How to conquer trauma?

This blog post draws ideas from 3 books from neuroscience to psychology to explain trauma and how to conquer it.

Disclaimer: This blog is quite long because it’s an attempt to synthesize from multiple sources, as well as from my views. I am not an expert on this topic, so please treat it as a reference rather than something authoritative.

Introduction

My curiosity in trauma perhaps stems from my own experience, the fact that I seem to recover from them reasonably well, and the observation that it doesn’t seem to be the case for many others. There are a lot of things that worsen our lives, but I think the failure to recover from trauma is often, if not always, the cause. Such a failure can manifest through unhealthy coping mechanisms, excessive rationalizations, unconscious pathological behaviors, and much more.

In this blog post, I examine the phenomenon of trauma from both biological and psychological levels to wrestle with the question: how can we conquer trauma? The answer is pretty short and simple, but the gist is to provide the arguments to back it up.

I draw ideas from many books: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma which talks extensively on trauma and its biological basis, and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos which talks about how to establish order in the face of chaos, and Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement which talks about the neuroscience of intuitions (among other things). Interestingly, this investigation wasn’t planned, but spontaneously emerged when I was linking my notes together from these books.

Traumatic experience, chaos, and order

When a housewife discovers that her husband cheated, not only her conception of her husband but also her conception of who she is, falls apart. He wasn’t who she thought he was, she wasn’t who she thought she was, the world wasn’t what she thought it was. There’s a disintegration on the conceptual level, but there’s also disintegration on the biological level.

The amygdala – the brain region which controls fight or flight response, evolves to respond to snakes and things that pose a physical threat to us. However, the brain is very efficient at reusing existing circuits for new purposes, so not only the amygdala is triggered when you see a snake, but it’s also triggered by the category of experience of which the snake is a manifestation – things that lurk outside of what you can see which can kill you. A traumatic experience, which is a disturbing event that exceeds one’s ability to cope, roughly belongs to the same category. That category is also chaos because chaos is exactly what lies outside of the order you established which can disintegrate you. In other words, a traumatic experience is a manifestation of chaos.

Jordan Peterson said that to re-emerge from chaos, you need to separate the intolerable general conditions of being from the particular details of your specific catastrophe. It isn’t everything I thought I knew is wrong, but specific beliefs were wrong. It isn’t everything that fell apart, specific things did. What are they? How can they be fixed?

He was making a point that careful attention and articulation can help you establish order out of chaos, but only if you are willing to step out from the veil of ignorance, your inattention, and the fear of what lurks underneath that catastrophe. It’s a remodeling of your conceptual structures. However, when we talk about concepts, we are implicitly assuming rationality. Specifically, the idea presupposes that we retain our ability to reason when it comes to the traumatic experience, which is not always the case as will be explored briefly.

One common application of this idea is in psychotherapy where patients are encouraged to talk about trauma to gain mastery over them, which has been criticized due to its questionable effectiveness. However, it will make sense as we consider what’s going on in the brain of traumatized patients. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should not strive to articulate trauma carefully and thoughtfully. It’s just that we must also be aware of the biological factors that drive such experience so that appropriate interventions can be prepared.

How does an unhealthy brain work?

The two-sided brain theory by Roger Sperry

The theory was put forth by Roger Sperry. It began during World War 2. The first research subject was an American soldier named W.J – a high-school graduate with above-average intelligence.

W.J survived a fall but received a blow to his head and then another blow during his capture. When he was released after the war ended, he started to suffer from episodes of epilepsy. After receiving a callosotomy (a procedure that severs two hemispheres), the seizures stopped. W.J, who had been having more than 10 seizures a day, was declared cured after 6 months.

Roger Sperry then gave W.J a series of tests that stimulate one side of the brain and see if the other side responds. Since W.J’s brain is split, different stimuli that work on one side but not the other tells us what each side is uniquely capable of.

W.J was blind-folded and given certain objects. He had to use and then name the objects. When using his right hand, he was able to both use and name them. When using his left hand, he was able to use but not name them. Since hemispheres connect to the opposite side of the body, it means that the right side handles complex tasks but not language, while the left side handles both.

A breakthrough came when an experiment was designed where three-dimensional forms held in the right and left hand respectively had to be matched with their unfolded shapes, which are visually presented to the subjects. It was found that the right hemisphere was much more superior than the left hemisphere in that particular task.

It was concluded that the right hemisphere is specialized for Gestalt perception, being primarily a synthesist in dealing with information input. The left hemisphere operates in a more logical, analytic fashion. Therefore it is not adequate for the rapid complex syntheses achieved by the right hemisphere. This gave birth to the whole right-brain left-brain trend that became popular.

Another domain where the right hemisphere is more specialized is emotions, which makes sense if you think of emotions as rapid complex syntheses. With sufficient rationality, you can unpack an emotion into many intertwined components, each tracing back to events years prior encoded into particular sensations.

However, it is worth noting that, this theory does not generalize well to healthy individuals, because it originated from experiments conducted on split-brain patients. Later inventions on MRI techniques demonstrated that, in a healthy brain, the left and right hemisphere simultaneously handles both logic and emotions.

If only one hemisphere is activated, then it marks the beginning of something pathological, which is precisely what happens in traumatized patients.

Problems with traumatized patients

Traumatized patients have only the right hemisphere activated

Looking at brain scans of traumatized patients, there is a significant decrease in the activity of the left hemisphere. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speech production, goes offline when a flashback is triggered.

We know that the right brain is roughly intuitive, emotional and the left brain is roughly linguistic, sequential, and analytical. Normally, the two sides of the brain work together smoothly, but traumatized patients may have the left hemisphere dampened, and the right hemisphere activated whenever they are reliving the experience.

This impacts the ability to organize experience into logical sequences and translate our feelings into words. Without sequencing, we can’t identify cause and effects, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create plans for the future. This failure to make sense also contributes to the reenactment of traumatic events, because those who can’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Traumatized patients seek reenactment because they are addicted to the trauma

Traumatized people tend to be excited and come to life when talking about traumatic events. Soldiers like to talk about their helicopter crashes and dying comrades. Raped victims may fall into prostitution over and over again despite having received help.

