Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

6.30.2017

Of Power and Tribalism

Busy collecting thoughts; not at a place to produce any at the moment. Everything that follows is quoted excerpts.


Power Causes Brain Damage

How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise

 . . . Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. . . .

Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. . . .

Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation. . . .

“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.


What Was Volkswagen Thinking?

On the origins of corporate evil—and idiocy

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster . . . Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself. . . .

Twice, Gioia and his team elected not to recall the car—a fact that, when revealed to his M.B.A. students, goes off like a bomb. “Before I went to Ford I would have argued strongly that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall,” he wrote in the Journal of Business Ethics some 17 years after he’d left the company. “I now argue and teach that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall. But, while I was there, I perceived no strong obligation to recall and I remember no strong ethical overtones to the case whatsoever.” . . .

Executives are bombarded with information. To ease the cognitive load, they rely on a set of unwritten scripts imported from the organization around them. You could even define corporate culture as a collection of scripts. Scripts are undoubtedly efficient. Managers don’t have to muddle through each new problem afresh, Gioia wrote, because “the mode of handling such problems has already been worked out in advance.” But therein lies the danger. Scripts can be flawed, and grow more so over time, yet they discourage active analysis. . . .

This sequence of events fits a pattern that appears and reappears in corporate-misconduct cases, beginning with the fantastic commitments made from on high. . . .

We know what strain does to people. Even without it, they tend to underestimate the probability of future bad events. Put them under emotional stress, some research suggests, and this tendency gets amplified. People will favor decisions that preempt short-term social discomfort even at the cost of heightened long-term risk. Faced with the immediate certainty of a boss’s wrath or the distant possibility of blowback from a faceless agency, many will focus mostly on the former. . . .



Why Your Brain Hates Other People

And how to make it think differently.

Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing. . . .

The strength of Us/Them-ing is shown by the: speed and minimal sensory stimuli required for the brain to process group differences; tendency to group according to arbitrary differences, and then imbue those differences with supposedly rational power; unconscious automaticity of such processes; and rudiments of it in other primates. . . .

Across cultures and throughout history, people who comprise Us are viewed in similarly self-congratulatory ways—We are more correct, wise, moral, and worthy. Us-ness also involves inflating the merits of our arbitrary markers, which can take some work—rationalizing why our food is tastier, our music more moving, our language more logical or poetic.

Us-ness also carries obligations toward the other guy . . .

Among the most pro-social things we do for ingroup members is readily forgive them for transgressions. When a Them does something wrong, it reflects essentialism—that’s the way They are, always have been, always will be. When an Us is in the wrong, however, the pull is toward situational interpretations—we’re not usually like that, and here’s the extenuating circumstance to explain why he did this. . . .

Despite that role of cognition, the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic, as summarized by when we say, “I can’t put my finger on why, but it’s just wrong when They do that.” Jonathan Haidt of New York University has shown that often, cognitions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why.

This can be shown with neuroimaging studies. As noted, when fleetingly seeing the face of a Them, the amygdala activates. Critically, this comes long before (on the time scale of brain processing) more cognitive, cortical regions are processing the Them. The emotions come first. . . .

In other words, our visceral, emotional views of Thems are shaped by subterranean forces we’d never suspect. And then our cognitions sprint to catch up with our affective selves, generating the minute factoid or plausible fabrication that explains why we hate Them. It’s a kind of confirmation bias: remembering supportive better than opposing evidence; testing things in ways that can support but not negate your hypothesis; skeptically probing outcomes you don’t like more than ones you do. . . .

Different Thems come in different flavors with immutable, icky essences—threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, ridiculous, primitive, and undifferentiated. . . .

If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s challenging to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Remember that supposed rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces we never suspect. Focus on shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. And recall how often, historically, the truly malignant Thems hid themselves while making third parties the fall guy.

Meanwhile, give the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker, and remind everyone that we’re in this together against Lord Voldemort and House Slytherin.


Government Paid for Poor Citizens' Health Care Some 300 Years Before Obamacare

The British colonists brought taxpayer-funded services with them to North America. For centuries after, government’s role in serving the needy wasn’t questioned.

 . . . By the time New Deal programs began to augment poor relief in the 1930s . . . the oldest American states had been using the Elizabethan Poor Law, more or less, for 300 years.

The details varied from one state to the other, but four principles of the poor law were the same. First, parents and children were legally required to help each other when they were in need. If they could not, then the local government was legally required to step in. Second, poor relief was a function of that local government—whether a town, municipality, city, county, or parish—and not state or national officials. Third, all those who required aid had to be provided with basic provisions: food, shelter, warmth, and medical care. Fourth, all those in need who were not from the town where they sought care or shelter could be banished, with the intention that they return to their hometowns where they would be guaranteed assistance. Until the Great Depression, most Americans paid for health care out of pocket; it was only if costs were too great that they appealed to poor relief for help. . . .
Poor relief was the single largest expense in almost every local-government budget until schools and roadwork caught up in the mid-19th century. . . .

This all meant that local taxes were by far the heaviest tax burden on Americans from the Revolution through the Civil War . . .

But it wasn’t just the needy who benefited from this tax money—so did the townspeople who provided shelter, goods, or services. These included grocers, clothiers, firewood providers, doctors, nurses, and homeowners who housed the homeless. Each of these various townspeople contributed to their own sustenance by being part of what one historian, Elna C. Green of San José State University, has called “the welfare-industrial complex.” . . .

Americans seem to have lost an understanding of government’s historical role in health care, as most of their political battles target programs just a few years old. Also lost is the promise the poor laws made for more than 300 years: If you need health care, you will receive it, thanks to the people you belong to.

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