Friday, January 21, 2011

Great Myths about Human Behavior

From 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, which I just read, comes some myth-busting that will make you happier. Turns out, many of these myths and misconceptions err on the side of assuming people are worse than they are. Below is the truth.

1. We use more than 10 percent of our brains. This one is a big pet peeve of mine. Up to 60 percent of people believe that we only use 10 percent of our brains. No, we use it all. We know this because we have a ton of cases where someone gets some specific part of their brain mauled and subsequently has trouble performing a certain task. And because we can map the brain and watch it light up when people think about different things. And because the authors trace the root of the myth to the 1936 saying "People only use 10% of their potential", a more plausible but still made-up statistic.

2. Our teen years aren't that turbulent. Studies show that only about 20 percent of teens undergo the turmoil attributed to the stereotype of their age. Most teens report generally happy moods and harmonious relations with their parents.

3. Neither are our mid-life crises, a standard movie cliché that occurs much more often in fiction than in real life.

4. Similarly, "Empty Nest Syndrome" is also an uncommon disorder, and not to be expected as a rule.

5. Amnesia is also rare. (And the loss of past memories particularly so; most amnesiacs have trouble forming new memories.) That's the good news. The bad news about amnesia is, if you have it, a second bump on the head will not cure it. Hard knocks to the head, as a rule, only make things worse.

6. Modern society is not that stressful. The idea that living in modern, Western society is more stressful than living in undeveloped countries is a myth. Turns out, it's very stressful to live in a poor country.

7. Men don't think about sex an average of every 7 seconds. I've heard this one a lot over the years. It's an urban legend, which should be obvious, since it sounds tremendously impractical. It would mean that if I gave a half-hour presentation at work, for example, I would have thought of sex 257 times during it. Quite a feat.

8. Men and women are both from Earth. The authors break down the idea that men and women (Mars & Venus) communicate in totally different ways into several more specific questions. They find that the differences, while some exist, are mostly statistically insignificant.

9. Many childhood victims of sexual abuse grow up well-adjusted. There's a myth that childhood sexual abuse invariably leads to psychological problems as an adult, but thankfully, while this does happen in some cases, it is far less common than we might think. Fortunately, children are much more resilient than we tend to give them credit for.

10. Subliminal messages aren't real. They don't work. If they did, advertising companies would try to use them, I'm sure, but they don't. Our brains are smarter than that. Sorry, plot of Josie & the Pussycats.

11. Crimes don't increase during the full moon. Nor does mental illness, etc etc. Can you think of any easier urban legend to measure and debunk? This one has been straightforwardly disproved time and time again but refuses to go away.

Turns out when we stop relying simply on "common sense" and stories we see on TV, and instead look at decades of hard research and statistics, we find most of humanity's not that bad, after all.

Check out the book on Amazon.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Here are some excerpts from Cognitive Surplus, a recent book by Clay Shirky that I enjoyed. His previous book, Here Comes Everybody, had some ideas that contributed to The Secret Peace. This new book has a lot of parallels, as well.

Shirky calls what we have today a "cognitive surplus": a surfeit of intellect, energy, and free time that has been growing for several decades now but was previously subsumed into television viewing. Now, with new outlets to funnel that creativity - the web - we are witnessing a revolution of creativity, and a new wealth of writing and art.

"Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we're used to, it can be disorienting to the people who've grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to scarcity. For years after the price of long-distance calls collapsed in the United States, my older relatives would still announce that a call was "long distance." Such calls had previously been special, because they were expensive; it took people years to understand that cheap long-distance calls removed the rationale for regarding them as inherently valuable."

"The low-quality material that comes with increased freedom accompanies the experimentation that creates the stuff we all end up prizing. That was true of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and it's true of the social media today. In comparison with a previous age's scarcity, abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time experimentation pays off, diversity expands the range of the possible, and the best work becomes better than what went before. After the printing press, publishing came to matter more because the expansion of literary, cultural, and scientific writing benefited society, even though it was accompanied by a whole lot of junk."

"A much harder thing to explain to them [Shirky's young college students] is this: if you were a citizen of that world [the world of a few decades ago], and you had something you needed to say in public, you couldn't. Period. Media content wasn't produced by consumers; if you had the wherewithal to say something in public, you weren't a consumer anymore, by definition. Movie reviews came from movie reviewers. Public opinions came from opinion columnists. Reporting came from reporters. … In those days, anyone could produce a photograph, a piece of writing, or a song, but they had no way to make it widely available. Sending messages to the public wasn't for the public to do, and, lacking the ability to easily connect with one another, our motivation to create was subdued."

Talking about how surprised we are that people are creating so much, or that older people are using computers: "Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy."

Here's a link to get the book on Amazon.

Here's a grainy photo of Clay Shirky and myself (awkwardly holding a microphone), on the right, on stage on a panel at the NY Tech Meetup several years ago.