He disappeared into a room, and you didn’t see him again until it was done

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Ryan Holiday illustrates the best career advice he ever received with a story from the NFL:

At the height of the financial crisis in 1975, Bill Belichick — the now six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New England Patriots — was 23 years old and unemployed. Desperate for a job in football after an assistant position fell through, according to his biographer David Halberstam, he wrote some 250 letters to college and professional football coaches. Nothing came of it except a unpaid job for the Baltimore Colts.

The Colts’ head coach desperately needed someone for the one part of the job everyone else disliked: analyzing film.

Most people would have hated this job, especially back then, but it turned out to be the springboard through which the greatest coach in football was launched into his legendary career.

In this lowly position, Belichick thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it, and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. “He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything,” one coach said. “You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more,” said another.

Most importantly, he made the other coaches look good. His insights gave them things they could give their players. It gave them an edge they would take credit for exploiting in the game.

It’s a strategy that all of us ought to follow, whatever stage of our careers we happen to be in. Forget credit. Do the work.

Demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

We learn by paying attention to what others attend to, which is why, Arnold Kling speculates, in-class learning works better than watching a lecture on line:

When I am in a classroom, others are paying attention to the speaker. This makes my attention to the speaker instinctive. I don’t have to use so much willpower to pay attention. But when it’s just me sitting in front of a computer, I have to will myself to pay attention. It uses up more effort and takes more out of me.

That’s not his main point though:

In the twentieth century, watching television or listening to the radio were often social activities. TV and radio could command our attention the way the speaker in a classroom would, through people paying attention to what others were attending to.

But we use 21st-century media in isolation. That means that the media need other means to command our attention. They cannot rely on our use of social cues. Instead, they have to rely on dopamine hits. Porn. Games. And demonization.

We get a dopamine hit by seeing the demonization of people with whom we disagree. So demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy in the age of contemporary media.

The whole point of writing The Three Languages of Politics was to describe demonization rhetoric under the assumption that people would not want to demonize. I thought that if you recognize the rhetoric, you would back away from it.

Instead, the religion that persecutes heretics justifies demonization. To criticize demonization is to be a heretic. In a world where people consume media in isolation, an ideology that justifies demonization has an advantage.

At least Anne Frank got a book deal

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

Pollyanna gets a bad rap, Lenore Skenazy argues:

Pollyanna movies have been made around the globe, despite the fact that her name long ago became shorthand for gratingly grateful. What I would call the “At least Anne Frank got a book deal!” outlook Pollyanna calls the “Glad Game,” a technique she was taught by her missionary dad when she was desperately hoping for a doll and received instead a pair of crutches. But at least she didn’t need the crutches, so — hooray!

I recently decided it was time to finally watch (and possibly learn from) Pollyanna. Steeling myself for a sap overload, I was shocked to discover the character was not a cloying goody-goody but actually sly, smart — and manipulative.

The basic plot: Parentless Pollyanna arrives in a small Vermont town to live with her rich and icy Aunt Polly. Pollyanna doesn’t mind the attic room — just look at that view! — and soon she’s out and about, meeting the locals. She chats with shut-in Mrs. Snow, who’s been poring over a casket catalog, and wealthy recluse Mr. Pendleton, who hates kids until Pollyanna pushes her way in and points out the rainbows his chandelier casts on the wall. Pretty soon they’re stringing a clothesline of crystals across the living room and rainbows dance everywhere — a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow’s stuffy bedroom as well.

By doggedly refusing to treat these grumpy adults as anything other than fun-loving potential friends, they start to become exactly that. But how?

“Pollyanna is nice to the people you don’t want to be around and therefore makes them nice,” says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated everyone as hateful. When along comes someone who doesn’t hate them and isn’t hateable, their circuits sputter. Either life is nasty, brutish, and short, or it isn’t. Unable to hold two opposing viewpoints at once, they dump their old one (life stinks) and embrace the new.

[...]

They may feel angry and aggrieved, but is life really that bad? Or is it just their ornery, self-pitying interpretation?

Pollyanna brings CBT to the town. And lately, some parents are bringing Pollyanna’s lesson into their homes. “I deliberately made my husband and daughter, who’s 13, watch it with me,” says author Alina Adams. “I was born in the Soviet Union and spent my first seven years there. Growing up, the attitude was ‘it could always be worse.’” Her Soviet upbringing made American life one big Glad Game for Adams.

