There Is No Gravity. Things Fall.

I really didn’t know where to begin on this one. Well, actually, how to continue because I had already begun laughing hysterically.

The post title derives from a comment by a person who recently attended a Flat Earth Conference in North Carolina last year.  One of quite a number of attendees, apparently. It is to one of them that I owe the inspiration for what follows.  So, after beginning with hearty laughter, let me continue by giving credit where credit is due.

Here’s to Alan Burdick (@alanburdick), a The New Yorker staff writer who followed his muse (or his editors) to attend, reflect, and write about his Conference experience here (this is a must read, even better than another article on Quartz about a recent similar conference in Birmingham, UK).

Beyond learning about Mike Hughes, who attempted to launch himself into space on a homebuilt steam powered “rocket ship” last March (he reached an altitude of nearly 1900 feet), we also learn about the Infinite Plane Society (a live-stream YouTube channel that discusses Earth’s flatness amongst other things; just Google this), The Daily Plane (a flat-earth information site), another site called Enclosed World, and that there is quite a bit of serious participation on them.  Including ~500 people who paid $249 to attend the conference, not including travel.

Of course, the conference was not just focused on Flat Earth discussions, it made ample time for other ‘known conspiracies’: the moon-landing hoax, the International Fake Station, and so-called satellites.  The various flavors of attendees (but ‘not a single tinfoil hat’) were attention getting, but so were some of the ‘real truth’ beliefs they shared.

You see, they found that the truth shared in the news media was too unnerving, too terrifying.  There was only one conclusion:

“If we can agree on anything anymore, it’s that we live in a post-truth era (1).  Facts are no longer correct or incorrect; everything is potentially true unless it’s disagreeable, in which case it’s fake.”

Ok … ??

Burdick notes: The Flat Earth is the post-truth landscape.  As a group, its residents view themselves as staunch empiricists, their eyes wide open.  The plane truth, they say, can be grasped in experiments that anyone can do at home. (“Hold a ruler up to the horizon at the ocean or a lake.  It’s flat. What pond, lake, or sea have you ever seen where the surface of its waters curves?”)’

Let’s hear it for ‘scientific observation’ – performed by non-scientists who don’t understand testing or confirmation.  Their solid justification: “If you believe it, it’s not a lie.”

However, supposedly reaffirming that we are not actually dealing with wackos is a statement by the Flat Earth Conference organizer, Robbie Davidson, reported by Burdick:

Davidson was careful to note that the Conferences are unaffiliated with the Flat Earth Society, which, he said, promotes a model in which Earth is not a stationary plane, with the sun, moon, and stars inside a dome, but a disk flying through space.  “They make it look incredibly ridiculous,” he told me recently.  “A flying pancake in space is preposterous.”

Thank heavens for a touch of down-to-earth, post-truth rationality…

Fortunately, proofs abound.  One YouTube video is ‘200 Proofs that Earth is Not a Spinning Ball.’  “If Earth were spinning at 1000 miles per hour at the equator (true), why isn’t there a powerful wind blowing?”  (The video author also offers: “The proof that the Earth is at rest is proved by kite flying.”)

Another proof is a more general plea to the ‘obvious’ – trust your own senses:

“Ninety-nine per cent of received wisdom is questionable; if you can’t observe it for yourself, it can’t be trusted.  “It simply comes down to, Have you been there? Have you been to Saturn?  Have you been to Jupiter?” “

Hmmm….  So how are we able to ‘see’ streaming video and live television?  There are no wires!!

Burdick also observes,

One attractive aspect of the Flat-Earth theory, it seemed, was that it served nicely as an umbrella (collection site) for all the other cover-ups.  “It’s the mother of all conspiracies,” more than one person told me, and further, “Believing in a Flat Earth is hard work; there is so much to relearn.  The price of open-mindedness is isolation.”

Not laughing.  Now I have a headache.  Moving on …

I realize and now appreciate that it is really nice to have so many other talented researchers and journalists (good ones) travel the world and document their observations and experiences, to say nothing of their data, that consistently reinforce so many of the Fundamental Principles I’ve discussed in these posts.  At my age, going out and collecting all that data would be rather time consuming, costly and difficult.  And now with the Internet, one doesn’t even have to dig, although you do have to have a good bulls*it filter.

All this Flat Earth stuff simply reinforces the fact that we all live in our own little bubbles, each well stocked with its own limited supply of ‘consistent information.’  These bubbles also come with a living ‘skin’ (filter) that grows thicker with age and experience (and ever more impervious to incompatible or ‘disagreeable’ information).  And while we all don’t ‘get’ everything, most of us ‘get’ that this is the case. However, there will always be an ample supply of people who don’t ‘get’ that they don’t ‘get’ some things, but think they do.  (Inadvertently, this serves to protect their bubble).  This is Fundamental Principle 7c.  At times, this can be entertaining.  At other times, it can be downright frightening.  This is what Stan Freberg meant when he asked, “Funny Ha-Ha, or Funny Peculiar?

As if Flat-Earthing itself wasn’t enough, I noticed that the words “cover-ups” and “conspiracies” flowed through their conversations almost like water.  It seems concluding that a “spherical Earth” was a huge conspiracy opened the floodgates to all sorts of other conspiracies, and that ‘crowdsourcing’ them together under one circus tent somehow lent credibility to all of them.

We’ve dealt with various conspiracy theories since history began and there can be a reasonable explanation that these are initially triggered by Gap Theory, where the immediate need to understand a situation results in creating a narrative out of thin air (or in some cases, whole cloth) to fill the immediate vacuum of Missing Information (Fundamental Principle 6) or the inability (or unwillingness) to understand the information that isavailable.

One expects, or hopes, that the eventual availability of reliable information would lead to clarity and understanding.  One would hope.

But what motivates people to continue to pursue off-the-wall explanations when reliable, reproducible, verifiable information exists?

Serendipitously (really fortunate), an article by the researcher Roland Imhoff, ‘Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?’ addressing this question appeared on Quartz at the same time as the reports on the Flat Earth Conferences.

One standard explanation about why people pursue and believe in conspiracy theories is that this is an attempt to regain control in their lives.  From the Quartz article,

The rationale behind this is that lacking control increases the need to engage in the compensatory illusion of control—that is, in conspiracy theories.

While there’s something to this, it isn’t the full story.  This Compensatory Theory portrays conspiracy theorists as nothing but the poor victims of control deprivation, clinging to conspiracy as the last defense against a chaotic world.  This almost stereotypical image, though, is contradicted by the often vocal, evangelizing conduct of actual conspiracy theorists, their claims to superior insight, and their degradation of non-believers as ignorant sheep.  (What’s also been apparent in the above articles).

What this observation (the stereotypical image above) suggests is that adopting a conspiracy belief doesn’t always have to be mere compensation for a lack of control but can be instrumental in its own way.  Belief in conspiracies can serve to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses—a self-serving boast about one’s exclusive knowledge.  Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness.

One can follow their confirming experiments in the article. They conclude,

Seeing evil plots at play behind virtually any world event is not only an effort to make sense of the world.  It can also be gratifying in and of itself: It grants one the allure of exclusive knowledge that sets one apart from the sleeping sheep.

In our first article, Burdick boldly concludes, “Solipsism is the new empiricism.”  Solipsism is the belief that only the self can be known, but it has more generally become applied to the worldview (bubble) that “I’m unique! It’s All About Me!”

The unfortunate bottom line is that as the post-truth era brings everything into question, rather than test, validate, learn and grow, an increasing number of people just throw out anything inconsistent with their worldview.

It’s far easier.

It thickens the bubble’s skin.

And becomes all about Me.

For the Flat-Earthers, it’s a return to the geocentric theory with Earth at the center of the universe.

For everyone else, it’s the creation of a Me-o-centric universe.

Do we need less entertaining evidence that our education system is not performing to expectations?


1  Post-truth era: facts are considered subjective and any information that conflicts with one’s personal opinion is justifiably questionable.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, Bubbles, Gap Theory, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Would You Like One Space or Two with Your Essay?

Much Ado about Nothing – Shakespeare

Science can be wonderful, especially when it reveals something definitive and really irrelevant in everyday life, such as E=mc2.  Science can also be frustrating, especially if its revelation is “Meh,” particularly to the scientists doing the science and even more when it involves something we are unaware of encountering on a daily basis, such as,

How many spaces should follow a period at the end of a sentence?

A new (scientific) study on exactly this issue was just published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics and resulted, once again, in significant discussions in the media, most likely missed by almost everyone.  One such immediate response was Please don’t use this study to justify your horrible habit of using two spaces after periods, by Angela Chen in The Verge.  However, an alternative view struck me as having a proper balance between history of the issue and being seasoned with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek.  This was by Avi Selk in The Washington Post, and what follows is most of his perceptive narrative, especially some of the visually instructive and dazzling font-work:

One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong.


(blog: Eye-catching.  The use of Courier font, harkening back to the days when my wife typed my thesis on an IBM Selectric© typewriter.  (These were the marvelous typewriters with the spinning, replaceable font-ball elements.  You could even do equations, albeit very, very carefully, swapping font elements character by character.  It still meant you had to have a constant supply of type-out tape handy, or use sticky erasable bond paper.  And yes, we’re still married).)

Some insisted on keeping the two-space rule.  They couldn’t get used to seeing just one space after a period.  It simply looked wrong.

Some said this was blasphemy. The designers of modern fonts had built the perfect amount of spacing, they said. Anything more than a single space between sentences was too much.

And so the rules of typography fell into chaos. “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate in 2011.  “You can have my double space when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” Megan McArdle wrote in The Atlantic the same year.  (And yes, she double-spaced it.)

(blog: And so it began again, the interminable discussions and differing publication standards for different publishers.  But there’s still a missing element here in all of the discussions. Watch for it.)

