If we know how to cultivate intimacy, why don’t we?

Replication-gate continues, this time with a successful replication of Arthur Aron’s interpersonal closeness study: To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This.

The odd thing is that the author tried it, found it caused feelings of intimacy with a potential sexual partner, and now calls that love. Because Aron’s whole point was that our brains look for explanations of feelings of emotional arousal, and create narratives and meanings to fill the gaps. This is the classic error theory of emotions (although William James had a precursor) in the sense that it distinguishes the feeling (intimacy) from the cause and identifies moments of misattribution, moments when we have a feeling for one reason but attribute it to another.

Error theories are one of my favorite philosophical tricks, and this is no exception. But it raises some important question in this context. For instance:

“It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.”

I think it’s weird and awkward to demystify intimacy, but useful and illustrative, too. It seems at least one reason we don’t do this all the time is that this is a lot of intimacy to visit upon someone unawares. A lot of social niceties are about avoiding falling into love or best friendship with every single person, because you can’t afford to be in love or best friendship with everyone you meet! But thinking about it that way feels weird because of how stingy it is.

So in that sense it seems like we have a collective or social sense of the kinds of emotional errors we are prone to, and we have built politeness barriers–manners–to keep from being too easily fooled. But either this is an accidental side effect or these rules work best when we ignore that purpose. Either way, we’re better adapted to our social setting and conditions than the neo-Luddites* let on.

*(Autocorrect transforms “neo-Luddites” into “bro-Luddites” which kind of fits.)

Stories of Decline, Stasis, and Progress

Peter Levine asks, “Why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” in areas where objective measures suggest progress or growth:

You can care deeply about public education, civic education, teenagers’ behavior, or–if you must–gun rights, but there is no basis for arguing that these things are worse than they used to be. I am pretty sure that the argument from decline (argumentum ad declivem?) is a harmful fallacy … although I am not saying that it has become more common of late.

I think this is related to general problems with narratives and persuasion, but at the same time there’s something uniquely self-contradictory about decline arguments. In general, decline stories appear to act like narrative “stubs” or snowclones that short-circuit critical appraisal: the story helps us suspend our disbelief, priming us to expect a certain kind of Protestant framework where renewed effort can restore the lost Golden Age.

Perhaps, too, such narratives help to combat complacency. For instance, runners are taught to push hardest as the finish approaches, and we might look at various kinds of homeostatic cognitive phenomena like risk compensation (the Peltzmann effect) or hedonic adaptation. “We are winning: redouble your efforts!” isn’t quite so motivational as the cornered rats’ refrain: “We fight or we die!”

Levine resolutely refuses to conclude that this is a recent phenomenon (and it’s clearly not.) But if it were, then we might look for historical events that make such narratives particularly resonant. Might not fears of the loss of American empire, in the midst of economic turmoil, produce a general malaise that spills over into areas that are not similarly turbulent? Similarly, these stories might simply be particularly popular as the Baby Boomers reach retirement, since their economic and political ascendancy pressures our entire culture to dream nostalgically of their youth. Certainly I don’t hear many decline fables from the Millennial generation… yet.

Then, too, progress may appear as changes from the status quo that we cannot recognize as progress: civic knowledge skills are flat, but convention indicators of civic engagement and communal trust are down. This may be due to new forms of participation and new solidarities supplanting the older forms, which disrupts our indexes and measurements. Yet online social networks produce different ties than neighborhood associations. So is this progress, stasis, or decline?

Different metrics tell different stories. While Levine is obviously right that per-pupil spending in public education is much higher, outcomes are stagnating. We’re spending much more per student but those students are performing at almost the same level they did when spending was six times lower. At the same time, we educate a much larger group of immigrants and deal with many kinds of developmental disabilities that we once ignored or institutionalized. Is this progress, stasis, or decline?

The NRA’s complaint that gun ownership rights are eroding is the most absurd of these: a transparent effort to preserve motivation in the wake of a string of victories. But are they wrong to notice that the majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws and worry what that bodes for the future of their signature issue? I worry that a similar majority of Americans prefer to let religious employers opt-out of the insuring birth control, even though as a whole the Affordable Care Act is a major victory for women’s rights.

So is that progress, stasis, or decline? I recently learned that Mao didn’t think it was too early to judge the French Revolution: that was a different Chinese premier, speaking of the student movements in Paris in 1968 only three years earlier. Yet some stories are too good to give up on the basis of mere facts, so I echo Mao when I say: it’s too soon to tell.

Deciding Whether or Not to Tell a Story

When I was an undergraduate, I took a class called “Truth and Beauty” with the poet Ann Lauterbach. It was basically a class on reading and writing essays, but I took it because I was a philosophy major and I thought it would be about aesthetics, i.e. about whether judgments about beauty can be true or false. Every week we’d read a collection of essays and we would turn in a response essay of our own. We also met with Ann regularly to discuss our work, which was great because she had the kind of presence that made one-on-one encounters particularly powerful and instructive, like academic therapy.

During one of our sessions, I remember bemoaning the fact that my essays were all so analytical. I had read some of her poetry and I yearned for the kind of imaginative approach to language that I thought she had. (I really had no idea about poetry.) I can’t remember her exact response, but it was something like this:

Everybody has their own way of thinking, their own voice. You shouldn’t try to change the way you think, but rather work on improving it.

At the time, I found that inspiring. Here was a brilliant poet giving me permission (nay, charging me with the duty!) to dig deeper into the habits of thought and writing that were most comfortable for me. It was liberating. I’ve since come to realize that my style of thinking is much less strictly analytical and much more about exploring questions and the various possible ways of answering them. (Those links point to a couple of posts addressing different approaches to power and freedom.) But I’m glad I took Ann’s advice, because look where it got me: I got a PhD in philosophy, and I get to teach my favorite texts and questions for a living!

Now, here’s the question: why did I tell you that story?

Notice how my story works: it puts some pretty banal clichés into the mouth of a famous poet, but all she said was “be yourself.” I start by establishing her authority and gravitas, I introduce a problem via a distinction with an implicit hierarchy (analytic versus imaginative), and then the authority figure in my story teaches me a lesson that reverses the hierarchy: it’s okay to be analytic and nerdy! Then I pretend like this simple lesson is what got me to where I am today. Yay poets! Yay philosophy nerds!

But wait! Maybe my story is deceptive. Maybe, as Tyler Cowen said in his recent TEDx talk, stories have a tendency to paper over the messiness of real life:

Narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip [detail] way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Oh shit! Did I just make myself and my readers dumber? Did my little “A Man Learns a Lesson”-style story just get us all stoned on narrative inanities?

Cowen goes on to qualify this:

we use stories to make sense of what we’ve done, to give meaning to our lives, to establish connections with other people. None of this will go away, should go away, or can go away.

But, he explains, we should worry about stories more, and embrace the messiness of life more. But I wonder if he’s right? After all, Lauterbach told me I shouldn’t try to change the way I think, but rather get really good at the modes of thinking that I already prefer. Surely the same thing is true for people who love stories and think primarily in terms of stories?

So, here’s how I think about this question: Should we listen to Cowen or to Lauterbach? Why?

It seems to me that we should be suspicious of stories if we think that letting reality be messy is good for thinking clearly. The problem there is that we’re only likely to think that if we’ve had good experiences with other forms of analysis: plotting data or formalizing syllogisms. In that case, we’ll hear Cowen’s comments like I heard Lauterbach’s: “Be yourself! Those story-tellers are phonies, anyway.”

On the other hand, we might also want to dig deeper into stories and develop our critical thinking skills from within the narrative form: when is a story too neat? When is a narrator’s omniscience really pandering to the reader? What are the other stories we can tell about authors, about cultures, and about narrative manipulation that might help us to avoid the traps that narratives set for us? If we’ve already got a pretty good sense of the structure of stories, the kinds of things that narratives do and can do, we might prefer to dig deeper and hone this method. But still, the message is Lauterbach’s: “Don’t kick the poets out of the city! Poets can be wise, too!”

