Marriage As A Status Symbol

From, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, a description of the cultural shift in attitudes toward marriage. Also reminiscent of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance:

Most theories about the decline of marriage start with the impact of structural changes to the economy. The most important of these—the movement of women in the workforce—undid the equilibrium of the male breadwinner/female homemaker template for marriage that had prevailed since the industrial era. At the same time, the development of a postindustrial, knowledge-based economy has diminished the job prospects and earning power of less-educated men, creating a “marriage market mismatch” at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. In the new marriage marketplace, fewer women have that need, and fewer men can cater to it.

Other theories focus on the more intimate realms of marriage. Until not too long ago, marriage was the only socially and morally acceptable gateway to sexual partnerships. The introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960s helped to pry much of this regulatory authority over sex away from marriage. Adultery remians a taboo, but in an era of “friends with benefits,” sex among unmarried or never-married adults carries little if any stigma. This has complicated the case for marriage—and not just because sexual desires can now be respectably accommodated without lifetime commitments, but also because it has increased the demand on marriage to provide something even more precious than sex. More so than ever, people want a spouse to be their lifelong companion, emotional soul mate, partner in the journey toward self-fulfillment. Marriage, in a word, is supposed to be built on love.

But as social historian Stephanie Coontz has observed, love may be the undoing of marriage. At the very least, it has injected an unstable element into the suddenly fragile heart of an age-old institution. For most of its 5,000-year history, marriage had little to do with love. Across cultures and centuries, it thrived as a way to propagate the species; establish people’s place in the social and economic order; acquire in-laws; organize productive activity along gender lines; extract labor from the young; and distribute resources from parents to children. Only in the eighteenth century, with the spread of market economies and the Enlightenment, did love and mutual self-fulfillment start to enter into marital bargain. Today, arguably, they’re the dominant part. But love is fickle and self-fulfillment a high bar. Can an institution built on love be as durable as one built on the stouter stuff of economic self-interest? As a society, we’re conducting that experiment right now. So far, the answer appears to be no.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent a congratulatory letter to some newlyweds of his acquaintance. It contained an aphorism about marriage that reflected an old-fashioned view of the institution. “it is not your love that sustains the marriage,” he wrote, “but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Today one would be hard-pressed to find that sentiment expressed anywhere in Western literature or culture. “If you were to write the same letter to newlyweds now, I don’t think they’d have a clue what you were talking about,” said David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank whose mission, among others, is to try to restore what he calls the “fractured” institution of marriage.

Other groups have also taken up that challenge, but their contributions so far have been mainly in the realm of diagnosis, not cure. A 2013 research paper, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage,” did a wonderful job showing how young adults view marriage as a “capstone” rather than a “cornerstone” arrangement—“something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.” Given this new cultural framework for marriage, it’s no surprise that it’s the high-achieving young adults who are most likely to get hitched. “Marriage has become a status symbol,” writes Cherlin, “a highly regarded marker of a successful personal life…Something young adults do after they and their live-in partners have good jobs and a nice apartment.” He noted that in 2012, according to a study by Brides magazine, 36% of newlyweds paid the entire cost of their wedding receptions, and an additional 26% contributed to the cost.

The Basics of American Demography

From Paul Taylor’s interesting book on demography, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, on how demographers divvy up the population:

As a branch of demography, generational analysis has always been a bit of a stepchild. It rests on the premise that members of the same generation experience the same historical events at roughly the same stage of their life cycle, and as a result share what might loosely be called a generational persona, one that’s also shaped by (and a reaction to) the persona of their parents’ generation. In the early twentieth century, Hungarian-born sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote a seminal essay that helped to legitimize generational analysis as a scholarly pursuit. In modern times, American historians Neil Howe and William Strauss expanded on Mannheim’s theories by compressing 500 years of Anglo-Saxon history into an overarching generational frame. In their schema, four archetypal generational personas (idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive) recur in repeating 80-year cycles, with each holding sway for about 20 years before yielding to its successor. They categorize Millennials—America’s 14th generation—as civic; Xers as reactive; Boomers as idealistic; and Silents as adaptive. Their work has been popular in part because it helps employers and educators anticipate and plan for the distinctive characteristics of their future workers and students. But it has also attracted critics who find it too rigid and formulaic.

As long as one acknowledges the obvious—that there are as many different personality types within a generation as across generations—I see some value in generalizations about generations. All of us know people who bear the marks of their distinctive coming-of-age experiences: the grandmother raised during the Depression who still reuses her tea bags; the uncle who grew up in the 1960s and still sports a ponytail; the kid sister who sends 200 texts a day to her many, many best friends. At the same time, one should bring healthy doses of humility and caution to the exercise. That’s because in one sense, it’s too easy, and in another, too hard. It’s too easy because no one needs a scientific survey to persuade them that the typical 20-year-old, 40-year-old, 60-year-old, and 80-year-old are different from one another. They already know. It’s too hard because we can never completely disentangle the many reasons for the differences. At any given moment, they can arise from any of three overlapping processes.

1.) Life cycle effects. Young people may be different from older people today, but they may become more like them tomorrow, as they themselves age.

2.) Period effects. Major historical events (wars, social movements, booms, busts, religious awakenings, medical, scientific, and technological breakthroughs) affect all age groups, but the depth of impact may differ according to where people are located in the life cycle.

3.) Cohort effects. Period events often leave a particularly deep impression on the young, who are still forming their core values and worldviews.

