Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Smart Books Make You Feel Stupid

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 17, 2013

Reading “smart” books—challenging books that actually teach you something—doesn’t make you feel smart. It makes you feel stupid.

Books that make you feel smart are not smart books. To take a popular example, Malcolm Gladwell is often criticized for writing books about elaborate theses and then essentially failing to support them. He offers dozens of anecdotes to support his ideas, but nothing that would pass for rigorous evidence. This definitely seemed to be the case when I read his book The Tipping Point, although I can’t speak for his other books.

Here’s a common experience when reading books that make you feel smart, such as The Tipping Point: “Wow, these ideas are so clever! I feel so smart for reading them!”

Now let’s take an example of a book that’s actually smart. I’m currently reading Henry Sidgwick‘s The Methods of Ethics. This is how I feel when I read it: “Wow, I’m so confused right now. I’d better read that paragraph for a third time. I must be an idiot.”

This is a common experience any time you read something that takes serious effort. And only rarely is a smart book—a book that teaches important, difficult concepts—easy to understand. Difficult concepts require you to work to comprehend them. As a rule of thumb, if it’s easy to understand, it’s not as valuable as it could be.

Posted in Psychology | 3 Comments »

Article of the Day: Why the World Needs Introverts

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 18, 2012

This article argues that society places excessive value on extroversion while assuming that expression of introverted traits is necessarily a bad thing. In response, it explains “why the world needs introverts.”

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He or she favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong; works well in teams and socialises in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who is comfortable “putting himself out there”.

Of course, sometimes contemplation has value over action, heed-taking over risk-taking, and doubt over certainty (just ask Richard Feynman about that last one). But is it not always better to be comfortable rather than uncomfortable? I think even introverts would agree that being “uncomfortable in the spotlight” or “uncomfortable putting himself out there” is not such a good thing.

The greatest strength of this article is in its understanding that introversion is not worse than extroversion, nor should we assume—as people usually do—that everyone is an extrovert, or that introverts merely need to be “converted.” People can become more or less sociable, and of course behave differently in different circumstances, but most people cannot make such a dramatic shift as society often expects.

We often place unreasonable expectations on introverts:

[Y]ou might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Many people simply fail to understand that such behaviors are not weird or a sign that something is wrong. Not only is it perfectly normal to prefer a book to dinner with friends; in many cases, the former choice adds more value to one’s life. Where would we be if Einstein, instead of staying home to teach himself calculus, had gone partying every night?

Of course, one makes many choices throughout life, and some of these choices will always tend toward extroversion. But it is a mistake to think that they all should.

Posted in Psychology, Society | 3 Comments »

Article of the Day: Jonah Lehrer on How to Be Creative

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 15, 2012

In this article, Jonah Lehrer explains that creativity is not some seemingly-magical ability that people either have or don’t, but a skill that can be trained. He explains how the creative process works and offers practical suggestions for how to improve one’s creative thinking skills.

This article got me thinking about meditation. I am by no means an expert on meditation—I do it only occasionally—but from what I understand, it greatly improves one’s ability to concentrate. Much recent research has demonstrated that meditation improves focus and discipline.

Common sense tells me that meditation should help unlock one’s creative capacities. But according to Lehrer, the key to creativity is often a lack of focus, and the act of concentration actually impedes divergent thinking. This makes me wonder, Does meditation increase or decrease one’s creative thinking ability?

Posted in Article of the Day, Psychology | Leave a Comment »

John Stuart Mill and Richard Feynman on Pleasure

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 12, 2011

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

-John Stuart Mill

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

-Richard Feynman

These two quotes, while they come from very different points of view, are remarkably similar. Mill discusses the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and explains how it is better to experience higher pleasures such as art and philosophy than lower pleasures like eating and sex. (His quote above doesn’t cover his whole argument, of course; he explains in detail in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism.) Feynman addresses the all-too-common opinion that analyzing something subtracts from its beauty. Although one of these quotes is about Utilitarianism and the other is about science and beauty, they have a lot in common.

Mill’s key claim is that higher pleasures are more desirable. In his last sentence he acknowledges that people who do not understand higher pleasures often think they are better off than people who do, and asserts that such people are mistaken. Feynman provides a perfect example of this. The artist sees a scientific mindset as a burden that gets in the way of appreciating beauty. He does not see how a scientist could find pleasure in the aesthetics of a flower while at the same time analyzing its inner workings. The scientist, however, is able to appreciate the beauty of the flower as well as examine the more hidden beauty that requires scientific analysis.

Not all artists are “nutty” in this way, of course; but people like the artist Feynman describes are missing out on the pleasure and the beauty that scientific understanding can unlock. A deeper understanding can always lead to more pleasure, not less.

Feynman’s quote is from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which is available online. I recommend it.

Posted in Philosophy, Psychology, Science | Leave a Comment »

Article of the Day: Nuclear power—Why the panic?

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 19, 2011

Today’s article is about the reactions to the recent meltdown in Fukushima. It discusses how people react too strongly to rare accidents, which is a widely observed phenomenon. People worry more about dying from a shark attack than about drowning, even though sharks only kill about five people per year while about ten people drown per day. Sensational or outlandish events have a tendency to stick in our minds, while more mundane occurrences are forgotten.

When it comes to power plants, human psychology works no differently. Pollution from coal causes more deaths than nuclear radiation and nuclear meltdowns put together. But on the rare occasion when there is a meltdown, it is spectacular. It’s on every news channel and quickly gains international attention. This is a serious problem because it actually causes people to make seriously poor decisions. Policymakers who decide to shut down nuclear power plants are wasting huge amounts of money. Nuclear power is quite safe and one of the cheapest alternatives to fossil fuels. We should probably be building more nuclear power plants, and we certainly should not be shutting them down.

Posted in Article of the Day, Psychology, Science | 5 Comments »

Why Everyone Says the Opposite of What Everyone Believes

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 28, 2011

There are many cases in which many people say something when really the majority of people believe the opposite. There are plenty of examples:

– People talk about how money doesn’t buy happiness and there are more important things than money, because we spend so much time trying to get more money—under the assumption that it will buy our happiness.

– People talk about how we need to take care of the environment, because most of the time we don’t.

– People talk about how we need to slow down, stop and smell the roses, because everyone already assumes that faster is better so no one needs to say it.

– “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.” (-Blaise Pascal) People say that short things are better because everyone believes instinctively that long things are better.

– People say that traditional gender roles don’t matter because they actually care about traditional gender roles much more than they’d like to admit.

– People say you should try to live your dreams because everyone believes you should get a steady job with and a secure income.

– People say you shouldn’t care what others think of you because we all care deeply about what others think of us.

Why is this phenomenon so common, even with such powerful cultural ideas? It seems that the more powerful the belief, the more powerful the reactionary idea. Look at my first example: consumerism is a strong force in our culture, and the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness is comparably strong.

The issue here is that we all believe something we don’t want to believe. We don’t want to believe that having more stuff will make us happier. (If we didn’t need stuff to make us happy, becoming happy would be a lot easier.) And it’s probably true that most happiness does not come from possession and consumption. But honestly, on some level, we think it does. And on some level we’re right.

Sometimes this phenomenon arises when we understand something rationally but not on a level where it has much of an effect on our decisions. This is the case with the environment: we all know we treat it badly, but we find it difficult to bring ourselves to treat it any better. We wish we could truly care about the environment, but on some level—on the level that matters—we believe that getting that new car is more important than the long-term sustainability of the planet.

Often we say the opposite of what we believe in an attempt to counterbalance our beliefs. People say we need to slow down because we spend most of our days assuming that faster is better. If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that faster is better. If you’re faster you can get more accomplished. Moving faster is usually better. But, because we understand so well that faster is better, sometimes we overdo it. The suggestion to stop and smell the roses is an attempt to provide some moderation.

