Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Paradigm Shifts of the Past Ten Years

In celebration of the dawning of a new decade tomorrow, I detail significant changes to the lens through which I view the world from the past decade:

1) The way I'm oriented toward/view other people matters, and is independent of behavior. I can perform the same act with at least two different ways of being. For instance, I can walk across campus lost in my own thoughts (in which case all the people I see are objects to me), or I can walk across campus and when passing people, occasionally focus on one person, reminding myself of the humanity of that person: he or she has hopes and frustrations and disappointments and uniqueness just like me. This shift came from reading "Leadership and Self-Deception" by the Arbinger Institute and helped me realize when I'm "in the box" toward people or not. Similarly, I can give a compliment with the exact same words and intonation and body language and everything, yet view that person as an object (means to an end) knowing that humans usually respond positively to praise. Alternatively, I could give the compliment in the second case identical in all external ways, yet be oriented toward/view the person as a person, just like me, with private thoughts and stresses and dreams and a background and relationships.

2) Leadership has primarily two focii: A) accomplishing group tasks and B) developing followers. People expect leaders to get things done. However, if a leader stops at results, I think that leader stands to gain from a broader view of leadership- leadership like that Christ exhibited. Christ probably could have accomplished many tasks more effectively and efficiently than His followers (e.g. by assigning tasks to angels); yet, He instead delegated to and trained His apostles and other disciples. He knew that leadership is about training and helping followers to progress as much or more as it's about ensuring the trains get to the station on time.

3) Most tenets of contemporary evolutionary theory are quite sensible. This insight is a product of lots of thought, reading a ton (including the influential "Finding Darwin's God" by Kenneth Miller), earning a bachelor's degree in biology, and fasting/prayer.

4) When a person expresses a feeling, he or she usually wants one of two things: thing 1- to be heard, thing 2- problem-solving advice. One of the most common mistakes people (especially men) make is to respond with advice when what is wanted is to be heard. I got to the point after talking about this insight with my sister that when one of the us expresses a feeling, the other just asks straight out if person A wants listening or problem solving help. This practice has helped me refrain from my strong impulse to propose solutions when listening to her and other friends.

5) People's expectations are usually a result of their zeitgeist (culture of their place and time), and most cultural norms are more arbitrary than intelligently designed (else why the prevalence of deleterious norms and the staggering cultural diversity evident in the world today and historically?). Folks generally want their expectations to be met more than they want any given person to behave authentically. Our expectations of ourselves and others derive from the agreements we make with the scripts we are fed during childhood. Most of us are thoroughly domesticated. (see http://gigamaster.blogspot
.com/2009/03/domestication-and-dream-of-planet.html (read the part starting with "What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream"))

6) I can raise my commitments kept/commitments made ratio far above the status quo by using my palm pilot.

7) The majority of human experience of love and attachment is biological (specifically, neurochemical). I don't find this reality offensive, since learning to manage a body is a primary purpose of mortality. This insight derives from my education in the disciplines of anatomy, nutrition, evolutionary biology, social psychology, marriage preparation, and a bunch of ancillary research (such as Fisher's "Why we love: the nature and chemistry of romantic love").

8) My testimony of the Restored gospel of Jesus Christ has matured from what it was as a child; though it is still based on my faith in Jesus Christ and constituted by revelation from the Holy Ghost, that revelation is customized to my understanding, which is vastly different now that it was when I was ten. My thinking is more sophisticated- and often the revelation, though simple, fits in that framework in a way understandable to me and accompanied by feelings of peace and assurance.

9) By receiving the Atonement, I can learn from my experiences without being condemned by them. A fuller discussion of this principle is found in Bruce Hafen's "Covenant Hearts." By uniting (at-one) with Christ and the Infinite Atonement, my imperfections are subsumed. E.g.- if I unite my 35 cent debt with a 10 trillion dollar surplus, I haven't affected the net balance much. If instead I unite my finite imperfections and sins and trials with the infinite strength and absolving power of Christ's atonement, my deficit can truly become zero, much as a function may be considered to equal zero at some point if it approaches zero quickly enough without necessarily touching the x axis (the function's limit- see and Tad Callister's "The Infinite Atonement"). Receiving the Atonement does more that compensate for faults or restore me to a guiltless state, however: it can also take me far above the impotent condition of an innocent babe to the level of an intentional, Christlike potentate like the prophets and men of God I admire.

10) #10 is a composite shift I entitle, "why we believe what we believe." First tenet: Rogerian persuasion is effective. I learned this method in a persuasive writing class I took. Instead of starting out by undermining your opponent's arguments, begin by affirming them. Make the opponent's strongest arguments first, make sure they're all out there on the table, and only then introduce your arguments. It's sort of a "yes, you have a good point that ____ and _____ - but have you considered..." approach. Because the person feels heard, he or she may be more open-minded about relevant factors not yet considered. This tenet leads into the second - tenet two: we exhibit a predilection to prematurely take positions on issues (i.e. weighing in before considering all relevant factors). Because we are 1) prone to overestimate our own certainty (ask me for a ten question quiz test you can take to see my point, 2) generally ill-informed, 3) subject to dirty tricks of persuasion and manipulation (start with page 22 of and research foot-in-the-door, camel's nose, low-ball, bait 'n switch, that's-not-all and door-in-the-face compliance gaining techniques) and 4) likely to be influenced by dozens of substantial cognitive biases (, people should as a rule take only tentative, rather than emphatic, positions on issues (e.g. the performance of President Bush or abortion or global warming or the effects of eating close to bedtime or the parenting skills of your mother). Instead, people choose to take sides, establish positions, and offer resolved opinions and unqualified criticisms in all areas of life, thereby creating a psychological need to seek evidence supporting the position (confirmation bias) rather than ensuring an environment conducive to conforming one's views the closest available approximation of truth. This shift has led me to conclude that folks are almost universally more confident in what they believe than is merited. This conclusion has yet to be seriously upset by subsequent insights.

11) Okay, so I pledged 10 and this is eleven. I just really wanted to include it.
I can do anything I want, any time I want! Though this statement is an exaggeration, the scope of my agency from moment to moment truly is gargantuan. Right now I could jump up from the keyboard and arrange a trip to Bolivia, for instance. Or send a mass text insulting all my cell phone contacts. Or go throw a DVD case repeatedly at the back window of the neighbor's. Also, most behavior is constrained not by physical limits, but by norms. Example: a missionary says he can't contact an investigator. However, if you offered that same missionary 10,000$ to find the investigator, she would probably find a way to contact the investigator. (If you or a friend says "I can't..." try applying this "10K rule" test). It's not that there doesn't exist some physical means: it's just not customary to take many of the means that actually exist. Example 2 (another missionary one): inviting 30 people to be baptized. The norm is only to invite taught investigators to be baptized, so it'd take a week or more to accomplish that task: yet, one can conceive of dozens of ways to accomplish this objective outside of normative behavioral bounds (like asking the question as a GQ, or broadcasting an invite, or handing cards to people with that invitation). Usually you can do in a day what it takes most people a week to do.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Covenant Hearts: Marriage and the Joy of Human Love

Big Ideas from Covenant Hearts (Brad's perception)

- Part of the reason we should marry is to experience misery. The instructive value of misery and deep affliction and severe personal challenge endemic to eternal marriage can't be easily substituted for. (Good luck buying that level of punishment on ebay!) It would be akin to seeking to perform an Olympic-quality marathon run (exaltation) without going through Olympic-caliber training (a mortal marriage experience). Where's Rocky without Clubber Lang and Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago and training in Russianarctica? It's hard, and that's a big part of the purpose- no misery => NO JOY. (2 Nephi 2- "having no joy, for they knew no misery...") Marriage is about increasing the pain in the "no pain, no gain" growth model. "Connected inevitably with the whole [marriage and family] process is much of pain- physical, mental, and emotional. There is much of stress and struggle, of fear and worry... there seems to never be enough money... sickness strikes periodically. Accidents happen..." -Gordon B. Hinckley

- Also, it's no coincidence that that very 2 Nephi passage begins with "would have had no children...". Deduction? No children => no misery => no joy. Childbearing is promised to be done in sorrow. Moses 4: "Unto the woman I, the Lord God, said: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow... in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." If the imperfections and behavior of the spouse don't amount to multiplied sorrow, then hopefully the kids will add sufficient bitterness- otherwise an easy marriage means you were gypped. Plus you should share your spouse's trials whether or not other sources such as children provide sufficient opportunity to "taste the bitter" (Moses 6:55).

- Eternal marriage is much more than a contract. It's ideally not quid pro quo; instead, it's a covenant to seek the other's interest at any and all self-sacrifice. There shouldn't be score-keeping: it looks more like reckless abandon to benefit the partner. It's a 110% from each party, rather than a 50/50 like a standard agreement. The parties marry to give, not to receive, so because their object is not personal benefit or happiness, they don't walk away when dissatisfied since their own happiness is not what was bargained for. Unqualified commitment is foreign to a contractual arrangement. Also, unlike most private contracts, the community and children have a significant stake in the outcome of the marriage (not just the two parties to the agreement). This third party interest is evidenced by attendance at weddings- you don't see community and family and friends coming to the signing of a business merger.

- Christ's story is one of giving the Atonement; Adam and Eve's is one of receiving the Atonement. The story of Adam and Eve is incredibly relevant to us (more so even than Christ's in the sense that we need to receive rather than give the Atonement). Their story illustrates how marriage fits into the three act play of our existence (Act I premortal, Act 2 mortal, Act 3 post-mortal).

- Because Adam and Eve received the Atonement, they were able to learn from their experience without being condemned by it.
- Through marriage we learn what it means to be a good shepherd to our spouses like Christ was the Good Shepherd to us and the church. Sorry monks, celibacy is a tainted fruit of the apostasy: you also miss out on the glimpse of what it means to fill the role of parent- like our eternal Parent, Father in heaven. Plus, you're obligated to fight the ineluctable onslaught of wolves (anything that threatens the union), which one concludes is a valuable skill.

- Eternal marriage is the classic love story of a man and a woman, children of diety with a premortal existence, using mortality as a time to learn and grow, and then apotheosis (deification) through marriage: achieving Godhood as the highest possibility of human life. (think Hercules, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) Living happily ever after is not about being comfortable from the Adamic Love Story- it's glancing backward at comfort (the garden) and together facing an uncertain future [with the exceptions of 1) the requirement of hard labor and 2) the presence of thorns: both are quite certain] with desires now oriented toward each other, children, and a mutual future. They ask "what's best for our marriage, our family?" rather than "what's best for me?"

- No-fault divorce, extremist individualism, gay marriage, children's liberation, and a divorce culture are bad news. It's better to keep marriage transaction costs super high- easy in, easy out is bad news for marriage because that idea damages the irreversible reckless abandon that's best to go in and stay in with. Divorce is like a hireling fleeing the sheep - even when your spouse makes the shepherd's life very tough, the shepherd keeps working whereas the hireling cancels the contract and skips town.

- God's married, and Satan is single. Whose example will you follow? God experiences fullness of joy, and Satan is miserable. Part of the reason Satan is miserable is that our nature includes a need to belong. It's the at-one-ment, not the alone-ment. Sure, people are annoying- but when it comes down to it, we'd rather be with them than eternally severed from them. Separation from God, for instance, sucks. We want to be together- and no bond offers that togetherness like eternal marriage.

- Your single life is like a seed: be ready to slay and abandon it. "whosoever will lose his {single} life shall find it {a superior married life}." The seed has to die for the family plant to grow: "except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." John 12:24

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Engagement Rings

There was a spicy facebook conversation going on about engagement rings, so I decided to hop on the train (detailed below). See the original conversation at
Or facebook Austin Baird, then click "Selfishness in engagements - to you girls" in his "Notes" section.

"Though the ineluctable tides of cultural norms will continue to lap happily on shores of social behavior despite the bulwark of well-reasoned, rationally based arguments like those Austin and others forward, for now, I think I'll hop on the bulwark! Considering how relatively isolated the expensive enagagement ring tradition is in the global and historical culture context (how frequent is the tradition's incidence over the thousands of cultures and last 6 millenia of human history?), the tradition should be viewed as little more than an arbitrary norm. Yes, the norm creates real expectations, the fulflillment or failure of which brings real sets of relational consequences, and yes, the expenditure and sacrifice can communicate commitment and love when both partners choose to perceive the gift of the ring as such. However, it would be equally valid for one or both partners to view compliance with the norm as a mere capitulation to the omnipotent zeitgeist that most of us elect to submit to in thousands of other contexts. (read the part starting with "What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream")
From the perspective that doing the whole expensive engagement ring thing is just agreement with our own domestication ("if he doesn't ask me the 'right way'" is meaningless inasmuch as the "right way" is arbitrary), the evaluation of the norm then appropriately turns to a cost/benefit analysis of consequence bundles. In my view that's what Austin's original note began to do.
(Course of action A- do the expensive engagement ring thing. Course of action B- get engaged and married some other way)
Course of action A consequence bundleDisadvantages:Austin et alii point out that 1) normative obsession with the ring inappropriately removes focus from the foundation of the relationship, which is: the past shared experiences with, present feelings for, and future hopes and commitments of, the bride and groom to be. Certainly the attendent engagement ring expectations distract from the substance of a proposal and engagement: the relationship and the partners. They also identify the 2) deindividuation that results from the more limited scope of engagement rings as a means of marriage proposal when compared to the unlimited scope of creatively personalized means. Since love and marriage are so uniquely individual, it follows that the proposal appropriately departs from indiscriminate, tightly bracketed behavioral norms. Austin et al.'s 3) awareness of the negative fiscal impacts of financing a costly object of such pitiable inherent utility at a difficult financial stage for one or both partners highlights a third significant disadvantage. I would add that all three of these negative consequences adhere to both partners. Advantages: If the girl ranks gifts high on her love language list (, then the ring will prove a deposit in the relationship/love bank account. This advantage assumes she is part of the subset of gift love languagers that derives utility from at least the paid price of the gift itself rather than the a) intention of giver or the b) value of the present (i.e. a perfectly good ring the groom found on the side of the road brings her far less utiltiy than one he exchanged thousands of greenbacks for.)
Course of action B consequence bundleAdvantages/disdvantages:It depends on the proposal means he selects.
@Miichael Nascimento- I find your position about the "Lingo Effect" a strong one in that humans are naturally very needy in the self-esteem department and therefore accept all types of external validators (including the admittedly shallow possession of a certain type of small, hard, and shiny object) to serve as planks in the platform of their self-confidence. However, as Austin argues, that same person might choose to delude/substantiate oneself with other equally plausible planks, such as the words of the proposal itself or other tangible or intangible tokens from the partner. "

Subsequent post a couple weeks later:
Alcohol. Cocaine. Peacock tails. Expensive engagement rings. What do they all have in common? They all help females in the competitive business of sexual selection. Let me explain what I mean.

Poisonous, addictive drugs like alcohol and cocaine are similar to peacock tails and gazelle stotting in effect because they serve as an indicator of fitness. Imagine for a moment that you're a female peacock, and you want to pick only the most fit male to mate with to give your progeny the best possible chance of surviving in the resource-scarce, predator-rich environment they will inherit. Choosing from amongst adult males is a good place to start, since those male peacocks who lived to adulthood must have something going for them. Of course those are the only ones available (the ones that died in childhood make terrible mates), and if you don't choose from the cream of the crop, another female will and her offspring will have the advantage. So what do you look to? Maybe if he's a handsome peacock? That might set him apart, because not all peacocks are equally handsome- but handsomeness doesn't help your offspring survive. A pretty face doesn't help your baby peacocks find more food, overcome disease, or escape/avoid predators more. Plus, if you choose the handsome one, you create an incentive for cheating: those with poor genes will invest in a pretty face, making it just as likely to choose a cheater as the real deal. How about a snazzy, impressive song or dance? Same problem- the trait is an effective discriminator, but won't bequeath the genetic building blocks for a Rocky Balboa clutch because singing and dancing aren't that useful in the fight for survival. Isn't there some kind of "signal" of fitness you could look to as a guide?

There is! And many animals exhibit them. They're handicaps: counter-intuitive impediments to fitness, such as long peacock tail feathers or gazelle stotting. Gazelles will often slow down and jump up and down when a lion approaches (stotting). It would make more sense to run for your life when a lion approaches- but these gazelles don't. Stotting communicates "don't even try to catch me, I'm a super-fast gazelle. And to prove it, I'm not running like mad when you get close. Check out how spry I am." And the lion saves his effort for a slower gazelle. Similarly, extra long peacock tails impede the bird when it's fleeing from predators by its weight, not to mention the comparative disadvantage of growing and carrying the burdensome things around 24/7. These indicators all work BECAUSE OF, not in spite of, their handicapping effects. You can't cheat when you've got an obvious handicap. They signal "look at me- I'm so successful I can make it even with this handicap." Similarly, though smoking or taking alcohol or cocaine obviously reduces your ability to perform sexually or physically, it does send the message- "check it out, I'm so healthy I can regularly consume poison and still outcompete the next guy." You can't fake a handicap! It's an honest sign of fitness.

Similarly, the engagement ring is a very conspicuous indicator females use in sexual selection. Everyone knows how much it costs- you can't fake it! The ring says, "I'm so successful at amassing resources, I can drop G's on this inherently worthless, tiny object without batting an eye." Resource amassing is a useful to survival; thus, the utility and perpetuation of the indicator.

I credit Jared Diamond (irony in the last name, no?) for these ideas as articulated in chapter 11 of "The Third Chimpanzee.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

All people are either male or female: think again

Not everyone is born as a boy or a girl biologically. In almost every distinguishable way [e.g. 1) genetically, 2) discerning by genitalia, and/or 3) hormone profile], some people are born ambiguous- i.e. with both sets of male and female genitalia and/or atypical genes [e.g. XXY or XXYY instead of typical XY or XX]. Though rare, hundreds of people find themselves in this class [see's_syndrome,, and especially
the references section of]. Though in these cases it is obstreperously difficult to determine gender, many parents choose either male or female for their child and raise the child as that gender.

We also know that:

"Gender is an essential characteristic of individual
premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." - The Family: a Proclamation to the World

Yet courts, parents, and individuals often elect, necessarily arbitrarily in many cases, to subject a child to surgery and subsequent hormone therapy and counseling to socialize the child as a chosen gender. Societal pressure buttresses this practice.

There is a rising movement opposing this insistence on selecting a gender: "intersex people, activists, supporters and academics have contested the adoption of the terminology, seeing it as offensive to intersex individuals who do not feel that there is something wrong with them" ( This movement regards the societal consensus as "reinforcing the normativity of early surgical interventions." They insist: "Alternatives to categorising intersex conditions as "disorders" have been suggested, including "variations of sex development".[16] Organisation Intersex International questions a disease/disability approach, argues for deferral of intervention unless medically necessary, when fully informed consent of the individual involved is possible, and self-determination of sex/gender orientation and identity.[17]"

So, here we stand! Extant questions:

1) If gender is an essential characteristic of premortal identity, yet many children come into the world with biologically indistinguishable gender, how do we as mortals discern that "essential characteristic"?
2) Would it be appropriate for the individual, the individual's parent, or a judge to refrain from committing an intersex person to a gender, and instead allow the individual to remain intersex? Would in be ethical not to do so?
3) Is an individual, parent, or judge accountable for the decision to mandate an invasive course of action including hormone therapy, surgery, and counseling to make a biologically intersex individual either male or female? What if they "mess up," as measured by the individual later in life? [e.g. some intersex people such as Brian/Bonnie Chase (, who was initially given a boy's name due to her ambiguous genitalia but was subsequently raised a girl based on the advice of baffled doctors, later speak out about the psychological harm caused them by the surgical mutilation they're subjected to]
4) Should an individual in this class seek to change one's gender later in life in some cases, no cases, or all cases? Should society permit or forbid this later-on "switching" behavior? Same questions for less gender indistinct individuals? How about non-ambiguous people like probably every person reading this blog?
5) On what basis should we as a society classify gender? Genitalia? Genes? Hormone profile? Parent choice? Effeminate behavior? Some other factor or combination of the above?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mini Blogs

Comments below are thoughtproducts that don't quite merit a full blog.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Do not your alms before men

Charitable Giving- To give secretly or conspicuously?

Arguments for Secret

Arguments for Conspicuous

· 3 Ne. 13: 1
1 VERILY, verily, I say that I would that ye should do alms unto the poor; but take heed that ye do not your alms before men to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no reward of your Father who is in heaven.
· Matt. 6: 3-4
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

16 Therefore let your alight so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and bglorify your Father who is in heaven.

... be thou an bexample of the believers, in word, in cconversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in dpurity.

· If others observe your charitable giving, they are more likely to give charitably themselves.
· If people give charitably because they observed your giving, they will themselves reap the research-identified benefits of charitable giving:
- Increased wealth
- Increased health
- Increased happiness
· “Giving is one way that we identify qualities of leadership in others.” In one experiment, “Eighty percent of the time, the person who had contributed the most to the other members of the group was elected. The biggest givers were also the most popularly-chosen partners in follow-up tasks.” -Brooks
· The net amount of charitable giving increases, thereby benefitting the charities themselves: “giving openly also provokes mimicry by others, and thus a public gift can multiply itself.” – Arthur Brooks
· For more in-depth arguments, see “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compasionate Conservatism Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters” by Brooks

I used to be secretive about my charitable giving. After hearing Arthur Brooks, I described my charitable giving on Facebook. Now I'm considering removing that description. Help me decide!

Cast your vote by commenting below.

(18 Feb 2010) - My decision is "secret." My justification is that the counsel not to do alms before men is more narrow than the same-source counsel to "let your light shine" and "be an example." I esteem the scriptural conclusion above the secular one (which seems to suggest conspicuous).

Thanks for helping with the decision!

Subsequent note (July 2010) - Whether people will help someone that is in need depends more on whether they are in a hurry/preoccupied than whether they recently pondered the Good Samaritan story. (look at minutes 1:00 to 2:30).   

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reason Makes us Men: an argument for rational decision making

Below is a paper I turned in for my advanced decision modeling course a couple days ago.

Reason Makes Us Men:

becoming an effective decision maker through systematic thinking


Because the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts, I would prefer to believe that it exists, in its entirety, in each of us…
— Descartes
From our earthly parents we have inherited a brain and body heavily influenced by non-rational factors such as emotions, hormones, and the pressure to comply with one’s zeitgeist. These non-rational factors can lead to poor decision making by decreasing the magnitude of a decision’s expected net benefit. However, from our spiritual parents we have received the endowment of human reason, which can often affect the opposite result. In this paper I explore 1) some common cognitive biases and shortfalls of normal human decision making and 2) how overcoming these shortfalls through rational processes suggested by authors such as Saaty, Raiffa, and Bardach help one become an effective decision maker.

Some common cognitive biases and shortfalls of normal human decision making

Being that reason belongs to everyone but good judgment to only a few, man is prone to every kind of illusion.
— Schopenhauer
In 1961 a tribunal began the war crimes trial of Holocaust overlord Adolf Eichmann. Three months later, Stanley Milgram began an experiment to determine whether there was a mutuality of morality between Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust. In a strikingly simple experiment, he separated research participants into “learners” and “teachers.” The teachers were instructed to inflict increasingly severe electric shocks to the learners when the learners failed to remember word pairings[1]. In stark contrast to the predictions of college students and colleagues, over half of the teachers continued to administer progressive shocks all the way to the lethal maximum voltage. This and subsequent experiments[2] demonstrated, among other results, that normal people are willing to set aside their reason when ordered to act by an authority.
Why it is so much easier for a man to drop an incendiary bomb from thousands of feet in the air than to stab a bound mother to death with a bayonet in cold blood, though the result of each choice as measured by destruction of innocent life are so conspicuously disparate? Or why this reality: “Large numbers are found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). As a result, we respond strongly to individuals in need but often fail to act effectively in the face of mass tragedies from nature or human malevolence.[3]” Even a rational process is subject to distortions: “At every stage of the decision-making process, misperceptions, biases, and other tricks of the mind can distort the choices we make.[4]” In addition to the many psychological traps identified by Raiffa, Keeney, and Hammond, the naturalistic fallacy, the availability heuristic, avoiding cognitive dissonance, the fundamental attribution error, and innumeracy constitute a few more of the dozens of examples of cognitive biases and inhibitions to rational decision-making to which humans are prone. (See for a list of about 100 such biases.)

How overcoming these shortfalls through rational processes suggested by authors such as Saaty, Raiffa, and Bardach help one become an effective decision maker

So how do to we build decision models in a way that that gives due consideration to both moral and practical consequences? Mr. Slovic suggests that this is through using what he terms “System 2,” or analytic, thinking (rather than “gut feeling,” or System 1). “Long before we had invented probability theory, risk assessment, and decision analysis, there was intuition, instinct, and gut feeling, honed by experience, to tell us whether an animal was safe to approach or the water was safe to drink. As life became more complex and humans gained more control over their environment, analytic ways of thinking, known as System 2, evolved to boost the rationality of our experiential reactions.[5]” Raiffa in Smart Choices describes his “System 2” approach: “We show you what you need to consider in evaluating your options and the steps you need to take to arrive at the smart choice” (xii). Saaty and Bardach also posit system 2 approaches[6]. System 2 is considered rationally superior to system 1: “Thoughtful deliberation takes effort. Fortunately evolution has equipped us with sophisticated cognitive and perceptual mechanisms that can guide us through our daily lives efficiently, with minimal need for “deep thinking.” I have referred to these mechanisms as System 1.[7]”. Therefore, System 2 approaches hold the potential to overcome cognitive biases, System 1 impulses, and what Raiffa terms “psychological traps” (see Chapter 10, Smart Choices).
System 2 is more likely lead to smart choices. Raiffa goes as far as to say, and I would agree, that “By now it should be clear that the art of good decision making lies in systematic thinking.[8]” Consequently, overcoming the shortcomings identified above through rational structures such as those suggested by decision analysis scholars Raiffa, Saaty, and Bardach helps one become a more effective decision maker.


It's the luminous spark of reason that grants us lordship over the animals, endows us with cell phones, and offers hope, even in our darkest hours, that our species will somehow calculate the way forward to a brighter tomorrow.
Bruno Maddox
Cognitive biases, emotions, hormones, and societal and biological drives to comply can sometimes lead to poor decision making. However, these influences can be managed by adherence to rational decision making models such as those elucidated by Raiffa, Saaty, and Bardach. These processes can overcome many of the inhibitors of rational decision making and, therefore, contribute to a culture of rational, effective decision making.

[1] Blass, Thomas. (2002), "The Man Who Shocked the World,"Psychology Today, 35:(2), Mar/Apr 2002.
[2] Blass, Thomas. "The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority," Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 29 no. 5, pp. 955-978.
[3] Slovic, Paul. “Thinking and Deciding Rationally About Catastrophic Losses of Human Lives.” Chapter to appear in The Irrational Economist: Future Directions in Behavioral Economics and Risk Management.
[4] Raiffa. Smart Choices, pgs 210-211.
[5]Slovic, pgs. 8-9.
[6] See Bardach, Eugene. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. Chatham House Publishers, 2000. See also Saaty, Thomas. Fundamentals of Decision Making and Priority Theory with the Analytic Hierarchy Process. 1994 ISBN 0-9620317-6-3, RWS.
[7] Slovic, pg. 8.
[8] Raiffa. Smart Choices, pg. 215.

Jared Diamond, Chinese currency, and the Gleam in your daddy's eye

A couple days ago as I was rushing to the Tanner building I ran into Kirk Larsen, an Asian studies professor at BYU (and my great-uncle's son). I stopped to chat with him for a bit and told him about a book I'm reading, Collapse by Jared Diamond. Somewhat to my surprise, he had read it found it valuable. I say somewhat because about a week ago I was chatting about some of the concepts in the book with another professor, Steven Peck, who I learned had also read the book!

Collapse reviews some ancient and modern examples (such as Easter Island, the Norse Greenland, Vikings, China, Haiti, and Rwanda among others) of societies that either persisted sustainably for centuries or, alternatively, self-destructed. He identifies a five-point framework for evaluating these societies and their fates: 1) human-caused environmental damage 2) climate change 3) hostile neighbors 4) friendly trade partners 5) society's responses to its environmental problems. Generally, I found his analysis reasonable and persuasive. I would similarly evaluate my experience when reading another of his books, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Anyway, one of the more compelling ideas he expostulates is the tension between long and short-term interest in societal, corporate, and individual decision making. For instance, competing fishing companies in the short run have little incentive to curb their fish intake. Because catching more fish in a season will bring them certain, immediate profits and competitive advantage, it is in their short-term interest to overfish. Of course, if all the fishing companies overfish, they destroy the fish populations and impoverish their own and others' future interests since there won't be descendants of that fish population to catch a decade or century down the road.  Peccata contra naturam sunt gravissima - "wrongs against nature are the most serious." 

This idea which Jared Diamond explores illustrates a somewhat uncomfortable truth related to Chinese currency (the Renmindbi). The value of the US dollar constantly fluctuates, and a primary factor affecting the Renminbi:dollar exchange rate is the credit rating of the US government. Unless the US decides to start behaving in significantly more fiscally responsible ways, it's currency and credibility may soon be replaced, and its ability to command low-interest loans will fail: "If another currency or basket of currencies replaced the dollar as the reserve currency, the U.S. would face higher interest rates to attract capital, reducing economic growth for the long-term. The Economist wrote in May 2009: "Having spent a fortune bailing out their banks, Western governments will have to pay a price in terms of higher taxes to meet the interest on that debt. In the case of countries (like Britain and America) that have trade as well as budget deficits, those higher taxes will be needed to meet the claims of foreign creditors" (Economist-A New Global System is Coming Into Existence, May 2009). As of today the single largest creditor of the US government is China - and they're concerned ( Why are creditors worried? "Key drivers of these risks relate to the unwillingness of the U.S. to live within its means, both from a budget deficit and trade deficit standpoint. For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Federal Government's auditor, argues that the U.S. is on a fiscally "unsustainable" path and that politicians and the electorate have been unwilling to change this path.[38]The 2010 U.S. budget indicates annual debt increases of nearly $1 trillion annually through 2019, with an unprecedented $1.0 trillion debt increase in 2009. By 2019 the U.S. national debt will be $18.4 trillion, approximately 148% of GDP, up from its approximately 80% level in April 2009.[39]"

And the "drivers of these risks" don't show any sign of flagging. "This is because expenditures related to entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are growing considerably faster than the economy overall, as the population grows older. These agencies have indicated that under current law, sometime between 2030 and 2040, mandatory spending (primarily Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt) will exceed tax revenue. In other words, all discretionary spending (e.g., defense, homeland security, law enforcement, education, etc.) will require borrowing and related deficit spending. These agencies have used such language as "unsustainable" and "trainwreck" to describe such a future...[42] If significant reforms are not undertaken, benefits under entitlement programs will exceed government income by over $40 trillion over the next 75 years.[47] According to the GAO, this will cause debt ratios relative to GDP to double by 2040 and double again by 2060, reaching 600 percent by 2080.[48]" (

So why is there no check on this gross irresponsibility manifest by the voting public and its elected officials? I think that part of the reason goes back to the old complaint of the founding Fathers: taxation without representation. It also has to do with a quaint little phrase:
"in this economic crisis, first and foremost. He may have contributed to some of it by no means did he start this problem. This problem started back decades ago in reality. So long ago that many of the registered voters wouldn’t even remember because they weren’t even a gleam in their daddy’s eye yet. However, they are registered voters today and they are the nucleus of a voting disaster about to happen..." (

Let me be a little more clear. I propose that a primary reason why the electorate and federal government spend in such a patently irresponsible way is because those that will be paying the bill through their taxes are barred from voting. Illustration: In 1960, let's say, the country faces a recession (unimaginable, right?). The federal government borrows 80 billion dollars, which it spends on bailouts and economic stimulus initiatives. The loan has a 6% interest rate and is to be paid off in 30 years. By the time the loan is paid off, the US paid 173 billion dollars to settle the debt. That means that the country decided to pay 173 billion dollars between 1960 and 1990 in exchange for the privilege of spending 80 billion dollars in 1960. That privilege cost (in addition to paying the principal of 80 billion) 93 billion dollars! See how debt works? (In October 1998 President Hinckley of the LDS church said in priesthood session: "Since the beginnings of the Church, the Lord has spoken on this matter of debt. To Martin Harris through revelation, He said: "Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage" (D&C 19:35).

President Heber J. Grant spoke repeatedly on this matter from this pulpit. He said: "If there is any one thing that will bring peace and contentment into the human heart, and into the family, it is to live within our means. And if there is any one thing that is grinding and discouraging and disheartening, it is to have debts and obligations that one cannot meet" (Gospel Standards, comp. G. Homer Durham [1941], 111)."

So who paid the 173 billion dollars? Let's look at a group of people that paid that debt via their taxes between 1960 and 1990. This group of people were born between 1945 and 1955- part of the baby boomer generation. In 1960 the oldest of this group were 15 years old and the youngest 5. Not a single member of this group was old enough to represent their interests by voting in 1960. By 1990 the oldest members were 45 and the youngest 35 and all had spent a significant portion of their yearly working incomes of the preceding two decades or so paying off the loan they had no say in creating. They were barred from voting (unrepresented) because they were too young.

Now if I were better educated, I would use a real example with real numbers from America's recent history. Yet the illustration shows the problem- the loans we as the electorate choose today through our leaders burden future generations- those who are unborn- those who are, today, not yet even a gleam in their daddy's eye. The unborn who will pay our debts can't complain about their taxation without representation because they're not around yet to object! It is the same problem as faced by many societies Jared Diamond reviews in Collapse: the interests of subsequent generations are breached because of the short-term interests of a present generation. For instance, an Easter Island society, the Rapanui, finds certain and immediate benefits from logging, hunting, and farming activity resulting from wide-scale deforestation. 9 decades of deforestation later, not a single grove of trees can be found on the entire island, soil erosion has destroyed the agricultural potential of 90% of the island, and not a single species of megafauna (animals larger than 40 kg) remains. The young Rapanui living 90 years downstream from the initial deforesters. Both the Chinese currency and Jared Diamond problem disadvantage the "not even a gleam in your daddy's eye" generation.

So is there a solution? I think there are a couple viable ones. I invite your constructive ideas to add to the pool of candidate solutions.

#1: Josh Hansen, my roommate, said that simply internalizing externalities in the present will result in giving future generations a fair shake. Specifically, he suggests tying a mandatory tax increase to any spending (rather than making the payment ISEP [It's Somebody Else's Problem, the spenders would have to pay more taxes if they choose more services]. Make the people that consume a government-provided good or service pay for it? Sounds revolutionary.

#2 One idea I've entertained is to represent future generations by giving them a vote. Some thinktanks and institutions exist already that seek to penetrate the interests of future generations or what the world will look like in 30 years (e.g. the London office of Royal Dutch Shell oil Company, who tries to predict alternative scenarios for the state of the world in coming decades- see Collapse, pg. 447). Obviously it's impossible to predict with absolute confidence the interests or behavior of the unborn, but it is feasible to reach conclusions about their rational interests (such as having a say in their own government, having a means for obtaining a livelihood, security and liberty interests, etc.) Perhaps these thinktanks could be given, say, 15% of the vote to represent unborn generations in decisions that bear an overwhelming likelihood of directly affection them. This contingent would likely make voting decisions likely to result in more fiscally and environmentally responsible policy.

Scariest trailer I've ever seen:

A lecture by Jared Diamond about Collapse:

Selfless Satan

Embark with me to a world without intentions and motivations- where only choices and their consequences matter. A world where self-interest and benefit are measured by power, knowledge, and possessions. A world where behavior causes effects, and that's it.

Okay, here we are! Now, this world is isn't terribly different from our own. We live in a world governed by natural laws, where blessings (effects) are obtained by obedience to laws upon which those blessings are predicated (causes) - see D & C 130: 21. Let's seek to place Christ and Satan where they belong in the selfless-selfish spectrum in this world based on a cause-effect principle.

Effects: possesses all knowledge, all power, an eternal weight of glory, the worshipful adoration of trillions of humans, the constant company of God, boundless possessions, exaltation, peace, and a fullness of joy.

Causes: fidelity to God's will, including performance of the Atonement and every other task God laid upon Him

Effects: eternal damnation, eternal misery, the company of the damned, a day-to-day waking experience of ceaseless kicking against the pricks, without hope of offspring or glory

Causes: beguiling Eve, advocating his own plan in the Council in Heaven, disobeying God whenever he's not compelled to comply, tempting mankind to sin

Now we have juxtaposed Christ and Satan on an individual interest cause-effect criterion (how selfish they are as measured by effects on their individual welfare). This placement is necessary but insufficient to our placing them on a selfish-selfless spectrum, though, because the measure of selflessness must be against the interests of others.

The actions of both Christ and Satan make your and my salvation possible. Both are actual causes of human salvation (for background about actual cause and related issues, see or However, it is clear that the actions of each led to different results for the individual actor. Satan's involvement, though necessary for the effect of the Fall (which is in turn absolutely essential to the salvation of man) and the reality of continuing opposition (see 2 Nephi 2:11-17, also the problem of evil and thoedicy), seems to have rewarded him eternal damnation in exchange for his efforts. Yet Christ's efforts, which are neither more nor less essential for the salvation of man than Satan's, are rewarded by the greatest power and possessory interest a selfish individual could hope for.

"He that findeth his life shall blose it: and he that closeth his dlife for my sake shall find it" (Matt 10:39. See also D & C 98: 13 and TG: self-sacrifice).
Selfishness: "that supreme self-love or self-preference which leads a person to direct his purposes to the advancement of his own interest, power, or happiness, without regarding those of others."
Sacrifice: To forfeit (one thing) for another thing considered to be of greater value.

It's interesting that sacrifice is defined and thought of as forfeiting A for B, where B is considered to be of greater value. To me, that "sacrifice" = "a great bargain." It's like exchanging 5 bucks for a 2010 Mustang V6 Convertible. What kind of a sacrifice is that? If sacrifice is instead more of a bad bargain, say, a person sacrificing his or her life so someone else can have the right to vote on whether or not to have a burrito or a taco, then we attain an upleasant deduction. Satan is far and away more selfless than Christ as measured only by effects. His actions, actual causes of our exaltation, benefitted us greatly while resulting in unending personal punishment for him. He made a truly "bad bargain" on our behalf. Christ's actions, also actual causes of our exaltation, also benefitted us greatly, but resulted in a gargantuan ROI (Return On Investment) for Him.

So now we've placed Christ and Satan on our contrived selfless-selfish spectrum. Where we to follow Satan's selfless example, we'd likely behave quite differently- for example, by setting up a regional kindergarten conference and then blowing up the session once all the kids arrive. [God's work is to bring to pass (presumably, maximize) the immortality and eternal life of man. Immortality for all mortals is already assured, leaving only eternal life to maximize. Protected class #1- all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the Celestial Kingdom - D & C 137:10 - which salvation is equivalent to eternal life. So if you slay 100,001 kindergarteners you damn yourself but bring about the net eternal life of 100,000 souls (100,001 guaranteed saved minus one soul unequivocally damned). Now that's selfless in effect both of helping God in his work and maximizing the benefit of your fellow man.]

In fact, God may have pursued a comparable mechanism until the recent decreases in childhood mortality. [1) "The Lord takes away many, even in infancy... instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil." 2) "The only difference between the old and young dying is, one.. is freed a little sooner from this miserable wicked world." (Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church 4:553-554). 3) During ancient times and the Middle Ages, the infant mortality rate was about 200 deaths per 1,000 live births and the under-5 mortality rate was about 300 deaths per 1,000 live birth- 4) History of human life span and mortality

Or, we might set up an arrangement to join one of the other two protected classes: #2 millenial children or #3 Christ. [As essential as mortality is to our becoming gods, Jesus somehow achieved the desirable Godhood status before He ever came to earth- why not just follow His lead and skip the salvation-risky mortal experience? Or why not have everyone be born in the millenium- D & C 45:58 "And the aearth shall be given unto them for an binheritance; and they shall cmultiply and wax strong, and their dchildren shall egrow up without fsin unto gsalvation.]? These three classes are guaranteed salvation with no risk of damnation, whereas the rank and file participants on fallen earth may or may not end up receiving salvation.]

It seems that selflessness and rational self-interested behavior are more different- or more similar- than they superficially appear.

Closing pieces-
1) God commands that you seek your own self-interest. It's simply the ironic reality that to do so is, counter intuitively, to seek in the short-term the interests of others.
2) I feel to be grateful for my mortal experience notwithstanding my failure to make one of the three protected classes above. All of God's mysteries are accessible to me, and He will reveal them based on the pattern evidenced in 1 Nephi 11:1.

100 Shades of Beautiful

I've often thought that "beautiful" is a very broad term that applies to many diverse situations. I think it'd be better to have 100 or so more precise words in place of the term. Would you like to add any to this list the I and a few friends have made?

Sub-categories of Beautiful

  1. emotive music
  2. Skillful performance (e.g. by an accomplished cellist)
  3. breathtaking scene from a height overlooking a valley or mountain range
  4. Excellence, close to perfect (e.g., "Beautiful serve!" in tennis)
  5. Pretty, gorgeous, attractive-looking person
  6. Aesthetic, eye-pleasing (e.g. a piece of art)
  7. Spectacular accomplishment (e.g. the Pyramids)
  8. A simple flower or anything else that happens to touch a person's soul
  9. A constellation in the sky
  10. A moment of peace and love in a relationship (such as couple, family, friends)
  11. A moment when "all the planets align" - often unexpected, when events come together in a serendipitous fashion
  12. Fruition of a goal or plan
  13. A woman
  14. A temple sealing, spiritual
  15. A new baby
  16. - exquisite masterpiece (art or picture)
  17. - a dress looks ravishing on a woman (or a shoe...yes, that can be ravishing!)
    - the angelic beauty of a child
    - a themed, graceful, emotive ballroom-style dance with several couples

Possible sub-category words

Obviously, some these brainstormed words sound silly. However, like most words, once they join our vernacular they are seldom questioned.

  1. Pathsotic
  2. Prowetic
  3. Beautanyon
  4. Skillerious
  5. Stunnesthetic
  6. Beautiful
  7. Beautressive
  8. ?
  9. Cosmotical
  10. Beautrivana
  11. ?
  12. Comeuppleasant
  13. ?
  14. Beaucral
  15. Natival
  16. ?
  17. ?
  18. ?
  19. ?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nephi: The Criminal

One night, a man crept into a city in the dark of night. His brothers awaited his return, hiding behind the city walls. The man went forth toward the home of a city leader and found the leader lying unconscious on the ground. Rather than assist the leader, the man took the leader's sword, which had a golden hilt and a precious steel blade. After calm deliberation, and using the leader's own sword, the man grabbed the leader's hair and decapitated him in cold blood. Then, donning the leader's clothes, the man imitated the leader's voice to deceived a servant in charge of the treasury into delivering valuable records, kept on metal plates, to the man. The man ordered the defrauded servant into following him out of the city. When the servant tried to flee, the man tackled the servant and physically detained him. Taking the sword, records, and the tricked servant, the man and his brothers then absconded into the wilderness to escape detection.

Crimes the man is guilty of:
1) Larceny, 3 counts (of the sword, garments, and metal records)
2) Burglary (the illegal conversion of property from an edifice at night)
3) Premeditated Murder (typically considered the most pernicious crime in any society)
4) Battery (of the servant)

Crimes of which the man may also be culpable:
1) Impersonation of a community official
2) Fraudulent deception of a bondsman
3) Obstruction of justice (fleeing the scene of a crime)
4) False imprisonment (holding or confining someone without legal authority)
5) Kidnapping (asportation of a person in furtherance of another crime)
6) Assault (of the servant)

Later, a religion claiming adherence to 1) "honoring, obeying, and sustaining the law" and 2) the 6th commandment (Thou shalt not kill) venerates the ethical behavior of the murderer. The man's name? Nephi, son of Lehi.

So what does this story teach about proper ethical behavior? In the LDS church, the faithful sing a hymn:
Do what is right, let the consequence follow.
Battle for freedom in spirit and might;
And with stout hearts look ye forth for tomorrow.
God will protect you; then do what is right.

Non facias malum ut inde veniat bonum - "you shall not do evil that good may come of it."  The hymn and the maxim illustrate a commitment to deontological ethics (do your duty first and foremost, rather than consider the consequences of a particular act and then decide on that basis).  Yet the religion that sings this hymn also manifests a loyalty to a nearly opposite ethical approach.

The Nephi story illustrates a commitment to teleological ethics, sometimes known as consequentialism (the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action). When Nephi hesitated, the Spirit persuaded him to murder by balancing the man's life against the consequent unbelief of a nation. Consideration of the consequences justified the breach of Nephi's duty to 1) obey the law and 2) obey the "not kill" commandment.

It seems to me that a consequentialist/teleological ethical approach is superior to a deontological one for two reasons. 1) I think a deontological approach's best justification can be sufficiently analyzed from a teleological framework. There's little justification for complying with a duty outside of the argument that that compliance is most likely to result in the greatest net benefit to all stakeholders. Therefore, it seems to me that deontological ethics are subsumed by teleological ethics. 2) A deontological approach seems more lazy because it requires less thought. Sure it's tough to reach a conclusion when balancing the competing and overlapping demands of a constellation of duties- but how much more difficult is it to account for a suite of consequences whose nature, impacts, and number are as difficult to predict and quantify as penetrating the foggy fabric of the future?

One result of adherence to a consequentialist approach, then, is a headache. Though guiding principles exist (e.g. obey the law or don't kill), they are also subject to being trumped by a compelling teleological argument, which one must think about in order to evaluate. That means engaging the difficult and cumbersome process of trying to think through all the consequences of a candidate course of action. This process sometimes leads to surprising deductions. Few of us would consider the perpetration of 4-10 crimes in a single evening as a typical discipleship expectation, but be prepared- and don't forget your thinking cap.

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