in life? Are they at risk of true, debilitating failure? Or are they just getting ahead time and time again?
I'm going to guess the latter.
There's something about the pure and simple “getting things done”-type ability, the pure hustle, which acts like oxygen for most organizations and teams, making the people with that ability super-useful. These super-productive, super-able people, almost regardless of their other traits, seem to rise to the top. (Although, multiplicative type thinking tells us that it depends on how severe the lacking traits are. A drinking problem can kill even the best, for example.)
For the man we'll study today, the “pure oxygen” of competence outweighed so many awful traits that it's worth figuring out what lessons we might learn for ourselves.
The inimitable Robert Moses was maybe the most powerful man in the history of New York City, responsible for building a large number of the beaches, bridges, tunnels, highways, parkways, and housing developments we all recognize today. Just pulling from Wikipedia the number of artifacts in New York City named after the guy shows you his influence:
Various locations and roadways in New York State bear Moses's name. These include two state parks, Robert Moses State Park – Thousand Islands in Massena, New York and Robert Moses State Park – Long Island, and the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island, the Robert Moses State Parkway in Niagara Falls, New York, and the Robert Moses Hydro-Electric Dam in Lewiston, New York. A hydro-electric power dam in Massena, New York also bears Moses' name. These supply much of New York City's power. Moses also has a school named after him in North Babylon, New York on Long Island; there is also a Robert Moses Playground in New York City. There are other signs of the surviving appreciation held for him by some circles of the public. A statue of Moses was erected next to the Village Hall in his long-time hometown, Babylon Village, New York, in 2003, as well as a bust on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University.
By the time Moses' reign was done in New York City — he held some form of influential power between 1924 and 1968 — he had built seven of the major bridges that connect Manhattan to its boroughs, at least a dozen major roads that would be familiar to all New York area drivers today (416 miles of parkways), over 1,000 public housing buildings, 658 separate playgrounds, scores of dams, State Parks, and beaches (including Jones Beach), Shea Stadium, the Lincoln Center…the list goes on. He was the dominant force behind all of them.
His physical — and in many ways, social — mark on New York City is unmatched before or since.
Oh, and did I mention he accomplished much of this during the Great Depression, a time when no one, cities least, had any money, finding incredibly creative ways to corral Federal funds to New York and away from the country's other great cities? And did I mention he was able to do it without ever winning any elections?
That is “capital-C Competence”.
But the thing about Moses is that he was kind of a bastard. He did not treat others well. He didn't seem to care about making others feel good. He certainly did not follow the popular Dale Carnegie type behavior popular back then. Most of the people he had to work with over the years — Governors, Mayors, Commissioners, thousands and thousands of employees — did not like him.
If I described some of his personal traits to you — verbally abusive, racist, classist, demanding, elitist, difficult, insufferably arrogant — you would not conceive of this as the stereotype of someone you'd help rise to power. He “drove” his men, and he “commanded” those around him. He rarely passed up an opportunity to make a new enemy.
As an example, here's how his biographer Robert Caro, in his classic book The Power Broker, describes the general feeling when Moses is named New York's Secretary of State in 1927 by Governor Al Smith, his main ally:
The depth and unanimity of the feeling transcended party affiliation. Moses had for years been either insulting or ignoring legislators of both parties. And now the Legislature was being asked–for under reorganization the Senate had to approve key gubernatorial nominations–to approve the elevation to the second most important post in the state. One observer says: “When he walked down a corridor in the capitol and passed a group of legislators, you could see their eyes follow him as he passed, and you could see how many enemies–bitter, personal enemies–he had. I really believe that Robert Moses was the most hated man in Albany.
How did a guy like that get the elevation needed to become the Secretary of State, the State Parks Commissioner, the Triborough Bridge Authority, the city “Construction Coordinator,” the Long Island Park Commissioner…? He had more titles than a bookstore, all carrying tremendous power to direct the public purse, hand out thousands of jobs, and physically shape the most important city in the country.
Pure and simple, the guy was insanely competent. He could get things done that no one else could get done. His administrative abilities were brilliant and his work ethic legendary.
His written reports, starting with his Oxford PhD thesis The Civil Service of Great Britain, were considered classics of the field. The brilliance of that thesis probably got him his first appointments. The following was said about Moses only in his mid-twenties:
Two men who had read Moses' thesis — it had been published — were Luther C. Steward, first president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and H. Elliot Kaplan, later president of the New York civil Service Commission and executive director of the Civil Service Reform Association. Years later, when Kaplan had read everything there was to read on civil service, he was asked to evaluate the thesis and said simply, “It was a masterpiece.”
There were, he said, “very few people in the United States in 1914 who knew much about civil service. Bob Moses really knew.” Steward's wife, who had been working beside her husband in 1914, was even more emphatic. “Bob Moses wasn't one of the men in this country who understood civil service best at that stage,” she said. “He was the man who understood it best.”
He didn't just understand it well: He was the best.
Then again, when Moses got his career started in New York City municipal government, he wrote a report basically alone and in a small apartment (he didn't have a lot of money), late at night while keeping to his main duties by day.
It was another classic. Speaking of Moses' 1919 Report of the Reconstruction Commission to Governor Alfred E. Smith on Retrenchment and Reorganization in the State Government, Robert Caro writes:
From the moment on October 10, 1919, that it was published, it was hailed as a historic document, not only by [Al] Smith, who had sponsored it, and not only by the reformers, who saw in it the finest exposition of their philosophy, but, more importantly, by the men Belle Moskowitz had hoped would hail it– the Republican “federal crowd.”
The paper was hailed as “deserving of unreserved approbation,” while another commenter said “This paper is, I think, the most helpful one that I could put in your hands…to give you an idea of…what I believe to be the correct principles of state government.”
With that, Moses got pushed ahead again.
Time and again this would happen: Moses would do something extremely competent, demonstrating great value to this who needed his work, and he would get a boost.
And did he ever work his ass off to keep things moving. As he gathered momentum building up Long Island and Jones Beach State Park in the 1920s, his life became, as Caro puts it, an “orgy of work.”
Sloughing off distractions, he set his life into a hard mold. Shunning evening social life, especially the ceremonial dinners that eat up so much of a public official's time, he went to bed early (usually before eleven) and awoke early (he was always dressed, shaved, and breakfasted when Arthur Howland arrived at 7:30 to pick up the manila envelope full of memos).
The amenities of life dropped out of his. He and Mary had enjoyed playing bridge with friends; now they no longer played. Sundays with his family all but disappeared. He did not golf; he did not attend sporting events; he was not interested in the diversions called “hobbies” that other executives considered important because they considered it important that they relax; he was not interested in relaxing.
…there was never enough time; minutes were precious to him. To make sure he had as many of them as possible, he tried to make use of all those that most other men waste.
And it was this “orgy of work,” combined with a dedication to being the “best” and not “pretty good” that allowed Moses to rise in spite of his faults.
Even his true enemies, people who truly did not like him or want to see him succeed, like FDR — who was the Governor of New York during the Depression — continued to support his rise, almost against their own will!
Not only does a Governor not interfere with an official like Robert Moses; he heaps on him more and more responsibilities. No matter what the job was, it seemed, if it was difficult Roosevelt turned to the same man. During 1930, 1931, and 1932, Moses handled more than a dozen special assignments for Roosevelt and produced results on every one. And if increasing Moses' responsibilities meant increasing his power–giving him more money to work with, more engineers, architects, draftsmen, and police to work with–well, the Governor simply had no choice but to increase that power.
No two men in New York would come to hate each other more than Moses and FDR, yet there was FDR, dumping more and more power and more and more work into Moses' lap. Why?
He could be trusted to get it done and do it well. It was that simple. Competence is oxygen.
This aspect of the life of Robert Moses, a life worth studying for so many reasons, illustrates a few simple points.
The first is the pure value of capital-C Competence: Hard, correct work, repeated ad infinitum with no intermittence, will get almost anyone very far, even if they're missing other desirable traits. Moses, in spite of faults that would likely stop any mortal in his or her tracks, rose near the very top on the back of it. You can probably think of ten other individuals in your head who demonstrate a similar reality.
But as interesting, true, and instructive as that is, it brings up a very interesting historical counterfactual:
What if Bob Moses had that driving competence but also folded in things like humility, empathy, good temper, fairness, desire for group success over individual glory, and other traits we all desire in our own leaders? Wouldn't he be considered one of the most inspiring and beloved figures in the history of the United States? Might he have been the President instead of FDR? Might he have lived a much more pleasant and less contentious life than he did?
A great debate lingers even now about whether his actions to reshape the City were on balance a positive or negative — he created a lot of misery in his march to physically reshape New York City. He made it a very car-heavy, traffic-heavy city. He created slums. He destroyed a lot of neighborhoods. And so on. Might a bit of humility and respect for others' goals and opinions have built a New York City that people are less troubled about today? He could have a record of accomplishment and the unabashed respect of history.
It's hard to know — traits like Moses' work ethic are often “co-located” with traits that are not so desirable. But it is interesting to ponder, for our own lives, both the value of pure ability and the value of balancing it out with the other traits that can get us even further. Good is not always optimal.
And most of us probably don't have the pure ability and fire that Moses did, all the more reason to work on our “soft” skills. We may need to either work harder on our competence and work ethic or find a way to compensate for it in “softer” ways like true leadership ability.
But even as we do that, it's important to never forget the reality that competence and hustle go pretty far. Sometimes we're getting “beat” simply because others are providing more “oxygen” than we are, even if they're not pleasant people. It's just a part of reality.
So if we've already got the “soft skills” down, perhaps we need to do the hard work in figuring out how to raise our competence level.
(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)
Recently, we discussed some of the net advantages of our faulty, but incredibly useful, memory system. Thanks to Harvard's brilliant memory-focused psychologist Daniel Schacter, we know not to be too harsh in judging its flaws. The system we've been endowed with, on the whole, works at its intended purpose, and a different one might not be a better one.
It isn't optimal though, and since we've given it a “fair shake”, it is worth discussing where the errors actually lie, so we can work to improve them, or at least be aware of them.
In his fascinating book, Schacter lays out seven broad areas in which our memory regularly fails us. Let's take a look at them so we can better understand ourselves and others, and maybe come up with a few optimal solutions. Perhaps the most important lesson will be that we must expect our memory to be periodically faulty, and take that into account in advance.
We're going to cover a lot of ground, so this one will be a multi-parter. Let's dig in.
The first regular memory error is called transience. This is one we're all quite familiar with, but sometimes forget to account for: The forgetting that occurs with the passage of time. Much of our memory is indeed transient — things we don't regularly need to recall or use get lost with time.
Schacter gives an example of the phenomenon:
On October 3, 1995, the most sensational criminal trial of our time reached a stunning conclusion: a jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder. Word of the not-guilty verdict spread quickly, nearly everyone reacted with either outrage or jubilation, and many people could talk about little else for weeks or days afterward. The Simpson verdict seemed like just the sort of momentous event that most of us would always remember vividly: how we reacted to it, and where we were when we heard the news.
Can you recall how you found out that Simpson had been acquitted? Chances are that you don't remember, or that what you remember is wrong. Several days after the verdict, a group of California undergraduates provided researchers with detailed accounts of how they learned about the jury's decision. When the researchers probed students' memories again fifteen months later, only half recalled accurately how they found out about the decision. When asked again nearly three years after the verdict, less than 30 percent of students' recollections were accurate; nearly half were dotted with major errors.
Soon after something happens, particularly something meaningful or impactful, we have a pretty accurate recollection of it. But the accuracy of that recollection declines on a curve over time — quickly at first, then slowing down. We go from remembering specifics to remembering the gist of what happened. (Again, on average — some detail is often left intact.) As the Simpson trial example shows, even in the case of a very memorable event, transience is high. Less memorable events are forgotten almost entirely.
What we typically do later on is fill in specific details of a specific event with what typically would happen in that situation. Schacter explains:
Try to answer in detail the following three questions: What do you do during a typical day at work? What did you do yesterday? And what did you do on that day one week earlier? When twelve employees in the engineering division of a large office-product manufacturer answered these questions, there was a dramatic difference in what they recalled from yesterday and a week earlier. The employees recalled fewer activities from a week ago than yesterday, and the ones they did recall from a week earlier tended to be part of a “typical” day. Atypical activities — departures from the daily script — were remembered much more frequently after a day than after a week. Memory after a day was close to a verbatim record of specific events; memory after a week was closer to a generic description of what usually happens.
So when we need to recall a memory, we tend to reconstruct as best as we can, starting with whatever “gist” is left over in our brains, and filling in the details by (often incorrectly) assuming that particular event was a lot like others. Generally, this is a correct assumption. There's no reason to remember exactly what you ate last Thanksgiving, so turkey is a pretty reliable bet. Occasionally, though, transience gets us in trouble, as anyone who's forgotten a name they should have remembered can attest.
How do we help solve the issue of transience?
Obviously, one easy solution, if it's something we wish to remember specifically, and in an unaltered form, is to record it as specifically as possible and as soon as possible. That is the optimal solution, for time begins acting immediately to make our memories vague.
Another idea is visual imagery. The idea of using visual mneumonics is popular in the memory-improvement game; in other words, associating parts of a hoped-for memory with highly vivid imagery (an elephant squashing a clown!), which can be easily recalled later. Greek orators were famous for the technique.
The problem is that almost no one uses this on a day to day basis, because it's very cognitively demanding. You must go through the process of making interesting and evocative associations every time you want to remember something — there's no “general memory improvement” going on, which is what people are really interested in, where all future memories are more effectively encoded.
Another approach — associating and tying something you wish to remember with something else you already know to increase its availability later on — is also useful, but as with visual imagery, must be used each and every time.
In fact, so far as we can tell, the only “general memory improver” available to us is to create better habits of association — attaching vivid stories, images, and connections to things — the very habits we talk about frequently when we discuss the mental model approach. It won't happen automatically.
The second memory failure is closely related to transience, but a little different in practice. Whereas transience entails remembering something that then fades, absent-mindedness is a process whereby the information is never properly encoded, or is simply overlooked at the point of recall.
Failed encoding explains phenomena like regularly misplacing our keys or glasses: The problem is not that the information faded, it's that it never made it from our working memory into our long term memory. This often happens because we are distracted or otherwise not paying attention at the moment of encoding (e.g., when we take our glasses off).
Interestingly enough, although divided attention can prevent us from retaining particulars, we still may encode some basic familiarity:
Familiarity entails a more primitive sense of knowing that something has happened previously, without dredging up particular details. In [a] restaurant, for example, you might have noticed at a nearby table someone you are certain you have met previously despite failing to recall such specifics as the person's name or how you know her. Laboratory studies indicate that dividing attention during encoding has a drastic effect on subsequent recollection, and has little or no effect on familiarity.
This phenomenon probably happens because divided attention prevents us from elaborating on the particulars that are necessary for subsequent recollection, but allows us to record some rudimentary information that later gives rise to a sense of familiarity.
Schacter also points out something that older people might take solace in: Aging produces a similar cognitive effect to attention-dividedness. The reason older people start feeling they've misplaced their keys or checkbook constantly is that the brain's decline in cognitive resources mirrors the “split attention” problem that causes all of us to misplace our keys or checkbook.
A related phenomenon to this poor encoding problem is one called change-blindness — failing to see differences in objects or scenes unfolding over time. Similar to the “slowly boiling a frog” issue most of us are familiar with, change-blindness causes us to fail to see subtle change. This is the Invisible Gorilla problem, made famous through its vivid demonstration by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.