Pew Research surveys allow for comparisons between today’s young and today’s old. And because we’ve asked the same questions over many years, we can also compare today’s young with yesterday’s young. We can do the same with census, economic, and election data. Taken together, these numbers paint a picture of a society not with generation gaps but with generation chasms. To understand it better, let’s start with thumbnail sketches:

The Millennials (born after 1980). Empowered by digital technology; coddled by parents; respectful of elders; slow to adulthood; conflict-averse; at ease with racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity; confident in their economic futures despite coming of age in bad times. Icons: Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, LeBron James, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady GaGa.

Gen Xers (born from 1965 to 1980). Savvy, entrepreneurial loners. Distrustful of institutions, especially government. Children of the Reagan revolution—and the divorce revolution. More comfortable than their elders with an increasingly diverse America. Icons: Quentin Tarantino, Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Tiger Woods, Robert Downey Jr.

Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) As exuberant youths, led the countercultural unheavals of the 1960s. But the iconic image of that era—long-haired hippie protesters—describes only a portion of the cohort. Now on the front stoop of old age, Boomers are gloomy about their lives, worried about retirement, and wondering why they aren’t young anymore. Icons: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks.

Silent Generation (born from 1928 to 1945). Conservative and conformist, Silents are uneasy with the pace of demographic, cultural, and technological change—and with the growing size of government. But hands off their Social Security and Medicare! Icons: Clint Eastwood, Neil Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Brokaw, Hugh Hefner.

Most members of each of these four age groups say their own generation has a unique and distinctive identity, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. But each gives a different set of reasons for their distinctiveness. In response to an open-ended question, Millennials stressed their use of technology. Gen Xers did as well, but many fewer offered that explanation. Boomers cited their work ethic and Silents their shared coming-of-age experience in the Depression and World War II.

A different Pew Research survey, this one taken in 2009, asked Americans of all ages whether they saw a generation gap in America between young and old. About 8 in 10 said yes, nearly identical to the share that had said the same back in 1969, when the generations were famously at each other’s throats. But in the modern era, as follow-up survey questions in 2009 and 2012 made clear, the generation gap ins’t seen as a source of great friction. Many fewer American said they see strong conflicts between young and old than said the same about conflicts between immigrants and the native-born, rich and poor, black and white, and Republicans and Democrats. And what generation gaps they do tend to be focused on technology and lifestyle rather than on the more polarizing terrain of politics.

Stop Going on Boring Dates

The most pertinent piece of advice Aziz Ansari gives in his hilarious book about dating in the time of Tinder Modern Romance is to stop going on simple chatting-over-drinks dates:

How do we go about analyzing our options? On dates. And most of the time, boring-ass dates. You have coffee, drinks, a meal, go see a movie. We’re all trying to find someone who excites us, someone who makes us feel like we’ve truly made a connection. Can anyone reach that high bar on the typical, boring dates we all go on?

One of the social scientists I consulted for this book is the Stanford sociologist Robb Willer. Willer said that he had several friends who had taken dates to a monster truck rally. If you aren’t familiar with monster truck rallies, basically these giant-ass trucks, with names like Skull Crusher and Grave Digger, ride up huge dirt hills and do crazy jumps. Sometimes they fly over a bunch of smaller cars or even school buses. Even more nuts, sometimes those trucks assemble into a giant robot truck that literally eats cars. Not joking. It’s called Truckzilla and it’s worth looking into. Frankly, it sounds cool as shit, and I’m looking at tickets for the next one I can attend.

Anyway, for Willer’s friends it started as a plan to do something campy and ironic, since they weren’t big car and truck fans so much as curious about this interesting and kind of bizarre subculture. It turned out to be a great date event: fun, funny, exciting, and different. Instead of the usual boring resume exchange, the couples were placed in an interesting environment and got to really get a sense of their own rapport. Two of the couples he mentioned were still together and happily dating. Sadly, another one of the couples was making out in a small car that was soon run over and crushed by a monster truck named King Krush. Very unfortunate.

In one of our subreddit threads we asked people to tell us about their best first dates, and it was amazing to see how many involved doing things that are easy and accessible but require just a bit more creativity than dinner and a movie.

The dates that are not boring are not all super eccentric things. The common thread is that they weren’t just resume exchanges over a drink or dinner; they were situations in which people could experience interesting things together and learn what it was like to be with someone new.


The Power of Ideas (For Good and Evil)

From Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, on how the dominant ideas of the 20th century were used to both good and bad ends (Freudian psychology was used to sell cigarettes, Marx’s labor theories sentences millions to lives of fruitless toil, and Einstein’s physics were used to create the most power bomb imaginable):

The truth is, Origin is a book that, with total success, embodies an exciting idea and had a devastating intellectual and emotional impact on world society. The word devastating is accurate: It destroyed many comfortable assumptions, thus clearing space for new concepts and ideas to spring up in almost every subject. It acted like a force of nature itself, and by the end of January 1860, when the second edition sold out, it was quite beyond Darwin’s control. Darwin became one of the formative thinkers of the twentieth century, alongside Marx, Freud, and Einstein, affecting the way people thought about an immense variety of topics, often quite remote from his own preoccupations.

