Tag Archives: Psychology

Friedrich Nietzsche: On Love And Hate

“We must learn to love, learn to be kind, and this from earliest youth … Likewise, hatred must be learned and nurtured, if one wishes to become a proficient hater”

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German philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche is one of humanity’s most influential and enduring minds. He was particularly good at the aphorism and the brief collection published in Aphorisms on Love and Hate highlights some of his most profound thoughts on the subject.

Commenting on psychological observation, in his typically beautiful prose, he wrote that it would be better to have a blind faith in humanity than a curious one.

[M]editating on things human, all too human (or, as the learned phrase goes, ‘psychological observation’) is one of the means by which man can ease life’s burden; that by exercising this art, one can secure presence of mind in difficult situations and entertainment amid boring surroundings; indeed, that from the thorniest and unhappiest phases of one’s own life one can pluck maxims and feel a bit better thereby: this was believed, known – in earlier centuries. Why has it been forgotten in this century, when many signs point, in Germany at least, if not throughout Europe, to the dearth of psychological observation? Not particularly in novels, short stories, and philosophical meditations, for these are the work of exceptional men; but more in the judging of public events and personalities; most of all we lack the art of psychological dissection and calculation in all classes of society, where one hears a lot of talk about men, but none at all about man. Why do people let the richest and most harmless source of entertainment get away from them?

[…]

Indeed, a certain blind faith in the goodness of human nature, an inculcated aversion to dissecting human behavior, a kind of shame with respect to the naked soul, may really be more desirable for a man’s overall happiness than the trait of psychological sharpsightedness, which is helpful in isolated instances. And perhaps the belief in goodness, in virtuous men and actions, in an abundance of impersonal goodwill in the world has made men better, in that it has made them less distrustful. If one imitates Plutarch’s heroes with enthusiasm and feels an aversion toward tracing skeptically the motives for their actions, then the welfare of human society has benefited (even if the truth of human society has not). … La Rochefoucauld and those other French masters of soul searching (whose company a German, the author of Psychological Observations, has recently joined) are like accurately aimed arrows, which hit the mark again and again, the black mark of man’s nature. Their skill inspires amazement, but the spectator who is guided not by the scientific spirit, but by the humane spirit, will eventually curse an art which seems to implant in the souls of men a predilection for belittling and doubt.

If we’ve offended someone we need only offer compensation:

If we have injured someone, giving him the opportunity to make a joke about us is often enough to provide him personal satisfaction, or even win his goodwill.

On why we attack others, Nietzsche points out that it’s not always to hurt them:

We attack not only to hurt another person, to conquer him, but also, perhaps, simply to become aware of our own strength.

On morality and the ordering of good he writes:

The accepted hierarchy of the good, based on how a low, higher, or a most high egoism desires that thing or the other, decides today about morality or immorality. To prefer a low good (sensual pleasure, for example) to one esteemed higher (health, for example) is taken for immoral, likewise to prefer comfort to freedom. The hierarchy of the good, however, is not fixed and identical at all times. If someone prefers revenge to justice, he is moral by the standard of an earlier culture, yet by the standard of the present culture he is immoral. ‘Immoral’ then indicates that someone has not felt, or not felt strongly enough, the higher, finer, more spiritual motives which the new culture of the time has brought with it. It indicates a backward nature, but only in degree. The hierarchy itself is not established or changed from the point of view of morality; nevertheless an action is judged moral or immoral according to the prevailing determination.

On offending and being offended he offers:

It is much more agreeable to offend and later ask forgiveness than to be offended and grand forgiveness. The one who does the former demonstrates his power and then his goodness. The other, if he does not want to be though inhuman, must forgive; because of this coercion, pleasure in the other’s humiliation is slight.

Nietzsche offers an interesting perspective on seeing things that are out of place in today’s world — they are leftovers of a previous age.

We must think of men who are cruel today as stages of earlier cultures, which have been left over; in their case, the mountain range of humanity shows openly its deeper formations, which otherwise lie hidden. They are backward men whose brains, because of various possible accidents of heredity, have not yet developed much delicacy or versatility. They show us what we all were, and frighten us. But they themselves are as little responsible as a piece of granite for being granite.

On the concept of good and evil, he notes a sober point with respect to why a bad man cannot grow out of good soil.

The concept of good and evil has a double prehistory: namely, first of all, in the soul of the ruling clans and castes. The man who has the power to requite goodness with goodness, evil with evil, and really does practice requital by being grateful and vengeful, is called ‘good’. The man who is unpowerful and cannot requite is taken for bad. As a good man, one belongs to the ‘good’, a community that has a communal feeling, because all the individuals are entwined together by their feeling for requital. As a bad man, one belongs to the ‘bad’, to a mass of abject, powerless men who have no communal feeling. The good men are a caste; the bad men are a multitude, like particles of dust. Good and bad are for a time equivalent to noble and base, master and slave. Conversely, one does not regard the enemy as evil: he can requite. In Homer, both the Trojan and the Greek are good. Not the man who inflicts harm on us, but the man who is contemptible, is bad. In the community of the good, goodness is hereditary; it is impossible for a bad man to grow out of such good soil. Should one of the good men nevertheless do something unworthy of good men, one resorts to excuses; one blames God, for example, saying that he struck the good man with blindness and madness.