Freud calls such traumatic reenactments the compulsion to repeat. Research has shown that activities that cause fear or pain can later become thrilling experiences because they release morphine-like substances. We may get hooked up on activities like marathon running, sauna bathing which initially causes discomfort and terror but becomes enjoyable.

This gradual adjustment signals that a new chemical balance has been established within the body. We start to crave the activity or experience when it’s not available. This theory could explain why some people hire someone to beat them, or they are only attracted to people who hurt them.

The bottom line is, we are unable to articulate our thoughts and feelings when we relive traumatic experiences because the left hemisphere is shut down while the right hemisphere lightens up. When the right hemisphere lightens up, we experience intense vivid emotions and pain, which can cause morphine-like substances to be released in the brain. As a result, we seek more dangerous behaviors in order to reproduce these highs and become more addicted to the trauma.

Traumatized patients tend to tell a narrative of victimization rather than the reality of their experience

The left hemisphere is responsible for linguistic, which is deactivated during traumatic episodes. Therefore it is difficult for traumatized people to articulate their feelings.

When your left hemisphere is compromised, you lose that ability to dissect the particularities of your own experience. In more abstract terms, it takes away your ability to establish order. At that moment, what you experience is pure chaos, because there is no order and nothing makes sense.

In a world that seems to be falling apart, along with the perception that we are incapable of putting it together, it is easy to apply the generally intolerable conditions of being to construct a narrative that positions ourselves as the victim, and the world as the oppressor. This is how many people rationalize their ineffective operations in life: a helpless victim can do nothing but wither away at the hands of a malevolent oppressor.

How does a healthy brain work?

The reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the neocortex

The brain is built bottom-up. At the bottom is the reptilian brain. It is already online when we are born. It enables things babies are capable of: sleeping, eating, defecating, urinating, crying. It coordinates the heart, the lungs, and the immune systems, ensuring homeostasis in which these life-sustaining systems are maintained.

Right above the reptilian brain is the limbic system, also called the mammalian brain, because all animals that live in groups and nurture their young ones possess one. It regulates emotions, determining what’s pleasurable and what’s scary, essentially mapping how we interact emotionally with our surroundings. The limbic system is shaped partly by experience, partly by genetic markups. Children constantly experiment with the world, and these experiments help develop the limbic structures for emotions and memories.

The reptilian and the mammalian brain altogether is called the emotional brain. The emotional brain is responsible to detect danger or opportunity and responds by releasing hormones that interfere with whatever your mind is focused on. The emotional brain affects what we choose to eat, where we choose to sleep and with whom, what music we prefer, whom we befriend, and whom we detest. The emotional brain initiates preprogrammed automatic escape plans, like fight or flight responses.

Above the mammalian brain is the neocortex, which is responsible for manipulating abstract ideas. Notably, frontal lobes in the neocortex enable planning, reflection, integration, and interpretation of information. Generations of frontal lobes working together have provided us with inventions that literally changed the world. The neocortex is also referred to as the rational brain.

The emotional brain identifies danger like a smoke detector

Sensory information is passed to the thalamus, an area inside the limbic system that combines inputs from our perceptions into a fully blended autobiographical experience of “this is what is happening to me”. The sensations are passed on to the amygdala and the frontal lobes.

The amygdala is “the low road” which determines if a situation is dangerous or not. It does this with the help from the hippocampus which relates new input to past experience. The amygdala responds to a threat by sending an instant message to conjure up a fight or flight response. The frontal lobes, which is “the high road”, react milliseconds later, only after threats have been registered in the body.

The amygdala is like a smoke detector, determining if the input is relevant to survival or not. You can get along with people only if you can accurately gauge whether their intentions are benign or dangerous, therefore trauma which dampens the frontal lobes and elevates the amygdala results in overreaction and misinterpretations of situations that damage relationships and quality of life.

The rational brain controls the stress response like the watchtower

If the amygdala is the smoke detector of the brain, then the frontal lobes are like the watchtower – offering a comprehensive view of the situation instead of just the fight or flight responses. Is the smoke you smell the sign of the house is on fire or just the steak you put over too high a flame? The amygdala doesn’t make such judgments and just tells your body to get ready.

The executive functions of the prefrontal cortex enable people to observe what’s going on, predict what’ll happen if they take a certain action, and make a conscious choice. The presence of mind is the capacity to calmly observe thoughts, feelings, and emotions in order to inhibit, organize and modulate the hardwired reactions. As long as our frontal lobes are working, we’re unlikely to lose our temper every time a slightly unpleasant thing happens.

How to conquer trauma?

Dealing with stress depends on achieving a balance between the smoke detector and the watchtower

In PTSD patients, the critical balance between the amygdala and the frontal lobes shifts radically, which makes it harder to control emotions and impulses. Human beings in highly emotional states have elevated activity in the emotional brain and reduced activity in the frontal lobe.

Effectively dealing with stress depends upon achieving a balance between the smoke detector and the watchtower. You can learn to regulate emotions from the top down or from the bottom up.

Top-down emotional regulation involves strengthening the capacity to monitor your body’s sensations through mindfulness and yoga. Bottom-up emotional regulation involves recalibrating the automatic nervous system through breathing, movement, or touch. When you learn to calm down, either through the habit of mindfulness or through a touch of a friend, you essentially increase activity in your left hemisphere and decrease activity in your brain hemisphere. Only then can you begin to process the information contained in the traumatic experience in any meaningful way.

Establish order out of chaos when you have successfully calmed down

It’s very important to note that, just because you meditate or practice mindfulness, it doesn’t mean that you have gained mastery over your traumatic experience. Meditation and mindfulness only help prepare and empowers your rational brain and quiets the emotional brain.

Likewise, traumatic experiences are not overcome merely by hugs and intimate touches. They only help calm your emotional brain. Traumatic experiences are as much a psychological issue as they are biological, so we need to take the final step and re-establish order through attention and articulation.

