October 20, 2008

Those Five Days Matter More Than Anything, Except The Other Days

Guys, remember that time when you were 24 and you were on the subway, and you saw that girl  with the glasses reading a book wearing a black leather coat, and you were obsessing over whether to go up to her or not but then your stop came, and you were like, screw it, she'll probably mace me, so you got off and went to the library to study for your chem exam?

You chose wrong.

In the Atlantic appears First Person Plural, an article about the growing evidence that identity is more complex than a simple collection of traits and beliefs.

The view I'm interested in... accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control--bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.
Examples from the article include the hidden zero effect, in which choices are made differently depending on how far in the future are the payoffs.  We can't imagine well who we will be in that future, so we choose what is better for the person in the now.

Personality also changes according to situation; even the most thuggish teenager is not the same around his buddies as he is when having tea with Grandma.... In the 1920s, Yale psychologists tested more than 10,000 children, giving them a battery of aptitude tests and putting them in morally dicey situations, such as having an opportunity to cheat on a test. They found a striking lack of consistency. A child's propensity to cheat at sports, for instance, had little to do with whether he or she would lie to a teacher.

With rare exception (of personality structure), who we are has a lot to do with what's going on at that moment.  Hence the Nausea-- the feeling when you understand that there is no "you"-- at any moment you can decide to do or be anything.  You didn't murder that guy because you're not a murderer.  You didn't murder him because, well, it didn't come up.


Yet there are an abundance of studies showing character traits are inherited; that behaviors are often predictable; and our own daily experience that there is at least a common thread to our identity.  What of that?

Bad faith.  It appears there's a commonality because, simply, we are not tested.  But, more accurately, one is never tested; only parts of his identity are tested at a time.  That's why the loving family man who then becomes a Nazi is still a loving family man-- that part was never strained.  He is a good person and a bad person.  Multiple selves.

The question is not whether traits are heritable-- they are-- the question is what self you are going to let dominate.


Here's an example, from Barron's:

But such gloomy sentiments aren't a reason to get out of the stock market... Consider that $1 invested in stocks from February 1966 through May 2007 would have grown to $16.58 in that period. That's a 7% annual return.
Awesome, and by awesome I mean what a complete waste of one's life.

Somehow people demote investment income over any other kind of income.  It's important to go to work every day, or clip a coupon, but it is nigh impossible to people to open a Roth.  The money, I guess, doesn't seem real. 

That's money; but if I grabbed the average teenager and told him his life and happiness would grow at 7% a year, he'd probably kill himself.  7% to the young is basically telling them not to even bother.  To be young means you still have hope, that your energy and talents will eventually payoff, in a big way.  The difference between a mature adolescent and an immature adolescent is not their expectation of massive success-- they both think they're going to rule the world-- but how they see it happening.  Mature kids see a steady climb to awesomeness; immature kids see it happening one day, all at once, at some arbitrary point in the future.  I know this because I see them in Starbucks, laptops open, staring out the window.  I was one of those kids, too.

7% a year financial growth isn't good, it's a pacifier, a hoax (it serves, therefore, the same social function as psychiatry.)  Furthermore, it can be wiped out in one week.  If you bought and held over the past ten years, you made nothing.  It was all a waste.  Don't believe me? Go ask a retiree.

And you shouldn't accept 7% growth in your life, either.  Every day must be a struggle for self-improvement in the service of improvement of the world.

Well, it turns out it is much worse than all that.  Barron's again:

By contrast, investors who were out of the market in the five best days each year during that span were left with only 11 cents.
The implications for money management are obvious, but for life they're nauseating:  if you take out the five most significant days of each year, then you are basically a completely different person.  By money analogy, taking out those five best days made you massively worse off.  You would have been better off not even going through the year.  Studying for the chem exam always seems like a good idea, but there's an opportunity cost.  And you have to measure that opportunity in real time, because in retrospect it will be too late.

The old generally think themselves exempt from this, but they are not; a day can alter their entire existence and legacy.  November 4 will change how we remember John McCain forever.  Nothing beside remains.

