Tuesday, March 05, 2013


This blog now lives at http://alanaconner.com/category/blog. See you over yonder.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pork Rinds and Public Education

Of late I've been thinking a lot about kindergarten. My kindergarten, that is. I'm thinking about a practice we had during lunch time: We did not get to choose with whom to dine. Instead, after purchasing our lunch or fetching our lunch boxes (mine was a metal Holly Hobby number with matching thermos, the combo always reeking of American cheese and citrus, which, come to think of it, probably explains why my favorite color is orange), we had to take the next available seat in a long column of desks, two wide.

My kindergarten was at a predominantly African-American public school in Memphis, Tennessee. If you do the math, you will figure out that my single White mama sent my honky ass to kindergarten in 1979, during the era of a) wide ties and wider afros, b) White flight from rapidly chocolafying city centers to allegedly safer suburbs, and c) the launch of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. Which is all a long way of saying that the majority of my 5-year-old lunch dates were Black kids who were not going to put up with any racist bullshit from me, however honestly I might have come by it.

Instead, my African-American classmates--most of them, like me, hailing from single-parent homes and qualifying for (though often not accepting) free lunches--readily bridged our cultural differences by offering to trade lunchbox items. In the first two weeks of my academic career (which would ultimately consume a full 24 years of my life), I learned that half my cheese-and-mustard-on-whole-wheat sandwich could fetch half a bag of barbecue pork rinds--a far more precious delicacy, by my lights. Half my navel orange was worth three Now-N-Later candies, whose sweetness and tang stuck to my baby teeth far longer than the wimpy fruits of agribusiness. And if I played my cards right, I could convince some small-boned naif with a non-ironic Dukes of Hazzard lunch box that my thermos of orange juice (my mom was into Vitamin C) was well worth his shrink-wrapped jumbo dill pickle (pronounced "pruckle").

(Save the transactional pruckle jokes for my 40th birthday party, please.)

I was a child who liked to eat, born to a mother whose response to stress was not to eat. The divorce had been stressful. Raising two spastic little kids all alone was stressful. My Vietnam War-scarred father's failure to pay child support was stressful. The night school classes to become a CPA were stressful. By the end of kindergarten, my 5'8.5''mother had shrunk to about 110 lbs.

But with the help of my lunch mates, I was maintaining my appetite and my fighting weight. I was also developing, it turned out, an enduring interest in race, class, and culture.

Just as important, I was gaining an early understanding of the limits of personal preference. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have always lunched with Susan of the ribboned chestnut ringlets and pastrami sandwiches, or with Connie of the white-blonde bangs and cross-culturally okay Doritos, or Jennifer of the Little House on the Prairie braids and egg-salad everything.

Instead, I discovered new comfort foods with Roderick and Terrell, Reginald and Zuhara, Terrence and Zonna. I also mastered a new list of light conversation topics: Who do you stay with? (that is, which relative are you living with right now?) Which kind of Baptist is the best? (options included foot-washin', dunkin', clappin', and other behavioral epithets that fascinated my staid Methodist self) and, precociously, What things can White and Black people do together? (hold hands on the playground? yes; swim in the same pool? maybe; get married? maybe not).

Does this make me a better person? Probably not. It probably does give me an edge as a cultural psychologist, because I grew up alongside a culture (namely, urban, Southern, working-class African-American culture of the late 1970s) that some of my colleagues work for years to understand.

But my public education definitely made me a sucky consumer, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. I seldom listen to my iPod in my house, and never in my car. (My lowly ride does not even have a tape player.) Instead, I leave it to chance that the radio will serve up the acoustic equivalence of barbecue pork rinds or watermelon Now-N-Laters. I don't insist on ordering shrink-wrapped pickles from the Interwebs, but instead will demur to almost anyone's fermented foods, be they kimchi or natto or kefir. And though I insist on iron-fisted control in some domains (cf. my kitchen sponge rotation schedule and my color-coded project plans), when it comes to other people's artifacts, I let go of the reins and try to take it all in.

And if I had a kid, I'd like to think--I'd dream to hope--that I would not overly curate his or her or his/her world to my narrow notions of how the accoutrements of daily life should be seasoned or arranged. I hope that I would give random a chance, as my mother did, as did all the struggling families in our community. Because from that randomness--and, in particular, the randomness of a public education--came experimentation, and creativity, and open-mindedness. From that randomness came the ability to appeal to the good side of each other. Maybe now, a return to faith in that randomness would lead us to talk, and trade, and trust our way to a little more peace.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You Think, Therefore I Am

Hazel and I once again contributed to Edge.org’s annual compendium of ideas. In response to the 2012 question, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” we riffed on Descartes to summarize the big idea behind social and cultural psychology.

“I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Remember this elegant and deep idea from RenĂ© Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy? The fact that a person is contemplating whether she exists, Descartes argued, is proof that she, indeed, actually does exist. With this single statement, Descartes knit together two central ideas of Western philosophy: 1) thinking is powerful, and 2) individuals play a big role in creating their own I’s—that is, their psyches, minds, souls, or selves.

Most of us learn “the cogito” at some point during our formal education. Yet far fewer of us study an equally deep and elegant idea from social psychology: Other people’s thinking likewise powerfully shapes the I’s that we are. Indeed, in many situations, other people’s thinking has a bigger impact on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure while philosophizing alone.

In other words, much of the time, “You think, therefore I am.” For better and for worse.

An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people’s being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be “academic spurters” because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students’ IQs were no higher than those of the “normal” students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the “spurters’” had attained better grades and higher IQs than the “normals.” The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.

A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people’s I’s is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math.

As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes—even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test—students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people’s negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people’s thoughts deform the I’s of promising students.

As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that “You think, therefore I am” could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The EDGE Question 2011

Every year, the online magazine EDGE.org invites scientists, artists, and philosophers to opine on some burning question. This year's question, posed by Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, is, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Below is the essay that I and my coauthor Hazel Rose Markus contributed. You can also check out the original at EDGE.org.

The Culture Cycle

Pundits now invoke culture to explain all manner of tragedies and triumphs, from why a disturbed young man opens fire on a politician, to why African-American children struggle in school, to why the United States can't establish democracy in Iraq, to why Asian factories build better cars. A quick click through a single morning's media, for example, yields the following catch: gun culture, Twitter culture, ethical culture, Arizona culture, always-on culture, winner-take-all culture, culture of violence, culture of fear, culture of sustainability, culture of corporate greed.

Yet no one explains what, exactly, culture is, how it works, or how to change it for the better.

A cognitive tool that fills this gap is the culture cycle, a tool that not only simply describes how culture works, but also clearly prescribes how to make lasting change. The culture cycle is the iterative, recursive process by which 1) people create the cultures to which they later adapt, and 2) cultures shape people so that they act in ways that perpetuate their cultures. In other words, cultures and people (and some other primates) make each other up. This process involves four nested planes: individual selves (their thoughts, feelings, and actions); the everyday practices and artifacts that reflect and shape those selves; the institutions (such as education, law, and media) that afford or discourage certain everyday practices and artifacts; and pervasive ideas about what is good, right, and human that both influence and are influenced by all these levels. (See figure below). The culture cycle rolls for all types of social distinctions, from the macro (nation, race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, social class, generation, etc.) to the micro (occupation, organization, neighborhood, hobby, genre preference, family, etc.)

One consequence of the culture cycle is that no action is caused by either individual psychological features or external influences. Both are always at work. Just as there is no such thing as a culture without agents, there are no agents without culture. Humans are culturally-shaped shapers. And so, for example, in the case of a school shooting it is overly simplistic to ask whether the perpetrator shot because of either a mental illness or because of his interactions with a hostile and bullying school climate, or with a particularly deadly cultural artifact (i.e., a gun), or with institutions that encourage that climate and allow access to that artifact, or with pervasive ideas and images that glorify resistance and violence. The better question, and the one that the culture cycle requires, is how do these four levels of forces interact? Indeed, researchers at the vanguard of public health contend that neither social stressors nor individual vulnerabilities are enough to produce most mental illnesses. Instead, the interplay of biology and culture, of genes and environments, of nature and nurture is responsible for most psychiatric disorders.

Social scientists succumb to another form of this oppositional thinking. For example, in the face of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of poor African-American residents "chose" not to evacuate the Gulf Coast, to quote most news accounts. More charitable social scientists had their explanations ready, and struggled to get their variables into the limelight. Of course they didn't leave, said the psychologists, because poor people have an external locus of control, low intrinsic motivation, or low self-efficacy. Of course they didn't leave, said the sociologists and political scientists, because their cumulative lack of access to adequate income, banking, education, transportation, healthcare, police protection, and basic civil rights makes staying put is their only option. Of course they didn't leave, said the anthropologists, because their kin networks, religious faith, and historical ties held them there. Of course they didn't leave, said the economists, because they didn't have the material resources, knowledge, or financial incentives to get out.

The irony in the interdisciplinary bickering is that everyone is mostly right. But they are right in the same way that the blind men touching the elephant in the Indian proverb are right: the failure to integrate each field's contributions makes everyone wrong and, worse, not very useful.

The culture cycle captures how these different levels of analyses relate to each other. Granted, our four-level process explanation is not as zippy as the single-variable accounts that currently dominate most public discourse. But it's far simpler and accurate than the standard "it's complicated" and "it depends" answers that more thoughtful experts often supply.

Moreover, built into the culture cycle are the instructions for how to reverse engineer it: a sustainable change at one level usually requires change at all four levels. There are no silver bullets. The ongoing U.S. Civil Rights Movement, for example, requires the opening of individual hearts and mind; and the mixing of people as equals in daily life, along with media representations thereof; and the reform of laws and policies; and fundamental revision of our nation's idea of what a good human being is.

Just because people can change their cultures, however, does not mean that they can do so easily. A major obstacle is that most people don't even realize that they have cultures. Instead, they think that they are standard-issue humans—they are normal; it's all those other people who are deviating from the natural, obvious and right way to be.

Yet we are all part of multiple culture cycles. And we should be proud of that fact, for the culture cycle is our smart human trick. Because of it, we don't have to wait for mutation or natural selection to allow us to range farther over the face of the earth, to extract nutrition from a new food source, or to cope with a change in climate. And as modern life becomes more complex, and social and environmental problems become more widespread and entrenched, people will need to understand and use the culture cycle more skillfully.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How to Write

How To Edit

The secret behind my editing.
Note: Sound muted to protect the identity of the innocent.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


AC: (scrubbing iron skillet, remembering an earlier argument about the proper cleansing of iron skillets) Don't look! I'm using soap on the skillet. It will never have that perfect sheen.

MB: Charlie!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Papa Cat

AC: (listening to "Musicology") You know, Prince is really tiny. He's only 5'2"!

MB: I know. I once carried him to safety in my mouth.