In fact, in another experiment, Simons was able to show that even in a real-life conversation, he could swap out one man for another in many instances without the conversational partner even noticing! Magicians and con-men regularly use this to fool and astonish.
What's happening is shallow encoding — similar to the transience problem, we often encode only a superficial level of information related to what's happening in front of our face, even when talking to a real person. Thus, subtly changing details are not registered because they were never encoded in the first place! (Sherlock Holmes made a career of countering this natural tendency by being super-observant.)
Generally, this is totally fine and OK. As a whole, the system serves us well. But the instances where it doesn't can get us into trouble.
This brings up the problem of absent-mindedness in what psychologists call prospective memory — remembering something you need to do in the future. We're all familiar with situations when we forget to do something we clearly “told ourselves” we needed to remember.
The typical antidote is using cues to help us remember: An event-based prospective memory goes like this: “When you see Harry today, tell him to call me.” A time-based prospective memory goes like this: “At 11PM, take the cookies out of the oven.”
It doesn't always work, though. Time-based prospective memory is the worst of all: We're not consistently good at remembering that “11PM = cookies” because other stuff will also be happening at 11PM! A time-based cue is insufficient.
For the same reason, an event-based cue will also fail to work if we're not careful:
Consider the first event-based prospective memory. Frank has asked you to tell Harry to call him, but you have forgotten to do so. You indeed saw Harry in the office, but instead of remembering Frank's message you were reminded of the bet you and Harry made concerning last night's college basketball championship, gloating for several minutes over your victory before settling down to work.
“Harry” carries many associations other than “Tell him something for Frank.” Thus, we're not guaranteed to recall it in the moment.
This knowledge allows us to construct an optimal solution to the prospective memory problem: Specific, distinctive cues that call to mind the exact action needed, at the time it is needed. All elements must be in place for the optimal solution.
Post-it notes with explicit directions put in an optimal place (somewhere a post-it note would not usually be found) tend to work well. A specific reminder on your phone that pops up exactly when needed will work. As Schacter puts it, “The point is to transfer as many details as possible from working memory to written reminders.” Be specific, make it stand out, make it timely. Hoping for a spontaneous reminder to work means that, some percentage of the time, we will certainly commit an absent-minded error. It's just the way our minds work.
Let's pause there for now. In our next post on memory, we'll cover the sins of Blocking and Misattribution, and some potential solutions. In Part Three, we check out the sins of Suggestibility, Bias, and Persistence. In the meantime, try checking out the book in its entirety, if you want to read ahead.
(This post is the second in a two-part series on the work of Judith Rich Harris. See the first part here.)
As we concluded Part 1 of our exploration of Judith Rich Harris's work on human personality, we had begun sketching out her theory by delving into the first of three systems that she believes carry the heavy lifting in determining how our adult personalities are formed.
The first system was the Relationship System, the “people information lexicon” we automatically begin building at birth to recall the details of the people we encounter throughout our lives. This mental Rolodex carries a lot of freight, but it's only one cog in a larger system. The workings of the Relationship System start to impact us in a broader way as we begin computing statistics about all the people in our lexicon.
This leads us to start developing a second system: the Socialization System, which we use to figure out how we need to act to fit into the groups we'll need to be a part of to become a member of society.
Recall from Part 1 the definition of Socialization: “Acquiring the social behaviors, customs, language, accent, attitudes, and morals deemed appropriate in a particular society.”
When Harris says “particular society,” she also means “particular group” — we do not, of course, act the same around our parents as we do around our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, or our own children. Each group has its norms, and we must learn them. Unless we are autistic or otherwise severely mentally challenged, we do just that! We do it by automatically using the information we've gathered, which is called implicit knowledge.
As Harris discusses in the book, even patients with severe dementia, Parkinson's, or amnesia can recall all kinds of implicit or categorical knowledge. She refers to an amnesiac patient named Frederick who couldn't remember that he'd played golf recently, but nonetheless didn't forget anything about playing golf in general: He recalled all the mechanical knowledge, the lingo, the customs, and the rules. Just not his last round:
All memories are not alike; nor are all memory disorders. What Frederick had lost was his ability to form new memories of a sort called “episodic” — explicit memories of actual events, which can be consciously recalled and put into words. What he had retained was his semantic memories (factual knowledge, like the meaning of birdie) and his implicit or procedural memories (how to play golf). You may have episodic memories of being taught to play golf by your father, but your knowledge of how to play golf is procedural. Sad to say, you may lose your explicit memories of your father sooner than your implicit memories of how to play golf.
An Alzheimer's patient may not remember meeting any specific man, but ask him what a man is, and he can describe one just fine. As we'll see below, the systems are distinct from one another.
Thus, our collection of implicit social knowledge, what many people would call stereotypes but what are simply averages of our experience, end up being extremely useful to us. At an unconscious level, these averages give us the fodder for our “self-socialization” — our maturation into socially functioning individuals.
As we begin developing our categories by averaging out a large amount of information collected by our social intelligence systems, we become eager to figure out which categories we're in and begin acting appropriately to become a part of that group. The term “peer pressure” is a misnomer — peers needn't pressure us at all for us to want to become a part of their group. (Harris shows in The Nurture Assumption that even a little girl who only sees other little girls from afar, and does not interact with them, will start acting as they do in hopes of becoming more “little girl-ish.”)
Other species are capable of averaging out information about groups and creating categories, but humans have a unique problem: We all belong to many different categories. We touched on this above — we are at turns many different things — boy, male, student, child, etc. We must learn to navigate each of them uniquely, and we do:
Self-categorizations are exquisitely sensitive to social context and can change at the drop of a hat. Girls and boys in a school lunchroom or playground ordinarily categorize themselves as girls and boys, but the presence of a mean or bossy teacher can cause them to unite in a common cause and to classify themselves simply as children. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, Democrats and Republicans classified themselves, for a while, simply as Americans.
As that last example illustrates, humans can identify even with groups (such as Democrats and Republicans) composed chiefly of strangers. They can identify with groups even if they don't know who is in them. The social psychologist Henri Tajfel told some boys, supposedly on the basis of a test, that they were “overestimators” and others that they were “underestimators.” That's all it took to evoke what Tajfel called “groupness” in the boys. When they were given the opportunity to award monetary payments to other members of the overestimator and underestimator groups (identified by group but not by name), they not only awarded more of the members of their own group: they also made sure to underpay the members of the other group. The boys who participated in this study all went to the same school, but none of them knew which of their classmates were overestimators and which were underestimators. There was no opportunity for the relationship system to put in its two cents.
Social categorization operates independently of the relationship system, just as the system for generating the past tense of a regular verb acts independently of the system for retrieving the past tense of an irregular verb.
As a group-adapted species, like chimpanzees or ants, humans must successfully figure out how to “get along,” and evolution has given us the automatic ability to do so. That's why the vast majority of people end up similar to the people they grew up around: Those are the people we had to become similar to in order to socialize successfully. As we grow up, we acquire the customs, habits, language, accent, types of goals and aspirations, and lots of other traits of the culture around us, and it continues on as we age, although less dramatically over time.
But of course, we aren't all brainless zombies, mindlessly mimicking our friends and peers. Human beings are far more complex than that, and this is why we all turn out differently, besides our differing genetics.
The socialization system explains why we become similar to those around us. What explains why we remain quite different? Harris calls it the Status System, and it's the final piece of the puzzle.
The most speculative, and perhaps controversial, aspect of Harris's theories might be her thoughts on how we compete for status within our self-identified groups. She believes, and the evidence she corrals does support, a theory that this competition for superiority is a major long-term modifier of human personality:
The purpose of this system is the baby's Job 3: to compete successfully. I'm talking now about competition within the group, classic Darwinian competition. To compete with one's groupmates is to strive for status; the goal is to be better than one's groupmates. “Humans everywhere pursue status.” observed the evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons, and for good Darwinian reasons: higher-status individuals have access to more of the world's goodies.
But in humans, striving for status is a complicated matter. There are no straightforward rules for how to go about it; no single set of tactics is going to work for everyone. The status system's assignment is to work out a long-term strategy of behavior that is tailor-made for the individual in whose head it resides.
Mental organs are specialized collectors of data; each is tuned to respond selectively to certain kinds of cues. The relationship system and the socialization system both collect information about other people. The status system has a more difficult job: it specializes in collecting information about the self. One of the important things that children have to learn while they are growing up is what sort of people they are. Are they big or small, strong or weak, pretty or plain? Without this information they would have no basis for deciding whether to try to dominate others or yield without a fight, to make suggestions or follow the suggestions of others, to turn down potential mates in hopes of doing better or take whatever comes along.
During childhood and adolescence, young humans collect information on how they compare with the others who will be their rivals in adulthood. Armed with this information, they make long-term modifications in their behavior. It is the status system that enables them to do this.
Again, these systems are often at odds with each other. We can, at the same time, feel well-accepted by a group in general and feel we have little status within it, and those things may affect us in different ways. A bully who has little group acceptance can nonetheless have perfectly healthy self-esteem due to their status.
We develop our sense of self slowly over a very long gestation period. We figure out if we're strong compared to most, smart compared to most, funny, quick, good-looking, suave, tall, or svelte, or perhaps the reverse. And we begin tailoring our behavior in a way that plays to our strengths, as a way to compete successfully for attention and status.
One economic study explored the idea, for example, that height had an impact on income for adult males. But once the economists sussed it all out, they figured out that it wasn't simply tall adults who were better paid: What mattered was their height when they were adolescents. If you became tall late, you weren't making more money than average.
Cross referencing this with another study on adolescent height and personality traits, Harris figures that because height (and other related traits like strength and athleticism) generally affords some status when you're young, they can have long-term effects on your personality, including self-assurance and leadership ability. As it is with height, so it goes with other traits — height and income are simply the easiest to measure.
So as we collect information about other specific people and other types of people to feed into our first two engines, the Relationship System and the Socialization System, we also collect information on the way we're seen by the “generalized other,” which goes into System 3: the Status System. The use of that system enables us to design a personality that fits our particular situation.
This talk of “design” makes it sound more deliberate than it really is. All of this is happening with very little input from the “Head Honcho” upstairs. We can involve our slower, more deliberate “System 2” in the process, but the effect is dwarfed by what's happening on its own.
