Archive for the ‘Pedagogy’ Category

The right man for the job

June 28, 2014

As Britain’s first postwar batch of Widmerpools rolled off the production line at King’s College, C.S. Lewis delivered the enterprising students a memorial lecture, known now as “The Inner Ring“:

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel.

On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists.

The choice is still before you: and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters.

Lewis went on to describe a scenario that each young catechumen in his audience should expect to face ‘in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down’:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear.

Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig — the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”— and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure — something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face — that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face — turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected.

And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit.

It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Lewis characteristically declared that the lure of the Inner Ring was a perennial one that dwelt within the heart of all men.

But it’s no accident that his examples of vaulting scoundrelism came from the managerial and liberal professions (academic, ecclesiastic, legal, medical).

After all, the latter’s exalted social position and wage premiums could be explained, according to one subsequent economic theory, by an insider-outsider model.

And, of course, in the service professions  accounting, law, financial services, medical practice  the prevalence back then of business partnership arrangements, now dwindling, nurtured a natural esprit de corps among partners and aspiring salaried associates.

No mundane sociological explanation would have appealed to Lewis, keen as ever to dispense solemnities.

Déformations professionnelles could not crudely be overplayed, as though only some occupations were open to beckoning solicitations from the market.

In 1944, moreover, yuppies were not yet a recognizable social type.

But there is little denying that social position provides some groups with more occasion than others for displaying his vice, i.e. places them more commonly in situations where they might have incentive to follow or indulge the lure of the Inner Ring.

Lewis thus refrained from observing, while nonetheless implying, that an inclination for ‘buying-in’, and related preferences, are fostered and cultivated by the university system. Its ceremonial rites, emblems and incantations form youthful preliminaries in an exclusive order’s sequence of social initiation, one with its own ‘slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation.’

In what manner is this done, and for what purpose?

Managerial and professional workers occupy that portion of the labour market known as the independent primary segment, where there are flexible work rules (autonomy from routines), little direct supervision, higher earnings, motivational alignment with employer goals through internalization and independent initiative, well-defined career ladders (internal labour markets with clear promotional paths), secure tenure, agreeable job amenities and low turnover.

These prebends and perquisites announce, for the upper salaried layers that enjoy them, a rather different method of enforcing the employment contract than is applied to the less tractable bas-fonds.

Suppose the administrative hierarchy of a business enterprise is organized according to the familiar pyramidal structure.

The firm’s shareholders (through the board of directors) appoint senior executives. The latter in turn delegate much of their managerial authority to a lower level of division heads, etc. The job of these managers involves overseeing and supervising those subordinates at the bottom level (productive workers) to whom they must apply extrinsic motivators (sanctions and rewards).

Managers thus directly oversee the behaviour of employees, issuing directives or commands that the latter are compelled to obey. Or they may alter the technical conditions of production (e.g. by introducing machines, networked computers or an assembly line).

In this way employees’ routines are prescribed, their range of possible actions is constrained and performance of certain tasks is ‘automatically’ elicited, they cannot shirk, are constantly spurred to work at pace, and so on. The most powerful of all straitening mechanisms is the threat of unemployment.

Consider Herbert Simon’s model of the ’employment relationship.’ By hiring out his capacity to work, the employee agrees to surrender, for a specified period, disposition over his labour.

The employee must carry out the commands of the employer or managerial agent:

We will say that [the boss] exercises authority over W [the worker] if W permits B to select x [a ‘behaviour,’ i.e., any element of a set of ‘specific actions that W performs on the job (typing and filing certain letters, laying bricks, or what not)’].

That is, W accepts B‘s authority when his behaviour is determined by B’s decision.

In general, W will accept authority only if x0, the x chosen by B, is restricted to some given subset (W’s “area of acceptance”) of all the possible values.

This is the definition of authority that is most generally employed in modem administrative theory.

At higher levels of the enterprise or organization, these formal relations of hierarchy and vertical subordination, and the threat of unemployment, are less important.

Instead, independent decision-making and personal initiative are relied upon.

Yet this poses agency problems.