However, not all was for good. We see, for instance, how Hitler perverted Darwin’s theories:

What made his teaching so destructive in Germany was his emphasis on the constant violence involved in natural selection. It is doubtful if Adolf Hitler actually read the Origin, but he certainly absorbed its arguments and the psychology of strife seen as necessary for the emergence of higher forms. Hitler was fond of dwelling on the awful prospect (which Thomas Carlyle had made into a joke) of mankind evolving backward or downward. He said:

“If we do not respect the law of nature, imposing our will by the might of the stronger, a day will come when the wild animals will again devour us—when the insects will eat the wild animals, and finally nothing will exist except the microbes. By means of the struggle the elites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature.”

Thus we see how ideas develop their own self-sustaining and often destructive careers in history. The emotional stew that built up inside Darwin’s mind from seeing the Fuegans, looking at beaks in the Galapagos, and reading Malthus—a stew that permeated with is verbal odors almost every page of Origin—becam for some a vicious poison. Darwin’s fondness for the word struggle—he used it dozens of times—was particularly unfortunate. Hitler adopted it and made it the title of his book, which was both autobiography and political program, Mein Kampf. Struggle was healthy; it was nature’s way. And under the cover and darkness of war, it became easy to resort to another much-used word of Darwin’s, extermination.

The Ancient Theory of Evolution

I’m reading Paul Johnson’s wonderful short biography of Charles Darwin, Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, and one of the things that surprised me was how old the theory of evolution was. Being the best traveled naturalist of his time, he simply provided the why with his theory of natural selection:

It was arguable that Francis Bacon had posited some form of evolution, and even that it went back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. Moreover, by the late 1830s, evolution, as opposed to revolution, was a commonplace of philosophers, political and economic, as a natural and desirable way of proceeding in the development of institutions, societies, and much else. The German philosophical heavyweights, Kant, and, still more, Hegel, had shown evolution to be inherent in many disciplines and in religion itself. Art, architecture, music, and literature evolved. The English constitution, seen as perfect by many Englishmen and widely admired all over the world, was regarded as a model instance of evolution. The principle was constantly invoked by Goethe. The word comes from classical times and denotes the motion of unrolling a scroll. As set out in Buffon’s evolutionary theory of 1762, what happens in nature is that the embryo or germ, instead of being brought into existence by the process of fecundation, is a development or expansion of a preexisting form, which contains the rudiments of all the parts of the future organism.

In Drug Rehab With Dr. Drew

From Cracked: Life on the Edge in a Rehab Clinic, Dr. Drew describes a lecture he gives in a recovery meeting. The theories behind the biology of addiction, whether or not you agree with them, are fascinating:

At 6:30 PM, I’m standing in front of a blackboard, watching a lecture hall fill up. About seventy-five patients, and their families, partners, and friends—some with several days of sobriety, others with many years—are seated in rows of metal folding chairs in a small bungalow a short stroll from the unit. They represent all types, from businessmen to bikers, homemakers to high school students. They have come to listen to my weekly medical lecture, an in-depth discussion about their disease and its effect on their biology.

The hourlong presentation is aimed at giving them more insight into their disease. Few of them really understand addiction. They don’t know the roots of its biology. They don’t know why addiction is a disease. If asked why they use, they offer some variation on “I’m fucked up.” If asked why they can’t stop using, they reply, “I’m fucked up.” They cannot see themselves as anything but victims. I believe information is power. The more people understand, the less inclined they will be to blame themselves.

I start by asking, “Who can tell me the difference between abuse and addiction?” That begins a lively discussion. Eventually we conclude that abuse is “the use of any potentially harmful substance with no therapeutic value that affects the brain,” and addiction is “the continued use of a substance in spite of consequences.” They should give themselves a pat on the back, I tell them: It took the world’s brightest scientists decades to figure that one out. We did it in a few minutes.

“Now let me ask a harder question,” I say. “Can anyone define disease? Before you can say you suffer from a disease, you should know what one is.”

This sparks another lively discussion. Though it reveals how little average people know about biology, it is also a tough question. Until recently, experts didn’t understand much more than the layman about the secret relationship between drugs, the brain, biology, and disease. Think about it: For decades, drug abusers and alcoholics were thought of as people with low self-control. Even scientists and doctors thought they could control their problems by exercising more willpower. How many addicts were told to change their friends, move neighborhoods, or take a different way home so they wouldn’t pass the liquor store?

It got worse. For years, addicts were thought to be morally deficient people who could be saved if they would simply acknowledge and change their sinful ways. Well, in reality, no matter what they acknowledge addicts just can’t stop. That is addiction—the inability to stop, no matter what. Addicts know every consequence of their addiction: lost jobs, screwed-up relationships, squandered money, betrayed relatives, and so on. But they can’t help their behavior.

Eventually, though, studies began to show that addicts suffered from a disease, rather than a lack of self-control. And clinicians working with addicts and alcoholics began to recognized the difficulty addicts had in quitting. After former First Lady Betty Ford went public with her drinking problem in the late 1970s, there was wider familiarity, understanding, and even sympathy for people who checked into the Betty Ford Center, Hazelden, Cedar Hills, and other rehab facilities seeking treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction.

But misperceptions lingered. With the growth in the number of treatment facilities, many came to believe these problems could be cleared up in a mere twenty-eight days. But further study has shown the disease to be much more complex. By the early 1990s, new research allowed addiction to be defined more specifically as a biological disorder with a genetic basis, plus progressive use in the face of adverse consequences, and denial of a problem. More recent findings have focused on the relationship between addiction and the drives in the deepest brain structures that are outside of conscious volitional control.

As I talk about this, thought, I can see some eyes in the audience start to glaze over. All that scientific jargon—this is starting to sound like school. So I change tack.

“I’m really talking about three things,” I say. “Why you use drugs. Why you get addicted. And how you get better. Let’s start with why you use. Any guesses?”

“It feels good,” a young Latino teenager in front says.

“It lets me escape,” an alcoholic woman with a few years’ sobriety says from the middle of the room.

“Because if I’d done what I really wanted to do, I’d be in jail for killing my father,” a middle-aged man adds. He gets a knowing laugh.

I allow that all those answers are correct. “A healthy person, whether he realizes it or not, populates his emotional world with soothing or reassuring images that can be called upon in times of distress, need, or aloneness. But the individual who has suffered trauma during his formative years retreats from the world as a result of that abuse.” I pause. “Look around the room. Think of the people in treatment with you and those in your AA groups. What do you all have in common?”

“Bic lighters,” someone else says.

“Fucked up lives,” someone else says.

“Be more specific,” I say.

“Fucked up parents,” a college-age girl calls out.

“We’re just fucked up,” a guy says.

“You want to know the common denominator among my patients?” I say, turning serious. “They all had traumatic experiences in early life that caused them to feel helpless, powerless, and in grave danger.” I see some people nodding. “This feeling of helplessness creates an inability to process feelings and an aversion to exploring other minds. There’s no trust. If you can’t trust, you can’t connect with anyone. Without the capacity to activate the part of the brain that allows for connection and exploration of other people, an individual loses the main mechanism for discovering who we are and the ability to regulate emotions.

“Think about it,” I continue. “For all of us, other people function as self-regulating agents. We learn to identify ourselves when we recognize ourselves in others. We constantly think, ‘Oh, that’s exactly how I feel.’ Or you say, ‘I was thinking that exact same thing.’ Our experiences of ourselves become internalized as a result of this sort of interaction. We figure out who we are.

“But my patients—many of you—automatically take the emotional posture that the abuse you fell victim to was your fault. Why? Because at least then you avoid feeling the threat of the contents of the mind of your abuser. You don’t ask why Daddy hits you or Mommy’s passed out on the living room floor. If it’s your fault, you’re more in control.

“You’re sacrificing yourself in order to maintain the illusion of the control in a situation that otherwise you’d experience as irrational and unpredictable. Of course, if you’re at fault, you’re also feeling shame. In addition, your brain kicks into an automatic biological response that becomes a permanent mechanism for dealing with interpersonal stress. This is the action your brain takes to escape these situations from which there’s no escape, something called dissociation.”

A grey-haired man in mechanic’s coveralls raises his hand. I have treated him and his son.

“So what are you saying that I’m feeling?” he asks.

“What did I say all my patients have in common?”

“Helplessness,” he says.

“What do you feel when you’re helpless?” I ask.

“Fear,” he says.

“Right. The initial response to threat is fear. How does this happen? Well, chemicals flood into the brain as the flight-or-fight response is initiated. When escape seems hopeless, your brain switches into shutdown mode, releasing a flood of endorphins that provide a soothing numbness as you wait for the inevitable to occur.

“The experience that predominates this reaction is what?”

I call on a young guy seated on the side.

“I don’t even get what you’re saying,” he says. “But I’m guessing that it’s the sense that you’re somewhere else, gone, shut down.”

“Exactly,” I say. “Dissociation. You separate and isolate yourself from the world, from feelings, from others. While such a reaction may protect you from the horrifying experience—whatever that turns out to be—the price is a long-term difficulty in integrating emotional experiences. Think back to whatever age you suffered trauma. That’s when you shut down. That’s when you decided you were to blame. That’s when you stopped connecting with others.”

“You know what picture I’m getting?” A man in front says. “I see one of those Japanese soldiers coming out of the jungle after hiding for thirty years because he didn’t know the war had ended. You don’t know anything that’s going on. You don’t know who to trust or which side you’re on. Your instinct would be to turn around and run back into the jungle, where it was safe.”

“Kind of,” I say. “But let me go on. So what happens? The personality that accompanies you as you mature physically tends to have a hard time in relationships. In fact, the original victimization is often recreated over and over again. It’s the same problem repeated, and more problems ensue. You can’t trust someone with your tender needs in a genuine relationship. Why? It’s too dangerous. It’s too likely to expose you to trauma again.

“So your ability to develop brain mechanisms to regulate emotions is impaired, since we tend to build these through intimate connections with others. It’s a great big mess that causes you to enter your young life looking for solutions to those feelings of being, as most of you say, fucked up. You aren’t able to find any peace until you find drugs or alcohol. Then, suddenly, for the first time, everything seems all right.”

I see heads nod.

“Are you with me still?”

I get a chorus of yeses.

“Good. We just talked about the consequences of trauma, which basically set the stage for the addictive process. Let’s go to the next point: Why are you addicted? The simple answer is that some people are configured biologically in such a way to respond very positively to substances. That’s what gets you using. But what makes you an addict is primarily a change in a tiny region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

“This region of your brain has started to mistake the chemical message of survival with the message delivered by drugs. The drive to use becomes confused with the drive to survive. This drive overwhelms  the centers of the brain where cognitive reasoning and will reside. This shouldn’t be confused with the feel-good part of addiction. These powerful drives that begin emanating from deep nonverbal drive centers of the brain and demand gratification with the same life-or-death intensity as taking a breath. This is what keeps you using even when it doesn’t feel good or work for you anymore.

“Interestingly, a certain percentage of people feel really shitty when they’re exposed to endorphinlike substances.”