Here's how Harris thinks this whole Status System thing works its magic:
The status system, designed to collect and store information about the self, makes clever use of the features of the relationship system (the system designed to collect information about other people). The activities of the two systems dovetail like this: while your relationship system is gathering information about me and storing it on the page assigned to me in your people-information lexicon, my status system is trying to figure out what you've got recorded on that page. You keep the information you've learned about me separate–you don't mix it together with information about other people–but I take that information I've gotten about myself from my page in your lexicon and put it together with similar information I've gotten from other people's lexicons. What I need is a picture of myself from the point of view of the “generalized other.”
Unfortunately, this system doesn't work perfectly–the picture is blurry…The reason we can't read the page as accurately as we would like (or as accurately as we think we would like) is that the mind in which that page resides doesn't want us to. It is to my advantage to know that you are thinking about me, but it may be to your advantage to keep me from knowing it.
The picture may be blurry but it's nuanced and multidimensional. The status system uses this information to work out a long-term strategy of behavior tailored specifically for its owner. Using data collected in childhood and adolesence–How many people can beat me up? How often do other people look at me? Do people trust me to give good advice? — the system shapes and modifies personality in a way that takes account of the individual's preexisting characteristics and the opportunities afforded by the environment.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this tendency for experience to modify long-term behavioral patterns, the tendency to use the self-knowledge obtained through the “mind-reading mechanism,” has increased the behavioral diversity among humans within our groups. While we do indeed seek to be part of a group, and will sacrifice for the success of that group, we also have deep self-interest. (Some of the most interesting worldly results come when those things are at odds with one another; see suicide bombers and kamikaze warriors.)
This drive to compete successfully and specialize as individuals makes us extremely well suited to live in large groups, something our species does uniquely well. In fact, Harris believes the modification of personality by way of social experience to be a unique human trait.
So that's it. As human beings develop, they collect vast amounts of social information and use it to form specific relationships and understand the specific details of the people around them, but also average out that information to create categories and groups, and to understand how to act to become part of the groups we think we belong in. We also seek to pursue our self-interest and, by figuring out what other people think about us relative to what they think about everyone else, we select strategies that we think will help us get ahead relative to the other members of our group or category.
The answer to the nature/nurture question is, of course, that both are hugely influential. Our genetics provide the blueprint by which we will interact with the world, and from there the specific course of our interactions and experiences with other people will determine how we turn out.
Harris admits that her theory needs rigorous testing to figure out whether she's nailed it exactly or more refinement is needed. She suspects the latter will be true. As we dig into the details over time, we'll figure out more specifically how these systems work and interact, where the lines blur between them, and how their relative effects take a toll on our long-term personality.
Regardless of the work that remains to be done, Harris's work provides us with tremendous insight into what makes us who we are.
“My solution to the mystery is that three perpetrators are involved:
three mental systems that go about their business in different ways.
Together, these three can answer the hows, whys, whens, and wheres of personality development.”
Judith Rich Harris
What makes us…us? What makes one person open, honest, and enthusiastic, and another ornery and closed-minded? Why do some of us love risk-taking and some not? What causes us to be so alike…and yet so different?
The “nature versus nurture” debate is probably as old as modern humanity. There's something related to our consciousness which makes us wonder whether our personality is pre-determined or perhaps whether our parents, peers, culture, nation, or experiences are the determining factor.
We still wonder, but thanks to Darwin and all that came after him, we don't have to speculate as much as we once did. The modern study of behavioral genetics has shown us that the answer is, unequivocally, both. Our genes play an enormous role in how we turn out as children and full-grown adults, and the evidence is unmistakable.
In fact, oddly enough, we can see through carefully done research that about half of personality variation can be explained genetically. Take two identical twins and their personalities will be similar to the extent of their identical genes. This surprises no one.
The surprise is that two identical twins are so damn different! Think about it: They share all of their genetics, they probably grew up in the same house with the same set of parents, with the same books on the wall and the same TV watching habits, went to the same schools at the same time, had similar groups of friends…and yet two completely separate personalities emerge. How?
Judith Rich Harris may have the best answer, and it's in her book No Two Alike, an amazing contribution to modern thought. What Harris — a former author of child development textbooks turned super-synthesizing social scientist — wanted to know was: Why do we all turn out with unique personalities? What really drives the differences?
She had begun to answer this in her deeply controversial 1998 book The Nurture Assumption. That book proposed her group socialization theory, the idea that children are mostly socialized by their peers, not their parents. By socialized, we mean — how do children learn the way to behave and operate within their culture? How to speak the right way, act the right way, play the right way, say the right things, and so on? The idea that parents had the primary influence had become fashionable in the 20th century Western world, thanks to Freud.
But contrary to popular belief, Harris explained, whether identical siblings were raised by the same set of parents or by two different sets, years of research proved they'd be no more or less alike than their genetic connection would predict. Likewise, two siblings put up for adoption end up no less alike, on average, than if they'd been raised in the same home. Identical twins are more alike than regular siblings in general, but the reason is ultra simple: They share more genes!
This meant, Harris explained, that parenting doesn't have an effect on adult personality which isn't already explained by genetic factors, any more than Chinese parents can give their child a Chinese accent if they raise him or her in Minnesota. It's a bit hard to see on the surface, but many traits we think are due to parenting are simply due to the genetics shared between parent and child. Before behavioral genetics showed the genetic component, the two were regularly confounded, making much of the “research” on development worthless.