This schism has actually existed throughout most of typed history.  The rules of spacing have been wildly inconsistent going back to the invention of the printing press. The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence used extra long spaces between sentences. John Baskerville’s 1763 Bible used a single space.  WhoevenknowswhateffectPietroBembowasgoingforhere. Single spaces.  Double spaces.  Em spaces.   Trends went back and forth between continents and eras for hundreds of years, Felici wrote. It’s not a good look.

And that’s just English. Somewrittenlanguageshavenospacesatall and o thers re quire a space be tween ev e ry syl la ble.

Ob viously, thereneed to be standards. Unless    you’re doing avant – garde po e try, or    something , you  can’tjustspacew ords ho w e v   e    r   y      o        u            want.     That would be insanity. Or at least,


(blog: The author trusts you are a visual learner.)

Enter three psychology researchers from Skidmore College, who decided it’s time for modern science to sort this out once and for all.

“Professionals and amateurs in a variety of fields have passionately argued for either one or two spaces following this punctuation mark,” they wrote in a paper published … in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

They cite dozens of theories and previous research, arguing for one space or two.  A 2005 study that found two spaces reduced lateral interference in the eye and helped reading.  A 2015 study that found the opposite.  A 1998 experiment that suggested it didn’t matter.


(blog: At this point there follows a lot of discussion of study methods and who did what to whom when, which basically involved monitoring the eye movements of 60 volunteer(?) students as they read various materials of different fonts and spacing, sometimes with their heads clamped(!))

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better.  It makes reading slightly easier.  Congratulations, Yale University professor Nicholas A. Christakis.  Sorry, Lifehacker.

Actually, Lifehacker’s one-space purist Nick Douglas pointed out some important caveats to the study’s conclusion.

Johnson, one of the authors, told Douglas that the fixed-width font was standard for eye-tracking tests, and the benefits of two-spacing should carry over to any modern font.

(blog: This should be a red flag, I think.  Given the chaos over one piece of nothing versus two pieces of nothing, it would seem wise to validate that assumption, given the resulting “minor benefits” described below.)

Douglas found more solace in the fact that the benefits of two-spacing, as described in the study, appear to be very minor.

Reading speed only improved marginally, the paper found, and only for the 21 (of the 60) “two-spacers,” who naturally typed with two spaces between sentences.  The majority of one-spacers, on the other hand, read at pretty much the same speed either way.  And reading comprehension was unaffected for everyone, regardless of how many spaces followed a period.

The major reason to use two spaces, the researchers wrote, was to make the reading process smoother, not faster.  Everyone tended to spend fewer milliseconds staring at periods when a little extra blank space followed it.

(blog: “staring at periods… “  Hmm.)

The study’s authors concluded that two-spacers in the digital age actually have science on their side, and more research should be done to “investigate why reading is facilitated when periods are followed by two spaces.”

But no sooner did the paper publish than the researchers discovered that science doesn’t necessarily govern matters of the space bar.

Johnson told Lifehacker that she and her co-authors submitted the paper with two spaces after each period — as was proper. And the journal deleted all the extra spaces anyway.

(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this story published incorrectly because, seriously, putting two spaces in the headline broke the web code.)

By now you should have caught one interesting red flag in this current research and discussion, the assumption that conclusions from fixed-width font eye tracking should carry over to variable-width fonts (which are generally available on the computer, :-D; hmm, yet another idea for further research).

But there is another very important element that, to my knowledge, hasn’t appeared in any discussions, ever.  It’s not that it might be nothing.  I mean, it is literally nothing; literally nothing:

The space itself.  In a fixed-width font, a space is the same width as any of the letters: i, I, w, W, and a space, ” , are all the same width.  They must be because the typewriter carriage movement was controlled by fixed gear teeth, not by the letter on the struck key.  Thus, the visual lesson hidden in the use of ‘antique’ Courier font at the beginning of the article.

In a variable-width font, each letter’s width is different and designed for smoother reading and less eye fatigue.  And so is the width of a ‘space.’  It is narrow, typically narrower than any character. You can test this by using spaces to try to indent and exactly align the text of sentences rather than using a tab (but of course, who does this…).  Pick a font; then pick a wide letter, type 5 of them, and then immediately follow with some text.  On the next line, pick a smaller letter and do the same, on a third line use periods, and on the fourth line simply use five spaces, like this (in Cambria font):


So, while I was taught on a very antique typewriter, BC (Before Courier), to use two spaces after a period, I am still doing that.  I did it in this document, knowing full well that WordPress will systematically remove them when I upload the document and I will have to go put them back in again.

Why?  Because of an unintended consequence: font-width depreciation has set in.  All my modern font “spaces” are no longer what they used to be.  Their width has been designed to facilitate reading words within sentences (i.e., one thought).  They are now significantly smaller than the space that used to appear between sentences (i.e., different thoughts).  I have to use at least two new-spaces to achieve a similar visual effect of one old-space.   Sometimes I might even use three spaces.

You see, it’s not about the number of spaces; it’s about the amount of visual space between the period and the next sentence.  This helps smooth the brain’s transition to the next thought.

And besides smoother reading, consider the unanticipated benefit of keeping you from “staring at periods…”

Posted in 16: Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Way We Think: Culture, Values, and a Righteous Mind

“Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice”

While it may seem reasonable to attribute our (or other’s) behaviors to our (or their) attitudes and to assume that these attitudes are simply conscious expressions of subconscious values, a harder question is, “Where do our values come from?”

This question is more difficult than it seems because the simple answer, “From my family and friends” still leaves open the same question about the source of their values.  The question could go on ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, take your pick.

It was therefore refreshing (and challenging, enlightening, and, ultimately, an “Ah-Ha” experience) to come across Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion (2012), a journey through the development of Moral Foundations Theory.  The theory provides the strong foundations upon which multicultural Value systems are based.

(Granted, it is now 2018 so I came late to discovering and reading it, especially since reviews described it as, “An eye-opening and deceptively ambitious bestseller … undoubtedly one of the most talked-about books of the year” (WSJ), and “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” (NYT Book Review).  So, I asked, if it is that impactful, why I had I not come across it earlier?  And that led me to think, if a best seller averages between 5,000 and 10,000 copies sold per week and lasts rarely more than 52 weeks on a best seller list, that amounts to about 400,000 copies sold with maybe 25% of those readers passing the book on, resulting in about half a million people who have read this “landmark contribution.”  So, what are the rest of the 330 million people in the US reading?  Don’t answer that question; just watch their behavior.)

Based on the title, right off the bat I figured it was sort of a polemic against a conservative mindset.  Not true at all.  The reviewers (and others) are correct not only about the thrust and impact of Haidt’s message, but in the approachability and readability of how he has written it.  The message is not only how different cultural “Moral Matrices” (what I have referred to as Values) develop, but the very real journey that Haidt, a self-proclaimed liberal atheist of Jewish descent, made by living in different cultures doing research and reached a broader and deeper understanding of the culturally universal foundations upon which various Moral Matrices (Values) are built.

With so many nations of the world descending deeper into polarization and paralysis, the Moral Foundations Theory that Haidt presents leads to a better understanding of the different forms of bedrock upon which Values (Moral Matrices) are built, which can then lead to a better understanding of the Attitudes that lead to Behaviors.

In particular, it helps explain how different cultures can build conflicting Moral Matrices on the same small set of bedrock foundations.  It also leads to a potential understanding of how these selfsame forms of bedrock (the Foundations) can also constrain the ranges of Choices people are willing to make that lead to their Behaviors.

Enough of a broad overview; here is the distilled meat of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), sandwiched with connections I see to my previous thoughts.

At the heart of most attempts to understand human behavior is the question of the influence of Nature (inherited genes) versus Nurture (our environments).  In a past post I have supported that it is not Either One/Or the Other, but a reality that both play significant roles which are not always completely complementary or additive (an And/And situation).

MFT builds upon the concept that our genes and our environment (Nature and Nurture) lead to ‘switches’ developing in our brains which are then turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ by various patterns and experiences that are important for survival in a particular environment, and that these ‘on’/’off’ switches then change or affect our behaviors.  Switches develop through cultural learning and variations in experiences as cultures can shrink or expand the ‘triggers’ (events, words, pictures, etc.) that turn them on or off (blog:think of this as a form of Regression to the Cultural Mean).

Research by Haidt and his colleagues initially led to proposing five foundational and universal cognitive areas (they called them ‘modules’) upon which different cultures construct their Moral Matrices in order to respond to adaptive challenges in their environments (blog: ‘adapt or die’ circumstances).  These are: 2

-Care versus Harm
-Fairness versus Cheating
-Loyalty versus Betrayal
-Authority versus Submission
-Sanctity versus Degradation

(blog: note that each module has two extremes, a positive, value-adding (giving) concern first, followed by a negative or value-subtracting (taking) concern. These correlate with positions along the Behavior Curve.)

Here are simple summaries, with some thoughts, of each Foundation as described in The Righteous Mind.

Care/Harm 3

This foundation is based on the module that is primarily responsible for meeting the adaptive challenge of protecting and caring for children and others.  This one concerns survival and seems fairly straightforward.

The triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation can include seeing a cute, healthy baby (Care) or a child or animal threatened with violence (Harm).

Fairness/Cheating 4

The Theory of Reciprocal Altruism says that we evolved a set of moral emotions that lead us to play “tit-for-tat.”  We’re usually nice to people when we first meet them (blog: ye olde “Trust but Confirm” philosophy), but after that we’re selective: we cooperate with those who have been nice to us, and we shun those who took advantage of us (blog: that is, we recognize Givers versus Takers).  A major point is that human life is a series of opportunities (adaptive challenges) for mutually beneficial cooperation (blog: in other words, opportunities as potential Positive Sum Games or value added transactions).

Current triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation include things that are now strongly culturally and politically linked to the dynamics of reciprocity and cheating.

On the political Left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation: in the extreme, wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom of the social ladder by not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden (blog: they are accused of being Takers, all the while ignoring the fact that the top 1% of income earners pay 27% of federal taxes, and the top 20% pay 87% of taxes (WSJ)).  For the Left, Fairness often implies equality of outcomes.

On the political Right, there are equal concerns about Fairness: in the extreme, Democrats are seen as “socialists” who take away money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).   For the Right, Fairness often implies proportionality of outcomes.

(That the responses to these first two foundations are so strongly different eventually led, with further research, for Haidt and his colleagues to propose an additional foundation, which we will return to later).

Loyalty/Betrayal 5

The male mind appears to be innately tribal, enjoying things that lead to the adaptive challenge of group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups (yes, including warfare).  While the virtue of loyalty matters a great deal to both sexes, the objects are quite different:

-Teams and coalitions for boys; and

-Two-person relationships for girls.

Warfare has been around since before agriculture and private property were developed, and we are the descendants of successful tribalists (blog: now we primarily organize this, more or less acceptably, into sporting competitions).

The triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation are recognizing teammates, matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors.

Clearly Loyalty/Betrayal plays a strong role in politics: while the Right tends towards nationalism and patriotism (group cohesion), the Left tends towards universalism (individualism) and away from nationalism and consequently the Left has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation.  And because of its strong reliance upon the Care foundation, American liberals are often hostile to American foreign policy (i.e., care for our own first).

Authority/Subversion 6

The adaptive challenge basis for this foundation is negotiating status hierarchies, which typically followed the development of cohesive social groups such as clans and tribes.

Cultures vary enormously in the degree to which they demand that respect be shown to parents, teachers, and others in positions of authority.  This can also be seen (and heard) in various languages that code respect directly into pronoun forms, i.e., French has vous, plural and respectful, and tu, singular and familiar.  Similar coding occurs in other Germanic and Romantic languages.

It is important, however, to not confuse Authority with Power.

There is a “control role” readily observable in human tribes and early civilizations to say nothing about today.  Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force.  Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice (although the people we call Authorities often exploit their subordinates for their own benefit while believing they are just).  (blog: under Authority, this exploitation is a “control role,” while the alternative, what I would call a true “influence role,” responsibly seeks to elevate other’s skills for the benefit of the cohesive group).

Haidt acknowledges that early in his graduate school career he subscribed to the common liberal belief that Hierarchy=Power=Exploitation=Evil.  He subsequently discovered (and accepted and admits) that he was wrong when he came to understand the concept of Authority Ranking.

Authority Ranking is where people have asymmetric (i.e., unequal) positions in a linear hierarchy, in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and pastoral responsibility for subordinates.  Relationships are based upon perceptions of legitimate, not inherently exploitative asymmetries and not on coercive power (blog: interpreting this in my words and perhaps splitting concepts, these relationships recognize a legitimate “influence role,” which is based upon the idea of “authority by influence” in areas of strength while simultaneously behaving with “authority with deference or delegation” in areas of relative weaknesses (in other words, a smart boss who delegates).   The hair splitting perhaps comes in bundling the “inherently exploitative asymmetries” above into a “control role,” which presumes using only strengths and coercive power. Sometimes I wonder if this should also be called a “God role”).

We are the descendants of those who could play the “game,” to rise in status while cultivating the protection of superiors and the allegiance of subordinates (blog: this can be perceived as a Positive Sum Game where all benefit, eventually).  If authority is, in part, about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station (blog: this is also a form of Regression to the Cultural Mean, however that Mean was formed.  It is also a form of equality of opportunity, or proportionality of outcomes).

Current triggers for behaviors based on Values associated with this foundation include anything construed as an act of obedience or disobedience, respect or disrespect, submission or rebellion, all with respect to authorities perceived to be legitimate.  Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability.

As with the Loyalty foundation, it is much easier for conservatives, the political Right, to build on this foundation than it is for the Left, which often defines itself in part by its opposition to hierarchy, inequality, and power (blog: recall the common liberal belief that Hierarchy=Power= Exploitation=Evil).

Sanctity/Degradation 7

The adaptive challenge for this foundation originated in a practical need to keep people and the group free from parasites and diseases, especially from pathogens that could spread quickly when people live together in large groups. It eventually evolved to focus on taboo ideas and behaviors.

Feelings of stain, pollution, and purification are irrational from a utilitarian point of view (Value system), but they make perfect sense if/when one recognizes a spiritual component to mankind.  Recognition of this component no doubt contributed to the evolution of and focus on taboo ideas and behaviors and contributed to the development of an Ethic of Divinity.  The Ethic of Divinity can be viewed as a vertical axis, with good increasing upwards with divinity at the top, and bad increasing downwards towards evil at the bottom.

Haidt also relates this, in a way, to food. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining wary of them until they are proven safe (blog: recall the history of the tomato).  Omnivores go through life with two competing behavior motives:

Neophilia (an attraction to new things), and

Neophobia (a fear of new things).

The liberal Left scores much higher on measures of neophilia (openness to experience), while the conservative Right is higher on neophobia, to stick with what’s tried and true.  And therefore the Right cares a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions.

While current triggers for this foundation include taboo ideas and behaviors, according to Haidt’s research these triggers are extraordinarily variable and expandable across cultures and eras.  There appears to be a strong psychology of sacredness that binds individuals into moral communities, coupled with an emotional response of disgust for things and people outside of the community. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive (blog: these are prime examples of the Regression to the Cultural Mean as well as Exclusion from the Cultural Mean).  Haidt feels that if we had no sense of disgust, we would also have no sense of the sacred.

Haiti also notes that there is a vast difference between Left and Right over the use of concepts such as sanctity and purity. American conservatives are more likely to talk about “the sanctity of life” and “the sanctity of marriage.” And this idea is not just ancient history.  It inspired a virginity pledge movement in the U.S. that is still current.  On the Left, however, the virtue of chastity is usually dismissed as outdated and sexist.  If your morality focuses on individuals and their conscious experiences, then why on earth should anyone not use their body as a playground?

The Sanctity foundation is used most heavily by the religious right, but it is also used on the spiritual left.  In New Age grocery stores one can find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of “toxins.”  It can also be found underlying some of the moral passions of the environmental movement concerning physical pollution as well as the degradation of nature. The Sanctity foundation is also crucial for understanding the American culture wars, particularly over biomedical issues including abortion.

The philosopher Leon Kass in 1997 lamented that technology often erases moral boundaries and brings people ever closer to the dangerous belief that they can do anything they want to do.  In his essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” he argued that our feelings of disgust can sometimes provide us with a valuable warning sign that we are going too far, even when we are morally dumbfounded and can’t justify those feelings by pointing to victims.  He notes, with some aplomb, “Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness…” (blog: remarkably in alignment with our avoidance of the Repugnant Conclusion, especially if/when the “excesses of human willfulness” are our own, individually or as a group).

Now What?

In testing the validity of these foundations, data in the form of survey responses and reflections were collected from 132,000 people. 8  The results are rather striking, as exhibited in the following chart:

Figure 8.2 Scores on the MFQ, from 132,000 subjects, in 2011.  (The Righteous Mind, p 187)

The conclusions are stunning. 9  Not surprisingly, the Care and Fairness foundations show the least variation between Very Liberal and the Very Conservative, while the Sanctity foundation shows the greatest variation.

(The same pattern is found in responses from countries outside the U.S.  In addition, all five of Haidt’s research colleagues, who are politically liberal, all shared the same concern about the way their liberal field approached political psychology.  They observed that the goal of so much research was to explain what was wrong with conservatives!  The standard explanations psychologists offered for decades to explain why conservatives are conservative include,

  • They were raised by overly strict parents, and/or
  • They are inordinately afraid of change, complexity, and novelty (blog: recall Neophilia and Neophobia, above) and/or
  • They suffer from existential fears, and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of grey.

These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism (blog: in other words, they were “Lib-splaining”).  This makes it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously.)

One conclusion from the research is that Republicans (more or less conservative) understand moral psychology; Democrats (liberals) don’t.  Republicans do not aim to cause fear as some Democrats charge.  They trigger the full range of intuitions described by Moral Foundations Theory.

A second conclusion is that Liberals value Care and Fairness far more than the other 3 foundations (those are almost irrelevant), while Conservatives endorse all five foundations more or less equally.  The consequence of this is that the American Left fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see their world other than a “moral abomination” (blog: note the low Liberal endorsement values for the foundations of Loyalty (e.g., too “groupish” and not individualistic enough), Authority (e.g., “hierarchy = evil”), and Sanctity (e.g., “enlightened intellectuals don’t need magic”)).  For liberals, such a vision must be combated, not respected or engaged with.

(To this point I’ve followed Haidt’s approach in introducing the five foundations.  However, continued research, as well as response to the publication of MFTled to the realization that the Fairness foundation was still inadequate to account for the range of responses.  Subsequently, and for brevity here, the Fairness foundation was split into two: a Fairness/Cheating foundation to accommodate the equality of outcomes, and a Liberty/Oppression foundation to accommodate the proportionality of outcomes. In revision, MFT now has six foundations and Liberals have a three foundation morality (Care, Fairness, and Liberty), while Conservatives have a six foundation morality.  Expanding on these two would take a future post by itself.)


This is an impressive book and many things about it resonated with me. First of all were the components of Moral Foundation Theory which opened the door to a better understanding of how such divergent Moral Matrices could develop in different “cultures” (including Liberal and Conservative “cultures” in the U.S.).  Second, it expanded the concept of “Values,” which I had expressed very simply in the Behavior Curve (now I just need to wrestle with six variables instead of one).  And finally, I not only appreciated Haidt’s transparency in describing his journey from, my words, blinkered liberal to liberal with a broader, more open perspective, but also his testimony about how it came about – by living and studying in other cultures, by immersion.  It is close to my own journey, although I went from blinkered liberal through a domestic moderate phase before choosing also to go immerse myself and live in other cultures, learn their languages, and end up a Conserviberal, or possibly a Liberative.

