Weekly Learning: The Inner Peace Edition

Behaviour Genetics

The science of terrible men provokes us to think deeper on the sensible issue of “nature vs. nurture”:

A meta-analysis of results from 50 years of twin studies […] concluded in 2015 that genes do, in fact, make a difference for these types of social and behavioural outcomes – for people’s cognitive ability, personality, sexual behaviour, educational attainment and income. In fact, this finding is so consistent that it’s long been enshrined as the ‘first law of behavioural genetics’: everything is heritable. That is, variation in every aspect of human psychology and behaviour, and variation in every social outcome that’s influenced by one’s behaviour, is influenced by the genetic differences among us.

What’s fascinating is that:

This entire line of research uses statistical tools and scientific insights from Fisher and other proponents of eugenics, such as the Victorian-era scientist Francis Galton (who redefined the study of heredity as the study of similarity between relatives) and the early 20th-century mathematician Karl Pearson (who is the namesake of the Pearson correlation coefficient). And, by connecting genetic differences between people to socially valued life outcomes, this line of research also risks entrenching their ideologies about human inferiority and superiority.

And of course, talking about genetic differences immediately hurts a lot of people’s feelings:

[…] the contention is that the genetic differences between us are negligible; we don’t need to bother about them. More recently, we see the same insistence on genetic sameness as a moral belief in Ibram X Kendi’s bestselling book How to be an Antiracist (2019). Kendi writes that connecting ‘biology to behaviour is the cradle of biological racism’. In his view, there is no way that biological difference can exist without biological hierarchy.

However, the author argues:

But staking moral claims about political equality to empirical claims about genetic sameness is building a house on sand. […] Yes, all humans are 99.9 per cent the same, but the remaining 0.1 per cent makes a difference for many life outcomes that we care about, things that we want for ourselves and for our children.


There is a lot of confusion about this fact.

Some confusions are the incestuous child of fear:

[…] some of the confusion is deliberately drummed up by people who are irredeemably convinced that endorsing the statement ‘people are different genetically, and these genetic differences cause their lives to turn out differently’ will commit them to a host of beliefs about human inferiority and superiority, and to a host of far-Right policy positions that they find abhorrent; and so they will fight tooth and nail, and contort themselves into all sorts of indefensible intellectual positions, in order to avoid confronting this basic reality about human life.

But “fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.

A humanist mind shall not shy away from fear:

[…] we have to uncouple those realities from eugenic ideology and reclaim them: even if inequalities are caused by genes, that scientific result emphatically does not mean that those inequalities are fair or just or natural or unfixable through social policy.

The author mentions John Rawls to emphasize a critical point that a just society doesn’t and shouldn’t rely on genetic differences not having impact on us:

Rather than a caste society based on accidents of birth – whether that accident is being born to wealth or being born with a certain combination of genetic variants – the just society works to the benefit of the least advantaged.

Shying away from genetics out of fear has consequences:

First, ignoring genetics dooms much work in the social sciences to failure, wasting massive amounts of time and money and opportunities to improve people’s lives.

And more importantly:

Second, ignoring genetics props up the myth of meritocracy that has convinced the ‘winners’ in our society that they deserve to hoard massive amounts of wealth and opportunity by virtue of their superior achievements.

Instead, we should be explorers who are brave enough to take on the controversies and challenges:

Behaviour genetics scrambles the meritocratic logic by showing how many of our achievements are as morally arbitrary as being taller.

I can’t wait to read the author’s upcoming book, regardless of whether I agree with her.

Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.

Engaged Smiling

If smiles are so easy to fake, why do we trust them? provides an answer.

The background:

Research shows that people tend to rate a smiling person as more honest and likeable, and someone they want to cooperate with. When someone says they will cooperate, people are more likely to believe them if it’s said with a smile. In other words, smiles seem to be a sign that says: ‘Trust me.’

The trouble:

The trouble is that smiling is easy to do. If flashing a smile can so easily convey good intent, it could be ‘hacked’ by unscrupulous individuals who want you to think that they’re trustworthy so they can exploit you. These kinds of ‘false smiles’ certainly happen in everyday life, yet we still generally trust smiles.

