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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.
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The Human existence is fraught with many conundrums and dilemmas, the chief among them being how to live a good life and how to resolve the various contradictions in the service of that goal.
To start with, I noted in an earlier post that even infants are able to reason about the world and themselves and others using four cognitive frameworks: they see self and others as animals (biological reasoning system), as agents (psychological reasoning system) , as separated individuals (sociomoral reasoning system) and finally as impartial observers obeying physical laws(physical reasoning system). We as humans are all of these- both animals and individuals; agents and observers.
We also face significant challenges when thinking of ourselves in these domains; thinking of us as mere animals that will die one day brings existential dread of death and wants us to transcend that by asserting or cultural identities (see more here).
- Awareness: As an observer our primary role is to become aware. Aware of ourselves and aware of the world. Aware of our separateness from the world and the need to transcend that and become aware of us being a part of the world. There is a trade-off between being aware of one as separate and being aware of one as a part of the world. Mysticism or spirituality where one merges with the world is one thing that enters at this level.
- Being: As an animal our primary role is to just be…for as long as possible. Being authentic and true to our self is a prime motivator here as is the desire to transcend death and become a part of cultural milieu by playing adequately the role assigned to us by our culture. There is a dynamic tension between juts being ‘ourselves’ and fitting in to cultural expectations of norms and roles to be a good cultural animal. Culture enters the equation at this level.
- Choice: As an agent our primary role is to exercise choice. Being free to make choice is a keen motivator but so is the need to commit ourselves to certain values, certain moral principles that can justify our choices. Having certain moral values and principles means that we precommit to certain ways of acting and thus are not entirely free to make choices. There is a dynamic tension between freedom of choice and commitment to moral principles. Morality enters the equation in this stage.
- Doing: As an individual our primary role is to interact with others- to do somethings for or with others. Being proactive and self-propelled is a great motivator and we proactively interact with others for fulfilling our needs, but the awareness that they are sentient beings just like us means we start factoring in their needs and start responding and acting contingently. There is a dynamic tension between autonomous action by us and reciprocal action demanded by quid pro quo interactions. Our need to have needs to be balanced with our need to help and connect. Sociability enters the equation.
There is also tensions and interplay between these different functions: Being and Doing are sometimes contrasted and so is Choice and Awareness. Overall I find the above conceptualization very interesting and informing.
While we can never hope to resolve the human conundrums perfectly, being aware of them ids a first step towards successful resolution.
Roy Baumiester, has written about the four needs for meaning that all humans have and I find that a useful framework. He believes, and I concur, that all four needs need to be satisfied to a reasonable degree, if a person has to live well. Even if one need is thwarted, one would be forced to search for meaning in that part of his or her life.
These four needs are as follows:
- Need for purpose (self-concordance?): We need to interpret events that happen to us and around us as leading to some goals or fulfillment. We cannot be doing random stuff, nor random stuff can happen to us; everything has to have some purpose or meaning. We need to conceptualize ourselves as goal driven, either acting the way we are due to external goals or due to intrinsic fulfillment.
- Need for values and justification (self-righteousness?_: We need to justify our acts (and inaction) by resorting to moral values that guide what we do and what we don’t do. We simply cannot be seen as acting capriciously, in our own eyes, and need a moral yardstick to act and justify the act. We need some consistency of behavior and that consistency has to come from a good point- that as a moral person this is what I am and this is what I do.
- Need for (self) efficacy: We also need some control over our life and and need to believe that we can achieve our goals/fulfillment or realize our values. We need to believe that one can make a difference by one’s own actions. Even if we don’t have any real control, we need to have an illusory sense of control.
- Need for Self-worth: We need to feel good about ourselves; normally this is driven by a need to perceive one as superior to others due to either one’s achievements, attitudes or belonging to an elite social group. By one mean or another, we want to assert that we are worthy human beings, and possibly worthier that the average joe.
I would now extend this analysis of four needs for meaning and link it to the four major existential concerns. Existential concerns like death, when activated experimentally using say mortality salience paradigms, can lead to search for meaning.
So here is what I think the linkage looks like:
- Death: Existential reality of death reminds us that we are biological animals that will perish one day; however there is a strong drive to transcend death; as a result whenever concerns about death are activated, we search for methods to enhance self-worth and stick closer to our cultural worldview. Both of these results are widely supported by the terror management theory. From a biological animal we want to become a cultural animal that has self-worth.
- Isolation: Existential reality of being social individuals who are still never able to get under the skin of the Other, and the deep drive on the other hand to reach out, leads us to look for deep existential connections and relations with others perhaps the whole of humanity as our brothers and sisters. We need to believe that by our actions we can forge connections and create ripples of meaningful difference to others. From an isolated social individual we want to become a part of connected and related humanity and this we do by exercising our self-efficacy/ control.
- Freedom: Existential reality of being free to make choices without there being any adequate grounds for making a choice, and the deep desire to make meaningful and responsible choices leads us towards moral values and guidelines that can provide a yardstick on which to make choices. As willful agents, we do not want to make random choices and we also don’t want to be governed/ determined by external constraints/rewards and so the need arises to have an internal compass or moral guideline- choosing our values and then living life in accordance with that. From mere willful agents, we want to become moral and responsible agents.
- Meaning: Existential reality of living in world that is inherently meaningless, combined with a deep rooted desire to find meaning in everything we do, leads us to turn to purpose- we want to lead purposeful lives and expect the world to be a purposeful and meaningful place. We cannot just observe events dispassionately, we need to interpret and imbue them with meaning. From impartial objective observers of the world, we want to become meaning-making, actively-constructive observers.
It is my firm belief that until and unless one has confronted the existential realities full-on and come to grips with them, one would not be able to satisfactorily find the four meanings in life and would continue living an impoverished life.
The world may appear to be a ‘blooming, buzzing, confusion’ to infants, but within a few months infants are able to indulge in sophisticated cognition. They develop folk physical/astronomical theory, folk psychological theory, folk moral theory and folk biological theory, pretty rapidly.
This post is about those cognitive frameworks that infants develop and which more or less persist in adulthood.
It had been my contention, that Autistic children are predominantly governed by physicalist explanations and frameworks, while those prone to psychosis indulged more in mentalistic cognition. However, I recently came across the work of Renee Baillargeon and colleagues [pdf, pdf] that suggests that infants have four different types of cognitive frameworks.
- Physical reasoning system: Infants are able to reason about the world like little physicists, assuming objects and their permanence over time. Thus in a standard Violation of Expectation paradigm, they would look significantly longer at an event where object permanence is violated. They also assume continuity about the object even when it may be hidden from sight and reappear from behind a blind. Thus they are able to perceive the world in mechanistic terms.
- Psychological reasoning system: Infants are also able to reason about the other agents around them, that the agents have a mind of their own and have their wishes, preferences and desires. The infants apply the principle of rationality (consistency and efficiency etc) to the agents and are surprised if the agent behaves irrationally (is inconsistent in his choices or completes an action using inefficient means). The agents are believed to ave autonomous control over themselves and have mental states which make them act as they do. Even at a very young age, infants are able to infer this.
- Scoio-moral reasoning system: This sort of reasoning may seem similar to earlier psychological reasoning, but is different in important respects. Infants are able to reason about other individuals that interact with each other. These interacting individuals are governed by principles of reciprocity, loyalty to in-group, fairness etc and infants comprehend and apply these yardstick to interacting individuals and are surprised when these principles are not honored. For eg, they would be more likely to help a helper than a hinderer and would also expect other members to do the same.
- Biological reasoning system: This sort of reasoning is about there being certain entities that are a certain form of life viz animals. Animals or life-form is something which has innards or an internal source of energy and if you take the innards out of the animal , the animal stops functioning. Apart from being self-propelled and agentive, the condition that the animal has innards is very important for this system.
So what does this tell us about humans and the world? I believe this is further evidence that humans have four types of ways of looking out at the world: World in terms of its physical properties and constituents; World as constituting of conscious agents that have metal states that drive their behavior; world as constituting of intentional, interacting individuals that have their inner values and emotions; and finally world as constituting of biological animals that have their carnal grounding. No one way of looking at the world is perfect, The world is both matter and life and we are both minds and morals- it is the multiplicity of the world/ ourselves that makes it so rich and enticing!
Research Summaries: Can Adolescents Learn Self-control? Delay of Gratification in the Development of Control over Risk Taking
Today’s research summary is based on a paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, and examines the nature of self-control as assessed by risk-taking, sensation-seeking, future time perspective and delay of gratification in US adolescents.
- Adolescents are known to indulge in risk taking activities like recreational drug use and various theories abound as to why adolescence is a particularly sensitive time.
- As per one theory, there is a dopamine surge in reward centers of the brain during adolescence which leads to impulsive sensation seeking behavior. Traditionally, it is believed that the prefrontal cortex , which can override such impulsive behavior, does not mature in teenage and continues to mature till late thirties, and thus unable to self-regulate behavior in the teenage adequately.
- The above view posits that there is not much one can do about impulsive and risk taking behavior as the brain will take its own sweet time to mature; another view suggests that there are two independent processes involved in risk taking behavior- an underlying propensity to indulge in impulsive sensation seeking behavior (which can be considered as the accelerator moving one towards risk taking behavior) and an ability to delay gratification in service of long term goals (which can be considered as the brakes which moves one away from risk taking behaviors).
