Agents of Influence

“It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it.” – Brazilian Samba instructor

If there is any merit to the previous post proposing a connection between actual observed behaviors and the shapes that our Individual Behavior Curves or profiles can take, then the Next Why arises: Why are these curves shaped like this?

Is there some way to connect a curve with the five major agents of influence on behavior: the internal forces of Temperament, Personality, the balance of Self & Values, and Integrity, and the wealth of external forces we are confronted with in life?

I suspected that a possible answer had been marinating for a while, but I needed the previous post for a number of things to come together. I also needed an external catalyst, which I experienced recently playing cards with friends.

To press ahead, however, now seems to me to be a bit of a hike, or more like a journey – There and Back Again. But first, I need to go back and try to lay a foundation. Bear with me; this might be a long post I think it will be worth it.

The Simpler Games People Play

Remember when you were kids (or were parents with kids) and you played the card game of War? 54 cards (jokers included), shuffled randomly and dealt out to the players. Each player flipped over his or her top card and the highest card took that play. Repeated until there’s one winner with all the cards. (Yes, when trying to teach kids to share and play together nicely and ending up with one winner and a bunch of losers is probably the reason why it was only played on desperate occasions).

But the focus here is on the game itself. It has some useful aspects that are going to be helpful in a minute. First, while all of the available information (all 54 cards, the known knowns) is present, the Incomplete Information (as known unknowns) is that no one knows which cards are where (unless they peeked at their own deal), and in what order they will be played. Second, this Incomplete Information is revealed only as each top card is flipped simultaneously. Players do not know (or aren’t supposed to know) what card will be played. It is all chance; there is no choice (although there might be a little free-style ‘peeking’). In other words, as each play follows, you play what you were dealt, in the order you were dealt it. No choice.

That’s our foundation. Now let’s build.

Consider another more ‘complex’ game, for instance Whist, my catalyst, which in our case for four players is slightly modified, as follows:

In the first round, all 52 cards are dealt (13 tricks) and Spades is defined to be trump. The person to the left of dealer declares first for the number of tricks he/she expects to win. Declaring then continues around the table (total trick declarations do not have to add to 13, at least how we play). The person to the left of dealer leads, and each player follows according to the suit led, except if void he/she must trump. For the second round, only 48 cards (12 tricks) are dealt, Hearts are trump, and players declare again. For the third round, 44 cards (11 tricks) are dealt, and Diamonds are trump. The deal/declare/lead rotation continues as the number of tricks decreases down to 1 trick with trump changing each hand, and then play continues by increasing the number of tricks and changing trump until 13 tricks are reached.

Now, as above, focus on the game sequence itself. In the first round, everyone knows all cards are in play (the known knowns), but the Incomplete Information is that no one knows which cards are in the other three persons hands (the known unknowns). They can only partially guess this missing information by inference from the respective bids. The person with the lead has 13 cards from which to pick, and thus he/she has a choice: do I want to lose this trick or win it, and with which suit? The card led fills in some of the Incomplete Information by showing the suit and card value, but it also becomes the trigger for the next player’s reaction: do I want to win this trick (play high), or lose it (play low), or cover the lead and hope the next player plays higher? Player 2 now has to make a similar choice. His/her play now becomes the trigger for Player 3, who now has more information (two cards) to influence his/her choice of play. And ultimately Player 4, who now has all the information for this one trick, must make his/her choice, win the trick or lose it.

As play continues with a decreasing number of tricks you will notice the increasing agony of the decreasing information: when you are playing for only one dealt trick (your card is the known known, their cards the unknown knowns, the high card is the known unknown, and the 48 undealt cards comprise the bulk of the Incomplete Information, the unknown unknowns). 1 Fun.

One could also consider other card games as many of the Incomplete Information, trigger, and choice elements are similar; but as for me, I choose Whist.

Rabbit Trail

So, how does the above apparent rabbit trail help us begin to understand the interrelationship between Temperament, Personality, Self/Values, Integrity, and external forces when it comes to behaviors? To approach that, I propose not to duplicate how I began this blog by starting somewhere near the middle, but actually starting point by point at the beginning: with Temperament. (If you’re pressed for time, just read the main Points).


Starting Point:  Temperament describes the combination of innateinherited mental, physical, and emotional traits of a person – their natural predisposition. Or, more particularly, a person or animal’s nature, especially as it permanently affects their behavior.

From the 1930s the dominant view was that, other than being born with a general capacity to learn, human behavior was explained almost exclusively by forces outside the individual. It was the environment.

In 1971 when the idea was proposed that “… the genes we were born with provide, along with the rest of our functional selves, the basis of our intelligence, temperament and personality,” 2 it received little traction in academia and practice. Only in the late 1980s, based upon studies of human twins, did our understanding of personality and temperament begin to shift away from culture and environment toward genes. In 2011 a major review stated, “A century of familial studies of twins, siblings, parents and children, adoptees, and whole pedigrees has established beyond a shadow of a doubt, that genes play a crucial role in the explanation of all human differences, from the medical to the normal, the biological to the behavioral.” 3

Anyone who has had more than two children recognizes that differences in temperament show up even as infants before many behavioral responses can be learned. They are innate, inherited; they come in the package that is you.

In other words, it’s in our genes.

DNA, Genes, Chromosomes, and Genomes

And This Point:  DNA is the double helix macromolecule that is located in a cell’s nucleus and is the basis of life that carries all the coded genetic information necessary for the functions of life and the transmission of those traits which are our innate, inherited temperament. Within the huge DNA molecule there are “shorter” segments that each code (provide the instructions) for a particular cell’s synthesis of a protein necessary for a particular cell function, including DNA repair. That segment is called a gene. There are about 20,700 human genes.

(If you are comfortable with DNA and genes, go ahead and skip forward to Genotypes, Phenotypes and Breast Cancer below.)

The transmission of genetic information occurs by a marvelous process where the two complementary A-B strands of the ‘parental’ DNA double helix are slowly separated, and each single strand begins to build a new double helix by adding in the exact same sequence the components that were in the other complementary strand. B begins to add the components of A, and A begins to add the components of B, until at the end there are two identical ‘daughter’ double helixes. The two separate DNA strands are now able to carry the genetic information to wherever they may roam.

Within a cell, DNA is organized into dense protein-DNA complexes called chromosomes that are located in the nucleus. The genes reside in these chromosomes, and there may be tens of thousands of genes linked together in chains.

We have 46 chromosomes in our cells; we inherited 23 from one parent, and 23 from the other. When cells divide in the human body, the above replication of the DNA maintains the integrity of that person’s DNA, genes, and traits for the next generation of cell growth. But when procreation occurs, the fertilized egg contains half of the genetic material from each parent, transmitting some traits from each.

The entire set of genetic instructions carried by an organism is termed its genome.

Genotypes, Phenotypes, and Breast Cancer

Now A New Point: Where we move into new territory is by distinguishing the following: a Genotype is the set of genetic instructions that may be contained in one gene, a configuration of genes, or an entire genome. A Phenotype, however, constitutes the actual physical and mental manifestations, attributes, and characteristics of the individual.

Getting from the genetic instructions to the physical reality is a major part of the story.

If the gene is considered to be the carrier of inherited information, then a simple (and often incorrect and misunderstood but widely promoted) conclusion is: having the gene turns the trait “on,” not having it turns the “trait “off.”

Not so.

Research has shown that multiple genes as well as the environment play a role in the manifestation of an organism’s attributes and characteristics.

Where Mendel’s plant discovery was that a gene determines a physical feature (and where our education typically stopped), later work would extend that idea to cover multiple genes and multiple features as well as incorporate additional important factors. Decades of further study brought us to,

This Important Point:  An inherited Genotype + Environment + Triggers + Chance determine an expressed Phenotype 4

The importance and impact of this Point cannot be underestimated (although it continues to be grossly misunderstood). It addresses the observation that identical genomes (i.e., identical twins) develop into dissimilar personhoods with non-identical temperaments, personalities, fates, and choices.

The influence (or lack thereof) of this Point in discussions of one of the most visible, current and active current human concerns, that of breast cancer, deserves special attention. To do that, we need to talk further about genes. An excellent read and source is The Gene by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, from which I have drawn major points including the following pertinent paragraph,

“In humans, a mutant BRCA1 gene (Blog: normally a DNA repair gene) increases the risk for breast cancer – but not all women carrying the BRCA1 mutation develop cancer. Such trigger-dependent or chance-dependent genes are described as having partial or incomplete “penetrance” – i.e., even if the gene is inherited its capacity to penetrate into an actual attribute is not absolute. Or a gene may have variable “expressivity” – i.e., even if the gene is inherited, its capacity to become expressed as an actual attribute varies from one individual to another. One woman with the BRCA1 mutation might develop an aggressive, metastatic variant of breast cancer at age thirty. Another woman with the same mutation might develop an indolent variant; and yet another might not develop breast cancer at all. … You cannot use just the genotype – BRCA1 mutation – to predict the final outcome with certainty.” 5

The effects of Environment, Triggers, and Chance are real and not some set of fudge factors.

Gene Cascades

Important Point:   Individual genes specify individual functions, but the working interrelationships among them, a cascade among genes, allows physiology (including behavior) to develop.

Why we observe the above is also related to the question of “Why multiple genes?” which itself arises from the question, “How can units of heredity (genes) generate the bewildering complexity of organisms?” Once again, for brevity, an important observation from The Gene,

“The answer lies in organization and interaction. A single master-regulatory gene might encode a protein with rather limited function: an on-and-off switch for 12 other target genes, say. But the activity may depend upon the concentration of the protein, and the protein may be layered in a gradient across the body of an organism. It may turn on 12 targets in one part, 8 in another, and 3 in another. These targets may then intersect with other protein gradients and activate/suppress other genes.

By mixing and matching hierarchies, gradients, switches, and circuits of genes and proteins, an organism can create the observed complexity of its anatomy and physiology.” 6

And this Gene Cascade can work in two directions: mutations in a single gene can cause diverse manifestations of disease in diverse organs, as well as the converse: multiple genes can influence a single aspect of physiology.

At this point, in utero, we can simplify the above this way, (only showing the influence on the innate Temperament),

Nature or Nurture?

Critical Point:   The link between Genes, Environments, Triggers, and Chance (the previous Point) confronts the (oft misunderstood) debate that continues to rage: Nature or Nurture, Genes or Environment? The fact is that identity, personality and behaviors are determined by Nature And Nurture, by Genes And Environment, Intrinsic And Extrinsic inputs or forces, but not uniformly.

At the top of the gene cascade Nature works forcefully and unilaterally (e.g., male or female, short or tall, blue eyes or brown). At the bottom of the cascade, in contrast, a straight genetic view fails to satisfy or explain the observed phenotype. 7

The variations that one inherits from one’s parents, mixed and matched, specify variations in cellular and developmental processes that ultimately result in variations in physiological states (phenotypes). If these variations affect master-regulatory genes at the tip of a hierarchy, the effect can be binary (Either/Or) and strong (e.g., male versus female; short statured versus normal height; blond or redhead).

More commonly, however, the gene variations lie in lower rungs of cascades of information and can only cause alterations in what are called propensities, or tendencies. Often, dozens of genes are required to work With each other (Blog: i.e., And/And) to create these propensities or predispositions. 8

What happens next is the combined interaction of Nature With Nurture.


Necessary Point:  Personality refers to acquired individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Personality builds on Temperament through the action of Nature With Nurture.

The propensities or tendencies mentioned above further interact With diverse environmental cues or triggers and chance to affect diverse outcomes – including developing variations in form, function, behavior, personality, and temperament, (Blog: italics mine) identity, and fate, but only by making certain outcomes more or less probable. 9 In other words, this is the course of development of an Individual Culture, described earlier.

Pause for An Observation:   Unfortunately, at this point there is still a gap between the definition of Personality above and the variations that result from interactions with these “diverse environmental cues, triggers, and chance.” So far, if you look carefully, we have been dealing with inanimate molecules, genes, and proteins that result in physiological forms and functions. While not specifically stated, the implication is also present that these “diverse environmental cues, triggers, and chance” are also inanimate forces.

Eureka Point: What is missing or not yet identified, I propose, is a critical aspect of Nurture. By introducing Nurture, we have also introduced agents to supply it, and those agents are cognitive, thinking, decision-making human beings. So critical is this fact that I think it needs to be added to the earlier Genotype Point – the purely human activity of choice,

What should be understood from this is that while a particular Genotype is an inanimate given, the Environment, Triggers, Chance, and Choice can each independently vary in intensity and influence, and they can each result either from inanimate circumstances/forces or from circumstances/forces initiated by another human agent, or both. So our Genotype Point should more realistically look like this,


In other words, Nature With Nurture, in unpredictable proportions.

Now the connection with our Whist rabbit trail above should become clear. We start with what we were dealt (Genotype), react to our Environment, Triggers, and Chance, mix in some Choices based upon Temperament and Personality, and come out with behavior.


Boring but Necessary Point:  Self – a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.

Important Point:  Values – a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.

Really Important Concept & Point:  The Self/Values ratio results from separating all of an individual’s principles and standards into those purely focused on oneself (Self, selfishness) and those focused on others (Values, externally oriented).

The concept of or value of Self that is born into us is primarily directed towards survival (reflexive), with a heavy focus on the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy, before extending to fulfilling other wants and needs (introspection).

While Nature in the Nature-Nurture debate is primarily considered to be our ‘pre-wiring” and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors, Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception (beginning in utero), e.g., the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual. Unfortunately, the influence of choice on Nurture by human agents isn’t mentioned.

Really Important Hypothesis:  When applied to an individual, Nurture is the intentional or unintentional actions (Choices) of parents, family, clan, and tribe (agents) operating in a reasonably small or limited “environmental bubble” to develop these Values. Nurture combined with the other external forces molds their Temperament, develops their Personality, and consequently shapes an individual’s way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Since Culture is basically how people think, this is, in actuality, a Regression to the Cultural Mean, whether intentional or not.

Initially, in infancy, Values are imposed by the external Choices of action by parents and family. Eventually, with development, a child discovers he/she can also choose how to respond to the events around him or her (typically at about age two), and their discovered element of Choice is now thrown into the mix with all of the other behavior choices of people around them.

We don’t often discover until later in life that the behavioral choices made by adult agents around us create not only our values, but the memories, responses, and triggers (baggage) that will later affect our own behaviors in response to events later in life.

At this stage, the combining effects of Genes, Environment, Choices, and Chance can begin to look like this,


Subtle Point:   Integrity is the character attribute, the fortitude to hold to one’s Values, especially in difficult, stressful, or threatening circumstances.

We often blur the concepts of Values and Integrity and misuse the word Integrity to describe someone who holds to externally imposed common societal values (i.e., a cultural mean), but we describe a person who holds to their own (sleeper or hidden) Values as lacking Integrity. It should be taken into consideration that an individual’s fortitude in consistently holding to his/her set of Values shows greater Integrity (though we may disagree with them) than someone who says one thing and does another.

True Integrity is when your Practiced Behaviors align with your Professed Behaviors.

Conclusion, from our Cascade of Points

The shape of our Individual Behavior Curve is not a predetermined aspect of our Nature, our inherited genome. It’s a bit more complex.

While we are most likely unaware of our genotype, our developing physiology is very aware of it. We begin engaging with, or being influenced by, our environment in utero, where parental choices and/or chance events can greatly influence overall development.

After birth, our expanding environment will present both positive and negative influences brought about by choices (parent’s, other’s, ours) as well as chance. These influences can become or create triggers that can affect inanimate physiological responses (e.g., smoking or x-rays leading to cancer) or behavioral responses (e.g., claustrophobia, anger, theft, philanthropy), or both.  Even colors are triggers affecting human behavior.

All this has similarities to the Brazilian view of the Samba: “It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it.” Or, in the case of our Individual Behavior Curve, what others, chance and the environment did to it before some of us realized we needed to choose to take over its development and maintenance.

The reality is that all of the elements in this ongoing process, the combined negative and positive effects of Genes, Environment, Triggers, Chance, and Choice over time, influence and shape our Individual Behavior Curves, similar to the following,

The good news is that life is also an ongoing learning process and, if we choose, we can recognize, adapt, and change the shape of that curve to our (and other’s) benefit.

Why is all of this important? Because our individual behaviors control our future more than any variations in our genes. Genetic variations/mutations are selected over millennia, but cultural and individual variations/mutations, for better or worse, can be introduced and selected in just a few years.

For better or worse, through our behaviors, we will always be agents who influence others.


  1. I couldn’t resist this reference to Donald Rumsfeld’s oft maligned quote. In fact, the four categories of known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns perfectly describe living in a world of Incomplete or Missing Information. Only those who fall under Fundamental Principle 7c (they don’t “get” that they don’t “get” something, but think they do) would continue to propagate their misunderstanding (of the quote and Incomplete Information).
  2. Genes, Dreams, and Realities, M. Burnet, 1971, quoted in The Gene, pp. 379.
  3. E. Turkheimer, quoted in The Gene, pp. 487.
  4. The Gene, pp. 106-7.
  5. The Gene, pp. 107.
  6. The Gene, pp. 195-6.
  7. The Gene, pp. 368-9.
  8. The Gene, 387.
  9. The Gene, 387.


Posted in 04: Games People Play, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 10: Integrity, 11: Growth, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, 16: Culture, 17: Choice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Individual Behavior Curves (Illustrated)

“This idea that there is generality in the specific is of far-reaching importance.” – Douglas R. Hofstadter

In the back of my mind there has always been a quiet nagging question:

Why can’t the Behavior Curve enable us to reproducibly pinpoint a type of behavior? That is, to better predict behavior rather than just recognize it? And, more generally, why does our own (or anyone else’s) particular behavior bounce around during the day?

There must be something missing. No doubt another example of Incomplete Information (Fundamental Principle 6).

As a recap, here’s the original Behavior Curve with a bit more detail,

This Behavior Curve simply indicates how general behaviors change (on an individual level but also more on a generalized communal level) from Building/Adding Value behaviors to the right to surviving or Taking behaviors to the left depending upon how much “Self” is coursing through our minds, either consciously or unconsciously. At the far right of the curve, where one can be well into the Building/Adding Value behavior zone and be more focused on communal Values and the well being of others, there is still a measurable component of “taking care of myself” that is there. No one can be so completely altruistic that they are 100% other- or communal-oriented.

This ever-present component of “Self,” even if it is only 20% or 30% of our subconscious concern, is enough to sway or alter our behavior. Not just longer-term behavior, such as remaining cool, calm, and collected in a mounting crisis, but instantaneous behavior, such as going ballistic at the drop of a hat (be realistic, you’ve experienced this). But the original Behavior Curve doesn’t have the ability to take these influences into account.


I’ve pondered this for quite a while. (You probably already know what I mean by this – not just having somewhat lightly targeted thoughts while driving or listening to a boring talk I cannot escape. No, it occasionally means the unexpected awakening at 3:00 am, sitting bolt upright fumbling for a pencil and Post-It in the dark.)

All that for only a part of a thought.

I’ve had that ‘part’ of an answer for a while. The part that said, ‘You need something that can provide a reasonable (and realistic) explanation or motivation for individual behaviors to swing or move left and right along the curve.’ Yes, that’s right; … something.

Then, it came to me (no, not at 3:00 am. I think while under cruise control somewhere). Not a specific “spot” on the Behavior Curve where one’s “behavior” can be pinpointed, but an additional curve or shape associated with this individual’s “spot” that would permit a “behavioral window” around the “spot” and have some rhyme and reason associated with it.

In an instant the thought came: ‘a Gaussian curve,’ what we also call the normal or bell curve, a distribution or “window” of occurrences when we measure certain events, such as people’s heights.

In the next instant, as I realized I had drifted left out of my lane, I also realized, ‘No, that will not work.’ It only shows a window of what happened and provides no link as to why. It’s also a collection of multiple events and not applicable to one event or person. Not only that, it’s symmetrical, shaped the same to the left and right.

At that moment, three things happened. I realized this other curve needed to be asymmetrical, with a different shape to the left and right; it needed reasons why it could be steep on one side and only gently rising on the other independent of where on the Behavior Curve the individual’s “spot” was; and I drifted right over the rumble strips onto the shoulder.

And there it was (no, not on the shoulder). I knew I had seen it before, and I remembered the why’s for its shape and a possible connection between those why’s and other behavioral aspects that had appeared in earlier posts.

It was a Eureka moment, a very exciting moment (above and beyond my wife’s reaction to the rumble strips). It was also a validation of a basic premise of this blog, about the little known and under-appreciated transferability of knowledge across disciplines.

Rather than risk losing you by revealing the source (we’ll come back to that later, although a few of you may recognize it and start laughing, as I did with the discovery of the original Behavior Curve itself), let’s just move forward and develop the idea, from the general to the specific. Here’s the basic curve that I envisioned –

The General Idea

With a bit of imagination, one can picture an individual’s “normal” behavior resting somewhere near the lowest point on the curve, sort of at the bottom of a ‘well.’ Trying to change their own behavior by moving to the left runs up against a steep wall, but changing it by moving to the right could eventually lead to different behavior involving a lot less effort.

What we can observe, or have experienced ourselves, is that often our behaviors vary depending upon circumstances. Therefore, we should make provision for an individual to have a “range” of behaviors under normal circumstances, sort of like being able to move around while in the “well.” It could look something like this,

The General Idea as an Individual behavior curve, with room for behaviors to “maneuver”

On a typical morning we start the day after a good night’s rest and get up in our default behavior, indicated on the “Equilibrium” line above. Having great expectations for the day, say we’re at Emotional Energy level 1 (E1) above, and our “normal” behaviors can vary left and right on the red line without anyone thinking we’re wacko.

Then, something happens during the day, typically some external force or event. For now, let’s say that is a positive event. Our reaction to that force bumps our Emotional Energy up to, say, E2. Our range of responsive behaviors now broadens along the E2 red line, but is still contained within the bounds of our personal Individual behavior curve. Because it was a positive event, our preferred behavior (represented by the green dot) moves to the right, in a more positive direction.

Depending upon how positive the external event was, we could conceivably move up to E3 or even E4, with an observable shift of our preferred behavior in a significantly more positive direction. (We’ll cover a negative external event in a bit).

So far so good, for we can now propose a potential connection between behavioral variations and positive external influences.

Now comes a bit of a conceptual paradigm shift, because we would like to relate the General Behavior Curve (the original one) to the Individual behavior curve above. To do this I propose taking the Individual behavior curve and superimposing it over the General Behavior Curve. For starters, we’ll superimpose the Equilibrium line from the upper Individual behavior curve on the vertical midline of the General Behavior Curve, where there is a 50/50 balance between Self and Values, and place our “preferred early morning behavior,” the bottom of the “well” below E1, on the blue General Behavior Curve,

The Individual Behavior Curve superimposed over the General Behavior Curve (background)

Now one can more readily visualize, in this simple example of a positive external force or event, how a “range” of individual behaviors (represented by the width of the red line for E1, and projected onto the blue line of the General Behavior Curve underneath using short green lines) could be observed. A bit of minimally “selfish” behavior but predominantly more positive.

One could conceive that, with even stronger positive events or forces, an Emotional Level could increase to E2, E3, or E4, resulting in a broader range extending to even more positive and value adding behaviors.

But what prevents an individual from responding in a highly selfish manner (negative and Taking, to the left on the General Behavior Curve)? What we need now are some realistic reasons for the shape of an Individual behavior curve, and what happens to the left and right of the Equilibrium point.

What I suggest, based on previously proposed ideas, is that the shape of an Individual behavior curve is determined by the nature of an individual’s internal forces, their Temperament, their Personality, the strength of their Values and the strength in their Integrity in holding to their Values in light of an external force.

If the external force is threatening (i.e., it always pushes to the left, to a more self-defensive, selfish and negative) behavior, this will be resisted to the extent of the strength of the individual’s internal forces, including their Values (which are externally oriented) and the strength of holding to them (Integrity). This is indicated by the ‘repulsive forces’ label at the bottom of the diagram below. (From this point forward I’ve moved the Individual behavior curve lower in the diagram for clarity and ease of picturing these two curves working together).

Repulsive Forces: when Values resist external negative forces; Additive forces: when positive external forces complement Values.

If the external force or event is non-threatening or in fact a positive, constructive opportunity (i.e., pushing to the right), then an individual’s internal forces can work in an additive manner with the external event’s force, and movement to the right to more positive, constructive individual behavior will be much easier to achieve (as indicated in the diagram above, to the right of the Equilibrium line).

The Either/Or nature of the forces of an external event, either always pushing to the left in a threatening event or pushing to the right in a non-threatening event, is confronted by the And/And constructive (value-adding, pulling to the right) nature of internal Values.

In other words, the shape of an Individual behavior curve is strongly affected by the individual’s internal forces, their Temperament, Personality, Values (Professed as well as hidden, or sleeper values), as well as the strength of their ability to hold to their values (Integrity). Empathy as a Value no doubt also plays a significant role.

What may encourage individuals to respond in a more positive and altruistic manner (to the right on the General Behavior Curve) will be the additive nature of their internal forces, Values, Integrity, and the non-threatening (to them) nature of the external force or event. Think here of firemen rescuing people from a burning residence, or a broad based response to sending relief or going in person to aid Texas after hurricane Harvey, or Mother Theresa’s life in India.

Thinking more broadly about this concept or paradigm reveals the following realizations, including considering an individual’s response to a negative external event,

-The shape of an Individual behavior curve is not restricted to the ‘generic’ shape given above. In fact, some people might have a much narrower shaped curve; they can be pretty stoic (limited Emotional Energy levels) in their behaviors in most circumstances,

The Stoic

Another individual could demonstrate much broader, more impulsive behaviors that swing wildly at the drop of a hat (gifted with a multitude of Emotional energy levels). These might look like this,

The Impulsive

-An Individual behavior curve need not necessarily be centered at the mid-point of the General Behavior Curve, as presented above. We have all experienced people about whom, if pressed to describe where their Individual behavior curve was positioned, we could respond ‘far to the right’ (greatly serving and/or altruistic), ‘far to the left’ (“Most self-centered person I’ve every encountered. Must avoid”), or somewhere in between,

The Servant

The Self-Centered

-Most importantly, building off the observations above, an Individual behavior curve does not necessarily have to be steep on the left and shallower to the right, as presented. It could just as easily be steep to the right (little interest in serving others or adding value to the community) and shallow to the left (easily sliding deeper into self-serving behaviors rather than adding value to the community, and being more focused on Taking). In this case, one could conceive of the strong forces of “Self” working in tandem with negative external event forces (destructively reinforcing) to result in much more negative behavior,

The Taker

All of these bring together many of the puzzle pieces that have been posted here earlier.

-Our Values are part of the internal forces that will ultimately direct and guide our behaviors. These Values will be built upon our Temperament (our DNA) and our Personality (as molded by parents, family, clan, and tribe). They all contribute to the shape of our Individual behavior curve.

-We all have Baggage, the stuff and experiences that are also internal forces (or dead weights) that will have an even more significant effect in directing and guiding our responses to events in life. These have a way of influencing our Individual behavior curve by distorting it in a negative way. We may also have a strong sense of empathy, which would alter our curve in a more positive way.

-There will always be external forces in life that trigger our responses. These forces can either be threatening (a crisis) or non-threatening (an opportunity), providing us in either case with a choice of how to respond, typically with one of The Two Questions: Who Did This To Me? (Fix the Blame, get defensive, and move to the left), or What Can I Make of This Opportunity? (Fix the Problem, get creative, and move to the right).

Overall, this would give credence to “personality (or behavior) profiles” such as Myers-Briggs, DISC, and others, which do not attempt to pigeon-hole people’s personalities into boxes as commonly thought, but indicate behavioral preferences (based on internal forces), but recognize changes with circumstances (those external forces) without explicitly identifying them.


-We can alter the shape of our Individual behavior curve and its position on the General Behavior Curve to achieve more desirable outcomes. It’s always a Choice, but it takes recognition and effort.

Understanding all this would make it easier to understand and adjust our behaviors to better accomplish what we desire in our families, clans, tribes, communities, and nation.

Understanding this would make it easier to understand and adjust to our spouses and children to better influence their Values, Baggage, and Individual behavior curves.

Understanding this would make it easier to understand and adjust within our organizations to more effectively, efficiently, and more healthily achieve our goals and vision.