Who you are is a product of your experience, and also a product of the experiences you did not have.  You didn't talk to that girl, now that's part of you-- you are the guy who was too scared/angry/self-absorbed/whatever to talk to her, and that is an entirely different guy then the guy who does talk to her and it works; and an entirely different guy from the one who gets maced.  That was one of the most important days of your life, and you didn't even know it.  Which brings me to the real point: every day is the most important day of your life, and you don't even know it.

there are worse things than
being Alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it's too late
and there's nothing worse
too late.
-- Charles Bukowski


A good post. Something to g... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 11:14 AM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

A good post. Something to get us all thinking. I will have to look for this Atlantic article - they run some great articles. In 2006, they ran a great article on pharma reps. The article was called "the drug pushers." April 2006 Atlantic.

The concept of identity, or personality, is difficult to understand. The issue of behavior being different as a function of circumstance, or setting, as opposed to traits, is important to consider.

The one profound bit of lit that pointed this out to me was Elliot Aronson's book, The Social Animal. Many of us had this book prescribed as part of some course, along the way. It is good to take a look back at it. for me, Aronson profoundly leaves you with the undeniable evidence that our behavior is largely a function of circumstances, largely social circumstances. Plus, I would add, a little bit of "personality" (traits, etc.) thrown in for a bit more predictive power. Aronson's book is very readable. He reviews the degree that social context dictates behavior for normal, everyday people. This depends on a review of the research by Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, and Solomon Asch. Others also, but these are the ones I really remember.

I don't know a lot about Asch himself, but I believe both Milgram and Zimbardo were astonished by the degree of cooperation that the Hitler regime achieved throughout all levels of society. They sought to understand how normal people could be complicit in Hitler's atrocities.

I believe these lines of research do give the answer: our behavior is largely determined by social circumstances, not these traits. You can better predict someone's behavior by knowing the setting, rather than having their Rorschach results, their Myers-Briggs profile, a decent assessment of their preferred defense mechanisms, or their NEO-PI profile.

If you are a clinician it is good to be aware of this stuff, because it helps you realize how much interpersonal power you probably have over clients. This helps explain a phenomenon that I believe is very common: most people are anti-meds for psych issues, but when individuals and families end up in the doctor's office, the power of the social circumstances leads them to agree to try the meds, against their "trait" of being anti-psych med.

To see this happen roght before your eyes, watch the PBS "frontline" show on child/adol psych meds, "the medicated child." Online, at part six, you see parents decide to tell teir doc, at the upcoming med review appt, they want to reduce their child's meds. The situation gets totally turned around, and they leave with - guess what - an INCREASE in meds. To see this happen, just watch. That is the power of the social circumstance, despite anyone's personality characteristics or traits.

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Aldouus Huxley wrote: "Sinc... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 12:00 PM | Posted by Ivo Quartiroli: | Reply

Aldouus Huxley wrote: "Since human craving can never be satisfied except by the unitive knowledge of God and since the mind-body is capable of an enormous variety of experiences, we are free to identify ourselves with an almost infinite number of possible objects - with the pleasures of gluttony, for example, or intemperance, or sensuality; with money, power or fame; with our family, regarded as a possession or actually an extension and projection of our own selfness; with our goods and chattels, our hobbies, our collections; with our artistic or scientific talents; with same favourite branch of knowledge, some fascinating "special subject"; with our professions, our political parties, our churches; with our pains and illnesses; with our memories of success or misfortune, our hopes, fears and schemes for the future; and finally with the eternal Reality within which and by which all the rest has its being. And we are free, of course, to identify ourselves with more than one of these things simultaneously or in succession. Hence the quite astonishingly improbable combination of traits making up a complex personality. Thus a man can be at once the craftiest of politicians and the dupe of his own verbiage, can have a passion for brandy and money, and an equal passion for the poetry of George Meredith and under-age girls and his mother, for horse-racing and detective stories and the good of his country - the whole accompanied by a sneaking fear of hell-fire, a hatred of Spinoza and an unblemished record for Sunday church-going."

We are "many", no doubt, but at the same time we are nobody as every enlightened being can tell us. Accepting our being "many" is a way to be nobody thus... everything. That can be more appealing than the stock market.

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You are sooooo bad for my D... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 1:28 PM | Posted by xon: | Reply

You are sooooo bad for my Daily Me. . .


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Sometimes I get nauseated w... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 3:18 PM | Posted by JC: | Reply

Sometimes I get nauseated when I hear the refrain that traits are heritable. First of all, there is no serious basic science research that supports that assertion despite what the psychiatric and behaviroal geneticists tell us in the Science section of The New York Times. Even one "trait" is often too broad a "phenotype" to pin to one or even a number of genes. Otherwise, I agree. Thanks for a great post.

