Monday, September 27, 2010

Enabling, Responsibility, Hunger and Insecurity

A couple of good comments on the last post that got me thinking- about complexity and reward and punishment and insecurity and hunger. This might seem like a tangent rather than a response. Let's see.

I'm reading "Life at the Bottom" and so far, it is brilliant. Brutal, dark...but important. I then went on Amazon and read the reviews of the people who hated it. That's always educational. The voices were pretty much universal: The author is blaming the victims.

Not at all, at least not as I read it.

People are lazy. So are all animals, especially predators. When life is marginal, you expend as little energy as possible. When you have excess, it isn't spent training or saving for a rainy day...predators toy with victims that squeal. It is entertaining. Excess energy is spent on entertainment. Watch animals.

The dream, for years, presented in many of the psychology and sociology classes that I took, was that if no was in want, if everyone had shelter and food and warmth, that they would then start creating art and bettering themselves. That's not the way it works in nature. That dream has crashed every time it has been tried, but some people still believe. It seems many of our institutions are set up with that belief. Look at nature.

There are few things in psychology that are rigorous enough to be called 'laws' but one of them is that behaviors that are rewarded increase; behaviors that are punished decrease.

So if you reward violent behavior and addiction by moving people up on the list for subsidized housing, you get more violence and addiction. If you move people down on the list for holding a job, you get less of that. (The idea behind it is to fill the greater need...which is a human ideal and noble and all that, but people are at least as smart as monkeys and even flatworms can be taught to run a maze with simple conditioning.) Noble ideas sometimes fail because nature trumps.

If you give people money for neither holding a job nor going to school you get more of that behavior...especially if you remove benefits from people who start taking classes.

People are not stupid, and if the rewards and punishments are blatant or extreme enough, even the most socially conditioned, hard-working good guy will come to feel like a schmuck for working hard when the reward is the same if he didn't work at all.

So, socially and talking about "Life at the Bottom," we have to be careful when our programs designed to solve problems become enabling. We also need to be aware that bad people can abuse any system, and will do so more when their bad behavior is excused and has no consequences. Personally, we have to realize that, again, the only person who can be genuinely interested in change for the better is the one who must change. Maybe it sounds like blaming the victim, but it goes back to the responsibility of necessity. No one can change your life for you.

Here's the bridge:
We are biologically designed to be lazy, and most of us are very comfortable. I've noticed that many of the most extraordinary people I know had very marginal childhoods. Whether hunger or violence or ostracism, all had time, moments to years, of tangible fear that they fought by gaining strength or skill or insight. These "children of adversity" or "compulsive competents" eventually attain or exceed the comfort and security of those around them... but they never quite feel secure. Part of them is always afraid of being hungry again...and so they use the intelligence and drive to get better and better and better.

And when we see the people around us put the same drive into the most passive entertainment they can find (drugs or TV or...) we think they are stupid. They aren't. They are just comfortable and lazy.

Which brings us to the Dunning-Kruger effect mentioned by Charles James in the comments on the last post. The basic idea is that smart people tend to underestimate their own intelligence and stupid people tend to over-estimate. In other words, stupid people think they're smart. Smart people think they are stupid.

I think the mechanism is simple. Laziness and comfort. Animals work to get out of bad situations. They don't work, generally, to improve good ones. If you are insecure (and it's not just an attention-seeking ploy of a codependent personality) you will do something about it. If you are afraid of the dark, you might get a flashlight.

When people get over the fear, they get comfortable. Laziness kicks in. People who are worried about being smart enough study. People who have decided they are already smart enough start entertaining themselves and lose touch with the world. People who are insecure in their fighting skills train hard and seek new teachers. People who are comfortable come up with reasons why this is unnecessary.

Even in relationships. Our relationship has been going for 24 years (in 13 days) because I know I am not worthy of K and have spent my life trying to be. If I ever decided I was good enough, it is a small step to taking things for granted...

I think you will find Dunning-Kruger everywhere, and I think the mechanism boils down to "People with a perceived need to increase competence will continuously improve. People with a perceived sufficiency of competence will cease to improve."
That was long and rambling. Anyone want to try to boil it down to one paragraph?


Steve Perry said...

Kipling, maybe?

Now this is the Law of the Jungle -- as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Rory.


My question is - rationalization. How do we explain rationalization, where people who are not stupid are convinced they're competent when, by any scale ever devised, they're not? I know you have experienced this in your work history. People who should know better still think they can rock and roll.

Have they preemptively adopted laziness? Or are they stupid after all, even if they're not.

I'm about to go on a mission with one of those very people in, like, 45 minutes. Kinda on my mind.


Scott said...

Yes that is certainly the problem. Our perceptions about ourselves are not accurate. To the extent that fear is driving us, then yes we tend to work harder when we think we are under performing and get lazy when we think we are out performing others. And yes, I think it's true that the most competent people think they aren't doing enough.
There is a management rule of thumb: If you want something done, give it to someone who is really busy.
But there is another possibility. The ability to improvise and create can arise spontaneously from the total absence of fear or urgency.
Perhaps those "lazy people" are still afraid, and perhaps they just haven't gotten to the end of their a long time.

jks9199 said...

Interesting idea... And I think it might explain a lot more things. Like the attitude of way too many of the patrol officers in my agency. They're comfortable... so they don't go out of their way to do anything they don't have to.

jks9199 said...

Oh -- and the important thing:

Congratulations on 24 years! That is an impressive accomplishment.

Mac said...

Hispanics; trailer trash. (Admittedly stereotyping). When I first started as a cop, it was as easy as 1 (no need for 2 3) to find a Hispanic driver with no license, registration, insurance, job, decent car or family here. When I retired, it was rare to find one without a nice car, documents in order,two jobs, a small house and a family. The trailer trash, on the other hand were still living in the same trailers, on welfare and with even more kids with criminal records.

Jay Gischer said...

If we're going to be talking about psychological principles as they apply to personal growth, I think it's important to consider intrinsic motivation

Here's a choice quote:

extrinsic motivators may lead to merely short-range activity while actually reducing long-range interest in a topic. Therefore, it is essential that extrinsic motivators be backed up by intrinsic motivators or that the extrinsic motivation become internalized through processes described later in this chapter. If this does not happen, the result is likely to be a reduction in the very behavior we want to promote.

Charles James said...


Lise Steenerson said...

We all look at life through our own glasses which are tainted with our own experiences.
I think the real phenomena behind Dunning-Kruger is that "dumb" people just don't have the experience or knowledge to understand what competence is, they think they have achieved it because they don't know how to recognize it.
And "smart" people have experienced quality and talent and they recognize where their limitations are. They understand what it takes to get things done and where they are falling short.... most importantly what they need to work on to improve. I think if you see yourself as perfectly "competent" you will cease to better yourself.

I agree that we all have the "lazy gene" but what is it that get people off their butts while the same set of circumstances won't stimulate the next guy to get off the couch?

Maija said...

@Lise - That's THE question on many levels isn't it :- What compels one to change, seek efficiency and improve competence?
And also, as a teacher, can one be a catalyst for others to do the same for themselves?

Having written 3 messy attempts at replying that became totally unreadable, perhaps this is close -ish.

Some people don't like to think outside of their experience - about what they do not know.
This might lead to risks and work - not conducive to laziness and complacency.

Others, through adversity or curiosity are more compelled to deal with the 'not known'.
There must be some sense of uncertainty that drives this, along with some imagination of the positive effects of doing, rather than not-doing.

As a teacher, I can't really create adversity, but perhaps I can add a taste of unpredictability, and fuel the curiosity and the imagination ...?

PS: I vote that this subject would be much better served with company, perhaps with food and beer.
Much better as conversation instead of text.

Anonymous said...

I think you hit on it nicely Rory. No well ordered, decent society would allow citizens to starve or be homeless; but our social services are swayed by the perception that those who are poor are bad. Blaming the victim is a real thing; as a result, the structure of social services is such as to perpetuate their needs. Rather than helping people survive today and do better tomorrow (school, training, etc.) they place structural barriers to improvement.

I will have to read this book, it sounds interesting.

Robert E.

Kai Jones said...

Lack of imagination or lack of accurate information-people unreasonably believe their efforts won't affect their outcomes.

Peer group pressure-you have to already be strong to choose to be different from your social support group, especially in a way that they won't support but may actually try to keep you from reaching (so you stay at their level).

Fear of failure-if you can't imagine trying again but are stuck with imagining only the humiliation of failure, best not to try in the first place since it will only waste what few resources you have.

Used up already on living the life you've got--for some people the stresses of daily life leave them nothing, no energy or awareness to make a change. Change is a luxury item, it requires resources above what maintenance requires.

I have felt, and overcome, each of these, but I have a lot of gifts and a reasonable amount of determination. And a huge fund of contempt, which was my greatest motivator. Contempt for losers made me work to be a better person!

Kai Jones said...

@Robert E.: No well ordered, decent society would allow citizens to starve or be homeless

Unless they choose it. I hope you wouldn't imprison people who'd rather live free even if it means on the street.

Narda said...

In my office at work, I have a sticker affixed, 'Don't get comfortable.' LOL!

Anonymous said...

@Robert E.: No well ordered, decent society would allow citizens to starve or be homeless

Unless they choose it. I hope you wouldn't imprison people who'd rather live free even if it means on the street.


Well, that is a goo question. Certainly I am not against camping :) I suppose we could go down a rabbit hole of quibbling about what "choice" means, but I am sure no one here wants to play any sophistic games. Looking at nations that have effectively eliminated poverty, they still have a few thousand folks who are on the streets, and it is indeed by choice. I certainly would not agree with forcing folks into shelter.

Indeed I would hope society has better things to do :)

Robert E.

Lise Steenerson said...

@Maija.... let me know if you ever find the answer ;-)
I am still leaning toward genetic
And I definitely think a teacher can be a catalyst. She/he cannot create the attitude in the student but we certainly can bring an existing one to light. In my book this is the definition of a great teacher. And I totally agree about having this conversation over food and beer. ;-)

@Narda... love that sticker.. I am going to make one for my office