Sunday, June 25, 2006

Alphabetical Discrimination

What's in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success: Economists at Stanford and Caltech find that economists whose last names begin with letters earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top universities, more likely to become fellows of the top economics society and more likely to receive the Nobel Prize and other prestigious awards.

The comic actor Don Adams was born Donald James Yarmy. According to Wikipedia, he took the name because it was the same as his then-wife's stage name. He claimed it was to get to the head of the line in an alphabetical casting call for Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.

It turns out that when economists publish papers, the authors are listed alphabetically. When psychologists publish papers, they don't follow this convention; and there is no alphabetical advantage for psychologists.

As someone who has moved up the alphabet through life events (from "T" to "R" to "M") I can attest that it is real, though when one gets away from large, externally ordered, groups, it lessens.

Anyone who, like me, has sat through the seemingly endless array of last names which begin with "S" feels this effect. It creates a bond with that little band of "U," "V," and "W's," along with the quirky band of "X," "Y," and "Z's." This is where I found my friends, and even now, I have more at my end of the alphabet that I do at the other.

Perhaps now, as an "M," my horizons will broaden.

Or perhaps not. Those early years have set the mold. When confronted with an alphabetical list of choices, I find I automatically go to the bottom and work up. I reject the blandness and ubiquity of the "A," B," and "C's." I love to lurk in the hinterlands at the bottom of the alphabet.

They've had plenty of time to think.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Unmasked Id

The simplest way to think of the id is to hang around a toddler in the concept stage that is after "possession" but before "empathy." It's the stage where they go around grabbing everything they want and yelling "Mine! Mine!"

Life is never that simple again.

Unfortunately, some people stay that simple. Some of them become criminally violent, as in this study: CJO - Abstract: The present results suggest that violent offenders show dual impairments in inhibitory cognitive control. First, they are deficient in shifting attention from one category to another. Secondly, the ability to alter behaviour in response to fluctuations in the emotional significance of stimuli is compromised. These deficits might constitute cognitive reflections of the biological prefrontal alterations observed in this group of people.

Nutshelling it, the study found that, because of prefrontal lobe deficiencies, this group could not move out of a groove very well. Once the idea of "I'm going to punch somebody" appeared in their heads, its expression was well-nigh inevitable. In addition, all new ideas would appear in the same emotional framework. Once "belligerence" became the default operating mode, it would be expressed regardless of circumstance, be they the orginal annoyance, police officers, or Mom with an apple pie.

These people are worst-case, but there are lesser degrees of the same syndrome walking among us. It's expected in a toddler. It's disastrous in an adult. Because these people are only adult in body. Their mind has not progressed past a basic id stage. Their mind cannot process reality.

Don't mistake the adult body for the adult mind. So many times we are baffled by people's behavior because it does not make sense... and that's because it does not. We have to change our own frames to realize we are not dealing with another adult. We are dealing with someone who is stubborn, angry, and hurtful because they are out of their depth. They are constantly expected to act in an adult way, and they are incapable of doing so.

That's the reality, and we must act accordingly.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown IV: The Small Box

Outside-the-box thinking is so vital a part of the human experience that one comes away from the study of the concept with two ready amazements: first, it is amazing how much civilization strives to suppress it, and, second, that civilization continues to be unable to do so.

After all, we are born with no box at all. We have senses, reflexes, and embedded coping strategies, but no box to put them in. That's how Harlow was able to tease out the seemingly monolithic "mother concept" into food and comfort as separate concepts.

Civilization is a process of building a big strong box to put everything into. Why the sky is blue, what mommies and daddies do, how the whole world works, all of it is a box of varying sizes we all run around in. The more our boxes overlap with others, the better off we usually are. Sharing a common concept of car driving lets us all get to the store and back, safely.

The bigger and better the box becomes, the harder it is to think outside of it, because strategies inside the box work so well. Following the circular motion laws of physics, however, the opposite is also true. That is, the smaller the box, the harder it is to think outside of it, because there are fewer and fewer strategies in the box with us.

Thus, the key to proper box building is this: when a wall is encountered, it's time for outside the box thinking, which in turn makes the box bigger. Even as the box expands, the ability to think outside of it expands also. The goal of infinity boxing is, itself, infinite... but a person's reach should exceed their grasp. Or their box never gets bigger.

What cult thinking does is keep shrinking the box to contain only the concepts beneficial to the cult. They are presented as beneficial to the recruit, to engage their willingness to shrink the box. It seems like box expansion at the time, of course.

Tightening the circle of relationships to only those in the cult doesn't look like box shrinkage when those cult relationships are so gratifying.

Shrinking the possibilities of action to only cult-approved actions doesn't feel like box shrinkage when the cult-approved actions are so fulfilling.

Restricting one's internal thoughts to cult-approved thoughts doesn't make a recruit unhappy. Their thoughts feel like happy thoughts because the recruit relieves the tension of cognitive dissonance when they adopt cult thinking.

Better relationships, positive actions, doubt-free thinking. It's wonderful! The recruit feels loved, supported, and clear-headed in a way they never felt before.

When reality intrudes, as reality always does, boxes are threatened. People with box expansion capability push out on the walls, incorporate the lessons of reality, and have a better box to live in.

However, the whole point of cult-supported box shrinkage is to atrophy box expansion capability. It is literally inconcievable to go outside the box for new ways of looking at reality. Simplistic reflexes have replaced every possible avenue for box expansion.

"My friends and relatives seem worried about me." They're wrong! They don't support me the way my friends in the cult do.

"This action isn't something I thought was right and good." But I was wrong to think that! My new actions are what everyone else does.

"I have doubts about my decisions." Doubt is wrong! It's just outside-world/bad-programming/Satan putting these thoughts in my head. I must banish them!

In November of 1978, cult members in Guyana, picking up their latest shipment, found a drum of chemicals that they hadn't ordered. They were told it had been sent by Temple headquarters. They discovered that it was full of a cynanide compound with no conceivable agriculture or manufacturing use in the society they had carved out of the jungle.

And they brought it back to Jonestown.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown III: The Breakdown

There's another essential element in the development of any cult member. It usually isn't enough to create a new world for the recruit. It's also vital to destroy the old one.

As nice as the new world can be, withdrawing from it is infinitely easier if the old world is still sitting there, unchanged and familiar. So while the new world is being created, the old world can't just suffer only by comparison. It has to be dismantled, inside and out, so when the cult asks for a big thing, there's nowhere to go.

The outside of the old world is dismantled by ENEMIES. Oh, that old world actually was teeming with enemies, lurking with pits for the unwary, actively working against the recruit in ways they hadn't even realized at the time. Didn't get that job, diploma, significant other or new toy? It wasn't their fault. It was that dang outside world working against them.

This is a seductive thought when formulated in the privacy of one's couch. It becomes well-nigh irresistible when other people say it constantly. All past disappointments are recast as a monolithic conspiracy to keep one down. All past triumphs are all the greater when they are wrested from the grasp of the ENEMIES.

The recruit is a new, more heroic, beset person than they ever dreamed. They are now more valuable and valiant than they had ever concieved. And this new person changes with these new concepts.

The internal changes are put on greased rails with the ever-popular cult trifecta of peer pressure, intimidation, and threats.

The new world is made up of people who never show their doubts. So the recruit does not.

The new world is made up of people who want to help the recruit see things in a new way. If the recruit does not want to be helped, a little pressure is a good thing among friends. And soon the recruit joins in the circle of pressure.

And the threats just keep coming. Threats of withdrawal, of disapproval, of rejection. And key here is how the recruit responds to threats.

All abusive relationships test the waters first. The first time a boyfriend demands that his girl break off her conversation to get him something, the first time a boss asks for unpaid overtime, the first time a cult leader asks for a sacrifice for the greater good; it's easy. It seems easier to comply than make a fuss. Until the effort of making a fuss is so overwhelming the recruit is almost unable to do so.

They are literally no longer the person they were. The world has changed, inside and outside.

Simple steps, impossible for others to comprehend. "Why didn't you leave?" is the number one question that gets asked. Lost in the echo of the question is the obvious: By the time the person wanted to, leaving no longer looked like an option.

Looking back, they often can't even tell when the box lid closed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown II: The Investment

Jim Jones used "the ends justify the means" to pull his followers into highly immoral acts. How can this happen with people who joined his Temple in the pursuit of moral goals? How does someone come to accept such a twisted philosphy?

Through the magic of "investment."

Investment is a deeply embedded coping strategy that evolved to keep humans on track. The man or woman who came up with the wheel probably reached a point where their efforts did not seem to be paying off. Without the concept of investment, they would have given up. It keeps marriages together, gets parents past the "terrible twos" stage with their children, and allows old people to have a cranky license. But like all deeply embedded coping strategies, it can be misused.

Jones had carefully orchestrated receptions for new Temple prospects. They would be shown the glories of membership, tailored to their individual motivations. Idealists would have the lure of social progress. The lonely would have instant family and friends. The insecure would have the promise of being cared for by the Temple. And all would be a part of a bigger, greater, something.

Once a prospect came to enjoy these goals, the first request would be made. A tiny one. A tithe could be donated to the poor and sick. A few hours of unpaid labor in the service of the Temple. Taking a newcomer under their wing. An investment in a system that gives so much.

Then, a little more. Can't the tithe be higher, can't they work a little longer for this big new project, can't they bring some friends and family to Temple next time?

By the time the request reaches a moral tipping point, the outlook has changed. The subject has invested so much that the benefits of Temple membership has become greater than the drawbacks of what they are being asked to do. It's just passing on information from their job, or convincing a possible defector to come back in the fold.

And so, step by step, inch by inch, people find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into moral quicksand. But it doesn't feel like quicksand. It feels warm, embracing, loving. The outside world recedes in importance. They don't need approval and reinforcement from the outside world. They have more and better in the Temple world, where everyone else is approving and reinforcing what they are doing. Where they have invested so much.

So when the big request comes, something so big and uncomfortable to contemplate that they want to pull back, they have gone past their feet into the quicksand, past the point where one big step could get them out. They've gone past their knees, where it would require the effort of their arms and a strong rope. They are up to their hips in it, and to struggle out would require their entire body. It would require relinquishing their entire Temple life.

Or, instead, all they have to do is a mental adjustment; to look at what they are asked to do as an unpleasant task, to be sure, but one they can justify in terms of survival. To keep their life.

And self-preservation is the most deeply embedded coping strategy of them all.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown

One of the joys of used bookstores is finding some gem caught on the shores of the sell-stream. In this case, it was Raven: The Untold Story of Reverend Jim Jones and His People: By Tom Reiterman & John Jacobs

The Jonestown massacre was almost thirty years ago. Yet the lessons from the book are just as fresh, showing that the psychos are always with us.

The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has caught on to describe willful rejection of reality to embrace a soothing lie. (For the record, it was grape Flavor Aid. Truth is important.) And that is what Jim Jones did. The echoes of his obsessions are part of national discourse today. Even though Jones lured people in with socialistic and communist ideals, the main points of his philosophy are with us now in the rantings of the Republican Right.

Because it doesn't matter what goals grifters claim to have. Grifters are about the grift.

Jim Jones had mental problems, and coped with them by using his charisma and psychological knowledge to pull other people into his fantasy world. There's nothing inherently wrong with fantasy worlds, or getting people to join them. The whole Star Trek phenomena has not only provided employment for thousands of creative workers, but provided millions more with a way of thinking about the world that fosters scientific and humanistic goals. Even for the people working on dioramas in their basement, it provides creative energy and a social framework.

However, Jim Jones' fantasy world only pretended to be about other people's welfare. It was really about Jones' welfare. While the first steps into the Temple were benign, carefully orchestrated events, everyone was soon confronted with a moral conflict that would determine their future path. They would be asked to do bad for good.

The end justifies the means. This is probably Jones' most repeated excuse, which he used to justify deceptive faith healings, financial scams, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse of his followers. In turn, his followers would use this to excuse their own immoral behavior in the service of the Temple. In a way, this was the biggest lie of all. It has a distinct way of turning on the practioners, until the ends become subsumed in the means and they are indistinguishable. For the love of humantity, there's a reason ends and means are different concepts! Use them accordingly.

This deliberate blurring of idealistic goals and the goals of Jim Jones in the minds of followers led to the insane acts committed by people who joined the Temple to be Good. From the outside, it looks properly twisted. From the inside, justification was exercised on a daily basis, and just like our deltoids, any muscle constantly exercised gains power and grows. Even to the extent that it pulls the body out of shape and lets other muscles atrophy.

Once a person has accepted "the ends justify the means," any act, no matter how heinous, is now justifiable. That's one heck of a slippery slope, straight down with no handholds.

That's how it happens.

Lessons from Jonestown II: The Investment
Lessons from Jonestown III: The Breakdown
Lessons from Jonestown IV: The Small Box