So, now what does your Moral Matrix, your set of Values look like?  And how balanced is it?


1The Righteous Mind, p 144-145
2The Righteous Mind, p 146
3The Righteous Mind, p 155-158

4The Righteous Mind, p 158-161
5The Righteous Mind, p 162-164
6The Righteous Mind, p 166-168
7The Righteous Mind, p 172-174
8The Righteous Mind, Fig. 8.6, p 187, Survey results from 2011,
9The Righteous Mind, p 184-187


Posted in 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Grim Consequences from Studying Fake News

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” – Jonathan Swift

The recent recognition that false or fake news propagates isn’t new, and the idea that it travels faster than truth isn’t either. Jonathan Swift knew this in 1729, and there’s good evidence that Solomon recognized it throughout the book of Proverbs.

So, what you thought was going on in life, really is.

Actually measuring this was difficult until an MIT study of Twitter was recently published in Science and summarized both in The Atlantic (Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News) and on The Verge.

Grim Conclusions

The study covering 126,000 stories, tweeted by some 3 million users over more than 10 years, revealed that fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does.

While false stories outperform the truth on every subject – including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment – fake news about politics regularly does best. It appears that Twitter users almost prefer sharing falsehoods – falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news. (While Twitter was studied, the results also have strong implications for preferences on every major social network). (Not mentioned, however, are the Grim Consequences for preferences in our daily lives – more below).

The bigger question now is Why?

One of the authors, Soroush Vosoughi, suggested, “It might have something to do with human nature.”


The study also prompted an essay in Science (discussed in The Atlantic here) alarms from social scientists for further research, particularly, “to address the underlying pathologies it (the study) has revealed.” (Note: Pathologies: “mental, social, or linguistic abnormalities or malfunctions.” In other words, human issues).

There’s a mixed bag here. Human Nature is what we normally do, whether good or bad; Pathologies indicate there are one or more abnormalities occurring above and beyond what we normally do (one suspects this probably means really bad bads). Pathologies we can try to identify, address, and treat; Human Nature, well, easier to identify than to treat.

Let me scoot out on a limb and see if a number of known concepts can be connected with the observations from the study (that are well summarized in the article in The Atlantic).

First, a selection of knowns (neither good or bad – they just are),


At some point we have to deal with reality. We have to actually realize, if not actually admit, that we each live in a Bubble, a reasonably comfortable environment that encompasses our lives. This is sort of a known known, although frequently ignored. It involves not only the choices of where and how we live, what we do, but also the people we comfortably interact with, and in particular, how we think. In other words, it’s our cultural environment, our Worldview experienced locally. One could also call it a social neighborhood, with some activities and material things thrown in.

Most important though is that, for the most part, we recognize that it’s comfortable, or at least we’re accustomed to it. One could also make the case that we create and maintain our Bubble by including only what is comfortable. That’s the known known part. (We’ll come back to additional thoughts a bit later).

What we’re less conscious of is the fact that there are other Bubbles out there, somewhere yet everywhere. We slip into the casual error of …


That’s where we assume everyone else is just like us; that their Bubbles are just like ours. The whole kit and caboodle. Especially how they think.

While we might realize that there are other, different Bubbles, we don’t consciously dwell on it. And this leads to the existence of, and invariably the ignoring of …

Missing Information

Most of the time we don’t know what we don’t know, and don’t even know that. This is sort of an unknown unknown, and therefore it doesn’t seem to bother us in our Bubbles, at least until …

The moment we’re somehow exposed to something unexpected, whether it is an event or information (which for the moment, could be either false or true). Then,

  • When we are hit with an unexpected event, it basically collides with our Bubble. The surprise collision puts a dent in our Bubble, and is a threat to do more permanent damage. This is just not comfortable and typically we try immediately to find out why, seeking to determine what caused it or who is to blame. We try to identify missing information, and if nothing concrete is readily available, we will create something. This will either be false or incomplete because our nature is to fill this void fast with something, anything, rather than take time to seek and fill it with the best or correct thing. And if the void is not completely filled, we continue to seek more missing information. All this to save our Bubble!
  • If we are hit with some new information, we try and make sense of it (unless it is so far outside our Bubble that we ignore it). If it does not make sense we will seek or create additional information to help it make sense.
  • In both cases, this new or created information, whether false or true, flows into the voids of Missing Information in our Bubble, into the dents. It’s like filling a dent in a car body with epoxy, sanding it down and painting it so no one can see the damage.
  • For this information to flow into the voids, it passes through a very significant filter known as Confirmation Bias. Everyone has this, and it describes our nature to more selectively receive new information that serves to confirm what we already believe we know. It works to preserve Bubble consistency.

Gap Theory

  • Because there’s an urgency to fill these voids NOW, we reflexively or intuitively grab whatever information “stuff” is at hand (or can be created) either to fill the void or to push out the dent in our Bubble. The alternative is to take a lot longer to rationally seek, find, and filter the right information to fill the void or repair the dent by incorporating verifiable truth. Gap Theory says we won’t wait or take the time; Human Nature says, “Repair the gaps in the Bubble’s wall NOW!”
  • There is another potential reason that we sometimes avoid the longer seek-and-confirm process, and that is we can’t or won’t accommodate the growth, learning, or change that would result from accepting the new information. Absorbing into our Bubble anything that is incompatible will cause the Bubble to stretch uncomfortably, or burst. We have to force or coerce other Bubbles to merge with ours, or eliminate the threat of having to merge with theirs.  It’s an old refrain recognized in organizations that can be traced to its true origin, the individual:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If it agrees with me, it’s fine;
If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s a threat because it’s wrong, and I have to tell others.

That’s a simple description of a common process, one I wager we’ve all experienced (or practiced surreptitiously) whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Returning to the Grim Consequences of the Twitter study. To pursue this reliably, the authors had to answer a preliminary question first: What is truth? And how do we know? For this they developed a way to look at all the tweet data, basically with a complex filter: What were the properties of the author (were they verifiable?); What was the kind of language that was used (was it sophisticated? – In my words, was it rational and thought out, or more intuitive and emotional?); and How did a given tweet propagate through the network?

This ultimately led to another important question: How does the computer know what truth is? The authors opted to turn to the “ultimate arbiter” of facts online: third-party fact-checking sites, including Snopes, Politifact, and These sites formed the “verification processes” that in Gap Theory would eventually uncover the truth.

As described, there are two more or less extreme paths for a tweet to get 10,000 retweets (i.e., propagation in a network). If a celebrity who has a couple of million followers (think of these as adjacent or overlapping Bubbles) sends tweet A, perhaps 10,000 people will see the tweet and decide to retweet it. This would be a wide but shallow pattern.   The other extreme is if someone without many followers sends tweet B that goes out to their 20 followers, one of whom retweets it, and then one of their followers (think non-adjacent non-overlapping Bubbles) retweets it, on and on until 10,000 people have seen it and shared it. This would be both a wide and deep pattern.

Results of the study showed that Fake News dominates according to both patterns above. It consistently reaches a larger audience and it tunnels much deeper into social networks than real news does. Accurate news wasn’t able to chain together more than 10 retweets; Fake News could put together a retweet chain 19 links long, and do it 10 times faster than accurate news could put together a chain of 10 retweets.

Why does falsehood do so well? The authors settled on two hypotheses.

First, Fake News seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the 60-day previous stream of the user’s tweets.

This appears to be the appearance of some form of Missing Information that is either not consistent with the user’s Bubble of information, or is confirming of what has been rejected and is outside the user’s Bubble.

Second, Fake News evokes much more emotion that the average tweet. Using a sentiment analysis tool, the authors found that Fake News tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust.

Following the observation above, the newly introduced (Missing) Information that is opposed to their value system (worldview or moral matrix Bubble) therefore demands not only an immediate reaction (i.e., close the Gap quickly) but a negative emotional one (it’s disgusting) as well.

There is correlation here between these research results and results from Moral Foundations Theory 1. In MFT studies, groups of people whose value systems (moral matrices, Bubbles) were primarily based on the two foundations of Care and Liberty often felt disgust towards people whose value systems (moral matrices, Bubbles) were more broadly based on all six foundations (Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity). In fact, there were instances where people with primarily Care and Liberty values felt that other more broadly based value systems (Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity) were in fact immoral! 2

The takeaway here is that false/unchecked tweet/posted content that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster, more deeply and more broadly on Twitter (and by inference not yet studied, also on other social media) than content that does not.

(In the two weeks of writing this post, three additional non-Twitter examples of Falsehood Propagation appeared: one attempting to discredit student leaders after the Parkland, FL shootings (How A Conspiracy video on YouTube went viral on its own); another about misusing Facebook in Myanmar (Facebook has now turned into a beast, UN investigators say); and a third very interesting one about whether an astronaut’s DNA had been altered by his time in space (How Did Astronaut DNA Become Fake News), the latter based on misunderstanding of the difference between gene mutation and gene expression, which I got around to discussing here, eventually.)

The Grim Conclusion, apparently, is that we should be surprised that this behavior shows up so strongly on Twitter. However, it should not be a surprise, because of a similar process historically known to follow the same patterns. If Falsehood Propagation is practiced around the bridge, dinner, or meeting table or in groups of two or more, what we call gossip, it should be no surprise that it shows up on other venues that are less accountable and more easily and often anonymously accessible, such as Twitter or any other major social network.

