Friday, 10 May 2019

Why most self-improvement books aren’t very helpful and can even be hurtful

In a world in which material success counts as much as in ours, self-improvement books are bound to proliferate. A lot of people do want to be successful and envy the successful, so there is definitely no shortage of books that want to teach you how to be successful.

While some of those books are probably well-meaning, some of them just produced for commercial interests, some of the can be downright dangerous. What a lot of these books tell you, is that anybody can be successful and if you are not it is your own fault. This is plainly both false and potentially harmful, as it tells any person who is not successful, that they are a losers (this definitely does not help self-esteem and self-improvement).

The truth is, that financial success is due to a lot of factors, among them hard work, intelligence, the right background and connections, sheer luck, and finally also personality.  Among those only hard work is one thing you have entirely under your own control and it is by itself not a recipe for financial success in the 21st century.

Your personality is definitely something you can work on, however, there are also limits. If you have a look at the statistics for income by personality type (Myers Briggs), you will quickly find the limiting personality traits. On the left (low income) side you will find mostly introverted (I) types. Introversion limits the amount of time you can spend interacting with a lot of people without rising stress (cortisol) levels. So, a 10-hour day in a 200+ employee company would get an introverted person quickly into burnout.

At the top earning end are TJ (extremely competitive and ambitious people) types, with ESTJs leading. The recipe for a low income person would therefore be the opposite INFP (Is earning less than Es, Ns earning less than Ss, etc.)

While an ESTJ might be able to work a 10-hour day in a high testosterone environment and then just have a relaxing 8 hour sleep, the opposite INFP would struggle with working that long plus not be able to relax because he or she would still need time to process all that information leading to a sleepless night. Under such circumstances it would be more than bad advice to tell an INFP that she or she can work 10 hour, only if they go to bed early enough, if they prioritize this or that, etc. That person wouldn’t make it anyway, because you can’t change the way you are.

Of course, self-improvement is a noble goal in itself. However, first you have to be aware of what you want to improve and what the premisses of the self-improvement book you read are. Most are:
  • Making a lot of money is the ultimate goal to achieve everything you want in life
  • Making a lot of money will bring you happiness
  • If you can’t achieve that goal there is something wrong with you
  • If there is something wrong with you you can fix it yourself
  • If you can’t fix yourself you are a loser
None of these premisses are true. Human life has never been about financial success. Of course it can bring you status, but that is only one part of our social life. Friends, family, meaningful activities are generally more important for our happiness and well-being.

Self improvement has to start with the ancient wisdom of γνῶθι σεαυτόν “know thyself”. Only if you know yourself you can start making the right kinds of decision, like if a conceived weakness is really a weakness or it is just the way you are and if you want to go with the mainstream. Learning to love yourself - is the greatest love of all, like Whitney Houston once sang. Trying to be someone you are not is a recipe for disaster.

I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone's shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I'll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can't take away my dignity
Because the greatest
Love of all is happening to me
I found the greatest
Love of all inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Modern love or love and marriage…

don’t go together like a horse and carriage anymore, like Frank Sinatra once sang. What has happened? As you can see from the statistic (English and Wales) marriages have gone down since the 70s and divorce rates have gone up rapidly. Divorce rates have been slightly decreasing recently, but only because people aren’t getting married anymore. Accounting for this fact, divorce rates are probably at a historic high.

Let’s start our investigation in the 1960s when the contraceptive pill was started to be used widely.

As you can see there is an almost perfect correlation between women using the pill and rising divorce rates. There is a lag of approximately seven years, though. This is the famous “Seven Year Itch”. There have been a lot of speculations about this correlation. A common one I have read is that the pill makes women unattractive (putting on weight). If even that makes sense to some people, I wouldn’t say that most people would be so shallow to leave their partner because of a few more pounds.

The real reason can be expressed in terms of evolutionary psychology: if a partner hasn’t produced offspring after a longer period of time (studies show that on average it is actually rather six years than seven years), it is the best strategy to leave the partner and find a new mate.
Of course, the pill has had many upsides too, above all letting people choose when to have children. It allowed women to choose long term careers, reduced abortion rates and probably also reduced crime rates considerably (fewer unwanted children means fewer children in danger of becoming delinquents).

The pill in combination with our capitalist economic system has made it possible that people can postpone having children and pursue a career instead. This the average age for the first child has jumped up to around 30 years compared to around 20 years in the 1950s.

For many people having children has become a luxury, which is absurd considering how well off economically we are nowadays. If and how many children people want to have nowadays is greatly determined by people’s personality. The more traditional personality types still want to have children, they merely start a little bit later than they used to because everybody wants to have a good education nowadays.

If you check the above table of distribution of personality types (MBTI), you will find that the more traditional S types have a higher distribution. This simply means that more traditionally minded S types have more children. Also, the more ambitious types (TJ), who on average have higher incomes, have more children. A male ISTJ/ESTJ female (ISFJ/ESFJ) pair would have the highest number of children nowadays, say a hospital doctor and his stay-at-home wife.

The more traditional types have a certain genotype of the
OXTR rs53576 gene. GG types have been found to have more stable relationships and report higher marital satisfaction than carriers of the AA/AG genotypes.

It has been interpreted that the AA/AG types are less social. However, I think those types are frequently
intuitives and have a different kind of sociality. Intuitives might have lower social cognition (recognition of feelings, memory for names), however, they have a “thinner skin”, when it comes to emotions. That’s probably one of the reasons why intuitives are more prone to divorce. Personally, I know many intuitives who don’t want to have children in the first place. My hypothesis is that intuitives were programmed by evolution to survive during hard and unsettled times and a prone to postponing settling down until more settled times. The problem is that the right time might never arrive in these unsettled times. Intuitives are already programmed by evolution to invest all their resources in fewer children. This would be the most advantageous parental strategy in hard times.

In order to cement my hypothesis, I want to point out that contrary to traditional S types the more ambitious types among intuitives (NJ) have in fact fewer children, rather than more. How can this obvious paradox be explained? It does make sense when you consider that NJ types are willing to postpone reproduction longer than NP types and of course they want to have fewer children too, in order to optimise their resources on even fewer offspring.

The consequences of these patterns of marriage and child-bearing is that we will see an increase of SJ personality types in the near future and a (further) decrease of N (in particular NJ) types.

Dedicated to my wife Alyona

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Idealist Pessimism vs Rational Optimism (Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley)

Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now (2018) has become quite famous and popular.  His position isn’t anything but new and was probably best expressed by Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist (2010). The argument is quite a simple one: science and technology have made our lives immensely better than they used to be. To some extent I do agree with this position.

On the surface almost everything is better than even just a 100 (let alone a 1000 or more) years ago. However, that is just the surface. If you look beneath the surface you see a lot of human suffering going on, perhaps a lot more than just a 100 or a 1000 years ago. Depression, suicide, addictions, anxiety levels are at an all-time high. Humankind has psychological problems that were extremely rare or weren’t problems, like ASD, borderline disorder, eating disorders and ADHD.

So, how can you be an optimist when it is only our material world that is shiny and glittery when our psychological world is a wasteland? Of course, a rational optimist might say “Cheer up, guys - no need to be depressed, because this is the best of all worlds we live in”. However, the problems are not only restricted to our mental states. There are also physiological epidemies in our modern world that were virtually unknown in hunter gatherer societies: heart disease and hypertension, most cancers and most allergies. I have a hunch that pretty much all of these diseases are related to stress (cholesterol) levels in our modern lifestyle.

In history we have seen again and again that when indigenous people come into contact with western civilisations diseases start to soar, alcoholism, depression, suicide, high teenage pregnancy rates and low life expectancy are rife in Native American reservations. Indigenous Australians didn’t have a word for cancer and now it is the number one killer among them. Eating disorders were virtually unknown until a few decades ago: Modern media have quickly spread them to the remote corners of our planet.

To my mind it is better to be an idealist pessimist than a rational optimist: like a smoke detector a little bit too sensitive but being able to help in time.

To give a concrete example: twenty years ago, a colleague of mine said that we are living in a horrible time for having children. At first my inner rational optimist came out and thought: “That is crazy and paranoid!”. At no time has it been easier and safer to have children nowadays. I consider low child mortality rates the greatest achievement of medicine. Children have actually way more things than they ever need, and parents spend more time with the (fewer) children they have.

However, twenty years later I tend to see things differently. Childhood doesn’t seem to be such a happy, care-free, time it used to be. There are a lot of depressed teens, cutting themselves, and death by suicide has increased by 33% in the US in the past decade. For a lot of teenagers life consists of exam anxiety, fear of being bullied and boredom. An African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. That village has definitely gone. Nowadays often there aren’t even grandparents around, there might be no sibling to play with, personal social interactions for children have been dramatically reduced. Often even with their parents who both have a jog. The deep connections that used to be there have gone.

Last, but not least, there is the problem of low fertility rates. Birth rates in the developed world have long dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1. children per woman. This can even be seen as a success story in the eyes of rational optimists, as it makes fears of an overpopulated unwarranted. However, fewer and fewer people wanting to have children should be cause for concern as there are severe long-term consequences to be expected, plus it is initiated of times that aren’t too happy.

Steven Pinker as an evolutionary psychologist knows that having offspring is paramount for living being. He describes how he personally has ignored ''the solemn imperative to spread my genes. By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake. . .. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake.'' Of course, everybody’s genes can jump in the lake, but Steve should also start thinking about why that is increasingly the case. In my humble opinion it is because humans are programmed to delay reproduction until times are settled and optimal for child rearing (good job, right partner, etc.). However, in our unsettled times, the right time might just not come at all. And this is definitely not a cause for optimism.

Dedicated to my parents

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

What the Myers-Briggs distribution of types really means

I have come across a couple of explanations what the distribution of the Myers-Briggs types means. One common explanation is that you either belong to a common type (good thing, because it means you aren’t so different) or to a rare type (good thing, because you are something special). Somehow that logic doesn’t seem watertight to me, but in my experience, people often feel pride or relief when they learn about their MBTI. 

However, that doesn’t really answer the question. The answer is very simple, though. The distribution of types represents their past reproductive success.

Looking at the below table is easy to see that there is a rough correlation between income (particularly STJ types) and reproductive success for men. However, that is true for sensors only. For intuitive men, the reverse is true: the ambitious N(T)J types have fewer offspring than the more “relaxed” NP types!

For women, you can interpret the type distribution chart the following way: the more “girly” a woman is the more children she has. This corresponds to the superficial image of women with which we are constantly bombarded by the media.

One thing that is immediately clear from the chart is that intuitives have fewer children. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Intuitives are programmed by evolution to survive during hard times. This makes them want to have fewer children in the first place but invest more resources in the fewer children.
  2. Intuitives are programmed by evolution to delay reproduction. That makes them have children later in life than sensors.
  3. Intuitives are programmed by evolution to avoid reproduction during unsettled times. This explains why the reverse is true for intuitives:  ambitious intuitive types give priority to their career than to having a family life until they feel they can settle down, However, nowadays it may seem to these types that no time is the right time to have children. For sensors career, status and reproduction go hand in hand. For intuitives it means more stress and more reason to delay child-rearing.
  4. Intuitives don’t have the traditional male/female roles. Typically, both partners want to have a career, which makes it really hard to have children. With sensors, the type who is most willing to stay at home (ISFJ) and take care of the children is also the most successful one at reproduction.
  5. Intuitives are choosier when it comes to mate choice (this was highly advantageous in times when survival was difficult) which makes it harder for them to find the right mate.
  6. Intuitives have become rare in our culture (not so in Asian countries like Japan, for example), which makes it even more difficult to find a partner.

Note 1: The most successful reproductive female type among intuitives are ENFPs. I have got a hunch that many of these girls are the typical unwanted teenage pregnancy cases. How come? ENFPs are typically not good at school and have a hard time being socially accepted during their teenage years. They aren’t the typical girly girl and they are the natural risk takers among girls. So, they are often in danger of taking drugs, alcohol and to have precocious sex. The latter, when they come from broken homes and look for a protective father figure. These girls might end up with two pregnancies during their teens, particularly when the first father (most probably too young to take responsibility for fatherhood) disappears again and these girls try to find another father figure again.

Note 2: I know a lot of wonderful ENFJ girls, who do not want to have children. Many of them in their 40ies now. Of course, nobody can be forced into having children, but if N types are so unwilling to reproduce it will be even harder to find partners for intuitives in the near future. We seem to be a dying breed.

Note 3: Recent years have seen a reversal of the Flynn Effect (rising IQ). Less intelligent people seem to have more children. This is exactly what would be predicted from the distribution of MBTI types, intuitives often having a high percentage of gifted children. If the trend of intuitives not having children continues we can expect a further decrease of IQ levels. In particular as schools tend to filter out SJ types and disadvantage creative NP types.

Note 4: Eating disorders have been rapidly increasing all over the world with the above-mentioned superficial image of women conveyed by the media. The most affected types are the SP for bulimia, and the NJ types for anorexia (most common type INFJ). Women with these personality types should be made aware of their type and the dangerous trap that running after false ideals poses for them.

Dedicated to my children