Reuniting with Myself

Ben and I were reflecting on the life and work of Daniel Kahneman, noted in my last two posts, and whose death had been announced the day before. I related to Ben how Daniel Engber, in a lovely tribute, recalled Kahneman as "sweet, smart, and very strange."

"I'd take that," said Ben. I agreed.

Sweet, smart, strange. They're identity words. They don't give us any specific behaviors that would merit these words. Take smart. As much as I'd rather be characterized as smart over many other identifiers that have been used to characterize me, I don't have any idea what smart is.

I love that many British people will call me "brilliant" for putting a cup of tea in front of them. It doesn't go to my head, but I think it's sweet -- if a little strange to my American ear. I also like a common British way of calling something clever when Americans might say smart. Clever seems to characterize something one has actually done or devised, as opposed to smart which to me suggests an identity more than an accomplishment.

As admirable as I found Engbers' tribute to be, and I've shared it twice now in these posts, I find it interesting that Engber used three identity words to describe someone who would be the first to note these words cognitively prime us to generalize a perception of someone who warned against these kinds of generalizations. Lest you think I'm criticizing Engber, please read his essay to see how he embraces the paradox and holds the opposites.

Back to smart. It sounds like a compliment, but, as an identifier, it can be harmful. Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck discovered more than two dozen years ago, children praised for intelligence "displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort."

Further, "children praised for intelligence described it as a fixed trait more than children praised for hard work, who believed it to be subject to improvement."

Identifiers can allow us to affiliate. Two weeks ago during a stopover at an airport, I saw someone wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of the college I attended decades ago. I called him out and strangerness evaporated into affiliation. What's more, another person overheard us, identified himself as having attended a rival college; started razzing us in a friendly way that brought him also into affiliation.

And identifiers very often separate us. The identifier that brought three of us together, nonetheless kept the other people as strangers. Having a connection to the same school in widely different times and ways was as random a selection as the three of us sitting in the row of the plane upon boarding, yet the three of us as seatmates opened no conversation.

Staying with smart. An identifier not only can separate us from others, John Powell notes, these identifiers can separate us from ourselves. That's what happened to the children in Mueller and Dweck's study. If I'm engaging a task to learn something and struggle to learn it, I can persist, try a new strategy, seek help. I stay connected to myself and others. If my identity is "smart" and I have a setback, am I no longer smart? Now I have a threat to my identity. Being known as smart is now more important than learning something. Do I reject the task, cheat, hide my failure from anyone I can? Or do I create a new identity that is in opposition to smart? Maybe now I identify "smart" people as "nerds" or "weirdos."

Our brain likes identities because it doesn't have to work as hard. I'm in a crowded space with a group of strangers. I see Bates on a shirt, in my unconscious a switch shifts from stranger to neighbor. I let down my guard. I feel safe to initiate a conversation. Ben and I affiliate as weirdos. In my unconscious, a switch shifts from pretend to be normal to be authentic. I feel safe to use words like 'Bayesian."

Powell points me to the work of Susan Fiske, who found a powerful opposite. When a person presents as different enough from us, the part of our brain that lights when we see another human can fail to ignite. Our brain doesn't do the work of activating our conscience and allows us to treat them inhumanely.

The good news is this isn't a fixed state: it's subject to improvement. Powell calls it 'widening our circle of concern." If I look around and find the person who was invisible to me, or disgusted me, or made me uneasy, and imagine them wearing a Bates shirt, or imagine what their favorite food might be, my unconscious may shift the switch from stranger to neighbor.

It may not be easy. I may need to persist, try a new strategy, seek help. The work is worth it. I reduce my separation from others.

And I reduce my separation from myself.

Warm regards,

Francis Sopper

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