To quote my own blog post which draws on Jordan Peterson’s idea:  when things fall apart, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, things remain vague. The destination remains un-proclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.

Be precise in your speech

Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life.

This is my interpretation on the chapter “Be precise in your speech” in 12 rules for life by Jordan Peterson.

Your laptop and the world

The relationship between your laptop and the world is the relationship between a simplified perception and the actual complexity comprised of a wide array of technological, interpersonal, biological, social accomplishments, coordinating together harmoniously to enable the environment within which you can safely use the laptop.

What you perceive as your laptop is like a single leaf on a tree, in a forest. More accurately, like your fingers rubbing briefly across that leaf. A single leaf can be plucked from a branch. It can be perceived as a single entity, but that perception misleads more than clarifies. In a few weeks, the leaf will crumble and dissove. It would not have been there at all without the tree. It cannot continue to exist in the absence of the tree. This is the position of your laptop in relation to the world.

We simplify the world according to its functional utility

Simplification is what makes us functional, because no one can take reality as it is. We look at the world as a collection useful things, not as objects. We perceive meanings directly, we see floors to walk on, doors to go through, and chairs to sit on. The world reveals itself to us as something to utilize and something to navigate through – not something that merely is.

When we look at the world, we only perceive enough for our plans and actions to work and get by. When we inhabit, then, is this “enough”. The radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world is necessary for us to avoid being overwhelmed by the actual complexity of the world. We perceive not them, but their functional utility, and in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple to comprehend. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim.

When sports fan watch their favorite sport teams perform, they identify with it on both biochemical and neurological level. Vicarious experiences of winning and losing raise and lower testosterone levels among fans “participating” in the context. Our capacity for identification is something that manifests itself at every level of our being.

Because we perceive the world as tools to achieve purposes, the purposes that we choose re-organize our perceptions. An implicit purpose that is wrong, at least to the degree that we can judge that it’s wrong when we make it explicit, subordinates our entire being to its pursuit. The result is that we lose at a war that we never wanted to fight.

The world is simple only when it behaves

It is difficult to make sense of the bare chaos of reality. The conscious illusion of complete and sufficient perception only sustains itself if everything goes according to plan. When our cars break down, the complexity of the machinery intrudes upon our consciousness, and it is experienced as anxiety-provoking.

A car is not an object, but something that takes us somewhere we want to go. It is only when it stops taking us where we want to go that we are forced to apprehend the machinery the car depends upon. Practically, this means we don’t get to go to where we want to go. Psychologically, our peace of mind disappears, and it often can only be regained by turning to experts that can repair the car, and more importantly, restore the simplicity of our perception.

When complexity intrudes upon our consciousness, it can intrude on multiple levels. A broken car forces us to deal with certain aspects of reality that may exceed our competence: is it time for a new vehicle? Did I err in my original purchase? Is the mechanic honest, reliable? Is the warehouse he works for trustworthy? The limitation of all our perceptions of things manifest themselves when something we can usually depend on in our simplified world breaks down. It is then that the walled garden we archetypically inhabit reveals its hidden but ever-present serpent.

We are simple only when the world behaves

When things break down, what we have been careless with gathers itself up in a serpentine form and strikes, often at the worst possible moment.

When a loyal and honest wife suddenly finds out about his husband’s promiscuous behaviors, it’s not one but two stranger that constitutes the problem. It’s not just that her husband is not who she thought he was, but she herself is not who she thought she was. Who is her husband? A victim of seduction? A psychopathic liar? An unsatisfied lover? Who is her? A victim? A gullible fool? A co-conspirator in a shared delusion? Everything is up for grabs, when the deeper realities of the world unexpectedly manifest themselves.

There’s no such thing as a dragon

There’s a story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. It’s about a small boy, Billy, who spies a dragon sitting on his bed one morning. It’s about the size of a house cat, and is friendly. He tells his mother about it, but she tells him that there’s no such thing as a dragon. So, it starts to grow. It eats all of Billy’s pancakes. Soon it fills the whole house. Mom tries to vacuum, but she has to go in and out of the house through the window because the dragon is taking up all the space.

Then, the dragon runs off with the house. Billy’s dad comes back from work to an empty space occupied previously by his house. The mailman tells the father where the dragon went, so chases after it, climbs to the dragon’s head and neck and rejoins his wife and son. Mom still insists the the dragon doesn’t exist, but Billy’s had enough of it, insists: “There is a dragon, mom”. Instantly, the dragon sinks into the size of a house cat again. Everyone agrees that dragons of that cat-size exist, and are much preferable to their gigantic counterparts Mom, after reluctantly opened her eyes to the dragon, asks why it had got so big. Billy quietly suggests: “maybe it wanted to be noticed”.

Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Resentment and unhappiness builds up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealousy, frustration, hatred, boredom. One day, the dragon grows so big, that no one can ignore it anymore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Don’t ever underestimate the destructive power of sins of omission

Living things die without attention

Maybe the demolished couple could have more precisely specified their desired manner of Being in a way that prevents the chaos from springing uncontrollably forth. Maybe it wasn’t sex, maybe every conversation had deteriorated into boring routine because no shared adventure animated the couple.

Maybe deterioration was easier, moment by moment, than bearing the responsibility of keeping the relationship alive. Living things die, after all, without attention. Life is indistinguishable from effortful maintenance. No one finds a match so perfect that the need for continued attention and work vanishes. In truth, what you need – what you deserve – is someone exactly as imperfect as you.

To ensure a failure, we have to do nothing: don’t react, don’t notice, don’t attend, don’t discuss, don’t consider, don’t take responsibility. Don’t confront the chaos and turn it into order – just wait for the chaos to engulf you instead.

Why do we avoid, remain vague and refuse to specify?

Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily leads to a poisoned future? Because under all disagreements and errors lie a possibility of a monster. Maybe the fight you’re having signifies the end of your relationship. Maybe it ends because you are a bad person. It’s likely, at least in part. Having the argument necessary to solve a real problem therefore necessitates confrontation with two forms of miserable potential: chaos (the potential fragility of your relationship), and hell (the fact that the malevolence of you or your partner damned the relationship). There’s every motivation to avoid. But it doesn’t help.

Why remain vague, when it renders life murky and stagnate? Because if you don’t know who you are, then you might not be a bad person. Who knows? Not you. Not thinking about something does not make it go away though. You are merely trading specific, particular, pointed knowledge of your real faults and flaws for a much longer list of undefined potential inadequacies and insufficiencies.

Why refuse to specify? Because if you don’t define criteria for success, then you don’t also define criteria for failure. So when you fail, and it won’t hurt as much, cause you’re not sure. But that won’t work. You will carry with you a continual sense of disappointment in your own Being and hatred for the world. To specify a problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, from a friend or a lover – and then you will know, precisely and clearly, when you don’t get it, and it will hurt, specifically and sharply. But you will learn something from that, and use what you learn in the future, instead of feeling the dull ache of continued hopelessness, a vague sense of failure, and the sense that precious time is slipping by.

Extract yourself from the general condition of being

So what if she who has been betrayed, is now determined to face all the incoherence of past, present and future? What if she decided to sort through the mess she had neglected, even if it will nearly kill her. To re-emerge, to escape, she must thoughtfully articulate the reality that was left hidden behind a veil of ignorance. She must separate the particular details of her specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of Being, in a world where everything seems to have fallen apart. It’s not everything that fell apart, but specific things that did. It isn’t every action I committed were wrong, but specific actions I committed were. It isn’t that everything I knew were false, but specific beliefs I held were. What are they, precisely? How can they be fixed, now? She can put the world back together by some precision of thought, some precision of speech, some reliance on her word, some reliance on the Word.

When things fall apart, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, things remain vague. The destination remains un-proclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.

Absurdity and Suicide

My interpretation on the first chapter of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

Disclaimer: This is my interpretation on the first chapter of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. It is a difficult to read, so flaws are unavoidable. Also, I was not suicidal when I sought and read the book 🙂

Judging wether or not life is worth living is the only serious philosophical problem. It is important, because many people die due to their judgement that life is not worth living, while no one ever dies from his conviction that the world exists in 17 dimensions. Even Galileo, who holds science in the highest regards, renounced his belief when his life is threatened.

Humans continue to live out of habit, so to die voluntarily implies that you have recognized that such a habit is ridiculous, futile and absent of any profound reason. Such recognition divests the universe of all illusions and lights. It alienates men. It evokes the feeling of losing the memory of a lost home and deprives the hope of a promised land. It makes people long for death.

The divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.

Does investigating the precise degree to which suicide is a solution to the absurdity necessitates abandoning human’s incomprehensible inclination to be in harmony with themselves? People who think we should stay true to our beliefs by acting them out often don’t act out some of their beliefs. On the other hand, there are indeed people who take their lives out of their determinations on the worth of life. There’s a constant contradiction: we act out some of our beliefs, but we don’t act out others. In this regard, we’re always in constant disharmony with ourselves.

The essence of this contradiction is the act of eluding. Eluding is the act of evading or escaping in a skillful way. In this context, it means to evade skillfully from hunan’s inclination to be in harmony with ourselves. We acquire the habit of living before we acquire the habit of thinking. Our thinking always attempts to catch up, but our body often takes the lead. In a sense, our bodily life eludes our thinking. An evolutionary justification would be the fact that such condition has maintained the survival of our species long before the arrival of the act of thinking. If one’s suicidal thoughts catch up to one’s bodily life, then he will feel the need to take his own life.

Pascalian uses diversion to refer to our inability to stay in our current, pleasant situations, and always let our thoughts carry us away, yearning for something more, which often results in our own unhappiness.

  1. Diversion.– When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.
    Philosophy StackExchange question

Camus states that the act of eluding is less than the Pascalian diversion in the sense that it is not as extreme a statement on human nature. the act of eluding, at least at this point in human’s evolution, has become an option that we choose to exert, while the inability that characterizes diversion speaks of something in our nature.

However, Camus also states that the act of eluding is more than the Pascalian diversion in the sense that it doesn’t only lead to unhappiness, but may also lead to meanings. Allowing our bodily life to lead the dance while our mind contemplating the absurdity of life opens up the possibility of meanings as a result of exploring such confrontations. In other words, we should not be subjugated by our weird inclination to be in harmony with ourselves which compels an enactment of fatal beliefs.

A typical act of eluding is hope. Hope in the afterlife that we deserve, or hope in a man-made ideal that transcends even life and its absurdity.

Camus argues that people who kill themselves because they think life is not worth living is acting out their inclination to be in harmony with themselves, which is unnecessary and emotional. A more logical mind presses on and ask the most important question: does the absurdity of life require one to escape it through hope or suicide?

In a related note, this reminds of something Jordan Peterson often quotes, that seems to point to a similar idea: “The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying. ” – Alfred North Whitehead.

He believes that we cannot know if there’s a logic to the point of death without dispassionately pursuing it in the sole light of evidence. Such is what Camus calls an absurd reasoning. The real effort is to stay in the abdication of your thoughts, instead of your life, when confronted with the absurdity. Stay in that space, and you can start to examine and analyze this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue.

[The Logic of Life] Why your boss is overpaid

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to read The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational world, I am but someone who tries to synthesize understanding from ideas presented in this book.

Continuing the previous post: [The Logic of Life] Why some workplaces are miserable

Some people seem to be rewarded based on luck

Another consequence of the tournament theory is that many people appear to be rewarded simply because they got lucky. This seems irrational, but again, perfectly rational under the context of tournaments. If the nature of work involves luck, then there must be a clear distinction between winners and losers. You wouldn’t spend much efforts on lottery because it’s 100% luck, but if the work was 60% luck and 40% efforts, then you would be motivated to work extra hard to get every inch of that 40%. However, this only applies if the reward is huge. If instead the reward isn’t much, and that luck is a large part of obtaining it, naturally no one would bother.

