The Global Schoolhouse

Part 1 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Individual countries have always seemed like individual people to me. With their unique quirks, countries have all the idiosyncrasies of humans. They have distinct personalities, see themselves differently than outside observers, and judge their behavior based on intent while judging others based on action. Some countries are quiet, some loud, some big, some small, some fashionable, some plain (the comparisons continue).

To be clear, the collective “country” is distinct from the diverse collection of its citizens—the whole is different than the sum of its parts. That being said, countries are still like people, and what do all people want? Love and respect. Blatantly disrespect even the mousiest members of society and their blood will boil. Bullies are a product of overcompensation, self-image deficits, and lack of perceived respect. This universal need for respect helps explain much in global affairs.

As an obvious global bully, Russia simply wants the respect it feels it deserves. Seeing itself as a bastion of aerospace development, scientific research, military prowess, historical richness, Olympic champions, and cultural mainstays like art, ballet, and architecture, Russia may think, “We’re one of the greatest nations on earth. Why are we not given the relative level of respect that our status deserves? Let’s annex Crimea, then they’ll respect us!” Similar reasoning can be found in the seemingly antisocial behaviors of all sorts of global policies (not least, those of the United States). Self-centered, emotional, overly competitive, unaware, and simplistic—countries are not just like any people; they’re like school children.

There is one classroom that fits this metaphor well (although the teacher is nowhere to be found). The classroom is the G20—a group of the world’s twenty largest economies who get together to discuss global matters. Within “Classroom G,” as we’ll call it, there are all the features of a stereotypical schoolhouse. There are poorer kids, richer kids, extroverts, introverts, troublemakers, class clowns, slackers, bullies, brainiacs, and everyone in between. There are also social cliques (some even with labels).

Jocks, Preps, Nerds—these are unknown titles in Classroom G. Instead, the most well-known cliques go by other names (NATO, BRICS, G7, G4, and so on), but the most “popular” group is known historically as The Allies. The paradigm of World War I and II has continued for over 100 years and has evolved to roughly include an alliance between the world’s largest economies—the popular kids of the class (although, they are often not very popular with the rest of the students).

The in-group’s membership has changed many times throughout the decades. Where countries like Russia, China, Japan and Germany were once historical outsiders, they now have a seat at the table (but not officially in certain circles—the Group Seven or Permanent Five, for example).

There is an oversimplified explanation for this elite group of students: The trend-setting  group in Classroom G is a clique of develop-ed countries on the inside and develop-ing countries on the outside (with a few choice exceptions). Economics supersedes historical alliance. And as trite and ill-defined as the terms developing and developed may be, they serve as the arbitrary (but necessary) boundary in which our classroom creates a status quo.

It is important to point out, however, that Classroom G countries are not teachers, but peers. Their authority is social in nature, not hierarchical. Therefore, we could hypothesize that international relationships conform to the same social and psychologic theories that humans do…  But more on that next week.

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Silent Heroes: Blindess & Boredom

You’re blind. I’m sorry you had to find out this way, but it’s true. You might be thinking, “How could I possibly be blind if I’m reading this?” Well, you’re only somewhat blind. What am I prattling on about? Blinking.

We spend roughly six seconds out of every minute in what cognitive scientists call “blinking suppression”—a feedback loop that works to inhibit our awareness of having our eyes closed. Our minds suppress our blinking awareness, because blinks are a nuisance, a burden; they interrupt the flow of of our vision. We cannot go about our daily lives with co-workers popping their heads in to ask questions every few seconds (even if that is what they do). Vision is no different. And vision, as it turns out, is very valuable to our cognition.

Neuroscientists estimate that as much as ⅔  of our brains’ activity is associated with vision. While there are some semantics to this estimate, even if our brains’ dedicated ½ of their resources to vision, that certainly qualifies as a valued focus. Yet, we spend 10% of our waking hours with our eyes closed, not seeing anything—blind.

During a two hour movie, there are twelve minutes that we never see. Poof—gone with the wind! And we’re none the wiser. Our brains pretend that we saw the whole thing. Not only are we unaware of what we’re missing, but we’re better for it.

Without tears, eyes dry to the point of irritation, pain, and even permanent damage. The lacrimal gland (sitting just behind the eyebrow) has one primary role—to produces tears to keep our eyes hydrated and functioning. Maybe the lacrimal gland and blinking are the silent heroes of this story. Vision may get all the glory, but what is visual processing if there’s no visual input?

There are other silent heroes in our lives, namely “boredom.” Most of us spend more than ⅔ of our time awake (and nearly all of that time doing something). Silence must be filled with music, podcasts, or video. Sitting quietly, not doing anything has become an affront to modern life. Try it and a person gets agitated; their gaze darting, looking for something, anything that might distract them from the painful state of not doing.

But remember, just as our eyes require periodic rest, so do we. It is important to pause, take stock, and not do. If we spend 10% of our time blind, perhaps we should spend at least that much bored. Six minutes per hour is all it would require. And on that note, it’s time to stop, put the screens away, and close our eyes. 

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Nakano, Tamami, et al. “Synchronization of spontaneous eyeblinks while viewing video stories.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences (2009): rspb20090828. Source

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America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

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Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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