What does have an effect, besides genetics, is the peer group and culture children the child was raised in. And so besides genetics, it is the group, neighborhood, social group, and subculture of the child that matters, not whether their parents were kind or scolding, attentive or inattentive, soft or hard, or any other style of parent. Just like the child of Chinese immigrants would take on the Minnesota accent, they'd also take on the social behavior of their peers as well. Harris showed that people simply do not depend on direct input from their parents to become successful adults, as hard as it is to believe. (Although parents can have indirect influence in a number of ways, most obviously by moving the child to different areas and cultures.)
For this revelation and investigation into human development, the debunking of what Harris called the Nurture Assumption — that parents can mold the personalities of their children — Charlie Munger said that Ms. Harris “has not lived in vain.”
But that still left a big question: Since group socialization tends to make people more similar to others in their identified group, what accounts for personality differences, even among identical twins hanging in the same social circle? How do we end up with a group of “conforming individualists,” as Harris calls us? Why are some people trustworthy, and some not? Why are some more law-abiding and some less so? Why are some friendly and some mean?
The difficulty in figuring out the answer is illustrated by a story Harris tells about a pair of identical twins:
Conrad and Perry McKinney, age fifty-six, were featured in an article in the Boston Globe titled “Two Lives, Two Paths.” Born and reared in New Hampshire, the twins did everything together in their earlier years. They attended the same schools, sat in the same classrooms. Academically they were average students, but they were troublemakers. Eventually their teachers got fed up with their shenanigans and the twins were separated: Perry was held back in fifth grade, Conrad was promoted to sixth. That, according to the Globe reporter, was where their paths diverged. Conrad went on to graduate from high school; Perry dropped out in eleventh grade. Today, Conrad is a successful businessman–as it happens, he runs a private detective agency. Perry…well, Perry is a homeless alcoholic “who sleeps amid trash under a bridge,” by the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire.
Small changes in circumstance, many of which are random, can have dramatic effects on one's life, making many experiments totally unethical. We can't just sort out twins and send some of them to the ghetto and some to Palo Alto and see what happens — we're reliant on what we can observe in natural experiments.
In No Two Alike, Harris does this by corralling information from a wide variety of sources including developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and genetics, dispatching a number of popular red herrings in the search for a theory of why human personality turns out the way it does. By elimination and investigation, the theory she lands on seems not only plausible, but probable.
Her theory derives from what modern evolutionary psychologists have come to call the “modular mind” — the idea that the mind is made up of specific, useful, mechanisms to carry out a variety of functions, all put there through a long process of natural selection. Our mental tools allow us to see, hear, taste, feel, learn, speak, and do lots of other things that we need to survive and thrive. Some of these are present in other species and some are not: It depends how highly developed they are. (For example, ants can certainly see and taste, although crudely, but cannot speak or learn non-programmed behavior.)
As Harris sees it, from the perspective of human personality development, it doesn't all happen in one simple way. Our modular minds have at least three separate but interrelated systems, working at turns separately and together to produce social success — one of the prime goals of a human being. (We are, after all, a highly social species.)
One passage illustrates why this is so important:
“Why,” asked the psychologist William James in 1890, “are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend?” Why do we shrug when we hear of hundreds of people killed in an earthquake but weep when we see a photo of one injured child? Why is it that getting to know and like someone doesn't necessarily causes us to think well of the group to which he or she belongs–a disjunction revealed by the ineffectiveness of the protest, “Some of my best friends are Jews?”
The answer is that there are multiple systems in the mind for processing information. We have, I propose, two different mental mechanisms designed to process and store information about people. One collects data on individuals, the other on groups or social categories–types or classes of people. Criminal justice and law enforcement are (or should be) based on information processed by the first mechanism; war and bigotry are outcomes of the second. These mechanisms belong to different mental systems.
Besides the two systems that help us learn about others, we have a uniquely human third: A system that helps us learn about ourselves. Let's take each in turn and see what we can learn and why they matter in the development of unique human personalities.
Harris calls the Relationship System our “people information lexicon”. It's how we know how to identify and deal with specific people. As humans, we need to know not just that girls at school tend to be mean if we don't wear makeup, but that Jane will say something particularly nasty and that Sally will say something particularly nice. The mental system for categorizing the “girls our age at school” isn't the same as the one that knows the difference between Jane and Sally.
We have a number of “modules” that roll up into a Relationship System: Our ability to recognize faces, voices, and scents; our ability to know what's a familiar face — one that belongs to someone we know; the ability to put specific names to people and things and recall them, and hundreds more.
Harris uses the analogy of a Rolodex:
We have thousands and thousands of mental storage sites for people-information. Each is associated with a particular individual; each contains (or is linked to) other information we have about that individual. Picture a mental lexicon with a page for each individual you know, with slots for the face, name, and whether he or she is a close relative; plus other information such as occupation, plus memories of the experiences you've had with him or her.
There may also be an emotional marker, indicating how you feel about this person. The contents of some slots may be hard to read; other slots may never have been filled in. A page can be set up in the lexicon even if you've never set eyes (or ears) on the individual it refers to. You collect and store information on characters you read about in novels or hear about from other people. Folks you've never met may have a page in their lexicon for you!
This “lexicon” of information, constantly updated, gives us what we need to deal with individual people and figure out how to interact with them. Although we generalize and categorize people we don't know, once we do get to know them specifically (even at a distance) we start filling in details and set up a page in the lexicon. We don't have to be motivated to do this for a specific reason — we just do it automatically.
The evolutionary purpose of the people lexicon is as clear as the evolutionary purpose of pair-bonding: to enable us to behave appropriately toward different individuals, depending on what we have learned about them. To enable us to tailor our behavior to the nature of the relationship we have with each. The baby lifts up its arms to its mother but not to the stranger, even if the stranger is the right age and sex. The child learns to avoid the bully but to seek out other kids in the neighborhood. People stop doing favors for people who never pay them back, unless they are close relatives.
So the relationship system contains many intricately connected parts. There's a people-information acquisition device that constructs and stores a lexicon of people and provides the motivation to collect the information. There are regulatory mechanisms that make use of the information stored in the lexicon to guide behavior in different domains of social life and that provide their own motivations, the sex drive being an obvious example. Other specialized modules deliver input to the relationship system: they include the face-recognition module, a device that assesses kinship, and the mindreading mechanisms I described in the previous chapter. Whatever you are considering doing with another person–help them, mate with them, engage in trade with them, pick a fight with them–it is extremely useful to have an idea of what their intentions are and what they are thinking about you.
And so it goes. From birth, our lexicon is ready to go, ready to be filled in. We spend a lifetime gossiping, learning, thinking, interacting with, and watching others so that we can have successful relationships with them.
But we also begin to categorize fairly early, based on a deeper analysis of our lexicon. We start putting people into groups — adults, children, teenagers, girls, boys, teachers, students, and a million others, depending on context. Importantly, we also begin to categorize ourselves, and this is where the socialization process occurs.
Why is it that children “hive off” into groups and seek to differentiate themselves from other groups? The usual high school groups are not uncommon all around the world — they may differ in makeup and interests, but all young (and old) people form some group or another, if given the opportunity. During this grouping process, the child is socialized:
In the old days, a human's life, too, depended on remaining a member of the group. But because human groups differ in culture, the behaviors necessary for group membership couldn't all be built in–much had to be learned. The baby's Job 2, therefore, is to learn how to behave in a way that is acceptable to the other members of his or her society. This is the process that developmentalists call “socialization.” It consists of acquiring the social behaviors, customs, language, accent, attitudes, and morals deemed appropriate in a particular society.
Socialization makes children more alike–more similar in behavior to others of their age and gender. Therefore, socialization cannot solve the central mystery of this book: why people (even identical twins reared together) differ in personality and social behavior. But the socialization system is an essential part of the solution, because one of the things I have to explain is why children become both more alike and less alike while they are growing up. The ways in which they become more alike do not consist solely of language and customs. There is evidence that children become more alike even in the sorts of things that are measured on personality tests.
This process must happen as a child grows up — they must prepare for adulthood outside the home. And to do that, the child must learn what is acceptable in the groups they are a part of, and they will be part of many. A young boy from Texas will be at times a boy, a male, a student, an employee, an American, a Southerner, an athlete, and a child, among many more. These all require somewhat different actions and behaviors. So we start categorizing as best as we can:
The first step for the child is to figure out the social categories that exist in his or her society. This task is equivalent to that of learning other kinds of categories: for example, chairs and fish. Like chairs and fish, categories of people have fuzzy boundaries. Is a three-legged stool a chair? Is a seahorse a fish? Is this person a boy or a man? Traditional societies often provide rites of passage to sharpen the boundaries between age categories, but industrialized societies seem to manage pretty well without them. What we haven't gotten used to yet is the blurring of the boundary between male and female.
An interesting thing about fuzzy mental categories is that, although they tend to be hazy around the edges, they're clear at the center. We have an image of what the ideal or prototypical member of each category should be, and it's somewhere in the middle. When I say “man,” you don't think of an eighteen-year old or an eighty-year old and you probably don't picture him wearing a dress. When I say “bird,” you think of a robin or a sparrow, not an ostrich or vulture. The prototypical chair has four legs, a seat, and a back.
We build up all kinds of implicit knowledge about the world, and we do it like the relationship system — automatically and without thought. We categorize people the same way we categorize chairs and birds, though the idea of stereotyping is certainly unpopular. Until we actually have a sheet set up in the lexicon for an individual person, all we can do is categorize them. Once we do start to learn about them specifically, the two systems begin interacting. Let's say we meet a woman named Susan. At first, we might classify her as “White, middle-aged woman who looks like a mother.” (Again, not purposely — it happens instantly and automatically.)
Once we go on a date with her though, Susan becomes no longer just a member of a category: She becomes Susan. And although we don't immediately remove the categories, we let her entry in the lexicon begin to develop and dominate our thoughts about her. Sometimes the two systems conflict. (I don't usually like white middle-aged women, but that Susan is alright!)
Let's leave it there for now. In Part 2, next week, we'll explore the rest of Harris's theory, and tie it all together to try to understand the mystery of human personality.
“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman
In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)
Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.
Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.
On Moral Fervor:
A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.
Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.
If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.
At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.
In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they're capable of.
Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.
But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.
Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.
The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.
We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:
In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.
It's even true with the passion for knowledge — something we'd all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It's given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.
The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.
Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don't exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.
In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.
Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.
Still Interested? Check out Tussman's brilliant quote on understanding the world.