Apply this also to academics, writers, and artists:

Many years ago, my wife and I were on vacation on Vancouver Island, looking for a place to stay. We found an attractive but deserted motel on a little-traveled road in the middle of a forest. The owners were a charming young couple who needed little prompting to tell us their story. They had been schoolteachers in the province of Alberta; they had decided to change their life and used their life savings to buy this motel, which had been built a dozen years earlier. They told us without irony or self-consciousness that they had been able to buy it cheap, ‘because six or seven previous owners had failed to make a go of it.’ They also told us about plans to seek a loan to make the establishment more attractive by building a restaurant next to it. They felt no need to explain why they expected to succeed where six or seven others had failed. A common thread of boldness and optimism links businesspeople, from motel owners to superstar CEOs. (258–9)

That’s from Daniel Kahneman’s highly recommended book Thinking, Fast and Slow. How many times have you read some artists say that they succeeded because they believed totally in themselves and worked demonically to make their careers happen? If you’re like me you’ve heard this narrative many times. But you haven’t mostly heard the narrative about artists who believed totally in themselves and worked demonically only to fail, because they don’t get interviewed and their views don’t hit the media.

The quote is from chapter  24 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, which ought to be required reading for anyone thinking about getting a grad degree in the humanities. People giving advice on this topic tend to have succeeded; those who haven’t succeeded are mute (though less mute than they once were).

For Men Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn is missing evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology

For Men Only promises “A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,” but it’s missing any acknowledgment of the vast amount of research that shows:

  • We don’t know what we really want.
  • What we say or think we want often doesn’t match how we behave.
  • We behave different ways at different times and places.

For_men_onlyThe book would benefit from close study of work by Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. For most guys, it’s worth reading, but reading skeptically. I say it’s worth reading because much of the book, especially regarding emotional engagement, matches my mistakes.

The writers, for example, say that “Women tend to process things by talking them through. [. . . while ] Men, however, tend to process things by thinking them through, and not saying anything until they full understand what they are thinking.” That is, on average, true in my experience, and it took a lot of trial and error—and more error—to realize that talking without knowing why one is talking isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual fatuousness or weakness. It’s a sign that a lot of women are simply “processing,” to use the Feldhahns’s language.

Elsewhere, the Feldhahns say that “When our wife or girlfriend is upset, we do what we would do with other guys: We give her space to work things out. But with very few exceptions, when women are upset they don’t want space. They want a hug.” Space increases feelings of loneliness, not feelings of competence and control. They also say that women often don’t necessarily want solutions to emotional problems—they want empathy, and a listener:

She just wants you to listen = she does want and need you to understand how she’s feeling about the problem. ‘It‘ = an emotional problem. This listening rule does not apply to technical conundrums.

To me, this makes no sense: why share a problem unless you want it resolved? But I’ve learned the the hard way that their reading is correct in many situations, and I’ve tended to discount emotions in favor of trying to solve problems. When this strategy failed, or elicited tears from girls, I would wonder what the fuck is the matter. I mean, when I have problems, I want them fixed, right? But, as the Feldhahns point out, I’m missing that the problem isn’t the problem—it’s a placeholder, in many situations, for something else. I failed to read the situation metaphorically.

The Feldhahns also point out that men overestimate the need to be seen as a “provider” and earn money, while underestimating the need for emotional and sexual closeness (for a literary example of this, pay close attention to the portrayal of Matt French in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me; he spends his life working, or worrying about work, in order to buy a big, crappy house, and neglects his wife to the point that she starts sleeping with another guy who probably makes less money but is sexy and available). Notice the words “overestimate” and “underestimate:” money and ambition matter, but not as much as many men think. The Feldhahns say, “For her, ’emotional security’ matters most: feeling emotionally connected and close to you, and knowing that you are there for her no matter what. Sure, providing financially is appreciated, but for most women it’s nowhere near the top of the list.” Clearly Jeff Feldhahn hasn’t dated some of the cold fish I have, but we’ll leave those stories aside.