Tournament theory also demands that pay packages get higher and higher

At the bottom of the hierarchy, the pay package needs not to be too big, because it also provides an opportunity to climb up the ladder. But the closer you move to the top, the more practical incentives (read money) it would take you to motivate you. Things like influences and connections are less valuable, simply because you likely already are in possession of them.

Why your boss is overpaid

The tournament theory explains neatly why workplaces suck, because the application of this theory results in backstabbing behaviors and ostensibly nonsensical pay schemes. Your boss is one beneficiary of these pay schemes, and he gets paid a lot for what seems to be minimal dedication. However, it does make sense in a way: The more money your boss makes, and the less he seems to have to do with it, the more motivated you are to work hard to get to where he is.

“One of the creators of tournament theory, the economist Ed Lazear, has commented, “The salary of the vice president acts not so much as motivation for the vice president as it does as motivation for the assistant vice presidents.”

Excerpt From: Tim Harford. “The Logic of Life.” Apple Books.

CEO of Walt Disney brought home 800 million dollars over a period of 13 years. If we recall, the author of the book freakonomics worked harder because his reward is based on royalties. The publishers chose this method because it produces more revenue for them. Applying the same logic, the 800 million dollars would be well-spent money if it motivated the CEO to make more than 800 million dollars for the company.

However, giving one individual such a staggering amount of money in hopes that he would be capable of generating more than what is invested does not really make sense. 800 million dollars would have been better invested somewhere else.

If we look at this under the lens of tournament theory, then 800 million dollars doesn’t need to motivate the CEO to generate more than that. Instead it would only need to motivate the CEO would-be-replacements to work hard to generate more than 800 million dollars. And if you think about it, if all of the CEO’s underlings are in a tournament to get to the CEO position, and that the tournament is structured in a way that the outcome always generates revenue for the company, it would make sense to pay the CEO that much money, even if his job is to sit in the office watching porn all day.

This is a very interesting consequence of the tournament theory:

“In this view, CEOs have been removed from the productive flow. They are mere figureheads, more like the Queen, or the recipient of a lifetime achievement award than people who do anything important”

Excerpt From: Tim Harford. “The Logic of Life.” Apple Books.

How your boss is overpaid

Most of the huge CEO payments that you read about are almost always the result of stock options. Stock options simply are options to by shares at a fixed price, regardless fo the shares price on the market. In other words, I can make a lot of money when my stock options give me the options to by shares below the market’s price.

Stock options are highly sensitive to how well a company is doing. This is why CEOs usually get a lot of stock options, because they would feel more motivated to increase the value of stock options by increasing the value of the company.

In the mid-1980, CEOs back then were paid by a variant of ‘split-the-check’. A vivid example is imagining you go to eat dinner at a very fancy restaurant with a lot of people and in the end split the check equally. Rationally, you would try to order lobsters and all of the expensive drinks, because you would only burden a fraction of the total cost. The rest are burdened by everyone else. You can of course try to order something normal, but that behavior would not maximize your own well-being, which in this case your taste.

CEOs were paid by this ‘split-the-check’ check. For every million dollars of a shareholder wealth, a CEO made only 20 dollars in her bonus. Naturally, this means that our bosses used to be paid so little, such that they wouldn’t bother caring about how well the company is doing. They were severely underpaid.

The obvious solution to the ‘split-the-check’ problem is of course to let the CEO own all of the stocks in the company. To be precise, the solution is to encourage CEOs to try to get as much stocks in the company as possible, so that she would feel responsible for increasing the value of the company. The shareholders would only need to sell their shares at a reasonable price in order to motivate the CEOs to generate more values.

Why you are not overpaid

If this scheme encourages CEOs to generate more values, then wouldn’t it make sense to apply the same scheme to all of the employees ? If we let workers sign a contract that link their salary to the share price, then following the same logic it should motivate them to work harder.

This scheme, however, is not rational, because it exposes the workers to enormous risks before any incentives are perceived. If a worker owns 0.1% of a billion dollars company, then he is exposed to a ten million dollars risk, but he personally wouldn’t feel responsible for the values of the stock. This is because a cubicle slave does not contribute the same values, nor his failures cost as much. If a CEO dozes off in a billion-dollars meeting, then he loses ten million dollars for himself. But if a cubicle worker dozes off in his day job, he doesn’t lose anything.

Another reason why this scheme is applicable only CEOs is that, the tournament theory gives us a way to control and measure the performance of workers, which is through structuring a tournament where the winner gets to advance in his career and a huge amount of money, however the CEO has already won this tournament. Therefore his performance is very hard to measure, if the decisions a CEO have to make are easy and straightforward to measure/make, then we wouldn’t need CEOs in the first place.

So, because CEOs are capable of influencing the outcome (winning a billion dollars deal after a meeting), and that CEOs are sensitive to the incentives, it makes sense to link the CEO’s salary closely to the share price. In other words, give CEOs more stock options. This is why CEOs usually get such huge payouts, and why normal workers don’t get to have the stock options as CEOs do.

[The New Virtual Classroom] Learning in The New Virtual Classroom

Disclaimer: This is a result of my attempt to synthesize understanding from the book The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

Instructional modes, methods and architectures

When designing a virtual classroom, decisions about communication modes, instructional methods, and course architectures are what determine the learning effectiveness.

Communication mode is the choice of medium through which you transfer information: text, audio, graphic. In virtual classrooms, you can take full advantage of these delivery mediums.

Instructional method is the usage of communication modes within a learning environment in order to actively influence the the learners towards the absorption information & knowledge.