What’s your Behavior Curve look like?

And what are you going to do about it?

(Ok, I guess now would be the time to reveal the source of this entire mental exercise, and how I came up with the shape of the curve I felt was needed:

The Bohr model of the hydrogen atom.

Or, more specifically, the potential energy curve of the two hydrogen nuclei in the hydrogen atom (H2) as they formed a covalent bond.

Never thought it would be useful, did you. Laugh if you like.)

Posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 06: Incomplete Information, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, 17: Choice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drifting without an Anchor

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” – Hebrews 11:1

Mulling over that last post on The Next Why gave me time to consider the following:

Given the influence of social media and the Internet, a Dunbar Group is probably no longer adequate to describe our closest relationships.

We should enlarge this idea and refer to it as our Dunbar Bubble (our ~150 closest relationships and our most trusted information sources, neither of which honestly intersect with most of the rest of the world). We are all just floating in our own little “worlds,” just “filter bubbles” jostling against each other. Since economic conditions are flat, the jostling feels like competition for limited “space” rather than, in a growing economy, flowing forward together. Think exiting smoothly from a theater after a performance versus fighting your way in panic through a single exit.

With respect to Trust in the last post, two additional aspects came to mind: Responsibility and Accountability. They are not quite the same, and to confuse things dictionaries use them to define each other in a circular manner, to whit (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary):

Responsibility: the quality or state of being responsible: such as moral, legal, or mental accountability.

Accountability: the quality or state of being accountable, especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. “Public officials lacking accountability.”

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but consider the following:

When driving there is invariably a speed limit, typically set by local or state authorities, as well as a “correct” side of the road. If we were honest we’d have to admit that speed limits are never too high for what we’re comfortable with; they’re always too slow. But they’re there for a reason – the common good, whether that be for a residential area, school zone, construction zone, or narrow lanes with no shoulder or safe exit path. Our responsibility is to those around us as well as ourselves (and theirs for themselves including us), but our accountability, however, is to the agency charged with enforcing the limits – local or state police. Our “loss aversion” instinct tells us there’s not much potential loss for exceeding the speed limit, but it’s whopping if we drive on the “other” side of the road. So we don’t.

Then consider taxes, whether local, state, or federal. Again, these are set by authorities for specific purposes to benefit the common good. However, we are accountable to the tax authorities and the courts if we fail to meet our responsibilities.

In both of these cases, notice the following truths: the imperfect laws were written by imperfect people to spread around responsibility for the common good in as fair a manner as reasonably (conceivably?) possible, and delegate responsibility to each of us individually to faithfully meet them.

And thereby hangs the tale.

Since the laws were written by imperfect people, it follows that the laws are also imperfect – they contain what we call loopholes. And if there’s a loophole, there’ll be a body slipping though it somewhere. In fact, everywhere.

We saw this in a previous post, where studies have shown that with regards to paying taxes, the average individual manages to avoid about 3% of the taxes the law expects them to pay, but the top 0.05% of the population manages to avoid, on the average, about 15% of its obligations.

And on the highway, my observations are that if I am going 70 mph in a 70 mph zone (with cruise control and a tracking GPS indicating 70 mph), about 90% of the traffic, including trucks, is flying by. Except, of course where there are police, which I know about because a majority of those people who flew by me have forewarned me by posting a “Report” on Waze. And all but a few oblivious drivers slow down.

Why do we do this? (Sorry, apparently there are still more Whys?)

If we look into the Behavior Curve it should become a bit clearer.

The Behavior Curve simply indicates how our behavior changes (on a communal level, from constructive or building on the right, to surviving, to destructive or taking on the left) depending upon how much “Self” is coursing through our minds, either consciously or unconsciously. At the far right of the curve, well into the constructive behavior zone and being more focused on the well being of others, there is still a measurable component of “taking care of myself” that is there. No one can be so completely altruistic that they are 100% other-oriented.

And this ever-present component of “Self,” even if it is only 20% or 30% of our subconscious concern, is enough to sway or alter our behavior. Why?

Because, even if we are Givers (to the right) and not Takers (to the left) and feel we are constantly in a “serving others” mode, it is sometimes virtually impossible not to hold ourselves accountable to – ourselves. No matter how hard we try.

I’m a little late and there isn’t much other traffic on the road, and there’s no indication that there are police around to “hold me accountable,” so I’ll be accountable to myself and speed up to make up time.

And I’ll pad my charitable mileage deduction because it still costs me the same to drive as it does for business, and look what I’m contributing so that the government doesn’t have to step in. Besides the fact I deserve it and am ultimately accountable to me, the IRS will never waste time to identify something that small….

So, here’s the outcome: so long as we are living a world focused on the here and now and our responsibilities can be associated with a common here and now good, defined by imperfect laws or expectations that have been written or created by and will be enforced by imperfect people, there will always be a possible and probable recourse to Self. Sometimes admirable, sometimes despicable, but always depending upon stresses, forces, or crisis circumstances, the magnitude of this accountability may vary, but it is there. Because we, too, are imperfect people.

Two simple but recent examples come to mind.

The producer of The Crown (Netflix, 13 Emmy nominations), Peter Morgan, expressed the following (Variety),

… he appreciated that Netflix was as good as their word in their promise of creative freedom. “There is slightly a promised land, except that I feel a greater sense of responsibility perhaps,” he says. “I recognize that this is a golden opportunity, and I think writers and directors have yearned for and fought for this level of autonomy. So that when you actually get it, I feel a sense of collective responsibility. I feel the weight of my colleagues on my shoulders. Because if I overspend and get it wrong … [If I] make a show and don’t get it right, they’ll want to interfere more to secure their own investment. And I want to show that artists can be trusted. Financially and creatively.”

Here is recognition of responsibility, first to Netflix, for meeting their expectations, financial as well as creative, and second a collective responsibility to creative colleagues. Then there follows accountability to himself in terms of creative expectations. This is a socially admirable “self-accountability” and, judging by the results, well achieved.

Then consider the volunteer rescuers for Hurricane Harvey, part of a “whole-community response” that FEMA has moved towards since Hurricane Katrina, recognizing volunteer rescuers as a valuable resource to make use of. Craig Fugate, former head of FEMA, said (The Atlantic),

“It’s something that responders, whether they’re in the private sector, or they’re volunteer, or they’re in government—it’s this compelling nature that, I want to help them because it makes me feel good. The more I do for them, the better I feel. But, it’s not good for them!” Fugate said. “It doesn’t really make sense to people: But they need us! They need help. But they also need to be in control.”

There is this compelling nature, a responsibility for the common good, but there is also a recognizable accountability to self, doing something that makes one feel good (and possibly also regaining some control). While a bit self-serving, it’s only slightly self-serving considering the contribution made to all those rescued.

One would have a hard time criticizing people for being this “selfish” in these two circumstances, but one can recognize a respectable accountability to Self in each case. We admire them, even though Self benefits to a certain degree.

I think the disappearance of Trust described last time should be viewed as the unintended consequence, the long building result of the overt removal of prayer from public places, coupled with the consequential and more covert slow decrease in open respect for religion and faith in a higher power.

The Behavior Curve considers only Values and Self in its construction. But when one removes or minimizes the highest external driving force that established these fundamental values, then values begin to “float” and become determined primarily by the here and now and the social Dunbar Bubble of culture that dominates one’s life. This “floating” happens because one has also removed the highest external focus of one’s accountability for these values, and replaced it with an internal, relative one.

Instead of God, it is now Self.

Yes, but… research from the Pew Research Center indicates that ~90% of Americans believe in God to some degree.

If that is the case, at whatever level that “belief” is, it apparently doesn’t do a very good job in influencing Values, which then translate into Attitudes, which by Choice then become those rather overt selfish Practiced Behaviors everyone observes. Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice.

The truth is, belief in God at any level doesn’t translate very well into “Godly” behaviors, and not just in the US.  Research shows (Pew Research Center) that in Eastern Europe belief in God is quite high, but because the Orthodox Church does not emphasize translating doctrine into daily behaviors affecting interpersonal relationships, practiced behavior has for centuries focused on simple survival and preventing further personal “losses.”

It seems over the world there are very different levels of “belief,” ranging from a Consumer level (nominal belief), a Culture level (participatory belief), to a Commitment level (Practiced Behaviors actually based on Values) (here).  Historically, it seems religious organizations haven’t done a very convincing job of explaining to people “why they are still here.”

Apparently the key is not just belief in a higher power, but accepting that external higher power as the anchor for one’s values, the focus of one’s accountability, and the source of one’s behaviors.

Rather than holding oneself accountable to external here and now authorities (police, organizational management, the IRS, our subculture) only when they are really present, one understands accountability is to one’s internal values as established by an external and ever-present Authority: a proper understanding of an ongoing relationship with God. And therefore because one chooses to hold oneself accountable.

Why will this become even more important to understand?

At the moment most of us still work for organizations that operate within a location and hierarchical framework. We have an office (or if we telecommute, there is an office somewhere to which we are connected), have a manager, and probably work within a team. We have connectivity, and we execute our responsibilities understanding we are accountable to something in the here and now, something tangible, external, and measurable: management, a strategic plan, goals.

(Even if we excel at tangible objectives and goals and contribute significant value added to the organization and customers (and are tangibly rewarded for this), the Behavior Curve shows that there is a still small but significant need to provide for the Self. This is where recognition, gratitude, and unexpected appreciation play a significant role. Ignoring this intangible need probably contributes significantly to the fact that ~60% of employees dislike their jobs and/or their bosses.)