[...]

Me? I’m a proud Pollyanna convert. You can play the sad game, the mad game, or the Glad Game. Only one is any fun.

Passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit for learning

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

Research dating back a century has shown that retrieval contributes to learning, but the past decade has seen a renewed, intense focus on exploring the benefits of retrieval for learning:

This recent research has established that repeated retrieval enhances learning with a wide range of materials, in a variety of settings and contexts, and with learners ranging from preschool ages into later adulthood (Balota, Duchek, Sergent-Marshall & Roediger, 2006; Fritz, Morris, Nolan & Singleton, 2007).

A word-learning experiment illustrates some key points about retrieval-based learning. In the experiment (Karpicke & Bauernschmidt, 2011), students learned a list of foreign language words (e.g., Swahili vocabulary words like “mashua — boat”) across cycles of study and recall trials. In study trials, the students saw a vocabulary word and its translation on the computer screen, and in recall trials, they saw a vocabulary word and had to recall and type its translation. The students studied a list of vocabulary words, then attempted to retrieve the whole list, studied it again, retrieved it again, and so on across alternating study and retrieval practice blocks.

There were several different conditions in the experiment. In one condition, students simply studied the words once, without trying to recall them at all. In a second condition, students continued studying and recalling the words until they had recalled all of them once. After a word was successfully retrieved once, it was “dropped” from further practice — the students did not see it again in the learning session.

Other conditions in the experiment examined the effects of repeated retrieval practice. Once a word was recalled, the computer program required the students to practice retrieving the items three more times. One repeated retrieval condition had the three recall trials happen immediately, three times in a row. This condition, referred to as massed retrieval practice, is akin to repeating a new piece of information over and over in your head right after you experience it. Finally, in the last condition highlighted here, the students also practiced retrieving the words three times, but the repeated retrievals were spaced throughout the learning session. For instance, once a student correctly recalled the translation for mashua, the program moved on to other vocabulary words, but prompts to practice retrieval of the translation for mashua would pop up later on in the program. In this way, the retrieval opportunities were spaced throughout the learning session.

The key question in this research was, how well would students remember the vocabulary word translations in the long term? Figure 1 shows the proportion of translations that students remembered one week after the initial learning session.

CWS-fig1

Merely studying the words once without ever recalling them produced extremely poor performance (average recall was 1 percent, barely visible on the figure). Practicing until each translation was recalled once was much better. But what about the effects of repeated retrieval practice? Massed retrieval — repeating the translations three times immediately — produced no additional gain in learning. Repeated retrieval enhanced learning only when the repetitions were spaced, and indeed, the effects of repeated spaced retrieval were very large. In a single experiment, simple changes that incorporated spaced retrieval practice took performance from nearly total forgetting to extremely good retention (about 80 percent correct) one week after an initial learning experience (see also Karpicke & Roediger, 2008; Pyc & Rawson, 2010).

[...]

In one survey (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009), college students were asked to list the strategies they use while studying and to rank-order the strategies. The results, shown in Figure 2, indicate that students’ most frequent study strategy, by far, is repetitive reading of notes or textbooks. Active retrieval practice lagged far behind repetitive reading and other strategies (for a review of several learning strategies, see Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). A wealth of research has shown that passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit for learning (Callender & McDaniel, 2009). Yet not only was repetitive reading the most frequently listed strategy, it was also the strategy most often listed as students’ number one choice, by a large margin.

Teachers don’t learn about learning

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

Many things that go on at schools are at odds with the conclusions of rigorous education research:

Teaching kids abstract critical thinking skills is unlikely to help them think critically. The length of lectures often exceeds children’s attention spans. Most anti-bullying programs don’t work.

[...]

The results were “sobering,” according to a March 2020 report, “Learning by Scientific Design; Early insights from a network informing teacher preparation.” By my math, teacher candidates scored an average of 57 percent or 31 questions correct on a 54-question test — an F.

[...]

Deans for Impact instead reported the results in three separate categories: 49 percent on 14 basic cognitive science principles; 58 percent correct on 32 questions about applying these concepts in the classroom, and 67 percent on eight questions about beliefs about how kids learn.

[...]