Instructional architecture guides the major components of the course. There are four prevalent architectures:

  • Receptive architecture: Contents are delivered in a mostly one-way communication style, usually contains no (or little) room for explicit interactions.
  • Directive architecture: Short lessons that provide only a small amount of information, followed by examples with corrective feedback. Usually the lessons teach steps to complete a procedure, and then the examples confirm the correct responses.
  • Guided discovery architecture: Problem-based lessons where a problem is presented and the learners collaboratively propose solutions. The premise is that learning occurs during problem solving.
  • Exploratory architecture: Learners decide what they want to learn and then draw from a (large) repository of information & knowledge on those topics. The internet is an example of this.

Working Memory and Long-Term Memory

Working memory usually can hold about 5 – 9 items, and is central to thoughts and processes during the learning activity. Long-term memory is like a repository. But the two complements each other.

The capacity for working memory to absorb information is predicated upon how much knowledge relevant to the learning topic is already in long-term memory. For a novice chess player, he sees about 24 pieces of information, but a master player sees about 8 to 10 chunk of information, because smaller pieces of information have been grouped together and represented as one pattern.

Experienced learners have more knowledge in long-term memory which increases their working memory capacity. In contrast, novice learners are often overwhelmed by new information, and thus require clear communication and architectures that minimize load on working memory

Harnessing the Learning Process

The instructional modes, methods and architectures are only meaningful when they are used to support some instructional events. An instructional event involves working memory, long-term memory and the exchange of information between them.

Some of the main instructional events:

Supporting attention: It is easy to multi-task during virtual classrooms as there are no immediate social pressures to focus. Therefore the instructors must help guiding the attention into learning by employing visuals which stimulate the learners’ minds. Another thing may be to keep a lively pace, (1 slide per 1.5 minutes for example)

Activating prior knowledge from long-term memory into working memory: Learning is a process of incorporating new information with relevant information from working memory. In order for this incorporation to take place, relevant information must be loaded into working memory. Instructors can provide a review of the learnt lesson before each new lesson.

Managing cognitive load: Because working memory is limited, it must be used to attain instructional goals, rather than spent on processing extraneous things. One way to manage cognitive load is to combine visual and verbal explanations to take advantage of visual and auditory centers in working memory. Providing mixed step-by-steps examples and practices are more preferred than providing only one example followed by practices, this is because solving a problem takes more cognitive load than reviewing and studying examples

Aiding construction of new mental models: When the working memory is freed, then it can be used to construct new mental models – which are structures stored in long-term memory that encode our knowledge and skills. Graphics and words is a good approach because we have two corresponding encoders. Examples and practices is another good approach because studying examples to do a practice helps build up mental models on how to do things.

Encouraging transfer of learning: Storing working memory into long-term memory is not sufficient for learning but the learners must also be able to retrieve relevant information when necessary. This is called transfer of learning. Contexts is a good thing to have in lessons. Contexts should be set-up to mimic the real-world settings, so that later on when the real-world settings present the retrieval of information have already been reinforced several times.

[The Logic of Life] Why some workplaces are miserable

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to read The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational world, I am but someone who tries to synthesize understanding from ideas presented in this book.

There are many problems in the office that make it a living hell: back-stabbing colleagues, bullying bosses and all sorts of seemingly irrational behaviors.

All of the problems stem from the same root. In a company, you’d need information about the employees: Who are talented, and who are hard-working, who are honest; in order to pay them accordingly. But these virtues are very hard to measure, which is why the absurdities often result from plans that attempt to sideway this problem.

Author of the freakonomic book

To see that this underlies the bad behaviors observed in the workplace, we can look at the workplace that lack such undesirable behaviors. The author of the book freakonomics – which caused a global phenomenon, were paid by royalties. The publisher could have convinced him that the book wouldn’t have done well and offered him a big upfront – yet negligible to the actual revenue of that book. This would cut the cost of operation – per se, for the publishers, but it wouldn’t be rational.

This is because no one wants to hire a writer who is not interested in the success of the book. If an advance was offered, then hard-working and creativity doesn’t serve as a mean to maximize economic well-being. As a result, most likely the author would produce an average book. This is not desirable for the publishers, because parts of the book’s revenue become theirs.

The book freakonomics went on to become a global phenomenon and sold over 2,000,000 copies. The author took home a lot of moneys, because he was paid based on the royalties. Maybe his ideas presented in the book are controversial, but his paycheck is not. There is no controversy or need for explanations about why he’s getting all this money.

Windshield installation/replacement company

The workers were paid an hourly wage, regardless of their performance. New managers came in and decided that the performance was slow. They wanted to speed things up. They also decided that the workers are rational, and would install more windshields if they get paid more to do so, and if they are made to work to redeem their mistakes, they would avoid making mistakes.

This scheme increased the performance of the workers by 50%. The first reason is that workers work harder. The second reason is that the most competent workers tend to stay with the company, while incompetent workers tend to drift away, which improves company’s performance overall. The quality increased and the number of reported mistakes fell.

Performance pay works if performance is straight-forward to measure

This is because in this case, performance is very straight-forward to measure, therefore a performance pay works. It gets more tricky in certain office jobs. For example, to measure the performance of an audit, we need to have another audit to take a look, but who’s gonna measure the one who measures ?

Poor Measurements can be easily manipulated

Even when attempts are made, manipulation tailored for these measurements is often easy. If you r job is to respond to customer’s complaints, and if your KPI is that no customers should wait longer than 10 days. You would ignore those who haven’t reached the 7, 8th day because it wouldn’t mean much to your KPI, and only prioritize ones that are near the deadline. As a result, the response time slows down on average.

So your managers propose a second KPI which is the response time must not be lower than some particular number. So this time you prioritize customers with easy-to-resolve complaints, and those with serious issues which would take time to investigate and respond would never get resolved. The average response time goes up though.

So a third KPI is introduced which is to both improve response time and resolving most critical issues. You of course can achieve this by working overtime. But working overtime means that the company must pay you more, so a fourth KPI which restricts the overtime comes into play.

As a result, you basically won’t do anything, and be a grunt. Therefore, sometimes it’s just hard to know who’s performing well on the job.

Some supermarket

But more often, we know who’s performing well on the job, but are unable to reward them. A certain supermarket was a subject of an economic experiment. The economists measured the performance of the cashiers through the number of ‘beep’ per second.

