If you were a meat puppet, could anyone tell?

September 9th, 2014

If an alien took over your body and controlled your speech and actions, how long would it be before anyone noticed?

That’s not exactly the research question that “cyranoids” are designed to answer, but they could. Neuroskeptic reports that a couple of British psychologists, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, have replicated two “cyranoid” experiments originally done by Stanley Milgram, of obedience-experiment fame.

“Cyranoid” was Milgram’s coinage–from Cyrano de Bergerac–for a person who is not speaking for or as themselves, but merely repeating words that another person is giving them. Cyrano had to hide in bushes and whisper loudly enough to be heard by Christian–and the audience–but quietly enough to be unnoticed by the fortunately rather dim Roxanne. This is all much easier with modern technology, and Corti & Gillespie were able to set up a microphone-and-monitor system that allowed Person #3 (Cyrano) to listen in on a conversation between Persons #1 and #2 (Roxanne and Christian) and feed “lines,” appropriate or inappropriate, to Christian.


Different aesthetic, same idea.

People didn’t notice, not even when Christian was a 12-year-old boy with his conversation being supplied by a 37-year-old psychologist as Cyrano. Maybe Roxanne wasn’t so dim after all.

Neuroskeptic calls this “Milgram’s creepiest experiment” and writes

If I started shadowing someone else’s speech, would my friends and family notice? I would like to think so. Most of us would like to think so. But how easy would it be? Do we really listen to each others’ words, after all, or do we just assume that because person X is speaking, they must be saying the kind of thing that person X likes to say? We’re getting into some uncomfortable territory here.

I’m not sure that much surprise is warranted, although I envy Neuroskeptic’s easy confidence that his loved ones are truly listening to him. We know people often attend more to the form than the content of other people’s speech–this is why Miss Conduct often recommends giving “placebic excuses” when ruffled feathers need to be soothed. And there’s a whole series of experiments showing that people don’t notice change in their environment. (I don’t mean “How could you not notice I changed the shelf liners, honey,” either–I mean like you’re talking to a whole ‘nother person than you started talking to, and you still don’t notice.)

More to the point, though, people aren’t going to twig to a cyranoid because cyranoids don’t exist. As Corti & Gillespie write,

It seems that when encountering an interlocutor face-to-face, people rarely question whether the “mind” and the “body” of a person are indeed unified–and for good reason, as social interaction would be undermined if we began to doubt whether each person we encountered was indeed the true author of the words they expressed.

The authors point out that people do often notice identity discrepancies “in artificial environments (e.g., Second Life and other virtual community games) wherein users can construct outer personae which starkly contrast with their real-world identities.” You don’t even need to go into immersive environments–even the comment threads on opinion blogs will tend to feature people accusing others of not really being a member of whatever group they’re attempting to speak for, or of adopting a sock-puppet identity, or the like. When we know that people’s words and being need not match up, we can be quite vigilant about clues.

I always figured that’s how Starfleet crew members managed to cotton on so quickly whenever their colleagues got possessed by the Aliens of the Week. Deanna Troi learned all the Signs of Alien Possession to watch out for when she was in psychology school, just like nowadays you learn the signs of addiction or suicide risk. I don’t even want to think how long it would take me to notice if my boss got assimilated by the Borg.

Corti & Gillespie write that people have always been fascinated by the idea of persons speaking through other persons, or different identities in the same body:

This well-known story [of Cyrano de Bergerac] is but one of the many examples of a fantasy that has appeared in the arts and mythology throughout history–that of the fusion of separate bodies and minds. Other illustrations include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in part the tale of a fraudster who is able to attain great power by presenting himself to the world through an intimidating artificial visage. The film Big entertains the folly that ensues when an adolescent boy awakens to find himself in the body of a middle-aged man. More recently, films such as Avatar and Surrogates have imagined hypothetical futures in which mind can be operationally detached from body, allowing individuals to operate outer personae constructed to suit their social goals. Fiction though they may be, these stories illuminate the power façade has over how we are perceived by ourselves and by others, and how we and others in turn behave in accordance with these perceptions.

Paul Bloom hates empathy (good on him)

September 5th, 2014

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote an amazing takedown of empathy in the Boston Review. You don’t need to feel another person’s pain in order to be a good person–empathy might even impede morality:

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

The problems that arise here have to do with emotional empathy—feeling another’s pain. This leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress. We can contrast this with non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus … It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

This mirrors my recent experience with my mother. People naturally feel empathy for their parents, especially their mothers–you’re literally connected to her body for the first few months of your life. You learn to be a person by imitating and being imitated by her. To feel what your parents feel is normal.

Except now, my mother is in a nursing home and deeply unhappy with her life for very good reasons, reasons that neither I nor anyone else can do anything about. I felt her pain for a long time, and it damaged my life and turned our phone calls into stomach-churning ordeals. And did nothing to better her quality of life.

A few months ago, somehow, I managed to pull the plug, emotionally, and stop feeling the sadness and frustration and anger about her condition that I had been. The emotions are still there, I just choose not to … visit them. I cultivate an attitude of chipper detachment that feels horribly fake and a complete betrayal of everything my relationship with my mother has ever been. And it’s saving both our lives. I’ll take the guilt of being a Stepford daughter over the anguish of feeling too much any day of the week. It’s what my mother would prefer, too.

I’d be very curious to hear what any actors who read this blog think of Bloom’s essay (read the whole thing, it’s complex and fascinating). My sense is that actors are, generally, pretty damn in favor of emotion for its own sake. Emotion to actors is like sweat to athletes, someone said. Acting is difficult for me because I have a lifelong, learned habit/skill of pulling myself out of emotional situations. It’s why I’m a good advice columnist–I don’t get swept up in emotion. I hold back, I look at the big picture, I examine my reactions. It’s terrible for acting.

Speaking of acting, did you know there is such a thing as medical acting? Now there’s science theater! From Bloom’s essay:

Leslie Jamison makes a similar point in her new essay collection The Empathy Exams. Jamison was at one time a medical actor—she would fake symptoms for medical students, who would diagnose her as part of their training. She also rated them on their skills. The most important entry on her checklist was number thirty-one: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.” But when she discusses her real experiences with doctors, her assessment of empathy is mixed. She met with one doctor who was cold and unsympathetic to her concerns, which caused her pain. But she is grateful to another who kept a reassuring distance and objectivity: “I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing,” she writes. “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure. . . . I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”

I picked up The Empathy Exams at the library yesterday, and look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts on it with you!

You can’t fake faces or physics

September 4th, 2014

Wired is doing a fascinating series on science and cinema. I can tell already that one of the major themes of this blog will be, “Science makes explicit what art has always known.” The Wired series brings filmmakers and scientists together to see where their knowledge overlaps.

The first piece is about visual processing, which is much more interesting than I thought it would be when I started grad school. “Seeing” is not a passive experience:

While film makers intuitively understand things about visual perception and attention, scientists are trying to understand these things at a more mechanistic level, Smith said. He and other scientists want to know, for example, how the brain constructs a fluid perception of the visual world. “Visual perception feels like a continuous stream, but it’s not,” he said. What actually happens is that we look at one thing at a time, taking in a bit of information here, then moving our eyes to take in a bit of information over there. Then, somehow, amazingly, our brain stitches all those bits together to create a seamless experience.

In filmmaking terms, this means that your audience aren’t mere receptacles, but are co-creators of the art, actively–if unconsciously–ignoring this stimulus and paying extra attention to that one to make sense of the flickering images before them:

“We’re constantly calculating where we think the audience’s eye is going to be, and how to attract it to that area and prioritize within a shot what you can fake,” Favreau said. “The best visual effects tool is the brains of the audience,” he said. “They will stitch things together so they make sense.”

What you can’t fake, Favreau said, are faces and physics. Favreau is working now on an adaptation of The Jungle Book, and he says almost everything is CGI except the faces. Faces are just too hard to fake convincingly, he said, even with sophisticated motion capture systems designed to capture every eye blink and facial twitch.

“It’s the same with physics,” Favreau said. In the Iron Man 2 ccene, his special effects team created replicas of Formula 1 cars with the same weight and dimensions as the real thing and launched them with hydraulics or air ramps to create the flying, cartwheeling spectacle you see onscreen. “You get a tremendous amount of randomness in the way these things bounce and tumble and roll as they hit the ground and interact with each other, and that creates a sense of reality,” Favreau said.

I don’t know what “no CGI faces” really means. If Favreau is implying that Caesar and Rocket are anything other than wonderful to look at, he’s out of his mind. But the human brain does have a particular capacity to recognize faces–a face isn’t just any old arrangement of meat, it’s very special to us. And humans also have an innate grasp of physical realities. If I threw a ball high in the air for my dog, and he didn’t see where it landed, he would keep staring up in the sky for as long as I would let him. A dog’s brain doesn’t automatically know that what goes up will always come down. A human’s brain does know that, and if something onscreen behaves in an impossible fashion, it will pull our focus.

The second story looks at what happens in people’s brains when they watch movies. Certain types of movies can totally synch up the audiences’ brains. Scans show that the same areas in almost everyone’s brains lights up at pretty much the same time:

“They do look very similar, but it’d be more surprising if they didn’t,” said Handel, who earned a PhD in neuroscience at New York University before getting into movies. “If you’re watching a movie, that’s your entire sensorium and your feelings.” If people’s brains were out of synch during a movie, Handel suggested, that might be a bad sign that their minds were wandering. One person might be thinking about the call they need to make, while another contemplates making a popcorn run.

Think about that the next time you’re at a movie! You and all your fellow audience members sitting in isolated silence, while your brains ebb and flow like a team of Esther Williams swim-dancers.


Your brain on film.

Real relationships with fictional people

September 3rd, 2014

Who is your favorite literary or pop-culture character?
Why?
Do you ever think about that person to get you through hard times?

This is another one of those bits of human nature that art and culture have long realized, and the psychological sciences are slowly catching up with. Of course thinking about inspiring people can give you the courage or patience to handle your own ordeals. That’s why people say “What Would Jesus Do?” When I was an undergrad, if I couldn’t muster up motivation for a study or library research session, I would pretend I was a student at Starfleet Academy. Starfleet cadets never lacked for motivation.

I reviewed a new study about this for the British Psychological Society’s research digest earlier this month:

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

The paper suggests that these parasocial relationships help us envision a bigger, better version of our selves, much as our real-life relationships can do. I credit Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln with giving me the political will to begin the process of getting my mother into assisted living. I just felt so decisive after seeing that movie!

I’ve written before about parasocial relationships (read the whole thing here):

So given how much even our relationships with real people can take place in the imagination, it’s no leap to have a strong relationship with a fictional character. Some people are more inclined to this than others–and, counter to the geeky fanboy/girl Comic Book Guy stereotypes, it’s the people who are overall highly social and relationship-oriented who are most likely to have strong parasocial relationships as well. I tend to be very prone to them, myself: I really was in tears, yesterday, of happiness that dogs I have never met are going to survive and be safe. Certain writers–Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton–have always felt like sisters to me. When I read Torah, I have extremely vivid images of the Four Matriarchs–if I could draw, I could draw you exactly what they look like to me.

Bringing up the Four Matriarchs, and Jesus, is no accident. Religion has always encouraged parasocial relationships with people you don’t know in the flesh, and uses stories and images to encourage adherents to identify and model themselves after various ancestors, saints, or demigods.

Sunday synthesis (no column): Rewards and the golden rule

August 31st, 2014

Because of the holiday, there’s no column today, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to pull some ideas together from previous weeks. A number of you liked my deconstruction of the golden rule from a few weeks back, in which I pointed out

… the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

You shouldn’t always do unto others as you would have them do unto you, in other words, because they’re not you and their tastes may differ.

The week before that, I’d written about behaviorism and the importance of knowing the person (or animal) you are attempting to “train”:

The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.

Operant conditioning (a behaviorist approach) is about reinforcing the behaviors that you want, and not reinforcing the ones you don’t want. In order to do it effectively, you have to find reinforcements–rewards–that really motivate. It’s all too easy to stick with rewards that are easy to administer–like kibble for dogs or money for people. It’s tidy, it’s quantifiable, it’s portable. What Milo truly wanted from life was to chase squirrels, but I couldn’t very well carry squirrels around in my pocket as a reward for good behavior, so he got liver treats, which offered an acceptable balance of convenience and desirability.

Another mistake is to over-apply the golden rule when creating rewards. Without conscious effort, we naturally tend to assume that other people will like, want, or think what we do. Even, disastrously, when we don’t actually know, ourselves, what it is we do like, want, or think.

One of the best tools I’ve found for thinking about these kinds of differences in what motivates people is C. Brooklyn Derr’s “career orientations,” which I wrote about earlier this year for the Harvard Business Review blog. Knowing your own career orientation can help you figure out what kinds of jobs and projects you should pursue. If you’re in charge of creating rewarding experiences for other people–employees, students, clients–Derr’s taxonomy can help you think about what all those people who aren’t you might find exciting and validating.

And of course, there’s a character on “Mad Men” who illustrates each of Derr’s orientations.

One of the most common career orientations is getting ahead: “People who are motivated by upward mobility focus on promotions, raises, making partner, and increasing their authority. They’re competitive and willing to put in long hours and negotiate office politics to win those rewards. This is the default career model in the U.S., which means that it’s easy for those who want to get ahead to explain themselves to bosses, colleagues, and family.” (All of the orientations are described in greater detail here.)

Lots of people start off with getting ahead as their orientation, but some people stay that way even after they’ve achieved a certain professional level, like Pete Campbell. The getting-ahead people are easy to manage because what they want is what the system is set up to deliver: good grades, money, promotions, whatever.

The elevator to success only has room for one of us, Bob.

People with the getting secure orientation have a harder time in today’s economy and corporate culture:

Those who seek regularity and predictability in their work environment are motivated to fit in with others and uphold group norms. They avoid risk and are less concerned with advancement than with career control. If this description has you rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. It’s difficult for people to admit they want this kind of security, because it sounds like the life of a corporate drone, which no one wants to be. That’s especially true today, given the rise of the free agent in all industries. But people motivated by security are loyal and willing to put in extra effort when the situation requires it — not just when it will bring them glory.

Sounds boring? But it can look like this.

Joan Harris is the poster girl for the getting-secure orientation. She values efficiency, decorum, and accuracy and expects everyone to do their part. She also values long-term financial security, which may or may not be tied to her continued employment at Sterling Cooper.

The opposite of the getting secure orientation is getting free: “Derr describes people with this orientation as ‘hard to work with, impossible to work for, slippery as eels to supervise and manage, and infinitely resourceful in getting their own way.’ People who value getting free want autonomy and self-direction.”

Right. Yes, they’re both silvertongued hotties preternaturally good at their jobs, but the similarity ends there. Joan wants the trains to run on time. Don wants to know he can always jump a boxcar and blow town. Their seventh-season conflicts shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Office stoner Stan Rizzo is not going to be the poster boy for getting high, because that’s not what Derr is talking about:

These are people who care deeply about deploying their expertise, solving problems, creating new things, and feeling engaged. They are ambitious and sometimes idiosyncratic. Unlike professionals intent on getting ahead (who might take on boring but important assignments in order to win favor with clients or managers), those motivated mainly by getting high will gravitate toward work that provides greater stimulation, even if it’s low-profile or high-risk.


It’s why we love her. It’s why she seems so modern.

Speaking of modern, Ken Cosgrove is a quiet revolutionary who consistently values getting balanced:

People with this orientation want to enjoy objective career success, personal development, and close relationships, and they’ll strive to achieve all these goals over time. They are unwilling to sacrifice a personal life to career demands, but they’re also unlikely to coast in a job for which they are overqualified to free up their time at home. They want challenge, and fulfillment, both on and off the job.

Ken decides no account is worth being shot in the face. Go-getter Pete happily takes over the account.

Ken has published short stories–and continued to write under a pen name after being told that ad work left no margin for extracurricular activities. He handed over the prestigious Chevy account to Pete when the toll on his health became unacceptable. More than the other men, he talks about his children in the workplace.

***

Derr’s taxonomy isn’t meant to be a consultant’s version of astrology. Most people are at least somewhat motivated by all five of his categories–status, security, freedom, excitement, and balance–and people’s motivations may change over time as their circumstances do. Still, in general, most of us are going to identify more strongly with one or two of the types above. And we’re going to wind up teaching, managing, or working with all the other types sooner or later. It’s useful to get a sense of how they see the world.

“Her Aching Heart” and the science of romance (novels)

July 21st, 2014

Last night I dreamed I went to Central Square Theater again …

… because “Her Aching Heart” was so darn funny the first time (Globe review here). Aimee Rose Ranger and Lynn Guerra play modern-day urbanistas cautiously falling in love with each other while reading a gothic romance about a tempestuous English lady and the innocent peasant girl who sparks her affections. Only the occasional phone call or song hint at the present moment–most of the show is dedicated to the two actresses playing all the parts in the lesbian bodice-ripper. (Aimee’s bluff, rapey Lord Rothermere and Lynn’s palsied Granny, full of incomprehensible forest wisdom and whole-body tics, were my favorites.) Yes, I know it sounds stupidly complicated, but it’s not, really. If you liked the movie parodies Carol Burnett used to do, you’ll like this.


(Lynn Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger in “Her Aching Heart,” A.R. Sinclair photography)

The romance parody in “Her Aching Heart” inspired me to dig up my dissertation, which was on the psychology of literary genre. I was curious to know if people had expectations about stories that went beyond surface characteristics (e.g., if it’s in the future, it’s science fiction, if there’s a murder, it’s a mystery). I asked participants to rate 10 different genres, including romance, classics, science fiction, and fantasy, across 16 different dimensions.

Here’s a graph showing how “romance” (in red, natch) differs in people’s imagination from ordinary fiction (in black):

People perceive romance as dumber, basically–I said that in a fancier way in the actual dissertation, of course, but I think my advisers knew what I meant. Romance is seen as more predictable, simpler, upbeat, emotional, and fantasy-based than regular fiction: It’s written for money and read for fun. No wonder it’s so delightfully easy to parody! We don’t even feel bad about making fun of romance novelists, because we assume as long as they’re making bank they don’t care about critical opinion.

I did my dissertation in 2002, and I wonder how “romance” would be defined in today’s imagination. That’s the tricky bit about trying to scientifically study a cultural phenomenon like literary genre–it keeps changing on you. In 2002, I would occasionally encounter people who didn’t know what “genre” meant, because it was still a lit-crit term, and wasn’t how iTunes and Amazon and Netflix preferred to organize your content and sell you more. Romance-wise, 2002 was before “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Gray” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” Would these dark offerings lead college students today to rate romance as a more pessimistic, complicated (if not intellectual) genre?

Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”

July 17th, 2014

Earlier this week I did a video broadcast with PeaceBang and NYT religion reporter Michael Paulson about religion themes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which Mr. Improbable and I saw this weekend. Boy, the reading glasses were a mistake! But I had never done a Google hangout before, and wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings. We do give away most of the plot–elements that aren’t implicitly contained in the title, that is–so watch with caution.

More discussion after the jump

Click to continue reading "Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”"

The Bostonian personality

July 1st, 2014

Commented to a friend from Kansas this morning that she really ought to consider moving out here, as her personality would fit much better in New England, which led me to muse on one of my favorite muse-snacks, the Boston personality. Here’s what I see, almost 20 years after I made the move from the Midwest myself:

Bostonians value honestly over tact and would rather discuss their opinions than their emotions. We expect people to have some kind of clear identity, whether it’s ethnic, professional, religious, or whatever. We have an innate understanding of multiple intelligences. This moderates the intellectual snobbery people expect from the city, although it also means, in practice, that most of us are easily intimidated by each other: I’ve seen physicists scared of actresses, lawyers intimidated by chefs. We have no ability to move through space in a coordinated and efficient fashion, whether on foot or by car or bike, in striking contrast to New Yorkers, who navigate their city like schools of fish. Despite our terrible street signage, Bostonians place a high value on information and think that giving people the full and accurate intel to make a decision is an important etiquette practice. (The homeless people have more informative signs in Boston than in any large city I’ve been to.) We are somewhat antisocial, although to us it feel more like respecting other people’s privacy, and avoiding the awkwardness that we secretly believe is inherent in every social interaction. (It’s no coincidence that half the cast of “The Office” came from Newton.) Bostonians will ghost at a party because we don’t want to put the host through an awkward goodbye when he’s deep in a conversation about string theory or the Sox with another guest.

What do you think? Am I right? What would you add?

“Mad Men” is my day job, part I: Portability, or why Joan needs that money

June 26th, 2014

I mentioned earlier that “Mad Men” is basically the audio-visual supplement to my day job as a researcher at Harvard Business School. My boss, Boris Groysberg, primarily studies high achievers at professional-service firms. He’s particularly interested in how women advance in male-dominated environments.