One common misunderstanding, according to the report, is mistaking student engagement for learning. In one question, student teachers were asked to pick between two classroom activities to teach students the difference between types of newspaper articles. One activity asked students to read the same three articles and answer three questions in small discussion groups. One example: “Make a list of differences between the news article and the opinion pieces. Which of these can be attributed to the authors’ differing purposes?” The second activity had students go on a newspaper scavenger hunt and sort articles into three categories: persuade, inform and entertain.

The question specifically asked teachers to pick the activity that would help students learn the ways that an author’s purpose influences their writing. And for the education researchers who helped create the assessment, it wasn’t a close call. “None of these are gotcha questions,” said Heal, a consultant with Deans for Impact.

But only 22 percent of future teachers picked the first activity, which was the correct answer, because it requires students to make their thinking visible and identify key features of each text. That helps students build a mental model that they can apply again in the future. The second activity doesn’t require much analysis but teacher candidates gravitated toward it. Why? “The first activity is very boring, I didn’t even want to read the questions,” wrote one test taker. “The second activity is more inviting, seems more hands on and is more inquiry learning.”

The test also revealed that many teacher candidates embrace the myth of learning styles, believing that individual students are either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. The research consensus is that differentiating instruction this way doesn’t boost learning.

[...]

Twenty-two teaching instructors at the six schools volunteered to take the test themselves. They also failed the section on basic cognitive science principles but they passed the section on practical applications in the classroom with an average score of 77 percent correct. Maybe you don’t need to know the details of the science as long as you know how to apply them.

Bryan Caplan’s emergency homeschooling how-to guide

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Bryan Caplan offers his emergency homeschooling how-to guide:

The foremost question for any homeschooler is: What are you trying to accomplish? My answer is twofold:

1. Teach kids what they need to know to become self-supporting adults, even if it isn’t fun.

2. Give kids a happy childhood.

In pursuit of goal #1, I focus heavily on mathematics. Why? Because most good jobs in the modern world require strong math skills, and very few kids like math enough to learn it on their own. I also mandate reading and writing — but I don’t especially care what they read or what they write about. Indeed, the best route is if they read and write whatever excites them most.

In pursuit of goal #2, I give kids ample breaks, a long lunch (at cheap restaurants in healthy conditions), and plenty of outdoor time. If there’s any academic subject outside math, reading, and writing that they enjoy, I energetically support them. But I don’t burden them with any additional mandatory work — not even economics. I naturally encourage kids to consider the possibility that they might change their minds, but I don’t push.

My other goal, frankly, is to do my own job while my kids learn. Most emergency homeschoolers are probably in the same position. How are you supposed juggle your kids’ education and your job simultaneously? The answer: With calm but strict discipline. Specifically:

1. Create a tentative schedule and share it with your kids — then enforce it like clockwork. This means more initial effort for you, but will quickly pay for itself in both time and frustration.

2. On day one, run diagnostic tests to find out what your students already know. Assign tasks with a wide range of difficulties. Once you find the easiest thing they don’t know well, have them practice until they can do it well. Especially for young kids, don’t worry about completing a curriculum by a specific date. Just know your final destination and start marching. Tell your kids they’ll learn new tasks as soon as they master the material they’re doing. Drill, drill, drill.

3. If your kids have short attention spans, build more breaks into the schedule — but then enforce that schedule. If your kids need to run around, build that into the schedule too.

4. Build parental feedback time into your schedule, then require kids to hold their questions until the scheduled time. This is crucial if you want to get your own work done.

5. Start the day with the most boring material. For 95% of kids, that means math.

6. Reliably respond to misbehavior with calm but firm enforcement. Don’t express anger — but don’t feel sorry for them. There is great wisdom in the tautology that, “The rules are the rules.”

7. Don’t judge case-by-case; except in extreme circumstances (e.g. vomiting), remind off-task kids of the schedule and tell them to keep working. Don’t be afraid to use mild punishments to address misbehavior — but scrupulously enforce all the punishments you announce. It is better to turn a blind eye than to make idle threats.

8. Remember: The main cause of unhappiness is the disparity between what you expect and what happens. Similarly, the main cause of parent-child conflict is the disparity between what you expect and what your kids expect. Once your kids take their schedule for granted, they will feel better about the situation. Once everyone knows what to expect, conflict fades away… usually. Remember: If your own parental weakness makes you miserable, you will be unpleasant company for your kids. So think of the children — ultimately they too will suffer if you let them push your around!

