Too Smart for Your Own Good

Beliefs (or lack thereof)

fairy-stareWhat is religion? It’s community, history, cultural identity; it’s a way to make sense of the world. Some of us use religion as our primary source of answers; others use mysticism; others: science; and still others use a combination of methods. This is not an argument for one way over the others, but rather a look at beliefs through several different lenses:

We all try to make sense of the world. Our methods may differ, but we are all seeking to understand the same universe:

People find themselves in a mysterious and mysteriously ordered universe. They find themselves equipped with sort of intense moral instincts.  They have religious experiences, and they develop systems that explain those.

—Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religionspeaking on Real Time with Bill Maher (2012)

Religion plays a comforting role for some people:

[P]eople who lose personal control take comfort in religion, because it suggests to them that the world is under God’s control and, therefore, predictable and nonrandom.

—Zuckerman et al., “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity” (2013)

But the comfort of belief is not confined to religious doctrine:

Human beings are believing animals, period. […] Even secular liberals have their [beliefs…] What is the idea of universal human rights if not a metaphysical principle? Can you find universal human rights under a microscope? Is it in the laws of physics?”

—Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, speaking on Real Time with Bill Maher (2012)

It is becoming more difficult to understand a world defined by modern technology:

The modern technologies of the day are a bit of a black box for the average person. […] the average person I meet on the street doesn’t feel any kind of connection to the technologies that are defining their world and shaping the fabric of society.

—Steve Jurveston, billionaire tech investor, “Acclerating Rich-Poor Gap,” Solve for X (2013)

But humans are resilient creatures: Make the world incomprehensible, and they will find a way to comprehend it:

The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity  and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.

—Mark Manson, author, “The Rise of Fundamentalist Belief” (2013)

While we are getting better at adapting to the ever-changing world…:

“The rate at which we can adapt is increasing,” said Teller. “A thousand years ago, it probably would have taken two or three generations to adapt to something new.” By 1900, the time it took to adapt got down to one generation. “We might be so adaptable now,” said Teller, “that it only takes ten to fifteen years to get used to something new.”

—Thomas Friedman quoting Astro Teller, CEO of Google’s X Research & Development Laboratory

…the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).

—Ray Kurzwell, computer scientist,“The Law of Accelerating Returns” (2001)

Technology may soon make everyone feel as if they’ve lost control:

“If the technology platform for society can now turn over in five to seven years, but it takes ten to fifteen years to adapt to it,” Teller explained, “we will all feel out of control, because we can’t adapt to the world as fast as its changing.
—Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, quoted in Thank You for Being Late (2016)
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And while some people think the world is still divided into those who “understand” and those who don’t…:

[Disconnection from technology is] a different kind of estrangement. It’s almost like a cognitive separation—those who know and those who don’t know about the world they live in.

—Steve Jurveston, billionaire tech investor, “Acclerating Rich-Poor Gap,” Solve for X (2013)

…technological advancement will eventually humble even our brightest minds:

“None of us have the capacity to deeply comprehend more than one of these fields [genomic cloning, medical robotics, artificial intelligence]—the sum of human knowledge has far outstripped any individual’s capacity to learn—and even experts in these fields can’t predict what will happen in the next decade or century.”

—Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, quoted in Thank You for Being Late (2016)

For, at the end of the day, we are all humans (no matter how intelligent). And that is the thesis of this entire “Too Smart for Your Own Good” series:

You are never too smart to be humble.

Intelligence does not make a person immune to faulty logicinsensitivity, poor timing, or technological change. There are biological limitations to being human. However we choose to make sense of the world—whatever strategies for life we employ—we are making a personal choice. So remember: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”


Additional Reading:

Urban, Tim. “Religion for the Nonreligious.” waitbutwhy.com (2014): (Source)

Sharov, Alexei A., and Richard Gordon. “Life before earth.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1304.3381 (2013). (Source) (Summary)

Zuckerman, Miron, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall. “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 17.4 (2013): 325-354. (Source)

This is the fifth installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

Ignorance Is Bliss-ish

ignorance-is-blissLife is like pouring concrete. (Bear with me here.) The world provides an endless supply of mystery—raw concrete mix—and over time this concrete pours out into our lives, moving from the unknown (concrete mixer) to the known (exposed, wet concrete). We learn new things, have new experiences, and make new discoveries. In this process, we shape our new knowledge into a unique worldview—a concrete foundation. And just like concrete, our worldviews harden over time.

Children are exposed to so much newness that the concrete flows out like a hole in a dam. They mold the onslaught of new information as well as they can, trying to make room for the next layers. As we get older, however, the concrete that once flowed freely begins to slow. For adults, finding new knowledge comes with a cost—our time and energy. Building upon our worldview foundation requires actively seeking the unknown—journeying to the land of new information at the risk (or benefit) of altering our concrete structure.

There are only two ways to change a concrete worldview: Addition or subtraction; either we (a.) add more concrete—more knowledge—that can be molded around the existing structure, or (b.) we take a jack-hammer to our concrete edifice in an attempt to reconfigure its appearance. The former option is more delicate, incremental, and self-directed. The latter is less controlled, more dramatic, and often occurs by outside influence. Experiences that fly in the face of our worldview are processed in different ways by different people. And while the truth has a way of eroding our most egregious misconceptions, some people’s structures are more protected than others.

