communication skills

All posts tagged communication skills

Book review: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, by Kevin N. Laland.

This book is a mostly good complement to Henrich’s The Secret of our Success. The two books provide different, but strongly overlapping, perspectives on how cultural transmission of information played a key role in the evolution of human intelligence.

The first half of the book describes the importance of copying behavior in many animals.

I was a bit surprised that animals as simple as fruit flies are able to copy some behaviors of other fruit flies. Laland provides good evidence that a wide variety of species have evolved some ability to copy behavior, and that ability is strongly connected to the benefits of acquiring knowledge from others and the costs of alternative ways of acquiring that knowledge.

Yet I was also surprised that the value of copying is strongly limited by the low reliability with which behavior is copied, except with humans. Laland makes plausible claims that the need for high-fidelity copying of behavior was an important driving force behind the evolution of bigger and more sophisticated brains.

Laland claims that humans have a unique ability to teach, and that teaching is an important adaptation. He means teaching in a much broader sense than we see in schooling – he includes basic stuff that could have preceded language, such as a parent directing a child’s attention to things that the child ought to learn. This seems like a good extension to Henrich’s ideas.

The most interesting chapter theorizes about the origin of human language. Laland’s theory that language evolved for teaching provides maybe a bit stronger selection pressure than other theories, but he doesn’t provide much reason to reject competing theories.

Laland presents seven criteria for a good explanation of the evolution of language. But these criteria look somewhat biased toward his theory.

Laland’s first two criteria are that language should have been initially honest and cooperative. He implies that it must have been more honest and cooperative than modern language use is, but he isn’t as clear about that as I would like. Those two criteria seem designed as arguments against the theory that language evolved to impress potential mates. The mate-selection theory involves plenty of competition, and presumably a fair amount of deception. But better communicators do convey important evidence about the quality of their genes, even if they’re engaging in some deception. That seems sufficient to drive the evolution of language via mate-selection pressures.

Laland’s theory seems to provide a somewhat better explanation of when language evolved than most other theories do, so I’m inclined to treat it as one of the top theories. But I don’t expect any consensus on this topic anytime soon.

The book’s final four chapters seemed much less interesting. I recommend skipping them.

Henrich’s book emphasized evidence that humans are pretty similar to other apes. Laland emphasizes ways in which humans are unique (language and teaching ability). I didn’t notice any cases where they directly contradicted each other, but it’s a bit disturbing that they left quite different impressions while saying mostly appropriate things.

Henrich claimed that increasing climate variability created increased rewards for the fast adaptation that culture enabled. Laland disagrees, saying that cultural change itself is a more plausible explanation for the kind of environmental change that incentivized faster adaptation. My intuition says that Laland’s conclusion is correct, but he seems a bit overconfident about it.

Overall, Laland’s book is less comprehensive and less impressive than Henrich’s book, but is still good enough to be in my top ten list of books on the evolution of intelligence.

Update on 2017-08-18: I just read another theory about the evolution of language which directly contradicts Laland’s claim that early language needed to be honest and cooperative. Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language claims that an important role of initial human vocal flexibility was to deceive other species.

Book review: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brene Brown.

I almost didn’t read this because I was unimpressed by the TEDx video version of it, but parts of the book were pretty good (mainly chapters 3 and 4).

The book helped clarify my understanding of shame: how it differs from guilt, how it often constrains us without accomplishing anything useful, and how to reduce it.

She emphasizes that we can reduce shame by writing down or talking about shameful thoughts. She doesn’t give a strong explanation of what would cause that effect, but she prompted me to generate one: parts of my subconscious mind initially want to hide the shameful thoughts, and that causes them to fight the parts of my mind that want to generate interesting ideas. The act of communicating those ideas to the outside world convinces those censor-like parts of my mind to worry less about the ideas (because it’s too late? or because the social response is evidence that the censor was mistakenly worried? I don’t know).

I was a bit confused by her use of the phrase “scarcity culture”. I was initially tempted to imagine she wanted us to take a Panglossian view in which we ignore the resource constraints that keep us from eliminating poverty. But the context suggests she’s thinking more along the lines of “a culture of envy”. Or maybe a combination of perfectionism plus status seeking? Her related phrase “never enough” makes sense if I interpret it as “never impressive enough”.

I find it hard to distinguish those “bad” attitudes from the attitudes that seem important for me to strive for self-improvement.

She attempts to explain that distinction in a section on perfectionism. She compares perfectionism to healthy striving by noting that perfectionism focuses on what other people will think of us, whereas healthy striving is self-focused. Yet I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to hurt myself with perfectionism while focusing mostly on worries about how I’ll judge myself.

I suspect that healthy striving requires more focus on the benefits of success, and less attention to fear of failure, than is typical of perfectionism. The book hints at this, but doesn’t say it clearly when talking about perfectionism. Maybe she describes perfectionism better in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Should I read that?

Her claim “When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection” feels important, and an area where I have trouble.

The book devotes too much attention to gender-stereotypical problems with shame. Those stereotypes are starting to look outdated. And it shouldn’t require two whole chapters to say that advice on how to have healthy interactions with people should also apply to relations at work, and to relations between parents and children.

The book was fairly easy to read, and parts of it are worth rereading.

Book review: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker.

Pinker provides great examples of readable writing, and insights about what styles are easy to read.

But the book is more forgetable than Sense of Structure (which covers similar subjects). Sense of Structure is more valuable because it’s more oriented toward training its readers.

Sense of Structure focuses on how to improve mediocre sentences that I might have been tempted to write. Pinker devotes a bit too much attention to making fun of bad sentences that don’t hold my attention because they don’t look similar enough to mediocre sentences which I might write.

There difference in style between the two books is modest, but modest differences matter for tasks such as this which take a good deal of willpower to master.

One small part of the recent (June 2015) CFAR workshop caused a significant improvement in how I interact with people. I’ve become more spontaneous about interacting with people.

For several years I’ve suspected that I ought to learn how to do improv-style exercises, but standard improv classes felt ineffective. I’ve since figured out that their implied obligation for me to come up with something to say caused some sort of negative association with attempts at spontaneity when I failed to think of anything to say. That negative reaction was a large obstacle to learning new habits.

Deeply ingrained habits seem to cause some part of my subconscious mind that searches for ideas or generates words to decide that it can’t come up with anything worthy of conscious attention. That leaves me in a state that I roughly describe as a blank mind (i.e. either no verbal content at the conscious level, or I generate not-very-useful meta-thoughts reacting to the lack of appropriate words).

Since I much more frequently regret failing to say something than I regret mistakenly saying something hastily that I should have known not to say, it seems like I’ve got one or more subconscious filters that has consistently erred in being too cautious about generating speech. I tried introspecting for ways to simply tell that filter to be less cautious, but I accomplished nothing that way.

I also tried paying attention to signs that I’d filtered something out (pauses in my flow of words seem to be reliable indicators) in hopes that I could sometimes identify the discarded thoughts. I hoped to reward myself for noticing the ideas as the filter started to discard them, and train the filter to learn that I value conscious access to those ideas. Yet I never seem to detect those ideas, so that strategy failed.

What finally worked was that I practiced informal versions of improv exercises in which I rewarded myself [*] for saying silly things (alone or in a practice session with Robert) without putting myself in a situation where I felt an immediate obligation to say anything unusual.

In a few weeks I could tell that I was more confident in social contexts and more able to come up with things to say.

I feel less introverted, in the sense that a given amount of conversation tires me less than it used to. Blogging also seems to require a bit less energy.

I feel somewhat less anxiety (and relatedly, less distraction from background noise), maybe due to my increased social confidence.

I may have become slightly more creative in a variety of contexts.

I hypothesize that the filtering module was rather attached to a feeling of identity along the lines of “Peter is a person who is cautious about what he says” long after the consciously accessible parts of my mind decided I should weaken that identity. Actually trying out a different identity was more important to altering some beliefs that were deeply buried in my subconscious than was conscious choice about what to believe.

I wonder what other subconscious attachments to an identity are constraining me?

Something still seems missing from my social interactions: I still tend to feel passive and become just a spectator. That seems like a promising candidate for an area where I ought to alter some subconscious beliefs. But I find it harder to focus on a comfortable vision for an alternative identity: aiming to be a leader in a group conversation feels uncomfortable in a way that aiming to be spontaneous/creative never felt.

Thanks to John Salvatier and Anna Salamon for the advice that helped me accomplish this.

[*] – I only know how to do very weak self-rewards (telling myself to be happy), but that was all I needed.

Book review: The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective, by George D. Gopen.

The most important goal of this book is to teach writers how to analyze and influence which words in a sentence (or which sentences in a paragraph) readers will treat as most important.

Most of the advice is specific to writing. The confusion with which the book helps becomes much less important for spoken words that come with tone (to show emphasis) and pauses.

A secondary goal of the book is to explain how to organize sentences to minimize the reader’s need to hold information in working memory. For example, putting lots of words before the main subject and verb as this sentence does (unless you really want to slow the reader down, such as when telling someone they’re fired) is something he teaches us to avoid.

I found the explanations fairly clear and moderately surprising. Learning from them depends very heavily on repeated practice at rearranging words within sentences and evaluating how the changes affect readers’ reactions.

That practice feels like it requires lots of willpower. With decisions in some other contexts (e.g. what to eat or where to hike) I can comfortably hold several options in my short-term memory. But when I translate vague thoughts into words, I feel strongly anchored to whatever version I come up with first. And I often find it hard to decide what parts of a sentence I want to emphasize. But I’ve grown sufficiently dissatisfied with my writing style that I plan to pay enough attention while writing that I’ll learn to improve on my initial version.

Please give me feedback in a few months about whether my writing has become easier to read.

I recently went to Aletheia, a workshop that helps people experience the creation of good interpersonal connections.

An important technique is to get people to focus on what is going on in their minds (especially emotions), and devote less attention to external objects/events. Beyond that they provided little explanation of how it works. But I see enough similarities to the advice on that at an intellectual level the ideas behind it don’t seem very new.

My initial reaction was that the workshop had few ideas that seemed new to me, and wasn’t likely to influence me much. But by the middle of the workshop I felt myself being somewhat drawn toward the others in the group. I got the impression that many participants experienced more change than I did. I suspect the leaders were exercising more skill than I was able to observe directly.

I think I’ve noticed some subtle changes in how I interact with people that might be due to Aletheia, but whatever benefits I got are hard to evaluate.

Book review: How To Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

This book mostly deserves its fame. It gives simple descriptions of basic techniques that should make most people who follow the advice more likable than average, without requiring prohibitive effort.

I have two modest complaints.

He focuses more than I would like on how to befriend people who like to talk at length, which leaves me wondering what to do with the potentially nicer friend who is too modest to say interesting things about himself.

The chapter called Make the Fault Seem Easy to Correct encourages misleading people into thinking something is easier than it actually is. Even if this works 75 percent of the time, I expect that the resentment caused by a few rare cases where it turns out to be more misleading than intended outweigh the benefits produced by its successes. The book Switch describes a better version of this strategy (incorporating an important part of what Carnegie advises): focus on breaking down the task into small steps.

Book review: Why He Didn’t Call You Back: 1,000 Guys Reveal What They Really Thought About You After Your Date by Rachel Greenwald.
This book is designed for women who want to debug their dates with men, and some of the book is specific to that goal. But a majority of the book is gender independent, and a fair amount of it describes how misunderstandings can arise in a wide range of interactions between people who don’t know each other well.
The book isn’t very profound, but it is based on fairly careful research that ought to be done more often than it has been. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it and how quickly I finished it.
I’m not convinced I learned a lot from it. The problems that appear to best describe my interactions with people are the ones that I find relatively hard to change.
I suspect she overestimates her ability to get accurate reasons from the men, but I don’t have much reason to think the men who are misleading her are men who her clients could have better connected with.

Book review: Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals by Robert M. Sapolsky.
This collection of essays starts out by rehashing nature/nurture arguments that ought to be widely understood by now, but then becomes mostly entertaining and occasionally quite informative.
He mentions one interesting study which questions sexual selection arguments put forward by Geoffrey Miller and others about animals selecting mates with better genes. The study shows that female Mallards produce stronger offspring after mating with more attractive males because they invest more resources in those eggs, rather than because of anything that seems connected to the genes provided by the males.
He helps explain the attraction of gambling by describing experiments which show larger dopamine releases due to rewards that are most uncertain (the subject thinks they have a 50% chance of happening) than is released when there’s more certainty (e.g. either a 25% chance or a 75% chance) of the same reward.
One place where I was disappointed was when he described “repressive personalities”, which he made seem quite similar to Aspergers, and made me wonder whether I fit his description. “dislike novelty”? My reaction to novelty is sufficiently context-dependent that any answer is plausible. “prefer structure and predictability”? Yes and usually. “poor at expressing emotions or at reading the nuances of emotions in other people”? That’s me. “can tell you what they’re having for dinner two weeks from Thursday”? I could probably predict 5 days in advance with 50% accuracy, so I’m probably closer than most people. So I Googled and found another description (mentioning the same researcher that Sapolsky mentioned) in the Sciences and find descriptions of “repressive personality” that seem wildly different from me (“a strong personal need for social conformity” and “agreement with statements framed as absolutes, statements loaded with the words never and always”). Who wrote this competing description? Wait, it’s the same Sapolsky! It looks like his current description reuses a small piece of an older article with inadequate thought to whether it’s complete enough.