Some answers feel so compelling that we oversimplify the questions we really care about in order to fit them. Clear, straightforward answers are easy to process, and that ease leads to a feeling of "rightness." As a result, we end up satisfied that the issue we had cared about is resolved. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who studies the tricks our mind plays on us, calls the human tendency to answer hard questions with responses to simpler ones "attribute substitution." The problem is that many of the hard questions are the ones that matter most to us. "“What do I really care about achieving in my career? How do I find and cultivate what I will love doing and being and building the most in this one life I have?" In seeking answers, we do not want to lose sight of these questions.
In a critical review in The New Yorker of Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better: Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, Louis Menand argued that the self-help genre capitalizes on our attraction to easy answers. Duhigg is an excellent storyteller and, as a journalist, he has researched psychological science extensively enough that he knows the literature far better than most psychologists. But that is part of the problem. His answers are based in science, and clean experiments have shown they answer important questions. The answers feel crisp and certain. The stories illustrate how these answers can fit with real life. But do they answer the right questions -- the ones that move our lives towards our most meaningful and inspiring goals?
Menand has not been not the only one to criticize the advice in Smarter, Faster, Better. Paul Bloom, an influential academic psychologist writing in The New York Times, has also argued the answers in the book are disappointing, ultimately amounting to common sense. But Menand took the issue further. The promise that following a few prescriptions, many of which we basically already know, will lead to greater success strikes him as facile. In addition, he suggested that books like Duhigg's never ask the important question of what "success" is for us as individuals. He looked at a couple of self-help books from the distant past as well, including How to Win Friends and Influence People and the book Self Help. He noted that all three of them reflect workplace values from the time they were written, and he found that fact disconcerting. How much are we looking to these books to help us conform to the values that we inherit from our work culture? His position left me thinking: Instead of being so hungry for easy, prescriptive answers, we should be more thoughtful about what we value so much that we want to improve it.
Menand is a humanist – an English Literature Ph.D. who has taught at Princeton, CUNY, and Harvard. In the past, he has made the point that psychologists themselves often become impressed enough with the power of the answers their research provides that they fail to ask the more complex questions that are essential to understanding the richness of human life. Unfortunately, this is true. The history of psychology is a history of research discoveries that reveal one facet of the human condition, resulting in other facets being neglected. Behaviorism is a good example. It dominated psychology for most of the early and middle parts of the 20th century. Behaviorism resulted in powerful research into how people and other animals learn, but leaders in the field ended up over-extending these answers to a much more comprehensive perspective on humanity than made sense. The result was an oversimplified distortion of what people are and what they are striving to be. B. F. Skinner, a leader in the field, described a utopia in which behavioral reinforcers were carefully managed to shape all of human experience, solving the world's problems. John Watson, a founder of behaviorism, argued that mothers should strive to have a business-like relationship with their children, so that they would not reinforce excessive need for love. It is easy enough to distance ourselves and call these stances foolish, but we all have a tendency to do just what they did -- to find simple theories with a feeling of "rightness" and then let them distort more multi-faceted ways of understanding our lives. The result can be that we fail to remain focused on moving towards the targets we value the most.
In a different essay in The New Yorker that he wrote in 2002, Menand reviewed Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. In the book, Pinker came down firmly on the side of nature in the nature/ nurture debate. He did so based on solid research evidence and strong theories. However, Pinker extended his argument to reflections on human nature that went well past the research itself. For example, Pinker argued that parents have minimal influence over how their children turn out. He cited a large body of evidence that genetic similarity plays a strong role in many personality traits, while growing up in the same family does not. Menand noted, however, that personality is hardly the question that moves parents to pour their lives into their children:
When Pinker … says that parents do not affect their children's personalities…, [he means] that parents cannot make a fretful child into a serene adult. It's irrelevant to [him] that parents can make their children into opera buffs, water-skiers, food connoisseurs, bilingual speakers, painters, trumpet players, and churchgoers—that parents have the power to introduce their children to the whole supra-biological realm—for the fundamental reason that science cannot comprehend what it cannot measure.
Pinker's answer is right, as far as it goes. Many aspects of personality are not strongly affected by who your parents are. But it does not answer the question of whether or not parents can give their children the gifts of opening up the world of rich human experience to them. That complex question, at least in Menand's view, is what matters most to parents. But he had to re-claim it, because it is easy to forget that is what you care about as a parent when reading Pinker's book. It is easier to get caught in the disconcerting (for most of us) view that you have no influence.
Pinker argues that our attraction to other people can be explained by evolutionary theory, with our eye for beauty being determined by the apparent health and fitness of our mates. Menand bemoaned the way in which Pinker lost sight of the sense of beauty that shakes people to the core and inspires some of our strongest feelings in life. He felt there was a life-draining, soul-flattening tendency to focus on averages:
The classic case of this kind of apotheosis of the average is the kind of study, reported in the Science Times, in which the ideal female face is constructed by blending all the features identified by people as most beautiful. The result is a homogenized, anodyne image with no aesthetic or erotic charge at all, far less alluring than many of the “outlying” variants used to derive it. Pinker's evolutionary theory of beauty has the same effect. “An eye for beauty,” he says, “locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility—just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder find the fittest mate.” But if this were all the eye required the girl in the Pepsodent commercial would be the most desirable woman on earth. And the only person who thinks that is the guy in the Pepsodent commercial. People don't go for faces that deviate from the “ideal” because they can't have the ideal. They go for them because the deviation is what makes them attractive.
If we left the cultivation of beauty in the hands of people with such mundane answers for what it is, the world would be a duller place. The ideas are interesting, compelling, and I believe they are correct as far as they go. But they do not move us closer to what we really long for when we long to build more beauty in the world. If we are really interested in what is beautiful and want to understand it better, the mundane answers should not satisfy us. We should keep looking. And that brings us back to Smarter, Faster, Better. If a book promises to make us smarter, faster, and better, and it can show compelling stories and science that seems to offer some answers, we may feel like we are making progress. But that progress may have little to do with what we deeply care about, what makes us want to get up in the morning, and what makes us excited that, just maybe, our work can change the world. What possible achievements quicken our hearts so much that they motivate us to stretch past our routines? How we can move towards those inspiring goals? These questions may be harder to answer, but we shouldn’t get too far down the road without asking in what direction we are walking.
Psychology does provide answers. When we do not get ahead of the questions, those answers can teach us a lot about how we learn and why we so often get stuck. But learning about how the mind works is like learning musical theory. Understanding it well can give you some important tools for playing music, but it will not make you a great musician. To reach that goal, the target of all that you learn has to be making the most beautiful music move through you. None of the rest matters. Learning to play music is complex. It takes years to master the basic skills and even longer to develop your own voice. It is the same with becoming extraordinary at a career you care deeply about. To make progress on that path, do not get too excited about some tools that will make you smarter, faster, and better at certain habits. Ask the bigger questions first. Ask why. What do I really care about? What do I want to achieve? You won’t have all of the answers right away, but do not stop asking them. These are the questions that will motivate you to figure out the hows. Maybe you will find some useful tools for getting there in Smarter, Faster, Better. But you will have to test and adapt them to find what moves you inch by inch closer to what you want. It may not be an easy answer, but at least you will be making steady progress towards answering the right questions.