Power Buys You Distance From The Crime

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Introduction

Taxes are typically meant to be proportional to money (or negative externalities, but that’s not what I’m focusing on). But one thing money buys you is flexibility, which can be used to avoid taxes. Because of this, taxes aimed at the wealthy tend to end up hitting the well-off-or-rich-but-not-truly-wealthy harder, and tax cuts aimed at the poor end up helping the middle class. Examples (feel free to stop reading these when you get the idea, this is just the analogy section of the essay):

  • Computer programmers typically have the option to work remotely in a low-tax state; teachers need to be where the classroom is. 
  • Estate taxes tend to hit families with single large assets (like a business) harder than those with diverse investments (who can simply sell assets to pay for taxes), who are hit harder than those with enough wealth to create trust funds.
  • Executives can choose to receive stock (which is taxed more favorably) instead of cash to the exact percentage they desire. Well paid employees are offered stock, but the amount will not be tailored to their needs. Lower level employees either are not offered this, or are not in a position to take advantage of it.
  • The legal distinction between a business (whose expenses are tax deductible) and a hobby (deductions not allowed) is based on whether the activity nets you income (there are complications and you can sometimes prove a money loser is a business, but this is a good rule of thumb). Small business owners (e.g. lawyers) can fold their occasionally-revenue-generating hobby (e.g. photography) into their real business, enabling tax deductions for their hobby.
  • IRAs, 401ks, HSAs, and FSAs all lock your money up for a time or purpose, in exchange for lower or delayed taxes. You can only take advantage of them if you’re sure you won’t need the money for another purpose sooner.
  • More examples here.

Note that most of these are perfectly legal and the rest are borderline. But we’re still not getting the result we want, of taxes being proportional to income.

When we assess moral blame for a situation, we typically want it to be roughly in proportion to much power a person has to change said situation. But just like money can be used to evade taxes, power can be used to avoid blame. This results in a distorted blame-distribution apparatus which assigns the least blame to the person most able to change the situation. Allow me a few examples to demonstrate this.

 

Examples 1 + 2: Corporate Malfeasance

Amazon.com provides a valuable service by letting any idiot sell a book, with minimal overhead. One of the costs of this complete lack of verification is that people will sell things that wouldn’t pass verification, such as counterfeits, at great cost to publishers and authors. Amazon could never sell counterfeits directly: they’re a large company that’s easy to sue. But by setting themselves up as a platform on which other people sell, they enable themselves to profit from counterfeits.

Or take slavery. No company goes “I’m going to go out and enslave people today” (especially not publicly), but not paying people is sometimes cheaper than paying them, so financial pressure will push towards slavery. Public pressure pushes in the opposite direction, so companies try not to visibly use slave labor. But they can’t control what their subcontractors do, and especially not what their subcontractors’ subcontractors’ subcontractors do, and sometimes this results in workers being unpaid and physically blocked from leaving.

Who’s at fault for the subcontractor(^3)’s slave labor? One obvious answer is “the person locking them in during the fire” or “the parent who gives their kid piecework”, and certainly it couldn’t happen without them. But if we say “Nike’s lack of knowledge makes them not responsible”, we give them an incentive to subcontract without asking follow up questions. The executive is probably benefiting more from the system of slave labor than the factory owner is from his little domain, and has more power to change what is happening. If the small factory owner pays fair wages, he gets outcompeted by a factory that does use slave labor. If the Nike CEO decides to insource their manufacturing to ensure fair working conditions, something actually changes.

…Unless consumers switch to a cheaper, slavery-driven shoe brand.

Which is actually really hard to not do. You could choose more expensive shoes, but the profit margin is still bigger if you shrink expenses, so that doesn’t help (which is why Fairtrade was a failure from the workers’ perspective). You can’t investigate the manufacturing conditions of everything you buy– it’s just too time consuming. But if you punish obvious enslavement and conduct no follow up studies, what you get is obscured enslavement, not decent working conditioners.

 

Moral Mazes describes the general phenomenon on page 21:

Moreover, pushing down details relieves superiors of the burden of too much knowledge, particularly guilty knowledge. A superior will say to a subordinate, for instance: “Give me your best thinking on the problem with [X].” When the subordinate makes his report, he is often told: “I think you can do better than that,” until the subordinate has worked out all the details of the boss’s predetermined solution, without the boss being specifically aware of “all the eggs that have to be broken.” It is also not at all uncommon for very bald and extremely general edicts to emerge from on high. For example, “Sell the plant in [St. Louis]; let me know when you’ve struck a deal,” or “We need to get higher prices for [fabric X]; see what you can work out,” or “Tom, I want you to go down there and meet with those guys and make a deal and I don’t want you to come back until you’ve got one.” This pushing down of details has important consequences.

First, because they are unfamiliar with—indeed deliberately distance themselves from—entangling details, corporate higher echelons tend to expect successful results without messy complications. This is central to top executives’ well-known aversion to bad news and to the resulting tendency to kill the messenger who bears the news.

Second, the pushing down of details creates great pressure on middle managers not only to transmit good news but, precisely because they know the details, to act to protect their corporations, their bosses, and themselves in the process. They become the “point men” of a given strategy and the potential “fall guys” when things go wrong. From an organizational standpoint, overly conscientious managers are particularly useful at the middle levels of the structure. Upwardly mobile men and women, especially those from working-class origins who find themselves in higher status milieux, seem to have the requisite level of anxiety, and perhaps tightly controlled anger and hostility, that fuels an obsession with detail. Of course, such conscientiousness is not necessarily, and is certainly not systematically, rewarded; the real organizational premiums are placed on other, more flexible, behavior.

These examples differ in an important way from tax structuring: structuring requires seeking out advice and acting on it to achieve the goal. It’s highly agentic. The Wells Fargo and apparel-outsourcing cases required no such agency on the part of executives. They vaguely wished for something (more revenue, fewer expenses), and somehow it happened. An employee who tried to direct the executives’ attention to the fact that they were indirectly employing slaves would probably be fired before they ever reached the executives. Executives are not only outsourcing their dirty work, they’re outsourcing knowledge of their dirty work. 

[Details of personal anecdotes changed both intentionally and by the vagaries of human memory]

Example/Exception 2.5: Corporate Malfeasance Gone Wrong

The Wells Fargo account fraud scandal: in order to meet quotas, entry level Wells Fargo employees created millions of unauthorized accounts (typically extra services for existing customers). I originally included this as an example of “executives incentivizing entry level employees to commit fraud on their behalf”, but it turns out Wells Fargo made almost no money off the fraud- $2m over five years, which hardly seems worth the employees’ time, much less the $185m fine. I’ve left this in as an example of how the incentives-not-orders system doesn’t always work in powerful people’s favor.

Thanks to Larks for pointing this out.

Example 3: Foreign Medical Care

My cousin Angela broke her leg while traveling in Thailand, and was delighted by the level of care she received at the Thai hospital– not just medically, but socially. Nurses brought her flowers and were just generally nicer than their American counterparts. Her interpretation was that Thailand was a place motivated by love and kindness, not money, and Americans should aspire to this level of regard for their fellow human being. My interpretation was that she had enough money to buy the goodwill of everyone in the room without noticing, so what she should have learned is that being rich is awesome, and that being an American who travels internationally is enough to qualify you as rich.

This is mostly a success story for the free market: Angela got good medical care and the nurses got money (I’m assuming). Any crime in this story were committed off-screen. But Angela was certainly benefiting from the nurses’ restrained choices in life. And had she had actual power to affect healthcare in US, trying to fix it based on what she learned in Thailand would have done a lot of damage.

 

Example 4: My Dating an Artist Experience

My starving-artist ex-boyfriend, Connor, stayed with me for two months after a little bad luck and a lot of bad decisions cost him his job and then apartment (this was back when I had a two bedroom apartment to myself– I miss Seattle). During this time we had one big fight. My view on the fight now is that I was locally in the right but globally the disagreement was indicative of irreconcilable differences that should have led us to break up. That was delayed by months when he capitulated.

One possibility is that he genuinely thought he could change and that I was worth the attempt. Another is that he saw the incompatibility, or knew things that should have led him to see it, but lied or blocked out the knowledge so that he could keep living with me. This would be a shitty, manipulative thing for him to do. On the other hand, what did I expect? If the punishment for breaking up with me was, best case scenario, moving into a homeless shelter, of course he felt pressure to appease me. 

It wasn’t my fault he felt that pressure, any more than it was Angela’s fault her nurses were born with fewer options than her. Time in my spare bedroom was a gift to him I had no obligation to keep giving. But if I’d really valued a coercion free decision, I would have committed to housing him independent of our relationship. Although if that becomes common knowledge, it just means people can’t make an uncoerced decision to date me at all. And if helping Connor at all meant a commitment to do so forever, he would get a lot less help.

This case is more like the Wells Fargo case than Amazon or Nike. I was getting only the appearance of what I wanted (a genuine relationship with a compatible person), not the real thing. Nonetheless, the universe was contorting itself to give me the appearance of what I wanted.

Summary

What all of these stories have in common is that (relatively) powerful people’s desires were met by people less powerful than them, without them having to take responsibility for the action or sometimes even the desire. Society conspired to give them what they wanted (or in the case of Connor and Wells Fargo, a facsimile of what they wanted) without them having to articulate the want, even to themselves. That’s what power means: ability to make the game come out like you want. Disempowered people are forced to consciously notice things (e.g., this budget is unreachable) and make plans (e.g., slavery) where a powerful person wouldn’t. And it’s unfair to judge them for doing so while ignoring the morality of the powerful who never consider the system that brings them such nice things. 

Take home message:

  1. The most agentic person in a situation is not necessarily most morally culpable. One of the things power buys you is distance from the crime.
  2. Power obscures information flow. If you are not proactively looking to see how your wants and needs are being met, you are probably benefiting from something immoral or being tricked.

 

This piece was inspired by a conversation with and benefited from comments by Ben Hoffman. I’d also like to thank several commenters on Facebook for comments on an earlier draft and Justis Mills for copyediting.

Epistemic Spot Check: The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance

Epistemic spot checks typically consist of references from a book, selected by my interest level, checked against either the book’s source or my own research. This one is a little different that I’m focusing on a single paragraph in a single paper. Specifically as part of a larger review I read Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer’s 1993 paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (PDF), in an attempt to gain information about how long human beings can productivity do thought work over a time period.

This paper is important because if you ask people how much thought work can be done in a day, if they have an answer and a citation at all, it will be “4 hours a day” and “Cal Newport’s Deep Work“. The Ericsson paper is in turn Newport’s source. So to the extent people’s beliefs are based on anything, they’re based on this paper.

In fact I’m not even reviewing the whole paper, just this one relevant paragraph: 

When individuals, especially children, start practicing in a given domain, the amount of practice is an hour or less per day (Bloom, 1985b). Similarly, laboratory studies of extended practice limit practice to about 1 hr for 3-5 days a week (e.g., Chase & Ericsson, 1982; Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977; Seibel, 1963). A number of training studies in real life have compared the efficiency of practice durations ranging from 1 -8 hr per day. These studies show essentially no benefit from durations exceeding 4 hr per day and reduced benefits from practice exceeding 2 hr (Welford, 1968; Woodworth & Schlosberg, 1954). Many studies of the acquisition of typing skill (Baddeley & Longman, 1978; Dvorak et al.. 1936) and other perceptual motor skills (Henshaw & Holman, 1930) indicate that the effective duration of deliberate practice may be closer to 1 hr per day. Pirolli and J. R. Anderson (1985) found no increased learning from doubling the number of training trials per session in their extended training study. The findings of these studies can be generalized to situations in which training is extended over long periods of time such as weeks, months, and years

Let’s go through each sentence in order. I’ve used each quote as a section header, with the citations underneath it in bold.

“When individuals, especially children, start practicing in a given domain, the amount of practice is an hour or less per day”

 Generalizations about talent development, Bloom (1985)

“Typically the initial lessons were given in swimming and piano for about an hour each week, while the mathematics was taught about four hours each week…In addition some learning tasks (or homework) were assigned to be practiced and perfected before the next lesson.” (p513)

“…[D]uring the week the [piano] teacher expected the child to practice about an hour a day.” with descriptions of practice but no quantification given for swimming and math (p515).

The quote seems to me to be a simplification. “Expected an hour a day” is not the same as “did practice an hour or less per day.”

“…laboratory studies of extended practice limit practice to about 1 hr for 3-5 days a week”

Skill and working memory, Chase & Ericsson (1982)

This study focused strictly on memorizing digits, which I don’t consider to be that close to thought work.

Controlled and automatic human information processing: I. Detection, search, and attention. Schneider, W., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1977)

This study had 8 people in it and was essentially an identification and reaction time trial.

Discrimination reaction time for a 1,023-alternative task, Seibel, R. (1963)

3 subjects. This was a reaction time test, not thought work. No mention of duration studying.

 

“These studies show essentially no benefit from durations exceeding 4 hr per day and reduced benefits from practice exceeding 2 hr”

Fundamentals of Skill, Welford (1968)

In a book with no page number given, I skipped this one.

Experimental Psychology, Woodworth & Schlosberg (1954)

This too is a book with no page number, but it was available online (thanks, archive.org) and I made an educated guess that the relevant chapter was “Economy in Learning and Performance”. Most of this chapter focused on recitation, which I don’t consider sufficiently relevant.

p800: “Almost any book on applied psychology will tell you that the hourly work output is higher in an eight-hour day than a ten-hour day.”(no source)

Offers this graph as demonstration that only monotonous work has diminishing returns.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 9.08.22 PM.png

 

p812: An interesting army study showing that students given telegraphy training for 4 hours/day  (and spending 4 on other topics) learned as much as students studying 7 hours/day. This one seems genuinely relevant, although not enough to tell us where peak performance lies, just that four hours are better than seven. Additionally, the students weren’t loafing around for the excess three hours: they were learning other things. So this is about how long you can study a particular subject, not total learning capacity in a day.

Many studies of the acquisition of typing skill (Baddeley & Longman, 1978; Dvorak et al.. 1936) and other perceptual motor skills (Henshaw & Holman, 1930) indicate that the effective duration of deliberate practice may be closer to 1 hr per day

The Influence of Length and Frequency of Training Session on the Rate of Learning to Type, Baddeley & Longman (1978)

“Four groups of postmen were trained to type alpha-numeric code material using a conventional typewriter keyboard. Training was based on sessions lasting for one or two hours occurring once or twice per day. Learning was most efficient in the group given one session of one hour per day, and least efficient in the group trained for two 2-hour sessions. Retention was tested after one, three or nine months, and indicated a loss in speed of about 30%. Again the group trained for two daily sessions of two hours performed most poorly.It is suggested that where operationally feasible, keyboard training should be distributed over time rather than massed”

 

Typewriting behavior; psychology applied to teaching and learning typewriting, Dvorak et al (1936)

Inaccessible book.

The Role of Practice in Fact Retrieval, Pirolli & Anderson (1985)

“We found that fact retrieval speeds up as a power function of days of practice but that the number of daily repetitions beyond four produced little or no impact on reaction time”

Conclusion

Many of the studies were criminally small, and typically focused on singular, monotonous tasks like responding to patterns of light or memorizing digits.  The precision of these studies is greatly exaggerated. There’s no reason to believe Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer’s conclusion that the correct number of hours for deliberate practice is 3.5, much less the commonly repeated factoid that humans can do good work for 4 hours/day.

 

[This post supported by Patreon].

Knowing I’m Being Tricked is Barely Enough

I think it was in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal that a con man mused that the easiest people to rip off were other con men, or at least those who aspired to be so, because all you had to do was make it look like they were taking advantage of you. Honest men wouldn’t fall for it because they weren’t willing to rip you off.* It’s interesting watching myself fall for that.

A year ago Audible (owned by Amazon) offered me a year’s membership (=12 credits for free books, plus discounts on other books and some miscellaneous perks) for $100. That’s almost half off the per credit price (which itself can be can be half the price of buying a book with money, although those prices are clearly set to encourage subscribing rather than to be paid). I was about to start reading a bunch of dense history tomes, so this seemed like a pretty good deal. Then between my plan changing and the library gods being generous, I ended up not using a single credit. Suddenly 11 months had passed and Audible e-mailed me telling me they would renew my membership in a month.

“NBD, I’ll just cancel my account and keep the credits for when I need them” I thought quietly to myself. Only it turns out unused credits disappear if you cancel your membership. To keep them, I’d have to renew my subscription.  But Audible only lets you keep 18 credits at a time. If I renewed for another year, 6 credits will immediately expire, meaning I’m paying for 12 credits but only getting 6. So I went on a spree buying books off my Goodreads queue and gave a few as gifts. Actually I gave one too many gifts, because I realized later there was another good candidate I didn’t have the credits for.

Audible to the rescue. No sooner had I spent my last credit than they offered me three for $30 each- more per credit than I’d paid for my first membership, but less than the annual membership. I went as far as picking out two more books before realizing this was stupid, I had gone an entire year without buying a single audio book, I did not need three more credits.

Then my roommate told me $10/credit isn’t even that good a price, they were sure to offer me a better one when I actually cancelled. And I wanted it. A product I empirically had to be forced to use, and I felt compelled to buy more because it was cheap.

I put this down to two things- “Audible subscriber” was a nice identity to have and I enjoyed the feeling of pulling one over on Audible. I was the dishonest man letting the con man fool him. And I knew this was happening and it was still an act of will that I actually cancelled my subscription.

This story has a happy ending- well, except for the part where I paid $100 for a bunch of books I only marginally wanted. I probably still captured some surplus. But this can not possibly be the only trick Amazon is playing on me, and I don’t know what to do about it.

 

*I tried to find an exact quote for this and instead found “There is a saying ‘You can’t fool an honest man’ which is much quoted by people who make a profitable living by fooling honest men.” But I’m pretty sure the part I quoted was there too.

Epistemic Spot Check: The Dorito Effect (Mark Schatzker)

Epistemic Spot Checks is a series in which I fact check claims a book makes, to determine its trustworthiness. It is not a book review or a check on every claim the book makes, merely a spot check of what I find particularly interesting or important (or already know).

Today’s subject is The Dorito Effect, which claims that Americans are getting fat because food is simultaneously getting blander and less nutritious, and then more intensely flavored through artificial means. This is leaving people fat and yet malnourished.

Claims

Claim: Humans did not get fatter over the last 100 years due to changes in genetics.
True. People are fatter than their ancestors, indicating it’s not a change in genetics (although genetics still plays a role in an individual’s weight).

Claim: Casimir Funk discovered that an extract of brown rice could cure beriberi in chickens.
True.

Claim: In 1932, the average farm produced 63 sacks of potatoes/acre. By the mid 1960s, it was 200 sacks/acre.
True.

KCalGraph.png
(source).

Claim: Everything is getting blander and more seasoned.
More seasoned.
Blander food.
Note that both sources were provided by the book itself.

Claim: “We eat for one reason: because we love the way food tastes. Flavor is the original craving”.
This doesn’t jive with my personal experience. I definitely crave nutrients and am satisfied by them even without tasting them.

Claim: “In 1946 and 1947, regional Chicken Of Tomorrow contests were held.”
True.

Claim: Over time the Chicken Of Tomorrow winners consistently weighed more, with less feed and less time to maturity.
True.

Claim: Produce is getting less nutritious over time.
True (source provided by author).

Conclusions

Extremely trustworthy, and therefore worrisome, given the implication that food is becoming inexorably worse. Dorito Effect is unfortunately light on solutions, so you might just freak yourself out to no purpose. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a kick to start eating better, this could easily be it.

The Tallest Pygmy Effect

Status: I thought this was a common economics term, but when I google it I get either unrelated or references using it the way I expect but not defining it. It’s a really useful term, so I’m going to attempt to make it a thing.

“Tallest Pygmy Effect” is when you benefit not from absolute skill or value at a thing, but by being better at it than anyone else.  For example, the US dollar is not that great a currency and the US economy is not that great an economy. However, the dollar is more stable than other currencies, so it becomes the currency of choice when you want stability. This high volume makes USD more stable and is in general good for the US economy (because e.g. US companies don’t have to take on currency risk when they borrow money).

Tallest pygmy effects are fragile, especially when they are reliant on self-fulfilling prophecies or network effects. If everyone suddenly thought the Euro was the most stable currency, the resulting switch would destabilize the dollar and hurt both its value and the US economy as a whole.

Epistemic Spot Check: Full Catastrophe Living (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

Full Catastrophe Living is a little weird, because between the first edition and the second a lot of science came out testing the thesis.  For this blog post, I’m reviewing the new, scienced-up edition of FCL.  However I have ordered the older edition of the book (thanks, Patreon supporters and half.com) and have dreams of reviewing that separately, with an eye towards identifying what could have predicted the experimental outcome.  E.g. if the experimental outcome is positive, was there something special about the model that we could recognize in other self-help books before rigorous science comes in?

I originally planned on fact checking two chapters, the scientific introduction and one of the explanatory chapters.  Doing the intro was exhausting and demonstrated a consistent pattern of “basically correct, from a small sample size, finding exaggerated”, so I skipped the second chapter of fact checking. I also skipped the latter two thirds of the book.

Overview

You’ve probably heard about mindfulness, but just in case: mindfulness is a meditation practice that involves being present and not holding on to thoughts, originally created within Buddhism.  Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is a specific class created by the author of this book, Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The class has since spread across the country; he cites 720 programs in the introduction.   Full Catastrophe Living contains both a playbook for teaching the class to yourself, the science of why it works (I’m guessing this is new?), a section on stress, and followup information on how to integrate meditation into your life.

Introduction

Claim: Humans are happier when they focus on what they are doing than when they let their mind wander, which is 50% of the time.

Accurately cited, large effect size, possible confounding effects. (PDF).  The slope of the regression between mind wandering and mind not-wandering was 8.79 out of a 100 point scale, and the difference between unpleasant mind wandering and any mind not-wandering task was ~30 points.  Pleasant mind wandering was exactly as pleasant as focusing on the task at hand.  Focusing accounting for 17.7% of the between-person variation in happiness, compared to 3.2% from choice of task.

Some caveats:

  • People’s minds are more likely to wander when they’re doing something unpleasant, and when they are having trouble coping with that unpleasantness.   The study could be identifying a symptom rather than a cause.
  • The study population was extremely unrepresentative, consisting of people who chose to download an iPhone app.

Claim: Loss of telomeres is associated with stress and aging; meditation lengthens telomeres by reducing stress (location 404).

Research slightly more theoretical than is represented, but theoretical case is strong. (Source). First, let’s talk about telomeres.  Telomeres are caps on the ends of all of your chromosomes.  Because of the way DNA is copied, they will shorten a bit on every division.  There’s a special enzyme to re-lengthen them (telomerase), but leading thought right now is that stress inhibits it.  Short telomeres are associated with the diseases of aging (heart issues, type two diabetes) independent of chronological age.  This is hard to study because telomere length is a function of your entire life, not the last week, but is pretty established science at this point.

Mindfulness reduces stress, so it’s not implausible that it could lengthen telomeres and thus reduce aging.  The authors also present some evidence that negative mood reduces the activity of telomerase.  This is a very strong theoretical case, but is not quite proven.

Claim: Happiness research Dan Gilbert claims meditation is one of the keys to happiness, up there with sleep and exercise (location 461).

Confirmed that Gilbert is a happiness researcher and said the quote cited, although I can’t find where he personally researched this.

Claim: “Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University have shown, using fMRI brain scanning technology, that eight weeks of MBSR training leads to thickening of a number of different regions of the brain associated with learning and memory, emotion regulation, the sense of self, and perspective taking. They also found that the amygdala, a region deep in the brain that is responsible for appraising and reacting to perceived threats, was thinner after MBSR, and that the degree of thinning was related to the degree of improvement on a perceived stress scale.” (location 502)

Accurate citation, but: small sample size (16/26), and for the first study the effect size was quite small (1%) for regions of a priori interest, and the second had quite wide error bands (source 1) (source 2).  However the book does refer to these findings as preliminary.

Claim: “They also show that functions vital to our well-being and quality of life, such as perspective taking, attention regulation, learning and memory, emotion regulation, and threat appraisal, can be positively influenced by training in MBSR.” (location 508).

Misleading.  These are really broad claims and no specific study is cited.  However, source 2 above has the following quote: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”  This is a very carefully phrased statement indicating that mindfulness is in the right ballpark for affecting these things, but is not the same as demonstrating actual change.

Claim: “Researchers at the University of Toronto, also using fMRI, found that people who had completed an MBSR program showed increases in neuronal activity in a brain network associated with embodied present-moment experience, and decreases in another brain network associated with the self as experienced across time. […]  This study also showed that MBSR could unlink these two forms of self-referencing, which usually function in tandem.” (location 508).

Accurate citation, small sample size (36) that they made particularly hard to find (source).  I can’t decipher the true size of the effect.

Claim: Relative to another health class, MSBR participants had smaller blisters in response to a lab procedure, indicating lower inflammation (location 529).

True, but only because the other class *raised* inflammation (source). Also leaves out the fact that both groups had the same cortisol levels and self-reported stress.  So this looks less like MBSR helped, and more like the control program was actively counterproductive.

For the record, this is where I got frustrated.

Claim: “people who were meditating while receiving ultraviolet light therapy for their psoriasis healed at four times the rate of those receiving the light treatment by itself without meditating.” (location 534)

Accurate citation (of his own work), small sample size (pdf).

Claim: “we found that the electrical activity in certain areas of the brain known to be involved in the expression of emotions (within the prefrontal cerebral cortex) shifted in the MBSR participants in a direction (right-sided to left-sided) that suggested that the meditators were handling emotions such as anxiety and frustration more effectively. […]

This study also found that when the people in the study in both groups were given a flu vaccine at the end of the eight weeks of training, the MBSR group mounted a significantly stronger antibody response in their immune system”

Accurate citation (of his own work), slightly misleading, small sample size.  Once again, he’s strongly implying a behavioral effect when the only evidence is that MSBR touches an area of the brain. On the other hand, the original paper gets into why they make that assumption, so either it’s correct or we just learned something cool about the brain.

Claim: MSBR reduced loneliness and a particular inflammatory protein among the elderly (location 551).

Not statistically significant. (source)  More specifically; the loneliness finding was significant but uninteresting, since the treatment was “8 weeks with a regular social activity” and the control was “not.”  The inflammation finding had p = .075.  There’s nothing magic about p < .05 and I don’t want to worship it, but it’s not a strong result.

I also researched MBSR in general, and found it to have a surprisingly large effect on depression and anxiety.

The Model

To the extent Full Catastrophe Living has a model, it’s been integrated so fully into the cultural zeitgeist that I have a hard time articulating it. It could be summarized as “do these practices and some amount of good things from this list will happen to you.” Which kills my hypothesis that having a good model is necessary to getting good results.

 

You Might Like This Book If…

I don’t know. I found it a slog and only read the first third, but the empirical evidence is very much on mindfulness’s side and I don’t know what better thing to suggest.

 

 

 

Thanks to the internet for making it possible for me to do these kinds of investigations.

Thanks to Patreon supporters for giving me money.

 

 

Epistemic Spot Check: Exercise for Mood and Anxiety (Michael W. Otto, Jasper A.J. Smits)

Introduction

Everyone knows exercise (along with diet and sleep) makes a big difference in depression and anxiety.  Depressed and anxious people are almost by definition bad at transforming information about how to improve their lives into actions with large up front costs, so this data is not as useful as it might be.  Exercise for Mood and Anxiety (Michael W. Otto, Jasper A.J. Smits) aims to close that gap by making the conventional wisdom actionable.  It does that through the following steps:

  1. Present evidence that exercise is very helpful and why, to create motivation.
  2. Walk you through setting up an environment where exercise requires relatively little will power to start.
  3. Scripts and advice to make exercise as unmiserable as possible while you are doing it.
  4. Scripts and advice to milk as much mood benefit as possible from a given amount of exercise.
  5. An idiotic chapter on weight and food.

 

Parts 3 and 4 use a lot of techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, and I suspect there’s a second order benefit of learning to apply these techniques to a relatively easy thing, so you can apply them to the rest of your life later.

Epistemic Spot Checking

Claim: “a study of 55,000 adults in the United States and Canada found that people who exercised had fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.” (Kindle Locations 103-104). 

Correctly cited, paper has no proof of causation.  (abstract) (PDF) The study does in fact say this, but it also says “Despite the fact that none of these surveys [of which this paper is a metaanalysis] was [sic] originally designed to explore this association… “.  I’m not saying you can never repurpose data, but with something like this where the real question is causality, it seems suspicious.  The authors do consider the idea that causation runs from mental health (=energy, hopefulness, executive function) -> exercise and dismiss if, for reasons I find inadequate.

Claim: “Other studies add to this list of mood benefits by indicating that exercise is also linked to less anger and cynical distrust, as well as to stronger feelings of social integration.” (Kindle Locations 104-106). 

Correctly cited, paper has no proof of causation. (Abstract).

Claim: And these benefits don’t just include reducing symptoms of distress in people who have not been formally diagnosed with depression or anxiety. The benefits of exercise also include lower rates of psychiatric disorders; there is less major depression, as well as fewer anxiety disorders in those who exercise regularly. (Kindle Locations 107-109). 

Correctly cited, paper has no proof of causation.

The dismissal of causality goes on for another three citations but I’m just going to skip to the intervention studies.  Otto gives these population studies more credence than I would but does note that the intervention studies are more informative.

Claim:  study summarized 70 studies on this topic and showed that adults who experience sad or depressed moods, but not at levels that meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder, reliably report meaningful improvements in their mood as they start exercising. (Kindle Locations 116-117).

Correctly cited, study accuracy undetermined.  (Full paper). My fear (based on spot checking a similar book you’ll see in the rejects post) is that each of these studies consists of 15 people.  All the metaanalysis in the world won’t save you if you do 100 small studies and only publish the 50 that say what you want.  The studies included go all the way back to 1969: I can’t decide if that makes them more informative or less.

Claim:  The latest estimates are that about 17% of adults experience a major depressive episode in their lifetimes and that about half who have it experience recurrent episodes over time. (Kindle Locations 124-126). 

True. (Full paper).  The same study is cited for both facts, but I can only find the 50% statistic in the paper.  The data is kind of old (started in 1981), but of course you can’t get 30-year data except by starting 30 years ago.  This paper says the lifetime prevalence of mood disorders (depression, bipolar 1 and 2, and their baby siblings) is 20%; this study puts prevalence in the US at 16.9%.

Claim: As is the case with major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders are common, affecting more than 1 in 4 (28.8%) adults in their lifetimes” (Kindle Locations 136-137).

True. (Full paper).  He cites the same paper I did for the 20% mood disorder statistic.

Claim: [Anxiety disorders] tend to be especially long-lasting when people do not receive treatment. (Kindle Locations 137-138).

True, although not particularly specific.  (Full paper)

Claim: Exercise in itself is a stressor—it requires effort, and it forces the body to adapt to the demands placed on it.  (Kindle Locations 141-142). 

True.  (Full paper).

Claim:  A study examined firefighters reaction to stress, and then gave half a 16 week exercise course.  The study group showed improvements in stress responses. (Kindle location 148)

True.  (Abstract) (PDF).  I really like this study.  The group presumably had a high baseline fitness level, so this isn’t the difference between couch potato and a walk.  And they have before and after metrics.  The study is marred only by the small sample size (53).

Claim: “stress plays a key role in both the development and the continuation of depression and anxiety disorders.” (Kindle Locations 152-153). 

Accurate citation, very complicated topic. (Abstract).

Okay, it is becoming clear I don’t have the time to check every one of these citations and you don’t have time to read it.  From here on out please assume a baseline of very dense citations, all of which accurately report the study results, if with a little more confidence than the study design merits, and I’m only going to call out things that deserve special attention on account of controversy or importance.

Claim: exercise increases serotonin just like the primary class of anti-depressants, selective serotonin update inhibitors.

True but less relevant than implied.  They’re relying on a model of how SSRIs treat depression that is fairly outdated.  SSRIs definitely increase serotonin, it’s just that there’s no evidence that’s their mechanism of action against depression except that they do it and they treat depression.  “Depression is caused by a serotonin deficiency” is a lie simplification told to patients and their families to allay fear and shame around psychiatric treatment.  This doesn’t undercut their point that exercise is good for you, but does indicate this is not a great book to learn brain chemistry from.

Claim:  Both aerobic (prolonged moderate exercise such as running, cycling, or rowing over time) and anaerobic (like weight lifting or short sprinting) exercise have been found to be effective for decreasing depression, (Kindle Locations 239-241).

True. (Study 1 PDF) (Study 2 abstract).

 

Empirical Results

The theory behind this book is very well supported; the prescriptions it makes flow naturally from the theory, but the authors present no direct evidence that they work.  I’m torn about this.  I don’t want to engage in RCT worship; having a systemic understanding of a problem is even better than evidence a particular solution worked better or worse than another solution in a different population.  On the other hand, humans are very complicated and it’s easy to identify the problem but guess the wrong solution.

I couldn’t test any of this on myself because I already enjoy exercise for a lot of reasons, so I scrounged up an unscientific sample from my wider social network to try it.

14 people filled out the pre-book survey.  3 people filled out the post-attempt survey.  None of them exercised more.

Summary

The theory sections of this book are my high water mark for scientific rigor in a self-help-psych book.  I’m currently reading a lot of those with the goal of finding out how much rigor is reasonable to expect, so that’s high praise.

The book walks the very fine line between reassuring and condescending, which is pretty unavoidable with CBT and mindfulness.

I did not like the last chapter and recommend skipping it.  It feels like they tried to stuff all the usual diet-and-exercise stuff in at the end.  Some of my problem is I think their recommendations are wrong, and some is that I believe that even if they were correct, throwing them in at the last minute undercuts the message of the book.

The first part of this is that, in America, at least in certain subcultures, any mention of weight makes the whole thing About Weight.  Too many people use health or mood as a socially acceptable way to say “you’re not hot enough”, so any mention of weight in the context of diet or exercise automatically makes weight the real topic of the conversation.  If the improvements in mood are enough of a reason to exercise, let them be enough, and the weight loss can be a pleasant surprise or not happen, and both are okay because you got what you came for.

The authors compound this problem by using Body Mass Index as a guide for goal weight.  BMI is completely unsuited for use in individuals, even more so for people who just started gaining muscle mass.  If you must talk about fat in the context of health use body fat percentage or certain circumference ratios (e.g. wrist:stomach).

The second problem is the speed with which EFMaA tries to address nutrition.  The book (correctly) treats exercise as a thing that is challenging to start despite all its benefits, and spends 10 chapters explaining why it’s worth trying and providing scripts to make it workable for you, for the sole benefit of mood, ignoring everything else you might get out of exercise.  I don’t know why the authors thought that that required an entire book but the even more complicated of nutrition for every possible benefit of nutrition could be squeezed into half a chapter.  I would be have been very excited for another book by the same authors about how to implement healthy eating, but the half assed treatment here makes me pause.

They also present a particular diet as the settled science, when there is no such thing in nutrition.  “Eat produce and fish” is fairly uncontroversial, but they recommend a lot more refined grains than many other people.  I don’t know who is correct, but it was disappointing to see a book that had been so rigorous up to that point blithely paint over controversy.

[I have emailed Michael Otto about the handling of nutrition and have yet to hear back].

Speaking of which Exercise for Mood and Anxiety mentions that both aerobic (cardio) and anaeorbic (weights) are good for mood, but every single example is cardio, with an occasional cardio + core strength.

Mixed in through the book are tales of how Olympic athletes motivate themselves.  This feels spectacularly irrelevant to me.  I don’t want to win a gold medal, I want to climb V2s and be happy.

You might find this book valuable if:

  • You want some ideas (although not conclusive proof) around how exercise helps mood.
  • You want to want to exercise, and want scripts and tools to transform that into “want to exercise right now.”
  • You find exercise unpleasant and want to get the best trade of unpleasantness-for-benefits possible.
  • You would like to treat a mood issue with exercise (whether it reaches the level of official disorder or not).
  • You want to change how you think about exercise (for improving your mood or something else).
  • You are interested in CBT or mindfulness and want to practice with the large print version before tackling them directly.
  • You think you are different than my test audience.

You probably won’t find this book valuable if:

  • You already have an exercise program you are happy with.
  • You have body image or eating disorder issues (last chapter only, and a single section of the 10th,  the rest of it is fine).
  • You want prescriptions for a particular exercise program, as opposed to general principles.
  • You want to learn the nitty gritty of how exercise affects mood.
  • You are similar to my test audience.

 

 

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