9. Be open to constructive student feedback outside of learning time. During learning time, though, stick to the schedule.

10. Don’t tell kids that something is “fun” if they resent it. Just be honest and remind them that some boring work has a big long-run payoff. Before you tell them so, though, critically assess whether the boring task does in fact have a big long-run payoff. Sorry, mandatory musical instruction is absurd. If kids have to suffer, they should suffer for their own benefit — not your pride.

[...]

I bought almost all of the Humble Math workbooks, found out my kids’ current level, and set them to work. I can’t say they’re delighted, but at least they’re making good progress and look forward to the breaks. The reading and writing are easier sells. And at the end of the day during Activity period, we exercise outside, then learn about whatever’s on their minds. So far, contagious disease is a hot topic – we’ve studied smallpox, Spanish flu, and more – complete with graphic medical photos from the internet. Personally, I’d like to teach more economics, but I’ll wait until they’re more curious.

I haven’t looked at Humble Math, but I’ve been impressed by Beast Academy.

If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor

Saturday, April 18th, 2020

Discussions about reforming Navy boot camp began in 2016, but they picked up urgency following a pair of deadly collisions at sea in 2017:

Officers and administrators have rewritten 60% of boot camp’s two-month curriculum, tightening standards and emphasizing fundamentals like firefighting, damage control such as plugging leaks and day-to-day equipment repairs, and standing watch.

“If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor,” says Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, the Navy SEAL who was tapped in spring 2019 to command several training programs, including boot camp. “We’ll remediate you, we’ll try to get you there, but if you can’t get there, you can’t be a sailor.” Adm. Sands keeps a copy of the Navy’s report on his desk at all times to remind him that when the service sends poorly trained sailors out to sea, lives are lost.

[...]

Recruits now receive 177 hours of hands-on learning during their eight weeks, up from 160 hours in 2017. Classroom instruction fell, as elements were removed, condensed or pushed to subsequent training periods.

In each of the 13 barracks that house recruits at Great Lakes, “we literally tore out computer labs, removed all the desks and turned them into ship decks to practice basic war-fighting competencies,” says Adm. Sands.

Commanders, who lead boot-camp divisions of around 88 recruits and are responsible for their performance, now assess their divisions’ weaknesses and use blocks of time once devoted to online learning to have their recruits drill skills like patching pipes or tying knots to anchor and moor a ship.

[...]

Recruits spend two days inside the U.S.S. Marlinspike, a facility at Great Lakes containing a life-size replica of the deck of a surface ship and a classroom outfitted with ropes and bollards, the posts to which ships are tied. There, recruits practice tying lines, relaying orders, getting a ship under way and bringing it back to port. The only thing missing is water.

U.S.S. Marlinspike

To graduate, recruits must pass an all-night test called “battle stations,” proving their skills in an environment designed to look and feel like the deck and hull of a warship. As water floods through a burst pipe, they must identify and repair the leak and move boxes of ammunition to dry storage. In another area, an explosion is followed by smoke and alarms; dummies stand in for sailors with injuries, some fatal. The recruits put out fires and extract the wounded.

Battle stations used to be more of an exercise with coaching from instructors; it is now an evaluation of skills, and failure just before the finish line isn’t uncommon, officers say. On rare occasions, commanders fail entire divisions if recruits don’t display teamwork. Some who fail get one chance to retake the test with another division; others are discharged.

The mind can go either direction under stress

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Maria Konnikova (Mastermind) makes an embarrassing confession — well, to science fiction fans:

Until last week, I had never read Dune. I wasn’t even aware that I was supposed to have read Dune. Nor did I know I should be embarrassed at the failure. Consider me properly chastised. Fifteen or so years too late, I have finally finished the book that calls itself — on the cover of the 40th anniversary edition — “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I will say that I was surprised by the accuracy of some of its insights into the human psyche, especially when it comes to our ability to deal with stressful situations.

Paul Atreides and his mother, Jessica, find themselves alone on Arrakis, the inhospitable desert planet, and Paul makes the most of their circumstances:

Instead of panicking at their isolation, he remarks, “I find myself enjoying the quiet here.” This, just before a journey that might well kill them both. His mother doesn’t quite buy it, but she does think to herself, “How the mind gears itself for its environment. The mind can go either direction under stress — toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.”

Decades of psychological research have proven her to be quite correct. The story begins in 1949, with Donald Hebb. (Actually, it begins much earlier, but you need to start somewhere.) Hebb — a student of Wilder Penfield (who found that stimulating different areas of the temporal lobe during open-brain surgery could elicit different memories and sensations) and Karl Lashley (who quested for the engram, or the location for a specific memory, in the brains of rats) — believed that memories are stored by virtue of repeat association: an action causes activity in a cell, which in turn excites a neighboring cell. With each repetition, the connection between these two cells is strengthened, and over time, the cells become associated with one another, so that the activation of one predictably causes the activation of the other (as Carla Shatz memorably described it in 1992, “cells that fire together wire together”). These strengthening connections are now known as Hebbian plasticity, and Hebb’s idea, Hebb’s postulate.

But Hebb goes a step further than actual sensory experience. As he famously wrote, “You need not have an elephant present to think of elephants.” The thought itself can be enough to trigger the type of association that comes with learning. In other words, Paul Atreides need never have been in this specific desert environment in order to react as he does. It is enough for him to have trained his mind for that particular reaction, toward the positive and away from the negative, for the reaction to take place in reality.

Hebb’s work has since been expanded on, refined, and modified, but the general principle remains the same: training matters when it comes to how we learn and what we remember. Habit is king. Hebb’s postulate explains much of the logic behind such phenomena as Pavlovian conditioning (bell plus food equals salivation; fast forward to bell alone equals salivation), Skinnerian conditioning (pull lever, get pellet, learn to pull lever for pellet), fear conditioning and desensitization (think James Watson and poor Little Albert, or James Ledoux and scary snakes), and visual learning (Hubel and Wiesel and monocular deprivation in cats — no visual stimulus during the critical period makes for blind felines). Of course, it’s far more complicated than a single postulate, but the basic process is all about how our brains are trained, by our external and internal environment both, to respond to various situations in a predictable fashion.

Jessica, however, doesn’t just talk about training. She also brings in stress. Here, too, she is correct: where you will see the effect of the synaptic bonds most openly is under highly emotional conditions. There, habit memory — the same type of procedural memory that you use when you do something that you’re skilled at, like drive a car or perform an integral function of your job — will take over, and declarative memory — or that memory that functions when you memorize something or when you’re still learning a new skill — will recede into the background. Nothing like stress to distinguish real habit from what you wish were habit.

In one study, participants who experienced a stress condition — the cold pressor task, where one hand is submerged in freezing (0-2 degrees Celsius) water for three minutes — reverted to habit when performing a forced choice task – whereas those who were not stressed were able to perform admirably on new contingencies. Specifically, habit was chosen at the expense of goal-directed performance when choosing what food to eat: a food that had previously been devalued or one that had not. Stressed individuals chose to eat the same food they had been eating to the point of over-satiation, while non-stressed individuals chose to diversify their food choices.

So, not only does stress inhibit new learning, but it pushes the brain to fall back on those habits of mind that are second nature. Of course, the process can vary from person to person — and it’s important to remember that stress follows an inverted-U function; that is, performance under stressful conditions actually improves up to an optimal point, and then drops off dramatically as more stress is added — but in general, stressful conditions are not the best for trying to assimilate new information. Indeed, chronic stress can reduce the volume of the hippocampus (an area of the brain intimately involved in memory formation and consolidation) and can aversely impact the dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain, so that we overvalue rewarding outcomes and are impaired in our ability to learn about negative outcomes. In other words, were we to land unprepared in the arid desert of Arrakis, we’d be in bad shape, indeed.

Humans are remarkably adaptable. Paul learns quickly to appreciate the positive aspects of his new surroundings, to enjoy the quiet and value the beauty of the new landscape. But he could have just as easily shut down, spiraling into a negative feedback loop and losing his cool entirely. In fact, had he not had prior mental training to dealing with just such stressful contingencies, he would have likely done so; certainly, he would not have been in a position to learn a new positive coping mechanism in the heat of the moment.

The Kindle edition of Dune appears to be on sale for $1.99 at the moment.

My feelings on Dune are mixed, but it’s definitely a thought-provoking novel.

The resilient children had an internal locus of control

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Maria Konnikova — author of The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — explains how people learn to become resilient — or not:

In 1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the results of a thirty-two-year longitudinal project. She had followed a group of six hundred and ninety-eight children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.” Like Garmezy, she soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success—and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.

