Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

April 13, 2017

The  immediately preceding post, Irresistible described the increasing addictive dangers of technology.  This and the immediately following posts will outline the solution.  That solution is willpower, and is covered in detail in a book with the title of this post  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.   In the concluding chapter of this book they write that they’re still bullish on the future of self-control, at both the personal and social levels.  And they concede that temptations are getting more sophisticated, but so are the tools for resisting them.

Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man,” “The highest possible state in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.  Most personal problems, both personal and social, center on the failure of self-control:  compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.  Poor self-control correlates with practically every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, and ending up in prisons.  It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system.  Ultimately, self-control let’s you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.

There are two important facts to understand about willpower.  There is a biological constraint on willpower.  When glucose levels are low, willpower declines.  And there is an additional constraint on willpower that is psychological.   There is a limited supply of willpower, and exercising willpower depletes this limited supply.  We use the same resource for doing different things.  This is why it is pointless to have many New Year’s Eve resolutions.  The fewer you have, the less likely any of them will be successful.  In previous healthy memory posts the recommendation was to have, at most, two resolutions.  One should be fairly easy, so at least there will be one victory, and the other should be challenging so that the success of that resolution would be grounds for cheering.  But do them in succession, say easy first, then difficult, rather than trying to do them both at the same time.

Many strategies and techniques for effectively using one’s willpower that are based on sound research are presented in the book.  One of them is positive procrastination.  For example, you might want to  have some tasty treat, but you tell yourself to procrastinate, to have it sometime later.  There is also a humorous example provided by  Robert Benchley, my favorite humorist.  In one of his essays he writes that he is often asked how he manages to accomplish so much work, given that he appears to be so dissipated.  He explained how he could summon the discipline to read a scientific article about tropical fish, build a bookshelf, arrange books on said shelf, and write an answer to a friend’s letter that had been sitting in a pile on his desk for twenty years.  All he had to do was to draw up a to-do list for the week and put these tasks above his top priority—his job of writing an article.  He wrote, “The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one.  The psychological principal  is this:  anyone can do any amount of work, provided that it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”  I encourage readers to look up Robert Benchley on the Wikipedia.  Much of his work is still available on

The following is from the concluding chapter of Willpower.  “People with stronger willpower are more altruistic.  “They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go.  Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today.  Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.”

You are strongly encouraged to read Willpower even though the following posts will be based on his book about this important topic, they can only scratch the surface.  Erick Clapton, Mary Karr, David Blaine, and Henry Morton Stanley. Should you not know Henry Morton Stanley, he is famous for finding a Scottish missionary in the wilds of Africa and saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  He is a legendary figure in willpower.  He makes David Blaine look like a wuss.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Equality and the Next Generation

October 11, 2016

Equality and the Next Generation are chapters 9 and 10, respectively, of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

The chapter Equality begins with the following quote from Charles Darwin:  “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would teach each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extend to all men of all nations and races.”

Norbert writes, “The fact that a country is a democracy does not guarantee that it is a liberal democracy that gives individual rights to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.  After winning the Second World War against the Nazis’ brutal form of racism, the Allied democracies showed how many problems still remained among themselves.  When General de Gaulle wanted French troops to lead the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, American and British commanders accepted it on the condition that no black colonial forces were included, even though they made up two-thirds of the Free French forces.”

Norbert notes that racism has been a natural part of most people’s mindset since ancient times.  The hostility towards (and even enslavement of) other ethnic groups was a regular occurrence.  There is one long historical record of hatred agains peoples that were considered inferior.  Anti-semitic programs continue for centuries in Europe.  Jews were blamed for the plague, and were frequently slaughtered wholesale.  1492 was not only the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but when Spain emerged as a unified Christian country.  Its rulers expelled all Jews who refused to convert.  Shortly thereafter, Spanish Muslims were forced to choose between conversions and exile.  Conversion proved fruitless as a hundred years later those who did convert were expelled.

Europe was plagued by religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The irony here is that these religions preached love, tolerance, forgiveness, and non-violence, yet fought vicious wars and committed atrocities in the names of their respective religions.

There were no religious wars in the United States so they had do make due with deadly riots against almost every ethnic and religious minority, including Catholics, Jews and Protestant sects, and Germans, Italian and Irish.  In the late nineteenth century there were more than 150 lynchings of African American per year.

Eventually more humanitarian attitudes began to take root and ethnic violence was reduced.  In the mid-nineteenth century deadly riots began to decline in Europe and lynchings in the United States begin to decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  With the exception of isolated case, they ended in the 1940s and 1950s.  Legal racism continued until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.  Although racial discrimination continues in the United States, it is illegal.

One could argue that our genes predispose us to racism, although modern views of genetics would reject that view.  The opening quote from Charles Darwin provides a more progressive and positive view.    The nineteenth century Irish historian William E. H. Lecky suggested that the advance of civilization and education makes us expand the circle of those whose interest we take into consideration:  “At one time the benevolent affections embraced merely the family, soon the circle, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealing of man with the animal world.”

The ability to empathize and to consider oneself in the position of others is key to defeating racism.  Michal Sheerer talk about the principle of interchangeable perspectives.  To change position and put ourselves in someone else’s shows is a complex mental abstraction,  Empathy requires contemplation.  The first arguments for tolerance came from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, who wrote in 1689 that “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, outgo to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.  Norbert does not mention that these concepts have long been part of Buddhism.