That conclusion presumes the study data point to Twitter, or social networks in general, as the culprits. False Conclusion. I propose that the culprit Possession Arrow (sorry, it’s March Madness time) should point in the opposite direction – to us as individuals, to our Human Nature and the choices we make. This, then, is the …

Grim Consequence

We all live in the Bubbles3 of our own value systems, our own moral matrices, and our own Worldviews, each constructed by our cultures and protected primarily through our own choosing. The Grim Consequence is that we affect, if not infect, everyone around us, from family to clans, to tribes, to organizations, to nations. The infectious bug  is simple:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If it agrees with me, it’s fine;
If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s a threat because it’s wrong, and I have to tell others.

Treating the bug begins with us as individuals. This is an opportunity where our rational mind can and needs to step up and choose to overrule our underlying intuitive (and Bubble protected) emotions. Identifying the process is simple; pursuing it is a more difficult journey:

  • Recognize – The Bubble (and its compartments) are real;
  • Resolve – Choose to change areas in order to grow;
  • “Repent” – Turn to become Forward Looking rather than stick with Past Protecting;
  • Renew – Embrace change for growth;
  • Redemption – Arrival at a better place
  • Rinse, Repeat – Pick another compartment …

It’s not just about threats and/or dents to our Bubbles. Either we choose to recognize and manage the situations where we’re confronted with less than accurate information or information that conflicts with our Bubbles, or we will have to wait for another 50,000 years for slow selection in the gene pool to improve our behavior 4.

Why not choose to do it now?

1   The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt (Vintage Books, New York, 2012). “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” – The New York Times Book Review.

2   The Righteous Mind, pp 334.

3   Our Bubbles also have what I’ll call “compartments.” Three of these are nicely summarized (as “bubbles”) in the March 21st blog post by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak:

  • Virtual bubbles: social media echo chambers;
  • Institutional bubbles: organizational echo chambers; and
  • Affinity bubbles: the kind of people we like to hang out with.

4   The Righteous Mind, pp 250, 255.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 11: Growth, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Bubbles, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Weinstein and Kalanick Syndromes

“If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist. If I don’t understand it, it’s wrong.”

I’m all in on respecting Gap Theory, so in the time after Harvey Weinstein was, well, revealed for who he was, I’ve tried to pay cautious attention and collect and sort out information. During that time the spotlight widened to pick up issues with Travis Kalanick (ex-CEO of Uber), and then widened again to follow testimonies at the trial of Dr. Larry Nasser (USA Women’s Olympic doctor).

Reactions and reporting in the media escalated, as Gap Theory would predict, leaving most everyone with a deeply callow view of Men in general. While surveys indicated the behavior was more widespread than just high profile people (NY Times, Leadershipfreak), they also showed that a majority of men (~2/3rds) have not committed harassment behaviors. Still, that doesn’t prevent a lot of men from worrying about being painted with the same Either/Or brush and fearing they are next. While there are some subdued articles trying to identify broader perspectives (more on these below), they don’t get much traction.

As these media pieces trickled in (or were shot across the internet), it became clear that much of what occurred (behavior as well as reporting) fit neatly onto the Behavior Curve. So I thought I’d put my toe to the ice and see if it would support me getting quickly to the other side.

To do this will require some additional perspectives – perspectives that we all know, or probably should know, but have either forgotten or conveniently chosen to push aside in the emotions of the moment. One perspective looms huge on the horizon, so we should begin there. Carefully.

Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus

I know that you know this, dear reader, because you’ve told me so. Well, perhaps not you specifically, and probably not in so many words, but over the course of a long lifetime I have heard, read, and observed from uncountable numbers of both men and women who could have been readers but were certainly of strong enough opinions to verbalize or act out their understanding of this fact.

One I recall years ago was Maurice Chevalier’ observation, Viva La Differencé! (Chevalier was, of course, French, which explains a lot, a fact that will come up again later.) Both of these observations, Mars/Venus and Viva!, don’t do justice to what we should know and understand. They’re abbreviations, fuzzy snapshots of reality. One implies, Danger, and the other implies, well, Whoopee! There’s a lot of territory in between.

After some deliberate time spent in the information Gap, with missives flying overhead, I concluded that there needed to be some additional thoughts that connected these distressing behaviors with aspects as to why they continue to occur. Here goes.

There have been many valid scientific studies that have attempted to identify differences beyond the obvious (think XX and XY chromosomes and the resulting physical attributes) and figure out just how men and women think. (Caveat here: those studied were not attempts to answer the question, “What were you thinking when you did that?!” but attempts to ask people to think about what they would do if they found themselves in a particular situation. These are very different questions.)

When men and women are asked the question, “What are the needs that you would desire most in life?” the answers are revealing. Of the top five answers, statistically, three stand out for men, and three for women,

Men: In the list of top five most important needs in their lives, unsurprisingly, these three appear most often,


Food; and

Respect (not necessarily in that order, but pretty close).

For Women, these three appear most often,

Security (physical and/or financial);

Companionship; and

Communication/Connection (again, not necessarily in that order, but pretty close).

(This is not to say that each of these do not appear as being important to those of the opposite sex; they do appear, just further down the list and not as frequently. Please note that. And note also that this is a clear reinforcement that men are from Mars, and women from Venus, descriptively speaking, not judgmentally.)

How has this come about? Go back to our XX and XY chromosomes, but don’t assume that we can stop there. It’s more complicated and it looks more like this,

It’s not just that Boys will be Boys (or even Girls will be Girls), but it starts there. The bigger factors are one’s Environments (pre- and post-natal), accrued Triggers (including one’s Baggage), and Chance (being in the right/wrong place at the wrong/right time), each and all heavily modified by Choices, whether those arose from the people who molded one’s environments, or one’s own choices in a particular environment or situation.

See. It’s complicated, despite the wealth of reporting and opinion pieces that seem to sprout from simplicity (Either/Or thinking).

Take Harvey Weinstein’s behaviors (please…). From what has been reported and supported, the following picture comes into focus.

Weinstein likes Sex. This is not unsurprising given his XY chromosomes. And by all reports we have to conclude he had a huge appetite for sex and took steps to satiate it often. (He may still have an appetite, but it is only conjecture if he is able currently to satisfy it).

Weinstein also likes Food. One can conjecture this based upon publicly available information, such as follows,

Harvey Weinstein, in Los Angeles, after meeting with lawyers.
Photographs from Lalo/RR/Premiere/Backgrid. (Vanity Fair)

Weinstein is chunky.   He has an appetite for food (no pun intended).

Weinstein likes Respect. One can surmise that not only from the body language in the photograph above, but from his position and career. As head of The Weinstein Company, and formerly running Miramax film productions (founded 1979; Disney subsidiary until 2010), he was in a position to control larger-than-life careers (writing, acting, directing) and money in the entertainment industry, one often charitably described as “self-seeking.” (Looking back historically, there is this overwhelming picture of the theater developing in order to get people more concentrated in order to make pickpockets’ and cutpurses’ activities easier and more efficient. The story also goes that the Oscars awards were created to help overcome this historical image).

Weinstein has an appetite for Respect. He found a way to fulfill it by exercising power over people, in more ways than one (bullying, philandering, temper tantrums). It is not impossible that this appetite was fed (sorry again) by the phenomena that Power Causes Brain Damage.

His behaviors in each of these areas line up with Taking, and if we look for a spot for his behaviors on the Behavior Curve we would probably place him about here,

It seems appropriate to label this general area at the bottom of the Behavior Curve (for one or more types of behavior including bullying, philandering, and a bad temper), a Predator. In numerous articles (So This Is How Men Like Weinstein Get Away With It For So Longand Harvey’s Concern Was Who Did Him In (Vanity Fair) ) Weinstein and others have been referred to as Predators for their behaviors, sexual and otherwise.

Others who would fit into this behavior region would have to include Dr. Larry Nasser (USA Women’s Olympics doctor), for similar reasons, and for other reasons, John Battaglia, Luis Enrique Monroy Bracamontes, and Jamison Bachman, The Worst Roommate Ever (a must read).

The fact is, people like this exist.  And it’s not that these people totally lack skills and talents (including social ones). They certainly have a number of them. It’s just that they are weak in or are missing the appropriate skills and talents required to grant them access to their greatest needs, and they reverted to Taking behaviors.

It is as if they purposefully Chose to take up residence in the Predator neighborhood of the Behavior Curve.

Then there is Travis Kalanick, the founder and former CEO of Uber. Not withstanding a litany of stories about sexual harassment at Uber, there seems to be less of the Weinstein Syndrome (Predator) but more of something of a different but still demeaning condition that created a toxic cultural environment. There was an aura of arrogant superiority and power that permitted an environment to develop in which certain power behaviors were not only permitted but also encouraged (How the Susan Fowler Memo Changed the Tech Industry; The Fall of Travis Kalanick). They suffered from the Kalanick Syndrome: they were “Bros.

Bro: (Urban dictionary definition 2): An alpha male idiot. This is the derogatory sense of the word (common usage in the western US): white, 16-25 years old, inarticulate, belligerent, talks about nothing but chicks and beer, drives a jacked up truck that’s plastered with stickers, has rich dad that owns a dealership or construction business and constantly tells this to chicks at parties, is into extreme sports that might be fun to do but are uncool to claim (wakeboarding, dirt biking, lacrosse), identifies excessively with brand names, spends a female amount of money on clothes and obsesses over his appearance to a degree that is not socially acceptable for a heterosexual male.

Kalanick extended the fratty, Bro-y range above age 25 and drove something that cost more than a truck, but give him credit, rather than depending upon his daddy’s dealership, he had created his own business which itself had become a “brand.”

I think one could also include in this group Anthony DiNozzo, the character from the NCIS TV series.

There are a lot more Bros in the world than Predators. But they’re just as demeaning.

We were Bros

We can place Bro behavior generally on the Behavior Curve just so,

The Bro behavior zone is almost a poster case as the Proof of Bubble they live in. So involved with ’What We Do and Who We Are’ that they forget (or never knew, or don’t care) how Others think. It’s as if they attain a state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—a condition of absolute presence and happiness – Being in the Zone.