Then, in the souls of oppressed, powerless men, every other man is taken for hostile, inconsiderate, exploitative, cruel, sly, whether he be noble or base.

Commenting on our economy of kindness he writes:

Kindness and love, the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse, are such precious finds that one would hope these balsamlike remedies would be used as economically as possible; but this is impossible. Only the boldest Utopians would dream of the economy of kindness.

On the contribution of goodwill to culture, Nietzsche writes:

Among the small but endlessly abundant and therefore very effective things that science ought to heed more than the great, rare things, is goodwill. I mean those expressions of a friendly disposition in interactions, that smile of the eye, those handclasps, that ease which usually envelops nearly all human actions. Every teacher, every official brings this ingredient to what he considers his duty. It is the continual manifestation of our humanity, its rays of light, so to speak, in which everything grows. Especially within the narrowest circle, in the family, life sprouts and blossoms only by this goodwill. Good nature, friendliness, and courtesy of the heart are ever-flowing tributaries of the selfless drive and have made much greater contributions to culture than those much more famous expressions of this drive, called pity, charity, and self-sacrifice. But we tend to underestimate them, and in fact there really is not much about them that is selfless. The sum of these small doses is nevertheless mighty; its cumulative force is among the strongest of forces.

Similarly, there is much more happiness to be found in the world than dim eyes can see, if one calculates correctly and does not forget all those moments of ease which are so plentiful in every day of every human life, even the most oppressed.

On his poetic exploration of pity, he offers:

In the most noteworthy passage of his self-portrait (first published in 1658), La Rochefoucauld certainly hits the mark when he warns all reasonable men against pity, when he advises them to leave it to those common people who need passions (because they are not directed by reason) to bring them to the point of helping the sufferer and intervening energetically in a misfortune. For pity, in his (and Plato’s) judgment, weakens the soul. Of course one ought to express pity, but one ought to guard against having it; for unfortunate people are so stupid that they count the expression of pity as the greatest good on earth.

Perhaps one can warn even more strongly against having pity for the unfortunate if one does not think of their need for pity as stupidity and intellectual deficiency, a kind of mental disorder resulting from their misfortune (this is how La Rochefoucauld seems to regard it), but rather as something quite different and more dubious. Observe how children weep and cry, so that they will be pitied, how they wait for the moment when their condition will be noticed. Or live among the ill and depressed, and question whether their eloquent laments and whimpering, the spectacle of their misfortune, is not basically aimed at hurting those present. The pity that the spectators then express consoles the weak and suffering, inasmuch as they see that, despite all their weakness, they still have at least one power: the power to hurt. When expressions of pity make the unfortunate man aware of this feeling of superiority, he gets a kind of pleasure from it; his self-image revives; he is still important enough to inflict pain on the world. Thus the thirst for pity is a thirst for self-enjoyment, and at the expense of one’s fellow men. It reveals man in the complete inconsideration of his most intimate dear self, but not precisely in his ‘stupidity,’ as La Rochefoucauld thinks.

In social dialogue, three-quarters of all questions and answers are framed in order to hurt the participants a little bit; this is why many men thirst after society so much: it gives them a feeling of their strength. In these countless, but very small doses, malevolence takes effect as one of life’s powerful stimulants, just as goodwill, dispensed in the same way throughout the human world, is the perennially ready cure.

But will there be many people honest enough to admit that it is a pleasure to inflict pain? That not infrequently one amuses himself (and well) by offending other men (at least in his thoughts) and by shooting pellets of petty malice at them? Most people are too dishonest, and a few men are too good, to know anything about this source of shame.

Finally on what we can promise, Nietzsche stirs our thoughts with this beautiful passage:

One can promise actions, but not feelings, for the latter are involuntary. He who promises to love forever or hate forever or be forever faithful to someone is promising something that is not in his power. He can, however, promise those actions that are usually the consequence of love, hatred, or faithfulness, but that can also spring from other motives: for there are several paths and motives to an action. A promise to love someone forever, then, means, ‘As long as I love you I will render unto you the actions of love; if I no longer love you, you will continue to receive the same actions from me, if for other motives.’ Thus the illusion remains in the minds of one’s fellow men that the love is unchanged and still the same.

One is promising that the semblance of love will endure, then, when without self-deception one vows everlasting love.

Aphorisms on Love and Hate will stir your mind and awaken your soul.

Maria Konnikova on How we Get Conned

There’s a scene in the classic Paul Newman film The Sting, where Johnny Hooker (played by a young Robert Redford) tries to get Henry Gondorf (played by Newman) to finally tell him when they’re going to pull the big con. His response tells the tale:

You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.

It’s this same subject that our friend Maria Konnikova — whom we interviewed a few years ago upon the release of her book Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes — has mined with her new book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it…Every Time.

It’s a good question: Why do we fall for it every time? Confidence games (cons for short) are a wonderful arena to study the Psychology of Human Misjudgment.