People say things they disagree with all the time. Sometimes they don’t want to believe it, or they believe it rationally but not instinctively, or they don’t believe it but they’re just trying to counterbalance the deeper, stronger beliefs. At the top of this post I’ve compiled a list of the best examples I could come up with, but this is by no means comprehensive. The phenomenon I describe here appears all the time in daily life. Watch out for it. Don’t succumb to what we all believe, but don’t succumb to what we all say either. Realize that both exist, and decide where to stand in the balance between the two.

Posted in Psychology | 5 Comments »


Posted by Michael Dickens on November 5, 2010

As children, we learned that happy and sad are the primary emotions, and that they are opposites.


If I were to take a little while to consider the different negative emotions, I would come up with about three: fear, stress, and humiliation. There are two others which I might call negative, but they can be enjoyable from time to time: sadness and anger. Of these, I would say that fear is definitely the most common, not sadness. Also, it seems to me that fear is a much worse feeling than sadness. Some sorts of sadness, like loneliness or depression, are pretty much universally unpleasant. But other types of sadness, such as nostalgia, are not all bad.

Consider the opposites of each of these negative emotions.

Fear: Confidence
Stress: Calm
Humiliation: Confidence
Sadness: Acceptance
Anger: Acceptance

You probably noticed that both confidence and acceptance appear twice. This shows that emotions don’t always have a clear opposite. It doesn’t make sense to say that happiness and sadness are opposites, nor does it make sense to classify sadness as the primary negative emotion.

Posted in Psychology | 3 Comments »

What It’s Like to Be a Baby

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 19, 2010

Earlier today, I was tapping my toe. I was tapping it as fast as I could; at a point, I was hardly even controlling its movement, just trying to get it to vibrate as fast as possible. I started making smaller movements in order to be able to vibrate faster. After a little while, my toe stopped moving entirely — but a muscle was still vibrating.

How was that possible?

I could feel a muscle vibrating, and I could see movement on my foot. But it wasn’t on my toe: it was underneath the bridge of skin between my ankle and the top of my foot. I had been inadvertently vibrating this muscle all along, but previously my attention had been focused on my toe.

After some practice, I found that I was able to control this new muscle. I could not just vibrate it, but flex and unflex it independently of any other muscle. Sometimes I would accidentally flex other muscles (and I still do), but I was generally able to make this muscle move on its own.

The trippiest part was that I didn’t really know what I was doing to move the muscle. When we move our arms or legs, we understand exactly what will happen when we have a certain thought. We think to move our arm or leg, and a chemical reaction sends a message through our nerves and down to the muscle, causing it to twitch. But with this new discovery, I hardly knew what thought to think. The hardest part isn’t the movement itself; that’s not hard at all. No, the most difficult part is knowing what to think in order to will the movement. I believe that the best technique is to imagine that the skin on the top of your foot is moving upward and then will it to happen; but seeing as how this muscle is in effect still very young, I’m not sure.

I practiced flexing this muscle for about a half hour. After all that time, I still have trouble getting it to flex for the first time. And I can only do it on my right foot: on my left, the muscle might as well not exist.

Some time during those thirty minutes, I came to a realization:

This is what it’s like for babies all the time.

Babies are new. They, unlike us, are not used to using their muscles. It takes a lot of practice to figure out what they do and why, and how to work the controls. I at least have the advantage of already knowing how to use many of my muscles, so I know what to look out for; babies don’t have any such luxury. And for babies, it’s not just one muscle that they have to learn how to use: it’s all of them.

Perhaps the reason why learning to use this muscle was so mesmerizing is because we have a deep-seated instinct for learning new muscles. It’s simply irresistible. Such an instinct would drive us to become master puppeteers of our physical beings.

Now I feel like I understand babies better, if only a little. If you’ll allow me to offer some advice, I suggest that everyone try to learn how to use a new muscle today. Find a muscle that you didn’t know existed, and practice with it. It will change your life.

Posted in Fun, Psychology | 1 Comment »

Confirmation Bias Test

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 27, 2010

On this site, you can test your own confirmation bias by trying to guess the pattern in a sequence of numbers. It’s very informative and lots of fun.

Posted in Psychology | 3 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: