Field of Science

You get what you select for

You get what you select for. This is a lesson I have learnt in a lab where we run computer simulations of evolutionary processes. If you select against those who report to you that they are small, then you will find your simulation populated by those who are big and those who don't report to you. In other words, what you desire does not always result from the method you implement in order to obtain it.

In Positively Misguided: The Myths & Mistakes of the Positive Thinking Movement, eSkeptic, April 15th, 2009, Steve Salerno (book) attacks the Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) movement, in which positivity is central for success, and "optimism and the general maintenance of a “can-do spirit” form the themes of every other self-help best-seller."

As an example of selection for the wrong things, consider
pizza parties that “used to be only for children who made A’s, but in recent years the school has invited every child who simply passed.”
If you reward mediocrity, then that is what you should expect to foster. Of course. Who cares what grade you get if you get to go to the pizza party either way? Kind of thinking.

Salerno goes much further than that, though.
The real lesson here, though, isn’t that massive doses of positivity failed to yield brilliance — it’s that the obsession with cultivating optimism and “inner strength” actually proved counterproductive. It is now clear that not only did self-esteem-based educational methodologies not produce excellence, they actually undermined it.
It undermined it by equating winners with people with high self-esteem, or narcissists. It promoted a shiny façade rather real ability. Who, then, is it that has the highest self-esteem? It turns out that
the strongest marker for serious antisocial behavior is not “low self-esteem,” as once theorized, but rather ultra-high self-esteem. Indeed, Baumeister’s groundbreaking study, published in 1998 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, revealed that the highest levels of self-worth and/or narcissism are often found in serial killers, drug dealers and other misanthropes.
The failure of the PMA movement is spelled out in Salerno's article in great detail. But even more enlightening, he also deals with the cause of PMA:
It bears noting that the self-esteem movement was the result of one of the most colossal logical gaffes on record. Educational psychologists had observed that children who make good grades generally scored a bit higher in self-esteem than poor students. So — they reasoned — all they had to do to transform low achievers into high achievers was “bolt on” some extra self-esteem. What the educators failed to realize, of course, was that they’d inverted causation: The kids with good grades had higher self-esteem because of the grades, not vice versa.
Sigh. Seriously! I wonder what the reason for making this mistake was. I can argue that it would be more natural to suspect those who do well have high self-esteem, but I'm just one. Maybe Salerno and I are oddballs. Or maybe psychologists, scientists of the mind, are biased such that they overvalue the state of mind in affecting intellectual ability? Either way, that correlation does not imply causation is well-known, and should have been given some more credit. Just ask xkcd.

Hindsight is a wonderful gift.

1 comment:

  1. I would go with the "pizza for everyone".

    In the 13 years I spent in school, I learned that my bad grade had nothing to do with me being brilliant. A pizza lunch for those adapted "say what the teacher wants to hear" guys, would only have stressed my observation. Instead: Pizza for everybody would have made me feel way more accepted.

    Besides I think school selects for adapted mediocricy and reproducers anyway. Pizza and good will doesn#t change that. What we need are exceptional and creative no sayers, who are able to synthesise knowledge rather than reproduce... and ignore pizza lunches and instead spent time reflecting who not to end up as a teacher.

    Besides those, who become teachers because they love teaching, the majority of people ending up as teachers failed to achieve something else. And I don't want loosers or underachievers spoil my kids for 13 years...

    Cheers Arend


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