How many feminine pronouns will be enough?

In February of 2015, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave an interview at Georgetown Law School. At one point in the interview she offered her position on women justices in the Supreme Court. Ginsburg said, “People ask me sometimes—when do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” For almost the entire history of the court, it consisted of nine men. No one thought that was weird. So why, then, shouldn’t it consist of nine women?

Ginsburg’s statement is provocative because it runs counterintuitive to the way we typically think about equality. The way things usually work is that when we identity an inequality we want to compensate for it by striking a balance. If women get paid a fraction of what men get paid for the same job, then solution should be to make it so everyone can earn the same wage for the same work. Our first instinct isn’t to say, “How much would be enough? When a woman makes 2x what a man does.” We don’t, in other words, over-compensate for it. The equivalent to RBG’s statement is that if men make 30% more than women, then the problem isn’t fixed until women make another 30% more than men. That’s a pretty dramatic position.

But there are some cases of inequality where it is the right position to take. Let me give you another example.

For the entire history of the English language, we have using male pronoun to refer to the generalized human. For example, if you read old psychology papers, the author always assumes that the reader—and therefore any legitimate colleague—is a "he." It wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized our mistake. Almost everything you read before, say, 2010 uses what we now think of as sexist language. Then we all, quite suddenly, agreed to stop. But what did we settle on as a solution?

We concluded that the solution pronoun problem is the same as the solution to the wage problem: we need equal proportion. And we developed all sorts of linguistic conventions to accomplish this. One strategy is to include the female pronoun in addition to the male one. “The student may turn in his homework” becomes “The student may turn in his or her homework.” Another strategy is to fudge the line between plural and single. “The student may turn in their homework.” Unfortunately, some people even think that “s/he” is a plausibility. It’s not. When Steven Pinker addresses the problem in his book on writing, The Sense of Style, he equivocates, contending that there is no obvious best solution. In his own usage, he alternates between boys and girls in different chapters. The student is a she in chapter one, and a he in chapter two. But Pinker is wrong. There is an optimal solution. I call it the Ruth Bader Ginsburg theory of pronoun usage.

We used exclusively male pronouns for hundreds of years. No one ever questioned that we were excluding half of the population from participating in the conversation. The only conceivable way to address that slight is to invert it. The only legitimate solution, then, is “The student may turn in her homework." When, you ask, will there be enough feminine pronouns? When all of the pronouns are feminine.


Originally posted on Psychology Today.

You want your fame to be horizontal, not vertical.

About three years ago, I walked into the book section of a Hudson News in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and found myself in a state of astonishment. There was an entire shelf filled with only one book. That is, hundreds of copies of one book. For months afterward I would go into bookstores in the airport just to count the copies of it, and still there would be rows upon rows. The book was Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari.

And do you know how many shelf spaces Hudson News dedicated to Modern Romance last time I was in the airport? None.

Here’s another book they generally fail to stock at Hudson: The Principles of Psychology by William James. The absence of Principles is, I suppose, less surprising than the absence of Modern Romance. It was published in 1890. Considered the founding text of psychology, Principles was the culmination of a decade of James’s work, throughout which he was consistently sidelined by battles with various illnesses. In it, James successfully forecasts pretty much everything we still care about in psychology more than a hundred years later. The table of contents reads like a syllabus for Psych 101: it covers sensation, attention, habit, memory, association, perception, the brain, imagination, reasoning, instinct, emotions, and free-will, to name a few. Not only does it cover the same topics, but what it says about them is still largely representative of how we think about them today. Of course, it doesn't cover the precise details of the experiments run over the last century. But it paints a picture of human behavior with the same broad strokes that we still use now. If you want to have a really deep understanding of psychology as a field, you could do worse than reading Principles. In fact, I’m not sure you could do a whole lot better.

It is not an overstatement to say that The Principles of Psychology is taught in every introductory psychology course. And not just the ones that have already been taught, either. James and his famous text will probably be taught in every single intro to psych that anyone will ever bother to teach. The number of people who have engaged with this text is huge. It is, in this sense, popular.

But the kind of popularity that it enjoys is completely different from the kind that a book like Modern Romance experiences. The reason we consider Modern Romance popular is because there was a certain point in time where practically everyone was talking about it. But soon after it appeared on the scene, the buzz dissipated. If you were to plot its popularity over time—with the number of people reading it on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis—then it would form a spike, almost like a vertical line. There would be a huge burst when it first came out, then it would drop off.

Modern Romance enjoyed vertical popularity. Its readership was confined to a relatively small section of time. But what if you made the same plot for James’s Principles? Sure, his book made a splash when it was published, even in 1890. It made him world-famous. But it wasn’t anything like the sales numbers for Ansari’s book. For Principles, popularity comes from a sustained readership over time, not all at once.

This is characteristic of horizontal popularity. It’s horizontal because it accumulates its mass over time. It doesn't necessarily have a huge vertical spike. Even if there were one at the beginning, it wouldn’t be responsible for the majority of its popularity in the long run.

So what’s the difference between horizontal and vertical popularity? For one thing, horizontal popularity is actually the more difficult kind of popularity to achieve. Most books that are popular are vertically popular. Most likely, that includes any book that’s selling well on the shelves of Hudson News right now. Inclusion on the shelves of Hudson News is actually a pretty good proxy for vertical popularity. If you think about it, the primary demographic of airport bookstores are people who, knowing they are about to be sealed into a flying tube for several hours, think to themselves, “Gee, perhaps I should find something to do with that time.” The books you pick up there tend to arouse short-term interest rather than long-term devotion. Certainly, no one will be teaching them in a college course in a decade. In contrast, horizontally popular books are Freud's writings (also taught in every psychology introductory course), the Bible, Infinite Jest, Harry Potter, and the usual canon of literary works, to list a few that come to mind. They are, in a word, the classics—as worthwhile now as they were back when they came out.

That we consume a consistent diet of vertically popular works should, I think, give us pause. The defining feature of vertical popularity is that it is important now, but it isn’t going to be later. A good book, like a mutual fund, should be judged by its return on investment. You’re going to spend 10 hours reading it, let’s say. Do you want something that’s going to stick in your mind for a decade to come and keep paying dividends? Or do you want something that’s going to fizzle out and leave you with the suspicion that you shouldn’t be taking book recommendations from the same person who gives you financial advice? If you had read Principles a hundred ago, then you would have understood something substantial about psychology. The same is true about it today. And if, through all the changes in psychology over the past century, James’s work has remained relevant, I’d be willing to bet that the same will be true in another hundred years.


Originally posted on Psychology Today.

Why philosophers agree on what it takes to be happy.

I was a sophomore in college when I first realized that my parents had never told me, "Son, we just want you to be happy." It seemed like everyone else's parents had told them that whatever they did, it was okay as long as it made them happy. Why, I wondered, had my parents never said this to me?

I understood when I came across a passage from the autobiography of John Stuart Mill.

Mill was interesting guy. He had one of the highest IQs in human history (they didn't have intelligence tests at the time, but psychological historians have attempted to reconstruct his IQ from other evidence). His father, the venerable historian James Mill, began teaching him Ancient Greek at the age of three. By eight, he had read the whole of Herodotus's histories in the original. So I thought his life story might make an engaging read. But it's not. His autobiography is a total snooze-fest. As I recall it, the work is an exhaustive compilation of the least interesting things that Mill ever read, saw, or contemplated. A representative passage: "When we had enough of political economy, we took up the syllogistic logic in the same manner, Grote now joining us. Our first text-book was Aldrich, but being disgusted with its superficiality, we reprinted one of the most finished among the many manuals of the school logic, which my father, a great collector of such books, possessed, the Manuductio ad Logicam of the Jesuit Du Trieu. After finishing this, we took up Whately's Logic, then first republished from the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, and finally the Computatio sive Logica of Hobbes." For the love of God, John. Who cares?

Though I'm not exactly sure why, I trudged through it. And I'm glad I did.

But in order to understand what Mill says about happiness, you first need to understand a concept from artificial intelligence. It’s called reinforcement learning.

The basic idea of reinforcement learning is simple. It is a method for designing an agent—be it a person, a robot, a computer program—to behave intelligently. The definition of intelligence here is what computer scientists call “reward maximization.” Simply put, there is something that you want, and intelligent behavior consists in getting as much of it as possible. For example, if your agent is a robot that plays basketball, then its reward comes in the form of points. The more baskets the robot makes, the more points she gets and the more intelligently she behaved. Reinforcement learning is a mathematical solution to the way that the robot would learn to acquire more and more points.

At the heart of reinforcement learning is what’s known as a “policy.” It’s the robot’s playbook. A policy says, in mathematical abstraction, “This is where I am right now. This is what I have to do next to maximize my reward." In basketball, a good policy might be to get the ball, dribble it toward the basket, and toss in a lay-up. Each time the robot does this, she looks at how effective she was in getting points, and adjusts her behavior to do better next time. The robot might start off bad, but using reinforcement learning she could become better over time. That’s what intelligence means here—over time you get better and better at achieving your goal.

The idea might be simple, but all of the nuance in reinforcement learning comes from precisely how you learn that policy. For example, is the best policy to drive toward the basket? Or should you sit back and shoot jumpers? How do you know which is going to work out better next time around? Will the same policy work against a different opponent?

There are two general strategies for how to learn a policy. The first is called on-policy. It's the more straightforward of the two strategies. On-policy means that the robot uses the same information to make decisions and evaluate whether or not they were good decisions. If her policy says to drive toward the basket and that results in a lot of points, then she will be more likely to keep going with that same policy in the future. The second strategy is called off-policy. This means that the robot is using different information to make decisions than she is to evaluate them. The agent could make decisions based on, for instance, her time of possession of the ball. She could then look back at her play based on that policy and see if focusing on something else actually increased her number of baskets in the end.

At first, it might seem like the better strategy is always going to be on-policy. How could you score more points by focusing on something totally irrelevant? But that's not necessarily true. The empirical fact in artificial intelligence research is that some problems are better solved by off-policy methods. Sometimes the best way to attain a goal is indirectly.

This is precisely what Mill argues about happiness. The way to maximize your happiness, so to speak, is to aim at something else. Dedicate yourself to something larger than your own happiness. Work hard at that. Then you’ll look back and realize that you’ve been accruing happiness the whole time. Mill writes,

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“The enjoyments of life are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing when they are taken en passant without being made a principal objective. Once you make them so, you will immediately feel them to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is for you to have as your purpose in life not happiness but something external to it. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if you are otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.”

In other words, the on-policy strategy doesn’t work for happiness. If you try to maximize for it directly, then you’re going to be worse off than if you had taken a different approach. Happiness is one of those problems that works better with the off-policy strategy. There has to be a separation between action and evaluation. If you’re using your own happiness as a metric by which to evaluate your next decision, the scope of your concern cannot extend past your own feelings. Instead, argues Mill, focus on something larger than yourself and you’ll wake up one day to realize that you inhale happiness with the air you breathe.

The reason, then, that my parents never told me to pursue happiness directly was that they, like Mill, believe in an off-policy approach to happiness. When someone tells you that you should "do what makes you happy," they're advocating for an on-policy approach to happiness—making decisions and evaluating them by the same metric. That's exactly what my parents didn't want me to do. And while my parents didn’t learn this from reading Mill, the surprising thing about this position on happiness that it is shared—in some version or another—by practically every other philosopher who has weighed in on the matter. 

One of my favorite of these accounts belongs to Bertrand Russell. He more or less says the same thing as Mill, but with a certain flair of nonchalance in contrast to Mill’s solemn weightiness. Russell writes in The Conquest of Happiness, "Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things." He continues, "let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile."

Happiness, in other words, is the natural result of the observation that there are a great many persons and things in the world worth taking a friendly interest in, and only one of them is yourself. It is with this idea in mind that I want to write this blog. 


Originally posted on Psychology Today.

Inspired by Love. Guided by Knowledge.

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"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

-Bertrand Russell