What was it that set the resilient children apart? Because the individuals in her sample had been followed and tested consistently for three decades, Werner had a trove of data at her disposal. She found that several elements predicted resilience. Some elements had to do with luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another, quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote. Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.

[...]

George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. Garmezy, Werner, and others have shown that some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity; Bonanno has been trying to figure out where that variation might come from. Bonanno’s theory of resilience starts with an observation: all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience, the question is: Why do some people use the system so much more frequently or effectively than others?

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.

[...]

The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

Similar work has been done with explanatory styles—the techniques we use to explain events. I’ve written before about the research of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology: Seligman found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression. The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

While visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver finds himself “little regarded,” because of his unimpressive mathematical and musical abilities:

On the other side, after having seen all the curiosities of the island, I was very desirous to leave it, being heartily weary of those people. They were indeed excellent in two sciences for which I have great esteem, and wherein I am not unversed; but, at the same time, so abstracted and involved in speculation, that I never met with such disagreeable companions. I conversed only with women, tradesmen, flappers, and court-pages, during two months of my abode there; by which, at last, I rendered myself extremely contemptible; yet these were the only people from whom I could ever receive a reasonable answer.

I had obtained, by hard study, a good degree of knowledge in their language: I was weary of being confined to an island where I received so little countenance, and resolved to leave it with the first opportunity.

There was a great lord at court, nearly related to the king, and for that reason alone used with respect. He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them. He had performed many eminent services for the crown, had great natural and acquired parts, adorned with integrity and honour; but so ill an ear for music, that his detractors reported, “he had been often known to beat time in the wrong place;” neither could his tutors, without extreme difficulty, teach him to demonstrate the most easy proposition in the mathematics. He was pleased to show me many marks of favour, often did me the honour of a visit, desired to be informed in the affairs of Europe, the laws and customs, the manners and learning of the several countries where I had travelled. He listened to me with great attention, and made very wise observations on all I spoke. He had two flappers attending him for state, but never made use of them, except at court and in visits of ceremony, and would always command them to withdraw, when we were alone together.

I entreated this illustrious person, to intercede in my behalf with his majesty, for leave to depart; which he accordingly did, as he was pleased to tell me, with regret: for indeed he had made me several offers very advantageous, which, however, I refused, with expressions of the highest acknowledgment.

On the 16th of February I took leave of his majesty and the court. The king made me a present to the value of about two hundred pounds English, and my protector, his kinsman, as much more, together with a letter of recommendation to a friend of his in Lagado, the metropolis. The island being then hovering over a mountain about two miles from it, I was let down from the lowest gallery, in the same manner as I had been taken up.

The continent, as far as it is subject to the monarch of the flying island, passes under the general name of Balnibarbi; and the metropolis, as I said before, is called Lagado. I felt some little satisfaction in finding myself on firm ground. I walked to the city without any concern, being clad like one of the natives, and sufficiently instructed to converse with them. I soon found out the person’s house to whom I was recommended, presented my letter from his friend the grandee in the island, and was received with much kindness. This great lord, whose name was Munodi, ordered me an apartment in his own house, where I continued during my stay, and was entertained in a most hospitable manner.

The next morning after my arrival, he took me in his chariot to see the town, which is about half the bigness of London; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the country, where I saw many labourers working with several sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to conjecture what they were about: neither did observe any expectation either of corn or grass, although the soil appeared to be excellent. I could not forbear admiring at these odd appearances, both in town and country; and I made bold to desire my conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, because I did not discover any good effects they produced; but, on the contrary, I never knew a soil so unhappily cultivated, houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want.

This lord Munodi was a person of the first rank, and had been some years governor of Lagado; but, by a cabal of ministers, was discharged for insufficiency. However, the king treated him with tenderness, as a well-meaning man, but of a low contemptible understanding.

When I gave that free censure of the country and its inhabitants, he made no further answer than by telling me, “that I had not been long enough among them to form a judgment; and that the different nations of the world had different customs;” with other common topics to the same purpose. But, when we returned to his palace, he asked me “how I liked the building, what absurdities I observed, and what quarrel I had with the dress or looks of his domestics?” This he might safely do; because every thing about him was magnificent, regular, and polite. I answered, “that his excellency’s prudence, quality, and fortune, had exempted him from those defects, which folly and beggary had produced in others.” He said, “if I would go with him to his country-house, about twenty miles distant, where his estate lay, there would be more leisure for this kind of conversation.” I told his excellency “that I was entirely at his disposal;” and accordingly we set out next morning.