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Hmmmmm. So we all have Diss... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 3:44 PM | Posted by marcia: | Reply

Hmmmmm. So we all have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

(Actually, I haven't finished reading the article; that just occurred to me after the first few paragraphs)

Back to reading...

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Might it be fair to presume... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 3:56 PM | Posted by therestless: | Reply

Might it be fair to presume that 'traits are heritable' may just be habit combined with a consistent social norm to follow? This might actually be all the influence that parenting grants aside from some biological imperitives.

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Men seldom make pa... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 6:26 PM | Posted by demodenise: | Reply

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."
--Dorothy Parker

And here I was thinking all this time that guys just had a profound distaste for brainy, book-reading girls with a fondness for leather. . .I may have to rethink my entire understanding of myself. For the fifth time today.

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During an acid trip from my... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 7:07 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

During an acid trip from my youth I saw myself as a collection of individuals. Each a version of myself that represented a trait or a part of my identity. At times they are in conflict because each "individual" within an individual has it's own desires, goals, and tendencies.

Interesting post, just thought I'd share that view that I've held for many years since this is the first time I've ever seen someone describe it.

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Hesse's Steppenwolf</em... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 9:34 PM | Posted by Per Jørgensen: | Reply

Hesse's Steppenwolf.

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Look at it this way: there'... (Below threshold)

October 20, 2008 9:39 PM | Posted, in reply to JC's comment, by Marian : | Reply

Look at it this way: there's not only genetic heredity. There also is non-genetic familiar heredity. BTW: I get nauseated too, when it comes to personality/character traits or behavior allegedly being genetically predetermined.

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"Mature kids see a steady c... (Below threshold)

October 21, 2008 12:46 AM | Posted by CC: | Reply

"Mature kids see a steady climb to awesomeness; immature kids see it happening one day, all at once, at some arbitrary point in the future. I know this because I see them in Starbucks, laptops open, staring out the window. I was one of those kids, too."

What about rites of passage and the lack of them in current modern western, and US, culture? Those rites, it seems to me, served a purpose of telling the young adults, essentially, "Hey, wake up. Something fairly awesome has already happened to you. You have achieved a certain level of awesomeness. [And to spell our some of your point.] Big deal yes, but, on the other hand, not such a big deal: it's just an awesome natural process. Nothing more will just happen to you in terms of naturally acquiring awesomeness. All subsequent awesomeness will have to be earned."

Another purpose or effect of those rites would seem to be to change the way the parents view and treat the nascent adults --to be a rite of passage for the parents too; allowing them to let go.

Perhaps the immature get stuck on this stupid fantasy of IT happening all at once because they're not convinced anything ever actually happened between childhood and supposed adulthood in the first place. Nothing much seemed to have changed. No rite of passage; no marker; no changes in behavior or treatment from the rest of the world = why change?

You ever see the movie "The Story of the Weeping Camel"?

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My other thought, provoked ... (Below threshold)

October 21, 2008 9:21 AM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

My other thought, provoked by this issue: when people do not adapt and flex to circumstances, but behave as they would regardless of these circumstances, they will "stick out." We will diagnose them as having a personality disorder. So, one way of thinking about a pers d/o is that the personality is not rich enough or flexible enough or adaptive enough to flex in order to accomodate circumstances.

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"That's why the loving fami... (Below threshold)

October 21, 2008 10:52 AM | Posted by AK: | Reply

"That's why the loving family man who then becomes a Nazi is still a loving family man-- that part was never strained. He is a good person and a bad person. Multiple selves."

Robert J. Lifton was able to interview a group of physicians who participated/perpetrated the Nazi 'experiments'.

He described a dissociative phenomenon termed 'doubling.'

However, Lifton identified important features of the social context, the setting.

1) There was a prevailing social ideology that viciously dehumanized Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, reducing them to the level of both evil agents of contagion and vermin. So there was, via this ideology, pervasive permission/encouragement to numb oneself to the humanity of those victimized.

2) Lifton's interviewees described how horrified they felt when they first entired the settings of the hospitals or concentration camps where people were murdered through euthanasia or tortured via medical experimentation.