“Then they aren’t real addicts,” a black woman who’s been in and out of treatment several times says.

“That’s partly true,” I say. “I had a patient come in with uncontrollable sobbing from, of all things, Vicodin.”

“Oh, please,” she says, waving me off.

“You’re like my addict patients,” I say.

“No, I am one of your addict patients,” she laughs.

“My addict patients feel incredible when they’re exposed to opiates or any other chemical that tickles the brain’s endogenous morphine system, like alcohol, cocaine, sometimes pot—”

“Heroin,” someone chimes.

“Yes. In fact, all drugs of addiction have in common that they stimulate the endorphin system. That’s the feel-good part of drugs. So these people configured to respond positively to substance feel great when they’re using. So great they keep using to regulate their emotional lives. As time goes by, all drugs of addiction cause depletion of brain chemicals.”

“What? one of my more vocal participants asks.

“The endorphin system alters itself in response to months or years of saturation, and so when the drugs are removed the brain is no longer able to screen out discomfort or pain. This of course happens at a time when the patient is trying to come to terms with the pain of acknowledging the consequences of the disease—destroyed relationships, legal problems, health issues, and so on. Not only is the endorphin system altered; the mood center, serotonin, is also depleted, as is the anxiety-regulating GABA system and the stress chemical cortisol. All are profoundly abnormal from drug use, leaving the patient in an impaired and terribly unpleasant brain state.”

“Welcome to my world,” a guy yells out.

He gets a big laugh.

“Remember, you’ve relied on drugs to deal with unpleasant or overwhelming emotions often since adolescence. Those same emotional conditions that started you using have remained unchanged. Not only that, the drugs have blocked you from tackling the usual milestones of development. There’s even some evidence that certain of these drugs actually impair the brain’s growth. And, finally, many of these drugs of addiction damage the brain, leaving biological impairments that affect mood, anxiety regulation, and memory.

“So you enter sobriety with this incredible set of biological and often psychological and developmental circumstances stacked against you. Throw in the misery of withdrawal, the social shame and stigma associated with the disease, the consequences of your behavior, and on top of everything the fact that you really love to do drugs—well, it’s no wonder people relapse.”

“Amen,” the black woman says, to a mix of laughs and clapping.

“But here’s the fascinating—or depressing—part,” I continue, “This is not the disease itself. What I’ve described are merely factors that come to bear on the disease. The disease is a disorder of the drive centers of the brain—specifically the so-called mesolimbic reward center, as I’ve explained, in the nucleus accumbens. The part of the brain is deep in the reptilian core. It doesn’t have language or logic. Just as with lower life forms, it exists merely to increase the drive that activates behavior fostering survival. It’s the survival center, and it’s gone awry.

“I’ll give you an example. Every cocaine addict knows that he or she will never get the same high they got from their first hit off the pope. In fact, they feel shittier and shittier with each hit, yet they continue to use until they’re floridly psychotic, sitting in a dark room by themselves, peeking out through the curtains at the black helicopters they imagine are hovering overhead.”

“It was army men for me,” a guy in a blue suit says.

“I heard paramilitary spacemen hiding in the bushes,” a car mechanic seated nearby adds.

“The point is, you continue to use because the drive centers command you to use. Your brain’s rational understanding is overwhelmed. Though you know perfectly well that you won’t get high and will end up feeling like shit, you can’t stop. You can’t stop, no matter how hard you try or how badly you want to. That’s addiction.

“There’s a lot of new science being done in this area, but basically what we have here is a set of very powerful drives being activated beneath conscious control in a region of the brain that can’t be influenced by reason, language, or will. We have a terrible time in this country accepting disorders of will. How often do you hear someone explain their behavior by saying, ‘Hey, it’s a free country.’ But as you well know, you’re not free from the grips of the biology of this region of the brain and the effect the disease has on it.”

I know this is all still pretty technical material, but I can feel a sense of excitement in the room, a tangible buzz as those listening acquire new or additional understanding about why they really are powerless over their addiction. Why does that create such a reaction? Because the first twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is admitting that you  are powerless over your disease. Now they can really believe it’s true, and we can start discussing how you get better.

“Powerlessness,” I say, gazing across the room to emphasize that each one of them has this in common. “What kind of feeling does that evoke in you?”

“Pain,” a young man in the back of the room says without hesitation.

I nod, smiling. I know the young man well: Patrick, a patient of mine who’s recently turned twenty. He’s been doing well in recovery. He’s even returned to college.

“I just feel pain,” he continued.

“Can I use you as an example?” I ask, aware that he has shared in previous groups with many in the room. He says yes, and I encourage him to fill us in on the details. Raised the only child of an alcoholic father and addicted mother, Patrick was on his own from the time he could walk, His life had little structure. He was neglected by his parents and abused by his neighbors. He started smoking pot at the age of ten. Two years later he was on coke. He was thirteen when his father died. His mother floated in and out, either ignorant of or indifferent to his drug use. By sixteen he was using speed. Still, against seemingly insurmountable odds, he managed to get into a city college. He was a major control freak—anything to avoid the instability of his childhood—and yet he couldn’t control his drug use.

“It was like I was running all the time,” he says. “Even when I was asleep I was still running.”

“Running from what?” I ask.

“The pain.”

“A specific pain?”

“No, not really. It’s more like a feeling of pain that blankets everything. It’s just always there. My whole deal has been avoidance through control.”

He had articulated something that’s key: the fact that the pain that started with the traumas of his childhood was still ongoing in the present. It still felt raw and fresh. It had happened then, it was happening now, and as far as his brain was concerned it was going to keep happening into the future. He was in what some call the “running” phase of post-traumatic stress disorder.

They have no idea how much I relate personally. But ever since I saw the man with the red crosses in his eyes following my mother’s miscarriage, I’ve felt—no, I’ve known—that bad things are happening to me. Period. Then, now, and always. Like Patrick, I’ve tamed those feelings by maintaining control, striving for perfection, rescuing people. I even have a job where bad shit happens every day. It’s exhausting.

If I’d had the genetic disposition, I would’ve made a great addict.

“You can see how as a result of those early traumas you have difficulty trusting and opening up to another person,” I say. “If you’re a kid, why would you ever trust again? But without that capacity to trust, you can’t get an accurate read on your own self. You never learn how to regulate your own feelings.”

A hand raises from the middle, and a husky man with bushy sideburns and tattooed arms stands up to speak. “How do you learn?” he asks.

“That’s the getting-it part of recovery. You have to be willing—willing to follow directions, willing to trust, willing to form connections, willing to explore feelings. That’s the essence of recovery, of the twelve steps,” I say. “In recovery, you learn how to regulate your emotions without getting high. This is where you learn connection, the connection you didn’t learn when it was interrupted but trauma in childhood. The real work gets done when you sit down with a sponsor and trust that that person will be available without shaming or intruding as you express genuine and tender needs. Then, instead of suffering rejection, you experience relief and gradually a new sense of self. It’s only through relationships with others that we develop a sense of who we are and the ability to regulate our emotions.”

Dr. Drew on The Emptiness of Entertainment

I picked up Dr. Drew’s book Cracked: Life on the Edge in a Rehab Clinic and am hooked. He details the mechanics of drug addiction, along with his own codependency issues. His honesty is refreshing. He also spends some time griping that the entertainment and advertising industries subtly ruin the lives of people without a healthy emotional base:

If I get angry, it’s at the bigger picture. In genreal, our culture offers us solutions that only intensify our problems. I’m prone to rant about this, I know—but after all, surgeons are permitted to rage against cigarettes and fatty foods, psychologists about poor communication skills. So why shouldn’t I go off on the culture?

I have plenty of reasons to call the culture up on charges. Katherine. Amber. Mitch. And hundreds more just like them. The culture is like a living, breathing beast that feeds its own need to exist and grow at the expense of the individual. Our world is full of people with narcissistic problems who look to escape those feelings and be gratified—and the culture steps right up to meet those needs. Many of those contributing to the culture are sick themselves. It doesn’t take a shrink to count the number of celebrities who end up in rehab, getting into fights, or posing for mug shots. The media has become an instant-response machine, ratcheting our tolerance ever upward in cycles of arousal and gratification. All of this can be arresting, fun, secy; most of all, it sells. But it doesn’t heal.

What our culture lacks are honest messages about what it really means to be a healthy human being. Or how you make humans grow. These are sort-of-boring topics that won’t sell Budweiser or Nikes. Cervantes, writing in Don Quixote, goes on a rant like this about the theater of the early 1600s. He has the same complaint. Just because people gravitate to something doesn’t make it good or right. I want more messages about how healthy humans are created, and as much as I want them, others need them.

And later,

The lives we lead today are longer than those of our parents, but more hectic. I can’t imagine the world my kids, Douglas, Jordan, and Paulina, will inherit when they are my age. It frightens me. Our culture is just like the junk food we live on: It fills you up without the distracting burden of nourishment. An average person exposed to television, movies, and magazines is overwhelmed by messages that arouse, stimulate, and suggest that the answer to all problems is the same: gratification. Have a beer, take a pill, roll on the deodorant, get a Whopper, JUST DO IT!

These are just diversions from an empty world. If you’ve been abused, if you don;t know how to trust, and if you’re already overwhelmed bu feelings you can’t handle, an icy six pack won’t solve anything. Nor will a new pair of Nikes. Nor will ninety-nine new ways to drive your man wild in bed, as all the women’s magazines promise. They aggravate the situation. They ignore the problems. Sadly, the culture offers few messages that address what it means to be human, how to go about feeling healthy. We forget that people feel best when they’re interacting, talking, helping, and creating with other people.

Fortunately, this book contains many of the things he laments our culture lacks. He’s honest about his own emotional problems and details the ruthless pain his patients go through detoxing from drugs, both prescription and illegal. Reading someone being so open is comforting.

Harlan Ellison: You Are Not Alone

Harlan Ellison would probably be angry with me for reposting this reassuring and insightful paragraph he wrote in the introduction to his short story collection Shatterday, but I feel that it’s too enlightening not to share:

You are not alone. We are all the same, all in this fragile skin, suffering the ugliness of simply being human, all prey to the same mortal dreads.

When I lecture I try to say this, to say most of the fears you invent—atomic war, multinational conspiracies, assassination paranoias, fear of ethnic types, flying saucers from Mars—those are all bullshit. I inveigh against illogical beliefs and say that the mortal dreads are the ones that drive you to crazy beliefs in Scientology, est, the power of dope, hatred of elitism and intellectual pursuits, astrology, messiahs like Sun Myung Moon or Jim Jones, fundamentalist religions. I try to tell you that fear is okay if you understand that what you fear is the same for everyone. Fear is the eternal price you pay for having gotten into the game in the first place.