From what I can discern, those insights are correct, even if the process that led to those insights is bogus, or at least not optimal. The authors say, “Besides conducting hundreds of in-person interviews, we gathered huge amounts of anecdotal information at dozens of women’s events where Feldhahn was presenting materials from For Women Only.” What people say they want and what they actually do often differ severely, as anyone who has ever listened to girls complain about the “assholes” they sleep with, compared with the “nice guys” they don’t, can attest. But my favorite study on the topic of the discrepancy between what people state in various situations is Alexander and Fisher’s “Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self‐reported sexuality:”

Men report more permissive sexual attitudes and behavior than do women. This experiment tested whether these differences might result from false accommodation to gender norms (distorted reporting consistent with gender stereotypes). Participants completed questionnaires under three conditions. Sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior were negligible in a bogus pipeline condition in which participants believed lying could be detected [meaning that “participants are attached to a non-functioning polygraph and are led to believe that dishonest answers given during an interview or on a survey can be detected by the machine” (28)], moderate in an anonymous condition [where participants don’t believe their answers will be revealed at all], and greatest in an exposure threat condition in which the experimenter could potentially view participants’ responses. This pattern was clearest for behaviors considered less acceptable for women than men (e.g., masturbation, exposure to hardcore & softcore erotica). Results suggest that some sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior reflect responses influenced by normative expectations for men and women

In other words, what people say about their sexual habits and beliefs depend in part on who is listening and how the speaker believes what they say will be interpreted. Given that fact, “in-person interviews” and “anecdotal information at women’s events” are arguably the worst way one could gather data on what women “really” want. Every time the Feldhahns say things like, “70 percent of the women said they’d rather their husband take a lower-paying job that would require financial sacrifices if it allowed more family time” (emphasis added) I wanted to say, “they only say that.”

Beyond the issue of what people say in different contexts, there’s an issue about what people do in different states of mind. In Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein’s paper “The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making,” the authors show that college-aged guys in a “cold” state systematically underestimate their likely sexual preferences and acts when they are in a “hot” state (which the experimenters elicit through showing each individual man porn, encouraging him to masturbate, and then asking the same set of questions). In Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes the difficult of conducting that experiment in the first place because of his university’s human-subjects board, and he speculates that getting permission to operate the same experiment with female subjects would be more difficult still.

The women the Feldhahns speak to are, presumably, in a cold state. What they say they want at that moment, speaking to somewhat high-status writers, may or may not bear any relation to what they want in hot states, or what they want in the private sphere that still exists between their ears. We are all hypocrites, but some of us are better at acknowledging it, and incorporating that knowledge into our thinking, than others.

Perhaps the second-best romantic advice I’ve ever heard is simple: “Don’t pay any attention to what she says—just look at what she does.” (The first-best is “The worst thing she can say is ‘no.'” Alter the gender pronouns to fit your preferences, as needed.) The Feldhahns are paying a lot of attention to what she says.

Jeff also plays himself off as stupid, like many men: “I doubted that a woman could ever be understood. Compared to other complex matters—like the tides, say, or how to figure a baseball player’s ERA—women seemed unknowable. Random even.” That’s because he’s either a) an idiot or b) has bought into large-scale cultural nonsense. Women can be understood. Evolutionary biology is a good place to start: take a look at Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, then the new introduction to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, then Thornhill and Gangestad’s The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. All of them explain a lot about the pressures women feel, and, by extension, the pressures men feel in response (the pressures men and women feel are, of course, a feedback loop, with one side “responding” to the other).

Individual preferences can’t be understood based on group identification, because individual preferences can vary substantially, but understanding the basic evolutionary and cultural pressures operating on each sex will show why many people behave the way they do. Those “cultural pressures” I mentioned in the previous sentence are also important, and books like Neil Strauss’s The Game discuss them.

Let me return to Hrdy for a moment. In describing her path to the book, she says:

Competition between females is documented for every well-studied species of primate save one: our own. Once we leave the scientific realm, of course, and consider history, literature, and, for many of us, personal experience, examples of highly competitive, manipulative, and even murderous females flock to mind.

Competition between human females also exists—as “history, literature, and [. . .] personal experience” show us (we should get out of the lab and into culture if we’re going to study humans)—but it tends to exist along different dimensions than male competition. That’s why men tend not to notice it. In addition, male scientists suffer a failure of imagination, as Hrdy elegantly puts it: “The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.”

Jeff doesn’t understand women because he doesn’t understand that women are also under competitive pressure, though he probably doesn’t realize what he doesn’t understand. Instead of thinking that women are “Random even,” he should be asking: What incentives operate on women that don’t on men? What’s it like to be female in our society? How can I learn more? He’s showing an empathy deficit and a research deficit.