But after *remaining in that ghastly setting for a long enough period* horror and shock were replaced by emotional numbing, acceptance of, and eventually acquiescent participation in the horror as an agent.

I think Lifton's subjects told him that it took anywhere from a couple of hours to at most a couple of weeks, for horror and dismay to be replaced by acceptance and active participation as a perpetrator.

That is why it is hazarous to remain in evil company for too long. All too often there are ideologies that rationalize dismay and compassion as evidence of weakness, which was certainly the case during the Nazi era.

The tough question is how, as we are social animals, do we each figure out when to stay in a bad sitaution and when to remove ourselves and trust in our shock and dismay that something is indeed bad for us and that we must get out...immediately.

So yes, setting has a lot to do with it.

Note: Lifton commented that doubling can be pro-social. Emergency room personnel, paramedics, police, have to adjust to situations and be able to function in circumstances that would cause the average person to panic and shut down.

But they have to be able to turn this off when going home.

A prison guard told me that he needed an hour to adjust to homelife after leaving the prison. He had to be hypervigilent all day long as a guard, beware of allowing his human kindness to be exploited and turned against him.

'When you are that wary all day long,' he told me, 'you cant just turn it off like a light switch, go home and be instantly available to your family. You have to make an adjustment first.'

He was planning to get out of that line of work--long term he feared he would be damaged if he didnt get into another occupation.

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Fascinating topic. It seem... (Below threshold)

October 21, 2008 1:13 PM | Posted by Novalis: | Reply

Fascinating topic. It seems to me that we tend to exaggerate the narrative unity of the self for a couple of reasons. One is evolutionary biology--in order for society to function, individuals have to be at least somewhat predictable, that is, there must be some degree of inertia to identity. And even if we aren't so unified, we are motivated to pretend that we are in order to earn the trust of others. Also, when we go about trying to decide what to do, how to live, we need at least a somewhat coherent construct of personal identity to generate criteria for making life choices.


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You just gave me clarity ab... (Below threshold)

October 21, 2008 10:17 PM | Posted by Alex: | Reply

You just gave me clarity about what I was already feeling but couldn't quite grasp. Thanks, brilliant post!

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Black leather bound book on... (Below threshold)

October 23, 2008 5:39 AM | Posted by huey: | Reply

Black leather bound book on the subway? The lass is crying out for a chat!...or going to church

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No one takes a look at an i... (Below threshold)

November 26, 2008 12:04 AM | Posted, in reply to Marian 's comment, by shrinkology: | Reply

No one takes a look at an individual and then claims that his personality traits are genetically determined because they resemble his parents'. Heritability estimates are calculated by analyzing the difference between the degree of resemblance between identical and non-identical twins. Granted, this approach has its own problems, which can be countered by highly expensive adopted twin studies. Plus, no credible psychiatric geneticist claims that a personality trait is "pre-determined" by genetic factors. Heritability simply explains the amount of variance in these so called personality traits that can be attributed to genetic factors.

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Also...my beloved prophet f... (Below threshold)

November 26, 2008 1:38 AM | Posted by shrinkology: | Reply

Also...my beloved prophet first says:

"Hence the Nausea-- the feeling when you understand that there is no "you"-- at any moment you can decide to do or be anything." (emphasis mine)


"The question is not whether traits are heritable-- they are-- the question is what self you are going to let dominate. (emphasis mine)

Now, I think this is a rather hilarious example of a brilliant thinker's succumbing to so-called Cartesian Dualism, which is almost essential for those of us who can't let go of the illusion of free will. It is somewhat seductive to think that there is an "I" that is like the "CEO" of our brains (those who believe a mind can exist without a brain should skip reading this comment) and this "I" can pick and choose from all these traits and let one dominate others.

Well, it can't. Simply put, the "I" or "you" does not exist. There is no evidence that there is a central controller in the brain. What you call "I" at a given moment is a mental state (that may include the highly edited recollections of past mental states) that is determined by numerous neural networks whose operations are largely kept below the conscious level.

A so-called "personality trait" is simply the probability for a human being to display certain behaviors or preferences under given conditions (i.e. the subject exhibits "antisocial behavior" according to his score on the ASP2 subscale of the MMPI). We only care about these traits because they help us to predict future behavior. "Future behavior," that is medically, legally, or economically relevant (actually, I didn't even need to add medical or legal, because these systems owe their existence to their economical significance). We don't care about defining and studying a "personality trait" about a person's propensity to enjoy Brahms more than Chopin because this propensity, which is present in certain individuals (i.e. "yours truly"), albeit without any real medical, legal or economic significance.

Needless to say, some of these personality constructs overlap with some of our DSM-IV disease constructs as well. These measurements sometimes correlate with certain biological constructs (i.e. "low CSF 5-HT level", "BDNF met allele", "reduced blood flow to anterior cingulate"), which is when psychiatrists like me get all excited and feel as if we are finally "beginning to understand the neurobiological basis of mental illness." WE UNDERSTAND NOTHING. We use these correlations between certain (also somewhat artifical) biological constructs and our psychological/psychiatric constructs to lend credibility to the latter. However, clinicians themselves do not take these psychological constructs very seriously, either! When was the last time you saw a psychiatrist who refused to make a major depressive disorder diagnosis because her patient had only 4 out of 9 criteria for depression in the DSM; worse, yet, how many of these so-called "Bipolar" patients do you think really had at least one real manic episode in the past? We are worse than shamans, because we are abusing science to sustain the illusion that we really know what we are doing, when we clearly don't. We just know how to pretend.

But I digress... and I digress too much. Going back to my beloved "prophet's" claim that there is a "you" who can choose a "personality trait" and activate it at will: Well, buddy, you just can't do that. Because there is no "you." Really, not.

All you have is an organism who is prone to think certain thoughts, feel certain emotions, make certain decisions, and perform certain motor acts under certain circumstances. These thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions are created by your neural circuits, which have been shaped by your genes and the environment. There is no soul. No free will. No choice. These are successful illusions that human beings invented to avoid feeling depressed (and thus being less motivated to acquire resources necessary for reproduction) that may come with comprehending the material nature of our existence. Accept this and move on.

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It's interesting that we s... (Below threshold)

May 8, 2009 8:42 AM | Posted by Mark Tyrrell : | Reply

It's interesting that we so often like to think of our villains as 'bad' and 'heroes' as 'good' a kind of adolescent all or nothing thinking. Of course the same person/country/organisation can be villain or hero or neither depending on context etc.

Robert Ornstein's book 'Multimind: A New Way of Looking at Human Behavior' talks about this both as an ancient understanding and as something so often misunderstood in modern thought.

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Different people in the wor... (Below threshold)

August 16, 2011 8:16 AM | Posted by Mullen33Celeste: | Reply

Different people in the world get the loans in different creditors, because this is fast and easy.

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move on with what?... (Below threshold)

June 8, 2013 11:46 PM | Posted, in reply to shrinkology's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

move on with what?

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I get the main point of the... (Below threshold)

July 3, 2013 12:57 PM | Posted by EJ: | Reply

I get the main point of the article, but disagree with Alone's statement that "you shouldn't accept 7% growth in your life," or that the young won't accept for their life and happiness to grow at this rate per year. I am a teenager, and if this was the return, I would take it with no question.

Because, Xn = X(1.07^y), where X is the happiness and life status at the beginning, y represents years elapsed since X, and Xn is the current life happiness and status. After ten years, happiness almost doubles. After that the rate of increase is even more rapid.

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Did you figure in inflation... (Below threshold)

December 11, 2013 11:23 PM | Posted, in reply to EJ's comment, by seymourblogger: | Reply

Did you figure in inflation?

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That was one of th... (Below threshold)

December 15, 2013 12:52 AM | Posted by jonny: | Reply

That was one of the most important days of your life, and you didn't even know it.

It was more important for her. And she did nothing. That she did nothing suggests it can't have been a very important day for me.

Which brings me to the real point: every day is the most important day of your life, and you don't even know it.

In a world where she hasn't been reduced into a deceit-obsessed liability without agency and imbibed with delusions of entitlement and denial of objective reality, that may well be true.

In this world, every day is an unimportant as every other day has been. There were a great many that appeared otherwise but alas, we live in a world of illusion screaming for urgent deactivation.

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Every day must be a stru... (Below threshold)

April 13, 2015 9:49 AM | Posted by Curio: | Reply

Every day must be a struggle for self-improvement in the service of improvement of the world.

Deep down, Alone is a moralist.

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