Monday, March 19, 2018

Reflections: Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon
Flowers for Algernon is a deeply moving and sad book. Its simple narrative structure belies the complicated and difficult topics it addresses—both directly and indirectly. The book left a deep impression on me, and I recommend it for its emotional weight as well as its intellectual commentary.

Flowers for Algernon has a very basic narrative structure which works most of the time. The entire book is comprised of progress reports written by the main character—Charlie Gordon. Charlie is a mentally handicapped man who is, due to his desire and need to learn, chosen to participate in experimental procedures, including, and most dramatically, brain surgery. The intent of the procedures is to increase Charlie's IQ and potentially unlock the lost potential of not only Charlie but a great swath of mankind. After the surgery is performed, the reader quickly becomes aware of Charlie's greater capacity and prowess in expressing himself. His progress is swift but not without its hurdles and hitches. Perhaps most interesting is the conflict between Charlie's quickly advancing IQ and his still adolescent and handicapped emotional intelligence (EQ). The book provides a wonderful insight into the difference between IQ and EQ, and it makes for the most interesting and grueling conflicts the story provides. The self-imposed narrative tool of the progress reports feels a little shallow as Charlie becomes a genius because his writing and expressions barely progresses after only some noticeable but limited improvements. In addition, entire scenes of character and plot development have to be documented through the protagonist's progress reports. At times this is reasonable and effective; at other times it strains credulity but hardly harms the overall flow and impact of the book.

As previously mentioned, Flowers for Algernon's simple narrative structure is not reflective of its deeply complex and absorbing thematic elements. As Charlie Gordon increases in intelligence there are a myriad of subjects which are directly or indirectly explored by the book—love, human connection and sexuality, science and expertise, family relationships, abuse, forgiveness, and so on and so forth. Flowers for Algernon is a verdant garden of ideas and themes, begging to be explored and discussed. And thankfully Charlie Gordon is a sympathetic character, even during his acerbic and mordant outbursts. Furthermore, Algernon, the titular mouse, acts as an extremely effective narrative tool to foreshadow the inevitable and tragic end to Charlie's journey.

As intellectually interesting as Flowers for Algernon is, the defining feature of the book for me was the deep sadness I felt at its conclusion. I was not, however, depressed. There is a distinct difference, and I felt Daniel Keyes expertly balanced the ever so fine line between being heart-rending and being hopeless. Rending a heart can, for example, make it an open heart—open to feelings, to truth. Hopelessness can harden a heart, making it impossible to feel anything but the already present despair trapped inside. Flowers for Algernon accomplishes the former and avoids the latter. Put simply, I will never forget Charlie Gordon, Algernon, and the sadness I felt as they were lost again after being mercifully found. But then again, these are the types of questions the book poses—what is happiness? What is a fulfilling life? And why are we so convinced we know the answer to either?

Flowers for Algernon made me feel something—a hallowed experience for any book reader and the supreme goal of any author. In its simplicity, the book unravels a story with underlying complexity and depth. In the character of Charlie Gordon, Daniel Keyes has written a dissertation on psychology, sociology, medical research, family studies, and a handful of other disciplines in a way only fiction can achieve. Flowers for Algernon is beautifully simple and deeply complex.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Of Mice and Men
Reflections: Death Be Not Proud
Reflections: The Marshmallow Test

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Rating Scales (or snack bags). For them or against them?

Adam C. Zern and Linda Zern debate the usefulness or uselessness of rating scales.  Are we for them or against them?  They definitely don't see eye-to-eye.

Other Topics of Interest:
4 Rules of Book Etiquette
What Are You Reading? Ep. 2

Monday, March 5, 2018

Reflections: The Happiness Advantage

The Happiness Advantage
Of the many TED Talks I have watched or listen to, there are very few, if any, I enjoy more than Shawn Achor's The happy secret to better work. It is funny, engaging, enlightening, and motivating. So it was a natural step for me to buy and read his book. Disappointingly, the speech is much more memorable and unique. Although the book's beginning is as entertaining and insightful as the talk, its middle and end meanders along like so many other academic research and self-help books.  I still liked it but wanted to love it.

The "happiness advantage" is a powerful concept, one in which I largely agree with and believe. However, Achor's evangelism of the advantage I found a little cheap and lacking in humility. I'm not convinced that in order to make a convincing point you have to preface each sentence with "studies show." Furthermore, whenever I read a statement like—and I admit I'm probably not like many readers—"…but given that their worth has proven scientifically unassailable" I cringe. Especially in the world of psychology, I'm not sure there are many "unassailable" truths. The evidence can be compelling, even convincing, but unassailable is a word I would use with the utmost care and deference. And I don't believe it makes the author or scientist's position any less interesting or useful if they willingly show a modicum of humility. I found Angela Duckworth's book Grit (which has a host of ideas that overlap and intertwine with Achor's book) a much better example of conviction mingled with humility. Duckworth is a proponent and advocate of grit but is quick to observe and comment on the need for more research, more discussion, more exploration. I think Achor should have embraced more of that type of outlook.

Having said all of that, The Happiness Advantage is riddled with what I believe can be profoundly effective principles of life and living. Anecdotally, I have experienced the difference between a negative and toxic working environment and a positive and uplifting one. Positive psychology I believe has plenty to benefit the modern workplace, to say nothing of the modern life. I do believe there is far too much emphasis placed on circumstances as sources of happiness, rather than on individual decisions and actions to develop and cultivate happiness, which can then lead to better circumstances. I love Achor's insight: "There are now many truths at Harvard, and one of them is that despite all its magnificent facilities, a wonderful faculty, and a student body made up of America's (and the world's) best and brightest, it is home to many chronically unhappy young men and women." What could possibly be going on there? It's a fascinating question with broad and significant implications.

Like Achor's TED Talk, The Happiness Advantage is a very funny book and wonderfully readable. All of my gripes aside, I probably had more fun reading Achor's book than many other professional or academic books. This, of course, seems appropriate since Achor should not only be the evangelist for positive psychology but also one of its most dedicated acolytes. He appears to fit the role. And yet, he shows plenty of vulnerability by explaining struggles he has in consistently applying the principles of positive psychology. This should remind all of us that to be happy takes work; it takes effort. Simply reading The Happiness Advantage will hardly change your life, but it just might give you some tools and motivation to do so.

The Happiness Advantage does have a certain stickiness to it.  Since completing it I have thought it and its concepts more often than other books similar to it.  I wish the book would have taken a more bold and memorable approach than the standard tallying of principles; it's a tired approach and one that didn't suit ideas as profound as the author was trying to exhibit.  Overall, the book is fine, and the ideas are better.  In spite of itself, The Happiness Advantage is worth reading, but watching the TED Talk is probably the better option for most people.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass
Reflections: Up from Slavery

Reflections: The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Adam Smith's magnum opus and perhaps the first work of modern economics is The Wealth of Nations.  For those who know of Smith it is The Wealth of Nations and not his earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments that receives all of the attention and commentary.  After having read both books I think this is a mistake.  The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an incredible work of observation and commentary which I believe will more directly impact my thinking than Smith's more well known work.

What I found so impressive about The Theory of Moral of Sentiments is Smith's unparalleled ability to observe and comment on the human condition without the assistance of modern science, statistical significance, regressions, data dredging, and the multitude of other toolssome more useful and honest than otherswith exceptional precision.  His writing is clear but challenging (especially for a modern reader), and his insights are deeply provocative.  As an example of his expert insights long before the advent of modern science, see the several selections below:
"We suffer more ... when we fall from a better to a worse situation, than we ever enjoy when we rise from a worse to a better."  (See Nudge and Influence)
"Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest." (See our current political and national condition)
 "We are all naturally disposed to overrate the excellencies of our own characters." (See Thinking, Fast and Slow)
"The man who feels the most for the joys and sorrows of others, is best fitted for acquiring the most complete control of his own joys and sorrows." (See Emotional Intelligence)
These are but a few examples of what Adam Smith has accomplished in this incredible book.  Much more than many books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments requires and compels deep reflection.  Is Smith overly influenced by his particular culture to write broadly about the human condition?  Are his insights universally applicable, regardless of culture, nation, race, or language?  If they are, then there is more than enough to pay attention to in this book.  Furthermore, The Theory of Moral Sentiments shows unequivocally that Smith's critics who focus solely on The Wealth of Nations and Smith's role as "the father of capitalism" to be missing a great deal of nuance in his viewpoints and arguments.  (Most have not read The Wealth of Nations anyway, so their critiques are generally lacking).

Perhaps more than any other observation made by Smith in his book I was most impressed by the following: "Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love."  This alone can and should initiate a host of conversations and debates regarding the nature and definition of love and what it means to be lovely.  As a proponent and believer in a universal truth I think it's possible to answer those questions, but others of a more relative bent may find it much more challenging or believe it impossible.  So let the debate begin!  It is no accident that though The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1756 it continues to be read and its influence has extended through many generations.

A small but significant complaint against the book is its latter portion, which is Smith's response and critique of other philosophical perspectives.  It's tiresome, and I lacked the needed background to truly understand and appreciate the critique.  In addition, the last 30 or so pages is Smith's treatise on language and its origins.  Again, I lacked the necessary educational background to appreciate what I was reading.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a brilliant and challenging book.  Smith's observations are captivating, provocative, and I think for the most part true.  Smith is among some of the greatest thinkers and writers of all time; The Theory of Moral of Sentiments is the most compelling case for him to be so honored.

Other Topics of Interest:
Brow Bruising Reads
Reflections: Utilitarianism
Reflections: The Victory of Reason

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Reflections: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
The irony of the book Influence is in its crusade to educate regarding the tools of influence which are frequently used against us as consumers and individuals. In that education, the author—Robert Cialdini—and his team has given what is essentially an instructional manual to exploiters on how to use those very tools against us. Granted, Cialdini would probably assert that compliance architects already know and exploit influence techniques; he is simply illuminating the rest of us. It's a fair assertion, I think. Influence is indeed an illuminating book—one which highlights not only humorous examples of influence and irrationality but deeply disturbing ones as well.

The most interesting elements of Influence for me were those areas which overlapped with other areas of study I have previously read, such as in Emotional Intelligence or Thinking, Fast and Slow. As you can imagine, there are is plenty of overlap. Recognizing when we're being influenced is important, yes, but I think Cialdini's examination extends much farther than basic influence. We could be reacting to what he calls "fixed-action patterns," which I thought was a fascinating idea. Just like a mother turkey responds to the "cheep, cheep" of a baby chick, are we responding—like someone playing a tape recorder—to certain stimulus without any genuine regard for our behavior? Do we know it's happening? The essential premise of Cialdini's book isn't simply about how or why we're influenced to behave in certain ways, but about how those fixed-action patterns are exploited by others—some nefarious actors, some not so much—to coerce our compliance.

The most troubling aspects of the book—in my opinion—are those related to how we respond to authority. Milgram's experiments are referenced, of course, as academics are wont to do. But it's other examples and anecdotes that trouble me more, such as Jim Jones and the People's Temple. Although religious devotion is often cited in connection with irrational deference to authority, the phenomenon is widespread and pervasive. The submissiveness of nurses to doctor's directions was extremely disconcerting. In fact, the power structures and influences throughout the health care industry are uniquely vexing. One area of authority I wish Cialdini or any other scholar would explore is that deference given to academics and "experts." I listened to a recent conversation which differentiated between "science" and "expertise" (see EconTalk interview with Bill James), and I think the subject deserves much, much more attention.

I wasn't particularly moved by some of the author's final conclusions and pleas. He asserts that human beings have not and cannot evolve as quickly as technology does, which has made us far more susceptible to various tools of influence. We're overloaded with information; we need decision-making shortcuts more than ever; therefore, those shortcuts are being more manipulated than ever before. Perhaps. In addition, his final plea to the reader I found shrill and jarring. He wrote: "In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate. I don’t consider myself pugnacious by nature, but I actively advocate such belligerent actions because in a way I am at war with the exploiters—we all are" (Emphasis added). Certainly there are bad players, but I hardly feel the slimy used car salesman or Tupperware parties (or LipSense for that matter since my wife has been involved in those types of social sales gatherings) are the type of social cancers which requires "nearly anything" to resist them. The author may have been feeling hyperbolic as he completed his book, but I didn't find his final exhortation to be persuasive or influential.

Influence is a well-written and engaging book. It's not only riddled with research but also does a nice job of sharing relevant and interesting personal stories and anecdotes. The specter of the replication crisis unavoidably casts a shadow over some of the sources and studies used. I have no idea which studies are suspect and which ones have been reproduced, but it's a valid question nonetheless. In the end, Influence was a fun and informative book.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Emotional Intelligence
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture