Another Week Ends

1. Another superb volley in David Brooks’ crusade for a more compassionate view of human […]

David Zahl / 10.21.11

1. Another superb volley in David Brooks’ crusade for a more compassionate view of human fallibility appeared in The NY Times this week, “Who You Are,” in which he salutes Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s invaluable contribution to social psychology. Brooks goes so far as to call Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky, “the Lewis and Clark of the mind.” Kahneman’s new book, which sounds like it has Mockingbird written all over it (wouldn’t that be the day!), Thinking, Fast and Slow comes out on Tuesday. In the meantime, I defy you not to issue an ‘are you kidding me?!’ when reading the final paragraph below:

Before Kahneman and Tversky, people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it’s because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment.

Pro golfers putt more accurately from all distances when putting for par than when putting for birdie because they fear the bogie more than they desire the birdie.

We are not blank slates. All humans seem to share similar sets of biases. There is such a thing as universal human nature. The trick is to understand the universals and how tightly or loosely they tie us down.

We are players in a game we don’t understand. Most of our own thinking is below awareness. Fifty years ago, people may have assumed we are captains of our own ships, but, in fact, our behavior is often aroused by context in ways we can’t see. Our biases frequently cause us to want the wrong things. Our perceptions and memories are slippery, especially about our own mental states. Our free will is bounded. We have much less control over ourselves than we thought.

2. From Psychology Today, and a fitting follow-up to yesterday’s piece on Wendell Berry, “Enemies Enhance the Meaning of Life,” ht TF:

Specifically, [University of Kansas psychologist Mark] Landau and colleagues argue that people have a basic need for coherence, or for things to make sense. Enemies provide people with this sense of coherence. If we can attribute many of the ills in our lives to our enemies, then we have a stable set of schemas and expectations. We know what to expect,  even if something bad happens, and we know who to attribute it to.

Put differently, this research suggests that people create enemies in order to maintain a stable, coherent, clear view of the world. This is because they can attribute the negatives of the world (which are inevitable) to these enemies… Having enemies even appears to make people feel, ironically, safer.

3. There’s been a lot of mother talk talk at the moment, and for good reason. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the Freakonomics guys chose this week to explore the flipside, looking at how the staggering rise in single-mother households (from 8 % of US homes in 1960 to 23% in 2010) is informing child development. Specifically, “How an Absent Father Affects Boys and Girls Differently.” Nothing too Earth-shattering, but certainly reason for prayer, ht JD:

[A recent paper Deborah Cobb-Clark and Erdal Tekin] discovered, among other things, that sons benefit far more from a father (or father-figure) than daughters do. From the abstract: ‘…we find that adolescent boys engage in more delinquent behavior if there is no father figure in their lives. However, adolescent girls’ behavior is largely independent of the presence (or absence) of their fathers.’ [ed note: one can’t help but wonder if effects on daughters simply take a different yet equally sad, if not necessarily illegal form.]

While daughters generally require a level of quality interaction with a father figure, sons benefit from sheer quantity of time, and respond simply to having a father or father figure around the house. Most interestingly, however, is the finding that daughters appear to be adversely affected by contact with their non-residential biological father.

Mothers also do not appear to compensate for the complete absence of a father figure by increasing their involvement with their children.In fact, it is those children without a father figure in their lives who engage in fewer activities and talk about fewer issues with their mothers.

4. A timely article in The Atlantic by Joe Fassler about “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered High Brow Fiction,” taking Colson Whitehead’s new foray into the Zompocalypse as its jumping off point. While Fassler’s basic observation about the current prominence ‘genre’ is irrefutable, I’m not sure why ‘genre’ labels should be taken seriously to begin with. I mean, aren’t they ultimately just marketing tools? Still, the discussion toward the end, about the timelessness of certain mythic forms and our lives having slowly become more science-fictional, is particularly relevant, ht SZ.

5. A wonderful little interview appeared with Pulp singer and ‘British national treasure’ Jarvis Cocker appeared in The Guardian this past week, on the occasion of his visit to his alma mater art school in Sheffield. I was especially taken with his musings on fame:

I ask why [Jarvis] thinks his own particular childhood longing for fame has become the universal ambition of almost every teenager today. Does it mean that all youngsters now feel as he did then – inadequate and insignificant?

“I think basically becoming famous has taken the place of going to heaven in modern society, hasn’t it? That’s the place where your dreams will come true. It’s an act of faith now; they think that’s going to sort things out.” When he talked to the children he contrasted X Factor’s fantasy of overnight stardom with the 15 years’ work it took Pulp to be successful – but presumably he too must have heard cautionary tales about the false promise of celebrity when he was a child. So why didn’t he heed them?

“Ah,” he smiles, “I think everybody always thinks they’re cleverer than everyone else, and they wouldn’t fall into those traps.”


6. Speaking of thoughtful musings on fame, Chuck Klosterman’s profile of Noel Gallagher on Grantland is worth your time, and not just because Noel is such an unguarded and hilarious interview subject. After providing a disarmingly persuasive perspective about how we perceive artists’ trajectories, he reiterates his reflections on the difference between success and fame. Which, truth be told, sounds more than a little like the difference between Law and Gospel. Just insert ‘Jesus’ in that first sentence before ‘success’ and voila! Given Noel’s highly colorful way of expressing himself, this is slightly sanitized version of what he actually said:

“Fame is something that is bestowed upon you because of success. Success is something you have to chase,” he explains. “And once you’ve had success, you have to keep having it in order not to be a failure. In business, you can have one massive success that earns $50 million overnight, and that’s it. You’re successful. End of story. But in the music business, you have to keep on doing it. You have to constantly chase success. The fame you just get. I enjoy being famous, because I don’t have to do anything. I can just turn up at nice restaurants and people are like, ‘Oh, it’s Noel Gallagher. Brilliant. Sit down.’ But success can ruin people, because you have to chase it, and that can drive you insane. You can get obsessed with the idea of a formula, and you start wondering, ‘Why did I sell 20 million albums in less than two years during the ’90s, but now I can’t sell 20 million albums over the span of 10 years after the turn of the century?’ And it’s not like I sit around thinking about that, but it’s always there. And when you start really chasing success, you start to make mistakes, and that’s when things spin out of control.”

7. Ruh roh… I had assumed Frank Oz wasn’t taking part in the new Muppet movie because he had ‘retired’ from being Piggy and Fozzie almost ten years ago. Apparently, there were other reasons.

8. Finally, Slate asks the question on everyone’s, um, face, “Why Does God Love Beards?”

P.S. With the Birmingham conference coming up in a mere seven days (online pre-registration closes on Weds 10/26), next week might be a bit lighter than normal, blogging-wise.

P.P.S. All you Texans out there – yours truly is super excited to be making his first ever trip to the lone star in a few short weeks for this:

You may register here.