My opinion about my opinion

Debate in progress

A while ago, I had a little email exchange with one of my editors in London (The Economist’s HQ). I had written an article and the question was whether or not I should also write a Leader (ie, an editorial). In other words, should The Economist, through my words, opine, and how exactly?

The editor wrote to me:

I was very intrigued by the idea, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. The problem is the prescription. I think you’re inclined to [subject omitted]; but I’m not inclined to go as far as that….

As you see, I excised the actual topic of discussion, because it is utterly irrelevant to my point here. Here is what I replied:

I’ve actually (as usual) got no clear “prescriptions” in my mind at all. I just made up some stuff to pitch a Leader outline to you. I’m always surprised by how interested we at The Economist are in our own opinions. Personally, I’m 99% interested in understanding the problem, and quite flexible in the other 1%…

Because the editor and I know each other well, I knew my cavalier tone would not be misunderstood. (In the end, there was no space in that week for that Leader anyway.) But then I realized that my point was perhaps more fundamental. How so?

The searcher and the preacher as archetype

You know you’re in trouble when somebody begins a monologue with “There are two kinds of people…”. But we might indeed stipulate that, yes, there are two kinds of people: searchers and preachers. You might even consider them Jungian archetypes (about which we haven’t talked for a while).

The preacher:

  • This sort really, really cares what he or she believes (rather than knows).
  • It matters to him what his opinion is, and also what your opinion is. That is because, to preachers, individuals are defined by their opinions.
  • Whether the opinions are based on good information or bad, whether they conform to reality or not, whether they acknowledge or exclude good alternatives — all this is by no means irrelevant, but of at best minor interest to a preacher.

The searcher:

  • He might or might not be interested in his own opinions, because he is forever in the process of forming one. This process (essentially one of learning) is much more interesting than any opinion that might temporarily emerge from it.
  • The searcher is also, as Walt Whitman might say, aware of the internal contradictions in any given opinion and quite intrigued by them, in an almost flirtatious way.
  • Much more important is the search for good information and the discrimination against bad, and a proper understanding of all conceivable alternative views.
  • If the preacher secretly hopes to achieve consensus on a single “story”, the searcher always hopes that all “other stories” keep circulating simultaneously. (As in: the Single versus the Other Story.)

And yes, of course, we’re all a bit of both, but in different proportions. Personally, for once, I’m not that confused about what I am: a searcher.

Which is to say: I have lots of opinions, but the opinion I’m proudest of is my opinion about my opinions. Generally, I’m quite suspicious of them. I interrogate them, and they answer back. Fascinating conversations.

Quite a few of us at The Economist are, individually, searchers. And yet, The Economist itself, as a whole, is clearly in the preacher camp. An interesting point to ponder.

Attack as response to failure

Instantly notorious

Jared Loughner may not be “crazy” or irrational at all. He might instead be utterly typical of people who attack politicians: For most of them, the notoriety that comes with such an attack, whether it ends in assassination or not, is a perceived solution to a specific psychological problem.

And that problem is the feeling of invisibility or anonymity that often follows failure.

This, at least, is the upshot of this story on NPR, which in turn refers to this study from 1999 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. (Lainey, in a comment under the previous post, linked to a Wired article quoting the same report.)

That study examined the 83 people who had attacked public officials between 1949 and 1999, and found that the attackers

  • almost never had political reasons
  • had often experienced a big failure or reversal in the year before the attack,
  • often felt invisible as a result,
  • didn’t want to be “non-entities” or “nobodies”,
  • and saw the notoriety of being an assassin as the solution.

As one would expect from such a profile, the attackers often did not target one particular politician (as an attacker with political motives would), but first decided to attack, then searched for a target. To quote from the report,

assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause

Failure is, of course, one of the twin topics of my forthcoming book, the other twin being success. This, I must say, is a response to failure that had never occurred to me before. The more one learns about the human psyche, the more mysterious it becomes in its nether depths.

Becoming a Mensch: “Self-actualization”


Abe Maslow

The other day, I compared Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the chakras in Indian philosophy, and I promised to expound a bit on the highest need/chakra, which we might call, to use Maslow’s word, self-actualization.

It’s an ugly term, born out of Esalen in the late sixties, when hyphens, Latin roots and the noun form of verbs were considered good things because they bestowed credibility in between naked massages in the Esalen hot tubs which I myself once had to endure as part of my journalistic research.

So let’s just call it something else. To self-actualize is–to use the technical Jewish-Buddhist term ;)–to be a Mensch. I consider it perhaps the highest form of success, and it thus becomes relevant in the penultimate chapter of my book. According to Maslow, only about 2% of the human population self-actualizes!

In the rest of this post, I want to flesh out what self-actualization might entail, with help from an excellent summary by Dr. C. George Boeree.

Needs you fill and forget & needs that grow as you fill them

Take another look at Maslow’s famous pyramid, which I showed you in the previous post on the subject. There is one difference between the top of the pyramid and all the lower rungs. At the bottom (breathing, eating, feeling safe etc), we feel needs only when we lack something. We cease to feel them as soon as we have what we crave. So, if I am suffocating, all I care about is air. But once I have air again and can breathe, the obsession is gone. Maslow called these cravings deficit needs.


Self-actualization is different. When we feel that we are fulfilling our potential–by being creative, for example–the need to self-actualize does not go away but grows. Fulfilling our potential makes us feel alive and satisfies us. So Maslow called these motivations being needs to distinguish them from the deficit needs.

Character sketch of a Mensch

So what kind of person reaches the highest stage and becomes a Mensch?

Maslow studied biographies.  (That happens also to be my approach in my forthcoming book; among the people Maslow studied are even some that are characters in my book.) From his studies Maslow concluded (we can debate whether he was right) that the Menschen shared certain traits that are actually quite rare. In this group of self-actualizers were:

  • Abraham Lincoln,
  • Thomas Jefferson,
  • Albert Einstein, (in my book)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, (in my book)
  • Jane Adams,
  • William James,
  • Albert Schweitzer,
  • Benedict Spinoza,
  • Alduous Huxley, and
  • 12 unnamed people.

The traits they shared, according to Maslow, were the following. They:

  • were able to discriminate between what is fake and what is genuine,
  • were able to treat life’s challenges as problems demanding solutions rather than personal affronts to be angry or depressed about,
  • felt that the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, that the means could be ends themselves (this is the opposite of strategic thinking),
  • enjoyed solitude,
  • had deep and intimate bonds with a few people rather than shallow relationships with many people,
  • felt “autonomous” from society (I think this means that they were non-conformist),
  • had an unhostile sense of humor–preferring to joke at their own expense, or at the human condition, and never directing their humor at others (which comes close to my definition of irony),
  • accepted themselves and others, enjoying harmless flaws as personal quirks,
  • were spontaneous and simple,
  • respected other people and treasured ethnic and individual diversity,
  • were ethical and spiritual but not usually “religious”,
  • were able to feel wonderment,
  • were original, inventive and creative, and
  • tended to have “peak experiences“, which we might call episodes of rapture or ecstasy–mystical feelings of merging into an infinitely large and eternal whole.

Normally I don’t like lists (as opposed to one single and large insight), but in this case a sort of composite personality emerges, which becomes stronger when Maslow adds to these positive qualities a few flaws that he found common among self-actualizers. They:

  • often suffered from anxiety,
  • were often absent-minded,
  • were occasionally ruthless and cold.

In short, they were, as Walt Whitman might say, “large”: they contradicted themselves and were fine with that.

And so…

Frankly, Maslow is a lot of work, and I have been pondering whether it has been worth it. I can’t decide whether the character sketch, and even his hierarcy of needs, is too obvious and thus banal, or whether it is helpful. For now I lean toward the latter.

Since I began this meditation by comparing his thoughts to ancient Indian philosophy, let me also conclude that way. It does strike me that self-actualization is strikingly similar to some visions of what “enlightenment” might be like.

First, I happen to believe that the yoga taught by Patanjali and his contemporary, the Buddha, leads to fleeting instances of samadhi (enlightenment, ecstasy), rather as it overcame St Teresa, instead of lasting bliss. “Peak experiences,” in other words.

Second, the “method” is similar: The simplicity, love of solitude, humor (think of Zen monks), non-conformism, withdrawal and even the occasional coldness of the self-actualizers resembles that of the Eastern yogis and Zen masters. They are really Einsteins in the Lotus position.

In short, I think that Maslow’s contribution is to humanize “enlightenment” for us Westerners.

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PS: After reading these two posts on Abe Maslow, do you think he belongs into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers?

Death in Tehran: a story about fear

I’ll have much more to say about Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, which I recently finished reading. But today just one little story that Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, tells in the book.

He calls it Death in Tehran (Kindle locations 846-51) and uses it to suggest that we are often our own worst enemies, that our very fear of something can make it come about:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.

Socrates, individualism and conformity

Here is one way of seeing the timeless relevance of Socrates for us today: Think of him as the archetype of individualism fighting against oppressive social conformity.

In this thread on Socrates, I’ve already looked at some noble and less noble aspects of the man’s character. And every time I found him to be thoroughly modern and recognizable. So too in this way.

Watch the 2-minute video above of the famous Asch Experiments that began in 1956. They were devastating: We saw confirmed what we already suspected, that people will readily surrender truth to a group.

To me, still emerging from my old Ayn Rand phase, this was always the ultimate, the most disgusting, sin. To me, this is how the Nazis perverted an entire nation, how Mao’s Red Guards did it again, how all great evil throughout history spreads.

Hence the inherent appeal of a hero such as Socrates. He told the group (the Athenians) to bugger off. In return, they killed him for it. (This will get a lot more nuanced in future posts, but let’s leave it at that for now.)

If Socrates had sat in the Asch Experiments, he would never have changed his answer.

But should the group really bugger off?

If it were as simple as all that, The Hannibal Blog would not find this so interesting. But it is not so simple. It turns out that we have moved on from the Asch Experiments somewhat. Read, for instance, Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer, two psychologists who took a new approach.

The people who might change their answer to “lie” in unison with the group were in fact facing an exceedingly difficult situation that inherently required all sorts of complex trade-offs, they argue:

  • On one hand, there is the value of truth.
  • On the other hand, there is the value of social solidarity.

In practice, most people did not conform consistently (ie, “lie” with the group every time) but varied their response in what Hodges and Geyer call

patterns of dissent and agreement to communicate larger scale truths and cooperative intentions.

In short, they were being biological organisms that keep in mind 1) their own survival in a group and 2) the survival of the group as a whole.

Now this is exactly the sort of poppycock that I used to have no time for at all. But as I get older I see more complexities. In Socrates’ case, for instance, there actually was a specific threat to the group survival of the Athenians, and I will get to that.

So we can add another timeless conundrum to the issues that Socrates raised. We already said that truth often conflicts with gentleness and kindness, and that one cannot assume truth must always win this fight. What if Hodges and Geyer are right and truth must also occasionally take a backseat to those “larger truths”– and that Socrates, failing to understand that, paid a fair price?

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Uncertainty is worse than disaster

Many mysteries explain why triumph and disaster are impostors, which is what my book is about. Here is just one: Success often introduces uncertainty, whereas failure often removes it. And, as researchers are now discovering, people cope far better with disaster than with uncertainty.

The New York Times recently had a piece on a few of these studies:

Sarah Burgard

Sarah Burgard

Sarah A. Burgard, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has for several years looked at how perceived job insecurity affects people’s health… People who felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported significantly worse overall health in both studies and were more depressed in one of the studies than those who had actually lost their jobs or had even faced a serious or life-threatening illnesses. “Chronic stress is extremely damaging to your health,” Professor Burgard said. “I’m an academic and I’m going up for tenure. I know what uncertainty is. You’re unable to make plans, unable to take action. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”…

Jacob Hirsh

Jacob Hirsh

Jacob Hirsh, a graduate student at the University of Toronto who has studied how different people respond to uncertainty…. found that those considered higher on the neuroticism scale would prefer knowing something for sure – even if it’s negative – than not knowing….

Another psychology professor said that “people who are anxious tend to equate uncertainty with a negative outcome”, even though 85% of the actual outcomes in his studies were neutral or even positive. People also underestimate their ability to deal with bad outcomes.

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The minds of liberals and conservatives

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

The biggest mistake in psychology is to think that the mind at birth is a blank slate. Instead, “the first draft” has already been written, and will now get revised by experience.

So says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist whose book I reviewed here, in this TED talk. (I can’t embed TED videos, unfortunately.)

In particular, whether you’re liberal or conservative probably comes down to five aspects of your first draft, he says: How much you worry about/value:

  1. Harm/care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. the Ingroup/loyalty
  4. Authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

In all cultures, liberals tend to value care and fairness most, but largely reject the ingroup, authority and purity as values. Conservatives tend to value them all. Thought-provoking.

Other reactions to the talk here and here.

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Word-loving as science

I still remember my high-school English teacher telling me that good writers minimize the use of the, of, a and so forth. Those are fill words–in effect, noise. Turn nouns into verbs and get rid of them, so that the signal-to-noise ratio of your writing goes up. Don’t say: “A restructuring of our financial system and a recapitalization of our banks is an imperative for the avoidance of a depression.” Say: “We have to change our financial system and put capital into our banks to avoid a depression.”

I’ve also warned in a previous post about the treacherous first-person voice, which writers overuse, in my opinion, especially in America.

James Pennebaker

James Pennebaker

Well, James Pennebaker is now forcing me to think much more deeply about all this. He’s a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and he counts words. All sorts of words, especially the fill words that I thought existed only to be eliminated, and all those Is, mines and mes.

Why? Because how people use words, even and especially the ones we think don’t matter, says so much about them.

For instance, in analyzing the difference between Obama and McCain, Professor Pennebaker has this to say in on his blog:

Categorical versus fluid thinking.  Some people naturally approach problems by assigning them to categories.  Categorical thinking involves the use of articles (a, an, the) and concrete nouns.  Men, for example, use articles at much higher rates than women.  Fluid thinking involves describing actions and changes, often in more abstract ways. A crude measure of fluid thinking is the use of verbs.  Women use verbs more than men.

McCain and Obama could not be more different in their use of articles and verbs.  McCain uses verbs at an extremely low rate and articles at a fairly high rate. Obama, on the other hand, is remarkably high in his use of verbs and low in his use of articles.  These patterns suggest that McCain’s natural way of understanding the world is to first label the problem and find a way to put it into a pre-existing category.  Obama is more likely to define the world as ongoing actions or processes.

In this post, Pennebaker actually counts how often the candidates use various categories of words.

It’s all about probabilities, of course. But I love how Pennebaker reminds me–not that I’m somebody who was likely to forget it–just how much words matter!

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Why truth is in stories

“What is truer than truth?”, asks writer Isabel Allende at the very beginning of her TED talk, below. “Answer: The story.”

How similar to Amy Tan (still from the same interview that I quoted from in my last two posts):

I think that’s why I’m a storyteller. I take all these disparate events and I have to connect them. I have to make them seem inevitable and yet surprising and plausible. That’s what I think life is like, too. I have the luxury to do exactly what it is we all need time to do, and that is just think about the mystery of life.

And how similar to a less poetic author, Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern who has

a life-story theory of identity, which argues that modern adults provide their lives with a sense of unity and purpose by constructing and refining self-defining life stories or “personal myths.”

It’s all about the story, in other words. Human beings remember and understand things only insofar as they learn them in a story.

The absence of such a story is what, in my opinion, limits so many non-fiction books. They have an idea or a thesis, but don’t wrap it into a story. So people read until they get the basic idea, then drop the book at page 50. After all, once you “got it”, why waste your time?

In my book, I’m trying to do the opposite. It is non-fiction, but true stories can be more suspenseful and surprising than fiction. And there is an idea, but it comes out through the story.

This is also my main rebuttal to my mom so far, who worries incessantly that I am giving away too much of my secret sauce in this blog, for some anonymous villain to steal it all. What, I keep thinking, would he (or she) steal? The idea without the story? Good luck. As Allende said, you need the story to get the truth. So, mom, for now I’ll keep blogging. Let me know what I’ve overlooked.
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