Saturday, March 12, 2011

Beards Help

Women "find men with full beards more ... mature."

There are other words in this story, but these are clearly the most important. :-)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Dark Side of Positive Thinking

Barbara Ehrenreich makes a good point in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. The dark side of positive thinking is the belief that if bad things happen to you it is your fault because you had a bad attitude. She details the ways in which the purveyors of positive thinking urge their followers to banish all negative thoughts because they drew bad actions. It is a short step to conclude that if bad actions occur to someone, they must have attracted them by their bad thinking.

Ehrenreich suggests, though does not actually document, that some corporations that are very enamored of positive thinking actually fire people for having negative thoughts.

Positive thinking today focuses mostly on getting money. This is true even in "health and wealth gospel" churches, where the emphasis these days is more on the wealth than the health. This is different from the nineteenth century, when mind cure and New Thought focused more on health. The dark side of today's positive thinking, therefore, leads to the idea that if people are poor, it is their own fault. Positive thinking rejects structural explanations for poverty - global recessions, corporate outsourcing, massive layoffs, etc. - and emphasizes only individual attitudes.

This explains to me why many otherwise Christian people that I meet object to programs that help poor people. They don't usually offer economic arguments about "bad incentives" and "moral hazard." They don't offer old-fashioned Protestant work ethic arguments about "laziness" or "fecklessness" (I told you it was old-fashioned). Instead, they think that poor people have chosen to have a negative attitude, which is why they are poor. If they stay poor long enough, I think this argument goes, they will see that they need to change their attitude, to just think positively.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Academic Culture is Not Driven by the Magic of Positive Thinking

As a proponent of cheerfulness and contentment, I felt obligated to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. She has not persuaded me to turn into a fusspot, but I will give her credit for being about 40% right.

Ehrenreich sees "positive thinking" as a kind of popular magic. At its loonier end, it claims that by simply visualizing what you want, you can make it come to you through the "law of attraction."

She finds the roots of today's positive thinking in the New Thought of the 19th century, which gave us Christian Science, the Unity Church, and the many kinds of mind cure. In the 20th century the focus shifted from envisioning health to envisioning wealth, as the hard-working Horatio Alger boys turned into the Power of Positive Thinking Dale Carnegie followers.

Ehrenreich shows that milder versions of positive thinking are endemic to corporations, megachurches, and, especially, to entrepreneurs. Which made we wonder about positive thinking in academic life. I can't think of any professors who are big consumers of motivational books, videos, or live seminars. To say the phrase "I visualize my article published in the leading journal in my field" seems weird. I can't see one academic bucking another up with "If you picture yourself as a full professor, it will come to you; name it and claim it." That just isn't how we think. Academic life is based a strong expectation that results come from work. Sure, there are many irrational factors in an academic institution, especially the large ones. But I rarely hear professors attribute their successes or failures to their ability to adjust their attitude right, which will attract success.

Academics really do believe in critical thinking, sometimes to excess. But the first great fruit of critical thinking is that we don't simply accept the magic of positive thinking.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Protestants Face Fear With Action, Then and Now

In Be Very Afraid, Robert Wuthnow offers this interesting comparison between how the first Protestants reacted to the fearful anxieties of their day, with how modern Americans react to the fearful anxieties of ours:

“The radical danger that people now fear is no longer that of roasting eternally in hell … It is the threat of life being cut off prematurely and on a massive scale that brings social chaos and perhaps destroys the planet or makes it unlivable for generations. … Yet the dominant response is action, just as it was for the Puritans. Action is driven by uncertainty. The possibility of danger is a motivating force. Taking action is a way of assuring ourselves that we are doing something – doing what we can, hoping that the search for knowledge will be rewarded.”

In each case, Wuthow, with Weber, argues against the popular idea that people deny and suppress their fears. Rather, the bias of Protestants, and the Protestant-shaped culture of America, is a bias toward action.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Alvin Wong - Happiest Man in America

Gallup has a nifty survey about happiness. They made a list of characteristics that correlate with happiness. The New York Times put these characteristics together and set out to find a person who embodied them. A married father, Chinese-American, observant Jew, successful in business - in Hawaii.

They found him, through a Honolulu synagogue: Alvin Wong.

What stands out to me in this list are the several factors that strengthen meaningful purpose in life. The core element, I think, is being a married father. Chinese Americans, and observant Jews, are both subcultures that strongly support married fatherhood. The successful business flows from sticking to the purpose of supporting your family with work, the more meaningful the better.

Hawaii is just a bonus.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Virgins Up, Sluts Down

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released their periodic National Health Statistics Report on sexual behavior. The news that has been making headlines is that virginity is up. Among women 15 - 44, the percent of virgins rose from 8.6% in 2002 to 11.3% in 2008.

I was also struck by the fact that the proportion of very promiscuous women, with 15 or more lifetime sex partners, went down over the same period, from 9.2% to 8.3%.

The proportions of women with one or two lifetime sex partners were unchanged. Together they make up a third of all women.

Something similar happened among men. The virgin proportion rose from 9.6% to 11.4%, while the very promiscuous proportion dropped from 23.2% to 21.4%.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Comparative Advantage Probably Yields a Traditional Division of Household Labor

The authors of Spousenomics say that couples are happiest if they divide chores by comparative advantage - that is, if you do what you are somewhat better at. There does have to be some rough balance of the total labor that each does for the family, too.

I am confident that if couples followed this rule, the division of household labor would skew toward a traditional gender division of tasks. Any given couple might divide tasks up in any way at all, and some couples would be very untraditional, indeed.

Nonetheless, the traditional division of labor got to be traditional for a reason. It reflects the skew in the population as a whole of the comparative advantage of the sexes. So be it.