You can see the relevance.


Dawn and Joan gaze in disgust and consternation at the face of the patriarchy (not shown).

Joan Harris has made some stunning advances, both professional and personal, this season. She handed over her administrative duties to the super-efficient Dawn, and promoted herself to “account man” with the support of Jim Cutler and Ken Cosgrove. (Joan’s whole process of becoming an account rep is a classroom-worthy case study of the importance and boundaries of relationships in the business world. Before she re-invented herself, Joan made sure she had support from above–a senior partner and the head of accounts backing her play–as well as someone to fill the role she was trying to step out of. Though not stated overtly, it’s clear that one of the reasons Joan chooses Dawn to succeed her as office manager is that, as one of only two or three African-American secretaries at the agency, Dawn isn’t looking for girlfriends in the secretarial pool or a husband in the executive suites. She focuses on doing excellent work and keeps herself aloof. Joan knows Dawn will be fair and stick to policy rather than doing favors and bending rules for her friends.)

Because of her professional rise, and greater honesty and warmth in her personal life, many critics have found it strange that Joan is also increasingly money-hungry and still deeply resentful of Don for keeping the firm from going public last season. This is where Boris’s work comes in.

Boris writes about portability: the extent to which a worker can move around in the labor market without losing value. You know who is portable in “Mad Men”? Don Draper, that’s who. Don’s power at Sterling Cooper Whatever MacGuffin Foo is based on the fact that any other agency would hire him in a heartbeat. He has a clear portfolio of accomplishments and the nature of his work is such that it can be done anywhere. Give him a file box of product research, a pad and pen, and Don Draper is ready for action.

You know who is not portable? Joan Harris. Joan has tremendous company-specific human capital: She knows everything about SC&P’s operations, clients, vulnerabilities, future projections. She has a deep understanding of the psychology of the people she works with. She has off-the-books leverage over name partner Roger Sterling.

If she moved to another firm, she would lose all of that. If she even could move to another firm. It’s doubtful she could take any clients with her if she did–she’s a new account rep and no one is especially loyal to her yet. While women are breaking into creative, client work is overwhelmingly male-dominated–as are most of the client businesses themselves–and Joan would be faced with the depressing, overwhelming task of making men take her seriously all over again if she were to try to start somewhere new. She could easily get a job as office manager elsewhere, but that would be a step down. Joan spent 16 years building her career at SC&P, and that work simply won’t transfer elsewhere.

This is why Joan so desperately wants the cash that a buyout–or a public offering, like Don blew up–represents. She’s a queen in her little kingdom of SC&P–a second-floor office! a 5% partnership!–but if anything happens to that little kingdom, and plenty has already, she goes back to being Head Secretary and Dirty-Joke Target at some other shop on Madison Avenue. Unlike Don, and even Peggy, she won’t have other agencies offering her comparable or better jobs. And unlike Roger, Jim, and the rest of the male partners, she doesn’t have any wealth to tide her over.

This is why she wants the buyout, and why she’s still so very angry at Don for spiking the public offering. Don has two forms of security: job portability and wealth. Joan knows–although she hasn’t found a b-school professor to give her the words for it yet–that she doesn’t have the former. It’s no wonder, as a single mother in the 1960s, that she’s so bound and determined to get herself the latter.

Why your parents buy your kid too many presents

June 5th, 2014

You may have seen this graph that’s been making the rounds, on how prices for necessities have risen while those for luxuries have fallen.

From the New York Times article:

Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory. The result is that Americans can buy much more stuff at bargain prices.

Here’s what popped out at me: toys. It wasn’t on my radar before I became Miss Conduct, but every year I can count on a handful of letters–usually around Christmas, but some timed to birthdays or graduation/wedding season, like now–from parents whose own parents go overboard on gift-giving. I’m not the only one–addressing the issue has become something of a cottage industry at the NYT.

The above graph makes it so vividly clear why this happens. The highest increases have been in education and child care costs–that’s what your parents hear you complain about, or know that you worry about even if you don’t complain. And they might not be in a position to do anything about that. But toys! They can give toys! And such a bargain–you can’t afford not to buy them at these prices, really.

Because that’s what’s hard to break your mind from, that stubborn insistence that the economic conditions of your childhood were the “real” ones, and any subsequent change is a mere epiphenomenon to be exploited or ignored, but not actually adjusted to as though it were the new state of things. If toys were expensive and rare in your childhood and now they are plentiful and cheap, you do what people do in times of temporary plenty: you splurge and binge and give and hoard.

I have a tendency to do it with clothes, myself. As a lower-middle-class child in the 1970s, to paraphrase Woody Allen, my clothes were ugly and I had so few of them! Now I live in the age of Zara and 6pm and eBay, yet I’m still afflicted with the fear that this grey v-necked cardigan at a reasonable price might be the last grey v-necked cardigan at a reasonable price I ever see, so I had better buy it. And maybe get one in black and burgundy too, just in case. You never know–tomorrow everything could be made out of scratchy polyester and cost a month’s allowance again!

It doesn’t feel stupid, which it is. It feels wise. That’s the problem.

How do you make it special, not scary?

June 3rd, 2014

Arts marketers and party hosts face a similar dilemma: How do you make a special occasion feel truly special, without intimidating people?

Everyone wants moments, artifacts, that are special, above and apart from the normal humdrum of life. All week we drink water from a glass; on Shabbat we drink wine from a goblet. It’s human nature, it’s what parties and art and religion are for. All cultures have special events.

And then, for some reason, in the US in the 21st century, we have that basic human need but we hate it. We worry. What if I don’t know how to eat the special food? What if I don’t know the steps to the special dance? What if I don’t have enough money for the special clothes? What if I don’t even know what the special clothes should be? Performance anxiety around special events is natural–all the world’s a stage, but during a wedding or fancy dinner party the spotlights get turned up all the way. That natural performance anxiety is intensified, here and now, by all the usual culprits: increasing diversity, which means a breakdown of commonly held social customs; increasing inequality and economic doldrums that make people insecure about their social status; the unflattering contrast between one’s performance in meatspace and the carefully filtered and curated image one can project on social media; and probably ever so many more reasons.

We need special events, we love special events, but we hate them because they make us feel afraid of failure, and failure in 21st century America is not an option.

Do you see the position this puts hosts, and arts marketers into?

Parties are special events. Art is a special event. How do you get guests and clients to join you on that elevated plane?

I was walking around Newbury Street with a friend one day and wanted to stop in one of my favorite art galleries. My friend–whose scientific and literary accomplishments are so impressive she can admit to virtually any other ignorance with no shame–said that she had never been in an art gallery, and was therefore vaguely intimidated to go into this one. I told her it was just like a museum except you get treated like a potential customer instead of a potential vandal–and that if you see something you truly love you could actually buy it–which convinced her to join me.

This wasn’t some underserved urban youth, you understand, this is a woman with a PhD who grew up on the Upper West Side. The fact that she’d never been in an art gallery isn’t a problem. The fact that she felt put off by the idea of entering one really, really is.

Some gallery owners have found a fascinating way around the special-is-scary dilemma–art trucks:

[M]obile owners say they are trying to avoid the confines — and politics — of the gallery system; to help people think about art in different ways; or to reach more communities, especially those with young and old people who tend not to visit art districts. That was what motivated Berge Zobian of Providence, R.I., to create his truck in 2012, equipped with 44 linear feet of exhibition space, a stereo system, security cameras, projection monitors and even a bar for making coffee. On one occasion he took 40 paintings to a church, one priced at $35,000.

Look at this picture, also from the NYT article.

You want to go in there. Of course you do. How could you not? It looks like a doorway to Narnia. It looks like a gypsy caravan. It looks magical.

Magic.

Is that it? How do we make things magical? How do we bust people out of their self-consciousness about etiquette and appearance and get them to focus on the magic of the moment?

I like the art trucks, I like them very much. I like the gothic-themed party I threw a few winters ago, when people were asked to wear “Formal dress … from any era, in any state of repair.” One way of keeping things special-but-not-scary would be introducing this kind of ironic distance. Yes, we’re dressing up, but we’re playing dress-up. Everyone knows those aren’t your real clothes. Art trucks are inherently ironic–it’s art! In a truck!

But irony can’t be the entire answer. It’s reactive–the art trucks wouldn’t be ironic if we didn’t have knowledge and expectations about art galleries to upend. A razor-slashed prom gown and ratted hair (I looked amazing at my Midwinter Macabre!) needs a vision of formal dress to contrast itself to. And irony always holds something back, which ultimately is antithetical to creating a truly special occasion. You can’t always play dress-up. Sometimes you need to actually dress up.

Information helps. I subscribe to Central Square Theater, and before shows, you get an email reminder with information about parking and restaurants. The theater lobby and restrooms are papered with signs telling the audience the show’s running time per act and how long the intermission is. This weekend I attended a wedding at which a large board with the day’s schedule of events painted on it was propped up where everyone could see. These things are helpful, and beyond that, they set a tone. In addition to the facts the convey, such signs say, “There is relevant information about this event that you may not have known when you walked in. That is perfectly understandable. Feel free to ask if you need more help.”

Irony and information–two ways you can make an event special without being scary. But those aren’t full solutions to the dilemma, just the tools I happen to have in my kit. What’s in yours?

More on beating procrastination

August 12th, 2011

So there’s a necessary task that only you can do, and you are capable of doing it. Except you keep putting it off until tomorrow — whether “it” is getting back to the gym, writing thank-you notes for wedding presents, getting past the second chapter of your novel, or filling out your annual employee evaluations. Some tips for beating a procrastination habit:

1. Find meaning in your task. People are most likely to procrastinate on work that they find meaningless. I wrote last month about how going to the gym had finally started to feel worthwhile, that running in place and picking things up and putting them down had come to seem like a good use of my time. (This is a good technique for academic procrastination, obviously.)

2. Or don’t. Maybe you’re putting off something that really is meaningless, like the week’s TPS reports, but you still have to do it. Don’t insult your own intelligence by trying to find the Tao of Paperwork. Either find a way to work through them with frequent rewards and distractions, or else play an efficiency game to make the task at least marginally challenging. Roald Dahl used to play “shaving golf,” and try to completely shave his face in as few strokes as possible. There was a lovely scene in last season’s “Mad Men” in which Don recounts how he used to write assigned essays in English class to the exact minimal word requirements — five paragraphs, fifty words each.

And there are times, also, when we procrastinate because the task has too much meaning. Starting our novel. Applying to graduate school. Pricing condos. The trick here is often to fool yourself into doing your work while pretending that you aren’t. You aren’t planning to move, you’re just going to open houses with a friend as a lark. I do this with my writing, often. Despite years of experience, I can still get spooked sometimes when I sit down “to write.” So I’ve developed a way of taking notes, and then gradually expanding and reordering them until whatever I’m working on is done. So I go right from “Note Taking” to “Editing” without ever stopping at that anxiety-producing station called “Writing.”

3. Build in rewards. If there is no way to find a task inherently rewarding (or at least, not sufficiently so), sweeten the pot. Take a sauna after your workout. Take a break for Words with Friends after each five exams you grade. Head to a coffee shop and enjoy people-watching and pastry along with your paperwork.

The trick here is to attach the reward to the task, so that the entire experience becomes more pleasant, and you’ll condition yourself to regard the task as less aversive in the future. If you impose a strict “first we write our thank-you notes, then we get to go play,” you’re reinforcing the notion that writing thank-you notes is a nasty chore. When possible, find some way to reward yourself during the task.

4. Other people are not necessarily a reward. A lot of the advice on avoiding procrastination revolves around making the task a more social one: joining a writers’ group, getting a workout partner, and so on. This is good advice, but it conflates two things: other people as a source of accountability and help, and social interaction as a reward.

For some people, that conflation doesn’t matter. But if you are in the minority of introverts, which I know many of my readers are, being with other people is not necessarily a reward. Even if you are extroverted, the people who can give you the most useful advice, and to whom you feel most accountable, may not be the people whose company you find most rewarding.

So if the writers’ group or workout partner isn’t working for you, figure out why. Maybe they’re fun but soft, and don’t hold you accountable. Or maybe they are great at keeping you motivated and providing advice, but the relationships feel more like part of the task than something intrinsically enjoyable.

Holy procrastinating pigeons!

August 11th, 2011

Some thoughts on procrastination, from my notes for yesterday’s show:

Pigeons procrastinate. This puts the phenomenon in perspective, for me. Maybe for some people it’s a deep psychoanalytic conflict that leads them to put things off, but pigeons do it too. Procrastination might not be all that complex, and it’s definitely natural. In fact, one thing that came up over and over again as I was looking at the research is that the people who beat procrastination are the ones who acknowledge that it’s a genuine temptation that can’t simply be willed away. You aren’t going to be a better person tomorrow. So what are you going to do today that will make tomorrow-you do the right thing?

If you find that you procrastinate a lot, here are some questions to ask:

1. How’s your health? One simple reason that people put off ’till tomorrow is because they do not have the physical or mental energy today. If procrastination is a real problem for you, take a look at your health and schedule first. Are you getting enough sleep? Do you exercise and eat well? Do you have any chronic conditions, mild or severe, that affect your energy level and need to be managed?

2. Do you really want to do the thing you’re putting off? Generally, we procrastinate on tasks that we don’t like doing. Which then leads to the subversive question that grownups get to ask themselves: Do I actually have to do this? Is the task you are postponing really necessary in the first place? If it is, are you the only person who can do it? Or can you outsource it?

3. Do you know how to do the thing you’re putting off? If the task must be done and you are the only one who can do it, do you know how? I don’t mean do you know what the finished state ought to look like — I mean do you know how to start, and how to get from that starting point to the end? A couple of months ago I answered a question from a woman who got writers’ block about thank-you notes. (I suspect a not-insignificant percent of late and or never-sent TYNs are the result of bad nerves more than bad manners.) I wrote, in part:

You can get over your gratitudinal perfectionism. Develop a formula for thank you notes, and then don’t overthink it. Your friends and relatives aren’t dissecting your missive as if it were some long-lost Rosicrucian manuscript in a Dan Brown novel. Here’s the recipe I use: The first sentence is an “I” statement about the gift (“I’m sitting here wrapped up in the afghan you knitted me,” “I just returned from spending my gift certificate at Williams-Sonoma”). In the second sentence, I thank the giver — and I don’t worry about sounding cliched, because the fact is there are only so many ways to say “thank you.” One or two more sentences compliment the giver and express love, support, and/or hopes of seeing each other in person soon.

If you don’t know how to get started in the task you are postponing, ask for help.

4. Is procrastination rewarded? This is primarily about workplace procrastination. What kind of task-management style makes sense in your workplace? Does getting your work done punctually mean that you have less stress, and more time to create a first-rate product? Or does it mean that your idea gets hung up for everyone else to take potshots at? Does your boss take deadlines seriously, or are extensions routinely granted? Is the nature of the work relatively predictable, so that work can be planned in advance, or are there constant interruptions and emergencies?

Maybe you feel that you are procrastinating, but in fact you are managing your work in a rational way given the parameters of your job. If this is the case, think about how you’d like to manage your work (keeping in mind that you’re not going to be a better person tomorrow!) and whether the environment you are in supports the work style you’d like to have. If it doesn’t, that isn’t a dealbreaker — just something you have to be conscious of. When I was writing my dissertation I was also working four days a week at a job that rewarded putting things off until the last minute (because if you didn’t, your work would be subject to endless revisions). I had to be disciplined about not letting my “good” work procrastination habits become bad study procrastination habits.

So let’s say you are physically and mentally fit to do your task, which is necessary and can only be done by you, and that you know how and have no rational reason to procrastinate. Then what? I’ll do another post later on tips for avoiding procrastination.

Progress at the gym

June 21st, 2011

Hit the gym yesterday for the first time since returning from the Midwest, and my oh my did it feel good. At some point over the last year or two, working out has finally started to feel like a thing I do for myself. Not for my doctor, not for sexist notions of female beauty, not for feminist notions of female strength. For me, because I’m the only one who can do this for myself, and if not now, when? (With apologies to Hillel, who would have been a great personal trainer. Shammai, not so much.)

Most of us pick up dysfunctional messages toward food, exercise, and/or our bodies when we are growing up. One that held me back for a long time was the unconscious belief that if I wasn’t good at exercise, I didn’t have the right to do it. That was certainly what the peers who teased and bullied me for my embarrassingly incompetent attempts at team sports or solo dancing appeared to be suggesting, and going along with their assessment seemed to be the wisest and easiest course of action.

As an adult, of course, I didn’t fear getting a wedgie from the 75-year-old grandmother at my neighborhood co-ed, gay-friendly YMCA featuring water aerobics for the seniors and day care for the stay-at-home-moms. But I still hung on to the notion that taking up space in a gym or scheduling time to work out was something I had to earn. That exercise was a privilege, not a right. So I was prone to hugely overdoing it in an attempt to become as fit as the kind of person who deserved to belong to a gym. Which of course led to burnout and disillusionment when I didn’t transform into Linda Hamilton (the early-1990s touchstone for female kickassery) in 10 days.

I give a lot of credit to my gym, Healthworks, for slowly turning this attitude around. There was never any major “aha” moment, just a gradual realization that exercise doesn’t have to be about self-judging and angst and feelings of painful duty. That it can be, and should be, a place to get away from mental minefields and focus entirely on the moment, the physical, the subjective. I wish it hadn’t taken me quite so long to get there, but I’m glad I did.

Can you hear me now?

June 1st, 2011

I’m going to visit the ConductMom and my old Kansas City gang this week and next, so posting may be slow. Which reminds me of the last blog break I took, over Passover. I wrote,

Anyway, I’m going to take a few days off to get my head straightened out. I am not connecting a whole lot with my religion these days. Like any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you go through the motions and wait for grace.

It turned out to be more the “going through the motions” kind of holiday:

The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses ? the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if there is anything to hope for, really — them, I get.

In response, commenter Molly wrote:

I’m wondering at the moment if those of us who are Jewish-by-choice* feel more of an obligation to feel connected with our faith than born Jews. It’s sort of like “Well, since I chose this, I SHOULD feel that it’s Deeply Meaningful ALL THE TIME, and if I don’t feel that way, did I make a mistake in the first place?”

*Or any other religion-by-choice, I suppose, but I don’t have experience with those.

This is a good point. We do feel a stronger sense of obligation when we’re engaging in something chosen, for at least two reasons. One is ethical — if I’m engaging in a task or relationship of my own free will, then I feel more strongly obligated to tend that task or relationship. The Jewish people didn’t have to accept me. They did, and because of that I believe that I have a particular responsibility to do right by God, Torah, and Israel. Being a Chosen Person is a certain level of responsibility — being a Choosing Person feels like even more!

The other reason for this sense of obligation is more internal, more about how we reason things out. Experiments have shown that if you make people do something really boring and pay them good money for it, they will tell you that they are doing something really boring for cash. Make them do something boring and pay them nothing or very little … and people will come to believe that they enjoyed the task, because there is no good external reason for them to have done it. So converts have to be really religious, because there’s no real external reason for us to be where we are.

These are two reasons why the circumstance of being a convert might lead to a feeling that every damn holiday has to be a big deal — the social psychology perspective. Going from a personality psychology POV, I wonder also if people who convert aren’t by nature the kind of folk who want every damn holiday to be a big deal. Who want religion to feel meaningful all the time. Maybe that’s why we’re converts. Changing religions isn’t a small thing, after all. Maybe if we were the kind of people who were better at taking things as they are, at going through the motions and waiting for grace, we’d have stayed in the worship communities we were born into.

Kestrel and I once did an interesting project that, while inconclusive, was intriguing. Much of her research is about how people react emotionally to words. Show people words in their native language, and they have an emotional response (to swear words, sexual words, emotional words). They don’t have a similar response to words in a second language, even if they are fluent. Hit your thumb with a hammer and “merde!” won’t relieve you as much as “shit!”

Kestrel has done this research mostly with immigrants and ESL speakers, but we once tried an experiment with religious converts, too. The idea was to see if learning a new religion was like learning a new language — do you have a greater response to the words and images associated with the religion of your upbringing, or of the religion you chose?

It turned out that people who had not changed religion had a galvanic skin response to words associated with their religion, but not to words from another religion, or to neutral words (ball, sky, orange). Converts, on the other hand, had an emotional response to words from their original religion, and the religion they converted to, and to neutral words. To put it another way, show us any stimulus at all and we flip out all over creation like we’d seen the world in grain of sand and eternity in an hour. It’s all wildly significant to us.