[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!

Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.

Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.

The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?

Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.

All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.

The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their
lives.

The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?

The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a
notch?

Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present
happiness.

Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog – Peer-reviewed by My Neurons – is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.

"Legitimate" Rape Does Cause Pregnancy

Credit: RHRealityCheck.org

…and so do all those other kinds of rape.

It amazes me what lengths pro-lifers will go to when trying to justify imposing their version of morality upon the rest of the country.

Senate nominee Todd Akin (R-AR) thinks that, even in the case of rape, abortion shouldn’t be necessary. Why?

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

And if the female body fails to do its job?

“Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something,” Akin said. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

So…a couple things here.

What is “legitimate rape”? Akin didn’t explain, but based on what I hear from those on his side of the aisle, I can assume that a “legitimate rape” goes something like this: a young woman is walking alone down a dark street, wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, because no woman would go to a dangerous neighborhood alone unless she wants to get raped. She is out because she has important things to take care of, not because she was out having fun or anything like that. She is attractive–but not too attractive–and thin, straight, and white, because fat women, queer women, and women of color can’t possibly be raped and/or should be happy if they are. She is a virgin, or at least has only had sex with her husband or with a serious boyfriend. She’s not that type of girl who sleeps around, that is.

Then a man literally jumps out of the bushes and rapes her without warning, even though she screams for help and tries to fight back.

That is a legitimate rape, and in this situation, her body would “shut down” her fertility, or something like that.

As for whether or not this epic pregnancy-avoidance mechanism actually exists, I haven’t seen any evidence for it in the scientific literature (which, by the way, is the only kind that matters here). And since Akin’s the one who brought it up, the burden of proof is on him. I’m not sure which “doctors” he’s been speaking with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they happen to be barred from practicing medicine in several states.

To me, this points to a need for more and better sex education in schools–before kids grow up, get a degree in divinity, and make a career out of spouting this kind of rubbish and ruining people’s lives with it. Akin is far from the only pro-lifer to think that rape (excuse me, “legitimate” rape) can’t cause pregnancy, as this anti-abortion website proves. (I don’t want to bog down this post with lengthy quotes, but search that page for “sophisticated mix of hormones” and try not to laugh.)

So, moving on to Akin’s statement about what happens if “that didn’t work, or something.” Akin seems to view abortion as a punishment or an “attack” on the child for having the chutzpah to get conceived. It’s not. First of all, you can’t punish something that isn’t alive. Second, it’s interesting that Akin would apparently not consider forcing a living, conscious woman to continue a pregnancy that resulted from rape to be “punishment.” Sure seems like it to me! And, unfortunately, research shows that about 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year.

Obviously, Akin has “apologized” for his statement. In his apology, he said that abortion “is a very emotionally charged issue” and that his statement “does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” He then reconfirmed his pro-life stance, dissed on the Democrats for trying to expand the government in these trying economic times, and notably, said nothing about whether or not the female body can “shut down” pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.”

Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy are laughable, but they should not merely be laughed at. For one thing, he is far from alone in holding this ludicrous belief, and his advocacy against reproductive rights does not end  here. Akin has also supported a complete ban on emergency contraception, and he cosponsored a bill that would’ve restricted funding for abortions to pregnancies that occurred as a result of “forcible” rape (you know, as opposed to the kind where she was asking for it).

Furthermore, as Ilyse Hogue points out at The Nation, comments like Akin’s can have significant political consequences. She notes that for the past few years, the Republicans have employed a strategy in which a politician voices an extreme far-right opinion and gets media coverage for it, allowing the opinion to percolate. Then, less extreme Republicans gradually adapt that stance and it becomes part of the Republican platform.

I would imagine that statements like these can also shift the goalposts in a slightly different way. When a far-right Republican makes such a statement, he/she often receives deserved opprobrium from both liberals and conservatives, and thus allows the more “reasonable” conservatives to reframe their own opinions as valid and acceptable. In this case, for instance, the more “reasonable” conservatives may denounce Akin’s statement and say something like, “Akin’s ridiculous; of course abortion should be legal in all cases of rape.” Key words: in all cases of rape. Not if the woman just doesn’t want to be pregnant. To moderates who lean conservative, then, this viewpoint now starts to seem much more reasonable, because it’s being compared with Akin’s.

Over at The AtlanticTa-Nehisi Coates has a great analysis of Akin’s comments using the concept of privilege:

I think what’s interesting here is the assumed power. I have the right to objectively define pregnancy from rape as rare. I have the right to determine separate legitimate rape from all those instances when you were in need of encouragement, wearing a red dress or otherwise asking for it. I have the right to manufacture scientific theories about your body — theories which reinforce my power. If the body doesn’t “shut that whole thing down” then clearly you weren’t raped, and there’s no need to talk about an abortion. And even if I am wrong on every count, I still have the right to dictate the terms of your body and the remaining days of your life.

In other words, Akin can literally tell you whether or not a woman was “legitimately” raped based on whether or not she gets pregnant. Not because of any scientific evidence, not because of anything the woman herself claimed or testified, but simply because that’s how he would like it to be.

He can do this despite the fact that he currently sits on the House Science and Technology Committee.

That, right there, is the punchline, which actually isn’t funny at all.

P.S. Sign the petition to have Akin removed from the science committee, and to stop lying about rape.

More responses:

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

This post was written by a fellow skeptic and student of psychology, Matthew Facciani.

At best, a lack of skepticism and critical thinking in our society will leave humanity uneducated, insipid animals. At worst, it will be the cause of our ultimate demise.

To begin, I would argue that critical thinking (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence) is related to and facilitates the process of skepticism (the method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt). In order to be skeptical, you must be able to systematically pick apart problems with the concept or idea. By utilizing critical thinking in one’s skepticism, we can challenge fixed beliefs and continue to advance our society with scientific, artistic, social, and other pursuits. Additionally, employers strongly value critical thinking in their potential employees and critical thinking skills are positively correlated with GPA.

Despite the obvious importance of advancing mankind, some individuals are actually opposed to teaching this kind of thinking. The Republican Party of Texas’ Official Platform explicitly stated they were against the teaching of critical thinking in public school classrooms (quoted from their platform: “We oppose the teaching of… critical thinking skills”). It is astonishing that these elected politicians would even consider such a position, let alone have it in their official platform.

This certainly reflects a problem in American society with regards to the values of critical thinking and skepticism. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the problem with not valuing these types of thinking in our society. He mentions that even people who may want to study science can be overwhelmed by pseudoscience, and science is “often filtered out” before it reaches us.

The fact that scientists like Sagan are critical of our scientific inadequacies would not mean much if it not for the data that backs up their statements. Americans have embarrassingly low scores in worldwide comparisons of scientific literacy, science, and math. Skepticism and critical thinking are simply not valued in American society, and the data supports it.

Because skepticism and critical thinking are not cultivated in American society, many Americans cannot tell when they encounter something that is pseudoscience (such as homeopathy or astrology). Someone may want to learn about scientific research, but due to our society’s scientific climate, people are inundated with pseudoscientific claims. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, there is so much information about everything so you can find arguments for any position–with sound evidence or without.

However, a keen understanding of science makes it easy to determine which claims have a substantial amount of evidence. For example, climate change has been documented as a real and problematic phenomenon by many, many researchers. But a few vocal people have found “evidence” against climate change that makes people think twice–as they should when presented with conflicting data. However, any scientifically literate person should be able to see that the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is a real phenomenon and the few studies against it are outliers, poorly done, or cherry-pick data based on their biases.

These biases also impact how people deal with scientific claims in general. People may blindly follow someone who they think is in charge or an expert without analyzing things for themselves (see Milgram’s obedience study). People also see others following these “experts” and are likely to try to conform (see Asch conformity studies). When many people are already blindly following perceived authority figures, it is likely to continue because people do not want to be nonconformists, and the cycle continues. It takes more of a psychological effort to research things for oneself as it is, but couple this with a cultural environment that does not foster critical thinking, skepticism, or science, and we have a legitimate problem.

Furthermore, science in general is often misrepresented in the media. My own field of psychology is often decimated by its public representation and perception. I am technically getting a PhD in experimental psychology, but if I say the word “psychology” to an average person on the street, they think I will psychoanalyze them on a couch, read their mind (though, ironically, my research is actually like mind reading in a scientific sense), or engage in some other pseudoscientific method they saw on television. So I often tell people I study neuroscience because it has less stigma compared to psychology–though people are less likely to know what neuroscience even is!

Most other sciences deal with these issues, as well. The average American is simply not inclined to research or understand scientific concepts because skepticism and critical thinking are not valued in our society. Listening to what people say on television is often good enough for most people. It may not directly impact one person who doesn’t know what an experimental psychologist actually does, but that mindset of incessantly accepting information without challenging it can have catastrophic consequences. We are left with a critical mass of people who do not challenge information presented to them. They blindly follow what perceived authority figures tell them without a second thought.

Critical thinking allows people to dissect and analyze information, and skepticism prompts them to question the information that’s being presented to them first. So I ask, I plead, whoever is reading this–please stand up for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Write to your local politicians telling them about it. Do not let someone say something mindless and unfounded without challenging them. We need to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable challenging ideas and concepts. Once this happens, many more people will be thinking critically about our society’s problems and greater progress will occur.

Matthew Facciani is a 2nd year PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, receiving a B.A. in Psychology with honors. Facciani is also a secular activist, but advocates for any group that is oppressed or treated unfairly.

Is Homosexuality "Unnatural"?

Spoiler alert: no.

First, let’s define “natural.” Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say:

  • “being in accordance with or determined by nature”
  • “having a specified character by nature”
  • “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural”
  • “existing in or produced by nature : not artificial”

For something to be “unnatural,” then, it would have to be the opposite of these things.

And now here are some facts about homosexuality:

  • Same-sex attraction exists among humans all over the world.
  • Although there’s no such thing as the “Gay Gene,” plenty of research has suggested that ties do exist between genetics and sexual orientation.
  • While some research has shown that one’s environment can influence their sexual orientation–for instance, a study showed that gay men report less positive interactions with their fathers than straight men–such factors aren’t exactly up to the individual to choose. (Also, one can’t really determine causation in cases like that.)
  • In general, psychological authorities agree that homosexuality is caused by an interaction of countless factors, usually develops in early childhood, and is not a choice.
  • There is no evidence that sexual orientation can be forcibly changed through “conversion therapy” or any other methods. (However, one’s orientation may be fluid and can sometimes change on its own over time, just like other types of sexual preference.)
  • Even animals can be gay! Homosexual behavior has been documented in tons of different animal species, such as penguins, pigeons, vultures, elephants, giraffes, dolphins, lizards, sheep, and, curiously, fruit flies and bedbugs. Bonobos, meanwhile, are almost entirely bisexual.

Compare this list to the definitions of “natural” above. Could it be that homosexuality is just a part of nature?

Some people like to claim that because homosexuality is “unnatural” because it’s maladaptive in terms of evolution–after all, how are you supposed to pass on your genes if you can’t have biological offspring?

First of all, for various reasons that I may elaborate in a future post, I don’t believe we need to let evolutionary concerns dictate our behavior. Second, there are plenty of other conditions that people are born with that aren’t evolutionarily adaptive–albinism, for instance. Nobody goes around railing about how albino people are “unnatural.” (Except perhaps in parts of Africa, where the condition is heavily stigmatized. But it goes without saying that what happens to albino people in some cultures is deplorable.)

That’s not even to mention the fact that, last I checked, it’s not anybody’s business whether or not particular individuals want to pass their genes on to the next generation or not.

The reason I’m writing about all of this is because homosexuality’s supposed “unnaturalness” is a common justification given by bigots for why they oppose gay rights. (For some examples, see here, here, and here.) As usual, however, their arguments have nothing to do with the meaning of the word “natural” or with current research on homosexuality. (At least among Christians, the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural” comes from bible verses such as Leviticus 18:22, which refers to same-sex relations as an “abomination.” There’s a vague line of reasoning if I ever heard one.)

Therefore, I wish they’d just give the real reason they don’t support gay rights–that they don’t like gay people, don’t wish to examine why they feel this way, and would rather the LGBT community just shut up and stop making their lives so difficult.

Obama the Patriarch

I usually stay away from commenting on Obama’s presidency because, to be honest, I was just a kid during all the previous presidencies I’ve lived through and really have no comparison to make.

However, a recent statement by Obama has caused me to come out of my apolitical cave and rage. After the FDA made a recommendation that Plan B One-Step, a form of emergency birth control that is available over the counter to anyone over 17, be available to girls under 17 without a prescription as well, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary of health and human services, overruled the FDA’s recommendation. This is disappointing enough as is, but then Obama came out in support of her and said the following:

“I will say this, as the father of two daughters: I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine….And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect.  And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”

As usual when I write about women’s issues, I literally don’t even know where to start with this. First, and perhaps most obviously, I don’t understand why we’re having all this conversation about 10- and 11-year-olds. The change would have applied to all girls under 17, and the majority of teenage girls who might need to buy Plan B are not 10 and 11. Try 15 and 16. If Obama and Sebelius are that concerned about 10- and 11-year-olds specifically, they could’ve asked the FDA to recommend allowing only girls 12 and over to get Plan B without a prescription.

Second, and also very tellingly, if the FDA has deemed Plan B safe for over-the-counter use, who are Sebelius and Obama to assume they know better? Sebelius has a BA in political science and an master’s in public administration; Obama has a BA in political science and a law degree. Unlike many cynics, I don’t necessarily doubt that these two have the knowledge and ability to perform their respective jobs, but I would not trust them over the doctors and researchers who staff the FDA when it comes to medical issues.

Third, Obama immediately reveals what this is really about when he says, “as the father of two daughters…” Understandably, Obama would be worried for his two daughters if they were ever in a position to need Plan B. However, for all of the battling that Obama has had to do with the Far Right of this country, he clearly doesn’t seem to realize that many girls don’t have daddies like Obama who would care for them, be able to afford doctors’ appointments, support their right to get an abortion, and guide them through a decision. For many girls, it would be a choice between obtaining Plan B on their own or being shamed, abused, disowned, and/or forced to carry a baby to term.

Finally, I’m disturbed by the ageist and patriarchal notion that young women are somehow incapable of making their own decisions about sexual health. Yes, children need and should have access to guidance from adults. In a perfect world, every girl would be able to go to her parents for help with something like this. But that’s not the world we live in, and we must make do accordingly. Not only has the FDA already determined that Plan B is safe, but, unlike many medications that are available over the counter to children, you can’t overdose on it or otherwise fuck it up–when you buy it, you only get one.

Furthermore, there are other ways to make sure young teens know what they’re doing when it comes to emergency birth control. For instance, mandate pharmacists to provide an option for girls to privately ask them questions about how to use Plan B. Pharmacists know a lot. Why not use them as a resource?

Much has been made of Obama’s failure (or lack thereof) to support women’s rights, and it’s a debate I don’t normally follow because one can really spin it either way. On this issue, however, I would argue that Obama has definitively failed to support women and girls. Instead, he has promoted the antiquated notion that beliefs trump science when it comes to reproductive rights.

Preventing Depression

I love it when people who actually know what they’re talking about confirm something I’ve believed for ages.

In this case, a study at the Feinberg School of Medicine (that’s Northwestern’s med school) showed that one out of every four or five college students who come to their school’s health center may be suffering from depression. The study also recommended that colleges should start screening students for depression. This way, they might even be able to pinpoint students with minor depression and help them get treatment before their depression worsens.

Ever since I’ve started seriously reading about psychology and depression, I’ve felt that we should start taking a preventative approach to it–not just in colleges, but everywhere. Depression tends to worsen with time, and even when it does remit on its own, it usually comes back later, with more intensity. Furthermore, distorted thinking patterns seem to precede the development of a full-blown depressive episode, so why not address those earlier rather than later?

For instance, parents take their kids to the doctor to make sure that they’re growing at a normal rate and developing the cognitive abilities they’re supposed to develop–why not also check to make sure that kids aren’t developing negative and maladaptive thinking patterns that could increase their risk for becoming depressed later?

You might think that kids are too young to show definitive patterns, but I think that’s false. My own little brother, who’s eight years old, constantly complains that he’s fat and needs to exercise, despite being underweight for his age. He also says that everyone at school hates him (they don’t) and that his school is awful and should be burned to the ground (and various other sentiments that have gotten him sent to the principal’s office before). Perhaps most importantly, he also has a pervasive family history of depression.

The unfortunate truth is that society views mental illnesses as fundamentally different from physical illnesses. One is a straightforward matter–you go to a doctor for checkups, and if something is wrong, you receive treatment. The other is for some reason shrouded in mystery, and people generally don’t go seek help for it until they’re already barely functioning.

As recent scientific developments are beginning to show, however, it may be that all mental illnesses actually have a physical basis. More and more psychologists and psychiatrists (notably, Peter D. Kramer of Listening to Prozac fame) are starting to take this view. If they’re right, it follows that we should try to take a preventative approach in treating mental illness, not a palliative one.

However, many people still have negative attitudes about the idea of psychological screening. One of the students quoted in the article linked to above said that these screenings are a bad idea because someone could just “be having a bad day” and–oh, the horrors–get recommended for counseling. First of all, however, counseling isn’t exactly the same as taking antibiotics or getting a spinal tab. Second, that just means that we need to develop better depression screening tools, not that we shouldn’t screen for it at all.

In college especially, conditions like depression can take a turn for the worse rather quickly, as evidenced by the several suicides we’ve had on campus while I’ve been a student here. Every time a tragedy like that occurs, friends and family are often quoted as saying that they “never saw it coming.” Maybe a professional psychologist would’ve.