How is it, asked Simon, that executives and managers are trusted to do something for which they could be expected to have no intrinsic motivation, expending energy in pursuit of some goal that isn’t, initially or by inclination, their own, but that is functional and thus desirable for some group or organization?

Counted by the head, most of the actors in a modern economy are employees, who… are assumed to trade as agents of the firm rather than in their own interest, which might be quite different…

This raises several questions, among them ‘how the employees of a firm are motivated to work for the maximization of the firm’s profit’:

What’s in it for them? How are their utility functions reconciled with those of the firm?… Why do employees often work hard?… In particular, how are employees induced to work more than minimally, and perhaps even with initiative and enthusiasm? Why should employees attempt to maximize the profits of the firm when making the decisions that are delegated to them?…

[Most] producers are employees of firms, not owners. Viewed from the vantage point of classical theory, they have no reason to maximize the profits of firms, except to the extent that they can be controlled by owners…

Employees, especially but not exclusively at managerial and executive levels, are responsible not only for evaluating alternatives and choosing among them but also for recognizing the need for decisions, putting them on the agenda…

To be docile is to be tractable, manageable, and above all, teachable. Docile people tend to adapt their behaviour to norms and pressure of the society… In some contexts, this responsiveness implies motivation to learn or imitate; in other contexts, willingness to obey or conform.

[…]

Docility is used to inculcate individuals with organizational pride and loyalty. These motives are based upon a discrimination between a “we” and a “they.” Identification with the “we,” which may be a family, a company, a city, a nation, or the local baseball team, allows individuals to experience satisfaction (to gain utility) from successes of the unit thus selected. Thus, organizational identification becomes a motivation for employees to work actively for organizational goals.

Of course, identification is not an exclusive source of motivation; it exists side by side with material rewards and enforcement mechanisms that are part of the employment contract. But a realistic picture of how organizations operate must include the importance of identification in the motivations of employees.

Simon’s ‘docility’ here invested with all the dignity of management theory  is a set of attitudinal traits or behavioural dispositions closely resembling those decried by Lewis as ‘the passion for the Inner Ring… most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’

In Simon’s terms, it involves adding an increasing number of arguments (or independent variables) to the employee’s utility function.

The ideal manager, and the well-socialized scoundrel too, take ever more matters into account as relevant to their personal happiness: responding with sensitivity to external motivators (rewards, sanctions), plus augmenting their own intrinsic wishes with the firm’s objectives (‘organizational identification’).

Put otherwise, and no less neutrally, there is multiplication of what an Epicurean would consider false wants: a proliferation, to the benefit of the employer, of non-necessary, non-basic, if not vain and empty desires.

Simon extols this propensity as being ‘teachable’, not to say impressionable: being susceptible of instruction and prone to aping others. What role does formal instruction play in its development?

Cultivation of these traits through formal education is less a matter of ‘explicit curriculum [than of] the socialization implied by the structure of schooling’. Students rewarded with success are those who display approbativeness, obedience to authority, willingness to join existing research programmes, etc.

Evidence shows that individuals with higher levels of educational attainment (measured by university credentials or years of study) fetch better rewards in the labour market (greater earnings plus occupational status, promotional advancements, etc.).

Investing in additional years of schooling or higher education does accrue a return.

Jacobsen and Skillman - Labour Market and Employment Relationship

Heckman education

But are productive skills (specialized or technical knowledge, or cognitive aptitude measured by IQ or test scores) the main attributes that employers look for and which help to determine labour-market success, and for which a diploma is proxy?

Not according to James Heckman, University of Chicago econometrician, who points out the importance of what he calls non-cognitive, socio-emotional or ‘soft skills’.

The latter include personality traits, attitudes or behavioural dispositions such as prudence, diligence, conscientiousness, patience, perseverance, attention, obedience, motivation, punctuality, agreeableness, self-confidence, sense of personal efficacy, identification with the objectives of others, etc.

Possession of such traits may involve a reduction in the disutility of effort (‘strong work ethic’), greater degree of subservience to managerial authority (‘willingness to follow direction’), increase in the desirability of retaining a job (non-myopic time preference, ‘orientation towards the future’), or high marginal utility of income (‘ambition’).

Beneath the benevolent sheen of doux-commerce, the lesson learnt is how to mind other people’s business for them. Unyielding garde-fou against unruly elements below; pliant custodian to those above.

In the world’s advanced economies, as I’ve mentioned before, a substantial slice of the population (lawyers, public administrators, providers of business and financial ‘services’, real estate, advertising, insurance, managers and supervisors, security guards, etc.) are engaged in activities that, while unproductive themselves, sustain and preserve the existing social structure: enforcing contracts (e.g. the employment relationship) and upholding claims to wealth (i.e. property rights).

US Standard Industrial Classification - productive and unproductive industries

US Standard Industrial Classification - unproductive and productive services

For the private appropriation of social resources isn’t secured merely by the efforts of the propertied classes themselves.

It demands, as described in this New York Times article, a vast technology of extraction (locks, alarms, cameras, weapons, deeds registry) and an army of functionaries (foremen, supervisors, judicial apparatus, asset brokers, commercial lawyers, conveyancers, bankers).

The latter’s size as a proportion of the workforce has grown spectacularly over the past century (in the United States, lawyers per head of population more than doubled between 1950 and 2013; supervisors now make up around 18% of the labour force).

The duty of this contingent, taken as one, is to enforce titles to wealth, transfer holdings between agents, and uphold the various social relationships (employment, independent contracting, credit relationships, etc.) deriving from this distribution of resources.

Jayadev and Bowles - Guard Labor JDE

This social layer, spanning the middle and working classes, thus receives its income and privileges neither as payment in exchange for productive employment, nor as reward for private ownership of assets.

Instead these upper-salaried workers, whose occupations involve preserving the existing distribution of property, capture part of the surplus extracted from other employees (those who perform productive work).

This sharing of the spoils occurs in a variety of ways: artificial shortages of certain skills, sustained through high training costs or guild-created barriers to entry, which raise the rewards fetched by their holders; the granting of sinecures; patronage and clientelism; rent-seeking at the public trough, etc.

In recent decades, the wages paid to supervisory workers have absorbed an increasing proportion of society’s surplus product (net output minus compensation paid to productive employees).

The increase in the rate of surplus value from 1982 to 2001 financed… a change in the weight of supervisory workers (share of employment down by 3.8%, share of hours down by 5.2%, share of wages up by 19.6%).

Thus, almost all of the increase in the rate of exploitation found its way into the labour income of supervisory workers…

Production workers in productive sectors (productive labour) saw a collapse in their relative wage share of some 14.6 percentage points. Just over a third of this shift in share accrued to supervisory workers in productive sectors, and just under two-thirds to supervisory workers in unproductive sectors.

Supervisory workers in productive sectors (a stable proportion of 11–12% of total employment) saw their share of total wages rise by almost a quarter, to 28% of all wages.

Supervisory workers in unproductive sectors increased their share of FTEs [full-time employees] by more than half, albeit from a low base, so that they were still less than 7% of total employment by 2000. However, they more than doubled their wage share to nearly a fifth of all wages.

Most of these increases occurred after 1979…

[For] supervisory workers, annual hourly real wage growth after 1979 is more than half as much again as in the earlier period, and more than 27 times higher than the concurrent annual hourly real wage growth of productive workers…

The growing extraction of surplus value out of productive labour, which is so marked a feature of the US economy after 1979, was appropriated not as corporate profits, but primarily as the labour incomes of supervisory workers.

Full-time employees and wages - productive, unproductive and supervisory workers

What does this imply for our starting point, now seeming more than ever like antediluvian piety?

Lewis’s portrait of middle-class status-seeking, collusion and misfeasance was never exactly politically trenchant. Nor, to be fair, was it intended to be so.

Now smelling mustily of an antiquated commercial society of dense professional networks and family firms, long since past, it needs updating for a postwar capitalism in which, among other changes, most professionals no longer earn partnership income in jointly-owned enterprises, but are salaried employees of corporate bureaucracies. (Meanwhile, deepening the opacity of class positions, capital owners, for tax purposes, increasingly rebadge their dividends and interest revenue as partnership income).

Are not weak interpersonal ties, rather than gentleman’s clubs, more crucial for professional success and recruitment to the social elite?

To postmodern eyes, Lewis’s vision of the Inner Ring may thus appear hackneyed and lurid.

To induce individuals to corruption, professional misconduct or a drop in personal standards of probity, there need not be any conspiracy devised in a smoky boardroom, basement auditorium, wood-panelled Cabinet or party room. There need not be any direct application of pressure, explicit coercion, controlling intelligence or indeed any awareness at the managerial heights.

For example, institutions may simply be designed to reward conformity, the dynamics of which are well known. The psychological mechanisms generating group loyalty via hazing rituals are also understood. Competition for some scarce prize, such as a promotion or bonus, may provoke an escalating arms race, war of attrition or ascending-bid auction of boundary-pushing and rule-bending.

Meanwhile the enormous post-1945 expansion of access to university education, and growth of the new media industries and advertising with their plebianization of culture as entertainment, flattening of the fine-arts hierarchy, and recruitment of a vast new literate and educated public for intellectual products — seem most sharply to divide Lewis’s age from our own.

In fact, however, such developments merely furnish a mass market for that commercially available ‘lifestyle’ (on the bookshelf, prize-winning middlebrow novels left over from college; in the lounge room, relics from the arthouse festival circuit of ‘world cinema’) by which the middle classes hope to distinguish themselves.

Photography and architecture conveniently replace easel painting and belles-lettres in the aesthetic hierarchy, as more outwardly visible, and readily brandished, displays of discernment.

Today’s consumers are increasingly encouraged  through ‘versioning’product differentiation and ‘group pricing’ to sort themselves into differentiated market segments and fine-grained niches based on personal attributes, spurious distinctions in taste, and willingness to pay.

Firms selling information goods attempt to build ‘networks’ or subcultures from which they can extract monopoly rents (e.g. locked-in dedicated Apple users).

Thus, for all that, today’s professionals and managers understand and revel in their wage premiums, and build exclusive claustral enclaves, in much the same fashion as Lewis described in the ‘Inner Ring’.

Boundaries of in-group membership are patrolled, and entrants self-congratulated, by display of positional goods: informal shibboleths, esoteric knowledge and badges of (putative) cultural sophistication.

Fredric Jameson describes, in rather frenzied, overwrought period fashion, how ‘yuppies can find some satisfaction in sheer know-how’:

[It] is no longer exactly profit as such that forms the ideal image of the process (money is merely the external sign of inward election, but fortune and “great wealth” are harder to represent, let alone libidinally to conceptualize, in an epoch in which numbers like billions and trillions are more frequently encountered).

Rather, what is at stake is know-how and knowledge of the system itself: and this is no doubt the “moment of truth” in postindustrial theories of the new primacy of scientific knowledge over profit and production; only the knowledge is not particularly scientific, and “merely” involves initiation into the way the system functions.

But now those in the know are too proud of their lesson and their know-how to tolerate any questions about why it should be like that, or even worth knowing in the first place. This is the insider cultural capital of the nouveaux riches which includes the etiquette and table manners of the system; along with cautionary anecdotes, your enthusiasm — fanned into a veritable frenzy in cultural spinoffs like the cyberpunk corporate fiction already mentioned  has more to do with having the knowledge of the system than it does with the system itself.

The social climbing of the new yuppie in-group knowledge now spreads slowly downward, via the media, to the very zoning boundaries of the underclasses themselves; legitimacy, the legitimation of this particular social order, being secured in advance by a belief in the secrets of the corporate life-style that includes the profit motive as its unspoken “absolute presupposition,” but which you can’t learn and question all at once, any more than you can mentally redesign a sailboat you are doing your first sailing in.

Gratified by journalistic talk about ‘skill-biased technical change,’ members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent.

According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education: foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes,  furnishings, décor, cultural products, tourist destinations, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

product differentiation

Long ago, Adam Smith gave expression to this middle-class self-regard, describing the mental atrophy induced by ‘the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people’:

[The] understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging…

In our fallen present, amid the market populism and aesthetic dreck of late capitalism, such reproaches to the demotic have lost their sting.

They bear little meaning for middle classes whose members are themselves, for the most part, now collected into paid employment, barracked inside grotesque office towers, and culturally as far as anyone from the Bildungsbürgertum of old.

Of course, similar consolations are available to those of more modest means, such as office clerks and other predominantly young employees, for whom educational qualifications are necessary, but whose material position and social standing is tenuous, and for which symbolic esteem serves as a surrogate.

Those lacking the purchasing power for true luxury consumption (yachts, antiques, jewellery, fine art) may yet, as compensation, use private consumption choices and leisure activities to flaunt credentials, intelligence and adherence to in-group norms (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

Outside the true citadels of social power, however, today snobbery and hauteur accompany, as a marketing device, the horizontal distinction of consumer niches, rather than pointing to any vertical differential of standards, now much diluted.

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The right stuff

December 30, 2011

In a Washington Post feature article (‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’), Greg Miller writes that ‘no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.’

I’ve discussed this fact before and considered what the drastic expansion of executive power reveals about the policy objectives of the US elite and its allies. There’s more to think about, though.

Use of remotely-piloted aircraft (as well as cruise missiles and manned gunships) for weapons delivery requires the presence, midway along the ‘kill chain‘ between sensor and shooter, of human operators and analysts.

These people must watch, with sustained attention, live video feeds or surveillance imagery of death and destruction as human targets are found, tracked and exterminated with high-explosive anti-armour (blast and fragment) munitions.

In other words, Washington’s global death program entails the existence of an extraordinary sort of workforce.

Members must be able to withstand both prolonged and acute exposure to horribly unpleasant stimuli while maintaining vigilance and task-specific focus and without experiencing the kind of negative emotional states or overwhelming affective responses that lead to performance degradation (e.g. failure to determine whether a target has been successfully ‘neutralized’ or merely incapacitated, inability to discriminate between the remains of targets and those of bystanders or non-humans, unwillingness to detect subsequent targets, etc.).

One method people use ordinarily to cope with distress is avoidance: diverting attention from the source of aversion as a way to alleviate anxiety. This is impossible for the drone operator, whose job description requires him never to look away.

Wayne Chappelle and Kent McDonald at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio have undertaken studies, using surveys, tests and peer reports, into the personality traits and behavioural dispositions, as well as the cognitive and psychomotor skills, needed by successful operators of unmanned weapons-deploying aircraft and their sensors.

Among other things, this has involved rating participants along the Big Five personality dimensions (openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and comparing results to those from the civilian population and the aircrew of manned gunships. (Other recent papers can be found here, here and here).

UAV crew members unsurprisingly must possess all the usual traits: self-confidence, assertiveness, excitement-seeking, internal locus of control, a high degree of intrinsic motivation, etc.

But given their specific combat role, the final attribute in the Big Five domains – emotional stability or composure in the face of induced transient stress – becomes especially important if personnel are to perform successfully and avoid burnout or impaired performance. (Predator/Reaper and AC-130 gunship operators both score lowest, relative to the general population, on neuroticism.)

According to McDonald and Chappelle, those who adapted to the ‘operational environment’ displayed ’emotional stamina’, lack of vulnerability to negative mood states, were ‘tough-minded’ and not prone to distress. They found that ‘higher than average levels of  resilience to stress (or other negative emotional states), need for excitement-seeking, and compartmentalization of emotions are required to adapt to the operational demands’:

According to SOs [sensor operators], the deployment of weapons also requires well-developed skills for compartmentalizing their emotions.

The rigors of training and operational demands of the RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] platform (e.g., targeting and destruction of enemy assets, taking the lives of enemy combatants, as well as surveillance of battle damage) can be emotionally taxing.

SMEs [subject-matter experts, i.e. superiors] reported the ability to compartmentalize the emotional rigors of one’s job in order to conserve emotional reserves when returning home from work or interacting with others outside the military installation can be an important trait for long term stability.

It is well-known that resilience to stress and emotional difficulties (often known has psychological hardiness) is considered a core attribute of those within high risk military occupations.

