Tag Archives: intelligence

Is a Hard Life Inherited?

Is a Hard Life Inherited?

AUG. 9, 2014

 

Nicholas Kristof

“YAMHILL, Ore. — ONE delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.

In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.

Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling — partly explaining the hostility to state expansion of Medicaid, to long-term unemployment benefits, or to raising the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.

This has been on my mind because I’ve been visiting my hometown of Yamhill, Ore., a farming community that’s a window into the national crisis facing working-class men.

I love this little town, but the news is somber — and so different from the world I now inhabit in a middle-class suburb. A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.

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Rick Goff, 64, of Yamhill, Ore., makes ends meet these days with odd jobs and his disability benefits. CreditSusan Seubert for The New York Times

One of my friends here, Rick Goff, 64, lean with a lined and weathered face and a short pigtail (maybe looking a bit like Willie Nelson), is representative of the travails of working-class America. Rick is immensely bright, and I suspect he could have been a lawyer, artist or university professor if his life had gotten off to a different start. But he grew up in a ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage, and when he was 5 years old, his mom choked on a piece of bacon, staggered out to the yard and dropped dead.

“My dad just started walking down the driveway and kept walking,” Rick remembers.

His three siblings and he were raised by a grandmother, but money was tight. The children held jobs, churned the family cow’s milk into butter, and survived on what they could hunt and fish, without much regard for laws against poaching.

Despite having a first-class mind, Rick was fidgety and bored in school. “They said I was an overactive child,” he recalls. “Now they have name for it, A.D.H.D.”

A teacher or mentor could have made a positive difference with the right effort. Instead, when Rick was in the eighth grade, the principal decided to teach him that truancy was unacceptable — by suspending him from school for six months.

“I was thinking I get to go fishing, hang out in the woods,” he says. “That’s when I kind of figured out the system didn’t work.”

In the 10th grade, Rick dropped out of school and began working in lumber mills and auto shops to make ends meet. He said his girlfriend skipped town and left him with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son to raise on his own.

Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies.

In that respect, Rick can actually be quite endearing. For instance, he vows that if anyone messes with my mother, he’ll kill that person.

A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.

There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.

Rick survives on disability (his hand was mashed in an accident) and odd jobs (some for my family). His health is frail, for he has had heart problems and kidney cancer that almost killed him two years ago.

Millions of poorly educated working-class men like him are today facing educational failure, difficulty finding good jobs, self-medication with meth or heroinprison records that make employment more difficult, hurdles forming stable families and, finally, early death.

Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs (I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to).

Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.

In effect, we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field, and one of its metrics is educational failure. High school dropouts are five times as likely as college graduates to earn the minimum wage or less, and 16.5 million workers would benefit directly from a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity. As a result, they often miss out on three pillars of middle-class life: a job, marriage and a stable family, and seeing their children succeed.

ONE of Rick’s biggest regrets is that his son is in prison on drug-related offenses, while a daughter is in a halfway house recovering from heroin addiction.

The son just had a daughter who was born to a woman who has three other children, fathered by three other men. The odds are already stacked against that baby girl, just as they were against Rick himself.

This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.”

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Why Kids Care More About Achievement Than Helping Others

“…While 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring…

Child psychologist and author Michele Borba told me the study was “incredibly important,” a “wake up call to parents, a clear indication that we need to reprioritize our parenting agendas ASAP. The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids care about others, they are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, and a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.” Her email went on to explain,

Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health,wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized….”

(my bolds)

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June 25, 2014 · 7:51 pm

How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/03/28/daniel-dennett-rapoport-rules-criticism/

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Ray Kurzweil: Artificial Intelligence Will Save Humans From Ourselves

Ray Kurzweil

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Ray Kurzweil Artificial Intelligence Will Save Humans From Ourselves

 

“Editor’s Note: Ray Kurzweil is a best-selling author, inventor, futurist, and Director of Engineering at Google. He has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” PolicyMic editor Michael McCutcheon recently spoke with Ray Kurzweil about how technology and artificial intelligence can and should be used to address climate change and save the planet. Read their interview below.

Michael McCutcheon (MM): What are the possibilities for using technology to address climate change that people aren’t talking about?

