Annual Themes

The last few years have seemed to have a pattern for me.

Before 2014, I don’t think I was the same person as afterward. I was very young, and only beginning to develop some kind of adult wisdom when I arrived at college. Feeling the brain develop is a strange sensation from the inside, and the process didn’t really finish fast enough. I spent the latter half of 2014 struggling with the consequences.

New Year’s Eve of that year was one of the first halfway-decent mental health days that I’d had in many, many months. It wasn’t a grand victory or anything—I cleaned (one corner of) my room, and piled up a few books to read. But it was something. 2015 felt like I was, slowly, becoming myself again. Or maybe for the first time.

In 2016, I adjusted to that role, but it didn’t go particularly well. Academically, I did alright, but found myself struggling again. I tried to blog regularly and failed. I read more, though hardly enough. My relationship peaked and ended. Mom and Dad decided to move. By December it felt like my life had mostly fallen apart around me.

This year began with uncertainty. I didn’t know how I was going to do in school, and my personal life might as well’ve been nonexistent. Classes proved interesting, but my performance left a lot to be desired.

I disappointed some of my classmates, and only after getting some scathing peer evaluations did I really shape up. I pulled my first all-nighter since 2014 on May Day. This fall I put in a lot more effort and hopefully rebuilt some part of my reputation.

2017 was the year that I learned how to try. 2018 is the year I actually try.

Talking about your specific goals is generally a poor idea, so I won’t delve into the details of what I’ll be trying to do. I’m hesitant to even announce my intention to try, but since one of the major items is a group effort with people I respect, there will be some accountability for it. Even so, I’m already a bit behind. There were things I’d planned to do over winter break, and I haven’t completed as many of them as I’d wanted. I need to get to work, and talking about it won’t help. So stop “trying” and just try.


Three Motivational Psychologies

[Epistemic Status: It all looks right, but I couldn’t prove it to you.]

In my review of Space Cadet, I approvingly quoted this speech from Matt’s academic advisor, Lieutenant Wong:

People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

I want to discuss this passage in more detail because it cuts cleanly to the center of an idea which I’ve been trying to express for several months now, and failing. As usual, someone else communicated it better that I could, long before my birth. The critical mistake, of course, was failing to differentiate between motivational categories and therefore trying to coherently illustrate a false dichotomy.

The idea in question is motivational categories. My interest here is motivation by face, which is generally subsumed by what Ayn Rand called second-hand-living. We’ll be discussing this in-depth Soon™, but I bring it up now because it looks like a useful model.

Let’s enumerate the three motivational types Heinlein sketched out. We’ll number them in the order discussed.

Type 1 describes the sort of person who is primarily focused on achieving financial success and avoiding poverty. When Heinlein wrote Space Cadet, they were probably the most common sort by a wide margin. This is…. less true, today. I suspect this is why so little time was spent discussing them—everyone knew what that kind of person was like. They went to work each morning, sent their kids to school, saved their raises, and attended church on Sunday.

They’re a dying breed, and I’ll miss them.

Type 2 is far more common in the modern era, probably the majority by a wide margin, though that may be a matter of availability bias. They’re the sort of people who drive around blasting music in the middle of the night and seek out “experiences” they can share on social media. They want to have fun in a particularly public manner. We’ve all met some of these people.

Most commentators mistakenly reverse the etiology. MTV / Facebook / Twitter / Snapstagram are the result of this type’s prevalence, not their cause. Social media may serve as a catalyst, but it would not have succeeded in the first place had a critical mass not already been present. One of the upcoming books I’ll review is all about these sorts, but there’s a catch—it was published in 1943. Type 2 motivations have been around forever.


It turns out Snapstagram was a real company for a few years.

Type 3, finally, is “the professional type.” What this entails isn’t always clear. Generally, these people devote their lives to work for intellectual rather than pecuniary reasons. They include a lot of people in industry, some academics, a few artists, and a good chunk of the clergy.

Nobody falls entirely into any one category, as Lieutenant Wong admits. This is a pretty crude model meant to just grasp at a few broad distinctions. Within a given category, there are several sub-motivations and other, less prominent motivations might not fall into any of the three Types.

Few individuals fall solely within any one of these categories. The overlap is where a lot of interesting dynamics show up, far more than I could discuss properly in a short post. Forgive me for just outlining them.

Type 1 and Type 2 overlaps are extremely common—so common, in fact, that it wasn’t until this last reading that I differentiated motivation-by-face from motivation-by-money. My defense is I was considerably younger on my previous readings, and wealth signaling is absolutely rampant. The idea that people might want money for actually-selfish1 reasons didn’t really occur to me until 2009. All too many people see wealth as a means to second-hand ends than for their own benefit.

Type 1 and Type 3 overlap is a more natural and sensible mix. By producing value—which, in a free economy, implies currency—one can go about implementing moral ends. Charity is not possible without production, science is not possible without surplus, art not possible without patrons. Greater purposes are an end: they cannot provide the means. Only the human manipulation of nature can do that.

Note that this sort isn’t particularly visible. The only example that’s coming readily to mind is Bill Gates, and he’s the richest man in the world2. It’s somewhat challenging to estimate the prevalence of sort of person, because they generally aren’t seeking out fame for their own glorification.

The overlap between Type 2 and Type 3 is quite visible, in a perverted form of virtue signaling. These people are seeking fame for their own glorification, but pretending that they aren’t. You will see this a lot in professional circles. The six-day trip to Africa really changing one’s profile picture is a deservingly mocked form, but it shows up in a lot of other ways, too. People and organizations make a lot of noise about being leaders on “sustainability” or “giving back to the community” when it’s painfully clear that their real interest is being seen as that sort of person3. Now there’s nothing wrong with proselytization, but for the love of God be subtle about it!

I don’t know if this model is actually correct. It looks right and I may write more about why it looks write later, but for now it’s a useful thing to think about. Then again, scientific validity isn’t always the best grounds for constructing useful typologies, because categories are made for man, not the other way around.

1Selfish reasons included personal pleasure and trying to avoid destitution. Vanity doesn’t count, that’s a Type 2 motivation. Simple misers are the stereo-Type 1 person, but they’re a minority of people primarily motivated by money, and an uncharitable one at that.

2At the time of this writing, according to Forbes. That could change again in the future.

3This also applies in politics. Yes, my libertarian friends, I am still looking at you!

Book Review: Hive Mind

I took a long time to write a review of Garett Jones’s book Hive Mind, which looks at the role of IQ in societal functionality. I finished the book in June, and since then have had a rather difficult time trying to express my thoughts. Waiting so long was definitely a mistake. My memory of the details is inadequate to do a convincing job, and I didn’t particularly want to reread the entire thing.

To further complicate matters, IQ is a touchy subject. Jones starts out by trying to establish for readers that, while it may be an imperfect measure, it definitely is measuring something, and something desirable at that. There’s a fairly large body of research backing this up, but when did uncommunicated studies ever convince anyone?

The first several chapters attempt to rectify this problem. Jones stresses his preference for geometric, language-neutral assessments, which is shared by the psychological researchers still willing to touch such a toxic area of study. However, the applicability of geometric tests is not limited to assessing math skills, because of what Jones calls the Da Vinci Effect i.e. people who are good in one area are usually good in other, related areas. The research supports this interpretation, since older-style test which cover multiple areas show a positive correlation between different sorts of cognitive abilities.

Referring to IQ as a collection of skills is not a mistake. While genetics certainly contribute, IQ is hardly immutable. You can train yourself to be more intelligent, at least temporarily.

This strays dangerously close to “[insert standardized test type here] just tests your knowledge, not smarts” territory, but any serious student of engineering knows there’s a big difference between memorizing facts and understanding how to apply them in a wide variety of situations. We’re pretty sure that that’s what standardized tests are measuring.

All of this is very interesting, but why should we care?

The next section deals with the application of intelligence in group dynamics. In particular, what role does a population’s average intelligence play in the functioning of society, economic output, and political stability? This is the book’s real focus.

Jones draws from a number of examples to argue that more intelligent groups are more cooperative and better at cooperation. The interesting thing is that average IQ is not the single relevant factor. The less intelligent members actually hinder the success of such group.

From a policy perspective, this is very important information. It tells us that a focus on raising the IQ of disadvantaged populations very well could be a more effective societal intervention than equivalent intelligence increases at the opposite end of the bell curve. (Attempts to test this hypothesis have been frustrated by insufficient national data.) Furthermore, since group intelligence plays a significant role in political and economic success, this suggests that one-time investments in poverty-stricken nations can in fact permanently raise them to an decent mode of existence.

This is not a book about how to raise IQ, and Jones only briefly discusses the matter. His goal is to motivate better research on the subject, since only a handful of studies have been done and we really don’t have a clear picture of what does into brain development. There’s a couple of possibilities put forth. One is childhood nutrition. Studies where researchers gave a nutrient-rich foods to children in disadvantaged areas found that those same children later tested higher than their malnourished peers. This seems like a good strategy in particularly poor nations. Other experiments suggest that better schooling, especially in problem-solving and mathematical thinking, can drastically raise an individual’s functional intelligence. Finally, the intervention most people can agree on is removing lead on other toxins from the environment. It’s notable that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the few major regions which still uses leaded gasoline.

Which interventions are most effective is an open question. The idealist answer is to attack all of these problems simultaneously, but as usual the world is less convenient than that. It may be that certain strategies make implementing other strategies easier. For example, agricultural development increases the availability of a balanced childhood diet.

Hive Mind is remarkably honest in admitting when the information simply isn’t available. Society is complicated and Jones does not pretend that even the best statistical analysis can overcome that complexity given such limited data. Simply put, we need a lot more research before we can know with any degree of certainty. It’s clear that IQ is a decent predictor of social outcomes. It’s also clearly a weak predictor of individual outcomes. To be clear, individual IQ matters, but only as much as several other factors. Some we can control, some we cannot. Effecting positive social change depends on policymaker’s ability to balance these factors.

Creating better institutions through smarter populations is a promising method of overcoming many of our longstanding structural problems. There’s real potential here. Let’s get to work on it.


Hive Mind by Garett Jones