During our journey he made me observe the several methods used by farmers in managing their lands, which to me were wholly unaccountable; for, except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass. But, in three hours travelling, the scene was wholly altered; we came into a most beautiful country; farmers’ houses, at small distances, neatly built; the fields enclosed, containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows. Neither do I remember to have seen a more delightful prospect. His excellency observed my countenance to clear up; he told me, with a sigh, “that there his estate began, and would continue the same, till we should come to his house: that his countrymen ridiculed and despised him, for managing his affairs no better, and for setting so ill an example to the kingdom; which, however, was followed by very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself.”

We came at length to the house, which was indeed a noble structure, built according to the best rules of ancient architecture. The fountains, gardens, walks, avenues, and groves, were all disposed with exact judgment and taste. I gave due praises to every thing I saw, whereof his excellency took not the least notice till after supper; when, there being no third companion, he told me with a very melancholy air “that he doubted he must throw down his houses in town and country, to rebuild them after the present mode; destroy all his plantations, and cast others into such a form as modern usage required, and give the same directions to all his tenants, unless he would submit to incur the censure of pride, singularity, affectation, ignorance, caprice, and perhaps increase his majesty’s displeasure; that the admiration I appeared to be under would cease or diminish, when he had informed me of some particulars which, probably, I never heard of at court, the people there being too much taken up in their own speculations, to have regard to what passed here below.”

The sum of his discourse was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

His lordship added, “That he would not, by any further particulars, prevent the pleasure I should certainly take in viewing the grand academy, whither he was resolved I should go.” He only desired me to observe a ruined building, upon the side of a mountain about three miles distant, of which he gave me this account: “That he had a very convenient mill within half a mile of his house, turned by a current from a large river, and sufficient for his own family, as well as a great number of his tenants; that about seven years ago, a club of those projectors came to him with proposals to destroy this mill, and build another on the side of that mountain, on the long ridge whereof a long canal must be cut, for a repository of water, to be conveyed up by pipes and engines to supply the mill, because the wind and air upon a height agitated the water, and thereby made it fitter for motion, and because the water, descending down a declivity, would turn the mill with half the current of a river whose course is more upon a level.” He said, “that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he complied with the proposal; and after employing a hundred men for two years, the work miscarried, the projectors went off, laying the blame entirely upon him, railing at him ever since, and putting others upon the same experiment, with equal assurance of success, as well as equal disappointment.”

In a few days we came back to town; and his excellency, considering the bad character he had in the academy, would not go with me himself, but recommended me to a friend of his, to bear me company thither. My lord was pleased to represent me as a great admirer of projects, and a person of much curiosity and easy belief; which, indeed, was not without truth; for I had myself been a sort of projector in my younger days.

Conscientiousness consistently played the most important role

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

Of the Big Five traits, conscientiousness consistently played the most important role in academic and professional success, Charles Murray explains (in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class), with openness in second place:

Poropat reported effect sizes for them of +1.14 and +0.96 respectively, far larger than those for agreeableness (+0.19), emotional stability (+0.36), or extraversion (+0.23). In addition to its value for academic performance, conscientiousness has also been found to predict job performance, salary, promotion, and occupational prestige. These findings make sense.

IQ score is a better predictor of job performance than a résumé, evaluation through a job interview, assessment centers, or work samples

Friday, March 6th, 2020

One of the most common assertions about IQ, Charles Murray reminds us (in Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class), is that it doesn’t predict performance in the real world of work:

The truth is the opposite. It’s not just that IQ predicts job performance for people with cognitively demanding jobs; IQ predicts job performance to some degree for people across the entire range of jobs. People who are responsible for new hires at a workplace should know that an IQ score is a better predictor of job performance than a résumé, evaluation through a job interview, assessment centers, or work samples.

The heritability of those talents will rise

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

The third part of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class describes heritability:

Another common misunderstanding is to think that the heritability of a trait refers to individuals. Mathematically, heritability refers to a whole population. Suppose that genes explain 70 percent of a population’s variance in height. You can use this information to conclude that “genes probably have a lot to do with how tall Joe is,” but it does not mean that “genes explain 70 percent of how tall Joe is.”