They assume that ‘Who We Are’ is defined by XY and ignore the environments, triggers, chance, and choices that finished them off. It’s a perfect example of Fundamental Principle 6 in action: “If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist. If I don’t understand it, it’s wrong.”

Generally, where most male behavior seems to “hover” is about dead center on the Curve. Behavior can “slide” one way or another along the curve depending upon circumstances, environments, and even people we’re with.   Sometimes this is a conscious “sliding,” sometime it’s not. It’s a bit tricky labeling our behaviors here, but it’s worth a stab.

This central area, of “flexible sliding” as it were, is where we’ll find both Boys and Men: Boys to the left of the centerline (slightly “negative” behaviors), and Men to the right (leaning “positive”),

Where some men seem to take up residence as Predators (exhibited in a number of different ways), Bros and Boys/Men seem to be able to more easily “slide” along the Curve into different behaviors. It’s as if Bros are merely occupants (“there,” but not permanently), and Boys/Men are simply tourists, very flexible while passing through.

What the world needs now (sorry again) are males who are capable and comfortable of 1) noticing that there is an area further to the right on the Behavior Curve; 2) interested in getting there; 3) capable of learning what that takes; and 4) actually willing to make the effort to get there. It would also take females who notice the same area on the Curve, appreciate what that behavior looks like, and are willing to provide helpful constructive feedback.

We should call that area the Gentleman,

(To be clear, because of the focus on the Weinstein and Kalanick Syndromes these areas got a masculine label. The Behavior Curve applies equally to women, so I’m sure in the latter case the areas would need different labels.)

There’s an odd obstacle or two in the way of moving to the Gentleman’s zone, however.

The first is, I think, the issue of defining where/how/what is the source of this Respect that’s high on our (men’s) list of needs. We’ve been taught by those who’ve dabbled before us that a great deal of Respect comes from being bonded with our Boy/Bro peers, in being “one of the guys” (the Bro-y Effect).  As a consequence, to depart from this is to leave comfort and ease (and “Respect”) and go where we think no man has gone before (sorry for that, too), and, having ventured there, feeling it’s probably not cool to report back on our experiences.

The second obstacle is discovering the Law of Reflection. That is, to get something, you don’t have to Take it because you think you deserve it. When you Give something away you are very likely to receive something back in return. Often in spades.

Overcoming both of these requires conscious Choices to alter the criteria and measure of what it means to be a Man.

In the workplace, respecting others leads invariably to getting Respect in return.

In some workplaces (like Silicon Valley), working hard and producing might also lead to food (onsite free pizza ovens, buffets, lattes, etc.).

Sex, however, ought to be left for consensual relationships outside the workplace.

In a relationship or marriage, for instance, when a man discovers the Law of Reflection and focuses on providing Security, Companionship, and Conversation to his partner, he just might find he’s receiving all the sex, food, and respect he needs.

Women, I suspect because they already have good intuition, a greater sense of nurturing and different top three needs, “get” the Law of Reflection and find it easier to practice. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s a contributing factor why some women remain in abusive relationships, hoping he will eventually “get” it. (He most likely won’t, especially if he’s taken up residence at the left on the Behavior Curve).

My wife and I once ran a Self/Other exercise with a group of young single and married adults (if you’re in a relationship or married, you might also try this). A ground rule is that there is no discussing with one another until the end. This is coming from inside:

  • Write down what you think are your most important needs;
  • Then, write down what you think are the most important needs of someone of the opposite sex, for instance, your spouse or the person you are in a relationship with;
  • Next, write down what you think someone of the opposite sex (your relationship partner or spouse) would say your most important needs are (re-read that carefully);
  • And finally, write down what you think someone of the opposite sex (your partner or spouse) thinks you would write down for their most important needs.

When we got to that last part in our exercise, the majority of the males in the group (single as well as married) all looked up puzzled and said, “Huh?” Clueless.

It is interesting to look back on that exercise in light of additional years of life and blogging.

One realization is that the object of focus of the responses (the degree of conscious separation from the person answering) changes in each step:

  • The first part deals with oneself, or the 0th degree of separation and consideration;
  • The second part deals with someone else, a 1st degree of separation and consideration;
  • The next part deals with someone else’s concept of you, a 2nd degree of separation and consideration; and
  • The last part deals with someone else’s belief about what your concept is about their needs, or a 3rd degree of separation and consideration.

In that exercise, a high percentage of the women were “right on” through the 4th step. The men? They floundered quickly after step 2.

An interesting hypothesis is that, for instance, it appears,

  • If a person’s focus cannot get beyond self, as in step 1 and a 0th degree of separation and consideration, there’s a good chance their behavior is often in the Taker (or possibly Predator) area of the Behavior Curve;
  • If a person is aware that another might have needs (but hasn’t bothered to check them out), there’s a chance their behavior occupies someplace in the Bro or Boy/Man regions of the Curve;
  • If a person is aware that another is consciously aware about his/her needs, there’s a chance their behavior occupies someplace higher up in the Boy/Man or Bro region of the Curve;
  • If a person is aware and communicates what they are thinking about another’s needs, then there’s a very good chance that their behavior occupies the Gentleman area more often than not.

A disappointing consequence of all the media reporting about Weinstein and the subsequent fallout (the “Weinstein Effect,” not to be confused with the “Weinstein Syndrome,” which is the Why? pondered here) is that much of it is so Either/Or, with a lot of disparaging of the “Or” dialogue.

For instance, Catherine Deneuve and 99 other notable French women from the arts, medicine and business published an open letter in Le Monde calling out what they dubbed a “puritanical” wave of resignations and a group-think—largely in the United States and Britain, since no heads have rolled in France—that they said infantilized women and denied them their sexual power (Remember, they are French. The Atlantic, France, Where #MeToo Becomes #PasMoi). (Chevalier would rejoice). Subsequently, the #MeToo movement shamed Deneuve into issuing an apology. (Chevalier is now spinning in his grave).

Some recommendations for the ~2/3rds of men (and an untold percentage of women) should be in order. Consider the following personal action steps,

I need to understand why I think the way I do, and then I need to consciously choose to try to understand why you think the way you do;

Then I need you to do the same concerning me.

To do this is to recognize I live in a Bubble (my Worldview, where I don’t know all that I don’t know), and Choose to take steps through understanding to expand my Bubble.

The intent is not to fix or repair your Bubble or to protect my Bubble (by putting another brick in my wall);

The intent is to expand both of our Bubbles.

This is difficult for men due to the Bro-y Effect. Not so hard for women who want to connect (and get Respect also).

One last thought. If women could tune-in to these action steps, put them into practice, and begin to discern those among the 2/3rds of men who are also putting them into practice, they just might be able to begin to exclude the Predators and the Bros from the gene pool.

And that just might be a good great thing.

But then, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, what do I know.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Success or Failure?

Why do some people succeed and others don’t? …

That question has plagued people for eons. And plagued for me over the last 55 years. Too often the explanation has been an Either/Or one: some people work harder, others don’t. You see that a lot in letters to the editor, although there are far fewer of these now, and in comments online.

Since people work at doing something, by default we pretty much have a culturally assumed working definition of Success:

Success: applying one’s skills to achieve a desired goal or objective (which also produces Added Value for people other than just the Doer).

Either/Or is, for the most part, very useful.  For instance, at a fork in the road (where we usually have all the information). But it does become the plague of human thinking when it becomes our default (or lazy) response when we don’t have all the information, which is most of the time. Then it just becomes linear (or binary) thinking. It has recently been called by these last two names by various media and people online, a fact that unfortunately does not help to clarify much. In reality, these labels are all describing the same thing – our (lazy, default) thinking considers most if not all questions as if they were a fork in the road – Either turn left Or turn right; or as one of the two the endpoints of a Line (no matter how far apart); or as a Binary choice between a 0 or a 1.

It is not that simple. In dealing with people in business, the classroom, and in different cultures over the years a number of things have slowly become, at least to my eyes, clearer. Not crisp, but clearer. So, as I describe these things please have patience and follow along on this journey as I try and move from a Point to Lines to 2 dimensions to, ultimately, 3 dimensions (which is where I got really tired).

A Starting Point

It has almost become passé in the business world to talk of SWOT analyses where one looks at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Most often this occurs formally for organizations or departments. More rarely it is used for individuals in the form of reviewing ongoing performance (by one’s boss, if he/she’s good) or in a mentoring or coaching relationship. What can be good about these is identifying areas to develop (or avoid), and which directions to head (or avoid).

SWOT works for organizations as well as individuals, but only if they are followed by action and follow up. Too often I’ve seen them done only to be able to check off a box on a form being sent back upstairs, or in a long and argumentative performance review, or in an ‘animated family discussion.’

In these cases SWOTs are pointless, when they should not be. They do serve to shine a light on a really important aspect of life and the beginning of the difference between survival and success: a Skill, or talent or gift, if you will (yes, we all have more than one skill, talent, or gift, and I will touch on this a bit later). This, then, is our starting Point, one where everyone has a view, comment, or opinion because absolutely everyone has some Skills.

Drawing a Line in the Sand

A number of years ago I posted about Three Types of People. I had experienced each of these in various forms over the years, as I think most of us also have, and simply reduced my observations to a short bon mot,

There are people who climb rocks,
There are people who trip over rocks, and
There are people who throw rocks.

It was an attempt to formally recognize what many of us have experienced: there are people who accomplish things, people who unintentionally block things, and sometimes people who intentionally prevent or disrupt things.

Eventually I concluded there was more to this than just Skill or talent.

When I taught at the college level I began to realize that I had been partially wrong if not incomplete in my earlier Three Types bon mot (No, all college students do not fall into the first two types. There are indeed some college students who prefer to throw rocks at professors, but I suspect they actually don’t know the real reasons why they are in college).

I didn’t need to shrink the bon mot; I needed to expand it.

In considering various observations about success in life and career, it seemed that there were actually four phases or points of Skill Development along a path or Line from beginning to Success (It’s Not Just the 1%,The Myth of Meritocracy?).

I envisioned these developing this way,

(Skills)                           (Motivation)                  (Opportunity/Crisis)    (Empowerment)

(Single Skill Development for one person)

This picture is linear with Skill Development stretching horizontally from left to right. Some would say that it stretches from failure to success. That would be not only simplistic (and another example of Either/Or thinking), but also incorrect. That view labels a person a failure if they have no Skill.

Failure is an event, not a person (Zig Ziglar). Even successful people fail, but their Skill Development provides them with a way around the obstacle of failure – through learning and self-adjustment.

To avoid labeling people a failure (as opposed to experiencing failure events), we now need to recognize and deal with people having multiple Skills.

Stacking Multiple Skills

If you poll even a small number of people you will find a multitude of skills and talents, each of them more or less recognized and/or developed and applied. If you observe people carefully you will probably notice far more ‘skills or gifts’ than they themselves will acknowledge. One person is a craftsman, very good with their hands regardless whether it is mechanical things or woodworking; another lacks hand-eye coordination but is great with numbers (and possibly lousy with people); another is a great HR counselor but a threat to the public on the highway, etc.

Here is where we need to widen our perception for multi-skilled people and leap from the linear view above (for a single Skill Development) to a 2 dimensional view. To do this, take the table above for one Skill, tilt it on its side, and stack each additional Skill one atop another. For 4 Skills it would look like this,

(Visualization of one person’s Skills Development, horizontally, with multiple Skills vertically)

Now we can recognize a multitude of independent Skills for a person, each with different levels of development that we can then call individual Strengths and Weaknesses.

When we interview people for employment we primarily identify the needed tangible or action skills (the doing) and look for people who can fill them. At the same time we can tend to deemphasize, minimize, or possibly ignore other skills and/or attributes (often intangible ones) that can greatly affect the effectiveness of the action results.

Which brings us to this additional thought: while it is easy to develop the above picture using familiar concepts of Skill, invariably what we consider as ‘Skills’ in this category needs to be greatly increased.

Intangibles, such as temperament and personality, interpersonal skills, loyalty, ability to learn, problem solving, creativity, etc., all fit into this structure. So would concepts such as being a Doer (task oriented and fast out of the starting blocks), or a Dreamer (a visionary, finishes well but tough to get out of the starting blocks), or a Feeler.

Put these all together and we get a more complex picture of a person and a better picture of the complexity of success. If we recall the aspects of temperament and personality, a person could very well have a complex stack of ‘Skills’ from over 400 possibilities.

This perspective can work for one person, in isolation, which might help them feel more comfortable with him/herself. But that is not where we live or work.

Paving the Path to Success

Imagine now that one is identifying and connecting people (each with our little ‘Stack of Skills,’ above) for a specific purpose or mission, be it institutional, organizational, or departmental. We identify the skill/talent/attribute requirements and attempt to find people through an interview and reference process that fit the bill (of Skills), hoping not to have overlooked any weaknesses or lack of skills that would impede the purpose or mission.

And sometimes we miss. First off because we most often focus on identified strengths and demonstrated expertise to fit the bill, and second off we don’t focus on the Missing Information of either other strengths or weaknesses that might not fit so well. We often end up with a group or team that can be strong in only one or two areas.

What we should be aware of is that we are paving a path to success with building blocks of multi-skilled people who should complement each other not only in multiplying strengths but also in covering weaknesses, with an underlying foundation of their ability to continue to learn and grow. One can also consider this a 3 dimensional structure, which can look like the following,

(3D view of Skills Development horizontally, differing Skills of different development vertically, for a three person group)

Now, consider what helps determine success. Multiple factors, I think, beginning on the individual or Personal Level,

  1. Skill evaluation (horizontal). Being honestly able to assess if I have a particular skill, talent, or attribute. Do I need it? This is realistically asking one’s self the Repugnant Question: “Is something I am doing (or not doing) contributing to my current (good or bad) circumstances?”
  2. Skillset evaluation (vertical). Being honestly able to assess how one’s current skillset (multiple skills) measures up to the most likely and dynamically changing necessary skillsets. Do I have all the Skills I need? Do I need to acquire and develop more?
  3. Motivation evaluation (2nd box to the right in a Skill). Am I happy where I am in my Skill? Do I have the motivation to develop it? Do I need to develop it?
  4. Opportunity evaluation. Do I recognize opportunity when I see it? Do I seize the opportunity?
  5. Coaching/Mentor evaluation. Do I have one? Do I need one? (Yes)
  6. Growth evaluation. Do I seek growth and learning, or avoid it?

Then come the group or teamwork questions.

  1. Do I know and understand the purpose and mission of the group?
  2. Do I know my role in the group? Do I understand how they depend upon me? Do they understand how I depend upon them?
  3. How do group and mission/purpose needs help me answer my personal questions 1-6 above?

To really test this construct against reality, try seeing if it fits your marriage. How did you decide whom to marry? What missing information during dating/courting began to manifest itself during the first, say, 7 years, and how did you adjust? And how did your spouse adjust to learning more about you? (Here I am asking you to ask yourself the Repugnant Question).

Then take it one step further and apply it to parenting. (Ok, this is perhaps a stretch because while you can’t pick your kids and their developable skillsets (temperament, personality, tangible skills, etc.), you are in charge of raising and developing them.)

And finally, remember that an organization is not a static entity. It is more like a living body (which is one reason why a corporation is legally considered a ‘person’), and like a living body it requires internal growth and healing mechanisms. Cells multiply, function, and die, and people come and go in an organization. And during growth cells develop and multiply in functionality, and people remaining in a organization must continue to learn and develop.

Bottom Line

I think my perspective comes from being one of the “(unintentional) Early Adaptors” of what is now described as “episodic careers.” Today that implies being able to pivot to a different career track in an age of disruption and dwindling opportunities. As I experienced it, however, it was more of moving to a new and challenging opportunity rather than moving from or away from a dwindling or stagnating one. It involved changing disciplines, companies, industries, and even cultures. In the process I observed cases of successful transitions or pivoting, cases of failed ones, and ample cases that lacked even considering trying one. Those experiences solidified much of what I have presented in this blog.

There is another variable playing out here, however, that very few people recognize or can articulate. In fact, while until recently I could describe my perspective on success and the increasing wealth gap, I couldn’t put a finger on an underlying explanation. It was as if we had two camps bickering (or worse) with one another: the 80% versus the 20% (including, most despicably, the 1%) with no understanding of why. Both sides are absolutely convinced the other side is doing (or not doing) something causing the rift, without considering something’s missing. This is Missing Information leading to avoiding the Repugnant Question (and Conclusion). It took a fortuitous gift of a book that revealed and illuminated a real explanation.

The book is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Once I finish it there will no doubt be a more extensive blog post, but for now the following snippet will have to do.

Haidt is a professor and psychologist who spearheaded the development of Moral Foundations Theory, which as I read further has a direct relationship with Values as I use them in this blog, so right away this is very interesting. The Theory proposes six ‘foundations’ that primarily drive peoples’ behavior. (They highly resemble another blog bon mot, Attitudes that Become behavior by Choice, thus becoming even more interesting). The two foundations of interest here are first, the Fairness/Cheating foundation, and the second is the Liberty/Oppression foundation. The question to ask is, ‘What is your attitude about Fairness and Cheating?’ Or, ‘Where do you prefer to lean on the scale?’ The same questions apply to Liberty/Oppression.

The research studies indicate that the love of political (and social) equality rests on the Liberty/Oppression foundation rather than on the Fairness/Cheating foundation, and the Fairness/Cheating foundation is primarily about proportionality! In other words, people whose moral attitudes (Values) lean towards social equality are primarily based upon the Liberty/Oppression foundation. It appears these people are primarily concerned about outcomes and the widening wealth gap triggers concerns about oppression; it is not surprising that the research shows these people tend to be among the liberal left. On the other hand, people whose moral attitudes (Values) lean towards social proportionality are primarily based upon the Fairness/Cheating foundation. These people are primarily concerned about relationships and processes and want to see cheaters punished and good citizens rewarded in proportion to their deeds; it is not surprising the research shows these people tend to be among the conservative right.

When we are talking about the reasons for the widening wealth gap we therefore need to be aware of multiple factors. Which foundation (Value) is the primary driving force for a person’s attitude: Liberty/Oppression or Fairness/Cheating, for instance? (There are other foundations, but that is for another time). And where on each foundational scale do they fall?

The popular but simplistic view that someone’s failure (an outcome) is primarily due to other people with intentionally well-developed skills taking something (i.e., Cheating) from those with no skills or poorly developed skills but little or no motivation, or removing an opportunity before someone else could respond to it (all processes), is predominantly wrong.

Yes, there are jerkholes in the world that behave exactly like that, but that does not translate into all successful people must be behaving the same way.

Failures can arise from not having a particular skill, or more likely from being insufficiently motivated to identify and develop it, and/or missing opportunities, and/or being sufficiently risk averse as to avoid opportunities. Alternatively, one can lack a skill and yet still push forward too far. Take Icarus, for example.

In business I experienced people in each of the four phases of Skill Development, but often in the lower two. Some of these were customers (where it was sometimes wise to let a competitor have them), some were peers (where we often have to work to complement each other), and some were upstairs (ah, the joy of learning how to manage your Peter Principle boss). In teaching college I sadly experienced people who also fell into these lower two phases, in the classroom as well as in administration (recall my earlier extended bon mot, “Those who Can, Do”).

In large part, I think the widening gap in politics, social structure, and wealth can all be traced back to a perfect storm of a number of Fundamental Principles: a lack of understanding (Missing Information) of what is going on, a subsequent rush to judgment (Fixing the Blame and Gap Theory), both aided by a fear of being complicit in the process and/or outcome (thus avoiding the Repugnant Question and Conclusion).

So, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, it should come as no surprise that we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten, but really don’t want.

It is human nature to avoid change until the pain of not changing becomes too great.

We as individuals are Agents of Influence and if we want group and societal changes we need to begin with ourselves (Success), and not expect society to change so we can get comfortable remaining the same (Failure).

Posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Fishermen’s Dilemma – A Parable (Actually More About Tax Cuts and Responsibilities)

There was a town, of no small size, that was located by the sea. There were merchants, craftsmen, tradesmen, and, as you can imagine, a number of townsfolk who made their living by fishing, as had their ancestors.

Recently the economy underwent a change and many traditional jobs disappeared. Many of the people affected then decided to take up fishing as there always seemed to be plenty of ocean and plenty of fish.

They bought boats and equipment and usually sailed together as a fleet, not only for fellowship and presumed safety, but because they could always follow the boats of the gnarly older captains. This became their routine, and they watched quietly and followed what they saw.

Common sayings among them were, “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten,” and “A rising tide lifts all boats.” They became confident. Very confidant.

One particular day, the tide ebbed stronger and faster than usual. This caught the newer fishermen by surprise. Most of their boats were left high and dry where they had been anchored, while the boats of the veteran captains managed to chart a rather meandering course through the channels revealed by the rapidly ebbing tide. These managed to reach open water, while those stranded high and dry were left to await the returning tide.

When the boats returned with the tide they were ladened with fish, but only enough for their obligations and the open market.

The new fishermen mumbled among themselves, “This isn’t fair. They must know something that we don’t know, and took advantage of us.” A few said, “What if it was something we should have known, or been prepared for?” but that drew a loud and sharp response from others, “If we say we might have played a part in this, then they’ll foist most of the blame on us!”

They approached some of the veteran captains and asked how they managed to navigate the morning’s ebb tide. One of the captains said, “You men know well that a rising tide lifts all boats, but you didn’t recognize the other half. You didn’t realize that an ebbing tide leaves high and dry the boats of fishermen who don’t know the channels. You anchored in very poor places.”

“What? That anchorage always worked for us before!”

“Yes, but this was a peculiarly strong tide. You couldn’t sail straight out to sea as you normally did.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were only paying attention to what you could see above the water, and missed what was below.”

The newer fishermen mumbled and quickly reached agreement that the successful captains were intentionally taking an unfair advantage of everyone else and ending up with many more fish.

They went to the town council and pressed for new ordinances: the veteran captains, they argued, should not be permitted to sail until all of the other boats had made it to open sea. In addition, they should be taxed more heavily on their catches, as well as a portion of their catches should be redistributed to the fishermen who weren’t successful.

Since there were many more voting families than successful captains, the council passed the ordinances.

The tide ebbed and flowed. The newer fishermen sailed as they always had, and caught what they always caught. And often enough strong tides left most of their boats high and dry.

But the veteran captains left for other ports. And as a result the fishing industry decayed just as the other industries had. And with it, so did the town.


In a crisis, typically, the majority’s first gut reaction is to fix the blame (Rarely is the reaction to pause and adequately identify and fix the problem);

If all of the obvious culprits and forces are eliminated, what remains? (The unseen, or the ignored);

If all of the obvious culprits and forces are just inanimate things, then what remains? (People);

What can cause unintended consequences to occur? (Missing information and the resulting poor decisions, all accompanied by complacency and fear – each of which involve choices).

We’ve just passed a significant revision of the Tax Code that will have a great impact. When I stop and consider this (and the discussions leading up to it), I am struck by observations and information that no one seems to have connected together and which subsequently lead to paradoxes. It seemed appropriate to consider these seemingly unconnected facts and draw some logical (I hope logical) conclusions pertaining to them:

  • There is strong evidence that 80% of English speaking peoples cannot do ‘Math,’ especially finance. Either they scrupulously avoid it or just choose not to think about it. No doubt this results from education’s overemphasis on the word ‘Math’ to describe anything to do with numbers. This word should be relegated only to those times when the simple digits from 0 to 9 are replaced by dreaded symbols, (for instance, x, y, z, or a, b, c, and especially ax!) These are enough to scare anyone away. What people really need is comfort with simple arithmetic: plain old addition, subtraction, and occasionally multiplication and division. And a $ sign.
  • It is also documented that ~67% of English speaking peoples cannot explain the compounded growth of money over time, that is, earning interest on interest in a saving account, CD, or other investment (no doubt due to fear of that ‘ax’ thingy).
  • The impact of the above also means, and what is rarely recognized, that these same people also do not understand the possibility of the negative growth of their money, that is,
    Debt will also increase exponentially over time because of interest on interest!
    In essence, this is the silent, continuous creation of the deadweight of negative wealth. (This lack of understanding of this growth is also the basic driving force behind the proliferation of credit card offers, a force that rarely occurs to anyone except those in the industry.  Since dollars cannot be in two places at once, one institution’s gain must be someone else’s (eventual) loss).
  • Since all financial transactions (paychecks, taxes, purchases, bills) involve numbers (and a “$”), it follows that the 80% conclude there must be some ‘Math’ associated with these transactions and therefore they don’t pay enough attention to them.
  • For a very long time, longer than I can remember, the political response to economic tough times is to pass a tax cut. Generally speaking, it is unclear whether these have ever provided any documentable impact on turning an economy around, i.e., they didn’t create a rising tide. In many cases it is unclear what identifiable factors did contribute to turning the economic tide, even years later after much academic study (here is Gap Theory in action again).
  • Why politicians pursue a tax cut has one obvious reason: to act decisively in the short term in a way that will justify their jobs and get them reelected by a grateful, newly flush electorate. However, consider now the following two perspectives:
    • Remember the old adage (yes, conveniently fluffed up by me here) –
      Those who can, do;
      Those who can’t, teach;
      Those who can’t teach, administer;
      Those who can’t administer, become politicians.
      What this implies is that, if 80% of those who can “do” think they cannot do financial arithmetic or scrupulously avoid it, then three steps further down the incompetence adage you can be certain that ~100% of politicians can’t do financial arithmetic either! (This is borne out by politicians ignoring both the deficit and the financial impact calculations of think tanks, the GAO, and reactions from corporate CEOs: This Tax Bill Is A Trillion-Dollar Blunder, and America’s Inequality Machine).
    • Which leads us to the puzzling paradox that any tax cut probably will be too small to overcome the financial difficulties of the majority of people who need help. It will be like telling them “We’ll pay 25% of your outstanding debt” and ignoring the fact that the remaining 75% debt will continue to grow exponentially! Or telling them, “We’re going to raise the tide! (But don’t worry about what comes afterwards.)” This is giving money to people who do not handle it well in hopes they will spend it, which just results in maintaining their situation. Treating the symptoms does not deal with the systematic issue underneath.
  • Rather than a tax cut, why not redirect the same amount of money into realistically dealing with people’s lack of confidence and/or understanding of financial arithmetic.
    We did put a man on the moon, after all.

On another note, there is a second paradox contained in The Fisherman’s Dilemma. It goes like this,

  • We uniformly agree that our children must get an education. In the past few years this has become the idea that everyone should go to college. (From my experience from years both in the seat and at the lectern, not everyone belongs in college. There are other ‘ways’ to obtain the education one needs to succeed with one’s skills identified and developed. In addition, I think that not everyone in the seat (or at the lectern, for that matter) understands the ‘what’ and ‘why’ he or she is there for. I hinted at this here, but a deeper discussion on education is for another post.)
  • We probably also agree that we want our kids to be successful, and depending upon our own backgrounds, more successful than we were.
  • But just not too successful, especially other people and their kids.
  • When people get too successful, when they move too far away from our Cultural Mean, we react as if this were not possible without some subterfuge or scheming. It becomes a crisis, and we look to fix the blame. We jump into the Negative Sum Game and draw the conclusion that they therefore must have taken something that they didn’t have the right to take. It’s Gap Theory again. We quickly stick them with a negative character attribute or behavior to justify our reaction, rather than take the time to look carefully to see, first, what is their added value and if it warrants their success, and, second, if perhaps we ourselves aren’t missing something (such as understanding financial arithmetic) that would have otherwise benefitted us somehow. That’s avoiding the Repugnant Question so that we don’t have to deal with the Repugnant Conclusion. As a result, we have a strong tendency, nay, predilection, to blame the upper 1% (or 20%) when they are succeeding beyond what we deem acceptable, explainable, or understandable by our Cultural Mean.
  • While there is indeed some truth to what we observe, that there are people who manage to get through life by being Takers (or, in an alternate terminology that has a nice ring to it, Extractors), this does not translate into punishing all who manage to be successful beyond a Cultural Mean. Takers are a small percentage of any group of people. Stretching this dollop of ‘truth’ into full condemnation appears to be the pastime of a sufficient number of people to keep this ‘conspiracy theory’ alive and in good health. It’s apparently also great clickbait.

Interestingly, these two paradoxes eventually merge together, but with a twist in understanding:

The vast majority of the 20% and the 1% are not Takers or Extractors. They understand enough about Added Value to be Participators in the economy, and they contribute and benefit (and sometimes lose) accordingly. There also is sufficient reason to propose that part of the widening income and wealth inequality gap has a component that is due to a lack of full participation by the 80%, which has a strong basis in a weakness in financial understanding.

The above implies a dual (but not necessarily equal) contribution, exactly what the Repulsive Question, if pursued, would reveal. However, being glued to an Either/Or mode of thinking (the blame either lies with them or me) precludes considering this idea. So does Political Correctness.

Overcoming the immediate gap takes us back, once again, to education, especially about financial arithmetic.

In considering other social and cultural gaps and if this dual contribution idea is true, which I think it is, it still leaves me with a larger, nagging question in explaining how this happens.

Much pondering for another post.

Posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment