What We Are Telling Ourselves (That We Know) Now

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Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is man.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the skeptic side,

With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

             Essay on Man, Epistle II

Alexander Pope wrote his essay as a long philosophical poem between and 1732 and 1734, apparently as something of a rejoinder to John Milton, whose Paradise Lost had appeared 65 years before. (WhereMilton had “justified” the ways of God to man, Pope said he would “vindicate” them – a sly reversal.)  Every hundred years since someone has written an influential sequel.

In the early 19th century it was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his fellow Utilitarians  (“If I had time to write a book,” wrote his disciple James Mill, “I would make the human mind as clear as the road from Charing Cross to St. Paul’s.”)

In the early twentieth century, it was Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Carl Jung who argued among themselves about the relation of the unconscious to the conscious mind.

Today it is the behavioral economists – and the brain scientists, geneticists, psychologists  (evolutionary, cognitive, social), anthropologists, sociologists, sociobiologists, and linguists who are compiling a new and much more detailed catalog of the human condition.

I know I’m supposed to be reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. His work with Amos Tversky, who died in 1996, was recognized in 2002 by a Nobel Prize in economics. The book is a clear and careful presentation of “how the mind works,” as Kahneman and Tversky and others in their field have come to understand it. I know, too, that behavioral economics serves as a blueprint for hedge-fund proprietors looking various mis-pricings that arise from certain widely shared but much less widely recognized decision-making tendencies among market participants; that marketers’ schemes of carrots and sticks are to be found everywhere the transactions involve a computer.

If that weren’t enough, author Michael Lewis has written a charming appreciation of Kahneman’s book, that traces its relation to his own best-selling Moneyball. Lewis’s book (and the splendid Hollywood movie based on it) describe how a disappointed major league aspirant named Billy Beane devised a set of statistical measures to identify undervalued talents among baseball players and thereby produced a winning team in Oakland – on a shoestring budget. It turns out that Beane’s statistical sidekick, Paul DePodesta, studied behavior economics at Harvard.

“A dotted line connected the Israeli psychologists to what would become a revolution in sports management,”  Lewis wrote.  When you look into the work of Kahneman and Tvertsky, he continued, “you come to find their fingerprints in places you never imagined even existed.”

So why is it that I am more absorbed by the appearance of a couple of rival books by star reporters for The New York Times?

Because I have a feeling a couple of seasoned journalists have a better chance of locating the heart of the story better than those working on the frontiers of discovery.  The reviewer for Science wittily described Kahneman’s book as “[journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s] Blink with muscles,” and there is some truth in that. He might equally have described it as the thinking behind Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein who advocate  more “libertarian paternalism” to improve our lives. Thinking, Fast and Slow is a cross between a series of master-class lectures and a decision-science textbook. Was it Mancur Olson who first said, “When you’re a kid with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail?”

In fact the identification of various inherent biases and illusions in human judgment and their role in making snap judgments is only a part of the big story that is unfolding in the behavioral sciences today. For that reason I wish that The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, by Charles Duhigg, and Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, would fly off the shelves as quickly as did Blink (which is subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking).

If Kahneman is, as Michael Lewis styles him, “the king of human error,” then Duhigg and Tierney are in touch with, not only those who prey on human frailty, but with various princes of redemption as well: in particular, the aforementioned Baumeister, director of the Social Psychology Program at Florida State University, and Lawrence Squire, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego.

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Chances are that you already know Charles Duhigg, indirectly. He is the author of a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article, How Companies Learn Your Secrets, which was widely talked about when it appeared last month.  The Browser picked it up sent the piece around the world.  A Forbes reporter boiled it down, credited Duhigg and the Times, put a headline on it that reflected the article’s startling punchline (How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did), and got an avalanche of readers, too.

The magazine piece, a chapter from the book, was notable for the shoe leather consumed in its reporting.  Duhigg had talked to more than a dozen current and former Target employees, including one spectacularly indiscreet statistician, in order to learn the company’s secrets. It was no surprise that Target, like virtually all other major retailers, goes to great lengths to acquire information about its customers:  frequent-buyer tags, Target-issued credit card transactions, the use of coupons mailed to customers’ homes, web-based interactions:  records of them all fed into Target computers and mined extensively by corporate researchers for information about consumers tastes and buying patterns.

What was surprising was how much the “predictive analysts” had learned.  Among their discoveries:  women on the baby registry (and thus known to be pregnant) were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion at the beginning of their second trimester; at twenty weeks, they began loading up on vitamins and certain minerals; as they approached their due dates, they bought scent-free soap, washcloths and cotton balls.

Why bother to scout out such patterns?  Because research has shown that customers decisively changed their buying habits at turning points in their lives: moving, getting married or divorced, having a baby, starting or losing a job.  These major life changes all make customers vulnerable to marketers’ interventions.  Hence the scramble to catch the customer’s attention at the moment, or, better yet, on the eve of, the event.

Because Target, like other retailers, can identify most purchasers by name, such massive data collecting comes dangerously close to surveillance.  An irate father stormed into a Target store in Minnesotaone day demanding to know why the store was sending his high school daughter coupons for diapers. “Are you encouraging her to become pregnant?” It turned out the store knew more than he did.

If corporations know so much about the force of habit, what’s in it for you?  Duhigg writes that

he first became interested in the science surrounding habit formation as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad in 2003,  his interest piqued by an Army major who watched tapes of riots hoping to find ways to break the pattern of violence. The major had spent his entire career being drilled in habit formation: from learning his service number and field-stripping his rifle to practicing keeping his head in battle and making decisions while exhausted, he had learned to make certain decisions automatically. A community, any community, wouldn’t be much different, the major said:  a giant collection of habits governing behavior.  He identified the arrival of kebab vendors on the scene as a critical addition not long before crowds boiled over.  When the vendors were banned, the riots stopped.

When Duhigg began making inquiries in psychology departments and medical schools he discovered that knowledge of the neurology of habit had expanded greatly in the last twenty-five years, thanks mainly to a vastly improved understanding of the workings of the brain, to the point that a technology had emerged. The central figure in his story is UCSD’s Larry Squires,  a memory specialist, who, along with other researchers in the 1990s, identified as integral to habit formation the region near the center of the brain known as the basal ganglia and began performing an array of ingenious experiments

There is a story here, as is usually the case with Duhigg:  a patient named Eugene Pauly, possessor of a slightly damaged brain that has left him very little memory but plenty of habit. An MIT-educated expert on the physiology of memory in the brain (Squire). A series of walks, a trail of discoveries, a startling first paper, and, soon, habit formation has become a major field of study in brain science, with centers at Duke, Harvard, UCLA, Yale, USC, Princeton and the Universityof Pennsylvania, not to mention Proctor & Gamble, Microsoft, Google and hundreds of other companies. You have to go to Squire’s website to learn that he wrote a book of his own, Memory: From Mind to Molecules, with Nobel laureate Eric Kandel.

The Power of Habit is a high-toned self-help book, not a job of science writing.  It turns out that habit formation involves a relatively simple three-step loop:  a cue, then the routine, followed by some reward, perhaps nothing more than the feeling of satistfaction or approbation. There is much to be learned here at a strictly personal level. Habits can be changed, Duhigg writes, if we understand how they work. The trick is to use the same cue, shift the routine, and deliver the old reward.  There are many more stories, designed to show rather than tell: a subway fire at Kings Cross, London;  the death of an elderly patient in Providence, Rhode Island; a sequence of plays in a professional football game; the founding of an entrepreneurial church in Southern California. The experts, including evolutionary economists Richard Nelson and Sydney Winter, are consulted regularly, but displayed lightly.

What I admire especially in Duhigg’s book is the frame to his tale supplied by the nineteenth- century American psychologist William James, who wrote brilliantly on the The Laws of Habit and their power “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”  For years I have quoted James to children, my own and others:

The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

Henceforth I will give them the Duhigg volume instead. It is a wonderful book.

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Probably you remember John Tierney, too, at least if you read the Times.  He is one of those writers, like John Leonard, Charles McGrath, and Maureen Dowd, whose best and highest use was not immediately obvious to the editors. An ingenious reporter, remarkable for the libertarian overtones of his stories, Tierney was bumped up to an op-ed column for a time, then moved to a weekly column in the Times’s Tuesday science section, where he writes about science and society.

In this case he partnered with Baumeister, a man who is credited with having done some of the head-turning work on human will as a source of self-control.  The very idea of willpower, the subject of countless homilies in the nineteenth century, had faded in obscurity during its debasement by the Nazis and, more or less simultaneously, the ascent of Freudian views of the management of the self.

By the 1970s, the concept of will was staging something of a comeback, sometimes in neighborhoods not entirely unadjacent to neoconservative political views. But coming up with ideas is not the hard part of social science, write the authors.  “Everyone has a pet theory of why we do what we do, which is why psychologists get sick of hearing their discoveries dismissed with ‘Oh, my grandmother knew that!’”  The trick, they say, is devising clever ways to test theories.

So once again there is a crucial experiment.  In this case it was Walter Mischel, a Stanford University psychologist (today he’s at Columbia) who in the late 1960s, while studying children’s ability to resist temptation, devised a simple experiment:  he led four-year-olds to a room, showed them a marshmallow on a plate, and offered a deal before leaving the room: they could eat the marshmallow if they wanted, but they could have two if they waited until he came back, in fifteen minutes.  Some children ate the marshmallow the minute Mischel left; others held out. Those who succeeded in waiting did so by busying themselves with some other task.

Many years later, Mischel tracked down the students and found those who had most successfully deferred gratification at four fared far better in young adulthood.  Those who had held out scored 210 points higher on SAT tests; they were more popular among their classmates, had lower body-mass indexes, earned more than the students who had given in quickly. A modest beginning, but enough to spark widespread curiosity, since there is not much else measure in childhood that seems to predict much in adult life.  Social psychologists in other centers began designing more rigorous experiments.  By 1994, Baumeister and a pair of fellow researchers wrote, in Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation,  “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.”

Tierney and his co-author construct a tale:

Baumeister himself started out as something of a skeptic. But then he observed willpower in the laboratory: how it gives people the strength to persevere, how they lose self-control as their willpower is depleted; how this mental energy is fueled by the glucose in the body’s bloodstream.  He and his collaborators discovered that willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long-term through exercise. Since Baumeister’s experiments first demonstrated the existence of willpower it has become one of the most inten sively studied topics in social science (and those experiments now rank among the most cited in psychology).  He and colleagues around the world have found that improving willpower is the surest way to a better life.

Then the authors illustrate their story in a succession of lively chapters:  “Where does the power in willpower come from?”  “A brief history of the to-do-list, from God to [comedian] Drew Carey.” “Where have all the dollars gone? The quantified self knows.” “Did a higher power help Eric Clapton and Mary Karr stop drinking?” “Raising strong children – self-esteem versus self-control.” “The perfect storm of dieting.” And so on. Good stuff. Yet perhaps a little less convincing than Duhigg’s account.

Habit and willpower are fundamentally different and yet thoroughly compatible aspects of the self, not unlike the two systems of thinking, fast and slow, explored with such precision in Kahneman’s book.  Tierney and Duhigg recognize this. To their credit they talk to some of the same sources.  They both exhibit special curiosity about how Alcoholics Anonymous and similar twelve-step program achieve their impressive results.  It is a reassuring coincidence.

Habit can be shaped to advantage, or otherwise.  Willpower can be built up or squandered.  This is not the first time that newspaper reporters, starting from very different places, have found themselves working from opposite ends on the same big story. Granted, many aspects of personality and character lie beyond this tool-oriented understanding.  Nevertheless, these dispatches are evidence that we do in fact possess a better understanding of the human condition than did Alexander Pope three hundred years ago. What we are learning about various technologies of making better men and better women is one of the most important stories of our time.