Heritability is not a fixed number for a given trait. It can vary by age, for example. We will encounter an example of this when we get to the heritability of IQ: Counterintuitively, it increases as people get older.

Heritability also varies by population. For example, suppose you want to know the heritability of performance on the SAT and you compare two sets of students. One sample is from an ordinary New York City public high school and the other is from Stuyvesant, a famous high school for the intellectually gifted. For practical purposes, Stuyvesant scores will be concentrated in a narrow range — probably 1500 to 1600. The scores for the sample from an ordinary high school will vary from 400 to 1600. The denominator for the heritability ratio calculated from students at Stuyvesant will be smaller than the denominator from the sample from the ordinary high school. Other things equal, the heritability of SAT scores in the Stuyvesant sample will be higher than the heritability for the sample from the ordinary high school.

Heritability can also vary over populations, or over the same population over time, for an important reason that is too seldom recognized: As society does a better job of enabling all of its citizens to realize their talents, the heritability of those talents will rise.

For instance:

For the first half of the twentieth century, Norway was a country in which the amount of schooling you got depended strongly on where you lived (many remote places did not have secondary schools) and your family’s social class. In 1960, the average years of education for Norwegian adults was 5.9. After World War II, access to elementary and secondary school became nearly universal. By 2000, the average Norwegian adult had 11.9 years of education. Norwegian allele frequencies for the SNPs that are associated with years of education cannot have changed appreciably from 1960 to 2000. The absolute genetic contribution was effectively constant. But the heritability of educational attainment for Norwegian male twins born before 1940 was 40 percent. For their counterparts born after 1940, it was approximately 70 percent.

Adjusting for IQ wipes out the ethnic income differential

Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

In the third part of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class Charles Murray proposes that racism and sexism are no longer decisively important in who rises to the top, in part because differences in educational attainment and income nearly disappear for people at similar IQ levels:

Even without adjusting for anything, there’s no female disadvantage to worry about when it comes to educational attainment. Women now have higher mean years of education and a higher percentage of college degrees than men and have enjoyed that advantage for many years. These advantages persist over all IQ levels.

[...]

In terms of the raw numbers, Asians have higher educational attainment than any other ethnic group. Blacks and Latinos have substantially lower educational attainment than whites, but these discrepancies are more than eliminated after adjusting for IQ.

[...]

Asians retain their advantage over whites after adjusting for IQ.

[...]

A substantial female disadvantage in earned income exists, but it is almost entirely explained by marriage or children in the household. Using Current Population Survey data for 2018, earnings for women who were not married, had no children living at home, and worked full-time were 93 percent of the earnings of comparable men.

[...]

Married women with children in the house have considerably lower earned income even after adjusting for IQ, but the main source of the income discrepancy is not that married women in the labor force earn less than unmarried women, but that married men earn more than unmarried men.

[...]

Using raw 2018 data from the CPS, Asians have higher mean earned income than whites, while Blacks and Latinos have substantially lower mean earned income than whites.

[...]

In the earlier survey, adjusting for IQ wipes out the ethnic income differential among whites, blacks, and Latinos (Asians were not included in this survey). In the latter survey, whites and Latinos have effectively the same earned income while the fitted mean for blacks is 84 percent of the fitted mean for whites.

[...]

The fitted mean for Asians is 57 percent higher than the fitted mean for whites.

Inherited wealth is a tangential contributor

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

Charles Murray introduces the third part of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class) by mentioning another book about class that he (co-)wrote:

The book’s main title was The Bell Curve. In many ways, it documents the ways in which a segment of American society is a indeed morphing into a castelike upper class. But inherited wealth is a tangential contributor. The bare bones of its argument are that the last half of the twentieth century saw two developments of epochal importance: First, technology, the economy, and the legal system became ever more complex, making the value of the intellectual ability to deal with that complexity soar. Second, the latter half of the twentieth century saw America’s system of higher education become accessible to everyone with enough cognitive talent. The most prestigious schools, formerly training grounds for children of the socioeconomic elite, began to be populated by the students in the top few percentiles of IQ no matter what their family background might be—an emerging cognitive elite. By 2012, what had been predictions about the emerging cognitive elite as we were writing in the early 1990s had become established social facts that I described in another book, Coming Apart.