Why are the authors ignorant about the vast literature on deception? They’re not researchers, and they don’t evince any interest in research, which is a major weakness. They’re may be inclined to massage their readers’ prejudice instead of challenging those views. They may also not want to know better, which I say because they say that “This book holds to a biblical world view. [. . . ] because Feldhahn and I view life through our Christian faith, we have seen that these findings are consistent with biblical principles.” In modern America, ensuring that “findings are consistent with biblical principles” is a code-phrase for militant, pointless ignorance. This is where I should point out that intellectual rigor and sophistication can (and should) co-exist with religious belief, but I don’t have the energy for culture-war crap.

The authors also sometimes evade important issues altogether, as their strategic use of passive voice shows here: “In this culture, women are not being protected emotionally. They are being humiliated.” Women are not being “protected emotionally” by who or what? “They are being humiliated” by who or what? As I tell students, cultures don’t just emerge from some amorphous cloud: they’re the result of aggregated individual decisions. Who should be doing the protecting? What does humiliation mean here? It’s hard to emotionally humiliate someone without their consent. This idea is simply asserted, and it’s asserted in a way that removes important information.

On what makes people happy, from Daniel Kahneman:

Our poor intuitions about the pursuit of happiness are a genuine paradox. Daniel Kahneman summarizes decades of happiness research this way: “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

(Emphasis in original.)

[. . .] it’s not just survey data that confirms the horror of rush hour. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer outlined a human bias they called “the commuting paradox.” They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimated the pain of a long commute. As a result, they mistakenly believed that the McMansion in the suburbs, with its extra bedroom and sprawling lawn, will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional forty-five minutes to work. It turns out, though, that traffic is torture, and the big house isn’t worth it.

Both quotes come from “Does Money Make You Unhappy?” (hat tip Penelope Trunk). Strangely, Jonah Lehrer doesn’t mention Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, until the very end. Since reading Stumbling on Happiness, I’ve been pointing out these points from it to various people in various contexts:

  • making more than about $40,000 / year does little to improve happiness (this should probably be greater in, say, New York, but the main point about the diminishing returns of additional income for most people remains)
  • most people value friends, family, and social connections more than additional money above around $40K/year
  • your sex life probably matters more than your job, and many people mis-optimize in this area
  • making your work meaningful is important, although this means different things to different people

I consciously think about this book when making my own life choices, and this is also the kind of valuable insight that seemingly never gets taught in schools.

I have some theories about why so many people screw this up, but they aren’t well-developed enough to write about. Yet.

Time preferences, character, and The Novel (in my novel)

A friend was reading a novel I wrote called The Hook and asked: “I’m curious. . . Do you believe this?” of this passage, in which the speaker is a teenage girl describing her teacher:*

But Scott sometimes said that if we do something, it shows that we wanted to at that time, even if we regret it later. So other people can’t really “make” us do anything. He said that people want different things over different courses of time—so in the short term, you might want one thing, in the long term, something else, and when you’re in the heat of the moment, the short term is pretty sweet.

The answer to my friend’s question is: mostly but not entirely. Zimbardo and Boyd wrote The Time Paradox, which describes how some people default to “past,” “present,” or “future” orientations or dispositions; hedonic people tend to be present-oriented, high achievers (probably a lot of engineers) tend to be future-oriented, and nostalgic, content, family-centered people tend to be past-oriented. These categories obviously aren’t hard and fast, and everyone has some of all of them, but I think the overall idea stands. And people who have one central orientation probably don’t understand others well, just like extroverts tend not to understand introverts; I think reading helps people better understand others not like themselves.

People are also pretty strongly biased by random emotions, feelings, and environments; for example, in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he describes how people in a sexually aroused state make very different or predictions decisions from those in a “cold” state—one might say they become much more present-oriented, which is probably obvious to those of us who have been in that state and are willing to think consciously and rationally about it afterwards. Most of us have probably been in that state, but relatively few of us want to admit what it’s like when we’re not in it. On a separate note, Ariely speculates that this may apply to hunger and other states too.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the numerous biases that we’re prone to, including a bias towards present consumption in lieu of future consumption. So if we’re in the moment being offered the pleasures of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, spending, or whatever, the “future” might seem very far away and uncertain (that’s what Karl Smith gets when he writes “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” that so many other commenters miss). So people are inclined to do things they say they “regret” or say “wasn’t them,” even when it probably was: it’s just that the person who gave into their craving was thinking in a different frame of mind, and the person in a “cold” frame of mind probably wants to present themselves differently than a person in a “hot” frame of mind acts. You may notice that a lot of people say, “I was drunk,” as if that means they had no control over what they were doing, but their rational self decided to take the first drink. It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.