- Literature review suggests that sensation seeking is uncorrelated with delay of gratification and both may independently impact risk taking behavior. It was unclear from prior research if delay of gratification can be an effective brake even in adolescents who were very high on sensation seeking. Also future time perspective, or the tendency to think about future more than present, is related to reduced risk taking, but the effect may be mediated by ability to delay gratification (because that ability directly depends on an ability to visualize the future) .
- 900 US adolescents were administered a delay discounting task (choice between larger reward later and a smaller reward now) to ascertain their ability to delay gratification. Their sensation seeking and future time perspective was measured using self-report measures. Risk taking was again measured using self report about three risky behaviors viz cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and binge drinking.Structural equation modeling was used to determine the relation between all variables.
- As expected, sensation seeking in teens and delay of gratification were uncorrelated; delay of gratification predicted less risk taking behavior, future time perspective also predicted less risk taking behavior , but not over and beyond its impact on delay of gratification. Sensation seeking peaked around age 18 and then started decreasing; future time perspective kept increasing with age; and temporal discounting showed an upward trend with age.
- For teens that were high in sensation seeking, their temporal discounting increased with age more sharply. The authors explained this due to the fact that teens who were high in sensation seeking would indulge in more risky behavior and on getting negative feedback from environment on these behaviors will learn to self-regulate and increase delay of gratification.
- From this research it seems there are at least two routes to increase your temporal discounting muscle and hence reduce your risk taking behavior. The first approach is to become explicitly future focused and have a stronger future time perspective; the second approach is to explore, experiment and learn from your mistakes as your risk taking backfires. If done in a conducive environment, like graded driving tests, then this can lead to good outcomes.
I found the paper pretty interesting as it clearly dissociates the tow mechanisms that lead to risky behavior. If you found the above interesting, check out the paper here.
Every once in a while you stumble across a book that is very much relevant to your present circumstances and as if written with you in mind; The Grit Guide for Teens happens to be such a book that is proving really valuable to me in my current endeavor of championing positive education.
Some of you might know, that I am currently executing a long term positive education intervention in a school in Pune, which is structured around VIA character strengths. One of the strengths we are focusing on is Grit, the target audience is teenagers and this book has been God-send!
Along side Angela Duckowrth’s book, which I reviewed earlier, this book has been instrumental in designing activities and introspection exercises to which the teens can relate and embody in their daily lives.
The book is in the form of a workbook and is very well structured; each chapter contains multiple activities that draw the reader in and at the same time help build their grit muscles with a relentless focus on clarifying complex concepts without using any jargon.
Caren Baruch-Feldman, makes very novel and innovative contributions, while writing the workbook; she extends the concept of grit to emotional, social and wellness domains apart from the usual suspects of academic and extracurricular domains. When the teens think of being gritty, they usually think about achieving a goal that is either in academic domain (get better at math – I know this is not a SMART goal) or in extracurricular domain (become a good guitarist / get better at cricket) ; however Caren reminds us that grit can be shown in emotional domain (be good a controlling my anger), social domain ( overcome shyness to initiate and sustain connections) or in wellness domain (stick to an exercise regimen to become fit and healthy); these are all my examples, Caren embeds the different domains based references throughout the book, so that one has an idea of how grit can be accomplished and plays out in all five domains.
She is also a clinical psychologist with tons of experience with CBT/REBT and uses that to add additional nuance, when it comes to developing the right mindset for grit- growth mindset , the power of yet and optimistic mindset is conjoined with a focus on thinking traps and figuring out if the thought is real, useful, or something you will tell a friend if he or she was in the same situation? These are powerful tools, one is providing to the kids, and which will help them in good stead in the future.
Caren also makes it clear that if you really want to exhibit grit you have to develop the right mindset and then go forth and execute stuff (like do deliberate practice to hone your craft). There is also adequate coverage of strategies for remaining focused on your goal, by using things like Advantage cards and overcoming temptation by using strategies like situation selection, situation modification etc. She draws upon proven techniques from allied fields in psychology like self-control and habit-formation etc apart from a focus on increasing grit per se. That makes for a holistic package when it comes to ensuring success by the teen.
While I read it mostly from the point of developing activities and using the material with my school students, I could readily see how relate able it would be for the teens themselves and how they will be so much richer for having gone thorough the book and completed all the activities. If you have a teen and his or her school does not promote positive education, yet, then you ought to buy this for your teen; it will be money well spent.
The only lament I have, why don’t we have many more such books, directed towards teens, for each of the VIA strength!! Hope the publishers develop a series around VIA strengths- we do need such workbooks for teens! Here is wishing so much success to the book, that others get inspired and write about all the other strengths and tools that the teens also need desperately!