In fact, you could call a good con artist — you have to love the term artist here — a master of human psychology. They are, after all, in the game of manipulating people into parting with their money. They are so good, a successful con is a lot like a magic trick:

When we step into a magic show, we come in actively wanting to be fooled. We want deception to cover our eyes and make our world a tiny bit more fantastical, more awesome than it was before. And the magician, in many ways, uses the exact same approaches as the confidence man—only without the destruction of the con’s end game. “Magic is a kind of a conscious, willing con,” Michael Shermer, a science historian and writer who has devoted many decades to debunking claims about the supernatural and the pseudoscientific, told me one December afternoon. “You’re not being foolish to fall for it. If you don’t fall for it, the magician is doing something wrong.”

Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, has thought extensively about how the desire to embrace magic so often translates into susceptibility to its less savory forms. “Take the Penn and Teller cup and balls. I can explain it to you and it still would work. It’s not just knowing the secret; it’s not a trick. It’s the whole skill and art of presentation. There’s a whole narrative—and that’s why it’s effective.” At their root, magic tricks and confidence games share the same fundamental principle: a manipulation of our beliefs. Magic operates at the most basic level of visual perception, manipulating how we see—and don’t see—and experience reality. It changes for an instant what we think possible, quite literally taking advantage of our eyes’ and brains’ foibles to create an alternative version of the world. The con does the same thing, but can go much deeper. Tricks like three-card monte are identical to a magician’s routine—except the intent is more nefarious.

Psychology and show magic have more in common than you’d think: As Shermer says, there are many magic tricks that you can explain ahead of time and they will still work, and still baffle. But…wait…how?

The link between everyday psychological manipulation and show magic is so close that the magician Harry Houdini spent a good portion of his later life trying to sniff out cons in the form of mediums, mystics, and sooth-sayers. Even he couldn’t totally shake free of the illusions:

Mysticism, [Houdini] argued, was a game as powerful as it was dangerous. “It is perfectly rational to suppose that I may be deceived once or twice by a new illusion,” he wrote, “but if my mind, which has been so keenly trained for years to invent mysterious effects, can be deceived, how much more susceptible must the ordinary observer be?

Such is the power of the illusion. The same, of course, goes for the mental tricks in our psychological make-up. A great example is the gambling casino: Leaving out the increasingly rare exceptions, who ever walks in thinking they have a mathematical edge over the house? Who would be surprised to find out the casino is deliberately manipulating them into losing money with social proof, deprival super-reaction, commitment bias, over-confidence bias, and other tricks? Most intelligent folks aren’t shocked or surprised by the concept of a house edge. And yet casinos continue to do healthy business. We participate in the magic trick. In a perverse sense, we allow ourselves to be conned.

In some ways, confidence artists like Demara have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us. Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.

The Beginning of a Con: The “Put-Up” & The “Mark”

Who makes a good mark for a con artist? Essentially, it could be anyone. Context trumps character. Konnikova wisely retracts from trying to pinpoint exactly who is easiest to con: The truth is, in the right time and place, we can all get hit by a good enough con man. In fact, con artists themselves often make great marks. This is probably linked, in part, to over-confidence. (In fact, you might call conning a con man an…Over-confidence game?)

The con artist starts by getting to know us at a deep level. Konnikova argues that con artists combine excellent judgment of character with a honed ability to show the mark exactly what he wants to see. An experienced con artist has been drowned in positive and negative feedback on what works and does not. Through practice evolution, he’s learned what works. That’s why we end up letting him in, even if we’re on guard:

A con artist looks at everyone at that fine level. When it comes to the put-up, accuracy matters—and con men don’t just want to know how someone looks to them. They want to correctly reflect how they want to be seen.

What’s more, confidence artists can use what they’re learning as they go in order to get us to give up even more. We are more trusting of people who seem more familiar and more similar to us, and we open up to them in ways we don’t to strangers. It makes a certain sense: those like us and those we know or recognize are unlikely to want to hurt us. And they’re more likely to understand us.

There are a few things at play here. The con is triggering a bias from liking/loving, which we all have in us. By getting us committed and then drawing us in slowly, they also trigger commitment bias — in fact, Konnikova explains that the term Confidence Game itself comes from a basic trust exercise: Get into a conversation with a mark, commit them to saying that they trust you, then ask them if they’ll let you hold their wallet as a show of that trust. Robert Cialdini — the psychology professor who wrote the wonderfully useful book Influence — would certainly not be surprised to see that this little con worked pretty frequently. (Maria smartly points out the connection between con artists and Cialdini’s work in the book.)

The “Play,” the “Rope,” the “Tale,” and the “Convincer”

Once the con artist decides that we’re a mark, the fun begins.

After the mark is chosen, it is time to set the actual con in motion: the play, the moment when you first hook a victim and begin to gain her trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion. Once our emotions have been captured, once the con artist has cased us closely enough to identify what it is we want, feeling, at least in the moment, takes over from thinking.

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What visceral states do is create an intense attentional focus. We tune out everything else and tune in to the in-the-moment emotional cues. It’s similar to the feeling of overwhelming hunger or thirst—or the need to go to the bathroom—when you suddenly find yourself unable to think about anything else. In those moments, you’re less likely to deliberate, more likely to just say yes to something without fully internalizing it, and generally more prone to lapses that are outside the focus of your immediate attention.