What he’s saying is that our external fears are nothing more than acting outs of the mortal dreads we all have but don’t know how to face. “And all we have to stand between us and the irrational crazy chicken-running-around-squawking terror that these mortal dreads lay on us is wisdom and courage.”

A Brilliant Study of Moral Hypocrisy

From The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, an academic study that shows how people are frequently biases toward helping themselves first, assuming they’re able to maintain a public image of being morally free from bias. Aside from being an example of a well thought out in-the-lab scenario, this study is illustrative of the difference of shame versus guilt.

The simplest way to cultivate a reputation for being fair is to really be fair, but life and psychology experiments sometimes force us to choose between appearance and reality. Dan Batson at the University of Kansas devised a clever way to make people choose, and his findings are not pretty. He brought students into his lab one at a time to take part in what they thought was a study of how unequal rewards affect teamwork. The procedure was explained: One member of each team of two will be rewarded for correct responses to questions with a raffle ticket that could win a valuable prize. The other member will receive nothing. Subjects were also told that an additional part of the experiment concerned the effects of control: You, the subject, will decide which of you is rewarded, which of you is not. Your partner is already here, in another room, and the two of you will not meet. Your partner will be told that the decision was made by chance. You can make the decision in any way you like. Oh, and here is a coin: Most people in this study seem to think that flipping the coin is the fairest way to make the decision.

Subjects were then left alone to choose. About half of them used the coin. Batson knows this because the coin was wrapped in a plastic bag, and half the bags were ripped open. Of those who did not flip the coin, 90 percent chose the positive task for themselves. For those who did flip the coin, the laws of probability were suspended and 90 percent of them chose the positive task for themselves. Batson had given all the subjects a variety of questionnaires about morality weeks earlier (the subjects were students in psychology classes), so he was able to check how various measures of moral personality predicted behavior. His finding: People who reported being most concerned about caring for others and about issues of social responsibility were more likely to open the bag, but they were not more likely to give the other person the positive task. In other words, people who think they are particularly moral are in fact more likely to “do the right thing” and flip the coin, but when the coin flip comes out against them, they find a way to ignore it and follow their own self-interest. Batson called this tendency to value the appearance of morality over the reality “moral hypocrisy.”

Batson’s subjects who flipped the coin reported (on a questionnaire) that they had made the decision in an ethical way. After his first study, Batson wondered whether perhaps people tricked themselves by not stating clearly what heads or tails would mean (“Let’s see, heads, that means, um, oh yeah, I get the good one.”). But when he labeled the two sides of the coin to erase ambiguity, it made no difference. Placing a large mirror in the room, right in front of the subject, and at the same time stressing the importance of fairness in the instructions, was the only manipulation that had an effect. When people were forced to think about fairness and could see themselves cheating, they stopped doing it. A Jesus and Buddha said in the opening epigraphs of this chapter, it is easy to spot a cheater when our eyes are looking outward, but hard when looking inward. Folk wisdom from around the world concurs:

“Though you see the seven defects of others, we do not see our own ten defects.” (Japanese proverb)

“A he-goat doesn’t realize that he smells.” (Nigerian proverb)

Proving that people are selfish, or that they’ll sometimes cheat when they know they won’t be caught, seems like a good way to get an article into the Journal of Incredibly Obvious Results. What’s not so obvious is that, in nearly all these studies, people don’t think they are doing anything wrong. It’s the same in real life. From the person who cuts you off on the highway all the way to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, most people think they are good people and that their actions are motivated by good reasons. Machiavellian tit for tat requires devotion to appearances, including protestations of one’s virtue even when one chooses vice. And such protestations are most effective when the person making them really believes them. As Robert Wright put it in his masterful book The Moral Animal, “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.”

If Wright is correct about our “constitutional ignorance” of our hypocrisy, then the sages’ admonition to stop smirking may be no more effective than telling a depressed person to snap out of it. Curing hypocrisy is much harder because part of the problem is that we don’t believe there’s a problem. You can’t change your mental filters by willpower alone.

The Fourth Division of the Mind: Controlled vs. Automatic Thinking

Jonathan Haidt begins his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by discussing the ways that the human mind conflicts with itself—that our conscious thoughts don’t always align with what we feel. He uses the metaphor of a man riding an elephant to illustrate this point.

The forth division concerns the ways our thoughts can be deliberate and controlled but also instinctive and automatic:

In the 1990s, while I was developing the elephant/rider metaphor for myself, the field of social psychology was coming to a similar view of the mind. After its long infatuation with information processing models and computer metaphors, psychologists began to realize that there are really two processing systems at work in the mind at all times; controlled processes and automatic processes.

Suppose you volunteered to be a subject in the following experiment. First, the experimenter hands you some word problems and tells you to come and get her when you are finished. The word problems are easy: Just unscramble sets of five words and make sentences using four of them. For example, “they her bother see usually” becomes either “they usually see her” or “they usually bother her.” A few minutes later, when you have finished the test, you go out to the hallway as instructed. The experimenter is there, but she’s engaged in conversation with someone and isn’t making eye contact with you. What do you suppose you’ll do? Well, if half the sentences you unscrambled contained words related to rudeness (such as bother, brazen, aggressively), you will probably interrupt the experimenter within a minute or two to say, “Hey, I’m finished. What should I do now?” But if you unscrambled sentences in which the rude words were swapped with words related to politeness (“they her respect see usually”), the odds are you’ll just sit there meekly and wait until the experimenter acknowledges you—ten minutes from now.

