Saturday, December 17, 2022

Easy Languages

 Photo from Pixabay

Follow-up to “Hard Languages,” November 13, last month’s topic.

What is an easy language for English speakers to approach and immerse in?  Since language is such a basic key to culture, familiarity or fluency have a great enabling effect in opening up an entire cultural dimension, either in one country or across a wide cultural empire (as Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Arabic provide).  The issue here is the time and exposure needed to achieve the needed level of comfort and speed in sending and receiving--or speaking and decoding.  The artificial intelligence revolution was jump-started by the US government goal to develop a machine program that could learn to translate and transcribe natural language.

Babies under six months can distinguish speech sounds from any language in the world.  But the brain soon begins to focus on a single language practice and its sound differences and starts to ignore other distinctions less important in that language.  Young children can learn two languages equally well.  The window to learn any language seems to be 12 years—beyond that, language acquisition doesn’t map well to the maturing brain as its patterns become set (Linden, The Accidental Mind, 2007). Acquiring everyday facility in a language is one thing.  Mastering its nuances, its cultural structures, is quite ornate, involving a long process of immersion and practice in context.  That is the principle behind the idea of shibboleth, a difference in pronunciation that separates native insiders from outsiders.

Languages within the same language family are typically the easiest to learn because of familiar cognates (roots in common), grammar, written form (Latin alphabet), conjugation rules, tonality, and pronunciation. For English, that is West Germanic. This branch includes English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Yiddish. 80% of the most-used English vocabulary, and the grammar, is Germanic.  The larger family grouping is Indo-European, spoken by the largest percentage of speakers worldwide—close to half.  English worldwide has 1.5 billion speakers, of which just under 400 million (about a quarter) call it their native language.  And for non-native speakers from other language families, English is not an easy acquisition.  

Selecting a new language also depends on its useful cultural position:  where the language is spoken, how widely distributed, and its global media influence.   Non-European languages that use the Latin alphabet, like Malay and Swahili, are cases in point.  Malay is the lingua franca across several southeast Asian countries; Swahili is the trading language of East Africa (as a second language) with a rich Arabic vocabulary, sharing our Latin alphabet.  Indonesian also uses Latin script and has a simple grammar. 

Since the first century BCE, Swahili has served 50 million people as it developed as the lingua franca of trade and the national language of Kenya and Tanzania, influenced by Arabic (Swahili means “coastal “) widely used in Uganda, Burundi, DRC, and the islands of Zanzibar and Comoros—the standard version is based in Zanzibar City.  Because pronunciation is regular and the alphabet Roman, Swahili is one of the exotic easy language to approach and acquire.  It has a wide range across several cultures and a long history. It can also be heard in south Ethiopia and Somalia and northern Zambia and Mozambique, and even Madagascar (Lonely Planet phrasebook, 2008).

Then there is the cultural aspect:  what does the language afford as access to the richness of history, literature, religion, art traditions, and connections with other cultures within the language and beyond?  French and English have been historically important in the West because of their status and portability in diplomacy.  As the world turns increasingly toward the Eastern cultural dimension (India, China, Japan) this ratio is shifting from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean. 

Proximity to English is one index of easiness.  Frisian is the most similar to English, but has just a half-million speakers in northwest Europe.  Spanish, however, has over 534 million speakers worldwide, and is the official language of 21 countries.  English speakers already have the greatest range as the language of business, science, and world politics in the form of “Globish,” basically acting as the universal auxiliary language.  Legacy of the British Empire, it is already the official language of 29 countries.  Considering the time-intensive demands of learning a completely new tongue, there is little incentive to acquire one. From an English-speaking perspective, most Romance and Indo-European languages take about 600+ hours to learn, while tonal languages or those from the Sino-Tibetan language family can take 2000+ hours to learn. (ScienceABC). 

Unless language links you to your family’s heritage. Our research director has become an Italian “citizen living abroad” (in the US for now) through his mother’s ancestry, an option that several other countries (like Ireland and Mexico) are introducing with the goal of attracting Americans back to the mother country to live with their incomes.  The European Union opens the borders dramatically, since citizens of one member country can live and work in any of the current 27. 

Some of these languages are close to English (like the Germanic family members Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish); others seem far afield (Romanian, Afrikaans, Indonesian) (FSI  source) .  Of course there are constructed languages and ancient languages that are mostly academic, not spoken, or extinct, like Gothic.  These open out to other cultural worlds, peoples, histories, a kind of hyperreality across time. Ancient languages are still spoken or written today, or are direct ancestors of those spoken today, like modern Greek, the easiest to learn with a non-Latin script (already familiar through science), and a basic medium of Western Civ.  A more familiar example is modern Hebrew, based on the ancient model but updated.



The US Foreign Service Institute, beginning with its mission in language training after WWII for its in-country staffing, has been a good source of language manuals and tapes available free online. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Hard Languages

  “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
– Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein

Arcane tribal languages in remote settings (South America, Asia, Africa) would be the most daunting for English speakers. This is because of their isolation from the mainstream languages of more populated areas, and therefore have little in common with familiar Roman and Greek roots in the Indo-European tradition. 

If you want to try your hand at a south/eastern European language, try Romanian.  It is the only Latin-based language in that geography, and shows many cognate commonalities with English.  And although Danish is a close cognate to English, its 27 phonetically distinct vowels make it much harder to understand and master than Swedish and Norwegian. Also complicating Danish are its varied glottal stops that are both hard to hear and hard to pronounce for non-native speakers. While Danes can pick up both these Nordic systems, both the two other speaking groups have more trouble with Danish, and pronunciation is exacting (Jens Lund, Ph.D., folklorist and native Danish speaker). 

Are you up for a real language challenge that will allow you to speak to under 100 other specialists after years of work?  Then consider the constructed language (conlang) domain. Klingon would have to be one of the most challenging.  This language was invented for Star Trek III (1984) as a formal integrated speech for the Klingons in the Trek universe.  After a dictionary was published, many people dabbled in its difficult spelling and pronunciation, but only a handful (under 100 estimated) have become skilled speakers able to converse with each other and understand the film tracks.  In addition, since Klingon speech focuses largely on spacecraft and warfare, it has limited use for day-to-day conversation. It is popular with linguists for its creative aspects played out within the general principles of language.  

Of natural languages (as opposed to constructed cases), it is interesting that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest to learn for English speakers—because of the thousands of ideographs necessary for written comprehension, as well as a four-tone scale for meaning.  But it is also the most widely spoken global language (besides Globish, basic English spoken as an auxiliary tongue).  Arabic, Polish, and Russian follow, the first also forcing a totally unfamiliar writing system.  The US Foreign Service Institute groups languages for difficulty from 1 through 4, with the “Super-hard” Category 4 including Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Japanese, and Korean.

Classical languages are more difficult simply because of their restricted lives in religious and academic contexts, but express a range.  "Classical Greek and Sanskrit are extremely difficult because they are so highly inflected--hundreds of forms of the verb and numerous case endings.   Late Greek (koine) simplifies the grammar and thus is much easier to read and not particularly difficult. Egyptian grammar and vocabulary are very simple.  Its only real difficulty is mastering the hieroglyphs, which are very few compared to Chinese" (Prof. Robert Littman, Classical studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa).

How about learning a tribal language?  There are many still active around the globe, the most in New Guinea (numbering around 850), the most diverse linguistic area known. The Khoisan language of South Africa is among the world’s oldest, at 60,000 years.  Closer, in the US, the three leading tribal languages still spoken are Navajo (by far the largest and hardest) in Arizona, Yupik in Central Alaska, and Sioux in the upper Midwest and Canada. Navajo was famously employed as an unbreakable talking code by native-speaking marines in WWII. They are all difficult, made more so by their roots in exotic and ancient cultures, arcane to learn and relate to vocabulary—and have only in modern times enjoyed a written format.  Hawaii is the only US state with two official languages—Hawaiian and English--as of 1978.  Along the range of tribal language difficulty, Hawaiian is among the easiest.

So there are many “hardest languages” out there to appreciate, if not to master as a fluent speaker, and each has a rich cultural component.  Klingon was born from the constructed science fiction of the Star Trek universe, so does have a soundtrack, but a steep learning for pronunciation, structure, and symbol alphabet.  Klingon was designed to look and sound truly alien, which it does as a function of its weirdly off-center profile without cognates.  (However, Duolingo now actually offers the course.) The most widely spoken constructed lingua franca, Esperanto, has an estimated million speakers world-wide, but little cultural baggage (literature, history, religion, film, cuisine).  However, fluency can be reached in one-tenth the time of natural languages, and in itself, Esperanto offers a quickly effective base for language-learning capability. 


Next blog:  “Easy” Languages

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Acing the College Essay


Acing the College Essay

I answered a call for experts on the college essay by the New York Post.  Here are my answers to their questions about this high-value writing challenge: the personal profile, an essay that can make (or even break) the candidate’s chances. 

We are at the starting line for college applications. The early-decision deadline for many colleges is November 1st.  Between November and February, upwards of 5 million college applicants—including 65% of high-school graduates--will be struggling to compose an essay of 250 to 650 words in their “authentic voice.” The goal is to portray themselves as uniquely interesting college material for selective schools across the country.

Here are a few heuristics—rules of thumb--applicants need to know for this essay portion, the personal statement, of their application.  An effective essay is important because by itself it has an important job.  This is to focus, or refocus, the whole application: by putting a face and voice to the facts of student grades, activities, and awards, or to temper a less-than-stellar record by showcasing insight, values, and clear expression.  As essay coach Alan Gelb puts it in his book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, “…admissions office counsellors name the essay as the single most important ‘tip factor’—that is, the thing that can tip your application in your favor, all other factors being equal.” 

Q: What is your experience in writing and education?  As an academic editor and dissertation project manager, for several decades I have been an admissions essay coach, as well as Faculty Reader of the Advanced Placement test in English for the College Board.   

Q: Why is the college essay such an important part of the application process? The college personal essay is quite possibly the most important piece of writing you will ever undertake.  While something outside the main application, it can be a high card in your hand if handled well.  “It can turn around the way the committee looks at your other achievements, acting as the catalyst that can channel positive attention on to acceptance,” says Steve Goodman, admissions strategist and author of the results-based College Admissions Together.  Individual schools, and the central Common APP, issue specific “prompts” (which can change) to set the focus, including “Describe a person you admire,” “Personal growth,” “Learning from obstacles,” “Solving a problem,” and “What captivates you?” (Princeton Review)

Q: Can you point to a leading thing not to do in the essay?  Select your essay topic with the reader in mind, the admissions officer, who will give you under ten minutes to impress them.  (In-person interviews are increasingly rare).  The topic might not even be your intuitive first pick of what’s most important about your character and experience.  Think of something unique to you, your family, community, or values.  Example from a student client’s first draft: “I am unique.  You will never meet anyone like me.” My edit:  Everyone is unique; it’s what we do with that position that counts.  Here’s the question:  How did you mobilize your unique qualities to make a difference for yourself and others?

We then revised the initial statement to read “I realized that I could use my special talents to create value not just for myself but for others, from my family out to school and community.”  Then describe how.  Avoid topics that many others will gravitate to:  My trip to Israel (or European / Asian tour), gender or religious conversion, why I hate / love / admire my parent / stepparent, and political opinions, unless you are involved in political work.  Think of something either off-beat or seemingly ordinary to signal an important principle you learned, then applied

The goal of the personal essay is to show off your insight, self-awareness, ability to derive value and meaning from any situation (family business, volunteering, off-brand sports, assignments, reading, challenges from family, peers, authority figures).  Showcase your own specialized perception, talents, expertise, ideas, even hopes and fears, and the doubts you have struggled with—showing how you coped, managed, or overcame them, and how you were able to surmount resistance with resilience. 

Q:  What about other best practices?  This would be obvious to experienced applicants:  No texting spellings (e.g.,” I xpect 2hav evn mor xper”); use a translation program if you need one.  Don’t rely on your own judgment about how well you write; show your “finished” draft around to your English teacher, an editor online, your parents, assuming they are literate types, or other seasoned writers.  Your own peers, unless they are highly qualified, probably don’t make the grade here.

But here’s a warning:  admissions experts know immediately when an essay looks “cooked”: written over 50% by an expert.  It can’t be a world-class essay when your grades are Bs and Cs.  If it’s 85% mechanically correct, and the ideas are solid, that level will be fine.  Students tend to put off the essay until last, but it’s important to work on it over time, starting slowly the summer before the due date. (Yes! This means draft after draft as you discover yourself in the text.)  This is the critical piece you spend the most time building up by multiple drafts, a much-encouraged method, and each stage takes the time of close attention.  No matter how skilled a writer you believe you are, this is no midnight-the-night-before task.  As a reward, this experience will greatly strengthen your essay writing in all school subjects.

QWhat can make the essay shine?  Seek originality and insight-finding moments to describe and analyze.  This means going beneath the surface of people, incidents, and circumstances to discover what’s important and perception-shifting about them.  Dedicate the time to focus, mind-map, then gather together a good number of thinking pieces as paragraphs you can then pull together to construct your essay (and note any word limits to be aware of).  Find the unexpected insight, the extraordinary embedded within “ordinary” scenarios. 

The idea is to show perception wedded to knowledge (weaving in references to school reading), especially impressive to your admissions readers.  One of my clients wrote a winning essay about watching Bill Cosby as TV’s Dr. Huxtable for his medical school application; another covered her job mowing lawns with his father when the family economy got tight for a business school placement.  Responding to “most impressive historical event,” another wrote about the explorations and innovations of the Phoenicians as key to civilization-building—a personal view.  

Exploring the many concepts implicit in ordinary experience, or to themes of human experience, is the key to an intelligent take on the world (the same skill that marks great literature, in fact) signals you are perceptive acceptance material who will prove an asset to the incoming class.  

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Engineering Bias


“As fuel was consumed, the ship got lighter and the acceleration more pronounced.  Rising at this exponential rate, the craft quickly reached maximum acceleration, a limit defined not by the ship’s power, but by the delicate human bodies inside.”    -- Andy Weir, The Martian

“Engineering:  The discipline of applying technical and scientific knowledge and physical resources to design and produce materials, machines, devices, systems, and processes that meet at desired objective and specified criteria.”  -- New World Encyclopedia


“Objective and specified criteria” sounds highly rational and technical.  But this demand set starts out with human factors – the controller, driver, or user of whatever is design-engineered.  Here are two examples: 

Case 1:  Climate control: Many female workers report office climates as chilly, whereas men feel quite comfortable.  Why is this? writes that office building algorithms for temperature regulation date back to the 60s, targeted to a 154-pound male.  The smaller bodies and lower muscle mass of women make them more susceptible to cold.  Unless climate control is updated to reflect this difference, including the growing numbers of women in the office workforce, this male-bias design problem persists.  “Minor” design aspects like this set-point exert a major impact.  Temperature affects not just comfort but productivity (like keyboarding performance).  The gender pay gap could be just one outcome of off-balance climate control.

Case 2:  Ergonomic seating:  On the other hand, a product made to solve a niche-ability problem became a major bestseller by virtue of its appeal across the board—inclusive of all body types and positions. In 1994 Herman Miller contracted engineering to design a versatile office seat that would accommodate any person in any posture at a range of seated tasks—largely computer-based.  Not only could the chair angle well from straight to reclined, it was “lined” with an elastic polymer mesh, first developed to prevent sores in bedridden patients.  The Aeron chair—the “dot-com throne”--quickly became one of the most popular high-end office chairs ever made. 


The design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures begins with the physiology and mentality of human beings (biology and psychology), moving from that base out into cultural values (how people, things, and experiences are defined, weighted, and ranked across groups).  This means that people, not devices, are the central core of design thinking.  These human factors introduce a powerful bias into the “neutral” processes based on math and physics.  UX—user experience—experts understand product users and their experiences—including thought conventions, emotional feedback, intuitive assumptions, decision-making, task procedure, and options for action.  Human Factors Engineering is now a subspecialty, but all engineering projects must, ideally from the outset of the design process, define, test, and evaluate the fit between design and user (Goddard).

Typical of a project well understood in this way is medical devices.  Less well understood are chronic-care pharmaceutical regimens and effects, where compliance with use rules (adherence) is only around 50% (and less for males than females), decreasing over time (US Pharmacist).  The countering side-effects, dosage schedules, and low effectiveness of any given medication are the main causes of non-adherence.  And yet these counter-productive factors are not fully recognized or acknowledged by the medical profession as obstacles to patient compliance that interfere with the engineering of desired drug outcomes.


The first bias going in is that the designer looks and uses the device in the same way the user would – but the first is an expert, whereas the second, the typical user, is often a first-time user.  Don Norman, human-centered design expert, puts it this way in the opening of his human factors book: “You are designing for people the way you would like them to be, not the way they really are” (The Design of Everyday Things p. 7). (When looking under the topic of bias in engineering, you will see plenty of articles on bias—in the hiring of women and minorities.  While diversity and inclusion aren’t under discussion here, male dominance in the profession has design outcomes as bias toward male users.)

But bias is also an outcome of the human factors involved in the designing assumptions of the (usually male) engineer.  Men and male bodies dominate medical testing, with female subjects missing from medical trials as too complex and variable—and at special risk for any adverse after-effects of testing. Differing male and female physiology produce differing responses to drug type and dosage.  In parallel, in the design of credit ratings, males are given higher credit and spending limits—based on assumptions about long-term earnings and employment.  Microsoft vision systems fail to recognize darker-skinned figures, and self-driving cars have recognition systems less likely attuned to dark skin tone as well  ( 

In AI, male voices are easier for voice programs to recognize and interact with.  Critics of this bias have noted that most of the voice-activated home programs (like Siri and Alexa) use the female assistant model of the young articulate admin with a compliant and faintly flirtatious edge.  It can also be that female voices signal trust and reassurance—as advertisers are aware in healthcare, beauty, and hospitality, versus the more authoritative male voice (ESB Advertising).

This can result in critical situations in automotive design and safety, as Carol Reiley writes in “When bias in product design means life or death” (Techcrunch, Nov. 16, 2016).  She points out that test dummies are modelled on the average male body, so that females are almost half-again as likely to be injured in a crash.  The first female crash dummies entered the design process in 2011, and since then, Toyota and Volvo have coded programs dedicated to testing the smaller-scale female body as well as pregnant ones.

Self-centric design

Designers use people like themselves (unconsciously) as models for the majority of products and programs (male, white, US-based).  This is no surprise but an outcome of everyone’s natural homophily—the tendency to relate best to those who look, think, and act like ourselves.  In a study by the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media, white men over-perceive women and minorities in simulations where just 17% were women (seen as 50/50 ratio to men), with 33% women seen as the majority.  This is an irony in view of the fact that women make three-quarters of all consumer buying decisions. 

And consider just designing for the brain itself, which is complex but runs best on programs and input that are first of all intuitive.  Few people except the technically inclined even bother to read a manual—a complex tech manual being an even greater obstacle to operation.  Don Norman points to an early digital watch, the Junghans Mega 1000 Digital Radio Controlled.  With five buttons along the top, bottom, and side for operation, the follow questions arise:  “What is each button for?  How would you set the time? There is no way to tell—no evident relationship between the operating controls and the functions, no constraints, no apparent mappings.  Moreover, the buttons have multiple ways of being used” (TDOET p. 27-28).  And as much as Norman likes the watch itself, even he (an expert in device design) can’t recall these functions or how they are deployed in order to fully enjoy the watch features.

Undiscovered bias makes engineering design much more difficult to define or shape to the right purposes.  Bias skews the problem definition from solving the problem that needs to be solved (not necessarily the one presented by the client) for the right array of users, who will then be able to use the device by the maps, concepts, and symbols already in their heads.  Ignoring or failing to identify these factors leads to more protracted processes to make corrections or change direction as the team works to solve the wrong or misstated problem (Norman).  Finding out what the actual issues are at their root is the mandate of cultural analysis, based on human biological, brain, and cultural motives. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Genetic Variation


“Your genes load the gun.  Your lifestyle pulls the trigger.”

                                                                              --Mehmet Oz


Genetic expression is the outcome of millions of connections between genetic factors. The Human Genome Project, substantially final by 2003, showed that the differences in DNA between people are just 0.1 percent: one-tenth of a single percentage.  We are a single species and anyone who is human shares 99.9% of DNA with every other human.  So any two people are 99.9% identical genetically – from any place or group on the planet. 

Chimps, our closest biological relatives, share just 5.2-6.2% for the entire genome.  Although humans are primates in the great apes line, our last common ancestor lived 6 to 8 million years ago.  The first four million years of our history were lived out exclusively in Africa.  Charles Darwin proposed this origin theory in 1871 but at the time this was considered a wild guess—while now richly confirmed by fossil as well as genetic evidence (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History).

But what about the differences?  Height, weight, face shape, body build, skin and eye color, hair texture, and straight, wavy, or curly hair are visible outward expression (phenotypes).  Susceptibility to heritable disease like autism and schizophrenia, cancer, Type II diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and heart disease, along with the physical body factors, are all very marginal factors compared to what is shared.  Malarial resistance is traceable to the genetic lack of the Duffy antigen in the red blood cell, protecting two-thirds of the African population from the disease over thousands of years.

But the differences are what allow us to associate a single difference with large groups, and that is where our attention—which is a cultural artifact—is focused.  The human propensity to compare visible aspects between people is acute and has survival origins, as for example in our keen ability to tell faces apart, even very closely related ones. This highly developed skill, unique to humans, is one which we rarely think about as a brain tool--except whenever we fail to recognize someone we should-- is located in the fusiform gyrus, which so far appears to be dedicated to this single operation.

Gender is the leading biological difference between people.  On the gender side, human births show a ratio bias toward boys – 105 male births versus 100 for girls.  One explanation for this off-balance is that fewer males live to adulthood, so the male imbalance levels off eventually.  We focus on gender, though, not because it is a biological reality, but because such a rich heritage of meaning and behavior has been built up around the male / female binary difference.  Gender has greater cultural weight than aa simple biological category.

Each individual has a total of 20,000 to 25,000 genes.  But there are 3 billion base pairs within the species, which means that any pair of humans differs by 3 million.  With 3 billion DNA letters in the human genome, sequencing them is among the most ambitious science project of all time, along with splitting the atom.  The HGP is the standard for all research in this arena.  As change expert Virginia Satir has noted, a surgeon can go anywhere on earth and operate on any person at all; we are that standardized physically.  Now we have a far finer-tuned standard, the blueprint based on molecular-scale reality explaining what makes us both different--and the same. 

Within any species, genetic variation can result from several sources. Mutations, the changes in the sequences of genes in DNA, are one source of genetic variation—without them, genetic evolution would not be possible. Gene flow, another source, is the movement of genes between different groups, along with our long history of mobility across land and water. Sexual reproduction leads to the creation of new combinations of genes (National Geographic Resource Library).

Genetic changes over time can trace human origins, development, and mobility. Genomics is the study of individual genome and gene interactions along with the effects of environmental factors (and fitness outcomes).  Our homogeneity indicates a young species—less than a quarter million years old for modern humans. Individuals from widely separated groups can be more similar than individuals from the same group, which is why the concept of race is without scientific basis.  The widest difference between groups is actually found in Africa, giving credence to the African origin hypothesis, in which a subset of that continent’s population moved out 60,000 years ago to populate the earth.  Meanwhile the African genetic story has maintained the oldest genome, which continued to generate variations leading to modern distinctions between groups.

Natural selection made possible by genetics favors some genes over others as more survival-friendly, including cultural values-based biases that select for some traits (like height or health) over others.  So the genome, too, has a bias—it tends toward better survivability over time and across generations. (The peppered moth wing color, from light to dark, being the classic example of selection for survival in industrial Manchester.)  Whatever our genetics, it is finally culture and its selective values, or positive bias, that “pulls the trigger” on how genetic expression operates as a social force.  This means that it is culture, not biology, that determines what genetic variations mean to our thought and action—whether advantageous or detrimental.

Photo: Pixabay

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Positive Bias: How cultural values drive our thinking



Definition, Merriam-Webster:  “Bias:  An attitude that always favors one way of feeling or acting especially without considering any other possibilities.” 

Definition, Psychology Today:  “Bias is a natural inclination for or against an idea, object, group, or individual.  It is often learned and is highly dependent on variables like a person’s socioeconomic status [class], race, ethnicity, educational background, etc.” 

Engineering:  Bias: System error

    A thought experiment:  Question: What is the first thing you notice on meeting a new person?

If you answered eyes, race, age, class, or expression, you are wrong. Without even realizing it, the first thing you notice is gender – are they male or female, he or she?  This question is so naturally ingrained that we are consciously unaware of even asking it. That is why so much controversy surrounds the idea of transgender. It confounds what is normally a simple recognition system unlike any other. Homosexuals are still male. Lesbians are still female. That’s easy to grasp. Transgender literally triggers not believing your eyes.  

Gender is the only biological difference between people.  If that wasn’t your answer to our little thought experiment it is because gender is so embedded—implicit—that we aren’t aware of noticing it. We just do. Not seeing the forest for the trees. So obvious, it is too big to see.  By deploying an inbuilt, wired tendency to privilege gender as the most important human trait you have just practiced implicit bias--a universal human behavior.

As Americans, we want control over how we live our lives. We think of ourselves first and foremost as individuals – then as members of a family, tribe, or clan.  Control over our social and physical environment is an article of faith for Americans because it serves the ultimate value of controlling our own destiny. That means the ability to derive reward and results from our efforts, to stave off disasters, to enjoy good relations with our support team—family, friends, and colleagues, and avoid people and situations that signal distrust and suspicion. The collective bargain we make with ourselves and others rests on a silent but shared agreement.  This agreement takes the form of assumptions about what is most important to decide and manage, both privately and publicly.

This national goal is not a random choice. Getting there is calculated to serve what is most important to us – predispositions to favor one thing or condition over others. This freedom of choice dictates how character is formed and expressed.  At the same time it is also a source of uncertainty and anxiety, because we can never measure the “rightness” of the choices we make. Instead we can only identify mistakes, after they happen.  But generally, adherence to these values is a form of virtue signaling.

Strangely enough, our biases play a leading role in making this happen.  Value bias is simply preferences for one state of affairs over another which denote and direct decision-making and judgment.  It often operates in our subconscious, exerting influence under the radar; for example, why we favor our own group (in-group affiliation) and therefore disfavor groups outside our kin and ken. 

Unconscious bias and implicit bias are two familiar terms for unexamined beliefs and related values.  However, value bias may be quite intentional, as directives we consciously work to practice and perpetuate.  No human is impartial—machines may be, but we are 95% intuitive, not technical.  Positive value bias is the outcome of having a value set and living by it, which is, of course, the profile of a virtuous person. Value bias also explains the darker side of the equation, as the actual cause of negative outcomes.  These naturally follow from valuing one preferred state over another. You can’t have positive at both poles.

Bias Pro and Con

Bias is considered faulty thinking or feeling, a mistaken vector that interferes with good judgment or fairness to others.  Negative bias is “noise” (unwanted effects) that is both mistaken and unwarranted, whether conscious or innate. But positive bias (value-based), a feature of cultural choosiness, is semi-conscious but fully intentional in its distinctions and decisions.  The task is to understand how values act to prime normal thinking and acting to protect and promote favored outcomes.  Such positive bias directs both attitudes and reasoning culture-wide.  “Bias in favor” is both more powerful and pervasive than negative bias.  We exercise our preferences in every domain every day, and don’t worry about the nonpreferred rejects, the rest and residue--unless forced on us.

Under identity politics, bias has earned a bad reputation for being intolerant, unfair, and hurtful, as based on irrational, exaggerated, or prejudicial ideas about the world.  But the positive sense (such as bias toward optimism, or social justice, or success) is based on virtuous ideals – about positive, aspirational, hopeful motives to create desirable outcomes.  It is this higher-minded bias that creates civilizations and cultural progress.

Bias is simply a tendency to either favor or disfavor – as the values we hold are tendencies – toward or away from one state of affairs over another.  Bias includes conscious, unconscious, implicit or explicit, favoritism: toward people, places, things, behavior, and ideas, extending far beyond gender or race.  It speaks to class, age, community, and context.  It is, in the simplest terms, like the values it follows along with: a privileging of some values above others.  Simply an assigned preference.  No intense hatred or obsessional paranoia.  (Ta-Nehisi Coates skillfully noted, “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” (We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, 2017)

Decision making

Broad sympathy for one group over another is more difficult than open antagonism to identify and track, or to alter. We make comparisons all the time, of course – the basis for hierarchy, not just for ranking people, but for taste, cost, quality, and performance in everything from cars, homes, marriage partners, careers, and college (the leading big-ticket decisions).  These choices all involve bias for as well as against in any paired comparison of options.  We do this sorting, weighting, and ranking across the board constantly and in all life areas. We call this critical thinking and value-based decision making.  The values involved in bias do just that: position some values (like status) above others (like safety) to serve the goals of the moment as well as the future. These rankings can be assigned numbers to compute scores and determine relative value.

Being biased is not an individual failing but a core feature of cultural character as a learned mindset and emotional approach.  It is constantly in motion in all we do and decide—usually below conscious awareness.  Bias can be reframed but only, again, as learned; if the motivation is consistent with core values.  That is, if a new value fits in with the old. How do we know some value isn’t right for us?  We aren’t sure – it just feels wrong. This is a common reaction when visiting other countries, making the traveler aware that “something just isn’t the same--the basic assumptions.” (All the way from narrower personal space to line formation, tea types and train schedules, to honor murders, bride burning, and female genital mutilation.)

In fact, culture is the sum total of “collective biases” over generations that constitutes the shared ideals and beliefs for people in the past and present—and future.  It is a broad spectrum of ideals the group lives by.  Why? Because values in common create a problem-solving framework, a mentality operating as a shared reality.  Reality-by-common-consent is basic to a sense of coherence, psychological safety, social cohesion between groups, and the meanings as agreed on about the way the world should work. This approach yields a basic checklist of central cultural (shared) values.  In a world of diversity, this creates a critical common ground.

Across the span of US history, the crux of these cultural imperatives is the principle that the individual (not group, not government, not religion) is the base unit of our culture.  This is the moral high ground on which every other American value rests.  Independence—of thought, speech, act, and association—is central to this belief.  And, to most of the world’s countries, which are group-based, this is seen as a negative bias against communitarian values.  But wait—the US continues as the biggest draw, worldwide, to immigration. US cultural gravity portends the emergence of a US-value-biased global culture now in development.

Cultural bias 

When Americans find themselves at odds with groups from other cultures, our own value bias is the baseline we go to instinctively to interpret and judge those outside cultures.  This is cultural bias – it is not cognitive or rational, but nonanalytic, deep, and emotional, because value-based and rooted in cultural imperatives, not reasoned understanding.  These other cultures, too, are deep, emotional, non-rational to their members, who, like us, are simply following their own “heuristics” (intuitions and mental shortcuts) in making systematically biased judgments and coming to decisions (Kahneman, 2011). The framework is cognitive bias.  In his follow-on book Noise (2021), Kahneman defines bias as interfering variability in decision-making deviating from a known standard.  He recommends identifying and reducing bias –for example, delusional optimism – as chance variability which exacts an ”invisible tax” on outcomes in business, government, and beyond.  But more widely, bias can be thought about, in the Adam Smith sense of the free market, as the invisible hand behind decision making.  To complement cognitive bias, value bias fills in at the intuitive extreme, the counterpart of our rational side.

So value bias can open inquiry along related lines:  What is the role of culture in thinking, acting, category-making, and decision making, focusing on the key values involved, and by using the methodology of positive bias to see how these come into play?  What are the net effects, and what can they tell us about the way positively biased thinking determines behavior?  How do the answers point to solutions to problems and projects in cultural intelligence, including diversity, equity, inclusion, cultural conflict—and beyond, in the art of cultural competence?

Image: Sign artifact from Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, PA

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Narcissism – The Extreme Ego

                                                                                        Narcissus,  by Caravaggio *

“The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one's narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one's desires and fears.” ― Erich Fromm

Homo sapiens is a highly sociable species, matched only by baboon society.  This requires an act of ego management, balancing our individuality against our equally important needs for other people—their knowledge, skills, attention, and cooperation (see “The Social Paradox,” June 2022 blog). 

Human life is an ego-driven endeavor.  But it is an equally cooperative venture, with reciprocity at its core.   This is the grand paradox of the human mind—it is exquisitely tuned into itself, while at the same time, occupied with understanding the minds of others. But at the extreme opposite end of the balance board is the narcissist, named after the figure in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) became a personality disorder (in the diagnostic directory DSM-5) starting in 2013. Estimates are this describes one percent of the US population.  However, the other 99% struggle with the symptoms and proclivities of the disorder. Most of us can build the bridges needed between ourselves and the reality of other people.  Those who cannot do this risk crossing over into sociopathology, with its inability to recognize and empathize, and feel the effects of guilt, pain, and remorse when actions and intentions harm others.  It is the dark danger zone of being human without a conscience.

The basic divide between NPD subjects and the rest of us is social intelligence – containing the ego just enough so that it doesn’t transform into sociopathy.  Many successful leaders have the disorder.  We stand back and let them operate by the rule of ego – it simply isn’t worth our own standing and reputation to oppose their willfulness.    Famous narcissists fill the history books and current news – Nero, Napoleon, Hitler, Trump, Mao, Mussolini.  Narcissism involves manipulation to control others without taking responsibility for outcomes (and so lack of deep relationships), projecting blame onto the world while denying any defects and believing oneself to be high-achieving and super-intelligent in a lived-out fantasy of grandiosity and invincibility.  Facts are no barrier when reality can be overcome by the forces of personality and self-promotion.  Lying, justifying, and promising unrealistically are common activities.

 Beliefs and behaviors:

Delusions of grandeur, with fixations about personal power, intelligence, and attractiveness.  These delusions are taken as reality, with real or imagined associations with status and others with status, requires continual admiration and attention.  Expectations of special treatment and subservience, most often achieved through manipulation and exploitation.  Unable or unwilling to empathize with others, without guilt or conscience.  Envy of others’ status and achievements.  (Degges-White, Psychology Today, 10/25/21)


Either childhood abuse or pampering; idealization about abilities and potential by parents; unrealistic expectations for achievement; protection from normal consequences of bad behavior (the “free pass”), creating an attitude of entitlement and special treatment. 

 Treatment / therapy:

Giving them the attention they crave and “deserve” doesn’t work--only feeding their appetite and adding to the black hole that is their need for admiring attention.  There is no tolerance of criticism (including therapeutic inquiry) and no way to let go of the toxic premise driving the disorder. Indeed, sufferers are by definition unable to conceive of themselves as needing help--except to get whatever they want. “A terrible prognosis,” as one psychiatrist put it, is the result of resistance to change because the NPD self-image is an immovable concept.  Those surrounding the subject—recipients of their abuse--are most often the ones who need and can respond to therapy.   


For the rest of us, a narcissistic lifestyle alienates everyone, driving family, friends, and employees away because of the stress and time / effort demands of the forced attention and adulation.  The only therapy for those who can’t avoid contact is self-protection. This consists of setting boundaries, with clear expectations of respect and care for others.  Resistance is futile; fighting and arguing simply reinforce that the person is “right”-- therefore you cannot be.  All this takes calculation and energy, with its draining effects of stress, uncertainty, and continuing conflict.

Because the nature of narcissism is that its sufferers aren’t self-aware about their condition, in its pure states, this a mental health disorder without a cure.  All they know is that they want and deserve to be unconditionally admired and catered to.  This is the universe built around a serious personality malfunction.  Which doesn’t serve them well unless they are the ultra-alpha leader (like Putin and Trump) who never has to admit they are not the top dog—because they are, and in a position to prove it.  Nothing really disturbs their self-image, which means they can afford, as a psychological reality, to live the NPD life. 

*Narcissus (1597-99), Caravaggio - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Social Paradox


                                            Image by Pexels from Pixabay

“Man is a social animal.  He who lives without society is either a beast or God.”

                                                                                                 – Aristotle

Part I

What do we spend most of our time background-thinking about?  Most of this rumination has to do with our social ties: where they are, where they are going, what could go right with them, what could go wrong—the source of much anxiety.  Most of our important conflicts are between family members, because the stakes in close relationships are the highest.  The people closest to us are the main source of help and support—the source of the traditional family business.  Altruism starts at home and largely locates there for the human lifetime. 

Social rumination is all part of our intensely social nature as apex primates.  Human nature has two faces, and they seem opposed in a paradox: while we are intensely social, we are also intensely territorial, and spend time thinking about where our boundaries are (our reputations, our holdings, and wealth both material and social) as well as how well those boundaries are working—or being challenged--in the social realm (see “Territory” blog, February 27, 2022).  For a consummate review of territoriality, see Simon Winchester’s Land: How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, (2021).

Why are primates such social creatures?  This is the leading inquiry among primatologists.  How do we operate as social beings, going beyond our individual boundaries to create, manage, and transfer thinking and behaviors across generations?  Ever since researchers sequenced the chimp genome in 2005, they’ve recognized that people share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, making them our closest residing relatives. This raises the question of what chimp behavior have to say about ours?

Animal researcher Edward O. Wilson sees social behavior, the product of evolution—sociobiology, as the best collective adaptation for survival and reproduction for the group. As an old saying goes, “One monkey is no monkey.”  Paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman identifies our intense social nature to be the root of our uniqueness.  “Humans are intensely social creatures, and more than any other species, we cooperate with unrelated strangers…. As a result, we have been elected to enjoy doing activities in groups, to assist one another, and to care what others think of us” (Exercised, 2020).   

Viewing human life and goals as a system of organized thought and decision-making opens new lines of observation and experimentation beyond but including individual biology, brain, and behavior.  The key to culture is its uncanny ability to balance major forces like self-centered instincts with our ability to socialize with people outside the family bond: in religion, cities, professions, sports, government, the military, as well as across generations and clan relatives. 

Complex social organizations, as well as language, make every social level and effort a set of rules and skills that contain power and leverage influence.  They enforce the rights and reputation of individuals who worry about losing social footing and rank in any given group.  Our constant rumination about our place in the hierarchy mediates between building status in our competitive careers and holding on to our place in the many lines we maintain throughout a lifetime—while being generally cooperative and open to new alliances.

Part II

The individual personal space, and the many social spaces we inhabit in the course of living, do have something in common with fierce territorial impulses.  The paradox in this duality is that in order to be properly socialized, the first step is to be in control: the neocortex--upper brain--and its executive centers must be developed and in control in all social encounters.  This involves hundreds of limits we unconsciously observe even in the briefest of encounters. In other words, in order to be a social creature, you must have territorial awareness. 

What does this awareness entail?  First of all: boundaries.  Knowledge and respect for personal space, our core territory.  We are supremely sensitive to spatial invasion by other people, so that every social encounter must abide by the spatial separation.  Break this rule, and it’s over. Focus on the other speaker – eye contact, body language literacy, appropriate signals that show understanding.  Language compatibility.  Emotional focus and response.  Appropriate content—information revealed and hidden.  Voice register, pacing, tone, and allowing for alternative speaking. In other words, quickly changing awareness of person, place, purpose, and proceeding in any situation.  Language level, status and role, age, class, and gender markers all operate within the context.  It’s much for the mind and the emotions to handle, besides the conscious awareness of past, present, and future repercussions of whatever is said and replied to.

The ability to understand “theory of mind” – knowing how others think, feel, and act, and the rules of engagement.  This covers not just basic manners (knowing if and when to speak, how to ask questions and offer information), but how and when to reveal personal information, and what specific contexts require or prohibit revelations.  The life-long learning that humans undertake is largely about how to start and maintain good relationships, how to note and repair damage to them, how to connect others in our lives (or keep them apart), and discover our unique talents in conversation, presentation, leader- or follower-ship, as well as what situations and people we are better keeping away from. 

All these skills must be constantly honed and refined, shifting with thousands of situations, some familiar, many unknown.  It is a genius-level undertaking.  Yet all of us do it every day--with astounding virtuosity.  And how is this all learned?  Through experience, not so much through tutoring.  From a high-stakes court testimony to a casual hello in the company hallway, we learn mastery, and creative, unique responses, to whatever emerges next—whether in person, on the phone, or in writing. 

Although we are intensely sociable, we save this intensity for a defined circle (see Altruism blog, May 30).  We are particular about who we spend our time with—and that time is increasingly shrinking.  The notable fact of human life is that we are highly social—only baboons approach our level.  At the same time, though, we are also highly territorial about how we mix with others on a regular basis.  The short list of our most favored contacts over time makes up the inner circle that revolves around the center---yourself.  This circle includes immediate family, close friends, close colleagues, religious and association co-members, neighbors geographically close, and friends-of-friends.  We are acutely aware of this list, as well as who else is around us and how aggressive they are.  This is why our limited time is also spent in avoiding or placating those unfavored many who would like to join our list but who we determine are simply not worthy of protracted time and attention.  Of course, each of us is also on the “do-not-admit” lists of many people we aspire to be closer to. 

Technology is now taking over times and places of the more expensive in-person events everyone cherishes but few have the time budget for anymore.  With the number of distractions now available plus the constant phone and computer streams, we have a wider circle but shallower connections.  Think of play dates, breakfast meetings, and zoom conferences, and the infamous low social skills of Millenials and Gen Z.  There are reasons we have become even more picky about who we let into our inner circle and the time budget for each.  Like all human activities, our social lives are on an agenda limited by time, travel, work, leisure, and every other demand.  Covid has reinforced these limits so as to make them more acceptable as a ticket to opt-out.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay


Friday, May 27, 2022

Altruism: Charity begins at home


“Natural selection is conventionally assumed to favor the strong and selfish who maximize their own utility function.  But human societies (hopefully) are organized on altruistic, cooperative interactions.  -- Peter Erdi, Ranking: The unwritten rules of the social game we all play (2020)


The cooperation of naturally selfish people is a form of indirect reciprocity, the process of banking social credits in an investment fund that will eventually build to pay off for favors paid to others in present.  This is a lifetime campaign of building a reputation for helpfulness, helping to build a reputation for altruism that will raise the chances of receiving help for oneself.  Whether this help comes from those you help directly, or from their relations, friends, and allies, doesn’t matter.  “Reputation helps trust to emerge among people” (Erdi, p. 163).  Acts of backing other people in their efforts are often public, not isolated but visible to the wider group, either as gossip, news, or legend. 

Perhaps the most famous act in the Western civilization is the crucifixion of Christ, with the enormous payoff of saving every soul that ever existed—with the proviso of having to acknowledge this sacrifice in order to benefit from it. At the other end of the scale is the mother-child dyad (the core concept of the cult worship of Mary).  This form of altruism drives our history generation by generation; life without it would not be possible. The largest unpaid labor pool in the world is that of child and home caretaking ($10.9 trillion worldwide, minimum wage, Oxfam estimate 2018).  Add to this the assessment of the emotional labor involved—the management of social relations in family groups nearly always performed largely by women and more difficult to price on the market.

We are constantly operating across the lines of the personal and private--think of the way language works for us—the basis of culture, our shared “reality by common consent.”  Altruism, investing in others in the long-term for mutual benefit, but at a loss in the present—is seen as uniquely human beyond the parent-child instinct, and one of our finest impulses.  Fossil remains focus scientists on the individual, but don’t reveal the story of our interactive character.  Our social history is based on the robust ability evolved to relate to each other’s needs in order to build the social structures that make us human in the same way walking upright does.  Part of this social structure is hierarchy; the ranking system that drives the way we are regarded and how that regard drives our opportunities and decision making.  Currently, in a move to install diversity policies in the workplace and professional groups, “allyship” has become a way for senior workers to share the value of their own reputations by promoting diversity candidates for hiring and moving up in the organization.

This is the realm of reputation.  Politicians, governments, countries, nonprofits, academics, scientists openly compete against each other for reputation points; it is the basis of brand identity as tied to quality and values.  It also serves to promote altruistic behavior, or at least its appearance.   

Researcher Jane Goodall was first to observe chimpanzees in the wild for as long or in as much detail to discover that her subjects were tool-users, that they were not vegetarians but omnivores, and that they cultivated learned practices like cracking nuts with stones and twig-probing for insects, even making stone tools.  And that they hunt, as an organized campaign, feasting on other animals, including other primates. 

These primate behaviors seem to verge on culture as learned behavior from individual to individual.  In the case of organized hunting, for humans, this practice began to differentiate by gender, age, and ability, as forays away from home and children began to reinforce the roles of hunter-away and caregiver/nurturer-at-home.  The two roles are complementary, and of course, therefore different and contrasting if not conflicting.  Male and female roles each have aspects that cost the individual energy and freedom.  But group survival and gains in well-being (health and longevity) benefit.  This is an example of using what makes us different as a type of capital that only certain social roles are able to access and apply.  Worth, competence, and influence—in one’s special role--are forms of capital to be allocated to various campaigns in which our group specialization can mobilize a move up the ladder of reputation.  We do not need to be martyrs to do this, but this is the symbol that comes to mind for extreme cases of social sacrifice. 

Behavior aimed at helping others seemingly disadvantages the altruist while advantaging the recipient.  But altruism can also be considered a form of long-term alliance we knowingly invest in, knowing the rewards take time to develop or be reciprocated.  Prolonged childhood caregiving is required to raise babies to adult social maturity, at age 18, compared to gorillas at age 10 and monkeys at 8.   This long primate socialization time is the outcome of just how much needs to be learned across a great many situations, and the volume of applied knowledge is largest in humans.

Apart from occasional acts of assistance to strangers and periodic aid to friends, intensive altruism is directed primarily at relatives, which is the reason kinship has always been so critical first, to determine, and then to nurture.  According to evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, the social evolutionary benefits of altruism outweigh the costs to individuals, increasing the fitness of their own genes by supporting the welfare of close relatives, and forming the “selfish” genetic base of altruism.  The math works like this: “[By genotype] we expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it when he can thereby save more than 2 brothers, or 4 half-brothers, or 8 first cousins.”

Especially for baboons, macaques, and chimps (and humans), who live in “natal” groups, the group they were born into.  Defense and aggression for all these species form around the idea of cooperative defense of territory, the home base and the close relatives who make up our core community.  (Note how often the home base for seniors gets determined simply by where grandchildren live.  It is the leading reason for grandparents’ relocating.)  Now long-term care of parents and other relatives is raising the cost and duration of altruism beyond historical limits—another legion of unpaid caregivers.

Certain groups are so socially attuned and cohesive, for example Japanese, that the US government deemed this cohesion a threat to national security during the Second World War, leading to detention Executive Order 9066 in 1942.  Their accusers pronounced this ethnic minority one of “extraordinary cooperation and solidarity.”  Social identity rules, which include altruistic value promotion, operate to reduce conflict as well as uncertainty within the group.  But they also work to define the group against every other, which is the platform of identity politics based on values, lifestyle, and their partisan battles.