Saturday, April 23, 2011

Enabling, Responsibility, Hunger and Insecurity


A couple of good comments on the last post that got me thinking- about complexity and reward and punishment and insecurity and hunger. This might seem like a tangent rather than a response. Let's see.

I'm reading "Life at the Bottom" and so far, it is brilliant. Brutal, dark...but important. I then went on Amazon and read the reviews of the people who hated it. That's always educational. The voices were pretty much universal: The author is blaming the victims.

Not at all, at least not as I read it.

People are lazy. So are all animals, especially predators. When life is marginal, you expend as little energy as possible. When you have excess, it isn't spent training or saving for a rainy day...predators toy with victims that squeal. It is entertaining. Excess energy is spent on entertainment. Watch animals.

The dream, for years, presented in many of the psychology and sociology classes that I took, was that if no was in want, if everyone had shelter and food and warmth, that they would then start creating art and bettering themselves. That's not the way it works in nature. That dream has crashed every time it has been tried, but some people still believe. It seems many of our institutions are set up with that belief. Look at nature.

There are few things in psychology that are rigorous enough to be called 'laws' but one of them is that behaviors that are rewarded increase; behaviors that are punished decrease.

So if you reward violent behavior and addiction by moving people up on the list for subsidized housing, you get more violence and addiction. If you move people down on the list for holding a job, you get less of that. (The idea behind it is to fill the greater need...which is a human ideal and noble and all that, but people are at least as smart as monkeys and even flatworms can be taught to run a maze with simple conditioning.) Noble ideas sometimes fail because nature trumps.

If you give people money for neither holding a job nor going to school you get more of that behavior...especially if you remove benefits from people who start taking classes.

People are not stupid, and if the rewards and punishments are blatant or extreme enough, even the most socially conditioned, hard-working good guy will come to feel like a schmuck for working hard when the reward is the same if he didn't work at all.

So, socially and talking about "Life at the Bottom," we have to be careful when our programs designed to solve problems become enabling. We also need to be aware that bad people can abuse any system, and will do so more when their bad behavior is excused and has no consequences. Personally, we have to realize that, again, the only person who can be genuinely interested in change for the better is the one who must change. Maybe it sounds like blaming the victim, but it goes back to the responsibility of necessity. No one can change your life for you.

Here's the bridge:
We are biologically designed to be lazy, and most of us are very comfortable. I've noticed that many of the most extraordinary people I know had very marginal childhoods. Whether hunger or violence or ostracism, all had time, moments to years, of tangible fear that they fought by gaining strength or skill or insight. These "children of adversity" or "compulsive competents" eventually attain or exceed the comfort and security of those around them... but they never quite feel secure. Part of them is always afraid of being hungry again...and so they use the intelligence and drive to get better and better and better.

And when we see the people around us put the same drive into the most passive entertainment they can find (drugs or TV or...) we think they are stupid. They aren't. They are just comfortable and lazy.

Which brings us to the Dunning-Kruger effect mentioned by Charles James in the comments on the last post. The basic idea is that smart people tend to underestimate their own intelligence and stupid people tend to over-estimate. In other words, stupid people think they're smart. Smart people think they are stupid.

I think the mechanism is simple. Laziness and comfort. Animals work to get out of bad situations. They don't work, generally, to improve good ones. If you are insecure (and it's not just an attention-seeking ploy of a codependent personality) you will do something about it. If you are afraid of the dark, you might get a flashlight.

When people get over the fear, they get comfortable. Laziness kicks in. People who are worried about being smart enough study. People who have decided they are already smart enough start entertaining themselves and lose touch with the world. People who are insecure in their fighting skills train hard and seek new teachers. People who are comfortable come up with reasons why this is unnecessary.

Even in relationships. Our relationship has been going for 24 years (in 13 days) because I know I am not worthy of K and have spent my life trying to be. If I ever decided I was good enough, it is a small step to taking things for granted...

I think you will find Dunning-Kruger everywhere, and I think the mechanism boils down to "People with a perceived need to increase competence will continuously improve. People with a perceived sufficiency of competence will cease to improve."
That was long and rambling. Anyone want to try to boil it down to one paragraph?

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