The world is essentially made up of three types of people: 1. Never Quitters, 2. Bitter Quitters, and 3. Happy Quitters. This is to say that there are people who persist, people who give up in discouragement, and people who are content watching rather than participating. Let’s examine each of these three groups using a totally nonscientific nor rigorous methodology—the clichés that they most represent.

Never Quitters are the persistent, “lifelong learners” who continually pour and shape concrete onto their worldview foundation. They are so named for the motivational cliché, “Never give up.” Bitter Quitters are ex-Never Quitters who, in their search of the unknown, stumbled upon an undesirable reality and decided to go no further. This group is summarized by the phrase, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” And the final group—the Happy Quitters—may know of a world beyond their bubble, but choose not to explore it, because… well… why would they? They’re content with their lives. Theirs is a comfortable bubble, like being tucked under warm, cozy blankets in a frigid bedroom. And for this group, “Ignorance is bliss.

In a world where, as YaleGlobal Online reports, “the gap between job requirements and available skills is widening,” and technological advancement is outpacing society’s ability to keep up, it seems “obvious” to the Never Quitters that continual learning is imperative. To a Never Quitter, bowing out of the world of learning seems like an admission of defeat. “Now, more than ever, is a time for continual learning, up-skilling, and growing to stay relevant in an ever-changing landscape,” the Never Quitter may say. But they are missing a crucial point.

There is value in the known, the familiar, and the comfortable (especially if such a worldview has a solid foundation). The known allows for a state of low-anxiety and contentment. Also, we all become either a Bitter or Happy Quitter eventually. The 97-year-old lifelong learner may decide that he’s perfectly content not understanding how Twitter works. It’s a common mistake of the “Too Smart for Your Own Good” cohort to think that everyone would benefit from journeying down the Path of the Mental Unknown. They fail to acknowledge the personal benefits of a comfortable, insulated worldview, which Quitters regularly enjoy. In order to coexist, people are not required to agree on how best to live life, but we do need to understand one another’s perspective. How each of us shapes the concrete that life provides is completely up to us.concrete-life

This is the third installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”


For more information on lifelong learners in America, consider reading the following report: Pew Research Center, March, 2016, “Lifelong Learning and Technology.” (Source)

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 2 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Last week we set up the metaphor of a global schoolhouse with nations acting more or less in the same manner as schoolchildren. The G20 was used as our analogous “Classroom G,” divided socially along economic lines—developing countries on one side, developed on the other. Next week we will discuss another group in the global schoolhouse—multinational corporations—and how organizations that transcend geographic boundaries may be the answer to the developed-developing divide. But for now, let’s move from the classroom to the schoolyard and discuss the psychology of cliques—the psychology of global discrimination.

As a social clique, the “Western Powers” have played on the schoolyard relatively unopposed for the past 100 years. They generally make their own rules and exclude most newcomers. Sure, the West may have included nations like Japan or Korea, but only because of economic parity—common developed status. Financial prowess is the basis for in-group membership.

Sociologist would call this discrimination “in-group favoritism“—the concept that people positively view their own group’s members while looking upon outsiders with contempt. In-group favoritism, social identity, stereotyping, system justification—these are what fuel discrimination at all levels, and discrimination has been a part of the global schoolyard for centuries.

Developing countries have many obstacles on the road to equality, let alone dominance. Not only do they struggle to improve their skills of the game (economics), they are often closed off from making the rules or even playing in the first place. The popular kids on the schoolyard may justify this exclusion by citing past support or inclusion of Eastern countries like Japan, but ultimately they will continue to exclude. This justification is called “moral licensing.”

Moral licensing is defined loosely as, “being good frees us to be bad” or more specifically, “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic.” This principle is behind the justification for bad behavior occurring time and again throughout history. 

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized moral licensing  in the first episode of his podcast Revisionist History. In the episode, Gladwell recounts the story of the 19th century British painter, Elizabeth Thompson, who sought entry into the most elite group of English artists of the era—the prestigious Royal Academythought to be made up of the forty most preeminent artists of the time. The problem was that the Acadmey had never had a woman member.

While the 19th century Royal Academy felt a moral obligation to allow the most talented artists into their club, they didn’t want a woman to be such a person. Elizabeth Thompson’s fellowship was put to a vote shortly after her painting The Roll Call (1874) rose to fame, and Thompson narrowly lost the majority required for induction. But almost—the fact that she had been seriously considered (proven by the narrow margin)—was close enough to morally justify nearly 50 more years of male-only membership.

Much like the 19th century Royal Academy was largely shaped by historical precedent and pseudo-supremacy, so too are the “Western Powers” of today. China and other emerging markets are said to be symbols of the global shift in power from established G7 economies to rapidly developing nations; however, like Elizabeth Thompson’s denial of acceptance, social barriers still loom over the future of developing countries.

While this seems like a bleak reality for the majority of the world’s nations, perhaps social norms play only a small part in the success of a rising nation. For there’s another role to be played in this schoolhouse, a role that transcends traditional schoolyard games. As a relative newcomer in history, multinational corporations may be the answer to global discrimination—a new paradigm to counter the old. And that’s where we will leave off until Part 3 next week.

Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin. “Moral self‐licensing: When being good frees us to be bad.” Social and personality psychology compass 4.5 (2010): 344-357.

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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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