According to experts, how will this change in the near future? Here are some thoughts from Dr. Bob Johansen as expressed in his book, The New Leadership Literacies, and shared recently on the Leadership Freak blog,

Ten years from now, you could be a leader in a distributed organization. It will have no center, it will grow from the edges, and it won’t be controllable.

Hierarchies will come and go in shape-shifting forms resembling a swirl. Rock-star leaders will be rare.

In our increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, simple will be great, but simplistic will be dangerous.

“How do you thrive?”

In a new world such as this, for both leader and subordinates, where the traditional here and now external accountability anchors have disappeared or been significantly altered, where will people’s anchors drift to?

They will drift to the only currently “admired” alternative, the internal anchor we call Self, and the slow behavior slide we’ve seen over the last 50 years will accelerate.

We can almost formulate another Fundamental Principle here, that of the Conservation of Accountability:

Accountability to (Godly Values, Organization, Subculture, Self) = 1

As you eliminate the anchors to the left, you are eventually only left with the last remaining anchor: Self.

We can see the negative effects of this already when monitoring the shifts in higher education to more online classes where the success of collaborative projects often depends upon team members who are dispersed all over the country and who never meet face-to-face. Invariably there arise more “slackers” (self-serving agendas supersede the common good) than “workhorses” (very capable 2nd in commands), and fewer “saviors” (those who drive themselves and the project to completion with excellence, with a side dish of personal satisfaction).

What’s Your Anchor?

It is the “nature” of Human Nature that, looking at the Behavior Curve, our Human Nature acts like gravity and pulls us to the left, down the slippery slope towards greater accountability to Self, and thus towards more potentially destructive behavior. History doesn’t record many individuals who have overcome this gravity and moved up the curve to the right. Too altruistic, and, according to philosophers and psychologists, not a natural human characteristic or behavior.

The capability to think and behave in a constructive way must be instilled and reinforced from outside. By parents, family, clan, tribe, subculture, by those who already possess enough of this attribute. Believing in God isn’t enough. Understanding and accepting His expectations and choosing to hold oneself accountable to live by them is a good start.

Then we could expect to see a revival of our common Necessary: Trust, at first within our Dunbar Bubble, then our community, then in our culture, and finally in our country. And then we might constructively influence the rest of the world.

Trust is the belief in Behaviors for a Common Good, the expectation of things not yet seen.


Posted in 09: Doing, 10: Integrity, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Next Why

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep not getting what you’ve always not gotten, but always desperately wanted.” – Anonymous, updated.

After the last post, The Myth of Meritocracy?, I still had a feeling that something remained, that something was lurking even further below the thread of failed expectations. There was ample agitation expressed in the article that, even with countering the “myth” idea, there was more.

One aspect is that, in spite of failed expectations that arise from easily identified external forces, such as favoritism, bias, unexpected competition, and, of course, the myth of meritocracy, there is also the ever present contribution from internal forces, the unexpected consequences from our own choices (or lack of them), the lack of adequate preparation, and the failure to recognize weaknesses and poor skills. It’s these internal forces that we often fail to recognize, and probably more often consciously choose to ignore. ‘Nothing I did contributed to my failing to get chosen.”

But this would not explain the level of discontent, of anger. The preference to fix the blame on outside forces, other people or circumstances would occur about 80% of the time even in the best of circumstances (the Behavior Curve doesn’t take external circumstances under consideration). But this type of behavior appears to have grown beyond what one would expect, even if one took the slow recovery after the 2008 recession into account.

There seems to be something else that affects this behavior, a deeper root that has not yet been uncovered. Or, perhaps because of Political Correctness, we’re refusing to try to identify one. Thus, I began to ask another Why?

The Next Why?

(Note added months after the original post: I apologize. I originally thought this would be The Last Why, but after months passed along with some later posts, I realized that, no, it was not The Last Why, it was clearly only The Next Why, followed by a number of others.  I trust that whets your curiosity).

Two generations ago one could freely hitchhike, even cross country, could start up a relaxed conversation with strangers on a plane (I once got to hold a crying baby for a four hour flight after she fell asleep in my arms), on a bus, or on a street corner, could leave our cars and our homes unlocked at night or when we were not home, could let our children play outside in fields or woods with friends or new acquaintances for hours unsupervised, and could simply drop off our children for childcare. Trust was pretty much assumed in society.

Now, virtually none of these is possible. Trust is no longer a staple of American culture. We’ve devolved to be like the rest of the world.

It does not even manifest itself in Congress (see photo).

(Aaron Baggenstos photographed these bald eagles (symbols of American government and cultural strength and unity) for the Audubon Photography Awards)

The only reliable trust appears to be confined to our families and our individual Dunbar Group – the ~150 people with whom we have the closest relationship and the most mutual influence. Where we once enjoyed the affirming “Trust, but confirm,” we now practice the disaffirming “Untrustworthy, unless proven otherwise.”

A great deal of this mistrust is reinforced by the vast amounts of conflicting information propagated by these new technological platforms of communication (social media, the web), but we continue to tap into them in the search for something trustworthy. Our intuitive sense of trust has been betrayed by the more open and amplified self-preserving behaviors we observe around us. These are no longer the unusual; they have become more the norm. Why?

One issue is that we’ve forgotten that Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice. Another is that we’ve presumed that Values, rather than be intentionally taught, will develop by absorption, will be learned vicariously from our subculture and extended society, including these self-same social media. We’ve abdicated Effort.

As a consequence we’ve become more risk adverse with Trust, especially with persons outside our close-knit Dunbar Group. We’ve become more cautious and defensive. While each of us have the capability (Choice plus Effort) to behave in the upper 20% of the Behavior Curve (the constructive taking of initiative, adding value, being “Other” focused, “Giving”), we’ve defaulted to the lower 80% of the curve where the intuitive response is some measure of “Taking” by “Looking Out For #1,” where the only question asked is, “Who did This To Me?” (or its immediate precursor, “What is (S)He going to try to do to me?”

How did we end up openly abdicating Effort?

A majority of people fails to appreciate the connection between their Practiced Behaviors and their Prevalent Attitudes, which are built upon deep-seated Values, whether these are fully recognized or hidden (“Sleeper Values”). And these Values, the deep-seated ones, are taught from a young age, or caught from the wider environment (our subculture, through the Behavior Continuity), and are built on our underlying belief system.

This subtle erosion of Trust, I suggest, began when our primary values-forming belief system began to be discredited.

Once intellectuals (the thinkers) decided that belief in a system of faith in a higher power was unfounded and untenable (it couldn’t be proven by their standards), it followed that “imposition of personal beliefs on someone else” was politically incorrect. It was also concluded that it was in violation of the concept of separation of church and state, and thus any “group practice” of personal beliefs and practices outside of a faith organization was verboten. The irony of this is, that by claiming it was politically incorrect to force young, impressionable children to practice someone else’s beliefs, they forced young, impressionable children to accept their beliefs. (Sigh).

By stripping away the foundation of theirUnnecessaries” (faith, prayer and other practices), the door was opened for the unintended consequence of slowly eroding everyone’sNecessary”: Trust.

Where there was once high public regard for one’s faith and religious beliefs, it is now much more common to express this only in private. What has become much more public is open disregard if not disbelief that people still “believe in that sort of thing.”

The inevitable and visible consequence of this has been a slow slide down a slippery slope, to the left on the Behavior Curve where Self is of the highest importance. An individual’s and a subculture’s only available response in most situations has become choosing the defensive Question #1 and acting on it – Fixing The Blame.

So it appears that these are the steps to the Root Issue:

  1. If you don’t get what you want (“I want it all, and I want it now” 1), Fix the Blame; because
  2. It can’t be anything you did, or couldn’t do; because
  3. Now you feel violated, and it feels better to defend yourself against the world; because
  4. You can’t trust them, they’re just out to Take something from you; because
  5. There aren’t enough trustworthy people anymore to pursue Question #2 (“What can I make from this Opportunity?”); because
  6. They are supposed to extend Trust and Respect to you first, but they didn’t; because
  7. They value themselves (Self-oriented Takers) over you; because
  8. Everyone’s primary, healthy other-oriented values-forming belief system has been undermined, so that
  9. Values have been left to be absorbed from one’s surroundings, from which you learned to
  10. Return to Step 1;

Easy Peasy. Just not Politically Correct.

(1 Queens’ lyrics, especially these, are so culture-appropriate that they have been used in a large number of commercials, documented here)

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

The Myth of Meritocracy?

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” – Anonymous

One subtle thread that was present in the last post, It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too, has begun to show up elsewhere. Perhaps it is the summer heat that causes blood and other thoughts to flow more freely. Or, a distorted economy.

That thread has more to do with failed (or failing) expectations, and this time it honed in on the concept of meritocracy. In The Perils of Meritocracy the idea is professed that it is all a myth, a conclusion circulating because there are some people who don’t succeed or even get on the “mobility escalator.”

This is a puzzle, as I have both experienced meritocracy in action, and also experienced it in action.

Let me clarify: I have experienced it both in action when I was selected from amongst a group of candidates because of demonstrated skills and experience, and also in action when I was not selected, was disappointedly passed over and knocked off the moving escalator. I would like to think I subsequently demonstrated another valuable attribute, having the wisdom not to fix the blame on a lousy or non-existent system or favoritism, but to pursue the unanticipated opportunity that presented itself.

Indeed, favoritism occurs, and it very likely contributes to the Peter Principle, but not every defeat is due to bias or favoritism.

The evidence and experiences of others, now able to be widely propagated via new technological platforms and expressed in the article, did raise my curiosity. And I took this as another opportunity – to raise the question, Why? After all, I sensed there was a nugget of truth in the discussion, just most likely buried under a cacophony of complaints and finger pointing.

The first Why: Why is the conclusion reached that the sharing of negative experiences on these new platforms has introduced an alternate notion of meritocracy: that it is yet another myth about America, similar to the notion that it is the 20% who are oppressing everyone, not the 1%?

Perhaps one clue is an assumed premise in the article,

The myths live on, though, for the same reason myths often will: They ratify a deeply held value in American culture. They allow us denizens of the current moment to hold onto one of the most beloved ideas that has animated Americans’ conception of themselves – ourselves – as a culture over the decades and centuries: that we live in a meritocracy. That our widely imitated and yet idiosyncratic take on democracy has been built, and continues to rest, on a system that ensures that talent and hard work will be rewarded. That the American dream is real, and enduring.

What means, “rewarded”? Is it attaining what we seek, what we want? Having our expectations met? Or is it having the opportunity to pursue it, regardless of the outcome? The former seems to be based more on the assumption of “Equal Success” while the latter more on “Equal Opportunity.”

One should reconsider that “… talent and hard work will be rewarded” doesn’t always mean you will win, but that you get to stay on the playing field. Or perhaps change arenas.

While the article would use these widely shared experiences to expose the idea that theoretical meritocracy is a myth, that it doesn’t exist at all, these same experiences actually shed additional light on practical meritocracy – to bring its reality into sharper focus.

Yes, it exists. And yes, it doesn’t always work perfectly. If it did, we wouldn’t have the Peter Principle to talk about. We want to believe that opportunity is equally distributed. But it’s not.

So, there are a couple of nuggets.  Once again, Why?

Perhaps it is time for a sidebar, a little excursion into Life’s Journey that everyone experiences, whether we recognize it or not.

From my experience and observations, there’s a general pattern in life that can be reduced to the following:

Skills + Recognition + Challenge + Response + Development/Practice + Demonstration +

Opportunity + Adaptability Success

  1. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is born with some innate Skills, Talents, and Gifts
  2. Sometimes an individual recognizes their own skills, talents, and gifts, but
    more often someone else will Recognize these
  3. The individual Challenges him/herself to develop the skills, talents, and gifts, or
    also more often someone else Challenges the individual to develop them
  4. There is some form of individual Response to the Challenge
  5. Time is spent in Developing and Practicing the skills, talents, and gifts
  6. The developed/developing skills, talents, and gifts are Demonstrated, observed & evaluated in action
  7. An Opportunity arises to put the skills, talents, and gifts into practice
  8. With the opportunity also arises the need to show Adaptability to a changing environment

Every Success has followed this path, but not everyone following this path ultimately reaches success. (Side note: the same path is also used by people with negative skills to achieve what is success in their eyes – becoming Takers).

And here, another Why?

It turns out there are two additional factors that, typically, are rarely taught though they might be caught. You either pick them up on your own, or you miss them.

Let me provide a hint by recasting the above path as follows, with a subtle change:

Skills  Recognition  Challenge Response Development/Practice Demonstration

Opportunity Adaptability Success

The two additional factors are hidden, if not buried, at every step in each of the bigger “s” above and they are very important. They are:

  • Choice – whether self-motivated choice based on one’s internal values, or motivated by external values from family, subculture, or others,

followed by:

  • Effort – action, either self-motivated by desire, or imposed by others.

These two are coupled; they only work when they are practiced together – if you come to a fork in the road and choose “left” but don’t go left, you are going to be at the fork a long time.

Included in Choice is also the need for a developed skill of decision-making. Without it, one is just flipping a coin.

Back to the article,

We want to believe that talent will triumph, and that hard work will be the tool of success. Which is to say: We want to believe that opportunity is evenly distributed.

While we may want to believe this, I agree that, in reality, this is not the case. Unfortunately, opportunities do not always fall randomly and equally in our laps. They become truly available only if we Recognize them and Choose to Respond to them (steps 2, 3, and 4 above).

Unfortunately, the article falls into the Either/Or trap and intentionally wanders off course adding a bit of unnecessary blame fixing, albeit second-hand,

But of course, that great escalator is far faster for some than it is for others. It is harder for some to get to in the first place than it is for others. And it’s been that way from the beginning: This country, as Walker put it, “was constructed on a racialized hierarchy.” It’s a hierarchy that remains today – one that is evident, in ways both obvious and insidious, across American culture, across the American education system, across the American housing system, across the American economy.

It is true, unfortunately, that one still encounters bias across America. This is another nugget.  But that does not mean that all or even most instances of failure to move up a ladder are due to oppression from above (be they the 20% or the 1%) or bias outside one’s control.

Not every defeat is due to bias and not every offense is due to racism. To take unfortunate examples and reframe them as the rule is the unintended consequence of fallacious Either/Or thinking.

Hollywood makes a lot of movies. Why are there no movies that follow the plot line: boy discovers skill; boy develops skill; boy pursues dream; boy gets shot down or beat up; boy goes home in defeat and dies; The End? No: boy learns; boy recovers with renewed intent; boy overcomes. (Rocky I, II, III, IV, V; Finding Forester; The Pursuit of Happyness, etc.). If meritocracy was a myth and only perseverance was needed, Hollywood has been making the wrong movies.  (To be fair, movies are now being made with female heroines going through the similar plot lines. However, it is still culturally unacceptable to shoot, beat up, bloody, blow up, or kill female roles. As said, opportunity is not equally distributed.)

Society does have the responsibility to create additional Opportunity in the first 4 steps in the path above, which is a program that Jamie Dimon describes on LinkedIn. But real impact will be achieved when Recognition and Response are instilled well before students come out of college. It must also begin much earlier, with families, clans, and tribes (subcultures) instilling appropriate values, expectations, motivation, and tenacity to pursue this path, rather than choosing to focus the blame elsewhere.

The honest truth is that within every demographic group or population, there are four distinct behavior groups:

  • The Unable – those who don’t have sufficient skills (they drew up DNA “short” somewhere; they didn’t choose this, but they are “poor” in some arena)
  • The Unwilling – those who have skills but lack motivation to develop them (the result of choice, either inherent or imposed)
  • The Unaffirmed – those who have skills, motivation, and put in the effort but came up short somewhere or sometime (maybe the wrong skills; maybe the wrong application; maybe the 2nd best candidate; maybe the victim of a “hierarchy” or favoritism. The latter should not be occurring, but it is not the only reason people fall into this group)
  • The Underappreciated – those who have skills, motivation, accomplishments, and achieve some measure of success (often with an insufficient amount of gratitude and recognition; even these must learn to recognize there will always be resistance and jealousy and develop a thicker skin and press on)

Realistically speaking, most of us probably fall into the last category (after all, why do 70% of employees dislike or hate their jobs), and, if we would admit it, we can identify different areas or skills where we would actually fall in each of the four categories at one time or another.

One Last Thing

So, Why is meritocracy accused of “not working”? One fact commonly ignored is that,

Meritocracy is applied by imperfect humans to imperfect humans in an imperfect world.

One of those imperfections is the inability, or unwillingness, to accept our share of responsibility for our contribution, no matter how small, to a resulting stressful state of events. These are the situations where we invariably have a Response – we pose one of The Two Questions,

  1. Who Did This To Me? (which leads to a poverty or victim mentality that tries to Fix the Blame), or
  2. What Can I Make of This Opportunity? (which is a forward-facing, success oriented response),

and then we apply the Big “”: once we Choose one question, we then Act on it.

Responding with one of The Two Questions is not new; it’s an age-old phenomenon that derives from the Behavior Curve, our survival instincts, and a little cultural incentive. It’s contributed to cultural upheavals since man could document them.

What to Do

Education and training might help all this, but the foundation starts even earlier. Talking to your kids about values, hard work, expectations, and race appropriately and early.

Lila MacLellan spoke to an educator about the best way to start the conversation about race with kids. For example, many well-meaning parents (most likely white parents) assume that by avoiding the topic of race, their children will grow up not “seeing” it. But psychological studies have shown that’s not true: Even small children form ideas about race (vicarious learning), often by absorbing all the wrong messages from their environment (Regression, or even Coercion, to the Cultural Mean).   All too often Cultural Means are distorted, incomplete, self-serving and self-perpetuating.

It starts internally with the values and expectations established at a young age, before school, in the home. And it is molded by the “Village” one grows up in. External programs might help, but only if they are applied on a firm foundation.

Without the intentional setting of firm foundation that looks intentionally, healthily, and realistically to opportunity, our behaviors will continue following the established pattern. The Behavior Curve shows that in a stressful situation or crisis, ~80% of people respond with the first question, “Who did This To Me?” with a not surprising outcome.   Perhaps the last nugget of truth is that the lead-in quote should more correctly be,

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep not getting what you’ve always not gotten, but always desperately wanted.”

Posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too.

“What’d I do, officer?” – Me. “Breathing while ‘well-to-do.’ ” – The Income Police.

Busted! Or at least strongly accused. Or possibly run off the road by vigilantes. Whatever the case, the headline grabbed my attention.

The title read, “It’s not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too,” for an article by Jamie Peck in The Guardian. I am aware of the widening “income” gap between the upper middle class and the middle class and various rationales for why this has been happening. I just hadn’t come across any attempts to pin it on a broader swath than just the 1%, or the more generic “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” I took the bait. I clicked.

The first thing I learned is that this is a short opinion piece about a larger opinion piece, the book Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves (which I haven’t read, relying here on my best secondary source, Jamie Peck).

Reeves defines the upper middle class as those earning $120,000 a year or more (whew, that leaves me out. Never made that cut once. But, I wonder, is that for individuals or couples?). According to Reeves, not only is this group widening the gap in income with those below them, but they are also hoarding opportunities in a way that makes it difficult for any outsiders (or below-ers, I guess) to climb into it. No argument on the first claim, but that second one needs some scrutiny.

It seems the argument originates from Reeves’ (and Peck’s) assumption, paralleling the majority of the media and politicians, that life and the American economy (or any economy for that matter) is purely a Zero-Sum game. That there are only so many good jobs, spots in elite colleges, and tony area codes to go around. If someone else gets one, then you don’t.

The identified flaw, apparently, is not that there is direct classism, but rather that the upper middle class use their privileged state to give their children a head start (nice choice of words, there, I think) and set them up to succeed from the beginning, from well funded schools through to nice internships, “because of who they know.” (Peck adds, “only the upper crust can afford to do unpaid internships,” apparently forgetting that many a successful corporate executive or CEO began in the mailroom, some only after arriving as an immigrant with only a few dollars in their pockets. I sense that the word “initiative” is not in either of their vocabularies.)

“By the time they enter the job market, they have considerable advantages over everyone else. And then they inherit vast sums of wealth. All the while, they use the myth of meritocracy to justify their position.”

Wow. I feel as if I have been slapped in the face with a dead fish (one that, apparently, also took the click bait). A couple of quick thoughts:

  • “…they have considerable advantages…” Highly likely to be true. However, most of these advantages consist of a series of sequential events:
    1. They had certain skills and talents;
    2. Someone recognized these and challenged them to develop them;
    3. They chose to respond to the challenge;
    4. They demonstrated these developing skills, and received feedback from superiors;
    5. They received recommendations from people with proven skills in recognizing credible talent (i.e., not family members);
    6. They then moved into a competitive environment where they not only had to continue to demonstrate these skills (i.e., produce); but
    7. Then had to demonstrate the ability to further develop and execute new skills, levels of proficiency and good decision-making (i.e., adapt and grow).

From my experience, this sequence is like a chain – break the chain at any link and you go back and either start over or start earlier. Or you give up and don’t. It’s called Performance Gravity.

Those “high incomes” referred to? They are primarily attained when one reaches the seventh step, not when one starts somewhere in the first four steps.

  • “…And then they inherit vast sums of wealth.”Not likely to be true at all (perhaps this is another form of emotional clickbait to induce one to read further). Not only is this not true of the upper 20%, it is not true of the 1%, and may only be true of the 0.1%, at best. I’ll return to this later. The remark seems to imply that we are now subject to class overlords similar to the landed aristocracy of earlier centuries in Britain (and elsewhere). There is ample discussion of the minimal influence of the idea of inherited wealth in America in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
  • “… they use the myth of meritocracy to justify their position.”Yes, there is always some form of “old boy club” involved in climbing up the career ladder, only today we call it “networking” and develop software and get-togethers to make sure we are connected. But even the “networking” follows the seven steps above to a high degree. In retrospect, I can say that more than 80% of my career moves occurred through a relationship with someone I knew (“networked” with) professionally. However, in all of those cases their impression of me was due to validating me through the “sequence of events” mentioned above. And in the other 20% of career moves, I had to validate the sequence myself.

Moving on to the article’s next paragraph,

“On a micro level, these behaviors are understandable. What parent wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure the best possible life for their children? But carried out on a mass level, they lead to what Reeves characterizes as a “less competitive economy, as well as a less open society”.

Hmmm. Another feint followed by a slap. If I understand this correctly, what is expressed is that for each of us, as parents with children, this behavior is acceptable, a form of Survival of the Fittest, or One against the World. But if a whole lot of people, acting as individuals who independently develop and practice the same skills and behaviors “on a mass level”, then it is more or less a conspiracy and intentional oppression of those who have not developed the behavior. Interesting. It’s as if when two or more people gather together with similar behaviors, they become Takers perpetrating a Negative Sum Game on the rest of the world. I suspect there is also something missing here, but I will return to this below.

“While it might feel good to hate these people and/or convince them to hate themselves for hoarding all those dreams, that’s not ultimately going to solve anything.”

Ok, so I think I’ve been whipsawed from “understandable” and commendable behaviors (“What parent wouldn’t …”), to the unintended consequences of these behaviors (“… they lead … to a less competitive economy…”), to outright accusation of intentional oppression (“… convince them to hate themselves for hoarding all those dreams …”).

Now I’m beginning to detect a fly in the ointment. To whit,

“Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position but a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.) It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political.”

And there she is, still wiggling. Consider this,

  • “Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position, …” (Oh, thank heavens. I was really beginning to think …)  Yes, there is inequality, but data suggest it is not as wide a gap as in other countries nor is it as polarized as presented. And one traditionally designates a “class” by birth characteristics, not by chosen accomplishment or earned characteristics. To do so creates a wider chasm between “them” and “us” (whoever “them” is). But since this sentence has been crafted in an absolute form, let me counter with one crafted from the other side of the coin, one with more than a hint of validity but scrupulously avoided because it is not PC, “Rampant inequality is also contributed to by another class of people not doing exactly what anyone would do in their position …” More on this below.
  • “… but a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.)” (Gee, it’s nice now to clarify that one shouldn’t hate the player after such an excellent job of fixing the blame on him up to this parenthetical remark.)  Yes, there is a political and economic system, in fact, possibly two. One, which is generally passive, provides a framework of freedom and opportunity for an individual to develop and become the best that they can be (“develop” here directly implies motivation and the exertion of energy. Like most competitive games, it requires learning the rules and how to play by them well. And ethically.). The other system, layered on top of the first, is an active system that either provides various forms of “help” that very often incentivize and enable the recipients not to do exactly what any motivated person would do in their position, or imposes forms of “obstruction” or “punishment” for those who do what any motivated person would do in their position, and succeed at it.
  • “It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political.”  And that, of course, is the next logical conclusion once one has first decided that the individual plays no role (except when they are successful) and second, that the current 2nd political and economic system has not sufficiently corrected the issue. This is right out of the playbook written by Daniel Moynihan, which appears in The Central Liberal Truth,

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

This is a perfect example of Either/Or thinking. Actually, the greater truth is that both views are right to an extent, and both approaches are needed to change a culture, starting with the individual.

Closing thoughts and other comments pushed to “More on this below”

One basic question that came to mind early on was, “What income sources were included in the $125,000 income cutoff used to define the Upper Middle Class?” Is it only earned income (income from labor, working any job), or does it also include unearned income (income from investments and other capital, for example). The question is actually critical. I will presume the data arise from US Census and tax data, which would mean it includes both.

At the same time the same data would show that a preponderance of the capital that produces unearned income is concentrated in the upper 50% of the population. This raises the next basic question, “Why?”

First, data indicate that 80% of the English speaking world does not feel comfortable with math at all, especially in their finances. Further, 2/3rds of English speaking people cannot explain compound interest (the process by which deposited money grows with time because interest is reinvested – the Time Value of Money).1 As a consequence, the majority of the population is at odds not only with managing their monthly finances, but planning for the future as well.

Thinking a bit more broadly, I also suspect the following would be easily shown:

  • All people are born with certain gifts, skills and talents (potential);
  • Some people have these gifts recognized by family members or others, who then attempt to stimulate and develop them as needed life skills (capabilities);
  • Still fewer of these people are motivated (choose) to respond to the challenge of developing these skills and putting them to use (opportunities) with an eye to the future (success);
  • Others are not motivated (do not choose) to respond and develop them, and pass that attitude on (unintended consequence).

So, what might be a different factor in “income” and/or “wealth” inequality than is typically recognized?

How about: Choice. And in particular, either seeking and choosing to respond to opportunities, or choosing not to respond and leaving that as one’s legacy.

Supporting that idea is the article, America’s new tobacco crisis: The rich stopped smoking, the poor didn’t. Everyone has access to the same information on the link to cancer and health, so why would the poor, with limited income, spend $8 a pack on a dangerous habit? It’s not as if they haven’t been exposed to the information, the notification by the Surgeon General. So there must be a strong element of Choice, modified by a sense of belonging to a familiar group (a “poverty clan”) and needing to follow in the group’s behaviors, that is: Regression to the Cultural Mean.

Another distorted phenomenon is participation in state lotteries and dealing with winning. Research has shown that the majority of people who participate in state lotteries are those who can least afford it: a majority of players are below the average income. The chance to win big to close that money gap is far easier to comprehend (and choose) than understanding the risks and the near non-existent chance of winning. To top it off, even if someone wins, there’s a 70% chance they will burn through all of their winnings within 5 years, regardless of the amount (into millions). Lotteries do not buy happiness, nor financial savvy. This is so common that companies exist that will buy back a lottery annuity to bail people out of the deeper financial difficulty they put themselves into through not being able to manage their new found wealth.

How about this recent article, “Wealth managers are the driving force behind global inequality, according to a sociologist of the ultra-rich.” This deals more with those who are not playing the game by the rules, in this case ethically paying one’s fair share of taxes. Tax evasion was studied in 18 countries and the results indicated that there is a section of society that hoards and effectively oppresses the rest of the world by forcing them to carry more than their fair share of the tax burden. Graphically, these are the results from the article,

One needs to look carefully at the graph, particularly the horizontal x-axis: it is not linear. “P0-10” means “from 0% to 10%.” The segments to the left are in deciles, that is, lowest 10%, then the next 10%, etc., for the first 9 tick-marks up to the 90th percentile. Then the percentiles change: 90%-95%; then 95%-99%; then 99%-99.5%. What is important is that it is only those above the 99.95% percentile (the upper 0.05%) who evade taxes above the macro average of everybody else. It isn’t the 20%, or even the 1% who are hoarding! It’s the 0.05%!

Or, how about “14-year-old Warren Buffett’s first tax return shows he was making bank even as a teen.” He paid $7 in taxes on $592.50 of income in 1944. Included in that income was $228 in interest and dividend income – in other words, as a teenager, in the lower deciles of “income” and “wealth” (i.e., if considered a single wage earner he would be below the poverty level), he already knew about unearned income and chose to pursue it!

Buffett also declares in his interview and press release, that “My 2015 return shows adjusted gross income of $11,563, 931. My deductions totaled $5,477,694, of which allowable charitable contributions were $3,469,179.  … The total charitable contributions I made during the year were $2,858,057,970, of which $2.85 billion were not taken as deductions and never will be.”

One can play ethically by the rules, do very well, and put more back into aiding society and the poor than most government programs end up doing. This is more the rule than the exception, unbeknownst to most.

And speaking of government programs, consider, “Despite money and effort, homelessness in SF as bad as ever.” Despite all the money spent directly addressing homelessness ($275 million in 2016), the problem is as bad as ever in San Francisco. Too much of treating what others think the issue is.

And then there’s this, “Coins thrown into plane engine by elderly passenger for ‘luck’.” Clearly she wasn’t “poor” as she had enough coinage to throw away (for ‘luck’).

What one has to consider is that being “poor” covers more than just insufficient income or wealth (they’re different!). Being poor can also realistically concern physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual issues. After all, even though Jesus pilloried the Pharisees for failing to take care of the widows and the poor (and not just financially poor), he also said the poor would always be with us. Those unable to address their poverty should be taken care of. Those able to do something should be helped with actual needs, not wants.


In one sense I did enjoy the article and what parts of the book it used and referenced. It (and the must-read comments section) confirmed for me that much of what is already known, that poverty is not the result of rapacious financiers (or even a “class” of people) exploiting the poor,2 is inadequately understood or accepted. What we encounter is still built upon a foundation of Incomplete Information, that the thinking is too often Either/Or (combative, including incendiary journalism) rather than And/And (solution finding), that politics and society have superbly reinforced the General Negative Sum Attitude (“If I don’t have it, you must have taken it before I could, so I am entitled to get it back any way I can”), and that policies are too often based on Fixing the Blame. All the inevitable consequence of ignoring Gap Theory.

This must be the new American version of Saving Face.


1 The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, p 12-13.
2 The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson, p 15.

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Verbs, Circles, and the Cultural Mean

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” – A child’s desperate retort.

Remember that refrain? Seems like a necessary staple that runs through every pre-adolescent’s life, reinforced by helpful friends and parents desperate to build up a tough skin.

Until one day the need for the refrain disappears, or seems to disappear.

The truth is, it doesn’t disappear. It just dips below the horizon, but words still exert their gravitational pull.

Julia Silge recently posted a follow-up piece about what verbs tend to occur after “he” or “she” in several novels. She looked at such cultural icons in 19th century English literature as six novels by Jane Austin, a few by George Elliot (another woman), and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (I recall in high school I only had to read one of these, and it took me a long time. Silge, on the other hand, along with a few other bloggers who dove into this activity, resorted to coding a program to scan through a digitized literature database. They also kindly provided examples and links to their code so we, if so motivated, could engage in a similar exercise.)

Then, David Robinson, a coding colleague of Silge, followed up on this intriguing analysis and looked at Gender and Verbs across 100,000 stories.

What, might you ask, would we/could we learn from this fascinating exercise and treasure trove of information, information about gendered pronouns, verbs, coding, and digitized databases of hundred of thousands of stories of which we were no doubt completely unaware?

On the surface we would discover the following: the verbs (action words, remember, that express physical or mental action) that follow “he” and “she” tell us what behaviors the authors associate with their characters.

For Jane Austin’s novels, the “Verb” versus “Character Gender” table looks like this (from Silge’s post. As a note for clarity, these are the verbs skewed, or most predominantly following “she.” Thus, the verb “remembered” is associated with “she” 8 times more often than it is associated with “he.” And the verb “stopped” is associated with “she” 4 times less often (0.25x on the scale) than with “he” (in other words, 4 times more often with “he”). It took me a while to clear that up, being a scientist trained to always scrutinize any data plotted on a logarithmic scale.)

For Jane Austin and her 19th century reader’s culture, women’s actions appear to be more intrinsic (that is, internally experienced), while men’s seems to be more extrinsic (that is, externally expressed).

The results from Robinson’s analysis appear as follows (with a more understandable scale):

While the most prevalent verbs (physical or mental actions) change, the underlying apparent character attributes in this analysis are not too different (intrinsic versus extrinsic, except perhaps for the “stabs” action on behalf of women).

Fascinating! So from whence do these different (and supposed) gendered actions arise?

I propose that the answer is that we did it to ourselves. Those “words that will never hurt me,” the words that were contrary to how we wanted to see ourselves, became replaced by words that aligned with how we did see ourselves (for better or worse). While the “words that will never hurt me” disappeared below the horizon, the “words that define me” continued to circulate, repeated and reinforced by our culture: those around us, those in our closest circle or relational network, our Dunbar group.

In essence, it is the result of Regression (or Coercion) to the Cultural Mean, of being helped to conform to what our “culture” expects of us.

These quick exercises do seem rather broad, and Robinson suggested some valid questions for further study:

  • Is the shift (differing predominant verbs after “he” or “she”) stronger in some formats or genre than another? We could split the works into films, novels, and TV series, and ask whether these gender roles are equally strong in each.
  • Is the shift different between male- and female- created works?
  • Has the difference changed over time? Some examination indicates the vast majority of these plots come from stories written in the last century, and most of them from the last few decades (not surprising since many are movies or television episodes, and since Wikipedia users are more likely to describe contemporary work).

I, not surprisingly, came up with a couple of questions of my own:

  • Presuming that the digitized database is comprised of only English language stories (which seems to be the case), is there a shift in stories in other languages (which express “how people think” and is closely intertwined with a culture)?
  • Is there a shift associated within English speaking and writing subcultures?
  • Is there a shift detected generationally (i.e., the age when the authors wrote)?
  • And, to really nail down the current and active Regression to a Cultural Mean, is there a shift observed in current news and social media (which are already conveniently digitized).


Now, if you are beginning to think some people have too much time on their hands, the group is larger than you think.

The following exercise began with a simple request: Draw a circle. Go ahead. Take a pencil and piece of paper and quickly draw a circle. Don’t think too hard!

A post on Quartz by Thu-Huong Ha and Nikhil Sonnad followed up on this simple request. From their post,

Did you start at the top or bottom? Clockwise or counterclockwise?

In November, 2016, Google released an online game called Quick, Draw!, in which users have 20 seconds to draw prompts like “camel” and “washing machine.” While fun (Blog: for people who have too much time on their hands), its real intent is to use the sketches to teach computer algorithms how humans draw. By May of this year, the game had collected 50 million unique drawings.

Do you see the looming opportunity here? Time on one’s hands… 50 million drawings… Already digitized… And available on a public database… No time to lose.

And of great interest is what they found,

Our analysis suggests that the way you draw a simple circle is linked to geography and cultural upbringing, deep-rooted in hundreds of years of written language, and significant in developmental psychology and trends in education today.

The post is well worth the read, but some interesting facts are revealed in the data.

  • Americans tend (86%) to draw circles counterclockwise
  • Japanese tend (80%) to draw circles in the opposite direction (clockwise)
  • British, Czech, Australian, and Finnish circles were drawn like American ones, counterclockwise, with the same consistency (~86%)
  • Others are even more consistent: around 90% of French, German, and Filipino drawers submitted circles drawn counterclockwise
  • In Vietnam, a full 95% were drawn this way

Most of the world, it seems, draws circles counterclockwise, with just two exceptions: Taiwan and Japan.

A major aspect that sets cultures apart is language, especially in its writing, and the correlation seems to be fairly strong. From their data:


The authors looked at language attributes such as reading and writing from left to right or vice versa, and stoke sequence in writing. Their conclusion,

Together these studies show not only that culture and handwriting shape the way people draw abstract shapes; they also suggest our tendencies get stronger over time. The more we write, the more our habits become ingrained.

There are countless ways that we subtly, unconsciously carry our cultures with us: the way we draw, count on our fingers, and imitate real-world sounds, to name a few. That’s the delight at the heart of this massive dataset. To test our theories, we approached colleagues, friends, and family who write in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese, and, feeling a bit silly, asked them to draw circles. They gladly jumped in, wondering what their fingers would do, and eager to feel part of something larger.

What is revealing in these two, seemingly innocuous and frivolous studies is that with increased access to large datasets (of seemingly innocuous information), significant patterns can be identified and associated with cultural roots. Arnold Toynbee spent much of his life looking at volumes of written historical records in order to develop his magnificent A Study of History (previously covered beginning here). Thomas Piketty used not only historical records recently digitized, but computers to identify patterns and trends for his heftier Capital in the Twenty-First Century (something I am working on reading, patiently).

What is also revealed is, as indicated earlier, culture, which helps define how we think and who we are, has a more influential role in societies and nations that we have been willing to realize. But culture also defines who is not one of us, and that needs to be even more greatly taken into account as we continue to deal with a more globalized and ever shrinking world.

It doesn’t do any good to throw up barriers and bury our collective heads in the sand. We need to take the time to connect, listen, and understand each other, whether it’s individually, political parties, or nations.

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments