Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

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Parked in Adolescence

Various forms of popular software have narrowed the parameters of personal growth.

Last week I approached a recruiter from a local college steeped in the Liberal Arts: the same institution I worked at for many years. She was staffing a table at a local street fair, and was in the midst of a conversation with a prospect–I’m guessing a high school junior or senior–trying to entice him to visit the campus.  She offered him some free stuff, and he did help himself to a bottle of hand sanitizer. But he was not interested in the slick and college magazine that included articles on recent student work and experiences.  She tried a couple of times to give him a copy. But without a pause or any sense of irony, he said he wasn’t interested. “I don’t like to read,” he noted.

Are there Navy Seals who can’t swim?  Any doctors who faint at the sight of blood? I suppressed a grimace after hearing the prospect’s response.  It was no longer my job to query his apparent shallowness.  Even so, his response was a reminder that there are sometimes conversations I’m sorry to have overheard.

Luckily, there are still of adolescents who are voracious readers.  But the young man at the booth represented a larger pattern that might be found in the many disengaged adolescents who pull back from the busy and demanding world, settling in to their own digital refuges of screens and games. Today, kids spend hours gazing into the small screen on a hand, or parked in a game nest they’ve created in their bedroom.  It is little wonder that some now have less interest to pursue the endless storehouses of American culture offered on printed pages or their pixel equivalents.  One sign of this extended adolescence was reported a few years ago by researcher Sherry Turkle, who documented the experiences of teachers who often find kids who “tend to respond like younger children.”  As one teacher noted, “Twelve-year-olds play on the playground like-eight-year-olds. They don’t seem able to put themselves in the places of other children.”  Has the game chair replaced the more communal space of a grass playing field?

The growth of technology for communication at a distance allows a person to grow comfortable with digital isolation.  But it comes at a price we all have to pay. The gamer cum intelligence leaker Jack Teixeira followed what is becoming a familiar pattern of the withdrawal of some young males from a balanced life. He was a member of the Air National Guard, but reportedly found his personal niche playing online games, and trying to be what the Washington Post described as a “commanding persona online.”  We now know that his desire to make his mark—even at a distance—involved passing on a trove of U.S. secrets. His distorted way to dramatize his worth required no social skills, and apparently no sense of connectedness and responsibility to the people damaged by his intelligence leaks. All he needed was a video monitor facing a plush game chair a few feet away.

As researchers like Turkle, Jaron Lanier have noted, we are delaying or destroying the natural curve of human development by allowing children to park in adolescence as gamers and fantasists. Many are able to stay in their own heads rather than engage in relationships they will need to fully mature. In what was once a language used to assess social isolation in early childhood, their “play” is typically more “parallel” than “interactive.” Computer software rather than human institutions are setting up the parameters of their attention. Eye-hand coordination matters more than empathy; they are of the world rather than in it. And this narrow zone of existence is self-perpetuating, especially in the awkward years, when it is easier to find meaning in mechanical or electrical systems rather than the open spaces of human experience.

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What Makes Us Think We Are In Charge?

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We want to find more intentionality than diverse actors will allow. The culprit is the pronoun “they,” which over-simplifies our world and catches us in traps of our own making.

As humans we are hardwired to look for motivations behind human behavior.  It’s our destiny to think in story-like structures, which usually include answers to the “whys” of any action. Give stage or film actors a line or a specific movement, and they are likely to ask a director for the motivation behind it.  Like them, we are all actors.

We are usually right to assign responsibility for conduct to a fully functioning adult. It is not unreasonable to assume that individuals can make decisions from an array of available choices.  Notwithstanding some neuroscientists who want to reduce human conduct to chemistry, most of us make the reasonable assumption that people really do have intentions. They act on their beliefs, habits and preferences. Notwithstanding myriad sources influence, they are still capable of choosing between on specific choices.

But this simple logic is where things drift to complications. This pattern of thinking can easily be overextended when assigned to individuals or groups. It is sometimes a considerable stretch to have the insight to know the causes of conduct.

Take the case of individuals first. A simple example: a friend who is a geriatric psychotherapist frequently complains that staffs in nursing facilities usually assume that a patient is “acting out” when they are unkind or manipulative. In our language these kinds of descriptions usually imply volition: the patient intended to behave in a certain way. The problem, of course, is that most of these folks have dementia, which robs them of the essential gift of agency. Their behavior is not necessarily what they would have done if the neural pathways once available to them were still intact. The result is sometimes to punish the patient rather than to acknowledge that their behavior is not easily overridden.

We can’t easily scale up the idea of purpose to large and diverse groups.

In cases of groups, assigning intentionality can easily drift into fantasy. A while back a guest newspaper column by Max Boot also caught my eye because of this problem. He criticized the Republican Party for carefully nurturing negative attitudes about scientific research and serious intellectual inquiry.  In effect, he made the Party an agent engaged in a concerted effort to dumb-down complex problems such as climate change, immigration reform and a sometimes-sluggish American economy.  On the other side, we have heard members of the GOP make the absurd claim that Democrats are trying to “groom” children to accept an alien social identity.

The problem is that individuals—even in groups—rarely have the same reasons or motivations for their actions. Boot is right that many in the GOP are suspicious of reasoned arguments based on solid science. My doubts extend only to attributing a clear purpose to the party itself. The problem with his assertion is that political groups in the United States are almost never well organized. “Members” see things from their own unique perspectives.  And most have only paper-thin levels of loyalty. Maybe the military or any tightly run corporation may have “intentions” or “missions,” but parties: not so much.

The same mistake is often made about the President, who is supposedly able to control of a dizzying array of national challenges. But the real story is that we also assign too much agency to the Presidency. For example, most economists believe the chief executive cannot significantly change the course of the economy. We may want to think of the American business cycle as under the thumb of the White House. A more accurate view is that our multifaceted economy is an engine without a single engineer.  Indeed, most presidents would welcome the chance to be as powerful as is widely believed.  The norm for these leaders is to leave office frustrated at how little influence they were able to exert over the many far-flung agencies of the federal bureaucracy.  F.D.R., for example, complained that he couldn’t even get fundamental changes in the Navy, even though he was its Commander and once served a stint as the Navy’s Assistant Secretary.

The prime rhetorical culprit here is the pronoun “they.” The English language invites us to singularize responsibility under the umbrella of this term.  But a better reading of the world as it is usually means that we can’t scale up the idea of purpose to large and diverse groups. The pronoun over-simplifies our world, catching us in traps that sacrifice accuracy for a degree of unearned clarity.


How we assign motives to others is a fascinating subject.  For a more systematic account from the writer about this process see The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (Lexington, 2013).

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