Category Archives: Psychology

Contribution and Consideration

Do individual competence, integrity, and excuses even matter? We already use structural incentives to get people to do good things they might otherwise choose not to do: economic incentives, legal disincentives, social pressure. If markets, laws, and opinion can squeeze societal usefulness out of groups of selfish individuals why worry about self-centered behavior? Why not just encourage individuals to figure out what they want for themselves and then structure institutions to squeeze social good out of whatever choices they make in aggregate? Let individuals worry about how to get what they want.

The answer seems obvious, at least for social pressure. It is circular to rely on social pressure to police behavior while socially encouraging selfishness. Humans desire acceptance and a feeling of being good which empowers social norms to shape behavior. But if these norms accept excuses and glorify happiness then that is what they will encourage.

While a bit less obvious, civic concern and individual responsibility pull a lot of weight in legal incentives. It is much easier to incentivize people to do the right thing in a community that mostly agrees on the importance of doing right than in one that mostly agrees that everyone should focus on themselves. On what basis should the creators of incentives and enforcers of rules not optimize for themselves otherwise? The difficulty of establishing the rule of law in countries without a sense of civic responsibility should speak for itself.

And while markets might be still less obvious, non-economic concerns with fairness and contribution significantly aid markets. Simple and effective economic incentives are easiest to implement when most believe that good people don’t merely do whatever is most profitable. Consider Deirdre McCloskey’s extensive writings on the importance of values to capitalism, Fukuyama’s Trust on the importance of unselfishness in coordinated endeavors, or simply imagine how different the world would be if most thought it prudent to sneak out of restaurants without paying if they could get away with it.

The pragmatic focus on institutions is valuable and necessary, but so is the idealistic focus on the Motivational Compass of individuals. These Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian priorities are in inherent and essential conflict, but one that can be healthy if each sticks to their natural scope. Contemporary encroachment of Hamiltonian values into everyday interactions and beliefs attacks the sense of individual agency and meaningfulness of pride and progress. It questions the honor of competence and integrity. It separates individual actions from larger concerns and mostly leaves hedonistic Last Personhood and cynical battle of interests as the seemingly coherent options.

The basic beliefs that one can contribute more or less, that one can understand how things work better or worse, that these are skills that can be honed, that developing and applying these skills makes one a better person begin to be treated as naive, reductionist, and judgmental. But these beliefs are the essence of mentoring competence and integrity and the fuel that motivates achievement and contribution. Without them people who build, innovate, excel, and uphold principles can only be understood as freaks with an odd set of personal interests and an indifference to their own suffering.

Continue reading Contribution and Consideration

Motivational Compass

For as long as I can remember the defining qualities of a good person seemed obvious: competence and integrity. Competence not only contributes and makes possible, but reduces mistakes, inefficiencies, and unfair burdens. Integrity not only underpins ethics and guides competence, but reduces distrust, hostility, and selfishness. Competence and integrity give to the world while their opposites drain from it.

These qualities demand a lot of individuals. They must learn to delay gratification and endure discomfort, inconvenience, and difficulty. They must develop high standards, be self-critical, respect truth, and loathe excuses. They must prioritize performance and potential over perceptions, emotions, and costs.

These qualities bring risks to society. Competence unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, dangerous.1Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this. Integrity unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, impotent. And many otherwise reasonable combinations are, among other things, overconfident and judgmental.

It is a challenge to embrace these qualities despite their arduous nature and to intertwine their development with enough wisdom to apply and balance them well. This challenge is at the core of classical philosophy. It is prominent in religion, military, science, and engineering. It animates intensive educational experiments by the likes of James Mill, Bertrand Russell, Leo Wiener, and Laszlo Polgar. It finds expression in the idea of the New Soviet Man. Its essence is to instill maximal striving to develop one’s potential, live honorably, and contribute to a larger purpose – and to organize society to aid in this task.

This goal depends on assumptions. It presumes existence of better and worse, possibility of agency and coherence, inescapability of causation and responsibility. Its implementation ties worth to choices and promises evaluation on the basis of efforts and achievements.

On these foundations it erects the expectation of judgment and the desire to prove oneself. It then provides tools to do one’s best: to strive for perfection and accept responsibility; to focus on understanding how things work; to control impulses that might lead one astray; to think carefully about intentions and take care in action; to find it dishonorable to hide behind excuses and ignorance or to get away with carelessness and incompetence. It fundamentally depends on, and encourages, individual pride based on contribution, integrity, and effort.