They wanted to know if workers are more productive when surrounded by productive colleagues. The answer is that, we do tend to be more productive when surrounded by productive colleagues only when the productive ones observe us. They note that performance went up when cashiers are being watched by more productive cashiers – by means of arranging the checkout aisles, and did not change when cashiers watch more productive cashiers.

This information could have been used to reward the more productive cashiers if the supermarket has switched to a piece rates model, where cashiers get rewarded by the number of pieces they check out. However, this plan was never put into motion, because the labor union resisted the piece rates, and because workers valued fixed hours more than flexible hours but higher salary. Another important reason is that measuring performance by the number of ‘beep’ indeed would have incentivized better performance, but at the cost of minimizing away variables like correctness of the scan, or the attitudes toward customers.

Objective performance measures are risky

Usually, managers know when people are lazy or productive, but such knowledge will not be put into an agreement or any documentation, except to be used in annual review, promotion and let-gos. As the saying goes: ‘You get what you measure’, measuring certain aspects of performance would encourage de-optimizing other factors. Some jobs are easy to see if they are well-done or not, but in other jobs not so straight-forward. For these jobs, the rational manager would look for a more ‘holistic’ approach.

Rationally, this means managers would base the decisions about what is good work like porn: They can’t define it, but they know it when they see it. This is quiet a sensible line of reasoning which would align well with what people see as well, just that it can’t be objectively explained.

However, this has a problem – which is that employees don’t trust managers who claim that they know what good work looks like but cannot explain why.

Solution – turn workplace into a tournament

The idea is to promise a million dollars reward to the most-outstanding employees. This builds trust with the employees because the program of rewarding the most-outstanding ones is official, and there is little room to escape the promise. By design, the managers don’t have to specify what ‘most-outstanding’ means. It’s just an idea floating around, it is what it is.

It is hard to measure objectively, but it’s relatively easier to compare one employee to another employee in terms of perceived performance. Perceptions are easy to be simplified, and unified among the employees regarding who’s better. The tournament is structured so that the managers can incentivized employees by promises of rewards, while keeping the options open.

However, it also explains the seemingly irrational behaviors

From an employee’s perspective, in order to be the outstanding one – there are two ways: To do a really good job, or to make other employees look bad in comparison. One study showed that more backstabbing behaviors were observed when the big raises are promise to the best workers. Backstabbing behaviors in this context are perfectly rational.

Some would say that tournaments fail to motivate workers. This is false, tournaments do encourage workers to be more productive, however it also encourages workers to make other workers look bad. Therefore, to realize a tournament, a manager would (only) need to calculate (informally) wether efforts of employees in improving his/her own performances would be more or less than efforts to denigrate other. It is a fairly realistic scheme.

[Person & Situation] Why is Social Influence so powerful ?

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to internalize the book Person and Situation, I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

Why are people’s attitudes and behaviors are influenced so much by other people even by whom they don’t know ?

Informational aspects of social influence

People around us are one of the best sources of information about the world. if some people tell me what looks like a cat is not a cat but is in fact a dog I would likely ignore then. But in matters that lack definitive answers, turning to other people’s opinions is rational because over the long haul the average of two people’s opinions is always more likely to be correct than just one person. People who do not take into account other’s opinions are deemed reckless and opinionated.

Disagreement with other people induces a state of distress that we have to resolve by either moving to their positions, moving them to our positions or to decide that they’re not a reliable source of information in this problem that we’re encountering. An interesting consequence of this conformity pressure is that not only majority opinions have effects on group opinions, minority opinions also do, especially if expressed consistently and confidently.

Normative basis for social influence

Another reason is that moving towards group goals demands a certain degree of unanimity between group members. If we disagree about goals and the methods, even in the understanding of what the relationships between them are, then collaboration is impossible. Thus groups tend to fight their deviates because deviates tend to block group movements. This acts as a moral force that makes us think twice before deviating from the group’s opinions to avoid distressing others.

Social influence as System of Tensions & Cognitive Dissonance

Groups should be considered as systems under constant tensions. On one hand there’s a force of group uniformity that demands everyone to get on the same ground. On the other hand individuals always have different information sources and ways to construe the world. Force of uniformity directs towards a static state in which everyone agrees, but because of personality differences there will always exist divergence. When this divergence becomes great enough in important issues, the group sometimes will have to socially reject the deviated members or subgroups.

Individuals may also be thought of systems under constant tensions. On one hand there exists pressures to move towards the group’s opinions, on another hand there exists pressures to maintain one’s view. This tension can be alleviated by moving the group’s opinions towards one’s views, opening one’s views to be influenced by the group’ views, or to reject the group as a standard for one’s own opinion. In the event that:

  • It seems improbable to move the group’s opinions towards one own’s view, and
  • The group is not informationally convincing enough, and
  • One is unwilling to reject the group.

Then we have a kind of tension in play called cognitive dissonance. This tension is usually resolved in favor of the group’s opinions, not as simple compromises but as adopting the group’s views and suppressing one’s own views. A well known example is in military where group members suppress their disbeliefs about a planned course of action, which prevent them from seeing alternatives that avoid catastrophic consequences. Likewise, in workplace cognitive dissonance may prevent useful directions from being explored because of short-sightedness of some of the more powerful figures.

[Beyond Boredom & Anxiety] Elements of Flow

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to read the book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

The concept of flow is widely known as the state of maximum performance of human’s capacity. Experts often describe this experience as producing intense enjoyment and productivity. Therefore it holds a unique position if we want to talk about how to escape boredom and anxiety, especially in the context of workplace where we often have to solve problems. The elements that constitute the flow state would give us insight on how to replicate these characteristics, and thus to induce this maximum performance experience.

The first characteristic is the merging of action and awareness. A person engaging in flow experience is aware of his actions, but not the awareness itself. For the flow experience to persist, one must not reflect on the fact that he is experiencing it. If one starts to snap back to reality and perceives himself outside of the activity, then flow is interrupted. Therefore, flow is hard to maintain for a long time without any momentary distractions.

For actions to merge with awareness to such an extend, the activity must be feasible. Flow seems to occur only for tasks that are within one’s ability to perform. If it was not, then one is unsure and questions his own actions, hence awareness would precede actions and they would seem discontinued.

The merging of the action and awareness is made possible due to a second characteristic of flow: A centering attention on a limited stimulus field. To ensure full concentration on the actions, unnecessary stimulus must be cut out, otherwise awareness about irrelevant things would creep in and we must sort them out, disrupting the flow experience.

In games, rules define the limited stimulus one must pay attention to, everything else is irrelevant. However, rules alone may not attract players. That’s why most games have motivational characteristics such as competition, or the possibility of material gain. Some activities require danger to centering your attention, and hence producing the flow state.

The third characteristic of flow is the loss of ego. When one becomes fully involved with the activity, “selfish” considerations fade away. A function of self is to mediate the integration of one’s actions with others which is crucial to social life. Flow activities, however, don’t require negotiation. Since there are freely accepted rules that the games are based on, the players don’t need to socialize to get along. Loss of self occurs because the participants need no self to bargain about what should or should not be done.

Another characteristic of flow experiences is that the person experiencing flow is in control of his actions and the environment. He has no active self awareness of control, but simply is not concerned by the possibility of lack of control. Only upon thinking back does he conclude that his skills were adequate to handle the situation.

Another quality of flow experiences is that it usually contains coherent rules with specified consequence of actions and no conflicting demands. If there are conflicting demands, we are back to the social games to analyze the individual needs for prioritization.

Finally, flow experiences appear to be autotelic – they need no external rewards to itself. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not to achieve peak experiences from the flow. There is no possible reason for climbing except climbing itself.

[The Logic of Life] Rationality is not always Intelligence

Disclaimer: This is my attempt to read The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational world, I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

John Kagel and Raymon Batalio were trying to figure out the degree to which animals exhibit intelligence. To prepare for the main experiment, they put lab rats into boxes that contain vending machines that serve different drinks and each has its own lever. The purpose is to get the rats to learn that within that particular setting they have the tools to satisfy their own thirst.

Then for the main experiment, they put rats into boxes that have a vending machine with two levers, each producing a different kind of beverage. One produces root beer – a drink that lab rats enjoy fairly delightfully, and one produces tonic water whose sour taste would displease the furry things.

For each session, the lab rats are given only a number of lever pushes, this can be called the budget, and each lever push releases a different amount of drink – the relative prices of your choices. These are the two variables that the experimenters control to observe the responses of the rats.

Now place yourself into that situation. You are thirsty as hell, then you see the only vending machine in this area you’re wandering. One lever produces something you like, but in less quantity, and one lever produces a drink that you dislike but in larger quantity. Of course, there’s a sign saying exactly how many lever pushes you can have a day. You’d have to come back the next day to this place to get water, because such apocalyptic setting is convenient. You will just most likely opt to satisfy your thirst with the disgusting tonic water, but also enjoy some of the fine root beer.

Now, suddenly the amount of tonic water, that thing you dislike, decreases ? In this case, you are responding to both your budget – the total number of level pushes you have, and the prices – the quantity of each type of liquid. The total consumption of liquid is essential to your survival, therefore you’d have to maximize for that objective, even at the cost of disregarding your own preferences. Since you still have the same number of lever pushes, it means that you would choose to press more for tonic water to achieve more overall liquid consumption.

This is perhaps the most concrete proof that Giffen Goods exist.

In economics and consumer theory, a Giffen good is a product that people consume more of as the price rises and vice versa—violating the basic law of demand in microeconomics

Wikipedia

And rats instinctively grasp this, as that was their exact responses. The point here is that, rationality is not necessarily equivalent to intelligence. Evolution seems to be favor rationality, or perhaps more precisely, rationality seems to be the natural problem solving method.

You make unconscious rational decisions all the time. Therefore the next time you make decisions that you later on regret, you’d better off thinking about the objectives you were maximizing. Chances are you would realize that your actions were rational with respect to accomplishing the things that you unconsciously wanted. That would yield better insights about your behaviors, rather than regrets or bitterness.

[Person and Situation] Inhibition of Bystander Intervention

Note: This is my attempt to read the book Person and Situation. I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

In 1960s, a girl was stabbed repeatedly by an assailant before more than 30 witnesses and no one helped her. It turns out that people ignoring cries for help is not a symptom of increased individual apathy but has something to do with the characteristics of the situation. In particular, they had been inhibited by the presence of other potential altruists and their apparent failure to intervene in the same situation.

Group situations can inhibit bystander intervention in two ways:

  • First and the more obvious way is the diffusion of responsibility caused by the presence of the bystanders. In other words, a bystander has no reason to bring on himself the burden of full responsibility of intervening which others are not willing to share.
  • Second, it makes the bystanders interpreting the situation differently when there are multiple bystanders. The lack of intervention by others my signify that intervention may be considered inappropriate or embarrassing. In other words, the presence of many bystanders change the way the situation is construed in terms of what the appropriate response may be.

It’s a vicious cycle where the initial presence of many bystanders make them less likely to come forward as an individual to intervene. And as this effect lasts long, it makes other bystanders who happen to walk by interpret the situation differently in a way that intervention is an inappropriate response because nobody else is doing it.

In fact, the victim is more likely to receive help when there is a lone bystander rather than when there are multiple. In a Columbia study, individuals working alone on a questionnaire and individuals working with confederates are led to believe that a female experimenter on the other side of the wall had a bad fall. Over 70% lone bystanders intervened, but only 7% of individuals sitting next to impassive confederates did.

So to summarize, next time you’re on the street and you’re in a situation where help is demanded, point to a particular person to ask for help, rather than crying out into the thin air. Another application which is more relevant to today’s world of social media, is to PM directly to someone and tell him/her your troubles, instead of posting a status talking about how you feel to your facebook wall.