Feeling a little ambitious? Be careful what you wish for.

Hamlet

Ambition: not to be clowned around with

Here’s a truly sobering passage from the pages of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ambition – or at least an ambition which has run its course – is painted as a kind of living death, and echoes those famous lines from Hamlet: “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. To achieve your goals can indeed be a fearful thing. It’s no coincidence that Bob Geldof’s autobiography is called, “Is That It?“, published after what must have been a monumental comedown post Live Aid. It’s also possibly the reason why Pulp’s last album was the supremely miserable, “This is Hardcore“, recorded after Jarvis Cocker’s realisation that fighting for what you want for so long, and then getting it, simply resulted in spending lots of time in hotel rooms alone watching films you probably shouldn’t. Even George W. Bush’s surprisingly readable autobiography, “Decision Points“, ends with the sorry post-presidential scene of him picking up poodle poop from his front lawn. Caveat emptor, dude.

‘Love,’ says my Lord Rochfaucault, ‘is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love.’ That passion, when once it has got entire possession of the breast, will admit neither a rival nor a successor. To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even to the hope of public admiration, all other pleasures sicken and decay. Of all the discarded statesmen who for their own ease have studied to get the better of ambition, and to despise those honours which they could no longer arrive at, how few have been able to succeed? The greater part have spent their time in the most listless and insipid indolence, chagrined at the thoughts of their own insignificancy, incapable of being interested in the occupations of private life, without enjoyment, except when they talked of their former greatness, and without satisfaction, except when they were employed in some vain project to recover it. Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Most of us peeps is creeps

Radiohead Creep

When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sang the lyrics, “I’m a creep / I’m a weird-o / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” on their break-through (and breath-taking) song “Creep”, I felt like he had something special to say to me. I connected. So here’s the news. It turns out he was talking about all of us. At least all of us living in the western world anyway.

I first read about the WEIRD acronym (which stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

Haidt reports that, “in 2010 Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?”. [They] pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are [WEIRD]. They then reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalisations about human nature.”

Arrows

Which arrow is longer? That answer might now depend as much on where you ask, as well as how.

This is how it works. We conduct a lot of social and psychological experiments in the West – a culture which takes as its cornerstone a belief in individualism and individual freedom – and then use the results to draw universal conclusions about human nature. Trouble is that these results often don’t often stand up to scrutiny in cultures where people prioritise groups and communities ahead of individuals. Which, by the way, is probably the majority of the way the rest of the world works.

So where does that leave us? Well, with a large batch of experiments that might need a rethink, as well as the whole bunch of assumptions about human nature that we’ve drawn from them. Experimenters will need to learn to get off campus more when looking for people to test their theories on too, and probably look at even getting out of their continent. Until then, we might need to put some of those generalisations we have about each other on hold.