Ray Kurzweil (RK): Larry Page (cofounder and CEO of Google) and I were asked by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering to review all of the emerging energy technologies and recommend a policy for the United States. We focused on solar energy because its use is growing exponentially. It is becoming increasingly cost effective as we apply nanotechnology to the design of solar panels. The cost of solar energy is coming down rapidly and is now at parity with energy from coal and oil in several parts of the world.

According to a recent report by Deutsche Bank, “The cost of unsubsidized solar power is about the same as the cost of electricity from the grid in India and Italy. By 2014 even more countries will achieve solar ‘grid parity.’” The total amount of solar energy produced in the world is now about 1% of our energy needs but is doubling every two years. So, it is only 7 doublings from meeting all of our energy needs. This means we can meet all of our energy needs with solar energy in less than 20 years and that it will be much less expensive than energy from current techniques and, of course, completely non-polluting. It is also decentralized and therefore not subject to disastrous events such as the Gulf oil spill. Once solar is meeting all of our energy needs, we will only be using one part in ten thousand of the sunlight that falls on the earth, meaning we have 10,000 more in sunlight than we need to do the job. Our conclusion is that within two decades, we will be able to produce all of the energy we need at lower cost and with no negative effect on the environment.

MM: Are humans built to be able to tackle problems that are global in nature like climate change? Are politicians?

RK: Due to increasingly pervasive communication, we are now in much closer touch with problems than ever before. When I tell people that we are now in the least violent period of human history, people react with astonishment and ask whether I am in touch with the pervasive news of constant violence in the world. But that is the key point – we have much better knowledge of problems in the world than ever before. If there is a battle in Damascus, we are there. A hundred years ago, if there was a battle in the next village, we didn’t know about it. 

Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of our Nature points out that the chance we will be killed by violence (of any type – interpersonal or state sponsored) is 500 times less than it was a few centuries ago when there was extreme scarcity of resources. I wrote in the 1980s that the Soviet Union, which was then going strong, would be swept away by then emerging decentralized communication – the social network of that day, which was early forms of email over teletype lines. People thought it was ridiculous that this mighty nuclear superpower would be swept away by a few clandestine hackers with teletype machines, but in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev that ended the Soviet Union, that is exactly what happened. So while the world may seem chaotic, people today have far greater knowledge and power to shape events and respond to problems.

MM: Is there a way we can use AI to help us make policy decisions about problems that are outside many people’s grasp, like climate change? How do we use AI to guide people to better behavior?

RK: We are already smarter today than we were, say, a decade ago because of all the brain extenders we have at our fingertips, such as search engines and Wikipedia. During that one day SOPA strike (in which Wikipedia, Google, and other online services went on strike for one day to protest pending legislation that would have limited online access to information), I felt like a part of my brain went on strike. These tools do deploy AI to help us access useful information. A kid in Africa today with a smart phone has access to more instantly available information than the President of the United States did 15 years ago. I am now at Google as Director of Engineering to help develop smarter AI to continue this process.

MM: Is the destruction of the planet inevitable (before the implosion of the sun)? Should we be putting more resources into planning how to live on a planet other than Earth, rather than saving the environment on this planet?

RK: I mentioned above an emerging energy technology that is environmentally friendly.  There are similar emerging technologies for such resources as water, food, housing, and other material needs. We should focus our efforts on applying these 21st century technologies to solving the grand challenges of humanity.”

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May 2, 2013 · 5:33 pm

Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?

February 6, 2013

By PO BRONSON and ASHLEY MERRYMAN

“Noah Muthler took his first state standardized test in third grade at the Spring Cove Elementary School in Roaring Spring, Pa. It was a miserable experience, said his mother, Kathleen Muthler. He was a good student in a program for gifted children. But, Muthler said, “he was crying in my arms the night before the test, saying: ‘I’m not ready, Mom. They didn’t teach us everything that will be on the test.’ ” In fourth grade, he was upset the whole week before the exam. “He manifests it physically,” his mother said. “He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school.” Not a good sleeper anyway, Noah would slip downstairs after an hour tossing in bed and ask his mom to lie down with him until he fell asleep. In fifth grade, the anxiety lasted a solid month before the test. “Even after the test, he couldn’t let it go. He would wonder about questions he feared he misunderstood,” Muthler said.

So this year, Muthler is opting Noah out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, using a broad religious and ethical exemption. Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic. “He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”

Muthler understands Noah’s distress; more mysterious is why her son Jacob, who is in eighth grade, isn’t the least bit unnerved by the same tests. He, too, is in the gifted program, but that seems to give him breezy confidence, not fear. “You would think he doesn’t even care,” Muthler marveled. “Noah has the panic and anxiety for both of them.” Nevertheless, she will opt out Jacob from the tests, too, to be consistent.

Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated. The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial. Students get the message that class work isn’t what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report — but this test is going to find out how smart you really are. Critics argue that all this test-taking is churning out sleep-deprived, overworked, miserable children.

But some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances. Why can Jacob thrive under pressure, while it undoes Noah? And how should that difference inform the way we think about high-stakes testing? An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to — or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.

The test is incredibly difficult; answering the multiple-choice questions requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry, and testing lasts for two days. “Many students go to cram school almost every night to study all the subjects on the test,” says Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University. “Just one or two percentage points difference will drag you from the No. 1 high school in the local region down to No. 3 or 4.”

In other words, the exam was a perfect, real world experiment for studying the effects of genetics on high-stakes competition. Chang and his research team took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the Basic Competency Test in three regions of Taiwan. They matched each student’s genotype to his or her test score.

The researchers were interested in a single gene, the COMT gene. This gene carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts. “Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.

Here’s the thing: There are two variants of the gene. One variant builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.

In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks — computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests — and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better. This advantage appears to increase with the number of years of education.

The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well.

On that score alone, having slow-acting enzymes sounds better. There seems to be a trade-off, however, to these slow enzymes, one triggered by stress. In the absence of stress, there is a cognitive advantage. But when under stress, the advantage goes away and in fact reverses itself.

“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.

Other research has found that those with the slow-acting enzymes have higher I.Q.’ s, on average. One study of Beijing schoolchildren calculated the advantage to be 10 I.Q. points. But it was unclear if the cognitive advantages they had would stay with them when they were under stress outside the security of the lab environment.

The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?

It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

“I am not against pressure. Actually, pressure is good [for] someone,” Chang commented. “But those who are more vulnerable to stress will be more disadvantaged.”

As of 2014, Taiwan will no longer require all students to take the Basic Competency Test, as the country moves to 12-year compulsory education. The system will no longer be built to weed out children, but to keep them all in school. But academically advanced students will still take some kind of entrance exam. And those elite students will still feel the pressure, which, it bears repeating, will hurt some but help others.

“The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress,” Diamond says. People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.

A number of research studies are looking at COMT, including several involving the American military. Researchers at Brown University have been studying COMT’s connection to post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quinn Kennedy, a research psychologist at the Naval Postgraduate School, is studying how the gene correlates with pilot performance. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, is part of a consortium of researchers called the OptiBrain Center, where he is interested in COMT’s role in combat performance and well-being.

While the studies are ongoing, the early results show those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have the Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior. In Kennedy’s sample, almost a third of the expert pilots were Worriers — a larger proportion than in the general population.

Kennedy’s work is particularly revealing. She puts pilots through a series of six flight-simulator tests, where pilots endure turbulence, oil-pressure problems, iced carburetors and crosswinds while landing. They are kept furiously busy, dialing to new frequencies, flying to new altitudes and headings and punching in transponder codes.

Among recreational pilots with the lowest rating level — trained to fly only in daylight — those with Warrior genes performed best. But that changed with more experience. Among recreational pilots who had the next level of qualification — trained to fly at night using cockpit instruments — the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors. Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in. And their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.

What this suggests, Kennedy says, is that, for Worriers, “through training, they can learn to manage the particular stress in the specific pilot training, even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”

So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.

A similar mental shift can also help students in test-taking situations. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, has done a series of experiments that reveal how the labeling of stress affects performance on academic testing.

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.

At first blush, you might assume that the statement about anxiety being beneficial simply calmed the students, reducing their stress and allowing them to focus. But that was not the case. Jamieson’s team took saliva samples of the students, both the day before the practice test to set a base line, and right after reading the lines about the new science — just moments before they started the first question. Jamieson had the saliva tested for biomarkers that show the level of activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system — our “fight or flight” response. The experimental group’s stress levels were decidedly higher. The biological stress was real, but it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.

If you went to an SAT testing site and could run physiological and neurological scans on the teenagers milling outside the door right before the exam, you would observe very different biomarkers from student to student. Those standing with shoulders hunched, or perhaps rubbing their hands, stamping their feet to get warm, might be approaching what Wendy Berry Mendes and colleagues call a “threat state.” According to Mendes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body. Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.

At that same test center, you might see students shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on their toes. They may be in a “challenge state.” Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.

Jamieson is frustrated that our culture has such a negative view of stress: “When people say, ‘I’m stressed out,’ it means, ‘I’m not doing well.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m excited — I have increased oxygenated blood going to my brain. ”

As the doors to the test center open, the line between challenge and threat is thin. Probably nothing induces a threat state more than feeling you can’t make any mistakes. Threat physiology can be activated with the sense of being judged, or anything that triggers the fear of disappointing others. As a student opens his test booklet, threat can flare when he sees a subject he has recently learned but hasn’t mastered. Or when he sees a problem he has no idea how to solve.

Armando Rodriguez graduated last spring from Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy in Los Angeles, but he is waiting until next fall to start college. He is not taking a gap year to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s recuperating from knee surgery for a bone condition, spending his days in physical therapy. And what does he miss about being out of school? Competing.

“It’s an adrenaline rush — like no other thing.” He misses being happy when he wins. He even misses losing. “At least it was a feeling you got,” he said. “It made you want to be better, the next time.” Without a competitive goal, he feels a little adrift. He finds himself mentally competing with other physical-therapy patients.

Rodriguez recorded a 3.86 G.P.A. his senior year of high school and was a defender for the school soccer team. The knee injury happened during a stint on the school’s football team: his doctor had warned that it was too risky to play, but “I just had to try,” he said. He used to constantly challenge his friends on quiz grades; it’s how they made schoolwork fun.

But when he took the SAT last year, he experienced a different sensation. “My heart was racing,” he said. “I had butterflies.” Occasionally, he’d look up from his exam to see everyone else working on their own tests: they seemed to be concentrating so hard and answering questions faster than he was. “What if they’re doing way better than me?” immediately led to the thought, “These people are smarter than me. All the good schools are going to want them, and not me.” Within seconds, he arrived at the worst possible outcome: his hopes of a good college would be gone.

It might seem surprising that the same student can experience competition in such different ways. But this points to what researchers think is the difference between competition that challenges and competition that threatens.

Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.

High-stakes academic testing isn’t going away. Nor should competition among students. In fact several scholars have concluded that what students need is more academic competition, but modeled on the kinds children enjoy.

David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.

In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” David Bergin says. Even if a child knows her science project won’t win the science fair, she still gets that moment to perform. That moment can be stressful and invigorating and scary, but if the child handles it well, it feels like a victory.

“Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association. Subotnik notes that scholastic competitions can raise the social status of academic work as well as that of the contestants. Competitions like these are certainly not without stress, but the pressure comes in predictable ebbs and flows, broken up by moments of fun and excitement.

Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.

It may be difficult to believe, as Jamieson advises, that stress can benefit your performance. We can read it, and we can talk about it, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be practiced, perhaps for years, before it can become a deeply held conviction.

It turns out that Armando Rodriguez was accepted at five colleges. He rallied that day on the SAT. It wasn’t his best score — he did better the second time around — but it was not as bad as he feared. Rodriguez had never heard of Jeremy Jamieson. He had never read, or ever been told, that intense stress could be harnessed to perform his best. But he understood it and drew strength from it. In the middle of his downward spiral of panic, he realized something: “I’m in a competition. This is a competition. I’ve got to beat them.”

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are the authors of ‘‘Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.’’

Editor: Vera Titunik

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February 9, 2013 · 8:13 pm

Social Science Palooza III

By 

Published: December 10, 2012

“Elections come and go, but social science marches on. Here are some recent research findings that struck my fancy

Organic foods may make you less generous. In a study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, Kendall J. Eskine had people look at organic foods, comfort foods or a group of control foods. Those who viewed organic foods subsequently volunteered less time to help a needy stranger and they judged moral transgressions more harshly.

