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Saturday, January 26, 2008 -- 6:34 am

I've been reminded again, many times, in the past week just how many dysfunctional personalities we encounter in the course of ordinary business. I admit that things would get stale pretty quickly if we were all alike. At the same time, different personalities are better suited for tackling different kinds of problems -- the attitude and demeanor that are completely inappropriate in a professional office setting might be more successful in a war zone, and vice versa. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if a diversity of personalities, like diversity in the genetic pool and a multiplicity of immune responses -- was advantageous to the population as a whole, despite a bit of incidental unpleasantness, because the population as a whole would be prepared to confront unexpected adversity even if some of its individual members were not.

The problem with this approach, though, of excusing people for being obnoxious idiots on (optimistic) evolutionary grounds, is that it treats them like unthinking machines. Although it's certainly easier, in a cognitive sense, for someone to respond in the same way to every conceivable situation, that doesn't show much respect for their ability to accept new challenges and rise to the occasion. And the whole point of intelligence is that it means we don't need to be preprogrammed from birth or childhood to anticipate a certain problem, because we're equipped to change our behavior in response to it. Far better than a diverse population of which only a few are predestined to survive a challenge is a diverse population whose members can, each in their own way, adapt.

Of course, regardless of our potential, adaptation is something that people generally resist with startling ferocity after adolescence, and they cling to their habits of thought, habits of communication, work habits, and problem-solving strategies even more adamantly than they cling to their jobs in times of economic change, where they prefer short-sighted protectionism over retraining or job restructuring. On some level, this is perfectly understandable -- the unknown can be terrifying, and it's natural to question your ability to respond to situations you've never confronted before, and about which you have little or no information. Choosing to change your behavior -- including your personality -- is even more frightening, because on some level your entire identity is at stake. The fear of failure and humiliation is, in such cases, palpable. But people adapt to failure and humiliation (whose consequences are generally grossly overstated), too.

All of which leads me to wonder about a couple of things. If adapting our characters, habits, skills, and personalities to new situations is so essential to personal success and survival, why are most people so bad at it? Is adaptation a skill that could be inculcated in school? From what I see, it's currently not what's being taught. Instead, behavior is taught in school the way knowledge used to be taught, by rote, rather than by teaching students to approach their habits and responses with a critical eye. That, to me, sounds sloppy and ill-advised, and is certainly not the way to raise responsible and dynamic adults.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 -- 10:16 pm

Pascal commented -- in his thoughts for a systematic defense of Christianity, no less -- that our normal condition was one of boredom and anxiety. We seem, now as at some earlier times, to be living in one of those polarized religious eras where radicalized believers and anti-believers get most of the attention, and the calm (or perhaps apathetic) speakers who dominate other, more homogeneous eras are largely forgotten. But one contingent seems to have turned their religious excitement on an altogether different target -- the quasi-religious escapism of science fiction. Precisely where is Godzilla when you need him? Or a visit from extraterrestrials? Wouldn't that shake things up a bit, and perhaps postpone or obviate the need to confront the trying and tedious chores of daily life? I expect so.

This isn't to deprecate religion, although like all human institutions it can be corrupted or maladaptive in a bewildering number of ways. (Example: praying for victory before a football game.) I actually think that religion, if properly thought through and carried out, has a significant role to play in life, as I've hinted before and will probably elaborate at some point, and in general I'm quite as offended by the Bible-burners as by the Bible-thumpers. My point here is only that to the extent that people used to turn almost exclusively to religion for relief from boredom and anxiety (a corrupted or maladaptive use, in my view), they now seem to be finding other and additional outlets.

Sunday, January 20, 2008 -- 8:21 am

Having recently stumbled upon and received a general introduction to Erickson's theory of psychsocial stages, it appears to me that quite a large number of fully-grown and indeed middle-aged people I encounter in daily life have not yet passed into adulthood. Erickson apparently wrote about a "generational phase" that occurred in adulthood when you reach the point (and attain the maturity) to be willing and able to set aside your own, somewhat selfish interests for the benefit of others-- raising children, for example, or at any rate some form of social commitment or contribution that involves real sacrifice. This isn't to say that the people I'm referring to aren't procreating, or that they're procreating and happen to be poor parents -- those are private and complex decisions utterly beside the point, and in my ignorance and in the interest of avoiding controversy, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But I find it altogether startling that people I encounter and interact with on a daily basis seem unwilling or unable to look beyond the penumbra of their personal lives and preoccupations to assume any sort of initiative, or willingness to examine the long-term consequences of their actions on others, a form of irresponsibility (or at least neglect) rising to the level of passive malice. It's certainly consumed a lot of my time and attention of late, pondering its differing causes in different people (genuine ignorance? abject stupidity? willful and malicious blindness? a defense mechanism inspired by past mishaps?), venting, taking corrective action, debriefing the frustrated. This raises the side-issue of the truly vast effects of stupidity on the national economy, ranging from wastefulness and poor purchasing decisions in individual homes to the daily perversities in our nation's capital. But I am not qualified to make that estimate, and leave it to others. My point is that Erickson postulated his generational phase to be a nearly universal phenomenon, and it doesn't seem to be, at least if we take it to mean anything more than mechanical propagation of the species. And so the general critique of his theory that it more aptly describes a particular aspect of Western culture rather than a universal component of human nature needs to be strengthened somewhat: it doesn't seem to be all that pervasive in Western culture, either -- at least not these later phases. Come to think of it, if it were pervasive, wouldn't the world be a somewhat different place?