In this post, Lauterbach is going to stay the hero. But Cowen is a smart guy, and he tries to inoculate himself against this kind of criticism in the section on cognitive biases. Basically, he reminds us that people tend to misuse their knowledge of psychology through a kind of motivated reasoning that reproduces their earlier, ignorant biases but now with supposed expert certification. In this, as in most things “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” (But isn’t that what TED is for?) Then he reminds us of the epistemic portfolio theory, which holds that we’ll tend to balance our subjects of agnosticism, unpopular beliefs, and dogmatism in a rough equilibrium, so we ought to beware of the ways we abjure narratives in only some parts of our lives. (This is pretty much like ending his whole talk with the prankster’s “NOT!” Silly rationalists: truth-tracking and reason-responsiveness are myths we tell to children to hide the messy emotional facts of the matter.)

The passage in his talk where he typologizes the various narratives we’ll tell about the talk is also pretty funny: “I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories!” Yay economists! They’re smart and have all the bases covered. Hey wait: do you think that’s why he told us that story?

Two Theories of Wikileaks, or Just One?

So far as  I can tell, the news coverage of the latest diplomatic infodump breaks along a line orthogonal to ordinary US partisanship. Either:

1. There’s nothing new here, although the possibility of future exposure may hamper diplomatic efforts in the near term.


2. Secrecy is bad, here are some secrets.

Neither perspective is particular liberal or particularly conservative, so it’s dispute that entails odd bedfellows.

In a sense, we can say that these responses line up along the narratives supplied by Julian Assange, or those pushed by the US Government and its allies. But the interesting thing about this is that there’s no real conflict between the two narratives. It could be both the case that secrecy is bad, and the case that this particular set of secrets doesn’t include anything that wasn’t already public or that needed to be public.

My own allegiances are with the second camp in principle, but in practice, regarding the last two sets of leaks, I find the first camp more persuasive. The US has a number of interrelated overclassification problems: many things are secret that ought not to be secret. Worse, many things are classified secret that aren’t even actually secret. That is: much of the information in secret classified documents is also publicly available from other sources!

Another way of putting this is that there’s always a tension between transparency and privacy, and we can only champion a particular set of publications because they disclose information that ought to be transparent, not because they disclose something that ought to be private. (Thus witness the tension over exposing US collaborators and informants in the last infodump.)

In keeping with this, I propose the following standard of rigor on the dispute that needn’t be a dispute:

  • Proponents of the leaks ought to say what, specifically, they revealed that was not already known and needs further attention, and give principled reasons for preserving transparency for such information.
  • Opponents of the leaks ought to say what, specifically, the leaks revealed that shouldn’t have been revealed, and give principled reasons for preserving the secrecy of such information.

Of course, by demanding principled reasons and attention to specific facts, I’m basically siding against Wikileaks itself. I’m claiming that rights and duties are not generic enough to be purely pro-transparency or purely pro-secrecy, especially when we consider that privacy is predicated on a kind of secrecy that is always at odds with transparency. There’s no a priori answer to these questions, because the particular facts matter. Yet Wikileaks treats them as having been settled a priori, as if the only relevant fact can be summed up by a nursery rhyme:

“Secrets, secrets, they’re no fun!
Secrets, secrets, hurt someone.”

As such, I do not believe that Wikileaks has a principled reason for releasing each piece of data. That lack of principle is implicit in the way the infodumps are carried out, scattershot, without redaction. That’s what distinguishes Wikileaks from, for instance, the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. Yet because Wikileaks or something like it is unavoidable in the world we now inhabit, we ought to consider how to respond to it. Surely sharing its unprincipled relationship to data is not the answer. (If you disagree, could I have your credit card info please?)

Indeed, for a priori moralists, they seem to have missed the memo on self-consistency. In an amusing performative contradiction, the administrators of and contributors to Wikileaks (not to be confused with its public representative/lighting rod, Julian Assange) is itself quite secretive.