Furthermore, some airmen may emotionally struggle with their role in the killing of enemy combatants.

Interviews with SMEs reported a small number of incidences (i.e., four to five) of SOs voicing their discomfort with their duties and/or requesting to leave the career field after their role in the deployment of weapons. They reported such SOs performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking the lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces.

SMEs reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.

It is important to ensure that airmen selected for RPA SO duties are fully aware of, and understand, their role in the targeting and destruction of enemy combatants and assets prior to entry into training. It is likely that some SO candidates will decline the opportunity to pursue such duties once they fully understand their role in precision strike operations.

In other words, remote operators of weapons-deploying aircraft must be unusual people, many of them several standard deviations from the population mean on various personality dimensions.

The most important of these dimensions is neuroticism and its components: susceptibility to sadness, regret and depressed mood. If they feel at all queasy, guilt-ridden or troubled when observing burnt and mangled corpses, they must manage to suppress such feelings and get on with the job without any noticeable decrement in performance or distraction from task engagement.

In seeking to retain incumbents and find suitable recruits to work as happy killers, Washington’s expanding assassination program thus must fish in shallow waters for rare species (certainly including sociopaths) displaying the desired personality traits.

One way of achieving sufficient numbers at the extremes (i.e. tails) of a distribution is to shift the population mean for the trait in question. If the average person becomes less prone to a negative affective response upon witnessing scenes of extreme violence and destruction, then the ‘less neurotic’ types will be more stoic still, and their numbers more plentiful than otherwise.

Similarly, such a population-wide shift would raise the stress threshold beyond which task demands (such as remote killing) were experienced by operators as unfamiliar, unbearable and exceeding the operator’s capacity to cope.

Finally, an increase in the median voter’s ability to withstand the sights and sounds of extreme violence, without lapsing into appalled paralysis or low moods, would presumably increase public tolerance for large-scale killing, by those at the extremes, in pursuit of elite objectives.

How might this be achieved?

Applicants with the desirable traits and states obviously self-select for the job. But the above quotation shows that candidate recruitment isn’t perfectly reliable.

In such cases, and generally, affective response and emotional disposition can also be modified and reinforced by training. People from the University of Central Florida psychology department (Mustapha Mouloua, Peter HancockEduardo SalasDeborah Billings, James Szalma, etc.) have explored how stress-exposure or stress-resiliency training can “harden” personnel who must use UAVs in combat, so that their ability to acquire and engage targets is not overwhelmed by emotional and physiological response.

The basic technique works via graduated-intensity exposure to battlefield stressors and realistic perceptual cues, including through high-fidelity simulation and games. The trainee is habituated to environmental cues that initially were aversive and debilitating, thus becoming ‘inoculated’ against combat stress.

Similarly, by exposing the general population to an unceasing barrage of (imagery of) extreme violence (e.g. by allowing it to saturate popular entertainment), one may presumably shift in a convenient direction the population distribution of relevant dispositions and attitudes, bestowing an everyday familiarity (sanitized, to be sure) and tolerability on what is pursued in secret.

This, too, I’ve discussed in greater detail in another post.

Girls + Maths ≠ Boys

November 15, 2010

One of the most embarrassing things I have to admit to on a regular basis is that I struggle with maths. I struggle so badly that I suspect I have a learning disability, although I’ve never been diagnosed and am a bit reluctant to categorize my lack of maths skills as such, mainly because it doesn’t really affect my day to day life in the same way that – for example – dyslexia or ADHD affect people living with those conditions.

A recent study I read about in today’s Age has shown that Victorian girls are consistently outperformed by boys in maths at VCE level – in fact, boys achieve better results in all mathematics subjects offered. I can only speculate as to why boys are more successful than girls in these subjects, and I certainly believe the reasons are cultural and not biological or “evolutionary,” as many might argue.  But having completed my entire education in Victorian public schools, and being one of those students who ‘slipped through the cracks’ in every one of my maths classes, I can certainly see how anyone, whether a boy or a girl, might feel completely disinclined to try and learn maths if they constantly lag behind the rest of the class and never seem to be able to catch up.

From Prep to Year 11, I was one of those students who could not catch up. This is despite being reasonably good at everything else – I usually achieved excellent marks in English and aside from maths, I never seriously struggled with any other subjects. If I didn’t have the most coherent understanding of science, I had a keen interest in it and (secretly) loved going to science classes. Mind you, once the science got super mathsy, I lost the thread entirely. Thankyou, Year 10 chemistry!

This is what constantly confuses me about my maths skills – I was a decent student up until Year 11, and an excellent student by the end of Year 12, achieving marks that put me close to the top of my year. How can a student excel at every subject she takes, but not be able to solve basic maths problems? And even now, at the age of 24 and having graduated from uni?

My experience of maths classes in primary and high school was so depressing it still upsets me to think about it. I remember crying during a maths test in Grade 2 because everyone around me was finished and I was still stuck on the third sum. I remember being repeatedly humiliated in Grade 4 while playing a ridiculous game, which involved competing with another student to be the first to answer a sum in front of the class. I was always beaten. One year,when I was about eight or nine years old, I was shunted off to the remedial class with all of the kids who struggled with everything at school (reading, writing, maths, socializing). That might have been alright if it was just a remedial maths class, but it covered everything – I could read at a very high level, had little trouble socializing and could write coherently. I didn’t understand why I had to read books with one word printed on every page when I had a ‘chapter book’ in my schoolbag. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the maths component of those remedial classes made no impact on my maths skills. I continued to struggle in the regular classroom.

Once I got to high school, I was fairly used to being slow at maths, and adopted a sullen, ‘quitter’ style attitude that was apt considering I was a teen. I continued to flounder at the bottom of the maths class, although I compensated by frequently talking back to the teacher and openly laughing at him when he came to school with an eyepatch, after what I can only assume was a cataract operation. Then he got sick and was replaced by a teacher who is now a convicted paedophile. Awesome.

In Year 10, something bizarre happened and I was put in the advanced maths class with all the girls who were good at it. I can only assume that I was placed there because I hung out with girls who were good at maths, or because I was good at everything else and they just assumed my maths marks were an anomaly. Whatever the reason, my teacher soon realized that placing me in the advanced class was a mistake, and I got relocated to the simple maths class. I still couldn’t do the work.

I try to avoid apportioning blame to schools and teachers when students underperform, or have behavioural or social problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any other explanation in my instance. Half of my issues with maths stem from the way I was taught – not through discussion, practical and collective problem solving or logical analysis – but by opening a book full of numbers and symbols that meant nothing to me, and were not adequately explained in the book or by the teacher, unless you count a rehash of the same phenomenon with more bewildering numbers and symbols. If it wasn’t the textbook, it was the teacher who drew some graphs and/or triangles on the whiteboard, with the best explanation they could manage in five minutes, then problem solving from the textbook. And if it wasn’t the teacher trying her best with limited time and resources, it was my best friend writing solutions on her eraser and throwing it at me when I was nearly having a break down on the other side of the table during a test.

Once, my Year 10 maths teacher held my hand before she handed back an exam that I’d failed. I guess she felt sorry for me because she knew that I just didn’t get it, but also knew that I wasn’t stupid. This particular teacher did try really hard to help me, but to no avail – I gave up on maths after Year 11. As well intentioned as she was – and she really gave me a lot of her time – my problems were so far advanced by that stage that honestly, I needed to start again from the beginning.

Had teaching methods been more flexible and constructive when I was in primary school, rather than being based on exclusion and humiliation if you made a mistake, and had my maths teachers given a crap before Year 10, perhaps maths wouldn’t be such an issue for me now. I have no doubt that I was a ‘problem child’ with ‘special needs’ when it came to maths. I accept that I will never be as skilled with numbers and logic problems as I am with words and analysis. But it would be nice not to feel so ashamed when I can’t add up a bill in my head, or work out whether the change I’ve been given in the milk bar is correct. The culture of maths education needs to change if students with the same problems as me are to be given a chance at understanding the very basics, and it’s this same culture that needs to be adjusted if the outcomes of boys and girls are to be equalized at VCE level.