Predictably Powerful

From high school math to college science we go . . .

I was a psych major. That had more to do with the teachers in the psych department than the psych topic itself (one great professor could make your entire college stay a good one, especially at a small school like Grinnell). Over the years, though, the psych-head I grew during my college years has stood me in very good and useful stead.

Many people have a fairly uninformed view of what psych is all about. They think it’s about therapy, and assume that psych majors are shrinks in the making. Some are; many are not.

Others (e.g. me) see psych as the science of human capability. Wikipedia’s entry on psychology, for instance, starts out like this:

Psychology is an academic and applied discipline that involves the scientific study of mental functions and behaviors.[1][2] Psychology has the immediate goal of understanding individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases,[3][4] and by many accounts it ultimately aims to benefit society.

I could quibble with the Wikipedia definition because it does not identify the types of actors whose behavior and mental functions are the focus of psychology, with the quibble stemming from my understanding of psych as being about human beings, so that, to the extent non-human beings are ever part of psychological study, they are present primarily to further illuminate the capabilities of human beings.

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Personally, Psych 101 had me at perception: what was a teenager in the 70s (you know, the period that was the real 60s for a lot of folks, with all its attendant personalized psych experiments) supposed to do when learning about how everything s/he knew was filtered through the very fallible peripheral nervous system and sensory apparatus, and then fermented and fomented and otherwise de- and re-arranged within the very fallible and mysterious central nervous system, only to then ultimately arrive at the consciousness, which would, in turn, do with it what it would and have its way with it, willy nilly?

After all, we’ve known, dating all the way back to some experiments in the 1890s, that, if you put on special prism glasses that turn everything you see upside-down, then, after a week or so of constant wear, your brain will, all by itself, turn everything right-side up again — your brain will override the prisms and flip-the-flip (though today it’s safe to say that it’s a bit more complicated than that).

Once you’ve accepted that the brain can right the wrong — can rightside-up the upside-down — you’ve opened the door to a whole lot of questioning and self-doubt. As in: what else might the brain be doing between the out-there and the in-here?

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Psych had some answers to that question, all having to do with the word science in the definitions set out above, for it was psychology’s [some-would-say-sorry] task to try to take that zaniest of all phenomenon — human behavior — and understand it in a scientific way, i.e., to make it predictable and replicatable.

Now that’s powerful: anyone who can repeatedly predict how humans will behave in a given situation will be able to accomplish much through other humans. People running for president will be able to predict how people will respond to what they say and do. People who already are president will be able to skillfully guide the country towards a more perfect union. Product managers will be able to design products that people will buy. Economists will be able to tell us how to get the economy back on track. Money managers will buy low and sell high (standard financial planner joke: tell me when you’re gonna die, and tell me what the stock market is going to do between now and then, and I’ll write you a great plan).

And if you can predict how humans will behave, that also means you can predict how they feel, right? Because a feeling is just another sort of behavior, right?

So spouses will be able to help each other be happier and happier and happier. And ultimately, and to bring this back to you you you: if you get very good at predicting how you will feel about something, you’ll be able to help yourself be happier and happier.

That’s power. And that’s power that really matters.

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The negative also holds true. People whose predictions tend to be mostly wrong de-power themselves. David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain, predicted that austerity would be a good thing for the UK. By most measures, it was not, and that failed prediction has cost Cameron a lot of power.

Most famously from the past decade, if you predict that you’ll be greeted as liberators and you are not, you will lose some power (though you can argue that you were, in fact, right). If you do that often enough, and then couple it with statements that badly mischaracterize the present (in effect, being a very bad swing-and-a-miss at a very easy-to-predict, very-near-term future) and do that often enough and, in doing so, make obviously false predictions about the future, well, then, an outside observer might predict that you’ve quite possibly set up a decades-long diminishing of power.

Time will tell whether the outside observer’s prediction is accurate.

Because, upside-down glasses or no, there is a hard-cold reality out there (math realities, for instance), and if you ignore them, you do so at your own risk.


910 words (less than a nine minute read for most folks) (links excluded)


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