NOTES:Brooks, David The Social Animal Random House

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Good Character : Recognize Weakness, atone for sins, control worst impulses. Street smarts: know how to read people situations and ideas, develop an intuitive feel for the landscape.

Over the past few years geneticists, neuroscientists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing.

CORE CONCEPT: We are not primarily the product of conscious thinking: we are primarily the product of thinking that happens below the level of awareness. The unconscious mind is most of the mind where most decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place. THESE submerged processes are the seedbed of accomplishment. Understanding of the unconscious mind points to a deeper way of flourishing and a different definition of success.

IF THE STUDY of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason an analysis, THEN THE STUDY OF the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception. The inner mind highlights the power of relationships and invisible bonds between people.

EACH PERCEPTION has its own “flavor, texture and force” and reactions loop around the mind in a stream of sensations, impulses, judgements and desires. These signals don’t “control” our lives but they shape and interpret our perception of the world and guide us like a spiritual GPS as we chart our course. If you ignore the surges of live and fear, loyalty and revulsion that course through us every second of every day you are ignoring the most essential realm of human experience. You thusly ignore the processes that determine what we want, how we perceive the world; what drives us forward and what holds us back.

WHAT DOES this unconscious system look like when it is flourishing, when the affectations and aversions have been properly nurtured, the emotions properly educated?

The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious mind matters most. The central humanistic trust is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious. The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason: social connections over individual choice, character over IQ; emergent organic systems over linear mechanistic ones and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.

French enlightenment which emphasizes reason loses

British enlightenment which emphasizes sentiment wins.

When you look deeper into the unconscious the separations between individuals get fuzzy. It becomes ever more obvious that the swirls that make up our minds are shared swirls.


We are communication centers, and through some process we are not close to understanding we have the ability to partially govern that traffic - to shift attention from one thing to another - to choose adn commit. We become fully ourselves ONLY through the ever richening interplay of our networks. WE SEEK, more than anything else to establish deeper and more complete connections to one another.

Janine Willis and Anexander Todorov of Princeton have found that people can make snap judgements about a person’s trustworthiness competence and likability within the first tenth of a second. These sorts of first glimpses are astonishingly accurate in predicting how people will fell about each other months later.


Gestures not only express our feelings but constitute them. People who succeed in courtship are able to pick up the melody and rhythm of a relationship Through a mutual process of reading each other and restraining themselves the relationship will or will not establish its own synchronicity, and it will through this process establish implicit rules that will forever govern how behavior will be conducted together (norms)

The heart, Blaise Pascal observed, has reasons the head knows not of.

Decisions about who to love are more intense versions of the sort of decisions we make throughout life. Decision making is an inherently emotional business. Without emotions and emotional reasoning it is impossible to make a choice; the decision making landscape is hopelessly flat. THERE ARE LIMITS OF PURE REASON - lack of emotion leads to self destructive and dangerous behavior. People who lack emotion do not lead well planned rational lives like Mr. Spock: they lead foolish lives; in extreme cases they become sociopaths.

ANTONIO DAMASIO developed a theory called the “somatic marker hypothesis” on the role of emotions in human cognition: the key point is that emotions measure the value of some thing and help unconsciously guide our navigation through life.

“Somatic markers are not deliberate for us. The assist the deliberation by highlighting some options (either dangerous or favorable) and eliminate them rapidly from subsequent consideration.

Emotional Positioning System : coats each possibility with emotional value. Eventually at the end of these complex feedbacks, a desire bursts into consciousness. The emotion can be over ridden, but it propels and guides (navigates)

Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed. Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations. The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down inside it is romantic.

Further, the mind itself is no one thing. The mind is a blindingly complex series of parallel processes. There is no captain in the cockpit making decisions. There is no cartesian theater - a spot where all the different processes and possibilities come together to get rankedadn where action is planned. Instead, as Nobel Laurate Gerald Edelman puts it the brain looks like an ecosystem; a fantastically complex associative network of firings, patterns, reactions and sensations all communicating with and resonding to different parts of the brain and competing for a peice of control over the organism.

WE ARE PRIMARILY wanderers, not decision makers, (navigators). As we wander the mind makes a near infinite number of value judgements, which accumulate to form goals ambitions, dreams desires and ways of doing things. The key to a well lived life is to have trained emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls.

“All information processing is emotional” notes Kenneth Dodge “in that emotion in the energy that drives organizes amplifies and attenuates cognitive activity and in turn is the experience and expression of that activity.


Each comes to interpersonal experience with a certain unconscious mental map of how day to day life works. When maps are joined they are discovered to not perfectly cohere.

Starting even before we are born we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources.

Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow and none of us exists self made in isolation from it.

Physical contact is just as important as nourishment for neural growth and survival.

Babies organize their internal states by seeing their own minds reflected back at then in the faces of others

THUS WE SEE A CORE PRINCIPLE of what is needed to survie and flourish : the need to intertwine one’s mind with the mind of others. Mammal brains grow properly only when they are able to interpenetrate with one another.

It is entirely possible to have a complex human relationship without words.

Most research points to primacy of a hypothesis: we automatically simulate others and understand what others feel by feeling a version of what they are experiencing in ourselves. People are not cold theorizers: they are unconscious method actors who understand by sharing or at least simulating the responses they see in the people around them.

We are able to function in a social world because we partially permate each other’s mind and understand one another: some people more and some people less.

Human beings understand others in themselves and they form themselves by reenacting the internal processes they pick up from others.

THEORY OF MIRROR NEURONS: The idea that we have in our heads neurons that automatically recreate the mental patterns of those around us.

There is a widely held view that human brains have an automatic ability to perform deep imitation: people are able to feel what others experience is if it were happening to them.

Minds are intensely permeable. Feedback loops exist between brains.

When people are in bonding situations, laughter flows.

Only 15 percent of the sentences that trigger laughter are funny in any discernable way. Laughter seems to bubble up spontaneously amist conversation when people feel themselves responding in parallel ways to the same emotionally positive circumstances.

Laughter is a language that people use to bond, or to reinforce bonding that has already occured.

If you really want to understand where the essence of any person comes from it is in the relationship of that person with their parents.

People don’t develop first and create relationships. People are born into relationships and these relationships create people.

A mind only exists within a network. It is the result of the interaction between brains.


Young children don’t seem to have a sense of self conscious inner observer. The executive function areas in the front of the brain are slow to mature, hence early on there is little controlled, self directed thinking.

Until a child is 18 months old they can not pass the mirror test. Even up to age three children don’t seem to grasp the concept of self consciously focused attention.

Children can go long stretches of time without thinking at all.

Adults have searchlight consciousness. We direct attention at specfic locations. All young children have “lantern consciousness.”

Much of life consists of integrating the chaotic billions of stimuli we encounter into sophisticated models, which are then used to anticipate, interpret and navigate through life.

Every situation we meet with in life is construed in terms of representational models which are then used to anticipate, interpret and navigate through life. (John Bowlby)

Information reaching us through our sense organs is selected and interpreted in terms of these models; its signifigance for us and for those we care for is evaluated in terms of them and plans of action are conceived and executed with these models in mind.

Those internal maps determine how we see, what emotional value we assign to things, what we want, how we react, and how good we are at predicting what will happen next.

It is calculated that humans create 1.8 million synapses per second from the second month in utero to their second birthday.

The brain makes synapses to store information. Each thing we kn ow is embodied in a network of neural connections.

FOR MILLENIA philosophers have sought a definition of human self. What is it that makes a person ineffably herself, despite the changes that happen day by day and year by year. A piece of the answer lies in the pattern of synaptic connections.

With effort, practice and experience you can improve the subtlety of your networks.

You can recite the alphabet from A to Z because through repetition you have built that sequence of patterns in your head. you would probably have trouble reciting the alphabet from Z to A because the sequence has not been reinforced by experience.

The neural networks embody our experience and in turn guide future action. They contain the unique what that each of us carries himself in the world; they are the grooves down which our behaviour flows. You are the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head.

No simple machine can blend two complicated constructs such as “I” and “Tiger” Yet the human brain is capable of performing this incredibly complicated task so easily and so far below the level of awareness that we don’t even appreciate how hard it is.

We do this because of our ability to make generalizations, and because of our ability to make associations between generalizations to overlay the ‘gist’ of one thing with the ‘gist’ of another. We are smart because we are capable of fuzzy thinking.

We look at the variable patterns of the world and we form gists. Once we have created a gist, which is a pattern of firigns we can do a lot of things with it.

THE ACTIVITY OF BLENDING NEURAL PATTERNS is called imagination. It seems easy but it is in reality phenomenally complex.

Giles Fauconnier and Mark Turner write in ‘The Way We Think,’ “Building an integration network involves setting up neural spaces, matching across spaces, projecting selectively to a blend, locating shared structures, projecting back to inputs, recruiting new structures to the inputs, and running barious operations in the blend itself.

IMAGINATION IS COMPLICATED, imagination is arduous and practical the double scope adn counterfactual abilities come in quite handy in real life.

paradigmatic thinking -- the stuff of a legal brief or an academic essay.

narrative thinking - the mythic mode. Contains dimensions of good and evil, sacred and profane. The mythic mode helps people not only tell a story but make sense of the emotions and moral sensations aroused by the story.


Far from being free the child is imprisoned by the remnants of lantern consciousness.

If there is one thing developmental psychologists have learned over the years it is that parents don’t have to be brilliant psychologists to succeed. They don’t have to be gifted teachers. Parents just have to be good enough. They have to provide their children with stable and predictable rhythms, the need to be able to fall in tune with their kids needs, combining warmth with discipline. They need to establish secure emotional bonds that kids can fall back on in the face of stress. They need to be living models of how to cope with the problems of the world so that children can develop unconscious models in their heads.

What kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for the but also need to go out into the world and care for themselves.

THE MORE SECURE a person feels at home the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly and try new things.

“All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure.” John Bowlby, British psychologist.

Bowlby’s work emphasized that the relationship between a child and a mother or primary caregiver powerfully molds how that child will see herself and the world.

Focus on the unconscious models we carry around in our heads which organize perception in the first place

The baby learns that he is a creature that exists in dialogue with others. He comes to see the world as a series of coherent dialogues. He will develop a whole series of suppositions about how the world works and he will rely on those suppositions as he ventures forth and meets people.

The art of unconscious reality construction powerfully determines what we see and what we pay attention to. It powerfully shapes what we will end up doing.

There is a mountain of research, known as attachment theory, which explores how different types of attachment are related to different parenting styles, and how strongly childhood attachment shapes relationships and accomplishment over the course of a lifetime.

Some scientists call oxytocin the “affiliative neuropeptide.”

Parents with communicative, interacting personalities tend to produce more securely attached children.

SOME RESEARCHERS think that if they measure a kid’s IQ they can easily predict how well the kid will fare academically. The Sroufe study suggests that social and emotional factors are also incredibly powerful.

By observing quality of care measures at 42 months the Sroufe researchers could predict with 77% accuracy who would drop out of highschool.

Attachment patterns in early childhood also helped predict the quality (though not the quantity) of other relationships later in life, especially romantic relationships.

Only a few remarkable people can sense the way early experience has built models in the brain.


highschool is a machine for social sorting. The purpose of highschool is to give young people a sense of where they fit into the social structure.

People have a tendency to form groups, even on the basis of the most arbitrary characteristics available and when groups are adjacent friction will arise.

Gossip is the way groups form social norms.

The parts of the brain we use for social cognition are different than the parts we use for thinking about objects abstractions and other sorts of facts.

No more that %5 of a person’s emotional perceptiveness can be explained by the sort of overall cognitive intelligence we track with an IQ score

Much unconscious learning is done through imitation.

The pain of getting things wrong and the effort required to overcome error creates an emotional experience that helps burn things into the mind.

The idea that creativity comes when two disparate fields crash in our minds?

Human knowledge is not like data stored in a computer’s memory banks. Human knowledge is hungry and alive. People with knowledge about a topic become faster and better at acquiring more knowledge and remembering what they learn.

The human brain is built to take conscious knowledge and turn it into unconscious knowledge.

Learning consists of taking things that are strange or unnatural such as reading or algebra and absorb them so steadily that they become automatic. That frees up the conscious mind to work on new things.

Automaticity is achieved through repetition.

Principle of learning: reach and reciprocity. Start with a core knowedge in a field then venture out and learn something new.

Too much reach and your efforts are scatter shot and fruitless. Too much reciprocity and you wind up in an insular rut.

EXPERTISE is about forming internal connections so that little pieces of information turn into bigger networked chunks of information. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. IT IS ABOUT INTERNALIZING THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN PIECES OF INFORMATION.

Every field has its own structure: in short its own paradigm. The result is that the expert does not think more about a subject: they think less. Because she had a domain of expertise, she anticipates how things will fit together.

At first the expert decided to enter a field of study, but soon the field entered her.

A student should be 70% finished with a paper before he writes it.

The mind is often the most productive when it is the most carefree

Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed but men are not made for safe havens.

“the mind wheels” Robert Ornstein has written, “it wheels from condition to condition, from emergency to quiescence, from happines to concern. As it wheels among different states it selects the various components of the mind which operate in that state.

THE BEST LEARNERS take time to encode information before they begin to work on their papers

THE BEST STRATEGHY is to take months encoding and reencoding information

THE BRAIN DOESN’T MULTITASK WELL. It needs to get into a coherent flow with one network of firings leading coherently to the next.

BEFORE AN INSIGHT - jump in alpha waves of about 8 seconds before a person has the insight to solve a puzzle. A second before the insight, according to Mark Junh - Beeman and John Kounious the area that processes visual information goes dark, shutting out distraction.

THREE HUNDRED MILLISECONDS before insight there is a spike in gamma rhythm, the highest frequency produced by the brain. There is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe, just above the ear. THIS IS THE AREA, Jung Beeman and Kounios argue, that draws together pieces of information from wildly different areas of the brain.

Robert Burton wrote his book On Being Certiain “feelings of knowingness, conviction and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.”

THUMOS: the desire for recognition, the desire to have people recognize your existence, not only for now but for all time. Thumos includes a desire for eternal fame - to attract admiration and be worthy of admiration that goes deeper than mere celebrity. The Greek word helped Harold explain Harold to himself. Thumos is the desire for recognition and union, which underlay the other drives fro money and success.

Cybernetic Art.

HAROLD’S INSIGHT consisted of taking the vocabulary of Greek motivation - thumos, arete, eros - and applying it to his life.

“He began furiously writing notes to himself on paper, describing how the thymotic drive explained all sorts of highschool behavior. He made connections he had never made before and mixed together old information in new ways.”

Mrs. Taylor had guided Harold through a method that had him surfing in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together.

FIRST: Mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then willfully trying to impose order upon it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, then riding that insight to a finished product. The process was not easy but each ounce of effort and each moment of frustration and struggle pushed the internal construction project another little step.

There was, as the mathematician Henri Poincaire observed, “an unsuspected kinship... between facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another. Harold no loner had to work to apply qualities like Thumos to the world around him, they simply became the automatic categories of his mind, the way he perceived new situations

Nicholas Bourbaki

  • Language, as Alva Noë has written, is "a shared cultural practice that can only be learned by a person who is one of many in a special kind of cultural ecosystem."
  • In short, Harold's parents didn't just give him money. They passed down habits, knowledge, and cognitive traits. Herold was part of a heredity meritocratic class that reinforces itself through genes and strenuous cultivation generation after generation.

According to Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania, stress hormone levels are higher in poor children than in middle-class children. This affects a variety of cognitive systems, including memory, pattern awareness, cognitive control (the ability to resist obvious but wrong answers) and verbal vacility.

Poor children are also much less likely to live with two biological parents in the home. Research with small mammals has found that animals raised without a father present were slower to develop neural connections than those raised with a father present, and a result have less impulse control. It is not only a shortage of money and opportunity. Poverty and family disruption can alter the unconscious --- the way people perceive and understand the future and their world.


The founders had started out with a theory about poverty: They didn't know what caused it. They figured it arose from some mixture of the loss of manufacturing jobs, racial discrimination, globalization, cultural transmission, bad luck, bad government policies, and a thousand other factors. But they did have a few useful observations. They didn't think anybody else knew what caused poverty either. They believed that it was futie to try to find one lever to lift kids out of poverty, because there was no one cause for it. They believed if you wanted to tackle the intergenerational cycle of poverty, you had to do everything at once.

When they first conceived of the Academy, they worked up a presentation for donors, which they later discarded because almost none of the donors understood it. But the premise behind the presentation was still dear to their hearts. The premise was that poverty is an emergent system.

Through most of human history, people have tried to understand their world through reductive reasoning. That is to say, they have been inclined to take things apart to see how they work. As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi wrote in his influential book Linked, "Reductionism was the driving force behind much of the twentieth century's scientific research. To comprehend nature, it tells us, we must decipher its components. The assumption is that once we understand the parts, it will be easy to grasp the whole. Divide and conqueor, the devil is in the details.

Therefore, for decades we have been forced to see the world through its constituents. We have been trained to study atoms and superstrings to understand the universe; molecules to comprehend life; individual genes to understand complex behavior; prophets to see the origins of fads and religions." This way of thinking induces people to think they can understand a problem by dissecting it into its various parts. They can understand a person's personality if they just tease out and investigate his genetic or environmental traits. This deductive mode is the specialty of conscious cognition - the sort of cognition that is linear and logical.

The problem with this approach is that it has trouble explaining dynamic complexity, the essential feature of a human being, a culture, or a society. So recently there has been a greater appreciation for the structure of emergent systems. Emergent systems exist when different elements come together and produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts. Or, to put it differently, the pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges. Sounds and syllables come together and produce a story that has an emotional power that is irreducible to its constituent parts.

For example, lets say an ant colony stumbles upon a new food source. No dictator ant has to tell the colony to reorganize itself to harvest that source. Instead, one ant, in the course of his normal foraging stumbles upon the food. Then a neighboring ant will notice the that ant's change in direction, and then a neighbor of that ant will notice the change and pretty soon, as Steven Johnson puts it, "Local information can lead to global wisdom." The entire colony will have a pheromone superhighway to harvest the new food source.

Emergent systems are really good at passing down customs across hundred or thousands of generas. As Deborah Gordon of Stanford discovered, if you put ants in a large plastic tray, they will build a colony. They will also build a cemetery for dead ants, and the cemetery will be a far as possible from the colony. They will also build a garbage dump, which will be as far as possible from both the colony and the cemetery. No individual ant worked out the geometry. In fact, each individual ant may be blind to the entire structure. Instead individual ants followed local cues. Other ants adjusted to the cues of a few ants, and pretty soon the whole colony had established a precedent of behavior. Once this precedent has been established, thousands of generations can be born and the wisdom will endure. Once established, the precedents exert their own downward force.

There are emergent systems all around. The brain is an emergent system. An individual neuron in the brain does not contain an idea, say, of an apple. But out of the pattern of firing of millions of neurons, the idea of an apple emerges. Genetic transmission is an emergent system. Out of the complex interactions of many different genes and many different environments, certain traits such as aggressiveness might emerge.

Turkheimer had spent years trying to find which parts of growing up with a poor background produced the most negative results. He could easily show the total results of poverty, but when he tried to measure the impact of specific variables, he found there was nothing there. He conducted a meta-analysis of forty three studies that scrutinized which specific elements of a child background most powerfully shaped cognitive deficiencies. The studies failed to demonstrate the power of any specific variable, even the total effect of all the variables put together was very clear.

The lesson was: Fixate on whole cultures, not specific pieces of poverty. No specific intervention is going to turn around the life of a child or an adult in any consistent way. But if you an surround a person with a new culture, a different web of relationships, then they will absorb new habits of thought an behaviors in ways you will never be able to measure or understand. And if you do surround that person with a new, enriching culture, then you had better keep surrounding them with it because if they slip back into a different culture, then most of the gains will fade away.

The difficult thing about emergence is that it is very hard in emergent systems to find the "root cause" of any problem. The positive side is that if you have negative cascades producing bad outcomes, it is also possible to have positive cascades producing good ones. Once you have a positive set of cultural cues, you can get a happy avalanche as productive influences feed on and reinforce one another.

Here was her true genius. She couldn't remain in her current environment and just turn her prospects around by force of individual willpower. She would always be subject to the same emotional cues. They would overpower conscious intention.

But she could make one decision - to change her environment. And if she could change her environment, she would be subject to a whole different set of cues and unconscious cultural influences. Its easier to change your environment than to change your insides. Change your environment then let the new cues do the work.

All human beings have inherited from the distant past an automatic ability to respond to surprise and stress, the so-called fight-or-flight response. Some people even from the earliest age, seem to flee from stress and pain. Some fight.

Kids are born with a certain temperament. That temperament is not a track that will guide them through life. It is, as E. O. Wilson has argued, more akin to a leash. All kids are born with a certain disposition, whether to be high strung or preternaturally calm, whether to be naturally sunny, or naturally morose. One's disposition may evolve over the course of life, depending on how experience has wired the brain, but the range of this evolution would have its limits. One might grow from high strung to moderately tempered, but one's personality probably would not flip from one extreme to another. And once that basic home state was established, moods oscillate around that mean.

Although much human diversity in behavior is culturally influenced, some has been shown to be genetic - rapid acquisition of language, human unpredictability, hypertrophy (extreme growth of pre-existing social structures), altruism and religions. "Religious practices that consistently enhance survival and procreation of the practitioners will propagate the physiological controls that favor the acquisition of the practices during single lifetimes." Unthinking submission to the communal will promotes the fitness of the members of the tribe. Even submission to secular religions and cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group. Religious practices confer biological advantages.

In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more). There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior

Dandelion Children vs Orchid Children.

Erica's mother had been one of those kids who became overly defensive at the first sign of a perceived frustration, who misinterpret normal situations as menacing ones, who perceive anger when it isn't there, feel slights that aren't intended, who are victim to an imagined inner world, which is more dangerous than the outer world they actually inhabit.

People who live with that sort of chronic stress suffer cell loss in their Hippocampus, and with it loss of memory, especially memory of good things that have happened to them. Their immune systems weaken. They have fewer minerals in their bones. They accumulate body fat more easily. They live with long term debilitating deficits.

Research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman found that self-control is twice as important as IQ in predicting high school performance, school attendance and final grades. Other researches disagree that self-control trumps IQ, but there is no question self-control is one of the essential ingredients of a fulfilling life.

The kids who possessed Conscientiousness had usually grown up in organized homes. In their upbringing actions had lead to predictable consequences. They possessed a certain level of self confidence, the assumption that they could succeed at what they set out to do. Kids who could not resist the marshmallows often came from disorganized homes. They were less likely to see the link between actions and consequences and less likely to have learned strategies to help them master immediate temptation.

But the crucial finding concerned the nature of the strategies that worked. The kids who did poorly directed their attention right at the marshmallow. They thought if they looked right at it they could somehow master the temptation to eat it. The ones who could wait distracted themselves from it. They had techniques to adjust their attention.

The implication of the marshmallow experiment is that self control is not really about iron willpower mastering the hidden passions. The conscious mind simply lacks the strength and awareness to directly control unconscious processes. Instead, its about triggering.

At any moment there are many different operations running or capable of running at an unconscious level. People with self-control and high self-discipline develop habits and strategies that trigger the unconscious processes that enable them to perceive the world in productive and far seeing ways.

Character Reconsidered

Human decision making has three basic steps. First we perceive a situation, Second we use the power of reason to calculate whether taking this or that action is in our long term interest. Third, we use the power of will to execute our decision.

Both reason and will are obviously important in making moral decisions and exercising self control. But neither of these character models has proven very effective in marshaling self control. Most diets fail because the conscious forces of reason and will are simply not powerful enough to consistently subdue unconscious urges.

Classroom teaching or seminar-consciousness raising has little direct effect on unconscious impulses. The evidence suggests that reason and will are like muscles, and not particularly powerful muscles. In some cases and in the right circumstances, they can resist temptation and control the impulses. But in many cases they are simply too weak to impose self discipline by themselves. In many cases self delusion takes control.

Perceiving isn't just a transparent way of taking in. It is a thinking and skillful process. Seeing and evaluation are not two separate processes, they are linked and basically simultaneous. The research of the past thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to perceive more skillfully than others. The person with good character has taught herself, or been taught by those around her to see situations in the right way. When she sees something in the right way, she's rigged the game. She's triggered a whole network of unconscious judgments and responses in her mind, biasing her to act in a certain manner. Once the game has been rigged, then reason and will have a much easier time. They will be up to the task of guiding proper behavior.

The learning to see model emphasizes that it is not one crucial moment that shapes a character. Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences. This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character. It's very hard to build self control alone (and if you're in a community of obese people, it's very hard to stay thin alone). It also emphasizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain. Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world. Good behavior strengthens certain networks. Aristotle was right when he observed, "We acquire virtues by first having put them into action." The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous put the sentiment more bluntly, with their slogan "Fake it until you make it."

"One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitude and feelings." - Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia.

Doctrine of Indirect Self-Control - manipulating small things in order to trigger the right responses about the big things.

If your body impersonates and attitude long enough, then the mind begins to adopt it.

Erica would not allow herself to have a conception of her opponent. She would not allow herself to think about line calls. Her performance would be judged by how the ball left the racquet, and nothing else was within her control. Her ego and self-worth were not at the center. The task was at the center.

By putting the task at the center, Erica could quiet the conscious self. She could direct her attention away from her own qualities - her expectations, her nerve, her reputation - and she could lose herself in the game. She could prevent herself from thinking too much, which is death to peak performance (Wikipedia:Flow (psychology)). She could merge with the patterns of the craft. She could fall back on the many hours of practice when she had done the same thing over and over and laid down certain models in her mind. And when she did this, her self-control was just outstanding, and nothing could ruffle her.

Research by Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome has found that, while engaging in difficult tasks, star athletes' brains are actually quieter than nonathletes' brains. They have prepared their minds to perform these sorts of tasks so it takes much less mental labor to excel. They also see what is happening much more clearly. In short, expert players experience sports much differently than nonexperts.

She had a ritual for the anger. She would say to herself, "This is not who I am. This is an experience that is happening within me." She was practicing the form of self-monitoring that Daniel J. Siegel calls "mindsight" She was reminding herself that she had a say in triggering which inner self would dominate her behavior. All she had to do was focus her attention on one internal character rather than another. That wasn't easy. Sometimes the act of focusing attention required an immense display of mental force, but it was doable.

William James was among the first to understand the stakes involved in these sorts of decisions "The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slightly more or slightly less, which rival motor ideas might receive... effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will." Those who have habits and strategies to control their attention can control their lives.


Ultra-driven people are often plagued by a deep sense of existential danger. Historians have long noticed that an astonishing percentage of the greatest writers, musicians, artists, and leaders have had a parent die or abandon them while they were between the ages of nine and fifteen. A great many ambitious people are haunted by the knowledge that life is precarious. Unless they scramble to secure some spot in the world, everything could be destroyed by a single blow.

Highly ambitious people often have met someone like themselves who achieved great success. It could be a person from their town, from their ethnic background, or with some other connection, who showed the way and fired their sense of possibility.

Highly ambitious people often possess some early talent that gave them some sense of distinction. It didn't have to be a huge talent. Maybe they were among the better speakers in their fifth-grade class. Maybe they were among the best mathematicians in their small town. But it was enough so that the achievement became a kernel of their identity.

Ambitious people often have a vision of an elevated circle they might join. There's a common prejudice that ambitious people are driven to surpass their fellows, to be better than everyone else. In fact, most ambitious people are driven to achieve membership in some exclusive group or club.

In 1997 Gary McPherson studied 157 randomly selected children as they picked out and learned a musical instrument. Some went on to become fine musicians and some faltered. McPherson searched for the traits that separated those who progressed from those who did not. IQ was not a good predictor. Neither was aural sensitivity, math skills, income, or sense of rhythm. The bet single predictor was a question McPherson asked the students before they had even selected their instrument. How long do you think you will play? There were some children who said, in effect: "I want to be a musician. I'm going to play my whole life." Those children soared. The sense of identity that children brought to the first lesson wa the park that would set off all the improvement that would subsequently happen. It was a vision of their future self.


Some people live in romantic age. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness - Dante, Mozart, Einstein - whose talents far exceed normal comprehension, who had an otherworldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.

We, of course, live in a scientific age. Vast amounts of research have now been conducted on early achievement, and collected in volumes like the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. The prevailing view is that geniuses are largely built, not born. In the flinty and overly prosaic view that is now dominant, even Mozart's early abilities were not the product of some supernatural gift. His early compositions were not acts of genius, researchers argue. Mozart was a very good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today's top child performers.

What Mozart had, it's maintained, was the same thing many extra-ordinarily precocious performers have --- a lot of innate ability, the ability to focus for long periods of time, and an adult intent on improving one's skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his ten thousand hours of practice in early, and then he built from there.

The latest research suggests a prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of how fantastic success is achieved. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. Instead, what really matters is the ability to get better and better gradually over time. Its deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously honing their craft. Top performers devote five times more hours to become great than the average performers devote to become competent.

John Hayes of Carnegie Mellon studied five hundred masterworks of classical music. Only three of them were published within the first ten years of the composer's career. For all the rest, it took a decade of solid, steady work before they could create something magnificent. The same general rule applies to Einstein, Picasso, T. S. Eliot, Freud, etc et al.

Its not just hours, its the kind of work done in those hours. Mediocre performers practice in the most pleasant way possible. Great achievers practice in the most deliberate and self critical way. Often they break their craft down to its smallest constituent parts, and then they work on one tiny piece of the activity over and over again.

Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write in the following manner: He would read an essay in The Spectator, the best written magazine of his day. He would write notes on each sentence of the essay on a separate piece of paper. Then he would scramble the notes and return to them after a few weeks. Then he would try to organize the notes in the proper order and use them to recreate the original essay and use them to recreate the original essay. This is how he taught himself structure. When he discovered that his vocabulary lagged behind the original Spectator authors, he switched to another technique. He would translate each essay, sentence by sentence, into poetry. Then a few weeks later he would try to reconvert the poetry back into prose.

As Daniel Coyle notes in his book The Talent Code, "Every skill is a form of memory." It takes hard work and struggle to lay down those internal structures. In this way, brain research reinforces the old fashioned work ethic.


Academy's atmosphere subtly inculcated certain habit of order, discipline and regularity.

Successful people tend to find those milieus where the gifts they possess are most highly valued.

We can all point to charismatic business leaders who lead like heroes on horseback. But most business leaders are not of that sort. Most are more characterized by calm, disciplined determination.

In 2009 Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorenson completed a study called "Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?" They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 CEOs and measured their company's performances. There is no one personality style that leads to corporate or any other kind of success. But they found that the traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytical thoroughness and the ability to work long hours. That is to say, the ability to organize and execute.

These results are consistent with a lot of work that's been done over the past few decades. In 201 Jim Collins published a best selling study called Good to Great. He found that many of the best CEOs were not flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent, and resolute souls who found one thing that they were really good at and did it over and over again. They did not spend a lot of time on internal motivational campaigns. They demanded discipline and efficiency.

That same year Murray Barrick, Michael Mount and Timothy Judge surveyed a century's worth of research into business leadership. They, too, found that extroversion, agreeableness, and openness to new experience did not correlate well with CEO success. Instead, what mattered was emotional stability and conscientiousness - being dependable, making plans, and following through.

These sorts of dogged but diffident traits do not correlate well with education levels. CEOs with law or MBA degree do not perform better than CEOs with college degrees. These traits do not correlate with salary or compensation packages. Nor do they correlate with fame and recognition. On the contrary, a study by Ulrike Malmendier and Geoffrey Tate found that CEOs get less effective as they become more famous and receive more awards.

Family and Tribe

There are many minds wheeling about in the unconscious.

Erica's attitude was that she came from a neighborhood where the tough survive and the weak are eaten. For her college was the next front in the battle of life.

"A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind," William James once wrote.

Scholars like Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto University, Hazel Markus of Stanford and Richard Nisbett or the University of Michigan have spent years studying the different ways Asians and Westerner think and perceive. The core lesson of Nisbett's work is contained in a famous experiment in which he showed picture of a fish tank to Americans and Japanese and asked them to describe what they saw. In case after case, Americans described the biggest and most prominent fish in the tank. The Japanese made 60 percent more references to the context and background elements of the scene, like water, rocks, bubbles and plants in the tank. Nisbett's conclusion is that, on the whole, Westerners tend to focus more narrowly on individuals taking actions, while Asians are more likely to focus on contexts and relationships. Since at least the time of classical Greece, Western though has emphasized individual action, permanent character traits, formal logic, and clearly delineated categories. For an even longer period, Asian thought has emphasized context, relationships, harmony, paradox, interdependence, and radiation influences. Thus to the Asian the world is a complex place, composed of continuous substances, understandable in terms of whole rather than in terms of parts, and subject more to collective than personal control."

Elite universities are great social inequality machines. They are nominally open to all applicants regardless of income. They have lavish financial aid packages for those who cannot afford to pay. But the reality is that the competition weeds out most of those who are not from the upper middle class. To fulfill the admissions requirements, it really help to have been raised in an atmosphere of concerted cultivation. It helps to have had all the family reading time, the tutors, the coaches, and the extracurricular supervision.

Erica was taught by economists and political scientists who assumed that human beings are pretty much the same. You put some incentives in front of them, no matter what the cultural differences, and they will respond in predictable, law-goverened and rational ways. And yet Erica grew up among many people who did not respond in predictable way to incentives. What really mattered, it seemed to her, was self-interpretation. The way people defined themselves had a huge impact on how they behaved and responded to situations. None of this seemed to have any role in the courses she was taking.

In a business world filled with engineers and finance people, she would know culture. This would be her unique selling proposition. There would always be a market for skills like that.

Humans succeed because they have the ability to develop advanced cultures. Culture is a collection of habits, practices, beliefs, arguments and tension that regulates and guides human life. Culture transmits certain practical solutions to everyday problems - how to avoid poisonous plants, how to form successful family structures. Culture also, Roger Scruton has observed, educates the emotions. It consists of narratives, holidays, symbols, and works of art that contain implicit and often unnoticed messages about how to feel, how to respond, how to divine meaning.

An individual human mind can't handle the vast variety of fleeting stimuli that is thrust before it. We can function in the world only because we are embedded in the scaffold of culture. We absorb ethnic cultures, institutional cultures, regional cultures, et al which do most of our thinking for us.

The human race is not impressive because towering geniuses produce individual masterpieces. The human race is impressive because groups of people create mental scaffolds that guide future thought. No individual could build a modern airplane, but modern companies contain the institutional knowledge that allows groups to design and build them.

We build 'designer environments' in which human reason is able to far outstrip the computational ambit of the unaugmented biological brain," the philosopher Andy Clark writes. Unlike other animals, he continues, humans have the ability to dissipate reasoning - to build social arrangements that contain the bodies of knowledge.

Human brains excel in one crucial respect: We are masters of structuring our physical and social worlds so as to press complex coherent behaviors from these unruly resources. We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence. Our brains make the world smart so we can be dumb in peace! We are smart after all, but our boundaries extend further out into the world than we might have initially supposed.

Cultures that Work

All cultures begin with words for black and white. If the culture adds a word for a third color, it is always red. All humans, for example, register the same basic facial expressions for fear, disgust, happiness, contempt, anger, sadness, pride and shame. Children born without sight display emotion on their faces the same way a children born with sight.

In his book Human Universals, Donald E. Brown lists traits that people in all places share. The list goes on and on. All children fear strangers and prefer sugar solutions to plain water from birth. All humans enjoy stories, myths and proverbs. In all societies men engage in more group violence and travel farther from home than women. In all societies husbands are on average older than their wives. People everywhere rank one another according to prestige. People everywhere divide the world between those inside their group and those outside their group. These tendencies are stored deep below awareness.

Culture imprints some patterns in our brains and dissolve others. Douglas Hofstadter calls "comfortable but quite impossible to define abstract patterns," which were implanted by culture and organized thinking into concepts such as: sleazeballs, fair play, dreams, wackiness, crackpots, sour grapes, and you and I.

Culture is not a recipe book that creates uniformity. Each culture has its own internal debates and tensions. Alasdair MacIntyre points out that each vital culture contains a continuity of conflict, which allows divergent behaviour.

She came across a Stanford professor named Thomas Sowell who wrote a series of books called Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures and Conquests and Cultures that told her some of the things she needed to know.

"Cultures do not exist as simply static 'differences,' to be celebrated - they compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done - better and worse, not from the standpoints of some observer, but from the standpoints of the peoples themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life." - Thomas Sowell

The Central Liberal Truth by Lawrence E. Harrison. People in what he calls progress-prone cultures assume they can shape their own destiny. People in progress-resistant cultures are more fatalistic. People in progress-prone cultures assume that wealth is the product of human creativity and is expendable. People in progress-resistant cultures have a zero-sum assumption that what exists will always be.

People in progress-prone cultures live to work, he argues. People in progress-resistant cultures work to live. People in progress prone cultures share other values. They are more competitive; they are more optimistic; they value tidiness and punctuality; they place incredible emphasis on education; they do not see their family as fortress in a hostile world, the see it as a gateway to the wide society; they internalize guilt and hold themselves responsible for what happens; they do not externalize guilt and blame others.

Cultural substructure shaped decisions and behavior more than most economist or most business leaders realized. This was where the action was.

"Think in Networks." - Society isn't defined by classes as the Marxists believe. Its not defined by racial identity. And it is not a collection of rugged individualists, as some economic and social libertarians believe. Instead, society is a layering of networks.

What do those lines connecting people consist of? In a few special cases, its love. But in most work places, and most social groups, the bonds are not that passionate. Most relationships are bound by trust.

Trust is a habitual reciprocity that becomes coated by emotion. It grows when two people begin volleys of communication and cooperation and slowly they learn they can rely upon each other. Soon members of a trusting relationship become willing to not only cooperate with each other but sacrifice for each other.

Trust reduces friction and lowers transaction costs. People in companies filled with trust move flexibly and cohesively. People who live in trusting cultures form more community organizations. People in more trusting cultures have wider stock market participation rates. People in trusting cultures find it easier to organize and operate large corporations. Trust creates wealth.

Germany and Japan have high levels of social trust, enabling them to build tightly knit industrial firm. The United States is a collective society that thinks it is an individualistic one. If you ask Americans to describe their values, they will give you the most individualistic answers of any nation on the planet. Yet if you actually watch how Americans behave, you see that they trust one another instinctively and form groups with alacrity.

"Be an Idea-Space Integrator." Erica noticed that the greatest artist often combined what Richard Ogle in his book Smart World calls two mental spaces. Picasso inherited the traditions of Western art, but he also responded to the masks of African art. The merging of these two idea spaces created Picasso fantastic bursts of creativity.

Erica resolved that she would always try to stand at the junction between two mental spaces. In organizations she would try to stand at the junction of two department, or fill the gaps between departments. Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago has a concept he calls structural holes. In any society there are clumps of people doing certain tasks. But between those clumps there are holes, places in between where there are no people and there is no structure. These are the places where the flow of ideas stops, the gaps separating one part of a company from another --- reach out to the discordant clumps and bring their ideas together. In a world of discordant networks and cultures, she would find her destiny and her role.


Power Law - A polynomial with scale invariance. Like Zipfs law.

Popular notion that men are less communicative and empathetic than women. There is plenty of scientific evidence to support this assertion.

Research literature on male communication and feelings and concluded men are more curious about systems and less curious about emotions. They are, on average, more drawn to rules based analyses of how inanimate objects fit together.

Women are, on average, better empathizers. They do better in experiments in which they are given partial clues and have to guess a person's emotional state. They are generally better at verbal memory and verbal fluency. They don't necessarily talk more than men, but they seem to take turns more while talking, and they are more likely to talk about others while men are much more likely to talk about themselves. Women are much more likely to seek somebody else's help when they are in a stressful situation.

Harrison had turned social awkwardness into a form of power. The more cryptic he became, the more everyone had to attend to him. He could be deeply impressive. Clients respected him even if they didn't love him. CEOs were humble in his presence. Harrison was certain about many things - everything, actually - but most certain about two propositions: He was really smart, and most people in the world were not.

Gradually Erica began to notice something. The department wasn't doing very well. The reports were brilliant but the business sucked. New clients would come, but they would rarely last. People would use their services for specific projects, but they were never brought the team on board as trusted advisors.

It took Erica a surprisingly long time to come to this realization, but once she did, she looked at her group with a different and more critical eye. The meetings went on forever, she realized, but there was little actual debate. Instead everybody would bring little bits of information about confirmed theories Harrison had concocted years before. Erica felt as though she were watching courtiers bring candies to the king and then watching him savor them in everybody's presence.

Harrison's favorite locution was "That's all you need to know!" It occurred to Erica that sometimes it wasn't all you needed to know, but the conversation was effectively over.

Then there was the Model. Many years before, Harrison had had a big success restructuring a consumer bank. He was a legend in the banking community. Now every time a bank came to him he tried to implant that model. He tried in big banks and little banks, urban banks and rural banks. When he tried to implant that model in different nations, Erica tried to wheel out her cultural expertise. One meeting she tried to explain the Varieties of Capitalism approach pioneered by Peter Hall and David Soskice. Different national cultures, she said, have different motivational systems, different relationships to authority and to capitalism. Germany, for example, has tight interlocking institutions like work councils. It also has a labor market that make it hard to hire and fire people. These arrangements mean that Germany excels at incremental innovation - the sort of steady improvements that are common in metallurgy and manufacturing. The United States on the other hand, has looser economic networks. It is relatively easy to hire and fire and start new businesses. The United States thous excels at radical innovations, at the sort of rapid paradigm shifts prevalent in software and technology.

Harrison dismissed he with a wave of the hand. Different countries excelled at different things because of different government regulations. Change the regulations and you change the cultures. Erica tried to argue that regulations emerge from cultures, which are deeper and longer lasting. Harrison turned away. Erica was a valuable employee, but she was not smart enough to bother arguing with.

Harrison didn't just treat her this way. He treated clients this way, too. He ignored arguments that didn't fit his mental framework. He had his group prepare long presentations in which they presumed to lecture people about the industries they'd spent their whole lives mastering. They made presentations deliberately opaque in a way of demonstrating their own expertise.

They didn't understand that different companies have different risk tolerances. They didn't understand that a particular CFO might be in a power struggle with a particular CEO and they should be careful not to make the latter's life more difficult. There was no piece of office politics so obvious that they couldn't be oblivious to it, not attempt at empathic accuracy they could not fail. For Erica, no day was complete unless Harrison and his team had committed some incredible faux pas. She spent the final five months of her tenure at the firm going home each day with one question on her mind: How could people who are so smart be so fucking stupid?

Beyond IQ

This turns out to be a revealing question. Harrison had built an entire lifestyle and career around reverence for IQ. He generally hired people on the basis of intelligence; socialized with people on the basis of intelligence. He impressed clients by telling them he'd unleash a team of Ivy Leaguers on their problems.

And to some extent this faith in intelligence was justified. Researchers have studied IQ pretty extensively over the decades and know a lot about it. The IQ scores a person gets in childhood are reasonably predictive of the score he or she gets as an adult. People who are good at one kind of intellectual skill tend to be good at many others. People who are really good at verbal analogies tend to also be good at solving math problems and reading comprehension, though they may be less good at some other mental skills, such as memory recognition.

The ability to do well on these sorts of tests is significantly influenced by heredity. The single strongest predictor of a person's IQ is the IQ of his or her mother. People with high IQs do better in school and in school-like settings. As Dean Hamer and Peter Copeladn note "In study after study, IQ is the single best predictor of school performance."

If you want to lead a business, it probably helps to have an IQ over 100. If you want to go into nuclear physics, it probably helps to have an IQ over 120.

There is a problem with this emphasis on IQ. In the first place, it is surprisingly malleable. Environmental factors can play a huge role in shaping IQ. Parental attention also seems to matter. Firstborns tend to have higher IQs than second borns, who tend have higher IQ than thirdborns. This effect dissapears, however, when there is more than a three-yhar gap between children. The theory is that mothers talk to their firstborns more and use more complicated sentences. They have to divide their attention when they have young children born closely together.

The broadest evidence of IQ malleability is the Flynn Effect. Between 1947 and 2002 IQ levels across the developed world rose steadily by about three percentage points per decade. This was found across many countries, age groups, in many different setting, and its stark evidence of an environmental component of IQ.

Today's children are far better at solving problems on the spot without a previously method for doing so.

The nineteenth-century society rewarded and required more concrete thinking skills. People have a genetic capacity to reason abstractly use those skills more and more, and hence get better and better at them. Their inherited skills are multiplied by their social experiences, and the result is much, much higher IQ scores.

However, once you get beyond the school environment, its not a very reliable predictor of perfomance. Controlling for other factors, people with high IQs do not have better relationships and better marriages. They are not better at raising children. In a chapter of Handbook of Intelligence, Richard K. Wagner of Florida State University surveys the research on IQ and job performance and concludes, "IQ predicts only about 4 percent of variance in job performance." In another chapter of the handbook, John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey, adn David Caruso conclude that at best IQ contributes about 20 % to life success. There is great uncertainty about these sorts of numbers. AS Richard Nisbett buts it "What nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder." But the general idea is that once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians) there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.

One famous longitudinal study known as the Terman study followed a group of extremely high-IQ students (they all scored 135 or above). The researchers expected these brilliant young people to go on to have illustrious careers. The did fine, becoming lawyers and corporate executives for the most part. But there were no superstanr achievers in the group, no Pulitzer Prize winners or MacArthur Award winners. In a follow up study by Melita Oden in 1968 the people in the group who seemed to be doing best only had slightly higher IQs. What they had was superior work ethics. They were the ones who had shown more ambition as children.

Once a person crosses the IQ threshold of 120, there is little relationship between more intelligence and better performance. A person with an IQ of 150 is in theory is much smarted than a person with a 120 IQ but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success. As Malcom Gladwell demonstrates in Outliers, the Americans who won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Medicine did not mostly go to Harvard or MIT, the schools at the tippy top of the cognitive ladder. It was simply enough that they went to good schools --- Rollins College, Washington State, Grinnell. If you are smart enough to get into a good school, you're smart enough to excel - even in academic spheres like chemistry and medical research. Its not important that you are in the top 0.5 percent. A study of 7,403 Americans who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, conducted by Jay Zagorsky of Ohio State, found no correlation between accumulating large wealth and high IQ.

It is a mistake to equate IQ with mental ability. The reality is that intelligence is a piece of mental ability, but it is not the most important piece. People who score well on IQ tests are good at logical, linear and computational tasks. But to excel in the real world, intelligence has to be nestled in certain character traits and dispositions. To draw a prallel, a soldier may be phenomenally strong. If you gave him a test involving push-ups and pull-ups he would do very well. But unless he possesses courage, discipline, technique, imagination and sensitivity he probably wouldn't survive amidst the chaos of the battlefield. In the same way, a thinker may be very smart but unless she possesses moral virtues such as honesty, rigor and fair-mindedness, she probably won't succeed in real life.

In his book What Intelligence Tests Miss, Keith E. Stanovich lists some of the mental dispositions that contribute to real world performance: "The tendency to collect information before making up one's mind, the tendency to seek various points of view before coming to a conclusion, the disposition to think extensively about a problem before responding, the tendency to calibrate the degree of strength of one's opinions to the degree of evidence available, the tendency to think about future consequences before taking action, the tendency to explicitly weigh pluses and minuses of a situation before making a decision, and the tendency to seek nuance and avoid absolutism."

In other words, there is a big difference between mental force and mental character. Mental character is akin to moral character. It is forged by experience and effort, carved into the hinterland of the mind.

Clocks and Clouds

The science writer Jonah Lehrer sometimes reminds his readers of Karl Popper's distinctions between clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated using reductive methodologies. You can take apart a clock, measure the pieces, and see how they fit together. Clouds are irregular, dynamic, and idiosyncratic.

One of the great temptations of modern research is that it tries to pretend that every phenomena is a clock, which can be evaluated using mechanical tools and regular techniques. This is surely true of the study of intelligence. Researchers have spent a great deal of time studying IQ, which is relatively stable and quantifiable, and relatively little time studying mental character, which is cloud like.

If you give people the rules they need to follow in order to solve a problem, then people with higher IQs do better than people with low IQs. But if you don't give them rules, people with high IQs do no better, because coming up with the rules to solve a problem and honestly evaluating one's perfomance afterward are mental activities barely related to IQ.

Mental force and mental character are only lightly correlated. As Stanovich puts it, "Many different studies involving thousands of subjects have indicated that measures of intelligence display only moderate to weak correlations (usually less than 0.30) with some thinking dispositions (for example, actively open-minded thinking, need for cognition) and zero correlation with others (such as conscientiousness, curiosity, dilligence.)

Many investors, for example, are quite intelligent, but behave self-destructively because of their excessive faith in their intelligence. Between 1998 and 2001 the Firsthand Technology Value mutual fund produced annualized total return of 16%. The average individual investor in this fund, however, lost 31.6% of his or her money over this time. Why? Because the geniuses though they could get in and out of the markets at the right moments. These people, who are quite smart, performed worse than if they had been stolid and stupid.

At the very top of intellectual accomplishment, intelligence is nearly useless in separating outstanding geniuses from everybody else. The greatest thinkers seem to possess mental abilities that go beyond rational thinking narrowly defined. Their abilities are fluid and thoroughly cloud like. Albert Einstein, for example, would seem to be an exemplar of scientific or mathematical intelligence. But he addressed problems by playing with imaginative, visual, and physical sensations. "The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought," he told Jacques Hadamard. Instead he says that his intuitions proceed through "certain signs and more or less clear images" that he could manipulate and combine. "The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type," Einstein observed.

"I can only think in pictures," the physicist and chemist Peter Debye declared. "It's all visual." He said that when working on a problem he saw fuzzy images, which he tried to progressively clarify in his mind and then eventually, after the problem was largely solved, he would clarify the pictures in the form of mathematics. Others proceed acoustically, rehearsing certain sounds associated with certain ideas. Others do so emotionally: "You had to use your feelings," Debye explained, "What does the carbon atom want to do?"

Wisdom doesn't consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counter-evidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what is known.

Time to Go

Erica was in an office filled with people with impressive brains who nonetheless couldn't find their way out of a paper bag. As the months went by, she became more and more impatient with their shortcomings, and more and more dumbfounded by their ability to miss opportunities and repeat their mistakes. Here, as so often in her new life, Erica felt like semi-outsider. Maybe it was because her upbringing was so different, or her skin color was different, or for some other reason, but she seemed more aware of the irrational, darker, and passionate side of life.

Because the Almighty is a testing God, he had sent down upon this earth upper-middle class suburban kids who went to white-bread high schools, polo shirt colleges, and light beer sipping business schools and then were spit in to the world of bottled water corporate America and who never got closer to reality than occasional forays into turnpike rest stops. As long as everybody was civil and genial, the way they were, then their way of thinking made sense. As long as everything was neat and orderly, they could retreat and live inside the formulas they'd learned in school.

But, much of the time, because the world is not neat and gentle, they were the babes of the universe. They fell for Bernie Madoff schemes, subprime mortgages, and derivatives they didn't understand. They were suckers for every moronic management fad, every bubble mania. They wandered around in the mist, blown about by deeper forces they could not understand.

Fortunately, God, in His Infinite and Redeeming Mercy, had also sent down a tight-abbed, small boned Chinese-Chicana woman to rescue the innocents. This hard-asses, chip-on-her-shoulder, hyper-organized human Filofax would liberate the overprotective masses from the six delta PowerPoint bullet points and introduce them to the underworld of reality. God had raised His servant in chaos and squalor so that she might be armed with enough knowledge, drive and vinegar in her bloodstream to jostle the White Man from the comfort of his categories and help him see the hidden forces that actually drive the mind. God had armed Erica with the strength and bad attitude she would need so she would take up the yellowish-brown woman's burden and pave the way for salvation of the Earth.

Choice Arcitecture

Grocers know the smell of baked goods stimulates shopping, so many bake their own bread from frozen dough on the premises each morning and then pump the bread smell into the store throughout the day. They alson know that music sells. Researchers in Britain found that when French music was pumped into a store, sales of French wines skyrocketed. When German music was played, German wine sales grew.

Marketing people also realize that people have two sets of tastes, one for stuff they want to use now and one for stuff they want to use later. For example, when researchers asked customers what movies they would like to rent to watch later, they generally pick art films such as The Piano. When they are asked what movie they want to watch tonight, they pick blockbusters such as Avatar.

Even people shopping for major purposes often don't know what they want. Realtors have a phrase, "Buyers lie," because the house many people describe at the beginning of the search is nothing like the one they actually prefer and buy.

The Struggle

Erica loved these kinds of hidden patterns. (Like most people, she though they applied to others but of course not to herself.)She figured she could build her consulting business by gatering data about these unconscious behavioral patterns, especially the ones tied to cultural differences, and then she could sell the information back to companies.

For all of human history the rich had worked fewer hours than the poor, but over the past generation that trend had been inverted. While lower-middle class shoppers wanted video games and movies for the weekend, so they could relax, the rich wanted books and exercise regimens, so they could improve.

Erica developed a collection of analyses about these consumer trends and was ready to pitch her material to potential clients. From the first, building this business was harder than she anticipated. She wrote to companies she thought she could help, called executives she'd met, hounded their assistants. Very few got back to her. During her first few months on her own, Erica's personality changed. Until now, she had the usual array of human needs: food, water, sleep, affection, relaxation, and so on. Now she had only one need: clients. Every thought, every dinner conversation, and every chance meeting was evaluated on that basis. She was anxious about being productive each day, but more anxious she was, the less productive she became. In addition, she fell into an anxiety spiral. She would concentrate on getting enough sleep each night, the less she could actually get. She worked doggedly to absorb new information, but the more frantically she strived to absorb new knowledge, the less she actually remembered.

During this period of her life, Erica's evening alertness turned into all night insomnia. Time changed shape. It had once flowed at a peaceful, steady pace. Now it was a furious current roaring by. When she pulled into a gas station, she silently calculated how many e-mails she could send on her BlackBerry while her tank was filling up. During every pause before an elevator she brought her phone out of her pocket and was texting. She ate at her desk so that she could email while she chewed. Her neck began to hurt and her back was sore. In the morning she'd stare at furious scribbles she had written to herself the night before, completely unable to decipher them.

She did things she never thought she would do- cold-calling potential clients and then silently swallowing their dismissive disdain. She'd started this business with dreams of success but once it was underway she was primarily motivated by the fear of failure. It was the thought of the looks she would get from friends and colleagues if her business failed that drove her onward. It was the prospect of having to tell her mother that she'd gone bankrupt.

Erica believed in her product. She believed there were hidden currents of knowledge and, if she could only get her clients to see them, she would change the world. She would give people deeper ways to perceive reality, new powers to serve and suceed.

Erica had the misfortune to launch her company at the high-water mark of the neuromappers. These were glamorous neurologists who went from business conference to business conference with multi-color fMRI brain scans, promising to unlock the secret synaptic formula for selling toiler paper or energy bars.


"Why don't you try a different approach? Instead of telling me what you're offering, who don't you ask me what I want? Ask me what makes me unhappy. Ask me what keeps me up at night. Ask me what part of my job I wish somebody would take care of for me. It's not about you. Its about me."

From now on her approach was "I'll do whatever you need." She would find a way to use her tools to solve whatever problem the clients threw at her. She would come at them and she would say, "What do you want me to do? How can I serve?"

Erica took herself out for a walk one day and thought this thing through. She was failing to sell cultural segmentation. She didn't want to join the ranks of the neuromappers because she noticed that the advice they derived from their science was actually quite banal. What could she possibly offer?

It never occurred to her to quit. As Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, people who succeed tend to find one goal in the distant future and then chase it through thick and thin. People who flit from one interest to another are much, much less liely to excel at any of them. School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will follow forever.

Behavioral Economics

Over the previous decade a group of economists had worked to apply the insights of the cognitive revolution to their own field. Their chief argument, was that classical economics got human nature partially or largely wrong. The human being imagined by classical economists is smooth, brilliant, calm, and perpetually unastonished by events. He surveys the world with a series of uncannily accurate models in his head, anticipating what will come next. His memory is incredible; he is capable of holding a myriad of decision-making options in his mind, and of weighing the trade-offs involved in each one. He knows exactly what he wants and never flip-flops between two contradictory desires. He seeks to maximize his utility (whatever that is). His relationships are all contingent, contractual and ephemeral. If one relationship is not helping him maximize his utility, he trades it up for another. He has perfect self control and can restrain impulses that may prevent him from competing. He doesn't get caught up in emotional contagions or groupthink, but makes his own decisions on the basis of incentives.

This caricature allows classical economists to build rigorous mathematical models, which are the measures of true genius in the economics profession. It allows them to turn economics from a soft squishy muddleheaded field like psychology into a hard, rigorous and tough minded field like physics. It allows them to formulate laws that govern the study of behavior, and wield the mighty powers of numbers.

"Theoretical economists use their mathematical prowess the way great stags of the forest use their antlers: to do battle with one another and establish dominance. A stag who doesn't use his antlers is nothing."

Behavioral economists argue that stray intuitions, such as a sense of fairness, have powerful economic effects. Pay scales are not only set by what the market will bear. People demand salaries that seem fair, and managers have to take these moral intuitions into account when setting pay scales.

Behavioral economists look for the ways real human beings depart from the rational ideal. There is peer pressure, overconfidence, laziness and self delusion. People sometimes take out extended warranties when they buy appliances even though these warranties almost never justify the cost. Health officials in New York though that if they posted calorie information near the menu boards at fast-food restaurants, people might eat more healthily. In fact, diners actually ordered slightly more calories than before the law went into effect.

Classical economists often believe that economies as a whole tend toward equilibrium, but behavioral economists are more likely to analyze the way shifts in the animal spirits - in confidence, trust, fear, and greed - can lead to bubbles, crashes, and global crises. If the fathers of classical economics knew what we know now about the inner workings of the human mind, some behavioral economists argue, there is no way they would had structured their field as it is.

If behavioral economist acknowledged that behavior was not law-governed - if it was too unpredictable to be captured in mathematics and models - then they would no longer be economists. They wouldn't get published in economic journals or get to go to economic conferences. They'd have to move their offices over to the psychology departments, a big step down in the academic pecking order.


Behind every choice, the behavioral economists argue, there is a choice architecture, an unconscious set of structures that helps frame the decision. This choice architecture often comes in the form of heuristics. The mind stores certain "if... then..." rules of thumb, which get activated by context and can be trotted out and applied in appropriate or near-appropriate circumstances.

--- M. Mitchell Waldrop.

Behavioral economists argue that the caricature is not accurate enough to produce reliable predictions about real events. Two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, were the pioneers. Then their insights were picked up by economists proper: including Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Robert Schiller, George Akerlof and Colin Camerer. These scholars investigate cognition that happens below the level of awareness. Rationality is bounded by emotion. People have a great deal of trouble exercising self-control. They perceive the world in baised ways. They are profoundly influenced by context. They are prone to groupthink. Most of all, people discount the future; we allow present satisfaction to blot out future prosperity.

As Dan Ariely writes in his book Predictably Irrational, "If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires -- with how we want to view ourselves -- than with reality.


One perception cues a string of downstream thoughts that alters subsequent behavior. If you ask test subjects to read a series of words that vaguely relate to being elderly, when they leave the room they will walk more slowly than when they came in. If you give them a group of words that relate to aggressiveness they will be quicker to interrupt somebody in conversation after the experiment is supposedly over.

If you tell somebody stories about high achievement just before they perform some test or exercise, they will perform better than if you had not told them those stories. If you merely use the words "succeed," "master" and "achieve" in a sentence, they will do better.

Priming can work in all sorts of ways. In one experiment, some students in a group and then all were asked to guess the year of Ghengis Khan's death. The students who wrote down the digits were more likely to guess that he lived in the first millennium, with a three digit death year.


Another heuristic involves anchoring. No piece of information is processed in isolation. Mental patterns are contagious, and everything is judged in comparison to something else. A $30 bottle of wine may seem expensive when surrounded by $9 bottles of wine, but it seems cheap when surrounded by $149 bottles of wine (which is why wine stores stock those superexpensive wines that almost nobody actually buys).

The manager of a Brunswick pool-table store tried an experiment. One week he showed customers to his lowest priced pool table first, at $329, and the worked his way up. The oens who bought any table that week spent an average of $550. The next week he showed customers to the $3,000 table first and worked his way down. That week, the average sale topped $1,000.

Then there is framing. Every decision gets framed within a certain linguistic context. If a surgeon tells his patients that a procedure may have a 15 percent failure rate, they are likely to decided against it. If he tells them the procedure has an 85 percent success rate, they tend to opt for it.

If a customer at a grocery store sees some cans of his favorite soup on a shelf, he is likely to put one or two in the cart. If there is a sign that says "Limit: twelve per customer," he is likely to put four or five in the cart.

Dan Ariely asked students to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number and then bid on a bottle of wine and other products. Students with high Social Security numbers (between 80 and 99) bid on average, $56 for a cordless keyboard. Students with lower numbers (1-20) bid $16 on average. The high digit students bid 216 to 346 percent higher than the low-digit students because they were using their own numbers for a reference frame.

Then there are expectations. The mind makes models of what it thinks will happen, which colors its perceptions of what is actually happening. If you give people a hand cream and tell them it will reduce pain, you are building a set of expectations. People really fell their pain diminish, even if the cream is just hand lotion. People who are given a prescription pain relieve they are told costs $2.50 a pill experience much more pain relief than those given what they are told is a 10-cent ill (even though all the pills are placebos). As Jonah Lehrer writes, "Their predictions became self-fulfilling prophecies."

Then there is inertia. The mind is a cognitive miser. It doesn't like to expend mental energy. As a result people have a bias toward maintaining the status quo. TIAA-CREF offers college professors a range of asset allocation options for their retirement accounts. According to one study, most of the participants in those plans make zero allocation changes during their entire professional careers. They just stick with whatever was the first option when they signed up.

Loss aversion. Losing money brings more pain than winning money brings pleasure. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky asked people if they would accept certain bets. They found that people need the chance of willing $40 if they were going to undergo a bet that might cost them $20. Because of loss aversion investors are quicker to sell stocks that made them money than they are to sell stocks that have been declining. They're making self-destructive decisions because they don't want to admit their losses.


Mrs. Taylor introduced a new wrinkle into Harold's life - a love of big ideas. Harold discovered he loved world historical theories, the grander the better. Sometimes he would get so swept up in ideas...

In college, Harold made another discovery. He could be interesting. In college, there were two different status economies. There was the daytime economy, when students interacted with adults and were at their resume-padding, mentor-pleasing best. Harold didn't stand out in this world. But then there was the nighttime economy. In this economy, worldly accomplishments were irrelevant, and the social rewards went to those with the wittiest sensibilities.

Harold and his friends were sensibility gymnasts. The could pull off hilarious routines of irony, camp, ridicule, and self referential, post modern pseudo mockery. Nothing they said was ever meant literally, and the trick to entertaining their social set consisted in knowing exactly how many layers of irony surrounded each conversational display. They cultivated the sort of weird obsessions that can come only through months of non schoolwork related Internet surfing.

In other generations, the campus avant-garde debated Pauline Kael and the meaning of Ingmar Bergman films, but Harold and his friends assumed that technology would produce bigger social changes than art or cultural products. They were not only early adopters; they were early discarders, ditching each fad just as it hit the mainstream.

One month, Mark tried to get on American Idol. The next her took up kite surfing and ended up hanging out with the owner of an NBA basketball team. He lived in what he called "Intense World," a constant search for adrenaline and fond memories.

Once a leader, Harold was now a follower. Mark was Gatsby and Harold, who had once been so assertive, was Nick Carraway, the narrator.

The writer Andrea Donderi argues that the world is divided between the Askers and Guessers. Askers feel no shame when making requests and are willing to be told no without being hurt. They'll invite themselves over as a guest for a week. They have no compunction about asking and do not take offense when they are refused.

Guessers hate asking for favors and feel guilty when saying no to other people's requests. In Guess culture, Donderi writes, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're sure the answer will be yes. In Guess culture you never say no to someone else directly. Every request, made or received, is fraught with emotional and social peril. Mark lived in Ask culture, and Harold lived in Guess culture.

Harold went on to earn a degree in global economics and foreign relations. He also figured out how to ace job interviews. Instead of being polite, deferential, and demure at these interviews, he was his late-night irreverent self. The bored interviewers inevitably loved it, or at least those at any place he actually wanted to work did.

It became obvious to him, as he stood there trying not to be hypnotized by the cruising green light of the machine, that he had become information age Canon fodder. The organizations and journals he worked for were run by paunchy middle-aged adults who had job security and a place in society. People in his cohort, on the other hand, were transient young things who seemed to bet there mostly to provide fact checking and sexual tension.

Harold's mental state was complicated. He didn't feel any pressure to settle into a groove and become an adult yet. None of his friends were doing it. They were living in an even more slapdash manner than he was - spending their twenties doing a little teaching, a little temping, a little bar tending. They seemed to move from city to city with amazing promiscuity.

Cities have become he career dressing rooms for young adults. They have become the place where people go in their twenties to try on different identities. Then, once they know who they are, they leave. Thirty eight percent of young Americans say they would like to live in Los Angeles, but only 8 percent of older Americans would. Friends would show up in San Francisco one year and then Washington, D.C. the next. Everything changed except their e-mail address.

Harold desperately wanted to know what he was supposed to do with his life. He dreamed of finding some calling that would end all uncertainty and would give his life meaning. He longed for some theme that would connect one event in his life to another and replace the jarring sensation he had that each of his moments was unconnected to what came before and after. He dreamed that someday some all-knowing mentor would sit down and not only tell him how to live but why he was here. But his Moses never came. Of course he never came, because you can only discover your vocation by doing it, and seeing if it feels right.

Harold found himself evolving in ways he didn't particularly like. He had developed a personality based on sensibility snobbery. He hadn't accomplished much of anything yet, but at least he could feel good about his superior sensibility. He watched those comedy shows that exploit young people's status anxiety by ridiculing famous people who are professionally accomplished but personally inferior.

Harold discovered that the higher people rise in the world, the larger the dose of daily humility they need in order to maintain their psychic equilibrium.

Harold marveled at the college losers who'd spent the four years at school in friendless isolation watching sitcoms, and who were not promising young producers and Hollywood's flavors of the month. The adult world seemed mysterious and perverse.

The Odyssey Years

There used to be four life phases - childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now there are at least six - childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age. Odyssey is the decade of wandering that occurs between adolescence and adulthood.

The existence of this new stage can be seen in a range of numbers, which have been gathered by scholars such as Jeffrey Jensen Arnett in his book Emerging Adulthood, Robert Wuthnow in his book After the Baby Boomers, Joseph and Claudia Allen in their book Escaping Endless Adolescence, and William Galston of the Brookings Institution.

People around the world are shacking up more and postponing marriage. In the early 1970, 28 percent of Americans had lived with a partner before marriage. By the 1990s 65 percent of Americans had. Between 1980 and 2000 the median age of first marriage had increased by between five and six years in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, an astonishing shift in lifestyles in such a short time. In 1970 a fifth of Americans at age twenty five had never been married. By 2005, 60 percent had never been married.

As Wuthnow demonstrates, people around the developed world are spending more years in school and taking more time to finish their education. The average college graduate in 2000 took 20 percent longer to earn a degree than the average student in 1970.

These changes have been caused by several interrelated phenomena. People are living longer, and so have more time to settle on a life course. The economy has become more complicated, with a broader array of career possibilities, so it takes people a while to find the right one. Society has become more segmented, so it takes longer for people to find the right psychological niche. Women are better educated than before and more likely to be working full-time. In 1970 only 26 percent of women were working out of the home fifty weeks a year in the United States. By 2000, 45 percent were. Many of these women want to, or feel compelled to, postpone marriage and family until they are professionally established.

Finally, young people are ambivalent about adulthood. As Arnett argues, they want the security and stability that adulthood brings, but they don't want to settle into a daily grind. They don't want to limit their spontaneity or put limits on their dreams.

Around 96 percent of eighteen to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree with the statement "I am certain that someday I will bet to where I want to be in life." They were very, even insanely, impressed with their own specialness. In 1950 a personality test asked teenagers if they considered themselves an important person. Twelve percent said yes. By the late 1980s, 80 percent said yes.

The social critic Michal Barone argues that the United States produces moderately impressive twenty-year-olds but bery impressive thirty-year-olds. He says that the hard pressures and choices that hit people during their wide-open unsupervised twenties forge a new and much better kind of person.

The Group

The Group was a gang of friends who lived in the same limbo state as he. They were between twenty-two and thirty. The core had attended college together, but they'd accumulated a gang of selected friends along the way, so now there were roughly twenty people hanging about in their circle. They provided all the services that people from an extended family might provide for one another in a more traditional society.

Researchers have done a lot of work over the past few years analyzing social networks. It turns out almost everything is contagious. If your friends are obese, you are more likely to be obese. If your friends are happy, you are more likely to be happy. If your friends smoke, you smoke. If they feel lonely, you feel lonely. In fact, Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler have found that a person's friends have more influence on whether he or she will be obese than a person's spouse.

Harold loved spending time with the Group because he didn't have to worry if it served any utility or not. Being part of the Group was an end in itself. More time with his friends meant more of a feeling of being alive, and there was no higher purpose involved. They'd get together for hours on end in great swirling bouts of talk. Very frequently they'd dance.

Most societies have some form of ritualized group dancing. Modern American society has done away with a lot of that (except for square dancing and a few other specialties). Now most dancing is done by couples, as a preparation for sex. But when the Group got together they would all dance. The dancing wasn't about anything. It wasn't about wooing. It wasn't about seduction. It was just the physical exuberance of being together.


There is an old debate - the debate between On the Road and It's a Wonderful Life. To the extent that social science To the extent that social science can solve debates like this, the data is on Harold's side.

In recent years, researchers have spent a lot of time investigating what makes people happy. They do it mostly by asking people if they are happy and then correlating their answers with other features of their lives. The method seems flimsy, but it produces surprisingly stable and reliable results.

The first thing they have found is that the relationship between money and happiness is complex. Richer countries tend to be happier countries, and richer people tend to be happier than poorer people, but the relationship is not that strong; it depends on how you define happiness, and it is the subject of fierce debate among the experts. As Carol Graham writes in her book Happiness Around the World, Nigerians rate themselves just as happy as the Japanese, even though Japan's GDP per capita is almost twenty-five times higher than theirs. The percentage of Bangladeshis who report themselves as satisfied with their lives is twice as high as the percentage of Russians. Living standards in the United States have risen dramatically over the past fifty years. But this has produced no measurable uptick in happiness. On the other hand, the United States has become a much more unequal society. This inequality doesn't seem to have reduced national happiness either, even among the poor.

Winning the lottery produces a short-term jolt of happiness, but the long term effects are invisible. The happiness gain you get from moving from poor to middle class is much greater than the gain you get from moving from middle to upper class; the happiness curve flattens out. People aren't happiest during their middle-aged years, when they are winning the most promotions. They are, statistically speaking, happiest in their twenties and their sixties, when their careers are just starting or winding down. People who place tremendous emphasis on material well-being tend to be less happy than people who don't.

The next clear finding from research is that people are pretty bad at judging what will make them happy. People vastly overvalue work, money, and real estate. They vastly undervalue intimate social bonds and the importance of arduous self actualization challenges. The average Americans say that if they could make only $90,000 more a year, they could "fulfill all their dreams." But the evidence suggests that they are wrong.

If the relationship between money and happiness is complicated, the relationship between deep social bonds and happiness is not. The deeper the relationships a person has, the happier he or she will be. People in long term marriage are much happier than people who aren't. According to one study, being married produces the same psychological gain as earning $100,000 a year. According to another, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling one's income.

People who have more friends have lower stress levels and longer lives. Extroverts are happier than introverts. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, David Schkade, and others, the daily activities most associated with happiness are all social - having sex; socializing after work, and having dinner with friends - while the daily activity most injurious to happiness - commuting - tends to be solitary.

The professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social (being a corporate manager, a hairdresser or a health or care provider), while the professions least correlated to happiness are either social in a perverse manner (such as being a prostitute) or less social (such as being a production machine operator).

As Roy Baumeister summarizes the evidence, "Whether someone has a network of good relationships or is alone and isolated in the world is a much stronger predictor of happiness than any other objective predictor."

All human beings go through life with a fully operational status sonar. We send out continual waves of status measurements and receive a stream of positive or negative feedback signals that cumulatively define our place in society. All day long the status sonar hums along - a stream of pluses, minuses, and neutrals building in the mind, producing either happiness, anxiety or doubt. The status sonar isn't even a conscious process most of the time; it is just the hedonic tone of existence. Much of life consists of trying to maximize the number of pluses in the stream and minimize the number of minuses. Much of life is a series of adjustments to plus up the flow.

The problem is, nobody's status sonar is accurate. Some people are status exaggerators. They wildly inflate their spot in the pecking order. They are sixes but they think they are eights and when they ask out women who are nines they are flummoxed when they get rejected. Other people are status minimizers. These people will never apply for jobs for which they are amply qualified because they assume they'll be crushed by the competition.

The most successful people are mildly delusional status inflators. They maximize their pluses, thus producing self confidence, and decide their minuses are not really that important anyway, thus eliminating paralyzing self-doubt.

A global survey by Adrian Furnham of University College, London, found that males everywhere overestimate their own intelligence. Another study found that 95 percent of American males believe they are in the top 50 percent when it comes to social skills.

Stendhal observed that each person's first great love is fueled by ambition.


Helen Fisher's research into the brain activity of people who are deeply and madly in love reveals that it's some of the prosaic, furnacelike parts of the brain that are actually most active in moments of intense romantic feeling - parts like that caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area. The caudate nucleus, for example, helps us perform extemely mundane tasks. It preserves muscle memory, so we remember how to type or ride a bike. It integrates huge amounts of information, including childhood memories.

But the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area are also parts of something else, the reward system of the mind. They produce powerful chemicals like dopamine, which can lead to focused attention, exploratory longings, and strong, frantic desire. Norepinephrine, a chemical derived from dopamine, can stimulate feelings of exhilaration, energy, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. Phenylethylamine is a natural amphetamine that produces feelings of sexual excitement and emotional uplift.

As Fisher wrote in her hook Why We Love, "The caudate helps us detect and perceive a reward, discriminate between rewards, prefer a particular reward, anticipate a reward, and expect a reward. It produces motivation to acquire a reward and plans specific movements to obtain a reward. The caudate is also associated with the acts of paying attention and learning."

In other words, love isn't separate from everyday life. It is a member of a larger family of desires. Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University argues that on an fMRI machine, the brain of a person experiencing the first burst of love looks like, in some ways, the brain of a person in the midst of a cocaine rush. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp argues that the experience of opiate addiction mimics the pleasure lovers feel being around each other. In each case, people are gripped by a desire that takes over their lives. Inhibitions fall. The object of desire becomes an object of obsession.

Aron argues that love is not an emotion like happiness or sadness. Love is a motivational star, which leads to various emotions ranging from euphoria to misery. A person in love has the keenest possible ambitions to achieve a goal. A person in love is in a state of need.

The Urge to Merge

Wolfram Schultz is a neuroscientist at Cambridge University who did research on monkeys in hopes of understanding Parkinson's disease. He would squirt apple juice in their mouths and observe a little surge in the dopamine neurons in their brains. After a few squirts, he noticed that the dopamine neurons began to fire just before the juice arrived. He set up an experiment in which he sounded a tone and then delivered the juice. After just a few rounds, the monkeys figured out that the tone preceded the juice. Their neurons begin to fire at the sound of the tone, not the delivery of the juice. Schultz and his colleagues were baffled. Why didn't these neurons simply respond to the actual reward, the juice?

A crucial answer came from Read Montague, Peter Dayan and Terence Sejnowski. The mental system is geared more toward predicting rewards than in the rewards itself. The mind creates predictive models all day long; when one of the models accurately anticipates really, then the mind experiences a little surge of reward, or at least a reassuring feeling of tranquility. When the model contradicts reality, then there's tension and concern.

The main business of the brain is modeling, Montague argues. We are continually constructing little anticipatory patterns in our brain to help us predict the future: E.g. If I put my hand here, then this will happen. If I smile, then she'll smile. If our model meshes with what actually happens, we experience a little drip of sweet affirmation. If it doesn't then there's a problem, and the brain has to learn what the glitch is and adjust the model.

This function is one of the fundamental structures of desire. As we go through out days, the mind generates anticipatory patterns, based on the working models stored inside it. Often there's tension between the inner models and the outer world. So we try to come up with concepts that will help us understand the world, or changes in behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. When we grasp some situation, or master some task, there's a surge of pleasure. Its's not living in perpetual harmony that produces the surge. If that were so, we'd be happy living on the beach all our lives. It's the moment when some tension is erased. So a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and the outer patterns mesh.

The desire for limerence can manifest itself in odd ways. People are instinctively drawn to the familiar. The desire for limerence drives us to seek perfection in our crafts. Sometimes, when we are absorbed in some task, the skull barriers begin to disappear. An expert rider feels at one with the rhythms of the horse she is riding. A carpenter merges with the tool in his hands. A mathematician loses herself in the problem she is solving. In these sublime moments, internal and external patterns are meshing and flow is achieved.

The desire for limerence propels us intellectually. We all like to be told how right we are (some radio and cable-TV pundits make millions reinforcing their audience's inner models). We all feel a surge of pleasure when some clarifying theory clicks into place. We all like to feel in harmony with our surroundings. As Bruce Wexler argues in Brain and Culture, we spend much of the first halves of our lives trying to build internal models that fit the world and much of the last halves trying to adjust the world so that it fits the inner models. Much late-night barroom conversation involves someone trying to get other people to see the world as we do. Nations don't clash only over land, wealth, and interest; they fight to compel others to see the world as they do. One of the reasons the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so stubbornly unresolved is that each side wants the other to accept its historical narrative.

The desire for limerence is at its most profound during those transcendent moments when people feel themselves fused with nature and with God, when the soul lifts up and a felling of oneness with the universe pervades their being.

Most important, people seek limerence with another. Within two weeks of being born, babies will cry if they hear another baby in distress, but not if they hear a recording of their own crying.

People gravitate toward people like themselves. When we meet new people, we instantly start matching our behavior to theirs. Friends who are locked in conversation begin to replicate each other's breathing patterns. People who are told to observe a conversation begin to mimic the physiology of the people having the conversation, and the more closely they mimic the body language, the more perceptive they are about the relationship they are observing. As the neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni notes, "Vicarious" is not a strong enough word to describe the effects of these mental processes. When we sense another's joy, we begin to share that person's laughter as if it were our own. When we see agony, even up on a movie screen, that agony is reflected in our brains, in paler form, as if it were our own.

Once people feel themselves within a group, there is a strong intuitional pressure to conform to its norms.


We don't teach this ability in school - to harmonize patterns, to seek limerence, to make friends. But the happy life is defined by these sorts of connections, and the unhappy life is defined by a lack of them.

Emile Durkheim demonstrated that people with few social connections are much more likely to commit suicide. In Love and Survival, Dean Ornish surveyed research on longevity and concluded that solitary people are three to five times more likely to die prematurely than socially engaged people.

Achieving limerence, on the other hand, can produce an overwhelming feeling of elevation. When the historian William McNeill was in the U.S. Army in 1941, he was taught, in boot camp, how to march. Soon this act of marching with his fellows began to alter his own consciousness:

Millions of soldiers have risked and surrendered their lives in war because of the primordial connection they felt toward their fellows. Families are held together through thick and thin by that feeling. Social life is held together by the lower level version of that feeling we call trust. And for most of us, the strongest longing for limerence takes the form of that intense desire we have to meld with the special other - love.

This drive, this longing for harmony, is a never ending process - model, adjust, model, adjust - guiding us onward.

Eros Reconsidered

In the Greek understanding, eros was a generalized longing for union with the beautiful and the excellent. People are driven by eros to want to have a broadly sensed sort of fusion. They want to share the same emotions, visit the same places, savor the same pleasures, and replicate the same patterns in each other's minds.

The longing for limerence doesn't automatically produce perfect romances or easy global harmony. We spend large parts of our lives trying to get others to accept our patterns - and trying to resist this sort of mental hegemony from others. On a broader scale, people don't just connect, they compete to connect. We compete against one another to win the prestige and respect and attention that will help us bond with one another. We seek to surpass one another in earning one another's approval. That's the logic of our complicated game.


When the contracts were cut, the relationships dissolved. Erica noticed her e-mails no longer generated responses. Calls went unreturned. It wasn't that people stopped liking her. They just didn't want to hurt her. They were cutting off her contract, and they didn't want to cause her pain by telling her, so they just withdrew. Erica began to recognize the dishonesty of niceness. The desire to not cause pain was just an unwillingness to have an unpleasant conversation. it was cowardice, not consideration.

"There is no craving or demand of the human mind more than constant and insatiable than that for exercise and employment and this desire seems the foundation of most of our passions and pursuits"

-David Hume

In an essay for The Atlantic, Don Peck summarized the research findings on the psychological costs of unemployment. People who suffer long-term bouts of unemployment are much more likely to suffer depression, even years later. For the rest of their lives, the cling more tightly to jobs, and become more risk adverse. Their physical health deteriorates. People who lose jobs at thirty have life spans a year and a half shorter than people who never lost a job. Long-term unemployment, some researchers have found, is the psychic equivalent to the death of a spouse.


The human mind is an overconfidence machine. The conscious level gives itself credit for things it really didn't do and confabulates tales to create the illusion it controls things it really doesn't determine. Ninety percent of drivers believe they are above average behind the wheel. Ninety-four percent of college professors think they are above-average teachers. Ninety percent of entrepreneurs think that their new business will be a success. Ninety-eight percent of students who take the SAT say they have average or above-average leadership skills.

College students vastly overestimate their chances of getting a high paying job, traveling abroad, and staying married when they reach adulthood. When shopping for clothes, middle aged people generally choose clothes that are too tight on the grounds that they're about to lose a few pounds, even though the vast majority of people in their age bracket get wider year by year.

People overestimate their ability to control their unconscious tendencies. They buy health club memberships but then are unable to work up the willpower to go. People overestimate how well they understand themselves. Half of all students at Penn State said they would make a stink if somebody made a sexist comment in their presence. When researchers arranged for it to actually happen, only 16 percent actually said anything.

People overestimate what they know. Paul J. H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave executives questionnaires to measure how much they knew about their industries. Managers in the advertising industry gave answers that they were 90 percent confident were correct. In fact, their answers were wrong 61 percent of the time. People in the computer industry gave answers they thought had a 95 percent chance of being right; in fact, 80 percent of them were wrong. Russo and Schoemaker gave their tests to more than two thousand people and 99 percent overestimated their success.

People not only overestimate what they know, they overestimate what they can know. Certain spheres of life, like the stock market, are too complex and too random to be able to predict near-term events with any certainty. This seems to have no effect on actual behavior, as the entire stock-picking industry demonstrates. Brad Barber and Terrance Odean analyzed over sixty-six thousand trades from discount broker accounts. The traders who were the most confident did the most trades and underperformed the overall market.

People overestimate their ability to understand why they are making certain decisions. They make up stories to explain their own actions, even when they have no clue about what is happening inside. After they've made a decision, they lie to themselves about why they made the decision and about whether it was the right one in the circumstances. Daniel Gilbert of Harvard argues that we have a psychological immune system that exaggerates information that confirms our good qualities and ignores information that casts doubt upon them.

The telling thing is that self-confidence has very little to do with actual competence. A great body of research finds that incompetent people exaggerate their own abilities more grossly than their better performing peers. One study found that those who scored in the bottom quartile on tests of logic and grammar were especially likely to overestimate their abilities. Many people are not only incompetent, they are in denial about how incompetent they are. It is fair to say that human beings are generally overconfident.

The scientific method brought rigor to where there had once been guesswork and intuition. In the realm of physics, chemistry, biology, and other natural sciences, the results were awesome to behold.

Inevitably, rationalist techniques were applied to the science of organizing society, so that progress in the social realm could be as impressive as progress in the scientific one. The philosophies of the French Enlightenment compiled a great encyclopedia, trying to organize all human knowledge into one reference book. As Dumarsais declared in the encyclopedia, "Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher."

Rationalism gained enormous prestige during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it does contain certain limitations and biases. This mode of thought is reductionist; it breaks problems into discrete parts and is blind to emergent systems. This mode, as Guy Claxton observes in his book The Wayward Mind, values explanation over observation. More time is spent solving the problem than taking in the scene. It is purposeful rather than playful. It values the sort of knowledge that can be put into words and numbers over the sort of knowledge that cannot. It seeks rules and principles that can be applied across context, and undervaleus the importance of specific context.

Moreover, the rationalist method was founded upon a series of assumptions. It assumes that social scientists can look at society objectively from the outside, purged of passions and unconscious biases. It assumes that reasoning can be fully or at least mostly under conscious control. It assumes that reason is more powerful than and separable from emotion and appetite. It assumes that perception is a clear lens, giving the viewer a straightforward and reliable view of the world. It assumes that human action conforms to laws that are akin to the laws of physics, if we can only understand what they are.

The rationalism method has yielded many great discoveries but when it is used to explain or organize the human world, it does have one core limitation. It highly values conscious cognition, but it is blind to the influence of the unconscious. Rationalists have a tendency to lop off or diminish all information that is not calculable according to their methodologies.

Economics did not start out as a purely rationalist enterprise. Adam Smith believed that human beings are driven by moral sentiments and their desire to seek and be worthy of the admiration of others. Thorstein Veblen, Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek expressed themselves through words not formulas. They stressed that economic activity was conducted amidst pervasive uncertainty. Actions are guided by imagination as well as reason. People can experience discontinuous paradigm shifts, sometimes seeing the same situation in radically different ways. John Maynard Keynes argued that economics is a moral science and reality could not be captured in universal laws calculable by mathematics. Economics, he wrote, "deals with introspection and with values... it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogenous.


Leaders of the British Enlightenment acknowledged the importance of reason. They were not irrationalists. But they believed that individual reason is limited and of secondary importance. "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them," David Hume wrote. "We are generally men of untaught feelings," Edmund Burke asserted. "We are afraid to put men to live and to trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small."

Whereas the leaders of the French Enlightenment spoke the language of logic, science, and universal rules, the leaders of the British Enlightenment emphasized the power of the sentiments and the affectations. In effect, members of the British Enlightenment based their view of human nature on the idea that behavior is largely shaped by the unconscious. Early in his career, Edmund Burke wrote a book on aesthetics called 'A Philosophical Inquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He had noticed that there is a great deal of commonality in what people find beautiful. Human beings are not blank slates to be filled in by education. They are born and raised with certain preferences, affections, and aversions. The "senses and imagination captivate the soul before understanding is ready either to join with them or oppose them," he wrote.

Whereas the members of the French Enlightenment imagined a state of nature in which autonomous individuals formed social contracts for their mutual benefit, members of the British Enlightenment stressed that people are born with a social sense which plays out beneath the level of awareness. People are born with a sense of "fellow feeling," a natural sympathy for other people's pain and pleasure. They are guided by a desire to be admired and to be worthy of admiration. Morality, these writers argued, flows from these semiconscious sentiments, not from logical deductions or abstract laws.

Whereas the children of the French Enlightenment tended to see society and its institutions as machines, to be taken apart and reengineered, children of the British Enlightenment tended to see them as organisms, infinitely complex networks of living relationships. In their view, it's often a mistake to dissect a problem into discrete parts because the truth is found in the nature of the connections between the things you are studying. Context is crucial. Abstract universals are to be distrusted. Historical precedents are more useful guides than universal principles.

The members of the British Enlightenment made a distinction between change and reform. Change is an engineered process that replaces the fundamental nature of an institution. Reform is a medicinal process that preserves the essence while repairing wounds and reviving the essence.

The Next Question

This debate between pure reason on one side and intuition and affection on the other is one of the oldest. Intellectual history has oscillated between rationalist and romantic periods, or as Alfred North Whitehead put it, between eras that are simpleminded and eras that are muddleheaded.

The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years has provided a new burst of insight into these old questions. The new findings strongly indicate that the British Enlightenment view of human nature is more accurate than the French Enlightenment view.

Thinkers from the French Enlightenment imagined that we are Rational Animals, distinguished from other animals by our power of logic. Marxists and others in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries imagined that we are Material Animals, shaped by the physical conditions of our lives. But the thinkers of the British Enlightenment were right to depict us as Social Animals.

The unconscious is subjective. It treats information like a fluid, not a solid. When information gets stored in the brain, it doesn't just get filed away. It seems to get moved about. The recall process of a seventy-year-old activates different and more scattered parts of the brain than the recall processes of a twenty six year old. Memory doesn't actually retrieve information. It reweaves it. Things that happen later can transform your memory of something that happened before. For these and many other reasons, your unconscious data-retrieval system is notoriously unreliable.

There are things Level 1 sees tat Level 2 just doesn't. There are reasons to think that the unconscious mind is quite smart indeed.

The Hidden Oracle

In the first place, conscious processes are nestled upon the unconscious ones. It is nonsensical to talk about rational thought without unconscious though because Level 2 receives its input and its goals and its directional signals from Level 1. The two systems have to intertwine if a person is going to thrive. Furthermore, the unconscious is just more powerful than the conscious mind. Level 1 has vast, implicit memory systems it can draw upon, whereas Level 2 relies heavily upon the working memory system, the bits of information that are consciously in mind at any given moment. The unconscious consists of many different modules, each with its own function, whereas the conscious mind is just one module. Level 1 has much higher processing capacity. Measured at its highest potential, the conscious mind still has a processing capacity 2000,000 times weaker than the unconscious.

Moreover many of Level 1's defects are the flip side of its virtues. The unconscious is very sensitive to context. Well, sometimes its really important to be sensitive to context. Sometimes situations are ambiguous and it is useful to be flexible. The unconscious is quick to make generalizations and to project stereotypes. Well, daily life would be impossible if you didn't rely on generalizations and stereotypes. The unconscious can be fuzzy. Well, most of life is conducted amidst uncertainty, and it's useful to have mental processes that can handle uncertainty.

The unconscious ability to converse with the sensations of the body is not trivial. The body delivers messages that are an integral part of thinking, in all sorts of strange ways. if you read people an argument while you ask them to move their arms in a "pushing away" direction, they will be more hostile to the argument than if you read it to them while they are making a "pulling in" movement. A brain could not work if it was just sitting in a jar somewhere, cut off from motor functions.

The unconscious is also capable of performing incredibly complex tasks without any conscious assistance. It takes conscious attention to learn to drive, but once the task is mastered, the knowledge gets sent down to the subconscious and it becomes possible to drive for miles and miles while listening to the radio and talking to a passenger and sipping a coffee without consciously attending to the road. Without even thinking about it, most people treat strangers courteously, avoid needless confrontations, and feel pained by injustice.

The unconscious is responsible for peak performance. When a beginner learns a task, there is a vast sprawl of brain activity. When an expert does it unconsciously, there is just a little pulse. The expert is performing better by thinking less. When she's at the top of her game, the automatic centers of her brain are controlling her movements. The sportscaster would say she's "unconscious," If she were to think more about how to swing her golf club or sing her aria, she would do worse. She would, as Jonah Lehrer observes, be "choking on thought."

As it absorbs data the unconscious simultaneously interprets, organizes, and creates a preliminary understanding. It puts every discrete piece of information in context. Blindsight is one of the most dramatic illustrations of unconscious perceptions. People who have suffered damage to the visual area of the brain, usually as the result of strokes, can not consciously see. But Beatrice de Gelder of Tilburg Universtiy asked a man with this damage to walk down a cluttered hallway. He deftly zigzagged down the hall, navigating around the obstacles to get to the other end. When scientists fash cards with shapes on them to other sufferers of this "blindness," they guess the shapes on the card with impressive accuracy. The unconscious proceeds when conscious sight is gone.

The ability to accumulate implicit heuristics applies to things even more important than baseball. The unconscious seems to encode information in two ways. There is what scientists call "verbatim encoding," which seeks to encode exactly what happened during a certain event. There is also fuzzy-trace theory, which posits that the unconscious also tries to derive a gist, an imprecise rendering of an event that can be pulled out and applied the next time some vaguely similar event happens.

Implicit beliefs and stereotypes organize your world, and are absolutely essential to performing the normal activities of life. The unconscious understands the world by generalizations.

By using these flexible tools, the unconscious is quite good at solving complex problems. The general rule is that conscious processes are better at solving problems with a few variables or choices, but unconscious processes are better at solving problems with many possibilities and variables. Conscious processes are better at solving problems when the factors are concretely defined. Unconscious processes are better when everything is ambiguous.

Epistemological Modesty

Intuition and logic exist in partnership. The challenge is to organize this partnership, knowing when to rely on Level I and when to rely on level 2, and how to organize the interchange between the two. The research doesn't yet provide clear answers about that, but it does point to an attitude - an attitude that acknowledges the weakness of the mind while prescribing strategies for action.

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know. Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don't know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery.

Not knowing ourselves, we also have trouble fully understanding others. Not fully understanding others, we also cannot really get to the bottom of circumstances. No event can be understood in isolation from its place in the historical flow - the infinity of prior events, minute causes, and circumstances that touch it in visible and invisible ways. And yet this humble attitude doesn't necessarily produce passivity. Epistemological modesty is a disposition for action. The people with this disposition believe that wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance. We can design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate for the limits on our knowledge. The modest disposition begins with the recognition that there is no one method for solving problem. It's important to rely on the quantitative and rational analysis. But that gives you part of the truth, not the whole.

If you were asked what day in the spring you should plant corn, you could consult a scientist. You could calculate the weather patterns, consult the historical record, and find the optimal temperature range and date at each latitude and altitude. On the other hand, you could ask a farmer. Folk wisdom in North America decrees that the corn should be planted when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear. Whatever the weather in any particular year, this rule will guide the farmer to the right date. This is a different sort of knowledge. It comes from integrating and synthesizing diverse dynamics. It is produced over time, by an intelligence that is assocational - observing closely imagining loosely, comparing like to unlike and like to like to find harmonies and rhythms in the unfolding of events.

The modest person uses both methods, and more besides. The modest person learns not to trust one paradigm. Most of what he knows accumulates through a long and arduous process of wandering. The modest person is patient.

Human beings are good at accumulating this sort of wanderer's knowledge. For ninety thousand generations our race has been exploring landscapes, sensing dangers and opportunities. When you explore a new landscape or visit a new county your attention is ope to everything, like a baby's. One thing catches your eye. Then another. This receptiveness can happen only when you are physically there. Not when you are reading about a place, but only when you are on the scene, immersed in it. If you don't actually visit a place, you don't really know it. If you don't get used to the people, you don't know it. As the Japanese proverb puts it: Don't study something. Get used to it.

When you are out there on the scene, you are plunged into particulars. A thousand sensations wash over you. In ancient times a human wanderer would see a stream in a new landscape, and the sight would be coated with pleasure. He would see a dense forest or a craggy ravine, and a little marker of fear would lodge with the image in the brain. The mind wants to make instant judgments about all the sensory details it receives, file away new data with some theory. People hate uncertainty and rush to judgment. Research by Colin Camerer has found that when people play cards in circumstances that don't allow them to calculate the odds of success, the fear oriented centers of their brains light up. They try to end the fear by reaching a conclusion, any conclusion, about the pattern of the game, just to end the fear.

The wanderer endures uncertainty. The wise wanderer holds off and restrains, possessing what John Keats called negative capability, the ability to be in "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

The more complicated the landscape, the more the wanderer relies on patience. The more confusing the scene, the more tolerant his outlook becomes. He not only has an awareness of his own ignorance, but of his own weakness in the face of it. He knows that his mind will seize on the most recent experience and try to impose the lessons of that case onto this one. This is the fallacy of availability. He knows that he came onto this scene with certain stereotypes of how life works in his mind, and he will try to get what he sees her to conform to them. This is the fallacy of attribution.

He is on guard against his weaknesses. He pays attention to the sensations that come up from below. He makes tentative generalizations and analyses and focuses on sensations anew. He continues to wander and absorb, letting the information marinate deep inside. He is playing, picking up this and that. He sees a section of the landscape and slowly feels his way to another side. He meets people in this new landscape, and he reenacts pieces of the own behavior and thinking in his own mind. He begins to walk as they walk, and laugh as they laugh. He sees the patterns of their daily existence, which they are no longer even aware of. His mind naturally oscillates between the outer texture of their lives and what he intuits of their inner hopes and goals.

Meanwhile, level I is churning away, blending data, probing for similarities and rhythms in its own ceaseless way. It is working up a feel for the new landscape: How does the light fall? How do the people greet one another? What is the pace of life? It's not only the individuals the unconscious is trying to discern, but the patterns between them. How closely do these people work together? What is the common unspoken conception of authority and individuality? The point is not just to describe the fish in the river, but the nature of the water in which they swim.

At some point there is a moment of calm, and disparate observations integrate into a coherent whole. The wanderer can begin to predict how people will finish their sentences. he now possesses map in his mind. The contours of his brainscape harmonize with the contours of reality in this new space. Sometimes this synchronicity will be achieved gradually. Sometimes there are bursts of inspiration, and the map comes into focus all at once. After these moments, the mind will reinterpret every old piece of data in a radically new way. What seemed immeasurably complex will now seem beautifully simple.

Eventually - not soon, not until after many month of arduous observation, with dry spells and frustrating longueurs - the wanderer will achieve what the Greeks called metis. This is the state of wisdom that emerges from the conversation between conscious and unconscious mental processes.

Métis is very hard to put into words. A person with métis possesses a mental map of her particular reality. She possesses a collection of metaphors that arranges an activity or a situation. She has acquired a set of practical skills that enable her to anticipate change.

She understands the general properties of a situation but also the particulars. A mechanic may understand the general qualities of all cars, but is quick to get a feel of each particular car. A person with metis knows when to apply the standard operating procedure but also when to break the rules. A surgeon with metis has a feel for or a knack for a certain sort of procedure, and she senses what can be about to go wrong at each stage. In Asian cooking there are recipes that ask the chef to add ingredients whent he oil is about to burn. A chef with metis knows the quality the oil takes on just before something else is about to happen.

During his discussion of Tolstoy in his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," philosopher Isaiah Berlin comes close to describing a conception of Metis. It is achieved, he writes, "not by a specific inquiry and discovery, but by awareness, not necessarily explicit or conscious, of certain characteristics of human life and experience.

We humans live our lives in the midst of a specific flow of events, the medium in which we are. "We do not and cannot observe [this flow] as if from the outside; cannot identify, measure and seek to manipulate; cannot even be wholly aware of it, inasmuch as it enters too intimately into all our experience." It is "too closely interwoven with all that we are and do to be lifted out of the flow (it is the flow) and observed with scientific detachment, as an object. It - the medium in which we are - determines our most permanent categories, our standards of truth and falsehood, of reality and appearance, of the good and the bad, of the central and the peripheral, the subjective and the objective, of the beautiful and the ugly, of movement and rest, of past, present and future...

"Nevertheless, though we cannot analyze the medium without some (impossible) vantage point outside it (for there is no 'outside'), yet some human beings are better aware - though they cannot describe it - of the texture and direction of these 'submerged' portions of their own and everyone else's lives; better aware of this than others, who either ignore the existence of the all pervasive medium (the 'flow of life') and are rightly called superficial; or else try to apply to it instruments - scientific, metaphysical, philosophical, etc. - adapted solely to objects above the surface, the relatively conscious, manipulable portion of our experience, and so achieve absurdities in their theories and humiliating failures in practice."

Wisdom "is not scientific knowledge, but a special sensitiveness to the contours of the circumstances in which we happen to be placed; it is a capacity for living without falling foul of some permanent condition or factor which cannot either be altered or fully described and calculated; an ability to be guided by rules of thumb - the 'immemorable wisdom' said to reside in peasants and other 'simple folk' - where rules of science do not, in principle apply. This inexpressible sense of cosmic orientation is the 'sense of reality,' the 'knowledge' of how to live."

The Insurgency

No human brain handles distractions well. Most human minds are more supple at handling visual images than abstract concepts. Most people can hold a though for only about ten seconds at a time, and need an external structure to keep on track.

Through a complex of feedback mechanisms, the brain can recognize mistakes even as it is making them.

Researchers have found that people who engage in what they call "dialectical bootstrapping" often are more effective thinkers than those who don't. That means engaging in internal debates, pitting one impulse against another.

The great business sage Peter Drucker said that about a third of the business decisions he observed turned out to have been right, another third turned out to be minimally effective, and another third were outright failures. In other words, there is at least a two-thirds chance that what we have done is wrong or largely wrong. We believe that this is great, because we want to believe we are great. We want to preserve our own egos, so we're spinning ourselves. But the truth is life is about producing failure. We only progress through a series of regulated errors. Every move is a partial failure to be corrected by the next one. Think of it as walking. You shift your weight off balance with every step, and then throw your other leg forward to compensate.

The people who make money at the horse track don't bet on every race. In fact, they seldom bet, and only when they think they have an insight that gives them an advantage. Warren Buffett used to say that most of the money he'd earned over his lifetime came from fewer than ten decisions. The lesson is that leaders can expect to have only a few good insights over the course of their careers, and they shouldn't be making moves when they don't have really good insights behind them.

Most communications is physical - through gestures not words. It's hard to understand others or share ideas and plans across a video screen. Human beings evolve to work in small bands. An in fact there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that much of the time groups think better than individuals. When you get people to look at the same problem they use different analytic modes. If you just rely on one model, you tend to amputate reality to make it fit your model.

Addiction weakens the learning mechanism of the brain. Alcoholics and other addicts understand what they are doing to themselves, but don't seem to be able to internalize their knowledge into a permanent life lesson. Some researchers believe they suffer from this disability because they have damaged the neural plasticity in their prefrontal cortex. They can no longer learn from mistakes.

Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't work for most people. Researchers have not been able to predict who will benefit from AAA and who will not. They can't even agree on whether the program works better than the other programs that are out there, or at all.

That's because the fellowship of each group cannot be reduced to a formula, compared across groups, or captured in a social science experiment, and the quality of the fellowship is what really matters.


The traditional understanding is based on a certain folk wisdom about the human mind. This folk wisdom presumes that there is a power struggle at the core of our moral decisions. On the one side there are the selfish and primitive passions. On the other side there is the enlightened force of reason. Reason uses logic to evaluate situations, apply relevant moral principles, resolve moral quandaries, and deduce a proper course of action. Reason then uses willpower to try and control the passions. When we act admirably, reason subdues passion and controls will. In Nancy Reagan's phrase, it just says no. When we act in selfish and short sighted ways, then we either haven't applied reason, or passion has simply overwhelmed it.

In this approach, Level 2 consciousness is the hero. Level 1 instincts are the villains. The former is on the side of reason and morality, the other on the side of passion, sin, and selfishness.

This experience illustrates several of the problems with the rationalist folk theory of morality. In the first place, most of our moral judgments, are not cool reasoned judgments, they are deep and often hot responses. We go through out days making instant moral evaluations about behavior, without really having to think about why. We see injustice and we're furious. We see charity and we are warmed.

Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia provides example after example of this sort of moral intuition in action. As Haidt has shown in a string of research, most people have strong intuitive reactions to moral scenarios, even if nobody is harmed in the process. Usually, Haidt's research subjects cannot say why they thought circumstances repulsive or disturbing. They just do. The unconscious has made the call.

Furthermore, if the rationalist folk theory, with its emphasis on Level 2 moral reasoning, were correct, then you would expect people who do moral reason all day to be, in fact, more moral. Researchers have studied this too. They've found there's relatively little relationship between moral theorizing and noble behavior. As Michale Gazzaniga wrote in his book Human, "It has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found."

If moral reasoning led to more moral behavior, you would expect people who are less emotional to also be more moral. Yet at the extreme end, this is the opposite of truth. As Jonah Lehrer has pointed out, when most people witness someone else suffering, or read about a murder or rape, they experience a visceral emotional reaction. Their palms sweat and their blood pressure surges. But some people show no emotional reaction. These people are not hyper-rational moralists; they are psychopaths. Psychopaths do not seem to be able to process emotions about other' pain. You can show them horrific scenes of death and suffering and they are unmoved. They can cause the most horrific suffering in an attempt to get something they want, and they will feel no emotional pain or discomfort. Research on domestic violence finds that as perpetrators become more aggressive their blood pressure and pulse actually drops.

If reasoning led to moral behavior, then those who could reach moral conclusions would be able to apply their knowledge across a range of circumstances, based on these universal moral laws. But in reality, it has been hard to find this sort of consistency.

A century's worth of experiments suggests that people's actual behavior is not driven by permanent character traits that apply from one context to another. Back in the 1920s, Yale psychologists Hugh Hartshorne and Mary May gave ten thousand schoolchildren opportunities to lie, cheat, and steal in a variety of situations. Most students cheated in some situations and not in others. Their rate of cheating did not correlate with any measurable personality traits or assessment of moral reasoning. More recent research has found the same general pattern. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day, when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what researchers call "cross-situational stability." Rather it seems to be powerfully influenced by context.

The rationalist assumptions about or moral architecture are now being challenged by a more intuitionist view. This intuitionist account puts emotion and unconscious intuition at the center of moral life, not reason, it stresses moral reflexes, alongside individual choice; it emphasizes the role perception plays in moral decision making, before logical deduction. In the intuitionist view, the primary struggle is not between reason and the passions. Instead the crucial contest is within the unconscious-mind sphere itself.

This view starts with the observation that we are all born with deep selfish drives - a drive to take what we can, to magnify our status, to appear superior to others, to satisfy lusts. These drives warp perception. Deep impulses treat conscious cognition as a plaything. They not only warp perception during sin; they invent justification after it. We tell ourselves that the victim of our cruelty or our inaction had it coming; that the circumstances compelled us to act as we did; that someone else is to blame. The desire re-consciously molds the shape of our though.

The intuitionist stresses that not all our deep drives are selfish ones. We are descended from successful cooperators. Our ancestors survived in families and groups.

Other animals and insects share this social tendency, and when we study them, we observe that nature has given them faculties that help them with bonding and commitment. In one study in the 1950s, rats were trained to press a lever for food. Then the experimenter adjusted the machine so that the lever sometimes provided food but sometimes delivered an electric shock to another rat in the next chamber. When eating rats noticed the pain they were causing their neighbors, they adjusted their eating habits. They would not starve themselves. But they chose to eat less, to avoid causing undue pain to the other rats.

Frans de Waal spent his career describing the sophisticated empathy displays evident in primate behavior. Chimps console each other, nurse the injured, and seem to enjoy sharing. These are not signs that animals have morality, but they have the psychological building blocks for it.

Humans possess a suite of emotions to help with bonding and commitment. We blush and feel embarrassed when we violate social norms. We feel instantaneous outrage when our dignity has been slighted. People yawn when they see others yawning, and those who are quicker to sympathetically yawn also rate higher on more complicated forms of sympathy.

Our natural empathy toward others is nicely captured by Adam Smith in 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments,' in a passage that anticipates the theory of mirror neurons: "When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink back our leg, our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer." We also feel a desire, Smith added, to be esteemed by our fellows. "Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favorable, and pain in their unfavorable regard."

In humans, these social emotions have a moral component, even at a very early age. Yale professor Paul Bloom and others conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it. As early as six months, the babies showed a preference for the helper over the hinderer. In some plays, there was a second act. The hindering figure was either punished or rewarded. In this case, the eighth-month-olds preferred a character who was punishing the hinderer over ones being nice to it. This reaction illustrates, Bloom says, that people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age.

Nobody has to teach a child to demand fair treatment; children protest unfairness vigorously and as soon as they can communicate. Nobody has to teach us to admire a person who sacrifices for a group; the admiration for duty is universal. Nobody has to teach us to disdain someone who betrays a friend or is disloyal to a family or tribe. Nobody has to teach a child the difference between rules that are moral "Don't hit" - and rules that are not - "Don't chew gum in school." These preferences emerge from somewhere deep inside us. Just as we have a natural suite of emotions to help us love and be loved, so, too, we have a natural suite of emotions to make us disapprove of people who violate social commitments, and approve of people who reinforce them.

Its true that parents and school reinforce moral understanding, but as James Q. Wilson argued in his book 'The Moral Sense,' these teachings fall on prepared ground. Just as children come equipped to learn language, equipped to attach to Mom and Dad, so, too, they come equipped with a specific set of moral prejudices, which can be improved, shaped, developed, but never quite supplanted.

These sorts of moral judgments - admiration for someone who is loyal to a cause, contempt for someone who betrays a spouse - are instant and emotional. The contain subtle evaluations. If we see someone overcome by grief at the loss of a child, we register compassion and pity. If we see someone overcome by grief at the loss of a Maserati, we register disdain. Instant sympathy and complex judgment are all intertwined.

The act of perception is a thick process. It is not just taking in a scene but, almost simultaneously, weighing its meaning, evaluating it, and generating an emotion about it. In fact, many scientists now believe that moral perceptions are akin to aesthetic or sensual perceptions, emanating from many of the same regions of the brain.

Think what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don't have to decide if it's digusting. You just know. Or when you observe a mountain scene. You don't have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are in some way like that. They are rapid intuitive evaluations. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands have found that evaluative feeling, even on complicated issues like euthanasia, can be detected within 200 to 250 milliseconds after a statement is read. You don't have to think about disgust, or shame, or embarrassment, or whether you should blush or not. It just happens.

Some researchers believe we have a generalized empathetic sense, which in some flexible way inclines us to cooperate with others. But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that people are actually born with more structured moral foundations, a collection of moral senses that are activated by different situations.

Haidt, Graham, and Brian Nosek have defined five moral concerns. There is the fairness/reciprocity concern, involving issues of equal and unequal treatment. There is the harm/care concern, which includes things like empathy and the concern for the suffering of others. There is the authority/respect concern. Human societies have their own hierarchies, and react with moral outrage when that which they view with reverence (including themselves) is not treated with proper respect.

There is a purity/disgust concern. The disgust module may have first developed to repel us from noxious or unsafe food, but it evolved to have a moral component - to drive us away from contamination of all sorts.

Finally, and most problematically, there is the in-group/loyalty concern. Humans segregate themselves into groups. They feel visceral loyalty to members of their group, no matter how arbitrary the basis for membership, and feel visceral disgust towards those who violate loyalty codes. People can distinguish between members of their own group and members of another group in as little as 170 milliseconds. These categorical differences trigger different activation patterns in the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex artivates when they see members of their own group endure pain; but much less than when they see members of another group enduring it.

In the intuitionist view, the unconscious soulsphere is a coliseum of impulses vying for supremacy. There are deeply selfish intuitions. There are deep social and moral intuitions. Social impulses compete with asocial impulses. Very often social impulses conflict with one another. Compassion and pity may emerge at the cost of fortitude, toughness, and strength. The virtue of courage and heroism may clash with the virtue of humility and acceptance. The cooperative virtues may clash with the competitive virtues. Our virtues do not fit neatly together into a complementary or logical system. We have many ways of seeing and thinking about a situation, and they are not ultimately compatible.

This means that the dilemma of being alive yields non one true answer. In the heyday of the Enlightenment, philosophers tried to ground morality in logical rules, which could fit together like pieces of a logical puzzle. But that's not possible in the incompatible complexity of human existence. The brain is adapted to a fallen world, not a harmonious and perfectable one. Individuals contain a plurality of moral selves, which are aroused by different contexts. We contain multitudes.

Moral Development

The rationalist view advises us to philosophize in order to become more moral. The intuitionist view advises us to interact. It is hard or impossible to become more moral alone, but over the centuries our ancestors devised habits and practices that help us reinforce our best intuitions and inculcate moral habits.

Even during small talk, we talk warmly about those who live up to our moral intuitions and coldly about those who do not. We gossip about one another and lay down a million little markets about what behavior is to be sought and what behavior is to be avoided. We tell stories about those who violate the rules of our group, both to reinforce our connections with one another and to remind ourselves of the standards that bind us together.

Finally, there are the habits of mind transmitted by institutions. As we go through life, we travel through institutions - first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we're supposed to do. They are external scaffolds that penetrate deep inside us. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions that we inhabit, we become who we are.

The institutions are idea spaces that existed before we were born, and will last after we are gone. Human nature may remain the same, eon after eon, but institutions improve and progress, because they are the repositories of hard-won wisdom. The race progresses because institutions progress.

A teacher's relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete's relationship to her sport, a farmer's relationship to her land is not a choice that can be easily reversed when psychic losses exceed psychic profits. There will be many long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out of them. Institutions are so valuable because they inescapably merge with who we are.


The intuitionist view emphasizes the moral action that takes place deep in the unconscious, but it is not a determinist view. Amid the tangled jostle of unconscious forces, the intuitionist still leaves room for reason and reflection. He still leaves room for responsibility.

Its true that this new version of individual responsibility is not he same as it appeared in the old rationalist conceptions of morality, with their strong reliance on logic and will. Instead, responsibility in this view is best illustrated by two metaphors. The first is the muscle metaphor. We are born with certain muscles that we can develop by going to the gym every day. In a similar way, we are born with moral muscles that we can build with steady exercise of good habits.

The second is the camera metaphor. Joshua Greene of Harvard notes that his camera has automatic settings ("portrait," "action," "landscape"), which adjust the shutter speed and the focus. These automatic settings are fast and efficient. But they are not very flexible. So sometimes, Greene overrides the automatic settings by switching to manual - setting the shutter speed and focusing himself. The manual mode is slower, but allows him to do things he might not be able to do automatically. In the same way as the camera, Greene argues, the mind has automatic moral concerns. But in crucial moments, they can be overridden by the slower process of conscious reflection.

Even with automatic reactions playing such a large role, we have choices. We can choose to put ourselves in environments where our moral faculties will be strengthened. A person who chooses to spend time in the military or in church will react differently to the world than a person who spends his time in a nightclubs or a street gang. We can choose to practice those small acts of service that condition the mind for the moments when the big acts of sacrifice are required.

We can choose the narrative we tell about our lives. We're born into cultures, nations, and languages that we didn't choose. We're born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can't control. We're sometimes thrust into social conditions that we detest. But among the things we don't control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to organize perceptions.

As Jonathan Haidt has put it, unconscious emotions have supremacy but not dictatorship. Reason cannot do the dance on it its own, but it can nudge, with a steady and subtle influence. As some people joke, we may not possess free will, but we possess free won't. We can't generate oral reactions, but we can discourage some impulses and even overrule others. The intuitionist view starts with the optimistic belief that people have innate drive to do good. It is balanced by the pessimistic belief that moral sentiments are in conflict and in competition with one another.

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