All posts tagged psychology

Book review: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.

This book provides clear and well-organized instructions on how to become more charismatic.

It does not make the process sound easy. My experience with some of her suggestions (gratitude journalling and meditation) seems typical of her ideas – they took a good deal of attention, and probably caused gradual improvements in my life, but the effects were subtle enough to leave lots of uncertainty about how effective they were.

Many parts of the book talk as if more charisma is clearly better, but occasionally she talks about downsides such as being convincing even when you’re wrong. The chapter that distinguishes four types of charisma (focus, kindness, visionary, and authority) helped me clarify what I want and don’t want from charisma. Yet I still feel a good deal of conflict about how much charisma I want, due to doubts about whether I can separate the good from the bad. I’ve had some bad experiences in with feeling and sounding confident about investments in specific stocks has caused me to lose money by holding those stocks too long. I don’t think I can increase my visionary or authority charisma without repeating that kind of mistake unless I can somehow avoid talking about investments when I turn on those types of charisma.

I’ve been trying the exercises that are designed to boost self-compassion, but my doubts about the effort required for good charisma and about the desirability of being charismatic have limited the energy I’m willing to put into it.

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.

At a recent LessWrong meetup, someone described his GTD system with the metaphor automated self, to emphasize that the things he offloads from his mind into the GTD system help him act more robotic. I like the idea of automating some of my actions so that I can further separate planning and execution. The term automated self is a good way to remember that goal, and should be used more widely than it is. Plus I like to distinguish myself from those who attach negative connotations to “robot-like”.

Book review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.

This book carefully describes the evolutionary origins of human moralizing, explains why tribal attitudes toward morality have both good and bad effects, and how people who want to avoid moral hostility can do so.

Parts of the book are arranged to describe the author’s transition from having standard delusions about morality being the result of the narratives we use to justify them and about why other people had alien-sounding ideologies. His description about how his study of psychology led him to overcome his delusions makes it hard for those who agree with him to feel very superior to those who disagree.

He hints at personal benefits from abandoning partisanship (“It felt good to be released from partisan anger.”), so he doesn’t rely on altruistic motives for people to accept his political advice.

One part of the book that surprised me was the comparison between human morality and human taste buds. Some ideologies are influenced a good deal by all 6 types of human moral intuitions. But the ideology that pervades most of academia only respect 3 types (care, liberty, and fairness). That creates a difficult communication gap between them and cultures that employ others such as sanctity in their moral system, much like people who only experience sweet and salty foods would have trouble imagining a desire for sourness in some foods.

He sometimes gives the impression of being more of a moral relativist than I’d like, but a careful reading of the book shows that there are a fair number of contexts in which he believes some moral tastes produce better results than others.

His advice could be interpreted as encouraging us to to replace our existing notions of “the enemy” with Manichaeans. Would his advice polarize societies into Manichaeans and non-Manichaeans? Maybe, but at least the non-Manichaeans would have a decent understanding of why Manichaeans disagreed with them.

The book also includes arguments that group selection played an important role in human evolution, and that an increase in cooperation (group-mindedness, somewhat like the cooperation among bees) had to evolve before language could become valuable enough to evolve. This is an interesting but speculative alternative to the common belief that language was the key development that differentiated humans from other apes.

Book review: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, by Thomas Metzinger.

This book describes aspects of consciousness in ways that are often, but not consistently, clear and informative. His ideas are not revolutionary, but will clarify our understanding.

I didn’t find his tunnel metaphor very helpful.

I like his claim that “conscious information is exactly that information that must be made available for every single one of your cognitive capacities at the same time”. That may be an exaggeration, but it describes an important function of consciousness.

He makes surprisingly clear and convincing arguments that there are degrees of consciousness, so that some other species probably have some but not all of what we think of as human consciousness. He gives interesting examples of ways that humans can be partially conscious, e.g. people with Cotard’s Syndrome can deny their own existence.

His discussion of ethical implications of neuroscience points out some important issues to consider, but I’m unimpressed with his conclusion that we shouldn’t create conscious machines. He relies on something resembling the Precautionary Principle that says we should never risk causing suffering in an artificial entity. As far as I can tell, the same reasoning would imply that having children is unethical because they might suffer.


Book review: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.

This book uses an understanding of the limits to human rationality to explain how it’s sometimes possible to make valuable behavioral changes, mostly in large institutions, with relatively little effort.

The book presents many anecdotes about people making valuable changes, often demonstrating unusually creative thought. The theories about why the changes worked are not very original, but are presented better than in most other books.

Some of the successes are sufficiently impressive that I wonder whether they cherry-picked too much and made it look too easy. One interesting example that is a partial exception to this pattern is a comparison of two hospitals that tried to implement the same change, with one succeeding and the other failing. Even with a good understanding of the book’s ideas, few people looking at the differences between the hospitals would notice the importance of whether small teams met for afternoon rounds at patients’ bedsides or in a lounge where other doctors overheard the discussions.

They aren’t very thoughtful about whether the goals are wise. This mostly doesn’t matter, although it is strange to read on page 55 about a company that succeeded by focusing on short-term benefits to the exclusion of long-term benefits, and then on page 83 to read about a plan to get businesses to adopt a longer term focus.

Book review: Greatness: Who Makes History and Why by Dean Keith Simonton.

This broad and mediocre survey of psychology of people who stand out in history probably contains a fair number of good ideas, but it’s hard to separate them from the many ideas that are questionable guesses. He’s inconsistent about distinguishing his guesses from claims backed by good evidence.

One of the clearest examples is his assertion that childhood adversity builds character. He presents evidence that eminent figures were unusually likely to have had a parent die early, and describes this as the “most impressive proof” of his claim. He ignores the possibility those people come from families with a pattern of taking sufficiently unusual risks to explain that evidence.

In other places, he makes mistakes which seemed reasonable when the book was published, such as “Mendelian laws of inheritance are blind to whether an individual is first-born or later-born” (parental age has a measurable effect on mutation rates).

He avoids some of the worst mistakes that a psychology of history could make, such as trying to psychoanalyze individuals without having enough information about them.

He mentions some approaches to analyzing presidential addresses and corporate letters to stockholders, which have some potential to be used in predicting whether leaders have the appropriate personality for their jobs. I wonder what would happen if many voters/stockholders demanded that leaders pass tests of this nature (I’m assuming the tests can be scored objectively, but that may be shaky assumption). I’m confident that we’d get leaders with rhetoric that passes those tests. Would that simply mean the leaders change their rhetoric, or would it be hard enough to maintain a mismatch between rhetoric and thought patterns that we’d get leaders with better thought patterns?

There has been a fair amount of research suggesting that beyond some low threshold, additional money does little to increase a person’s happiness.
Here’s a research report (see also here) indicating that the effect of money has sometimes been underestimated because researchers use income as a measure of money, when wealth has a higher correlation with happiness.
There’s probably more than one reason for this. Wealth produces a sense of security that isn’t achieved by having a high income but spending that income quickly. Also, it’s possible that people with high savings rates tend to be those who are easily satisfied with their status, whereas those who don’t save when they have high incomes are those who have a strong need to show off their incomes in order to compete for status (and since competition for status is in some ways a zero sum game, many of them will fail).

Book review: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality by Judith Rich Harris
This book provides a clear theory of what causes the personality differences between people that can’t be explained by genetic differences. She focuses a fair amount on identical twins, because the evidence that their environmentally caused personality differences are the same as ordinary siblings, and the same whether they’re reared together or apart, rules out many tempting theories.
Amazon reviewer Sioran points out an inconsistency – she claims early on that random chance can’t explain all of the variation, but her explanation ends up amounts to saying the causes are ultimately random. I find her early arguments against randomness unconvincing. And her explanation’s reliance on randomness doesn’t imply that her explanation is useless – she rules out most kinds of randomness as a cause, narrowing down the class of random causes to those which affect the person’s view of her status in society (e.g. differences in who outside family the person interacts with, and physical differences such as being tall due to better nutrition).
The most surprising prediction she makes is that mindblind (i.e. most) animals won’t have persistent personality differences that can’t be explained by genetic differences. I’m unsure whether to believe this – it seems that animals should only need to remember differences in how others treat them (rather than have a theory of mind) in order to produce the results we see. She would probably predict that autistic people have no persistent environmentally caused personality differences, but she isn’t clear about that (it may depend on the degree of autism).
One interesting result that she mentions is that autistic children are unable to use the fusiform face area (which in most people is specialized to do good face recognition), and instead seem to recognize faces the same way they recognize ordinary objects. I’m wondering how much this explains about why autism impairs many parts of the mind that deal with relationships.
I’m annoyed by how many pages she spends recounting the reaction to her prior book (The Nurture Assumption, a better book than this). If you’ve read that, most of the first half of this book will be a waste of time.
One interesting piece of evidence she mentions is this paper from the Journal of Political Economy which says that one’s height as a teenager is a better predictor of wages as an adult than adult height.
One small quibble: she says being a firstborn is unimportant (often not even known) outside the home in “contemporary societies — at least those not ruled by monarchies”. Korean society appears to be a clear exception to that claim.

This book is a colorful explanation of why we are less successful at finding happiness than we expect. It shows many similarities between mistakes we make in foreseeing how happy we will be and mistakes we make in perceiving the present or remembering the past. That makes it easy to see that those errors are natural results of shortcuts our minds take to minimize the amount of data that our imagination needs to process (e.g. filling in our imagination with guesses as our mind does with the blind spot in our eye).
One of the most important types of biases is what he calls presentism (a term he borrows from historians and extends to deal with forecasting). When we imagine the past or future, our minds often employ mental mechanisms that were originally adapted to perceive the present, and we retain biases to give more weight to immediate perceptions than to what we imagine. That leads to mistakes such as letting our opinions of how much food we should buy be overly influenced by how hungry we are now, or Wilbur Wright’s claim in 1901 that “Man will not fly for 50 years.”
This is more than just a book about happiness. It gives me a broad understanding of human biases that I hope to apply to other areas (e.g. it has given me some clues about how I might improve my approach to stock market speculation).
But it’s more likely that the book’s style will make you happy than that the knowledge in it will cause you to use the best evidence available (i.e. observations of what makes others happy) when choosing actions to make yourself happy. Instead, you will probably continue to overestimate your ability to predict what will make you happy and overestimate the uniqueness that you think makes the experience of others irrelevant to your own pursuit of happiness.
I highly recommend the book.
Some drawbacks:
His analysis of memetic pressures that cause false beliefs about happiness to propagate is unconvincing. He seems to want a very simple theory, but I doubt the result is powerful enough to explain the extent of the myths. A full explanation would probably require the same kind of detailed analysis of biases that the rest of the book contains.
He leaves the impression that he thinks he’s explained most of the problems with achieving happiness, when he probably hasn’t done that (it’s unlikely any single book could).
He presents lots of experimental results, but he doesn’t present the kind of evidence needed to prove that presentism is a consistent problem across a wide range of domains.
He fails to indicate how well he follows his own advice. For instance, does he have any evidence that writing a book like this makes the author happy?