As far as the context of a good con, emotion rules the day. People in financial straits, or who find themselves in stressful or unusual situations are the easiest to con. This is probably because these situations trigger what Danny Kahneman would call System 1 thinking: Fast, snap judgments, often very bad ones. Influenced by stress, we’re not slowing down and thinking things through. In fact, many people won’t even admit to be conned after the fact because they feel so ashamed of their lack of judgment in the critical moments. (Cult conversions use some of the same tactics.)

Now begins the “Tale”

A successful story does two things well. It relies on the narrative itself rather than any overt arguments or logical appeals to make the case on its own, and it makes us identify with its characters. We’re not expecting to be persuaded or asked to do something. We’re expecting to experience something inherently pleasant, that is, an interesting tale. And even if we’re not relating to the story as such, the mere process of absorbing it can create a bond between us and the teller—a bond the teller can then exploit.

It’s always harder to argue with a story, be it sad or joyful. I can dismiss your hard logic, but not how you feel. Give me a list of reasons, and I can argue with it. Give me a good story, and I can no longer quite put my finger on what, if anything, should raise my alarm bells. After all, nothing alarming is ever said explicitly, only implied.

This is, of course, the con artist preying on our inherent bias for narrative. It’s how we sense-make, but as Cialdini knows so well, it can be used for nefarious purposes to cause a click, whirr automatic reaction where our brain doesn’t realize it’s being tricked. Continuing the fallacy, the con artist reinforces the narrative we’ve been building in our head:

One of the key elements of the convincer, the next stage of the confidence game, is that it is, well, convincing: the convincer makes it seem like you’re winning and everything is going according to plan. You’re getting money on your investment. Your wrinkles are disappearing and your weight, dropping. That doctor really seems to know what he’s doing. That wine really is exceptional, and that painting, exquisite. You sure know how to find the elusive deal. The horse you bet on, both literal and figurative, is coming in a winner.

 The “Breakdown,” and the “Send”

And now comes the break-down. We start to lose. How far can the grifter push us before we balk? How much of a beating can we take? Things don’t completely fall apart yet—that would lose us entirely, and the game would end prematurely — but cracks begin to show. We lose some money. Something doesn’t go according to plan. One fact seems to be off. A figure is incorrectly labeled. A wine bottle is “faulty.” The crucial question: do we notice, or do we double down? High off the optimism of the convincer, certain that good fortune is ours, we often take the second route. When we should be cutting our losses, we instead recommit—and that is entirely what the breakdown is meant to accomplish.

A host of biases are being triggered at this point, turning our brains into mush. We’re starting to lose a little, but we feel if we hang in long enough, we can probably at least come out even, or ahead. (Deprival super-reaction tendency, so common at the roulette table, and sunk-cost fallacies.) We’ve already put our trust in this nice fellow, so any new problems can probably be rationalized as something we “knew could happen all along,” so no reason to worry. (Commitment & consistency, hindsight bias.) And of course, this is where the con artist really has us. It’s called The Send.

The send is that part of the con where the victim is recommitted, that is, asked to invest increasingly greater time and resources into the con artist’s scheme—and in the touch, the con finally comes to its fruition and the mark is completely, irrevocably fleeced.

The End of the Line

Of course, all things eventually come to an end.

The blow-off is often the final step of the con, the grifter’s smooth disappearance after the game has played out. Sometimes, though, the mark may not be so complacent. If that happens, there’s always one more step that can be taken: the fix, when a grifter puts off the involvement of law enforcement to prevent marks from making their complaints official.

Like the scene in The Sting, the ideal con ends without trouble for the con-man: Ideally, the mark won’t even know it was a con. But if they do, Konnikova makes an interesting point that the blow-off and the fix often end up being unnecessary, for reputational reasons. This self-preservation mechanism is one reason so many frauds never come to light, why there are few prosecutions in relation to the amount of fraud really going on:

The blow-off is the easiest part of the game, and the fix hardly ever employed. The Drake fraud persisted for decades—centuries, in fact—because people were too sheepish about coming forward after all that time. Our friend Fred Demara was, time and time again, not actually prosecuted for his transgressions. People didn’t even want to be associated with him, let alone show who they were publically by suing him. The navy had only one thing to say: go quietly—leave, don’t make a scene, and never come back.

Besides the reputational issue, there are clearly elements of Pavlovian mere association at play. Who wants to be reminded of their own stupidity? Much easier to sweep it away as soon as possible, never to be reminded again.

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Confidence Game is an enjoyable read with tales of cons and con artists throughout history – a good reminder of our own fallibility in the face of a good huckster and the power of human misjudgment.

Daniel Kahneman in Conversation with Michael Mauboussin on Intuition, Causality, Loss Aversion and More

The Santa Fe Institute Board of Trustees Chair Michael Mauboussin interviews Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. The wide-ranging conversation covers disciplined intuition, causality, base rates, loss aversion and so much more.

Here’s an excerpt from Kahneman I think you’ll enjoy.

The Sources of Power is a very eloquent book on expert intuition with magnificent examples, and so he is really quite hostile to my point of view, basically.

We spent years working on that, on the question of when can intuitions be trusted? What’s the boundary between trustworthy and untrustworthy intuitions?