There are many disagreements about implementation details, but they mostly share prerequisites. And each of these prerequisites has come under growing scrutiny over time. It increasingly feels like the ethos itself is under an unrelenting attack from all sides. And perception of such attacks seems to underlie many vicious disagreements of our time.

These attacks are rooted in societal and personal risks, justified through postmodernism, and emboldened by prosperity.

Continue reading Motivational Compass


1 Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this.

Teaching and Learning

When it comes to parenting, coaching, teaching, learning, and education there is a great diversity of approaches – and no shortage of strong opinions, judgments, and excuses. On a level applicable to all projects, this is explainable by difficulties of execution and communication, by differing missions and selfish choices, by resource constraints and conquering battles. But there are sources of disagreement and ineffectiveness that transcend ineptitude, selfishness, and malice and apply more specifically to mentorship. They are most apparent in parenting of small children so I’ll focus there.

Learning Areas

A major culprit is insufficient appreciation that learning experiences influence all of the following domains:

  • Skills specific to the subject being engaged
  • Meta-capabilities like perseverance, concentration, logic, introspection, empathy
  • Values and Habits like honesty, compassion, independence, fairness
  • Facts that define truths of the subject and/or the world
  • Models that explain functioning of the subject and/or the world
  • Resources like status, connections, credentials, memories
  • Relationships with individuals, groups, subject, society, self

Mentoring approaches are optimizations that rank not only specific attainments, but these general areas. When this happens without sufficient awareness, interdependencies threaten unpleasant side-effects. When it isn’t made explicit enough, outsiders are tempted to presume ignorance and defend worthiness of sacrificed components. And even when deliberate and explicit, chosen trade-offs are naturally challenged by proponents of alternate rankings.

Continue reading Teaching and Learning

Competition Between Persons, Competition Between Groups

There is a conflict between integrity and effectiveness. An important portion of this conflict cannot be resolved with more sophisticated, longer-term evaluations of effectiveness or with appeals to ways in which integrity bolsters effectiveness. This portion stems from existence of competitive domains indifferent to integrity.

Thoughts of competition tend to bring to mind noble warriors or callous cheats. There are those who pursue agreed upon goals, uphold agreed upon values, follow agreed upon rules, and honorably advance their chosen practice, their community, and themselves. And there are those who just grab what they can get away with. This dichotomy dominates individual experience because competition we encounter tends to have agreed upon goals, values, and rules. Their existence creates a link to integrity.

But there is competition where the only shared understanding is that all will grab what they can get away with. It tends to be the competition to set goals, values, and rules – or to protect them and their enforcers. It increasingly dominates as scope grows and encounters with incompatible positions intensify. It culminates with international relations.

Although this competition is acted out by individuals who may desire integrity and respect the standards of their craft, it isn’t about them. Nor is it won merely through their individual prowess.

The capacity of a group to dispense largesse or inflict pain, its value as a partner, its strength and independence combine with shrewdness of its guardians to enhance its advantage. The importance of such assets percolates to pressure more mundane interactions within the group – and to constrain which internal goals, values, and rules are viable.

But the influence of integrity on member effectiveness and group solidarity also constrains what such pressure can productively accomplish. And internal expectations of integrity put pressure on goals and methods of group’s external competition.

There are two broad types of competition and they interact but conflict. There is competition between persons where integrity matters and there is competition between groups where effectiveness rules.

The inescapability of conflict between them is at the heart of Plurality of Absolutes. I owe the framing to Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States in which Michael Lind presents American history as a conflict between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideals. Continue reading Competition Between Persons, Competition Between Groups

Two Paths Towards Happiness

Underneath every pursuit is a choice. A choice between relishing tasks as a path towards excellence internal to a practice or dispatching them en route to other ends. A choice between seeing challenges as a necessity and opportunity or as an annoyance and expense. A choice between considering burdens as developing and validating the virtues or as interfering with desires and needs.

This choice reveals the extent to which the endeavor is motivated by self-actualization over lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A pattern of such choices illuminates the significance of self-actualization to the individual.

As different as the lower pursuits of material goods, social belonging, esteem of others, and self-esteem can be from each other, they share a property of having their aim be separate from that of the task being performed – and therefore being in tension with it.

This is easiest to see with material concerns which can be satisfied with explicit dishonesty. Social belonging is only a small step removed: we can cement it with favors that aren’t ours to give. Things get fuzzier with esteem of others: we can gain it by cheating, but this appears to sacrifice the very thing we are being esteemed for. And it seems even stranger to esteem ourselves after cheating.

But recognition by others and belief in our own worth bring benefits as surely as social belonging and material possessions. Cheating doesn’t preclude these benefits because they come from perception of worth rather than from reality.

What makes accuracy important is a separate desire to be a good person with integrity, real worth, and justly earned recognition. Nevertheless, perceived accuracy of such evaluations can assuage even this desire as well as the real thing. Why not achieve excellence by adjusting the standards by which it is measured?

While conscious self-deception is unacceptable to self-esteem and conscious deception risks penalties, we’ve evolved less overt ways to justify, mislead, forget. Among the most insidious and powerful is development of something akin to plausible deniability: a capacity to genuinely deny or excuse inadequacies.

It is influential because it develops naturally unless external forces intervene: simply allow yourself to lower standards. Begin when tasks are small or immaterial enough for your capitulation to be missed or dismissed.

Over time, such self-handicapping both develops the capacity for self-delusion and stunts development of skills, habits, and preferences necessary to act persistently, advance competently, evaluate objectively. Performance truly seems unimprovable and failures unavoidable.

Only at self-actualization does truth become indispensable and our aims become inseparable from the task: self-actualization demands reaching our potential, not merely feeling like we did. Achievement of lower levels of the hierarchy at its expense is an affront. Self-esteem and recognition only matter when they are compatible with the pursuit.

Self-actualization seems rewarding, honorable, authentic. But its pursuit proves unexpectedly uncertain, difficult, and dangerous. Dangerous not just materially or physically, but emotionally. Because hiding underneath it is ultimately a choice between being happy and being right – a choice that isn’t obviously inescapable until it is too late to choose happiness. Continue reading Two Paths Towards Happiness

Significance of Agreement

As we pursue our action hierarchies with inspiration backed by clarity of vision and identity we encounter people, institutions, ideas, and experiences that contradict our models of the world. At first, we enthusiastically take up the challenge: we assume misunderstanding, poor implementation, or immorality. But as ostensibly minor contradictions unveil complex belief systems and seemingly isolated experiences coalesce, bewilderment unsettles energetic certitude.

Our incredulity rises when we are asked why we care. Why does existence of different beliefs, projects, and people concern us even when they are too abstract, remote, or tangential to our practical actions? And not just concern us, but interrupts, demotivates, and redirects our efforts? Continue reading Significance of Agreement

Ingredients of Action

All action demands purpose and energy – a goal and a means to move towards it. This is as true psychologically as it is physically: we need the will to act.

Of course, energy doesn’t miraculously convert to goals with perfect efficiency. There are skills, challenges, beliefs, plans, mistakes, realizations, justifications, adjustments… And these affect who we are, what we want, and what we are energized by. I propose that human action follows a complex feedback process akin to this:

Action Loop Continue reading Ingredients of Action

Emergence of Identity and Belief

I’d like to explore early development of action hierarchy components with a narrative about a budding human being. I hope that an intuition, however faint, will emerge for how these components co-evolve with identity; how those crucial meta-capabilities develop; how the seeds of fairness and goodness sprout; and how everything ties together to motivate directed action. Let’s begin in the beginning.

Solipsism in the Womb

The fetus assumes that they are the purpose of the universe, if not the universe itself. This perspective fits the facts they have encountered. It also happens to carry a good deal of truth: the placenta bestows upon the fetus a singular amount of authoritarian control thus enthroning them as the all-powerful, all-important lord of their small world.

Fulfillment of their desires is imperative, but by no means simple. The universe may be their servant or even their extension, but it does not grant control over itself by magic. It only yields when it is treated right. The fetus must comply with the world’s demands before they can expect its obedience.

To comprehend what they must do and develop the skills to do it, the fetus depends on inductive learning, with its assumption of a consistent causal relationship between action and consequence. Continue reading Emergence of Identity and Belief