Tag Archives: psychology

How to change your life without willpower

You can make permanent, deep change in your behavior easily, without willpower — even break alcohol addiction, like writer Edith Zimmerman did — if you change your underlying belief about yourself. https://www.thecut.com/2019/01/how-to-change-without-willpower.html

This sounds like bullshit, but I can personally attest it to be true. I’ve done it three times: When I quit smoking, when I lost weight and kept it off, and when I started exercise. In each case, I changed my underlying belief about myself.

I was a heavy smoker, already up to 3 packs a day when I was 30. I quit smoking a million times before it stuck. I hated myself for smoking. I exerted great willpower to try to quit. Then I’d start again, a minute or a few hours later, and hate myself even more.

One day I set a deadline. End of this month, I said. I had done that a million times before too. But this time, when the deadline hit, I was a nonsmoker. That is how I thought of myself.

After that, it was easy. I just didn’t smoke anymore. There was some physical withdrawal, but not a lot. No worse than a moderate cold.

Similarly, ten years ago I just decided to lose weight. I downloaded an app for my iPhone, https://loseit.com/, and started using it to track every bite I ate. I set my calorie goal to lose 1/2-2 pounds per week. I lost about 90 pounds over the next three years, then another 10 pounds. In the last year or so I’ve gained 10 back, and I’m working on lose those 10 again.

I just thought of myself as a person who is losing weight. Then I was a person who has lost the weight, and keep it off.

Also, I am a person who has a kind of physical disability. Most people have a sort of internal thermostat that regulates what they eat, and how much, and it keeps them at a steady weight — their ideal weight or a little over. My thermostat is completely broken, so I have to consciously control how much I eat at all times. It’s inconvenient, but not a big deal.

I still do food logging with Lose It. Every bite, every day. (The app is unimportant — there are other apps that are just as good. You can even do it with pen and paper, which is what people did for literally a century before we all started carrying pocket computers.)

Finally, I went from sedentary to moderate exercise. I walk about 3.25 miles a day. Again: I started thinking of myself as a person who exercises. And now I do.

So, yes, achieving big change in your life is easy, without willpower, if you change your belief about yourself.

But how do you change your belief about yourself? That’s the tricky part. I don’t have an answer to that, though I have some ideas that I may share at another time.

Via Lisa Schmeiser’s excellent So What, Who Cares newsletter. https://tinyletter.com/lschmeiser

This Four Tendencies Quiz captured my personality type uncannily well.

I’m a Rebel, which sounds more romantic than it actually is. It has been as much of a handicap to me as it has been a benefit. I often don’t do what I should simply because it’s expected of me. https://gretchenrubin.com/2015/01/ta-da-the-launch-of-my-quiz-on-the-four-tendencies-learn-about-yourself

Via Lisa Schmeiser’s excellent So What Who Cares newsletter. https://tinyletter.com/lschmeiser

Face-Blind [Oliver Sacks/The New Yorker]

The late Dr. Oliver Sacks describes prosopagnosia – or face-blindness – inability to recognize faces – which he and I share.

Sacks descrbes his faceblindness as merely moderate. Which is interesting because his condition, as he describes it, is significantly more severe than mine. And my faceblindness is often problematic. It often makes social situations and professional networking awkward.

Sacks describes coping mechanisms faceblind people use to compensate, recognizing people by clothing style, hairstyle, facial hair for men, gait, and especially voice. Situational recognition is valuable – I recognize my next door neighbor because he’s a big, bald friendly guy in his 30s who is frequently found in and around the house next door.

On the other hand, when I saw my neighbor in the supermarket parking lot one morning recently, I was not sure it was him, even though we had a lengthy conversation the day before. I thought it might be him – was probably him. So I did what I always do in these situations, which I encounter frequently. I approached with a friendly but neutral expression on my face, and observed him carefully. When I saw he recognized me and he greeted me by name, I recognized his voice and greeted him warmly by name. This is all routine for me, almost automatic.

I think I’m pretty good at reading social cues. As a matter of fact, I think I’m getting better at reading social cues over time, even as I get worse at faces. Or, more likely, I’m becoming more frustrated with my faceblindness.

Sacks says we recognize faces by their features and also by the emotional associations they produce. That is definitely true for me. I am very familiar with seeing people I know as strangers – even people I know very well – even, once or twice, my wife! But I am also familiar with getting a warm, pleasurable rush a short while later when this stranger transforms herself into someone I know and am fond of.

Interestingly, Sacks says faceblindness is strongly correlated with poor sense of direction, and location recognition. He describes an incident where he got lost in his own neighborhood, and failed to recognize his own home after passing it several times. That’s not true for me at all. I think my sense of direction is normal. Not great, but not bad either.

It’s tough to be elevator-phobic and live in New York City. You end up climbing a lot of stairs

The Elevator-Phobes of a Vertical City: “My record up is 22 flights. My record down is 50. That’s at my parents’ place in Tribeca. They moved to the city a few years back and gleefully flocked to a 50th-floor apartment with truly stunning panoramic views. They tell me they love me, but sometimes I’m not sure.” (Topic)

Two-year-old finds solution to ethics “trolley problem:” Kill everybody

E.J. Masicampo posed the question to his two-year-old:

I’m teaching a moral psychology class this semester, and we spent part of the first day discussing the trolley problem, which is a frequently used ethical dilemma in discussions of morality. When I returned home that night and was playing trains with my son, I thought it would be interesting to see his response to the trolley problem. I recorded his response so that I could share and discuss it with my class, given especially that we also will be discussing moral development from birth onward. My wife and I are constantly talking with our son about how properly to treat others — so this has been teachable moment both for my class and for our son!

The Trolley Problem:

The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?

Via Mark Frauenfelder, Boing Boing. Thanks!

On the other hand

Be Honest, Can You Really Tell Left from Right?

A large percentage of perfectly healthy and normal adults have difficulty telling left from right. They rely on workarounds like miming writing or wearing a watch.

I’d rate my own sense of my own body and visualization as fair-to-poor, but I have no trouble telling left from right. I do have to use a workaround; I imagine I can feel my heart in the left side of my chest, and know that’s left. The heart is actually in the center of the chest, but I still imagine I can feel it on the left.

[Diane Peters/JSTOR Daily]


The empty brain – Robert Epstein, Aeon.

“Your brain doesn’t process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: Your brain is not a computer,” Epstein says

The brain doesn’t store copies of music and songs the way computers do. Minds are fundamentally different from information processors, and 50 years of thinking of minds as kinds of digital computers is just plain wrong.

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences.

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering(1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well….


First, forgive yourself.

Then recognize that you don’t have to be in the mood to do something to do it.

Then concentrate on the next action.

The real reasons you procrastinate — and how to stop [Ana Swanson – The Washington Post]

Two notes about this article:

  1. It’s incredibly long-winded and most of the top part just summarizes another, even longer article on the web. Not cool, Ana Swanson at The Washington Post. If you just read that article, then go back to the Washington Post article and skip down to the part that begins “Present Homer vs. Future Homer,” you’ll be fine.

  2. I should have been doing something else while I was reading the article and composing this blog post.


The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!” says Stanley Coren on Psychology Today, who did an Internet image search on the terms “hug dog” and “love dog” and examined 250 pictures of dogs being hugged. He found more than 80% showed signs of canine anxiety.

In all, 81.6% of the photographs researchers scored showed dogs who were giving off at least one sign of discomfort, stress, or anxiety. Only 7.6% of the photographs could rate as showing dogs that were comfortable with being hugged. The remaining 10.8% of the dogs either were showing neutral or ambiguous responses to this form of physical contact.


Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which is a term that indicates that they are designed for swift running. That implies that in times of stress or threat the first line of defense that a dog uses is not his teeth, but rather his ability to run away. Behaviorists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing him with a hug can increase his stress level and, if the dog’s anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may bite.

Golly, swearing is good for you

Research shows cursing helps you endure pain, but people who swear habitually experience less relief. Other research shows swearing helps strengthen social bonds and group morale. But swearing also has social drawbacks.

So swear, and swear often. But don’t overdo it, you fucking cunt.

A Strategic Guide to Swearing / Stephanie Hayes / The Atlantic


Photo: Anna Frodesiak / Wikimedia Commons

Is the “self” actually a thing?

Two new books explore the self and identity.

Most of us, when we look in the mirror, have a sense that behind the eyes looking back at us is a me-ish thing: a self. But this, we are increasingly told, is an illusion. Why? Well, according to neuroscientists, there is no single place in the brain that generates a self. According to psychologists, there is no little commander-in-chief in our heads directing our behaviour. According to philosophers, there is no “Cartesian ego” unifying our consciousness, no unchanging core of identity that makes us the same person from day to day; there is only an ever-shifting bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories.

In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives.

But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the  remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.

I’ve read articles about how the self doesn’t really exist, and the arguments are compelling. But they’re wrong. When I stub my toe in the dark, there is a self involved, which feels pain and swears.

This isn’t just abstract philosophy for me. This train of thought leads to places more personal and important than I like to share online. This thinking leads to issues I’m having a tough time dealing with. I’m not comfortable talking about them here now. Maybe I never will be.

So instead of sharing those thoughts, I’ll share a story about something that happened to me once at a computer conference.

I didn’t have to be at the conference until midday, so I arrived after most of the journalists had already registered. I went directly to the press registration room, which was nearly deserted, except for a couple of low-level PR people behind a table and one loud and obnoxious journalist who’d arrived a few minutes before me. There had been some problem with his registration and he was outraged. Didn’t they know who he was? He was from WCBS News Radio 88, the biggest news radio station in New York, and how dare they not have his registration? The low-level PR people were apologetic, as they always have to be, but there was nothing they could do.

I wandered around the deserted pressroom for a while looking at stuff until the situation with the News Radio 88 guy was resolved. Then I approached the registration table. I was a little bit more polite than usual, as I try to be when in a situation like that — when dealing with service people who just had to deal with a jerk. “I’m Mitch Wagner from Computerworld. I preregistered,” I said.

Well, I got the reaction that NewsRadio 88 guy was looking for. “Mitch Wagner from Computerworld!” They were waiting for me, had feared I would not show up, and were very glad that I had arrived!

I’ve thought about that encounter every now and then in the subsequent years. The welcome I received, gratifying though it was, was because Computerworld had decided to show up for the conference. It had very little to do with me, personally. If you work for an important company, you should never confuse yourself for the company you work for. That’s a lesson that often comes hard for midlevel employees when they leave the very important company they work for.

We are each simultaneously the center of our own universe, and an insignificant mote in objective reality.

On the other hand, I had earned my place at Computerworld, so I could take pride in that.

Over my career, I’ve worked for publications that got a lot of respect in their industries, where the name of the publication opened doors for me. I’ve worked for unknown startups. Working for the big name pub is better, but working for the unknown startup has its advantages too.

I grew up listening to NewsRadio 88, and so I might have been impressed to meet someone who actually worked for it, if he hadn’t been such a jerk.

Still, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the guy from NewsRadio 88. It’s hard to be reminded of your own cosmic insignificance.

When I was freelancing, I did an article for The Washington Post. The pay was lousy and the whole project turned out to be a fiasco (not my editor’s fault. I didn’t understand the nature of the assignment and therefore it required extensive revision). But it was worth it, just to have the opportunity to call people on the phone and say, in my best Ted Baxter voice, “This is Mitch Wagner, calling for the Washington Post.” My identity — my self — was that I was the Washington Post guy for a little while.

Is there such a thing as the self?

Nope, that’s not a bit creepy

Facebook has been manipulating news feeds to make users happy or sad, as part of a scientific experiment on whether emotions are contagious online.

A face-to-face encounter with someone who is sad or cheerful can leave us feeling the same way. This emotional contagion has been shown to last anywhere from a few seconds to weeks.

A team of researchers, led by Adam Kramer at Facebook in Menlo Park, California, was curious to see if this phenomenon would occur online. To find out, they manipulated which posts showed up on the news feeds of more than 600,000 Facebook users. For one week, some users saw fewer posts with negative emotional words than usual, while others saw fewer posts with positive ones.

Digital emotions proved somewhat contagious, too. People were more likely to use positive words in Facebook posts if they had been exposed to fewer negative posts throughout the week, and vice versa. The effect was significant, though modest (PNAS, doi.org/tcg).

This is not one of those rants against the evils of Facebook, even though it looks like it starts that way

I was much more relaxed and confident Friday than I’ve been in a while.

I stress out a lot. I fear failure. I compare my life unfavorably to the lives of others.

Yesterday, not so much. Oh, a couple of twinges here and there. But mostly I just did my thing and felt happy and satisfied. Well, as happy and satisfied as a person like me ever gets (to paraphrase a line from the sitcom Mad About You. I have found that line to be so, so true.)

One thing that made yesterday different: I didn’t go on Facebook and Google+ at all, and I only checked Reddit once in the evening. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I don’t think that social media causes my anxieties. But if I’m feeling down or stressed, social media helps push things along. Social media is great for things that make you sick about humanity. I call it the Outrage of the Day — you know, like that basketball billionaire with his racist thing or some wingnut saying something moronic about slavery or homosexuality.

Facebook in particular is a great place to go to compare your own lives to others and find your own life wanting. Friends post that they’re going to parties, or great restaurants, or traveling the world. What are you doing? You’re sitting around reading Facebook. On the days when you’re going to parties, or great restaurants, or traveling the world, you’re not on Facebook — you’re busy doing those things.

I’m not planning to give up social media. There’s a lot of value in social media. It’s put me in touch with friends I’d lost track of years ago. It keeps me up with headline news. It helps me professionally. But I can certainly stand to do a lot less social media.

That’s one of the main reasons I started this blog. It’s a way for me to continue sharing what I’m thinking about without opening the door and letting anybody and everybody into my brain. Because I love you all but sometimes you can be a bit much, y’know?

P.S. You’re welcome to respond to this on Facebook or Google+. But I probably won’t see your response until Sunday. Or maybe Monday. Because I already did my social pass this morning and after that whole business with the dog this morning I don’t want any more stress today.

Altered states: How reality caught up with paranoid delusions

“Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras – and make a lot of sense.”

Clinical psychiatry papers rarely make much of a splash in the wider media, but it seems appropriate that a paper entitled ‘The Truman Show Delusion: Psychosis in the Global Village’, published in the May 2012 issue of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, should have caused a global sensation. Its authors, the brothers Joel and Ian Gold, presented a striking series of cases in which individuals had become convinced that they were secretly being filmed for a reality TV show.

In one case, a delusional man traveled to New York, demanded to meet the director of his show, and wanted to know whether the 9/11 attacks were real or part of the premise of his story. In another instance, a deluded journalist was convinced she’d win a prize for getting to the bottom of the conspiracy around her.

In another example, a woman who actually worked on a reality show in real life became convinced that she was the star of the program and her colleagues were engaged in an elaborate conspiracy pretending to make a reality show about someone else while actually filming her.

A student of Sigmund Freud first described these kinds of delusions a century ago. In previous periods, paranoid schizophrenics were deluded about God, spirits, and djinni. Then science and technology took over the world, and people had delusions about being controlled by invisible magnetic rays and machines operated using the crude electronics of the day.

Beginning in the 50s, pop culture became fascinated by stories about mental illness, delusions, and mind control, including The Manchurian Candidate. Later, the novels of Philip K. Dick, and films like Bladerunner and Total Recall based on those novels, made those kinds of delusions blockbuster hits. The Matrix was a paranoid delusion in full bloom.

Reality has caught up with delusion. Paranoid schizophrenics used to be deluded about invisible rays saturating the environment and controlling fantastic machines. Now, those rays and machines exist. I’m typing on one such machine right now, and my words will be conveyed to you over invisible rays.

This is a terrific article, but as I was reading I was surprised to see one delusion-turned-reality missing. It’s a huge one, too; it’s saturated headlines and online discussion for almost a year. But the date of the article explained the hole. The article appeared in August 2013, and was probably completed months before that, before the Edward Snowden leaks. Paranoid schizophrenics used to believe government agents were wiretapping their phones, and now we know that’s right.

The reality show

Years ago I read an essay by a recovered paranoid schizophrenic who mourned her old life. As a mentally healthy person, if she had lunch with a friend in a cafe, she was just having lunch with a friend in a cafe. When she was delusional, she’d be desperately trying to keep up a pretense of normal behavior while constantly scanning the restaurant for enemy agents pursing her. Her deluded life was much more exciting than reality.