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Wednesday, January 30, 2008 -- 9:28 pm

I recently finished reading the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, which contained much food for thought that I'll probably only be able touch on briefly in the short term. The epilogue, in particular, posed the interesting question of whypower tends to corrupt. Although the author didn't frame things precisely this way, I got the impression that at least one working theory was that the corrupting influence of power sprang from an innate defect in our cognitive apparatus. Specifically, we will be inclined to assume and believe that those over whom we have exercised authority would not have acted appropriately without our leadership: we told them what to do, and therefore they needed to be told. This, the theory goes, seems to trigger a cascade of inferences that culminate in the leader being convinced that the followers are simply inferior beings who deserve to be exploited, just as the leader deserves appropriate compensation for protecting everyone from otherwise certain ruin.

This is interesting in its own right, of course, and I'd be curious to see whether psychologists or historians had managed to put it to the test. But the larger and more interesting issue is that our predisposition to immoral conduct -- original sin -- seems to be motivated in part by faulty reasoning processes. Have such errors of reason been definitively catalogued? And if not, why not? I've started my own list, of course, because it seems to me that a catalogue of these errors would be a superb introduction to the more bewildering aspects of human nature, and the somewhat sub-rational roots of human behavior. But a quick search online reveals that this is a budding field -- billed, of course, as error management. Yet another field I'll need to master.

Sunday, January 27, 2008 -- 8:25 am

I've begun to read a little about the Tibetan Buddhist meditative practice known as Shamatha, which concerns itself with training the mind for sustained periods of attention and concentration. There's plenty associated with the subject matter to be irritated about, of course. One point is how a book directed to a Western audience feels the need to emphasize the applicability of its techniques to modern, real-life problems: sleep deficits, attention deficit disorders, Big Bad Pharma, opportunities to excel professionally. The other is that it underscores precisely how much of a commodity our attention has become in the economy and in social circles. The media have tended, increasingly, to emphasize the shock value of news events, and otherwise to play up cuteness factors, fearmongering, titillation, violence, or humor, for no other reason than to get us to spend more time paying attention to their products, which enhances advertising revenues. This is all perfectly understandable, and market incentives encourage it; many professions in fact bill according to the amount of time spent paying attention to a client's problems. So it's not so much bad as inevitable.

In social circles, attention is also quite a hot commodity, and to my great discredit, I find that I'm somewhat stingy about sharing it. Time is so short, and capacity for mental exertion so limited, that I sometimes find myself feeling it's a bit presumptuous for people to impose on me by demanding that I spend time paying attention to their lives and their problems, or expecting me to read something because they happen to find it interesting or potentially beneficial to me. This is, of course, a stupid and foolish reaction on my part, because attention, like time and money, only really has value in being spent, and not paying attention means that important things aren't getting done, often with hurtful or downright disastrous consequences. In short, if you're unwilling pay attention, it's because you're selfish and you don't care. Arrogance and hypocrisy in such areas are seldom worthwhile in the long run (no one likes being ignored, after all), and it's an area I've been working on improving over the years.

There's also the related point, which I've probably harped on too much lately for it to be worth dwelling on again, that for all that people bemoan the shortening of modern attention spans (which, like bemoaning modernity's loose morals and sloppy speech, has probably been a popular topic of complaint for as long as we've had civilization), very few people actually devote much time to trying to reverse the trend in a constructive way, if that's even possible. Perhaps these Tibetan Buddhist methodologies are a way of doing so, but you'd think that if it were successful, and regarded as important, people would be more interested in incorporating it into our pedagogical system.

I'm not sure I have a larger point to make in all of this, at least not yet. I keep getting interrupted. But I do find it interesting that people so sorely resent not being given what they regard as proper attention, and that whether or not something is given attention has significant legal and ethical ramifications. On some level, we are defined by what we pay attention to, and a lot of the flattery and outrage cropping up in social and professional interactions seems to stem precisely from such assignments of identity and, by extension, importance. Which would seem to make an obscure-sounding Tibetan meditative practice rather sweeping in its effects and consequences.