Likewise, exposure to words related to the elderly makes people walk more slowly; words related to professors make people smarter at the game of Trivial Pursuit; and words related to soccer hooligans make people dumber. And these effects don’t even depend on your consciously reading the words; the same effects can occur when the words are presented subliminally, that is, flashed on a screen for just a few hundredths of a second, too fast for your conscious mind to register them. But some part of the mind does see the words, and it sets in motion behaviors that psychologists can measure.

According to John Bargh, the pioneer in this research, these experiments show that most mental processes happen automatically, without the need for conscious attention or control. Most automatic processes are completely unconscious, although some of them show a part of themselves to consciousness; for example, we are aware of the “stream of consciousness” that seems to flow on by, following its own rules of association, without any feeling of effort or direction from the self. Bargh contrasts automatic processes with controlled processes, the kind of thinking that takes some effort, that proceeds in steps and that always plays out on the center stage of consciousness. For example, at what time would you need to leave your house to catch a 6:26 flight to London? That’s something you have to think about consciously, first choosing a means of transport ti the airport and then considering rush-hour traffic, weather, and the strictness of the shoe police at the airport. You can’t depart on a hunch. But if you drive to the airport, almost everything you do on the way will be automatic: breathing, blinking, shifting in your seat, daydreaming, keeping enough distance between you and the car in front of you, even scowling and cursing slower drivers.

Controlled processing is limited—we can think consciously about one thing at a time only—but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once. If the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically. So what is the relationship between controlled and automatic processing? Is controlled processing the wise boss, king, or CEO handling the most important questions and setting policy with foresight for the dumber automatic processes to carry out? No, that would bring us right back to the Promethean script and divine reason. To dispel the Promethean script once and for all, it will help to go back in time and look at why we have these two processes, why we have a small rider and a large elephant.

When the first clumps of neurons were forming the first brains more than 600 million years ago, these clumps must have conferred some advantage on the organisms that had them because brains have proliferated ever since. Brains are adaptive because they integrate information from various parts of the animal’s body to respond quickly and automatically to threats and opportunities in the environment. By the time we reach 3 million years ago, these clumps must have conferred some advantage on the organisms that had them because brains have proliferated ever since. Brains are adaptive because they integrate information from various parts of the animal’s body to respond quickly and automatically to threats and opportunities in the environment. By the time we reach 3 million years ago, the Earth was full of animal with extraordinarily sophisticated automatic abilities, among them birds that could navigate by star positions, ants that could cooperate to fight wars and run fungus farms, and several species of hominids that had begun to make tools. Many of these creatures possessed systems of communication, but none of them had developed language.

Controlled processing requires language. You can have bits and pieces of thought through images, but to plan something complex, to weigh the pros and cons of different paths, or to analyze the causes of past successes and failures,  you need words. Nobody knows how long ago human beings developed language, but most estimates range from around 2 million years ago, the time of cave paintings and other artifacts that reveal unmistakably modern human minds. Whichever end of that range you favor, language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution. They are like new software, Rider version 1.0. The language parts work well, but there are still a lot of bugs in the reasoning and planning programs. Automatic processes, on the other hand, have been through thousands of product cycles and are nearly perfect. This difference in maturity between automatic and controlled processes helps explain why we have inexpensive computers that can solve logic, math, and chess problems better than any human beings can (most of us struggle with these tasks), but none of our robots, no matter how costly, can walk through the woods as well as the average six-year-old child (our perceptual and motor systems are superb).

Evolution never looks ahead. It can’t plan the best way to travel from point A to point B. Instead, small changes to existing forms arise (by genetic mutation), and spread within a population to the extent that they help organisms respond more effectively to current conditions. When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). Things were already working pretty well, and linguistic ability spread to the extent that it helped the elephant do something important in a better way. The rider evolved to serve the elephant. But whatever its origin, once we had it, language was a powerful tool that could be used in new ways, and evolution then selected those individuals who got the best use out of it.

One use of language is that it partially freed humans from “stimulus control.” Behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner were able to explain much of the behavior of animals as a set of connections between stimuli and responses. Some of these connections are innate, such as when the sight or smell of an animal’s natural food triggers hunger and eating. Other connections are learned, as demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated at the sound of a bell that had earlier announced the arrival of food. The behaviorists saw animals as slaves to their environments and learning histories who blindly respond to the reward properties of whatever they encounter. The behaviorists saw animals as slaves to their environments and learning histories who blindly respond to the reward properties of whatever they encounter. The behaviorists thought that people were no different from other animals. In this view, St. Paul’s lament could be restated as: “My flesh is under stimulus control.” It is no accident that we find the carnal pleasures so rewarding. Our brains, like rat brains, are wired so that food and sex give us little bursts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is the brain’s way of making us enjoy the activities that are good for the survival of our genes. Plato’s “bad” horse plays an important role in pulling us toward these things, which helped our ancestor survive and succeed in becoming our ancestors.

But the behaviorists were not exactly right about people. The controlled system allows people to think about long-term goals and thereby escape the tyranny of the here-and-now, the automatic triggering of temptation by the sight of tempting objects. People can imagine alternatives that are not visually present; they can weigh long-term health risks against present pleasures, and they can learn in conversation about which choices will bring success and prestige. Unfortunately, the behaviorists were not entirely wrong about people, either. For although the controlled system does not conform to behaviorists principles, it also has relatively little power to cause behavior. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that makes us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and that trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The automatic system has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. I believe the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than was Plato when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

In sum, the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is Gazzaniga’s interpreter module; it is conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.