I would summarize the answer as saying there is one thing you should not do. People’s confidence in their intuition is not a good guide to their validity. Confidence is something else entirely, and maybe we can talk about confidence separately later, but confidence is not it.

What there is, if you want to know whether you can trust intuition, it really is like deciding on a painting, whether it’s genuine or not. You can look at the painting all you want, but asking about the provenance is usually the best guide about whether a painting is genuine or not.

Similarly for expertise and intuition, you have to ask not how happy the individual is with his or her own intuitions, but first of all, you have to ask about the domain. Is the domain one where there is enough regularity to support intuitions? That’s true in some medical domains, it certainly is true in chess, it is probably not true in stock picking, and so there are domains in which intuition can develop and others in which it cannot. Then you have to ask whether, if it’s a good domain, one in which there are regularities that can be picked up by the limited human learning machine. If there are regularities, did the individual have an opportunity to learn those regularities? That primarily has to do with the quality of the feedback.

Those are the questions that I think should be asked, so there is a wide domain where intuitions can be trusted, and they should be trusted, and in a way, we have no option but to trust them because most of the time, we have to rely on intuition because it takes too long to do anything else.

Then there is a wide domain where people have equal confidence but are not to be trusted, and that may be another essential point about expertise. People typically do not know the limits of their expertise, and that certainly is true in the domain of finances, of financial analysis and financial knowledge. There is no question that people who advise others about finances have expertise about finance that their advisees do not have. They know how to look at balance sheets, they understand what happens in conversations with analysts.

There is a great deal that they know, but they do not really know what is going to happen to a particular stock next year. They don’t know that, that is one of the typical things about expert intuition in that we know domains where we have it, there are domains where we don’t, but we feel the same confidence and we do not know the limits of our expertise, and that sometimes is quite dangerous.

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The Best of Farnam Street 2015

As the year heads toward an end, what better way to reflect than to look back on the pieces that moved you.

Find below the 15 most read and shared articles published on Farnam Street in 2015, spanning everything from philosophy and psychology to mental models and understanding. (The curious can also catch up on last year’s best reads here.)

Thank you for joining me for another year on our intellectual and philosophical journey of discovery.

Best of Farnam Street 2015

1. Carol Dweck: The Two Mindsets And The Power of Believing That You Can Improve
Looks at the role of mindset in motivation, learning, and self-regulation.

2. The Reasons We Work
It’s more complicated than money.

3. The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask
“This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular.”

4. Albert Einstein on the Secret to Learning
“That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”

5. How To Think
This is the path, the rest is up to you.

6. Richard Feynman: The Difference Between Knowing the Name of Something and Knowing Something
Feynman articulates the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it.

7. The Two Types of Knowledge
“In this world we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. And then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned the talk. They may have a big head of hair, they may have fine temper in the voice, they’ll make a hell of an impression.”

8. William Deresiewicz: How To Learn How To Think
An argument to spend more time thinking.

9. How Successful People Increase Productivity
“One thing that successful people do to increase productivity is they avoid to-do lists. These lists are rarely as effective as scheduling time.”

10. Academic Economics — Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs
This is the full text of Charlie Munger’s Herb Kay Memorial Lecture, ‘Academic Economics: Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs,’ at the University of California at Santa Barbara, 2003.

11. The Peter Principle and the Law of Crappy People
If you’ve ever worked in an organization, you’ve no doubt come across someone in senior management and asked yourself how they ever got promoted.

12. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed
The modern storm of bits and stimulation, relents only when we sleep.

13. The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others
The number one thing to understand about influence is that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours.

14. Summer Reads for the Curious Mind
Out of the 44 books I read from January to June, here are the 7 that resonated with me the most

15. The Power of Full Engagement — Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal
Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr argue that energy, not time, is the key to managing performance.

Gary Taubes on What Really Makes Us Fat

Nutrition, as a scientific field, is reminiscent of psychology in its infancy — before Skinner’s or Pavlov’s ideas had made a dent, before there was Piaget, Kahneman, Tversky, Munger; before we had a field called “evolutionary psychology.” Heck, before biology itself had really come to grips with Darwin’s ideas about evolution through natural selection. (That didn’t happen until the modern synthesis in the 1940s.)

There were theories of mind, theories of self, theories of everything, but nearly all of them were incomplete and contradictory explanations of human behavior. Most were unscientific, in the Popperian sense. They couldn’t be falsified, and they claimed to explain too much, even patently opposite behaviors. It would be a long time before we started to pull the threads together and come up with coherent explanations of why we do what we do.

A similar pattern emerges as we survey the field of nutrition today. The ground is not steady. The most widely accepted and promulgated advice of the last fifty years is under attack: Maybe a calorie is not a calorie. Maybe the simple advice of “Eat less, move more,” nice as it sounds, is too simple, and frankly, wrong. (Reminding one of the second half of Einstein’s dictum: As simple as possible, but not simpler.) Maybe saturated fat is actually good for us. Maybe *gasp* salt is actually good for us.

These aren’t slight modifications of a prior theory but a 180 degree turn. (The visual metaphor is more literal than it seems: It’s not hard to argue, with the new evidence, that the old FDA food pyramid we’re familiar with should literally be turned upside down.)

As of late, this heretical thinking has been promoted most heavily by scientific journalist Gary Taubes, with his many articles, and his books: Good Calories, Bad Calories, and the slimmer and more easily digestible (!) Why We Get Fat (And What to Do About It).

He and his intellectual partner, Peter Attia, call it the Alternative Hypothesis. It goes roughly as follows: We don’t gain weight and get modern diseases like heart disease, obesity, and hypertension because we eat too many calories or consume too much dietary fat, but because we are consuming carbohydrates, especially sugar and easily digestible starches, at a pace that nature never intended. The resulting insulin resistance is the main culprit.

In Why We Get Fat, Taubes lays out the modern epidemic:

Fifty years ago, one in every eight or nine Americans would have been officially considered obese, and today it’s one in every three. Two in three are now considered overweight, which means they’re carrying around more weight than the public-health authorities deem to be healthy.

This, in the face of a rise in recreational exercise, gym-going, health-consciousness, and food pyramids. (Not to mention fast food, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and so on — all the things you’ve heard before. Taubes thinks those are red herrings, by the way.)

The Causality Problem

The premise of the book is relatively simple: Trying to explain the explosion of obesity, hypertension, and heart disease by focusing on overeating or under-exercising (consuming more calories than we’re using) is missing the boat. It’s explaining something causally by simply describing it. Of course we’re storing more energy than expended. Why?

Step-by-step, detective-like, Taubes explores the current hypotheses and finds them wanting:

…(I will argue) that it is absurd to think about obesity as caused by overeating, because anything that makes people grow–whether in height or weight, in muscle or fat–will make them overeat. Children, for example, don’t grow taller because they eat voraciously and consume more calories than they expend. They eat so much-overeat–because they’re growing. They need to take in more calories than they expend.

We want to know what causes the overeating relative to energy expenditure. Why would any animal or human be driven to store more fat than they needed to function? Wild animals do not carry excess fat unless it has a useful physiological mechanism. (Whales keeping warm, squirrels preparing for winter, etc.)

Many have tried to explain this in psychological terms: Either we’re being manipulated into over-eating or we’re too weak to resist the temptations of the modern age. Today’s food is just too damn yummy.

Taubes thinks this is the wrong way to approach the problem. What we really need to understand is the regulation of our fat tissue itself and why it would go awry. He calls it Adiposity 101:

The message of eighty years of research on obese animals is simple and unconditional and worth restating: obesity does not come about because gluttony and sloth make it so; only a change in the regulation of fat tissue make a lean animal obese.

The regulation of fat tissue is a bit different than we often imagine. Fat tissue is not like a savings account we add to and then pull from at an indeterminate time later. It’s more like the battery in a solar energy system: It stores excess energy when it is available, then releases it later when the energy isn’t available, at regular periodic intervals.

We’re constantly storing and releasing fat: During every meal, the body mobilizes its resources to store energy not immediately needed. Later, when we’re between meals or sleeping, the body breaks down the stored energy and uses it to fuel the cells. This is how a normally functioning body works. The principle of homeostasis tells us that the body wants to stay in balance: We should be storing only as much fat as needed to survive.

The problem comes when the body isn’t functioning normally, and the balance is lost. We tend to think this happens because we’re overeating. But what if that’s the effect, not the cause? It’s counter-intuitive, but so is the fact that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth.

The culprit is resistance to insulin, a natural hormone which (among other things) encourages fat storage and discourages release of fat stores while it’s circulating.

Remember, we depend on fatty acids for fuel in the hours after a meal, as blood sugar levels are dropping to their pre-meal level. But insulin suppresses the flow of fatty acid from the fat cells; it tells the other cells in the body to burn carbohydrates. So, as blood sugar returns to a healthy level, we need a replacement fuel supply.

(But) if insulin remains elevated, the fat isn’t available…as a result, the cells find themselves starved for fuel, and we quite literally feel their hunger. Either we eat sooner than we otherwise would have or we eat more when we do eat, or both. As I said earlier, anything that makes us fatter will make us overeat in the process. That’s what insulin does.

Taubes thinks we’ve gotten the causality backwards: Overeating doesn’t make us fat any more than overeating makes young children get taller; getting fat causes us to overeat. Our cells are literally being starved for energy by the selfish fat tissue, growing on its own accord in a tumor-like fashion driven by an abundance of circulating insulin. A isn’t causing B…B is causing A. This error has been the source of bad dieting advice.

Resistance is Futile 

How do we become insulin resistant in the first place? Simple: We over-consume easily digestible carbohydrates, which causes heavy and constant insulin response in our bloodstream. This level of carbohydrate consumption was not available to our ancestors year-round, making it a modern problem. (One objection that’s been raised here is that our ancestors simply didn’t live long enough to contract modern disease. I hypothesize that there’s an error being made: Many earlier humans lived perfectly long lives, certainly long enough to get obese and hypertensive, but one major reason average life expectancy was low is because child mortality was so high.)

In any case, our cells eventually become resistant to insulin, and as more and more of the hormone is released in response–to keep our blood sugar down–our fat remains stored away tightly in the form of triglycerides (tri = 3 fatty acids, glycerol = a binding molecule; how our body stores fat for later).

The indicators for diseases we now associate with obesity, including hypertension, diabetes, and stroke, have now largely been lumped under the term Metabolic Syndrome. Because these indicators–high triglycerides, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol among them–are often associated with an expanding waistline, many have been led to believe that obesity causes the other associated diseases.

Not so, according to Taubes:

The simplest way to look at all these associations, between obesity, heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and Alzheimer’s (not to mention the other conditions that also associate with obesity and diabetes, such as gout, asthma, and fatty liver disease), is that what makes us fat–the quality and quantity of carbohydrates we consume–also makes us sick.

The insulin resistance is causing obesity and the other problems. It isn’t that A causes B, it’s that C is causing A and B. Another important logical flaw.

What Now?

The implications are fairly obvious, from a diet perspective. We should cut our consumption of carbohydrates drastically, especially those that digest into the blood stream most easily and cause the most drastic insulin response.

Taubes smartly delimits himself from going beyond that advice, though:

It would be nice if we could improve on the foods to eat, foods to avoid, foods to eat in moderation. Unfortunately, this can’t be done without guessing. The kind of long-term clinical trials have not been undertaken that would tell us more about what constitutes the healthiest variation of a diet in which the fattening carbohydrates have already been removed.

Taubes admits that the right science must be done in order to prove that he’s right:

Our conventional dietary wisdom, as I’ve described in my books, is based on science that was simply not adequate to the task of establishing reliable knowledge — poorly-controlled human experiments, observational studies incapable of establishing cause and effect, and animal studies that may or may not say anything meaningful about what happens in humans.

That’s why he and Peter Attia created the Nutritional Science Initiative, or NuSi, with the idea of pulling together a range of scientists and researchers to perform more precise experiments. The goal is understanding whether a calorie is really a calorie, whether carbohydrate-restrictive diets are more effective (and why) and a host of other pertinent questions. Only good data will convince the public (and the health officials it turns to for advice) that things need to change. Their work is underway as we write.

Given the resistance most people have to admitting they were wrong, it’s an uphill battle.

***

What makes Taubes an effective thinker, and writer, is that he’s pulling from diverse fields in his quest to solve the obesity problem. While nutritionists typically silo themselves, to a certain extent, in their own field, with some influence from psychology to explain why obese people tend to overeat, Taubes instead pulls from anthropology, biochemistry, endocrinology, epidemiology, and the field of nutrition itself. By asking the right questions of the right people, he gets better answers. He isn’t afraid to step on toes. He also uses careful induction, sorting point by point the problems with competing hypotheses. This is something that reminds us of all great thinkers, from Newton to Darwin to Holmes to Munger.

Nutrition is a field changing in real-time: It needs precise thinkers with a strong penchant for self-criticism, truth-seeking, contrarianism, and boundary-crossing. Whether or not Taubes’ Alternative Hypothesis ends up being the correct one, the job needs to be done right. Observational studies, on which most nutritional recommendations are based, are not science: They are hypothesis-generators. Correlation generators. Figuring out causality is a tougher task.

The good news is that this core problem is solvable, and we suspect, like psychology, the field will come together in time.

The Two Sides of Seneca and A Lesson on Human Fallibility

The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.
The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.

 

If you can withhold moral judgement, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero is a great historical account of making decisions in complex situations.

Here is one way to describe the career of the stoic thinker, writer, poet, and moralist Seneca:

By a strange twist of fate, a man who cherished sobriety, reason, and moral virtue found himself at the centre of Roman politics. He did his best to temper the whims of a deluded despot, while continuing to publish the ethical treatises that were his true calling. When he could no longer exert influence in the palace, he withdrew and in solitude produced his most stirring meditations on virtue, nature, and death. Enraged by his departure, the emperor he had once advised seized on a pretext to force him to kill himself. His adoring wife tried to join him in his sober, court genus suicide, but imperial troops intervened to save her.

And here is another way to describe the very same life:

A clever manipulator of undistinguished origin connived his way into the centre of Roman power. He used verbal brilliance to represent himself as a sage. He exploited his vast influence to enrich himself and touched off a rebellion in Britain by lending usuriously to its inhabitants. After conspiring in, or even instigating, the palace’s darkest crimes, he tried to rescue his reputation with carefully crafted literary self-fashioning. When it was clear that the emperor’s enmity posed a threat, he sought refuge at the altar of philosophy even while leading an assassination plot. His final bid for esteem was his histrionic suicide, which he browbeat his unwilling wife into sharing.

These are the opposing frames by which Romans of the late first century A.D. regarded Seneca. Tacitus, perhaps the greatest Roman historian and by far the best source we have today for Nero’s era, stood between these extremes.

Tacitus, a shrewd student of human nature, was fascinated by the sage who extolled a simple, studious life even while amassing wealth and power. But ultimately Seneca posed a riddle he could not solve.

Tacitus made Seneca the principal character in the last three surviving books of his Annals, creating a portrait of great richness and complexity. But the tone of that portrait is hard to discern. Tacitus wavered, withheld judgment, or became ironic and elusive. Strangely, though aware of Seneca’s philosophic writings, Tacitus made no mention of them, as though they had no bearing on the meaning of his life. And he passed no explicit judgment on Seneca’s character, as he often did elsewhere. Our most detailed account of Seneca, in the end, is ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous.

But isn’t this the case with all of us?

Well-intended actions can be viewed through a lens of deception and manipulation just as outright manipulation can be viewed as aid. The truth is more complicated than binary answers. Debates about outright altruism still carry on today.

The truth is we all live complicated lives. Most of our actions fall somewhere between evil and good, failing to land on either extreme. Of course we have problems seeing ourselves as others do. In our minds we are the hero.

Laying complexity on top of this is the nature of the situations. Seneca was in exile and flattering Nero was his only hope to return. Perhaps it was hope that he could impact the world and perhaps he just wanted to come home from exile. We will never know as motivations are inherently complicated.

Seneca, it’s interesting to note, leaves his political successes and failures out of his writing beyond a few passages in Letters, suggesting “the failures weighed on him heavily.”

The Pursuit of Power

What prompted the committed Stoic, “a man who thought happiness came from Nature and Reason, to also pursue death and rule?”

Seneca never answered these questions directly but he pondered them in a mythical parallel: Thyestes.

The tragedy was likely composed during his time at Nero’s court or shortly thereafter.

Seneca used the conflict between two royal brothers—Atreus, a bloody autocrat possessed by spirits of Hell, and Thyestes, a gentle sage trying to stay out of politics—to wrestle with questions that his own strange journey had raised.

In the beginning, Atreus is the ruler of Argos, solely in command. The complication becomes that he was supposed to rule in turns with his brother Thyestes.

Thyestes has gone into an exile that Seneca depicts as a philosophic retreat, a communion with Nature such as he himself had claimed to enjoy on Corsica. But Atreus, infected by the demonic spirit of his grandfather Tantalus, is bent on destroying his brother, whom he regards as a threat. He sets out to lure Thyestes back to Argos, then enact a diabolic plan: to feed his brother a banquet of his murdered children’s flesh.

The conflict is neither a coded version of Seneca’s relationship with Nero, nor an allegory contrasting political ambition with philosophic detachment, but it contains elements of both.

A henchman challenges Atreus to say how he will ensnare Thyestes from such a great distance. Atreus replies:

He could not be caught—unless he wants to be caught. He yet covets my kingdom.

With the omniscient insight of the criminally insane, Atreus seems to look straight into the heart of his brother—and Seneca’s heart too. The will to power, Atreus implies, lurks in even the most detached, self-contented sage.

Thyestes now enters the scene, walking toward the trap we know is waiting. Seneca portrays him as a virtuous Stoic, disgusted by the world he long ago renounced:

How good it is
to be in no ones way, to eat safe meals
stretched out on open ground. Hovels don’t house crimes; a narrow table holds a wholesome feast;
it’s the gold cup that’s poisoned—I’ve seen, I know.

Thyestes faced the same choice that Seneca faced on Corsica. This is perhaps the best insight into the nature of Seneca’s conflict.

Why does Thyestes return to Argos, while claiming to hate what he will find there? He makes his choice passively, almost fatalistically. As his children urge him onward, he appears to surrender: “I follow you, I do not lead,” he tells them. He has resisted long enough to satisfy his own conscience. He will resist further when Atreus offers him the sceptre, but he accepts this as well; it was, as Atreus had divined and as Seneca finally makes clear, what he had wanted all along.

Rather than staying in virtuous exile,Thyestes opts to return. A choice that would have been familiar to Seneca. Thyestes’ nature was human.

“All of us have done wrong,” Seneca wrote in De Clement; “some have stood by our good designs not firmly enough and have lost our guiltlessness, unwillingly, while trying to keep our grasp on it.”

While Seneca depicts Thyestes as trying, his effort falls short.

Seneca’s prose works offer forgiveness, but in the bleak world of the tragedies, the sin of weakness comes back on the sinner’s head a thousand fold. In a gruesome messenger speech, we hear how Atreus butchered, filleted, and stewed Thyestes’ children. Then we watch as Thyestes unknowingly consumes the horrid casserole.

In the play’s final act, a gleeful, drunken Thyestes revels over his meal and, significantly, curses his former poverty; he has gone over to the world of pleasure and power that he once renounced. Atreus now enters to deliver the crowning blow. He reveals the severed heads of the sons on whom Thyestes has feasted. No deities have intervened to prevent this atrocity, and none care that it happened, as Seneca suggests in his nightmarish closing lines:

THYESTES: Gods will come to avenge me;
To them I entrust your punishment.
ATREUS: And I entrust your punishment—to your children.

After the cannibal banquet, the plays chorus members, the citizens of Argos, envision

Are we, out of all generations,
deserving of the sky’s collapse,
its axis knocked from beneath its dome?
Is it on us the last age comes?
A harsh destiny has brought us to this:
Wretches, either we lost our sun, Or else we drove it away.

In these words we hear Seneca’s voice. The sky had become black and the only way out was death and yet he lived on. The last words of the play’s apocalyptic chorus mention a theme that would occupy Seneca in his last years: Suicide.

Greedy for life is he who declines to die, along with the dying world.

***

Part biography, part narrative history, and part exploration of Seneca’s writings, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero is an effort to bring the two conflicting views of Seneca into a single personality.

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