Norbert does mention the Flynn Effect, but he does not mention how the Flynn’s concept of the Flynn Effect has changed.  Initially, Flynn was skeptical of IQ tests and argued that IQ increases across generations that required the renorming of the test were bogus.  However, subsequent research lead him to conclude that these increases were real.  Steven Pinker has talked about a “moral Flynn Effect,” where our increased ability to abstract from concrete particulars of our immediate experience makes it possible to take in the perspective of others.  Flynn and his brother tried to get their father to give up racial prejudices by using a thought-experiment.  They asked him, “What if you woke up one morning and discovered your skin had turned black?  Would that make you less of a human being?”  Their father answered:  “Now , that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.  Who ever hear of a man’s skin turning black overnight?’  Unfortunately, it is HM’s observation that the “moral Flynn Effect” is not as widespread as one might hope, and that too many are stuck in the thought process of Flynn’s father.

Norbert also covers the Global Gender Gap Index.  Globally, almost 96% of the gap in health outcomes between men and women has closed, and 95% of the gap in educational attainment.  But only 59% of the economic outcomes gap and 23% of the political outcomes gap has closed.

The chapter The Next Generation begins with this quote from Julian Simon:  “The main fuel to spark the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge;  the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities.  The ultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their will and imaginations for their own benefits, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well.”

Norbert begins with a discussion of child labor. He notes that the common impression that child labor was a result of the Industrial Revolution, but rather this was the first time when people began to react to child labour, write about it and demand an end to it.  In 1851 28% of  children aged between 10 and 14 were recorded was working.  Although this is a high number and it did not include the numerous girls who were working unpaid at home looking after younger siblings or generally helping out.  Still, it is much lower that it was in non-industrialized countries even 100 years later.  In 1950 the child labour rate in China had been estimated at 48%, in India 35%, and in Africa 38%.  Even in Italy the child labor rate was 29% in 1950.

The rate of child labor in England and Wales went from 28% in 1851 to 21% in 1891 and to 14% in 1911.  Soon it disappeared altogether.  This is what happened in every industrialized country.  The same change is now taking place in low- and middle-income countries.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the problem of child labor has disappeared.  It is still with us.  The International Labour Organization estimates the number of children between 5 and 17 years old and working.  In 2012 there were 168 million child laborers in that age group globally, down from 245 million in 2000, a reduction from 16% to 10.6% of all children.

The proportion of children between 5 and 11 years old in hazardous work—work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions has been reduced even faster, by two-thirds between 2000 and 2012 from 9.3% to 3.1%.

It is clear that more needs to be done, but it is also clear that progress has been extraordinary.  The next generation should be even better, but there is always the prospect of our fouling up.  This can come about in democracies by electing leaders who do not follow or believe in scientific findings.  Or by leaders either in democratic or authoritarian countries who engage in pointless conflicts.  In short, overconfidence is dangerous.  Not thinking critically and following demagogues rather than competent leaders can risk not just the failure to improve, but also to losing some of the significant advancements that have already been achieved.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

July 22, 2016

HM had an embarrassing experience when his friend, a physicist, asked him about the Dunning-Kruger effect and he had to express ignorance.  HM was embarrassed because this effect is in the same field in which HM’s interests lay.  After learning about the effect, the relevance of the effect to the current phenomena known as Trump became evident.

There are two parts to the Dunning-Kruger effect.  The first refers to the cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority.  The second part refers to a cognitive bias for highly skilled individuals to underestimate the relative competence of unskilled individuals and assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

HM will address the second part first.  A fundamental difficulty HM has in teaching is to overestimate what students do and can understand.  HM is not implying that these students are stupid, although this might be the simplest explanation.  However, it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach to the level of what the student can understand.  As a result of repeated experience with students of a certain level, the teacher can and should identify the appropriate level to teach and proceed accordingly.

Dunning and Kruger were not the first to recognize this effect.  Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”  Bertrand Russell said, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”  This statement reminds HM of the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss.”  Charles Darwin wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Shakespearean “As You Like It”  wrote “The Foole doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a Foole.”

Trump followers appear to be extremely confident in Trump.  How anyone can be confident in Trump given the content of the previous Healthymemory blog posts is completely baffling to HM.  But then, HM is assuming that Trump followers have knowledge that they don’t have.

It would be interesting to have discussion groups with Trump devotees.  The objective of these discussions would not be to try to persuade them to change their opinion, but rather to discuss how the different branches of government work, the role of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.  There would also be discussion regarding the economy, foreign trade, and the subtleties and intricacies of international relations.
I think the results of these discussion group would be extremely depressing.  But they would also be informative.

Palatable, informational presentations might actually urge these followers to think and to invoke their System 2 processes.  Arguing directly regarding the potential disaster Trump could cause the county will not work because people will become defensive.  However, for those who can actually be induced to think might change their minds on their own.

There is some evidence that the Dunning Kruger Effect might be specific to western cultures.  A number of studies using East Asian participants suggest that different social forces are at play in difference cultures.  East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and to get along with others.  If only this attitude could be fostered in our culture.

Another Western culture showing the Dunning-Kruger Effect is Great Britain’s Brexit vote.  The Prime Minister assumed that a reasoned discussion of the benefits from remaining in the EU versus the costs in leaving the EU would result in a vote to remain, but just the opposite occurred.  One problem was that a reasoned discussion did not take place.  Rather it became a rowdy political contest in which lies and misrepresentation were made.  HM needs to bring Kahneman’s two process view of cognition into this discussion.  Remember that System 1, intuition, is fast, emotional, and our default mode for processing.  System 2, called reasoning, is slow and effortful.  It became clear that remain arguments had the flavor of System 2 processing.  They were well-reasoned and thought out and supported by data.  Unfortunately, exit arguments smack primarily of System 1 processes that were largely emotional.   They wanted to be British and they wanted to prevent immigration.

For more on the Dunning-Kruger effect and for more specific references see the Wikipedia.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.