Situationists

Situationists

“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.
Can We Improve Time Usage by focusing on the U-Index? Joe Abittan

Can We Improve Time Usage?

I believe that we can come together as a society and make decisions that will help improve the world we live in. I believe we can cooperate, we can improve systems and structures, and we can change norms, customs, and procedures to help make the world a better place to live in. I believe we can reduce the U-index in each of our lives.

 

Daniel Kahneman describes the U-index, a term his research team coined, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “We called the percentage of time that an individual spends in an unpleasant state the U-index. For example, an individual who spent 4 hours of a 16-hour waking day in an unpleasant state would have a U-index of 25%.”

 

To a certain extent, the U-index is a measure of how well people use their time. Some of us are great at maximizing our waking hours and filling our time with meaningful and enjoyable activities. Some of us are not great at it, and some of us have serious limitations that prevent us from being able to use our time in a way that would maximize our individual U-index. “The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control,” Kahneman writes, but still, there are larger structural factors that shape how we can use our time. Long commutes, limited child care, poor service quality in the public and private sectors, and limited spaces for socialization and exercise can all contribute to the amount of time people spend in unpleasant states, and are largely beyond the control of a single individual. Investments in these spaces will help improve the U-index for the people who get trapped by them. They are also areas where we can make public investments, come together as communities to improve the use of public space, and pool resources to develop new technologies that can reduce travel time, create more responsive and quicker services, and reduce the effort spent dealing with unpleasant people and spaces.

 

For things we can control, Kahneman has a recommendation, “The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch time from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise.”

 

Watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading a book can be great leisure, but we are social animals, and we need some degree of interaction with others. Unfortunately, we have become more dependent on TV and other fairly antisocial and isolating forms of entertainment. As each of us retreats into our homes (during non COVID times of course) for entertainment and leisure rather than spending time in our community with others, we reduce the opportunities for and the value of social activities. The more we get out and connect, the better our lives will be collectively.

 

And that is why I believe it is important that we believe that we can make the world a better place. There is an element of personal responsibility in making better use of our time and improving our U-index through our own choices and actions. Simultaneously, there is a social and public need for investment and collective action to help us make those choices which are more active and engaging. We won’t want to get out and take part in social activities if we have a long and difficult commute. If we can’t live in the city or in an interesting place with opportunities to interact with others because we can’t afford to live close by, then we won’t make the effort to get involved. If we don’t have safe, clean, and inviting parks and public spaces where we can engage with others, if businesses and public agencies can’t provide spaces with adequate and friendly services, then we won’t want to connect with the world. Kahneman suggest that even small reductions of say 1% to our societal U-index would be hugely impactful. Anything we can do to help reduce the time people spend in unpleasant states will mean fewer suicides, less depression and anger, and fewer negative interactions between people. Making investments to speed up travel, free people from menial tasks and chores, and make public spaces more inviting will help us connect and be happier as an entire society. At that point, it becomes easier to chose active rather than passive leisure and to be more involved rather than to retreat into our homes and Netflix accounts.
Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

Complex and Conflicting Thoughts on Personal Responsibility

I’m really hesitant to criticize others for not taking sufficient personal responsibility for the ways they live and the outcomes of their lives. A lot of factors influence whether you are economically successful or whether you are fit and healthy. Some things we seem to have a lot of control over, but many things are matters of chance and circumstance. Placing too much blame on the individual doesn’t seem fair, yet at the same time, there is clearly an element of personal responsibility involved. I’m not sure where I land on how we should think about this division.

 

What is clear, however, is that there can be negative consequences when we take away people’s agency in their decision-making and life outcomes, and when we erode the authority of those who are reasonably critical of negative lifestyles and ways of thinking and being, we can put ourselves and societies in vulnerable positions.

 

Sam Quinones writes about these tensions in his book Dreamland and he highlights how patient responsibility and physician authority devolved between the 1980’s and twenty-teens as a quick fix, there’s-a-drug-for-that mindset took hold of the American healthcare system. He writes, “…patients were getting used to demanding drugs for treatment. They did not, however, have to accept the idea that they might, say, eat better and exercise more, and that this might help them lose weight and feel better. Doctors, of course, couldn’t insist. As the defenestration of the physician’s authority and clinical experience was under way, patients didn’t have to take accountability for their own behavior.”

 

I’m usually hesitant to say that the problem is people’s lack of accountability, because how often do we really control how much exercise we can get when many of us live in places where walking is difficult because our streets are not safe, or are not well designed for pedestrian use, or because half the year it is dark early and we get lots of snowfall? How often do we not know what kinds of exercises we should do, and how often do we have people who are only critical of our current state rather than supportive and encouraging? How often have we had a bad break and poor advice on how to get back, only leading to a further defeat, deflating our sense of self worth? In addition to all this, how often have we seen people use the personal responsibility argument in bad faith? To justify not helping others or to rationalize their greed or excessive self-aggrandizement?

 

But at the same time, as Quinones shows, responsibility is important. We need to think about what we can and should be doing to help improve our own lives, without hoping for an easy fix in the form of a miracle pill. We can’t just throw out the opinions of experts and devalue their authority because they are willing to say things that are discomforting for us, but are likely correct in terms of how we can make our lives better. Somehow we need to work together to build a society that recognizes the barriers and challenges that we face toward becoming the successful and healthy people that we want to be, but encourages us to still work hard and overcome obstacles by taking responsibility for our actions and (at least some percentage of) our outcomes. I don’t know what this looks like exactly, and I’m not sure where the line falls between personal responsibility and outside factors, but I am willing to have an honest discussion about it and about what it all means for how we relate to each other.

Moral Uplift

A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.

 

About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”

 

I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.

 

Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”

 

Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.

 

Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.

Personal Responsibility

How we think about personal responsibility seems to be a driving factor in the decisions we make about society. We are a group of individuals working in our own best interest, but with our interests moderated through a social union to ensure that as we pursue our best interest, we do not unreasonably impede others or damage their health, resources, or wellbeing. For many, our success is seen as a result of our own effort, attitude, and determinism, and without taking responsibility for our individual actions we can never reach our full potential, and we will never uphold our end of societal success.

Senator Cory Booker addresses the role that personal responsibility has played in his life in his book United, detailing the lessons learned from his parents. He writes, “My family worked to have me understand that there are two interrelated ethics critical for citizenship. One is that we all must take responsibility for ourselves, invest in our own development, strive for personal excellence. My family taught me that we are all responsible for our own well-being, our growth, and most of all our attitude: The most consequential daily decision you make, I was told, is the attitude you choose as you engage in your day” (emphasis in original).

Booker continues to give examples of his mother teaching him about excellence and how he learned the importance of always doing our best work, because someone was always counting on us to do our best. His family provided him lessons with actors from the Civil Rights Movement as models, giving Booker a powerful message to endure challenges and struggles and to take personal responsibility for actions and decisions because it is in the best interest of society.

The quote above, in Booker’s emphasized section on attitude, reflects stoic principles outlined by Marcus Aurelius in his writing, Meditations. Aurelius wrote about the ways in which our attitude changes our constitution and our demeanor for the day. If we choose to leave the comfort of our bed knowing that we will meet people who do not hold our standards, but that we ourselves are not lessened by those who do not hold to our ideals, then we can move forward with an attitude that lifts all. If we reflect on our perception we can identify the challenges we face, and turn our obstacles into pathways toward success, bearing nobly that which others see as poor fortune.

Recognizing that societal growth and progress requires our best is a powerful motivator for us to strive toward greatness. Our full potential is the only thing that can carry forward others, open new doors for ourselves, and lay the stones to create paths for other. When we choose to see this, we have a reason to contribute to society rather than to expect society to provide for us. Reflecting on our attitude and deciding that we will approach each day and each decision in a positive light will help us advance and grow for the betterment of all.