The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The How-to-be-happy Formula, Part II

Most people assume that our traits and attitudes affect our behavior. That is true (though less so than is commonly supposed). But it’s also true that our traits and attitudes follow our behavior. We are as likely to act ourselves into a new way of thinking as to think ourselves into a new way of acting.

Many streams of evidence and experience converge on that attitudes-follow-behavior principle. For instance, immoral acts shape the self. Those induced to speak or write statements about which they have misgivings often come to accept their little lies. Saying is believing. Most educated people are familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies, in which adult Connecticut men were asked to test out a supposed new teaching method, using punishment for wrong answers.

The men began not with a hurtful act but my signaling a wrong answer with a trivial fifteen volts – a barely perceptible tickle. The ensuing steps (thirty volts, forty-five volts, and so forth) were each trivial increments. By the time the supposed victim first groaned, the subject had already complied five times and begun to internalize reasons for doing so. Actions and attitudes were feeding each other in an escalating spiral, leading ordinary people to become agents of evil.

So it happened during the early 1970s, as Greece’s military junta trained young men to become torturers. Trainees selected for their obedient tendencies would first be assigned to guard prisoners, then to participate in arresting squads, then occasionally to hit prisoners, then to observe torture, and only then to practice it. As compliance bred acceptance, a decent person evolved into an agent of evil. Cruel acts bred cruel attitudes, enabling heightened cruelty.

Fortunately, the principle works the other way too: Moral acts also shape the self. Children who resist a temptation become more conscientious. Altruists come to like the ones they’ve helped. Desegregation has been followed by diminished prejudice. Jewish tradition has the idea: To deal with anger, it suggests, give a gift to the object of your rage.

There is a practical moral here for us all. Do we wish to change ourselves in some important way? Perhaps to boost our self-esteem? To become more optimistic and socially assertive? Well, a potent strategy is to get up and start doing that very thing. Don’t worry that you don’t feel like it. Fake it. Pretend self-esteem. Feign optimism. Simulate outgoingness.

- The Pursuit of Happiness