Communion Of Dreams


Three things.

OK, actually more like four. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta.

You’ll see.

* * *

Interesting item on this morning’s Morning Edition, looking at a new book about how scarcity has a psychological impact which pushes people to make poor choices.  The transcript isn’t up yet, so here’s just one passage from the interview with co-author Sendhil Mullainathan:

When you have scarcity and it creates a scarcity mindset, it leads you to take certain behaviors which in the short term help you manage scarcity, but in the long term only make matters worse.

Specifically, it’s a coping strategy: by setting aside some long-term problem, you actually have more time to deal with urgent short-term problems. This is a very normal human reaction, and actually even makes evolutionary sense — not getting eaten today is more important than where that glacier up the mountain will be next year.

I still remember a poster my Resident Advisor had up on her wall in college, which distilled this problem nicely. It said (with appropriate humorous graphic): “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s easy to forget that you came here to drain the swamp.”

* * *

I’ve … struggled … with procrastination all my life. Sometimes more successfully than at other times. It can manifest as lethargy. Or writer’s block. Or simple distraction.

And I learned a long, long time ago that that struggle was made worse when I was confronted with other stressors in my life. A bad bipolar cycle. Financial stress.  Emotional stress. Simple lack of sufficient sleep. Just look back through my blog posts while we were doing care-giving for Martha Sr, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

So when I see someone come up with an interesting take on procrastination, I pay attention. Here’s a very good one:

In the monkey world, he’s got it all figured out—if you eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult, you’re a pretty successful monkey. The problem for the procrastinator is that he happens to live in the human world, making the Instant Gratification Monkey a highly unqualified navigator. Meanwhile, the Rational Decision-Maker, who was trained to make rational decisions, not to deal with competition over the controls, doesn’t know how to put up an effective fight—he just feels worse and worse about himself the more he fails and the more the suffering procrastinator whose head he’s in berates him.

It’s a mess. And with the monkey in charge, the procrastinator finds himself spending a lot of time in a place called the Dark Playground.*

The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread. Sometimes the Rational Decision-Maker puts his foot down and refuses to let you waste time doing normal leisure things, and since the Instant Gratification Monkey sure as hell isn’t gonna let you work, you find yourself in a bizarre purgatory of weird activities where everyone loses.**

* * *

There was a great story yesterday afternoon on All Things Considered, about a little boy who was terrified by a statue of Frankenstein(‘s Monster). It was funny, charming, and insightful.

What insight? This one:

“Well, your nephew is a brilliant story editor,'” says psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Wilson has been studying how small changes in a person’s own stories and memories can help with emotional health. He calls the process “story editing.” And he says that small tweaks in the interpretation of life events can reap huge benefits.

This process is essentially what happens during months, or years, of therapy. But Wilson has discovered ways you can change your story in only about 45 minutes.

* * *

There’s a second part to that item about procrastination I posted above (hence my ambivalence about whether this blog entry was about three things or four):

There’s only one way to truly beat procrastination:

You need to prove to yourself that you can do it. You need to show yourself you can do it, not tell yourself. Things will change when you show yourself that they can. Until then, you won’t believe it, and nothing will change. Think of yourself like a basketball player on a cold streak. For basketball players, it’s all about confidence, and an ice cold shooter can tell himself 1000 times, “I’m a great shooter, I’m going to hit this next one,” but it’s not until he physically hits a shot that his confidence goes up and his touch comes back. So how do you start hitting shots?

* * *

3) Aim for slow, steady progress—Storylines are rewritten one page at a time.In the same way a great achievement happens unglorious brick by unglorious brick, a deeply-engrained habit like procrastination doesn’t change all at once, it changes one modest improvement at a time. Remember, this is all about showing yourself you can do it, so the key isn’t to be perfect, but to simply improve. The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. The procrastinator who gets slightly better every week is a totally changed person a year later.So don’t think about going from A to Z—just start with A to B. Change the Storyline from “I procrastinate on every hard task I do” to “Once a week, I do a hard task without procrastinating.” If you can do that, you’ve started a trend. I’m still a wretched procrastinator, but I’m definitely better than I was last year, so I feel hopeful about the future.

* * *

Wait — I said three things? Or maybe four?

I suppose it’s really only one, after all.

Time for me to get back to work.

 

Jim Downey



The fox which wasn’t there.

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox.

* * * * * * *

A friend reacted to something I had posted elsewhere, which involved one of the instances cited in this recent blog post:

I have worked with the TSA screeners in [town]. I have worked with the management team that leads them. I know them personally, and I can tell you this is patently false, disjointed, prejudiced, half-assed reporting of the situation.

* * * * * * *

There was a fascinating long-form segment on NPR’s All Things Considered last night, looking into the “Psychology of Fraud.” The entire thing is worth reading/listening to when you get a chance, but basically it was the case study of how one otherwise ethical man wound up engaging in a series of financial frauds – and how he drew in multiple different people to help him do so.

Like I said, the whole thing is worth your time, but the thing which got me thinking was this bit:

Chapter 5: We Lie Because We Care

Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.

Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points to the case of emissions testers. Emissions testers are supposed to test whether or not your car is too polluting to stay on the road. If it is, they’re supposed to fail you. But in many cases, emissions testers lie.

And what’s critical in this case is that we help those we identify with. Those emissions testers? They’re much more prone to help someone who is driving an older, inexpensive model car. Because those emissions testers don’t make a whole lot of money themselves, and have cars like that. Someone comes in with a high-end car, they’re less likely to identify with the owner and cut them some slack with the emissions tests.

* * * * * * *

A (different) friend asked me this morning whether I still spend much time reading up on game theory. It was something new to him when he saw it in Communion of Dreams, and my recent posts about it had again piqued his interest.

I replied that I don’t really follow the current scholarship on the topic specifically, but that I saw it in terms of a larger psychological dynamic. I then recommended that he should read Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why? Because it would provide an insight into how humans are very similar to other primates in how we exist in hierarchical groups, and how we act because of our identity to a group – how that we look to our authority figures for cues on how to behave. He’s currently serving in Afghanistan, and I told him that it would forever change how he would see the military as well as those local tribes he’s dealing with.

* * * * * * *

A passage from Wikipedia:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

* * * * * * *

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox. It cut across the back of our large yard, disappeared into some heavy brush in the adjacent empty lot.

“Alwyn,” I said, and pointed towards the back of the lot. My dog dutifully jumped up, trotted around the raised bed, and started sniffing the ground. Quickly he caught the scent of the fox, and rushed off to the edge of the yard where it had disappeared.

But he stopped there. He’s well trained, well behaved.

I petted the cat, then headed back towards the house.

My dog followed.

Jim Downey