Men are dumber around women. Thijs Verwijmeren, Vera Rommeswinkel and Johan C. Karremans gave men cognitive tests after they had interacted with a woman via computer. In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the male cognitive performance declined after the interaction, or even after the men merely anticipated an interaction with a woman.

Women inhibit their own performance. In a study published in Self and Identity, Shen Zhang, Toni Schmader and William M. Hall gave women a series of math tests. On some tests they signed their real name, on others they signed a fictitious name. The women scored better on the fictitious name tests, when their own reputation was not at risk.

High unemployment rates may not hurt Democratic incumbents as much. In the American Political Science Review, John R. Wright looked at 175 midterm gubernatorial elections and four presidential elections between 1994 and 2010. Other things being equal, high unemployment rates benefit the Democratic Party. The effect is highest when Republicans are the incumbents, but even when the incumbent is a Democrat, high unemployment rates still benefit Democratic candidates.

People filter language through their fingers. In a study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Kyle Jasmin and Daniel Casasanto asked people to rate real words, fictitious words and neologisms. Words composed of letters on the right side of the QWERTY keyboard were viewed more positively than words composed of letters from the left side.

We communicate, process and feel emotions by mimicking the facial expressions of the people around us. For a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Paula M. Niedenthal, Maria Augustinova and others studied young adults who had used pacifiers as babies, and who thus could not mimic as easily. They found that pacifier use correlated with less emotional intelligence in males, though it did not predict emotional processing skills in girls.

Judges are toughest around election time. Judges in Washington State are elected and re-elected into office. In a study for The Review of Economic Statistics, Carlos Berdejó and Noam Yuchtman found that these judges issue sentences that are 10 percent longer at their end of the political cycle than at the beginning.

New fathers pay less. In a study for the Administrative Science Quarterly, Michael Dahl, Cristian Dezso and David Gaddis Ross studied male Danish C.E.O.’s before and after their wives gave birth to children. They found that male C.E.O.’s generally pay their employees less generously after fathering a child. The effect is stronger after a son is born. Female employees are less affected than male employees. C.E.O.’s also tend to pay themselves more after the birth of a child.

Affluent neighborhoods challenge mental equilibrium. In a study for the Journal of Research on Adolescence, Terese J. Lund and Eric Dearing found that boys reported higher levels of delinquency and girls reported higher levels of anxiety and depression when they lived in affluent neighborhoods compared with middle-class neighborhoods. Boys’ delinquency and girls’ anxiety-depression levels were lowest when they were from affluent families living in middle-class neighborhoods.

Premarital doubts are significant. In a study in the Journal of Family Psychology, Justin Lavner, Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury found that women who had cold feet before marriage had significantly higher divorce rates four years later. Male premarital doubts did not correlate with more divorce.

Women use red to impress men. In a study for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Andrew Elliot, Tobias Greitemeyer and Adam Pazda found that women expecting to converse with an attractive man were more likely to select a red versus green shirt than women expecting to converse with an unattractive man or another woman.

Birth date affects corporate success. In a study for Economics Letters, Qianqian Du, Huasheng Gao and Maurice Levi found that C.E.O.’s are disproportionately less likely to be born in June and July.

It’s always worth emphasizing that no one study is dispositive. Many, many studies do not replicate. Still, these sorts of studies do remind us that we are influenced by a thousand breezes permeating the unconscious layers of our minds. They remind us of the power of social context. They’re also nice conversation starters. If you find this sort of thing interesting, you really should check out Kevin Lewis’s blog at National Affairs. He provides links to hundreds of academic studies a year, from which these selections have been drawn.

 

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 15, 2012

 

An earlier version of this column misstated the findings of a study in the journal Economics Letters about corporate success. It found that C.E.O.’s were disproportionately less likely — not disproportionately likely — to have been born in June and July.”

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January 19, 2013 · 11:11 pm

Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning

Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning

NPR

by 

November 12, 2012
“…Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it’s possible to point to counter-examples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated, it is often used to measure emotional strength…”

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