You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘John Tierney’ tag.

Something does happen in the body when you are truly out of digital reach. No cellphones, computers or televisions. And in that digital silence, life takes on a different texture. In the splendid isolation of the Maine coast, worries and concerns begin unpacking and gently floating off your bow. In the words of Yeats, peace does come dropping slow.

That setting is also the perfect backdrop to what turned out to be our ongoing discussion of decision fatigue. Prompted by John Tierney‘s New York Times Magazine excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with Roy F. Baumeister, this was our conversational theme all week.

Tierney explores new research in the personal cost of making decisions, little ones as well as big ones. The results are sobering for all of us who live in the distraction-rich, small decision-ridden world of 21st century America. These findings scientize what many of us have observed in ourselves and others.

From Tierney’s piece:

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.

There are many behaviors that we have adopted that are decision energy zappers. Spending time online. Weddings. (Tierney describes them as Decision Hell Week.) Shopping. The option-rich abundance that we have come to view as a sign of advanced culture. (What? That only comes in 8 colors?)

He also shares a valuable insight into the implications of these findings on the perpetual poor: “This sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”

And what does the body need most to replenish itself from decision fatigue? Glucose. Those candy bars at the check out counter are there for a reason. Your resistance is low after shopping, and you need a glucose hit to continue on.

In his concluding comments, Tierney offers up a profile of the optimal decision maker:

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

What are the implications of these findings on art making? Well, let’s start with how many decisions are involved in a single painting. The number exceeds what most non-artists would expect. (I am reminded of the line from a 90 year old Agnes Martin, delivered to a visiting reporter after her morning session in the studio: “Painting is hard work!”) Applying these findings to the life of an artist or maker, certain good work habits emerge as invaluable—a regular schedule for working, staying conscious of when the body and willpower are depleted, the importance of taking breaks. And perhaps I can now view my need for a bite of chocolate around 3pm as a righteous cry from the body for glucose reinforcements.

Great article. Available to New York Times subscribers here.

Advertisements

This presidential campaign year has seen a morphing of many of the gender issues that have circulated in our culture for nearly 40 years. I have watched this play out in the political arena with feelings of anger, amazement, frustration and, most recently, a profound sense of hopelessness.

As a topic, gender is still radioactive. Back when I first read Betty Friedan and Kate Millett, I never imagined it would remain unresolved and problematic for so long—the ultimate bubble under the tablecloth kind of problem. But then again, I never imagined that my own views on what it means to be male and what it means to be female would change as drastically as they have over the years. At age 18, I thought I had it all figured out. I didn’t.

Tuesday’s Science Times had a fascinating article on this topic that adds a number of additional layers to the ongoing complexity. I’ve posted most of that article here, with a few edits. It’s a worthy read.

When men and women take personality tests, some of the old Mars-Venus stereotypes keep reappearing. On average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat. Clear differences appear in early childhood and never disappear.

What’s not clear is the origin of these differences. Evolutionary psychologists contend that these are innate traits inherited from ancient hunters and gatherers. Another school of psychologists asserts that both sexes’ personalities have been shaped by traditional social roles, and that personality differences will shrink as women spend less time nurturing children and more time in jobs outside the home.

To test these hypotheses, a series of research teams have repeatedly analyzed personality tests taken by men and women in more than 60 countries around the world. For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.
These findings are so counterintuitive that some researchers have argued they must be because of cross-cultural problems with the personality tests. But after crunching new data from 40,000 men and women on six continents, David P. Schmitt and his colleagues conclude that the trends are real. Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

The biggest changes recorded by the researchers involve the personalities of men, not women. Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America.
To explain these differences, Dr. Schmitt and his collaborators from Austria and Estonia point to the hardships of life in poorer countries. They note that in some other species, environmental stress tends to disproportionately affect the larger sex and mute costly secondary sexual characteristics (like male birds’ displays of plumage). And, they say, there are examples of stress muting biological sex differences in humans. For instance, the average disparity in height between men and women isn’t as pronounced in poor countries as it is in rich countries, because boys’ growth is disproportionately stunted by stresses likemalnutrition and disease.

Personality is more complicated than height, of course, and Dr. Schmitt suggests it’s affected by not just the physical but also the social stresses in traditional agricultural societies. These villagers have had to adapt their personalities to rules, hierarchies and gender roles more constraining than those in modern Western countries — or in clans of hunter-gatherers.

“Humanity’s jaunt into monotheism, agriculturally based economies and the monopolization of power and resources by a few men was ‘unnatural’ in many ways,” Dr. Schmitt says, alluding to evidence that hunter-gatherers were relatively egalitarian. “In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots,” he argues. “That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men’s, and to a lesser extent women’s, more ‘natural’ personality traits to emerge…”

Men and women shouldn’t expect to understand each other much better anytime soon. Things could get confusing if the personality gap widens further as the sexes become equal. But then, maybe it was that allure of the mysterious other that kept Mars and Venus together so long on the savanna.

I found this article by John Tierney in the New York Times particularly helpful at resetting my ambient guilt factor. It’s a bit long, but worth reading clear to the end. I hope it brings a little relief to your background rumblings of discomfort as well…

For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better. But with August upon us, perhaps you’re in the mood for a break, so I’ve rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.

Now, I can’t guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can’t guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.

What I can guarantee is that I wouldn’t spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things. (You can make your own nominations in the TierneyLab blog.)

1. Killer hot dogs. What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.

But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat.

If you must worry, focus on the carbs in the bun. But when it comes to the fatty frank — or the fatty anything else on vacation — I’d relax.

2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C. No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at edmunds.com report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.

4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated.

As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.

It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace — or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking.

Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

6. Toxic plastic bottles. For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.

But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.

Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.

7. Deadly sharks. Throughout the world last year, there was a grand total of one fatal shark attack (in the South Pacific), according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.

8. The Arctic’s missing ice. The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.

So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record. You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic, but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.

9. The universe’s missing mass. Even if the fate of the universe — steady expansion or cataclysmic collapse — depends on the amount of dark matter that is out there somewhere, you can rest assured that no one blames you for losing it. And most experts doubt this collapse will occur during your vacation.

10. Unmarked wormholes. Could your vacation be interrupted by a sudden plunge into a wormhole? From my limited analysis of space-time theory and the movie “Jumper,” I would have to say that the possibility cannot be eliminated. I would also concede that if the wormhole led to an alternate universe, there’s a good chance your luggage would be lost in transit.

But I still wouldn’t worry about it, In an alternate universe, you might not have to spend the rest of the year fretting about either dark matter or sickly rodents. You might even be able to buy one of those Nalgene bottles.

Advertisements