Tag Archives: Psychology

How to change a habit

Here’s Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, on how to shed unwanted habits and acquire new (more positive) ones:

(via Brain Pickings, which also features the interesting backstory of how Duhigg got interested in the topic.)

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The case for optimism, cont’d: “You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable”

Sam Harris interviews Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, authors of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, as they make the case for optimism (much as Hans Rosling does). Read the interview for all the details of their argument; what’s interesting to me, at the moment, is their view on why we tend to dismiss such well-founded optimism, why it’s so hard for good news to get past the filter of our negativity:

Why aren’t we more aware of these positive trends?

The simple answer is, because we’re hard-wired not to notice. As the first order of business for any organism is survival, our brain privileges information that appears to threaten us. As a result, we tend to focus too much on the bad news even as the good news struggles to get through. The media are so saturated with bad news — if it bleeds, it leads — because they’re vying for the amygdala’s attention.

Furthermore, to handle the massive influx of information we process on a moment-by-moment basis, the brain relies on heuristics. Most of the time these work. Sometimes they fail. When they fail we call them cognitive biases. As it turns out, a lot of our cognitive biases keep us pessimistic as well. The negativity bias is a tendency to give more weight to negative information and experiences than positive ones. Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for or interpret information in ways that confirms our preconceptions — which might not be so bad on its own, but when you add the media’s focus on negative news, you have a recipe for psychological disaster. This list goes on. The result is a brain that believes the end is near and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

The upshot:

What do you hope people will get from reading your book?

The first is hope. You can’t change the world if you don’t believe it’s changeable.

The second is a vision and road map: a way to take bigger risks, create an innovation culture, and focus on solving problems rather than complaining about them.

Most importantly, we want people to understand that, more than ever before in history, individuals can now band together to solve grand challenges. We don’t believe abundance happens automatically. It’s up to each of us. That’s what makes today so different. We face enormous problems, but we — as individuals — have enormous power to solve them.

Yes. The key thing about rational optimism isn’t that it guarantees a better future, but that it empowers us to recognize our own capacity — and our own responsibility — for making it happen.

More reasons for optimism here.

(via The Dish; image via u4Ya.ca)


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Miscellany: Blume, Hitchens, Lamarr, Tyson; The West Wing as science fiction; groupthink and solitude; what e-books can’t do; and the end of SOPA (for now)

Time for another grab-bag of links that caught my eye:

1) An NPR interview with the incomparable Judy Blume, who talks about censorship, how to inspire kids to read (and how not to), the folly of labeling authors and books according to “audience age,” and how perseverance determines a writer’s success more than talent. (Note to self: time to get to work. Again.)

2) An interview with Richard Rhodes on the scientific career of actress Hedy Lamarr, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Fascinating stuff, and one I’ve touched on before, in a post on stereotypes and women scientists.

3) A compilation of articles written for The Nation by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, spanning 28 years (1978-2006).

4) Over the past few months my wife and I have avidly watched all seven seasons of The West Wing. Graham Sleight explains why the show is, at its heart, science fiction in spirit and impulse: “I want to argue […] that it’s SF in a more profound sense […] It makes an argument, as SF does, about possibility, about what can be done, and it does so by presenting us with a world already showing a change from our own.” Highly worth reading if you’re a West Wing fan.

5) A provocative New York Times essay by Susan Cain on “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” about the folly of insisting on constant collaboration and “teamwork” at the expense of creative solitude. This is happening in schools as well, as Cain points out, a fact that I personally find a bit worrying. Learning to work with others is great, but are we failing to appreciate the virtues of aloneness, of introspection?

6) Why books are made of win: the Abe Books blog, via Matador, offers a list of things you can’t do with an e-book. Including leaving it on a beach towel, throwing it across the room, and using it to press flowers and fallen leaves.

7) Carl Zimmer’s excellent profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

8) And finally — victory! Talking Points Memo analyzes how Netizens killed SOPA and PIPA. No doubt the advocates of censorship will try again; but those who stand for freedom of speech will be ready and waiting.

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The case for optimism, cont’d: The decline of violence and war

Steven Pinker makes the case that, despite the bloodbaths of the 20th and early 21st centuries, we are actually enjoying more peace and less violence than at any other time in human history:

An essay based on his talk is here. It’s fascinating and heartening to consider the general increase of empathy in the world, as people continue to expand their moral circles and cultivate, Pinker speculates, a more cosmopolitan attitude — “in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable — the feeling that ‘there but for fortune go I’.” (Sociologist Sam Richards, in his own compelling TED talk, explains how he conducts a radical experiment in empathy with his students, and demonstrates just how crucial this process is for cross-cultural understanding and for peace.)

Elsewhere, Charli Carpenter alerts us to a forthcoming book by Joshua Goldstein that similarly explores the decline of violence, Winning the War on War. Goldstein writes in the prologue:

This book asks readers to break out of a dominant way of thinking about world affairs that focuses on negativity and drowns out progress. If we turn off the screech of alarmist “news” and overblown political rhetoric for a moment and look at hard evidence objectively, we find that many people in the world are working hard for peace and in fact the world is becoming more peaceful. For this shocking idea to sink in requires either a paradigm shift or at least a broken TV set. […] it is easy to assume that war is getting worse, and can never get better, because everyone knows that war is inevitable. But if we look past the heat and smoke, a radical notion emerges in this book. War among human beings is not inevitable. Rather, the end of war, though also not inevitable, is possible. The possibility of an end to war is not something to be ridiculed, but to be pursued.

You can read the first chapter here.

We should, of course, deplore every armed conflict, every act of brutality and hatred, every single violent loss of life, no matter how rare. But we should also recognize the counterintuitive fact that violence is statistically rare, and getting rarer — a fact that should be noted, shouted out, celebrated, and added to the list of reasons to be optimistic.

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Maybe symbols are more literal than we thought

It turns out that seeing light bulbs actually inspires bright ideas. Who knew?

From LiveScience:

To see if light bulbs could actually promote insights, [social psychologist Michael] Slepian and his colleagues next gave college students spatial, math and verbal problems to solve and had either a bare light bulb or an overhead fluorescent light turned on in the room partway into the problem. The volunteers either solved the problems faster or more often with the light bulb than with the fluorescent light.

“Our environment can influence our creativity,” Slepian told LiveScience.

Maybe I should remove the lampshades from all our lamps.

But seriously, it’s fascinating to see how responsive we are to symbols of our own making: we imbue an image with meaning, and the image in turn inspires us to carry out what we’ve made it mean:

These findings suggest that it takes more than light to promote enlightenment. Instead, the researchers suggest our brains respond favorably to bare lightbulbs because they are familiar symbols of insight. This kind of so-called “priming effect” has been seen before in psychology — for instance, when shown artifacts from the business world, such as briefcases, people play economic games more competitively, and exposure to the American flag triggers aggressive behavioral tendencies among regular news watchers, due perhaps to how the United States is often linked in the news to attacks both against and from other parties.

Why not apply these findings to the real world? Bare bulbs in all the schools! Bare bulbs at the office! Bare bulbs at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks! The researchers seem to be on the same page:

“Creativity is an important asset, and over and above individual differences in creativity, we find something as subtle as an illuminating light bulb in our environment can facilitate insight, and thus lead to more creative solutions to problems,” Slepian said. “It would be fascinating to see if this works in the classroom or in the workplace.”

And now, let me do my little bit to help you out:

Hope you have a brilliant idea today.

(Images credits: Schenectady Museum via NY State Conservationist, and BuffaloBloodDonor)

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