Almost always, “save the world” initiatives are aimed somewhere far from the developed world. Whatever you want to call it: the third world, or some developing nation; we regard it as THE area that needs saving: warring factions in Syria, censorship in China, extortion in Mexico, hunger in Ghana, rape in India, and corruption in Russia. These are real and serious problems in the world and we’re right to seek ways to improve the greater good of people there.
But the developed world is full of many of its own problems, often orthogonal to those of the less developed world:
- Diabetes and cancer are the diseases of developed world, and throw us into an inefficient healthcare system that’s incentivised to be expensive and bankrupt patients.
- Our food system isn’t helping – the most convenient and least expensive food tends to very processed. Moreover, information on healthful eating is muddled by vested interests.
- Many people find themselves in unnatural settings for daily work, where they spend most of their waking hours: long and stressful commutes, uninspiring work, hierarchical and restrictive work structures that cause the same angst and disorders as hierarchical regimes, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air, and movement. This “life” causes many physical and mental ailments including obesity and a widespread reduction in well being.
- A consumerist mindset occupies our minds, ceaselessly telling us we need more to be happy, adding clutter to our lives and waste in our landfills.
- We find ourselves endlessly busy and distant (physically and mentally) from things that bring true happiness: sleep, family, friends, love, community, and general relaxing and reflection.
The crux of this is that people in the developed world might not be very happy in their day to day lives. By some measures we might be less happy than those living in the developing world
These problems are nothing compared to warfare and hunger, but it’s critical that we make strides to address these issues. For one, most of world is becoming more developed. They crave to be more modern. They want to be more technologically advanced and be a part of the greater world economy. They want success and prosperity and growth. And they rightfully should. But as the developing world inherits our advancement, they inherit our problems. And these would be new problems for them – the next five billion – and big problems for the planet as a whole. So if we’re to “save the world”, let’s go after the problems in front of us, and not just the ones half a world away.
Human social and societal behavior
- A strong personal and professional research interest
- I’ve worked with faculty at Stony Brook University in developing a theory of evolution of religion, which reached into in-group / out-group behavior and a theory of culture. While this work is yet to be published, it is referenced in the book “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future”.
- I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate (classroom and online) course on Social Coercion Theory
- I’m a former practitioner of Kyokushin karate and served as an instructor for 5 years
- I presently practice capoeira, an afro-brazilian martial art and have done so for the past 7 years
- I’m an avid roller blader, as a daily commuter and as a safety marshall (5 years) for the inline skating community
- I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing
- I’ve volunteered at St. Francis and Bellevue Hospitals
- I was trained and certified as a NYS EMT and briefly volunteered with the Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps
- I was a pre-med student in a college and applied to medical schools, but decided against the career
- A strong personal interest and I do a lot of reading, research, and personal experimenting
I recently spent time in Miami for the wedding of a best friend, Ryan. I love to hang with Ryan and Thelma (his wife) because they’re full of energy, positivity, and see a deep potential in everyone. Spending time with them often brings out the best in one; and this magic happened yet again on their special day.
The wedding was appropriately held at the FIU Nature Preserve that Ryan manages. We, friends and relatives, spent the morning helping to set up the momentous event. Knowing Ryan, this meant hard work, heavy lifting, and of course a lot of fun! We carried many heavy tables, set up all the chairs and table arrangements, and even moved a few large logs for good measure. Some were surprised by the amount of “activity” involved, but it was standard operating procedure for Ryan, Thelma, Samir (a good friend), and I. The cleanup afterwards was much the same.
Ryan and Thelma incredibly but unsurprisingly decided to call off their honeymoon (it was to be a simple trip, but still). They both felt the time was better spent with folks that came down to see them, especially Ryan’s cousin, Jonny, and I.
After we all settled down a bit at Ryan and Thelma’s house, Ryan asked if anyone wanted to do a bike ride since there was still some light out (there really wasn’t much – Ryan just needed a reason for more activity). A bunch of us agreed, including Jonny, who in the thirty or so years of his life, had never learned to ride a bike; we offered to teach him. Out we went, Samir and Jonny on bikes, Ryan and I on skates since we were short on bikes. Ryan and Samir gave Jonny a crash course (literally) in the parking lot for about an hour. Then another hour on the campus nearby. Jonny was getting the hang of it. (Samir and Ryan, however, collided into each other head-on from not paying attention. They were laughing hard as they picked themselves up from the ground).
Back at the house, around 9:30pm, Ryan asked if we’d be interested in doing a hike in the Everglades. Someone suggested that we instead bike along the paved path that cuts across the marsh, doing as much of the 15 miles that we felt comfortable with. Jonny was game – probably amped by the nonchalant attitude that the rest of us shared about doing activity after activity. We picked up a couple more bikes. Five bikes loaded onto an old Honda Accord might be a spectacle to some people. Not us.
It was 11:30pm by the time we arrived at the trailhead. It was dark and even a bit chilly. We had some headlamps and flashlights but eventually turned them off to instead ride by moonlight. The stars were out; alligators were chilling just a few feet off the path. The ride was surreal – as if we were traveling through space and time, floating in the cosmos that some like to call the Everglades. Jonny was doing great and kept insisting that we go on, despite my subtle attempts to persuade him otherwise. We heard him crash a couple of times (but couldn’t see anything in the dark) but Jonny was a real trooper and got back on the bike every time. The ride back proved more surreal – moonlight was gone. Our brains, at full focus, barely made out the road in front. At the same time, we shared deep conversation with one another. Simply amazing!
We completed the full round – 15 miles. It was 3:30am by the time we got back to the house. We were all completely exhausted but in ecstasy. What an amazing day. Yes, this was the same day that Ryan and Thelma got married!
Jonny left for home the next morning. I’m sure something in him changed. To his credit, he threw himself into a circle of people that lived life a little differently; what some would consider extreme or without bounds. And that’s exactly where the magic happens. We don’t like to impose artificial limitations. People like Ryan, Thelma, and I see great potential in all people and in ourselves. Perhaps we come off a bit conceited, judgemental, or reckless with this attitude, but it’s a person’s loss to not strive for that potential. Jonny played it perfectly and it paid off. He learned to ride a bike in two hours time and then went off to do an incredible ride through the Florida Everglades. Maybe it’s not so much magic but just the right attitude and the right crowd to resonate that energy…
Note: Thelma deserves much credit. She was real cool about letting Ryan hang with his buddies for these adventures (she wanted to join us on but decided to take it easy given the recent stress of putting together a wedding, while being seven months pregnant). Amazingly (or rather fitting in my opinion), she and I went indoor rock climbing two days later. It was her idea and she insisted. Thelma totally rocked it!
Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.
Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.
When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.
A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.
There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.
There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.
For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.
A few examples of education being transformed:
In discussing the benefits and pitfalls of adopting technology, one solid example is the mobile phone. These devices have become an essential part of our lives and just about everyone in modern society has one, including kids. Yet the social etiquette has been slow to follow.
All too often we see two people having a face-to-face conversation only to be interrupted by a ringing phone and the subsequent answer. How is it that someone calling the phone, potentially many miles away, has precedent over someone a few feet away? Well the calling individual doesn’t know this and that’s a big factor cause she may get offended if left unanswered. (Another factor involves our desire for social connection.) The social etiquette has been catching up though. It’s not uncommon for people to just silence the phone, or quickly answer to say “I’m busy now, I’ll call you back later”, or at the very least apologize to the live conversation partner: “I’m really sorry, this is an important call”. Social etiquette has also improved in callers understanding that people might be busy.
At the same time, newer technology has aided in improving social etiquette. Texting is [fundamentally] less intrusive than a voice call since it’s passive. It’s easier to check on a text later than to check on a voicemail [that was hopefully left] or end up playing phone tag. Still, texting brings about its own set of social etiquette issues. Over time, the etiquette will catch up, assuming texting isn’t replaced by another technology before then.
Yet another technology is reducing the need for calls or texts – location reporting services. Consider Google Latitude, which informs a set of your friends of where you are at all times. Since I began using Latitude, phone calls and instant messages (which I receive on my phone (I skipped over texting entirely)) from certain friends have dropped to half. Why? Because half the calls have to do with where I am and if I can hang out. Now, friends just use Latitude to see where I am and know if I’m off somewhere far away or busy at martial arts class.
As this technology gets adopted (and I assure you that it will), we’ll face more social etiquette issues. People don’t like being tracked and are reluctant to give up privacy. All sorts of social strains will crop up. But over time, people will adjust, and perhaps even newer technologies will come to the rescue!
People have become more respectful in silencing their phones at proper times. If you recall the earlier part of the decade, whenever a phone would ring and cause a disturbance at some event (like a meeting), the speaker would stop to announce “please remember to silence your phones” as if people needed to be informed of what the social etiquette is. Nowadays, this intrusion is less common, and when it does happen, the speaker and pretty much everyone else ignore it.
We like to think that we have free will – that we’re not like other animals which are governed by their biology. But if you think this, you’re gravely mistaken. We humans, as biological creatures, are under its rules. Our decisions are fueled by dopamine on rules built through evolution. You have two choices: refuse to acknowledge this and be a slave to your desires, or accept your underlying biology and learn to become wary of its unconscious influence. If you choose the latter, continue reading below.
Our psychological mechanisms often hide their purposes from consciousness and have strong influences on our behavior. We share many of these mechanisms with other animals. The feeling of hunger causes cravings, and of course there’s the sex drive. Some are pretty helpful, like the fight or flight response while others appear to do more harm than good, like in the case of nervousness.
There are uniquely human unconscious forces as well. As social creatures, we feel all sorts of social forces, such as morality (we know when things are right and wrong) or in-group/out-group forces (the need to fit in somewhere, or to despise outsiders). We literally feel these forces and they, without a doubt, affect and sometimes dominate our behaviors. Love (often characterized as a mental disease) and its less potent variants (such as lust) certainly affect our behavior beyond normal conscious will.
Our brains are incredible pieces of technology shaped by evolution. But are we using our built-in technology as it was optimized for? The world today is very different than what many mechanisms evolved for. Also, we have access to ways to abuse our technologies, such as drugs. Cigarettes work on the level of brain chemistry, as do most other drugs, including alcohol. Processed food is chock full of sugar and fat targeting evolved mechanisms to help us in times of starvation.
We should be mindful in how we use any technology, especially that which is built into us. Do you understand why you desire something? Are you responding in positive ways to unconscious mechanisms? Or are you merely pressing evolutionary buttons (or letting others do so for their gain)?
Texting and talking on the phone while driving / cycling / having dinner has become a nuisance to our safety and social manners. It’s clear to everyone by now how dangerous (and rude) this has become. But the problem is not going away and interestingly enough, pretty much everyone is guilty of it, regardless of their awareness. Which leads one to believe that there’s more behind this.
It comes down to the fact that we’re very social creatures and we seek connections with other people. Cells phones have enabled us remained connected to those we care for, thus giving us something so important from what is ingrained in us.
This strong force should be kept in mind when approaching policies to prevent texting or driving while talking. It is difficult to stop this behavior because of the incredible strong social force. Still, we can help people make better decisions when using this technology. Like to avoid talking on the phone when on local streets. Or to avoid getting into emotional conversations while on the go. Additionally, creative solutions are appearing for mobile devices to deal with texting and talking on the phone.
I do have one such idea: Consider an app phone combined with Google Voice (which can act as a digital personal secretary). Imagine setting your device to “car mode” (or have it automatically do this via a car dock or by detecting speed via GPS) or “dinner with family mode”. The mode would trigger Google Voice to intercept your calls with a message to inform your caller that this is a bad time before patching her through. It could send automatic responses to text messages. It could set away messages to your IM services and even shut off notifications. The technology is at hand and there’s quite a lot of potential in it. I expect we’ll see this sort of stuff within a couple of years, if not sooner.
Over time, social etiquette with texting will improve as it has for phone calls. Still, we mustn’t forget that the reason these tools have become such a dominant part of our lives is that it enhances the very human act of being social.
As the adjacent graph jokingly indicates, the whole “Going Green” thing has spiraled out to a trendy thing instead of a genuine concern for our environment. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact is, people are being more eco-conscious. And this in turn is affecting larger level organizations. All sorts of companies are now talking green. The government is also embracing green policies. Do each of these groups really believe in being environmentally friendly or are they catering to their interests? For individuals, there is the social influence factor. For companies, it’s the bottom line and something else to advertise. For government, it’s reelection. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that individuals are cutting down electricity, companies are limiting toxic chemicals, and governments are investing in renewable energy.
This is a fantastic example of aligning private interests with public interests. By doing this, we neither run into the problem of uncooperative players due to a lack of enforcement nor do we need to create a system of enforcement. I’m not sure how long this green trend will last, but it has greatly helped lay down important seeds. This also provides a lesson on how social forces can harness selfish interest for a common good.
Doing physical activity can be immensely more enjoyable in the company of others. We humans are social creatures and are built to respond strongly to social influence. Why not use it to our benefit? A recent NYT article discussed how many people have leveraged this fact so strongly that the prime motivating factor is the social event, and that the exercise itself is a secondary benefit. Hey, it works! And as I’ve stated before, it makes exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun activity. You’ll certainly train better and be more committed, not to mention have others call you out on when you’re not.
There’s plenty of ways to go about this. Going to the gym with friends or significant others works well. Being part of a team sport is another. Or how about joining a grouped activity, like running, cycling, or inline skating (pictured above and among my favorites)? Martial arts is an exceptional one. Students push each other and help keep their energy up even as the training gets tougher.
There’s plenty of other activities. What’s your favorite and what tips do you have to get involved in social physical activity?
Often times I’ll walk into a building and find an elevator right by the entrance. I look for stairs but they’re nowhere in sight as they’re typically hidden away at some end of the building. What if it was the other way around? What if the stairs were located right by the entrance of the building while the elevators were hidden off at some far end of the building? People will generally do the more convenient thing, which in this case means taking the stairs. It’s certainly something for building designers to consider.
Here’s another thought on convenience: without a doubt, elevators are convenient to go up multiple stories. But having a fit body is awfully convenient to go up many flights of stairs. And a fit body that uses the stairs helps itself to remain fit.
A strong factor that defeats stair use is social influence. It’s difficult to take the stairs when the friends/colleagues/family you’re with are waiting for the elevator. Why not say something? Even getting one more person on your side is enough to sway the entire group’s decision, and there’s always a possibility that others are willing to take the stairs but are adhering to the group’s default choice to take the elevator. Perhaps if more of us did this, the social norm would be to take the stairs rather than the elevator (I’m sure plenty of places have it like this, and I’m curious to know how these sort of norms developed).
Bonus tip: if you’re looking for the stairs, try following those Exit signs affixed to ceilings. They’ll usually lead you in the right direction.