This is how you get people suffused with regret for acts they very much enjoyed previously. Sex is the most obvious example here, but there are others. What a lot of people call “attraction” or “chemistry” looks to me more like people being attracted to specific behavioral or physical traits they then cloak in other words. This, basically, is what Neil Strauss explains in The Game and other self-proclaimed pickup people discuss in different venues. But it only works if women are attracted to the kind of show that such guys put on; many women in clubs / bars appear to be, at least to some extent, because if they weren’t then “game” wouldn’t work. I find this stuff more intellectually interesting than immediately applicable to my day-to-day life, but it nonetheless shows that a lot of social life happens below the level of consciousness and in ways that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.

As I said earlier, people who tend to be highly logical and future oriented (I’m somewhat like this; you seem like you are too, although I obviously can’t speak for you and am not totally sure) often don’t “get” or understand people who aren’t. And vice-versa. People who are hedonically oriented in one moment and disavow their hedonism the next seem like hypocrites—and they are. But most people seem to be hypocrites and don’t take the time to deeply analyze what their “feelings” are telling them. Kahneman develops the idea of two “systems” that people use: the first is a fast, heuristic system that guides us to make instant, snap decisions; the second slows us down to analyze situations, but it’s much more laborious and harder to engage. Most people live in system one most of the time, including us. It takes a lot of effort to motivate system two. So we get a lot of biases from system one that sometimes make our system two self unhappy later.

I think one problem intellectuals like me have is an unwillingness to be sufficiently present-oriented, to slip out of our eggheads and into the now. A lot of cultures and societies have festivals or rituals that encourage this sort of thing; you can see a contemporary example in Brazil’s Carnival and numerous examples in older cultures (Donna Tartt’s excellent novel The Secret History exploits this interest for its plot). But ours doesn’t, which might in part be a function of our wacky religious heritage. We don’t have a lot of space for ritual; the closest we get is something like Halloween and extreme drinking parties, where people get to release or transcend the self in ways that may produce great pleasure. But, again, what is pleasure? Merely neurochemical? Or something else? I don’t have good answers, though I’m very curious.

So: do I believe what Stacy says Scott asserts? Somewhat. I think Scott’s mistake is assuming there’s a single, unified person in there somewhere. Either that, or Stacy, who’s speaking in the section you marked, misunderstands Scott, or can’t apply what he says because she doesn’t have the background to do so.

As you can probably tell from the above, I don’t really know what I believe; I’m guided in my thinking by some of the things I’ve read and observed, but the issue is complex enough that I don’t think they tell the whole story. When I was younger, I believed in a unified self; if someone did one particular thing at one particular time, that was a revealed preference, that’s who they were, and that’s the end of the story. Now, a lot of the work of behavioral and evolutionary psychologists and economists has forced me to rethink those ideas, and consciousness is much stranger than I really appreciated!

If you want to judge for yourself, the books I cited above are a good and lucid place to start. But I don’t think they’re the end of the story; maybe the story has no end. That’s not a real satisfying statement, but it’s what I’ve got and where I’ve gotten with my own imperfect thinking. Deep, much-debated issues often are that way because there isn’t a “right” answer per se—only a range of possibilities that are continually deepened over time through research, observation, and writing.

Note: The next paragraph has some material germane to the novel but that won’t make a lot of sense outside the context of the novel.

I mostly wish someone had explained a lot of this to me when I was younger. But they didn’t, which might be why Stacy repeats what Scott says to her (there’s so much I try to convey to people who’re younger than me, but I suspect most of them don’t really have the framework necessary to situate what I’m telling them, and thus they can’t really deploy it in behavioral changes). In the context of The Hook, I think Stacy and Arianna make their video at Sheldon’s coaxing because they’re caught up in the moment, and they’re obviously unhappy when the video gets shown to the whole school. So is Stacy the girl who is willing to bare her stuff for the camera when she’s sexually excited and not really thinking about what comes next, or the girl who can stand up in front of the whole assembly and walk nobly down and out, transcending the moment and trying to show herself beyond high school bullshit?

Both and neither. Which is, I hope, what makes her interesting as a character, and why I suspect narrative fiction will continue to enchant us even when research has surpassed many of the nonfiction writers on whom I’m drawing when I’m drawing characters.

This post started life as an e-mail to my friend, and I’ve edited it some before publishing it here.

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