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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Reflections: And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None
I knew Agatha Christie was a big name in the mystery genreprobably the most well-known of all. I had no idea that And Then There Were None was the bestselling mystery novel of all time, selling, according to one source, 100 million copies. That's staggering. Popularity aside, And Then There Were None is a very engaging and entertaining book, one which clearly influenced a myriad of books and films which have come after.

And speaking of those influences, it was difficult to read And Then There Were None without reflecting on its imitators, such as a movie like Clue or even the board game for that matter. The setup, the characters, the scenario, the setting, it's all there. Christie's work of mystery appears to tap into one of those universal story threads we respond to as spectatorsover and over again. The ghoulish nature of the story hardly diminishes your enjoyment of it; albeit, Christie is restrained in her depictions of systematic murder, and I feel her restraint makes such a story topic palatable.

None of the book or story would work, however, without the characters who occupy it. The requisite "whodunit" element of the book is enticing, but its characters' backstories were the most compelling element for me. Each character brings to Soldier Island deeply dark and troubling secrets; although some characters are more troubled by those secrets than others. Some characters stick around a bit longer than othersas you can imagine in a book called And Then There Were Noneand several characters are true stand-outs, such as Vera Claythorne and Justice Wargrave. Vera Claythorne is the gravely tragic figure. Her culpability in her past sin is not in question, but the reader's sympathy for her surely is. Justice Wargrave is the sage of the group, providing direction and context to not only his fellow captives but the reader as well.

The expected surprises in the book are satisfying but not altogether shocking. Christie said And Then There Were None was her most difficult book to write. It seems like a hyperbolic statement when you read the book because the course of the story is so smooth. I never felt jerked out of the story, never shook my head incredulously, never felt cheated or swindled. The book is crisp, brief, and enjoyable.

I am in genuine awe of Christie's accomplishment with And Then There Were Nonenot so much the book itself, which is enjoyable but not profound, but its incredible popularity. It was good. I enjoyed it. But 100 million copies? That's truly incredible. And I have to wonder what about the book taps into our shared feeling for stories and narrative which made it so successful. Who knows? Regardless, it's worth reading, and then you can at least be a part of the conversation with a few million other people.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Night Circus
Reflections: The Westing Game

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

4 Rules of Book Etiquette

Adam C. Zern and author Linda Zern discuss 4 rules of book etiquette.

1.) Do not dog-ear the pages
2.) Do not bend the spine
3.) Do not read in the tub
4.) If you borrow a book, make sure to return it

What do you think?

Other Topics of Interest:
What Are You Reading? Ep. 2
Interview with Linda L. Zern - Following the Strandline

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reflections: Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights is the literary substantiation of the adage "misery loves company." Emily Bronte's deeply troubled characters are as often insensible and essentially insane as they are profound. Without Bronte's style and elegance in writing I'm not sure I would have enjoyed a single page of Wuthering Heights. And yet because of Bronte's skill, I enjoyed her bookquite a bit actually.

I don't think anyone can discuss or write about Wuthering Heights without incredulously mentioning the maniacal behavior of its charactersespecially that of Heathcliff and Catherine (the older). Their actions are at times so incomprehensibly strange and perverse I was frequently left dumbstruck. Yet, and this is again a witness to Bronte's skill as a writer, I didn't question the characters' behavior on the face of it; I tried to understand it, but I made no argument against the unreasonableness of behavior committed by extremely unreasonable people. Can someone hate (or even love) so thoroughly and so irrationally? Surely there are individuals who have and will do so. It's terrifying to see the hate unfoldlayer by layer, step by stepbut youas the readercome to accept the inevitably of the characters' actions.

Read the following line: "Be with me alwaystake any formdrive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you...I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!" Taken out of context, a line like this is hopelessly romantic until you realize it was uttered by a sociopath in the throes of unnatural attachment and affection. How interesting words are! Bronte's characters are alive with emotionintemperate and unbridled, a stark contrast to the normally fastidious manners of the English gentry. By far the most macabre moment of the book underscores the strange thematic dichotomy of Wuthering Heights. Several moments in the book could be deeply romantic—if you leave out the insanity and insensibility of desperately broken people acting out in desperate ways. Whatever might be said about Heathcliff or Catherine, one has to frankly admit they are charactersflesh and blood, sinning and suffering.

Wuthering Heights' gothic undertones leave the reader feeling as if they may have read a ghost story but know they haven’t. (I haven't read Daphne du Maurier's book yet, but Hitchcock's adaptation of the book Rebecca does the same thing). The book is disturbing and unsettling. It's also a great read. It's a perfect example that when it comes to telling stories, execution is everything! There aren't manyif anyauthors who could write a story like this and compel me to enjoy it. As odd as it sounds to myself, I did enjoy Wuthering Heights, even with all of its emotional and psychological perversities.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Freedom
Reflections: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Reflections: Dracula

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Reflections: Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence should be required reading for professionals; at least, the first half or so of the book should be required. Of the many concepts, theories, and models I've read about thus far that relates to the business worldor social competence in generalI find very few as or more important than emotional intelligence. In many ways, I see emotional intelligence as the misunderstood element for many individuals' stalled progression or even their rapid development. I think Goleman makes a compelling case in his book; albeit, like many other books of its kind, it meanders toward its end and could have benefited from some additional editing.

Let me first address the major problem with the book. Very similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow (or vice versa), Emotional Intelligence begins with a compelling case for its central concept. I was enthralled by Goleman's persuasive plea to take emotional intelligence seriously and how it can dramatically change (perhaps even transform) our intra-personal and interpersonal interactions. But then the book keeps going and going, and eventually becomesjust like Thinking, Fast and Slowa greatest hits of psychology research and psychological disorders. Granted, Goleman does his best to tie it back into emotional intelligence and how it can ameliorate the human condition, but I didn't feel a large portion of the second half of the book added much to his original argument. Having said that, I still believe Emotional Intelligence is absolutely worth readingall of it. What may not have been particularly interesting to me may be very consequential for another reader in search of a better way.

So what did I love about the book? I am convinced emotional intelligence is a desperately needed competency in the world of business and family (and everywhere else). We are emotional creatures, and we are so often driven to act (mostly react) in unhealthy and less productive ways and we struggle to know why. The concept of emotional intelligence answers some of those important questions. By first knowing we are not only being affected by our emotions in a consequential way but we can also take control of seemingly runaway impulses could do a great deal of good for all of humanity, to say nothing about the average professional. As Goleman wrote: "There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse." What a powerful concept! It should not be overlooked.

Golemanlike all academicsstands on the shoulders of those who came before, such as Howard Gardner. We see today thoseCarol Dweck, Angela Duckworthwho are standing on Goleman and others' shoulders. Growth mindsetan impressively powerful ideais hardly new. Although not called "growth mindset" in Emotional Intelligence, the principles and foundational evidence is all there. Admittedly, I have a powerful bias toward those concepts which seem to empower and confirm the agency of individuals. Emotional intelligence, growth mindset, gritthey all do so, and I find them infinitely more helpful to the average person and professional than opposing fatalistic worldviews. The good news of Goleman's Emotional Intelligence is not just that we can understand our emotions, but that we can learn to tame, bridle, and leverage them for our own success and satisfaction: "A life without passion would be a dull wasteland of neutrality, cut off and isolated from the richness of life itself" (Goleman).

Although I believe the length of the book hurts the overall argument, I still feel Emotional Intelligence is requisite reading for anyone seeking to elevate themselves into a new and heightened level of maturity and sensibility. Although IQ is still an important factor in an individual's lifea fact admitted and attested to by Goleman—it should be very, very apparent that being extremely smart is hardly a panacea for life's difficulties. To quote Goleman again: "The brightest among us can founder on the shoals of unbridled passions and unruly impulses." To use common vernacular, to be truly intelligent, we need not only our heads but also our hearts.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Reflections: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance
Reflections: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin