The Seared Conscience

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

What does it mean to have a seared conscience? It’s something like seared flesh. The top layer is dead and insensitive to pain. To have a seared conscience is something like the experience of doing, over and over, that which you just know to be wrong until you stop listening to your moral intuitions all together. Peter writes of a similar experience:

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:20-21)

Again, why is it worse? Acting in the face of consciences condemnation slowly puts your conscience to death. For the Christian, sanctification is the two-fold process of listening to conscience and reforming conscience where it is in error. To desensitize conscience makes you, from a personal-social standpoint, irredeemable. That’s why the author of Hebrews says that people who are subjecting Christ to crucifixion all over again by their public actions cannot repent. They’re too busy intentionally stifling the truth to be able to hear its call.

Interestingly, this ancient piece of observational psychology has been discovered anew:

“Moral incongruence, in this case, the experience of disapproving of IPU [internet pornography use] while still using it, seems to be a key variable in predicting a host of important outcomes associated with pornography use, not the least of which is perceived addiction to internet pornography.”

Doing what you know or feel to be bad and deriving pleasure from it [at least with respect to porn] leads you to feel trapped in that behavior. I wonder if this holds true in other areas like drug use, losing your temper, failure to exercise, over eating, etc. And if so, what are the options? Convincing people to give up on their moral positions? If wrong, this makes sense. But maybe this is where a therapeutics of personal responsibility might be useful. The stoics recommended taking responsibility for everything you experience/do. The Lord tells Cain something similar. Thomas Saasz recommends jettisoning the notion that mental disorders are anything other than repetitive behaviors for which people can take responsibility.

I certainly don’t want a seared conscience.

Science Fact of the Day #3: The Bargaining Model of Depression

Today we’ll look at a fairly recent model of depression: the bargaining model.

In a 2003 book edited by Peter Hammerstein, Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, chapter 6 is an essay (I believe based on a talk) on this model, “The Bargaining Model of Depression.”

The author, Edward Hagen, proposes depression might be explained as a strategy to gain assistance and support from powerful members of a social group by members which are weaker. This is due to the difficulty that physically or socially weaker people have utilizing force, threats of force, or persuasive rhetoric to achieve their goal (96-97).

The idea then is that the depressed person is acting in a fashion that is costly both to themselves and to the group, but that the group will perceive the loss of activity and exuberance from the individual as too costly to endure and therefore provide assistance to the individual or make changes to the group on their account (100). All of this is proposed as unconscious.

One interesting observation in the paper was this:

“It is not yet apparent whether depression symptoms themselves help enable “fresh starts” (or would have in the EEA), but this is, of course, precisely the proposed function of depression. It is therefore encouraging that “fresh starts” are closely associated with the remission of depression and may even cause it. (101)”

The idea that fresh starts may cause the remission of depression counts as evidence for the model because often the fresh starts come can come as the result of help from roommates, spouses, and near-by family. Interestingly, in cases with less social contact, depression is more likely to continue without obstacle (101). Lots of other research demonstrates this to be the case.

The model isn’t entirely persuasive to me, but elsewhere Hagen has found some evidence in favor of the model. For instance, lower grip strength predicts depression.

300px-Grip001

Depression testing device?

Anyway, that’s one model for depression among many.

Any thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Image: By 物売り – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29323800

Virtue Building: How to Grow Any Habit

Why Pursue Virtue?

It’s hard to say exactly what makes any particular person want to become virtuous or develop a good habit.

For many it is a religious conversion.

For others it’s a realization that debt, porn, or drugs have ruined their lives, as bad habits can become a hell on earth.

Some people conclude that virtue truly is a worthy goal because they know that human beings are supposed to seek that which is good. They come to agree with Teddy Roosevelt,

Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.1

Ultimately, of course, the desire for virtue has to do with how to become happy and how to flourish.2

So you want virtue, but what then?

But once somebody wants virtue (good habits, moral and otherwise), they have to start taking real-world steps to get there. If they don’t they’ll regularly feel defeated or inadequate or worse, they’ll actually become morally worse. Roosevelt observed this in a paragraph about idealistic statesmen:

But the possession or preaching of these high ideals may not only be useless, but a source of positive harm, if unaccompanied by practical good sense, if they do not lead to the effort to get the best possible when the perfect best is not attainable— and in this life the perfect best rarely is attainable.3

So, what does it take to get virtue? Well there are two obvious things to say. First, we need to know what virtue is and the virtues are. Then, we need to know specific actions that will lead to good habits. From these two obvious matters there’s an important mental trick for learning any new thing:

Imagine the most virtuous person you know and act as though you were this person in your shoes.

In other words, fake it till you make it. Now, I don’t mean that you should emulate their interests, sense of humor, or other mere personality traits. But rather their honesty, discipline, kindness, mindset, spirituality, and prudence.

What I’m saying is counter-intuitive. Faking virtue seems like hypocrisy, the polar opposite of virtue.4 But this isn’t exactly true. When one does math problems or basketball drills before they fully understand them, they are “pretending” as they go through the motions until they acquire understanding and skill. The hypocrisy would be claiming basketball expertise while still faking it. With virtue, hypocrisy would be claiming to have traits one secretly does not have or worse, that one secretly despises.5

C.S. Lewis, a classics scholar and no stranger to the study of virtue academically and personally observed this:

“Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups— playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.”6

Similarly, in his essay on compensation Emerson wrote:

The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power: but they who do not the thing have not the power.7

So, how do you become a good person? A virtuous person? I’d suggest that you first admit that you’re not. But then start acting like a virtuous person.

Two Case Studies

If you want to get out of debt, find the things people who have no debt do and then do those things. If you treat your life, temporarily like a movie, think of it as a story where in the third act you suddenly realized how stupid it is to have negative money and became a financially wise person because you realized how much you wanted to help others by investing in small businesses. So, you start living like this different person until you are out of debt and have a surplus of cash for investments. At this point, the temptation is to start living like Act 1 again, but this got you into debt. So you continue living in the montage that changed your life, but the point being that your “faking it” until it becomes who you are.

Think about the amount of fake outrage people have over politics. They often pretend to be angry, offended, and deeply morally concerned on an emotional level on the internet about all of these people who don’t know them, that they will never meet, and who don’t care if they live or die. But what is so interesting is that this election has brought the emotional moral posturing of the hyperreality online into the real world. People go into hysterics over politics as though disagreeing or agreeing with this or that idea is a deeply offensive issue. In this case people have taken the vice of intemperance and pretended to be emotionally unhinged until it weakened their minds in the real world.

Similar strategies work for overcoming porn addiction, losing weight, starting to tell the truth, and controlling your emotions. Negatively “do the thing and have the power” works for bad habits as well.

References

1 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses (Kindle Location 941). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Read Ecclesiastes to see how an ancient man saw that bodily, sensory, and intellectual vigor still lead to dissatisfaction without ethical vigor.

2 Virtue is not opposed to happiness. Weirdly, even when many modern authors in favor of virtue ethics write about virtue ethics, they have very little to say about individual human beings or their families experiencing happiness, contentment, prosperity, or success.

3 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses (Kindle Locations 1100-1102). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

4 This is especially so in a modern world where the Socratic ideal of self-realization and personal growth in education has been subsumed under the head of an ethics of authenticity wherein being “true to yourself” as you are in the moment without consideration of the fact that you’re an instance of a larger category of humans with a shared nature is considered paramount to happiness. So people are stuck with no ideals except those which they feel are ideal regardless of whether they correspond with the very essence of being human.

5 I suspect that nearly every politician despises most of their voters as well as the values they themselves espouse. A weird example in another direction is the “nice guy” who feels that being so nice doesn’t help him and secretly resents his niceness and the people by whom he feels rejected but desires so much to be seen as nice that he can never assert himself. It’s a pretty sick way to live, but it appears very common especially among college students who ask me for advice at work or in relationships.

6 Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 188). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

7 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.

Cure for Cowardice: Gaining Confidence

Many people could never imagine having courage because they don’t even have confidence. What can you do to gain some confidence?

Few of us will face death in the ways necessary to make fortitude (with regard to death itself) a virtue in our lives. But the virtues connected to it and supportive of it, such as confidence (the habit of assurance and hopefulness concerning great deeds) can be developed every day.

I haven’t found a great deal of explicit information in ancient literature about how to gain confidence except in relationship to the acquisition of skill. But in modern psychological literature, self-efficacy does the duty of confidence.[1] It is belief in one’s own ability to affect the world and one’s control over one’s own motivation, direction in life, and ability to perform tasks successfully.

Albert Bandura, in a fairly famous paper, identified four ways in which self-efficacy (confidence) can be attained[2]:

  1. Performance achievements
    The idea here is that achieving mastery over time will help somebody overcome the fear and doubt that leads to avoiding difficult tasks. The big thing for gaining performance achievements to build your confidence is that you have to slowly build up skill over and over again. I recommend (for number 4 as well) to always be doing some form of persistent progressively difficult exercise. Gaining skill and strength can, over all, help you improve you attitude and courage in other domains because you’ve gotten some serious progress under your belt. One of the results of my bone disorder is that I have a difficult time making a fist with my left hand. So for years my punches in martial arts were very weak with my left hand and my dead lift was never much more than my bodyweight, even when I could squat 355 for reps, I could only deadlift about 155 before the bar slipped. I would avoid ever doing the movement when people were in the gym. Eventually, when I lived in a house called “The Bluff House” I started doing deadlift in the garage where nobody could see. I literally started running a mile as fast as I could before I did the lift so that my pounding head and burning lungs would distract me from my deadlift anxiety and so that I could practice using good form in a state of stress. During a three month time period I got my deadlift up to 315 for three sets of three using no weight belt and baseball rosin for my hands.
  1. Vicarious experience
    The principle of vicarious experience is simple: if somebody else can do it, I can too. This is typically considered less reliable than other forms of confidence building, but it still helps. Obviously somebody can easily psyche themselves out comparing themselves to the best people in the world at this or that skill. A nice corollary to the first principle is that seeing an activity modelled with instruction and good results can help somebody internalize the process and feel the confidence to master it themselves.
  1. Verbal persuasion
    Many of you have tried convincing a friend to just do the thing they need to do to get out of a funk or solve a distressing but simple problem. If they’re afraid or nervous, it rarely works. But verbal persuasion is better than nothing. Listening to motivational talks isn’t cheesy, silly, or stupid if it helps you. Certainly persuading yourself when you’re anxious works better than giving up. A big problem for this method of building confidence is that somebody could listen to you, screw up, and then be even more convinced that they are terrible.
  1. Physiological states
    The main physiological state implied here is emotional arousal. Extreme anxiety or stress from the prospect of difficult change or embarrassing failure can obviously stop a gym habit in its tracks. But positive emotional states of excitement can actually help people feel more competent and more likely to attempt to try to things. I try to take advantage of this by standing with really good posture. The fact of the matter is that standing with more dominant posture can elicit respect from others and help you feel better and more powerful.[3] This is very important for public speakers, lawyers, and salesmen. It is perhaps more important for a nerd going to a job interview, asking a girl out for the first time, or hitting the gym. Incidentally, changing your physiological state in a more permanent way by means of nutrition and exercise might matter more than Bandura ever imagined. This would be another reason to prioritize exercise and diet. Another aspect is learning self-mastery or enkrateia: the habit of controlling your will and being reasonable regardless of your emotional state. Learning to excite yourself in positive ways, act while anxious, or remain completely serene while performing herculean tasks is very important for confidence in verbal conflicts, suddenly dangerous circumstances, or during prolonged periods of stress.

Conclusion
I hope that these four ways of gaining courage can help you. The main thing is the first one. Seriously, do something. If you’re afraid to talk to people and you’re religious, start proselytizing. If you’re not religious, start having conversations with strangers. If you are ashamed of your body, make it stronger and more resilient. But do what it takes and do it often.

References

[1] While studying self-efficacy I found that I’m not the only person connect self-efficacy with confidence. I figured I wasn’t, but it’s good to have empirical data to back things up. See David Van Der Roest, Kendrick Kleiner, and Brian Kleiner, “Self Efficacy: The Biology Of Confidence,” Culture & Religion Review Journal 2015, no. 2 (June 2015): 17–23. Their article is interesting because it builds tremendously upon the four ways self-efficacy can be achieved in the work of Albert Bandura.

[2] Albert Bandura, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review (1977).

[3] Dana R. Carney, Amy J. C. Cuddy, and Andy J. Yap, “Power Posing Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance,” Psychological Science 21, no. 10 (October 1, 2010): 1363–1368.

Growth and Biblical Wisdom

Lately, my reading interests have been focused upon brain development, motivation, and expertise. This is for two reasons:

  1. I want to be a better teacher
  2. I want to set myself up for success now that I’m switching fields in a rather radical way (note: Greek and Hebrew really are harder than math and science. Any young pastor could go to school for engineering or trade school for instrumentation to make the switch to bi-vocational ministry if said pastor really did learn Greek and Hebrew rather than just taking easy classes in the seminary.).

Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden observe in an article about self-theories that people have two strategies for self-esteem repair after failure that are based upon two theories of the self (Dweck, 130-131).

The Self Theories:

  1. Entity theory:
    Entity theory is the theory that all of your personal traits are fixed in place.
  2. Incremental Theory:
    The incremental theory of the self is the theory that no matter who you are, your qualities and abilities can be improved upon.

Two strategies of self-esteem repair:

  1. Fixed/Static View
    It is often found that those who hold to the entity theory, because of the assumption that change is impossible, also have a static view of self-esteem repair. These people repair their self-esteem by avoidance of their flaws by only practicing skills they excel at. They often do so at an easy difficulty level. Adherents to this self-theory also utilize comparison of their performance to examples who performed even more poorly than themselves.
  2. Growth View
    Similarly, those who hold to the incremental self-theory, because of the assumption that change is possible, they adopt a growth perspective on self-esteem repair. Such persons use strategies like examination of deficits and practicing unattained skills.  They are also more likely to utilize comparison of personal performance to those who performed even better to understand why they succeeded.

Can you guess which self-theory and which strategies tended to correlate with people who succeed? View and strategy: the incremental theory and the growth view. Correlation does not mean causation, but trying to correlate with people who succeed at something is not a bad idea.

Interestingly, in the book of Proverbs, the self-theory assumed by the author is the incremental theory. The author assumes that people can change:

Pro 8:1-5 ESV  Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?  (2)  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  (3)  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  (4)  “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  (5)  O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense.

And as one would expect from somebody who holds the incremental view, the author of Proverbs recommends responding to personal failures and challenges with a growth strategy:

  1. Pro 9:8b-9a Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.
  2. Pro 15:5  A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
  3. Pro 15:12  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
  4. Pro 15:32  Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

The whole book basically indicates that one of the main differences between the wise and the unwise is that the wise are willing to face correction and improve. They admit their flaws and errors. They do so whether the flaws pertain to morality, character, knowledge, skill, or anything else.

Conclusion

Learning to change our perspective on failures and internal shame is very difficult. We often feel painfully ashamed of failures, mistakes, and sins. This shame can paralyze us into being unable to admit fault. It can even force us into hiding our flaws and dwelling only on our positive traits and thus can prevent change. It is all the better to admit personal failures of morals, knowledge, and skill. Fessing up to oneself, to God, and perhaps in certain cases, to other people can be a liberating experience. In so doing, shame can become the sort of sorrow that leads to repentance and personal transformation. One good article on the subject can be found here: Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself.

Works Cited:

Andrew J Elliot and Carol S Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

Appendix:

Though the author of Proverbs assumes that you and I can change, he is a realist. You and I have all known people that we worry about because they keep making bad decisions. The fear is that eventually it might be too late to change. Proverbs does notice that some people will want to change their habits at the last minute before a calamity. They procrastinate. They hope to perhaps utilizing a montage strategy. “Oh, I messed around all year and have to make a 100 on the final and only have 8 hours to study…wisdom come save me with clips of fun, hard work, and sweet music!” Kind of like in Rocky, Revenge of the Nerds, the Muppets Movie, and Mulan:

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a cosmically powerful female prophet who represents the highest aspirations of human motherhood, the ultimate wife, and the most wise sister a young man could have. Young men typically love women, this is probably why the literary device is used. The book is written for young men, but it clearly applies to women as well. Anyway, here is what Lady Wisdom says after being ignored until the last minute before a disaster:

Pro 1:24-27  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,  (25)  because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  (26)  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you,  (27)  when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

If you refuse to change your character long enough, you won’t be able to suddenly make the necessary repairs in order to succeed. I tried this in Hebrew as an undergrad. You cannot study at the last minute for Hebrew and succeed.

Entitlement Culture and Forgiveness

In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2004 it was concluded that:

Forgiveness, though widely admired as a virtue, sometimes brings costs for self-interest. In the wake of deep hurt, those who forgive must humbly set aside hateful thoughts and vengeful
fantasies that seem perfectly justified. To forgive means to cancel a debt, a debt for which one may fully deserve repayment. This debt metaphor suggests a profile of a person who should be especially prone to unforgiveness. An unforgiving person should be someone who is easily offended, highly invested in collecting on debts owed to the self, and determined to assert his or her rights in a principled effort to maintain self-respect. As suggested in the six studies presented here, individuals high in narcissistic entitlement fit this unforgiving profile in ways not fully captured by situational factors (e.g., offense severity, apology, and relationship closeness) or broad-based individual-difference constructs (e.g.,agreeableness, neuroticism, religiosity, social desirability). These findings suggest that narcissistic entitlement is a robust, conceptually meaningful predictor of unforgiveness.

Exline, Julie Juola, Roy F. Baumeister, Brad J. Bushman, W. Keith Campbell, and Eli J. Finkel. “Too proud to let go: narcissistic entitlement as a barrier to forgiveness.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, no. 6 (2004): 894.

The conclusion here reminds me of certain teachings of Jesus and the book of Proverbs:

In Luke 17:7-10 Jesus gives a seemingly out of place saying:

“Now, who among you, having a servant plowing or tending lambs, who comes in from the field will say to him, “Go rest, now!” Will he not rather say, ‘Prepare something to eat and get dressed to serve me until I eat and drink, and after these you will eat and drink?’ He will not thank the servant for doing what he was told, will he?” So also you, when you have done everything which has been commanded to you, you should say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what we must do.””

This seems to mean that we Christians should take our good deeds with a grain of salt. In other words, though God does want to bless us (which Jesus teaches elsewhere) it does not behoove the Christian to have high expectations about the nature of his or her own deeds. In the timeline of eternity they may or may not mean much, so hope in God to give them significance (which he promises to do). And then, as Paul says, “Your work in the Lord will not be in vain.” But an entitled attitude will probably cause significant anger when trials come either from like circumstances or others who mistreat you despite your hard work. Do note that this is a Proverb and not a universal principle. Jesus gives instructions about dealing with abusive authority and speaking truth to power elsewhere. So this is to be applied to those of use facing disappointment, not blanketly applied all who face injustice from legitimately un-thankful superiors.

Also, Proverbs 12:11 (ISV):

Whoever tills his soil will have a lot to eat, but anyone who pursues fantasies lacks sense.

If you pursue the fantasy of being owed something or the fantasy that crops grow without work, then you’ll find yourself going without. But it won’t only be that, but it will apparently be with a chip on your shoulder and an unforgiving heart.