The author argues that, smiling may not be as easy as most of us think:

The critical thing is that smiles in the real world aren’t just one-off events, happening without anything coming before or after them. Flashing a smile to take a selfie on your own might be low effort, but most smiles are part of active social interactions, and they need to be integrated into the broader context of the conversation. People can tell when you’re smiling along without really following, and they can tell when you’re smiling in an active, responsive way to what they’re saying. Doing the latter costs attention and effort. Maybe it’s not just any smiling but engaged smiling – smiling that requires actively paying attention – that’s trustworthy.

An experiment done by the author seems to being proving the point:

Our results might sound like a life hack for unscrupulous individuals: if you want to dupe someone, just make sure you pay attention to what they’re saying, and smile responsively. But to do this – to follow someone’s words, tone, posture and facial expression, and to respond in a way that they actually believe – is genuinely hard to fake. Smiling is generally an honest signal of someone’s intent and character because to do it convincingly means actually being engaged and attentive. That’s why smiling takes more effort than it first appears to – and why we trust people who do it.

Yeah that makes a lot of sense if you’re a probabilistic thinker.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Love is Measured By the Benefit of the Doubt: The Secret to True Kindness is a concise but deeply insightful take on kindness:

[…] kindness is measured by the benefit of the doubt.

The analogy starts with babies:

Babies, we know, don’t mean to annoy anyone. Even when they make others uncomfortable, we give them a pass because, well, they’re babies. We give them the maximum benefit of the doubt. And unless we’re jerks ourselves, we are kind to them.


The closer you are to someone, the more likely you’ll be to see their mistakes as well-intentioned mess-ups rather than attempts to hurt you. Seminal marriage research has shown that for happy couples, the benefit of the doubt flows abundantly in both directions.

Perhaps, there really doesn’t have to be that many conflicts in the world:

Sometimes, people we dislike can say things we agree with, just as people who don’t mean us any harm can say things that sound hurtful […] it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion. And if that conclusion is “they intended to hurt me,” it can create needless conflicts.

Get busy living or get busy blaming:

Defaulting to the benefit of the doubt by assuming positive intent, especially with the people who are close to you, can help you live more peacefully and joyfully. It’s not always the easiest thing to do.

We try anyway, right?

Bad Cyclists

The strange psychological phenomenon that explains why people hate cyclists offers some hilarious stories to enhance your learning of the fundamental attribution error:

The more you think about fundamental attribution error, the more you see it popping up in almost every source of social tension. That self-awareness can help you understand how even the best-intentioned people can fall into the ugliest of petty psychological traps.

The Illusion of “True Self”

Why Your ‘True Self’ Is An Illusion tries to tell you this:

Most people believe they have a “true self” deep down that is fundamentally morally good. They don’t, but the belief affects the way everyone behaves and sees the world.

The notion of “true self” seems obvious:

The true self is different from the self, which is made up of a blurry combination of your physical appearance, your intelligence, your memories, and your habits, all which change through time. The true self is what people believe is their essence. It’s the core of what makes you you; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore.


[…] the true self is an example of a “folk intuition.” It almost certainly doesn’t exist. What we know from neuroscience and psychology doesn’t provide evidence for a separate and persisting morally good true self buried deep within. Yet that makes the true self, and the fact that so many of us have this belief or bias, all the more intriguing […]


Whether the true self exists or not is a moot point, since it seems it might influence how we act.

Research provides some interesting points:

When people make positive changes in their life, they are more likely to be viewed as revealing what was always deep inside of them. When they make negative changes, they are moving away from their true selves.


This conception of a morally good true self is stable in ways that other psychological constructs are not […]

A series of fascinating questions and elaborations ensue.

One point stands out:

More pressure to “be yourself” or “find yourself” can add to that stress—especially in the self-help realm, where the existence of a “true self,” is a given, not regarded as a cognitive tendency or bias.

So maybe holding onto your “true self” might be just as hurtful as drive-by advice like “follow your heart.”

Personal Renewal

Personal Renewal has great quotes:

Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.


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