Previous month:
June 2012
Next month:
August 2012

The Otherizing election

Campaign 2012It's been said that who people vote for comes down to the answer to a simple question -- "Is he or she one of us?"

Most people can't follow the nuances of issues like health care, the deficit, what to do about Iran, etc. But they do know that they can trust someone who shares their values and world view.

That's why candidates spend so much time attacking each other rather than the issues of the day.

There are substantive differences in how President Obama and Mitt Romney would govern. But both candidates find it easier to question the other's integrity and patriotism than their policies.

(Of course, it's often hard for even practiced political hands to dope out exactly what those policy differences are on the issues that really matter because neither candidate wants to open himself to criticism by offering many specifics.)

One of Mitt Romney's advisers recently put his candidate's campaign strategy in sharp relief when he told The Telgraph of London that Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Obama, whose father was from Africa.

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.”

Indeed, the Romney camp would like to portray Obama as a left-wing radical who exiled Winston Churchill's bust from the White House as soon as he took office.

Most troubling, it seems to be part of a concerted effort to portray President Obama as Other.


A world of difference

Nothing1Those of you who are curious about OtherWise, even after reading the excerpts at can get a good synopsis of the book in the current issue of The Conference Board Review.

The editors asked me to write a few thousand words on the topic of the book. What resulted is entitled "Nothing in Common: How to do business in a world of difference."

I was honored to be asked to contribute to the issue, which features a number of articles of interest to anyone who reads my stuff, especially the cover article, "Disconnect" on the gap between the organization that a CEO runs and the organization for which people actually work. 

Archie Bunker on gun control

Archie BunkerYears ago, TV's Archie Bunker memorably solved the problem of airline security.

"All you gotta do is arm all your passengers," he offered. "And then your airlines, they wouldn't have to search the passengers on the ground no more, they just pass out the pistols at the beginning of the trip, and they just pick them up at the end! Case closed."  

The nation laughed.

But apparently one member of Congress thought he was serious.

In the wake of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told a radio interviewer, "It does make me wonder, you know, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying? That could have stopped this guy more quickly."

By contrast, the National Rifle Association wisely chose not to debate gun control while emotions were running so high. It limited itself to saying its "thoughts and prayers are with the victims" in Aurora and that it wouldn't have further comment until all the facts are known.

Nevertheless, a consensus seems to be developing that the Aurora theater shooting spree will have no more effect on strengthening gun control laws than previous mass killings did. Indeed, Congress was incapable of tackling the issue even when one of its own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was the target.

My favorite columnist, David Brooks, says he has no real objection to stricter gun control, but maintains that the preponderance of evidence suggests there is no correlation between gun control and gun violence.

I found that hard to believe, so I did some quick research. It looks like he's right. Separate reports published several years ago by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Research Council concluded there isn't enough evidence to determine whether gun control reduces gun violence. What's needed, they said, is more study.

Unfortunately, it's hard to isolate all the relevant variables. For example, some studies draw stronger correlations between gun violence and factors such as poverty or low education. Areas with strong gun control are surrounded by areas with lax or non-existent regulations. And even the most stringent laws have loopholes through which you could drive a tank. 

Perhaps inspiring Rep. Gohmert (or taking his cue from Archie Bunker), a professor at the University of Chicago wrote a book purporting to show that crime is actually lower where people are permitted to carry concealed weapons.

And one English author points out that gun-friendly America has seen eight consecutive years of declining violence, while the gun-deprived English have suffered a dramatic increase in rates of violent crime.

What to make of all this?

Let's concede that the jury is still out on the correlation between gun control and gun violence. Let's even concede that the Constitution protects people's right to own guns.

But can we agree that controling the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips like the ones used by the killer in Colorado doesn't violate the Second Amendment? That it doesn't depend on resolving the thorny question of causation? And that it could at least partially disarm the next lunatic who decides to unload all his frustration on innocent people?

Can we at least do that? Or will the Archie Bunkers of the world have the last word?


OtherWise Justice

Blind-Justice-GOR-64454-08Philosophers have known for centuries that things aren't always what they seem.

The courts are just catching up.

Before sending jurors off to deliberate, judges in New Jersey will now be giving them instructions designed to resolve some of the short-comings of eye witness testimony. In addition to reminding jurors that what an eyewitness sees can be affected by distance, poor lighting, and stress, the instructions reflect some of the findings of behavioral psychology.

Among other things, the instructions say, "You should consider whether the fact that the witness and the defendant are not of the same race may have influenced the accuracy of the witness’s identification.” A long line of studies document just that.

Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of Convicting the Innocent, a book that includes a study of eyewitness mis-identifications, was cited by the New Jersey Supreme court in its decision to require the new instructions. “These instructions are far more detailed and careful than anything that exists anywhere in the country,” he told the New York Times.

While the New Jersey action doesn't bind other states, many are expected to follow suit. A good step toward more OtherWise justice.


Life imitates art

CooperI've been watching "The Newsroom" on HBO, largely because I'm a sucker for Aaron Sorkin's snappy dialogue.

The show itself is about a news anchor who is so principled that watching requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, especially for anyone who has ever been around a real newsroom.

In the last episode I saw, for example, he decided that it was time for TV news to call politicians liers when they lie. What a concept.

I knew it would never happen in the real world of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand journalism, where the dopiest, most outlandish opinions are treated as if they're the legitmate "other side" of an issue.

But wait. It has happened.

Last night, Anderson Cooper devoted 7 minutes of his CNN broadcast to debunking the claims of some Republican members of Congress that the Obama administration has been "infiltrated by Islamist extremists." 

They have called for investigations into the matter, and have specifically pointed a finger at Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton.

Cooper carefully dismantled what little evidence the accusers offered. It wasn't too hard since their accusations are based on a series of tenuous familial connections that even Joe McCarthy would have been embarassed to hang an attack on. 

"Huma Abedin's deceased father, who started an organization decades ago, had the support of a guy who had another organization that might have had the support of another organization, the Muslim Brotherhood," Cooper explained. "And because of that, Huma Abedin might be some sort of spy or infiltrator and deserves to be investigated."

Cooper's raised eyebrow was his understated way of shouting "liar, liar, pants of fire."  You can see it here (warning: there's a commercial).

Here's a case where life immitated art. To our benefit for a change.


Pole dancing the news

Pole_dance-modalidade-de-dança-com-barraI confess to occasionally reading "The Drudge Report."

This morning's edition featured a headline in the finest tabloid traditions: "Traffic signs in New Zealand destroyed by pole-dancing prostitutes..." 

Drudge linked to an item in the Telegraph of London, which curiously hedged a bit by casting the story in the  passive voice.

In the paper's original story, "More than 40 poles have been bent, buckled or broken in the past 18 months in one area of south Auckland, New Zealand, it is claimed." 

The "claim" was attributed to a local official who alleged that prostitutes use the street signs "as part of their soliciting equipment" and often snap them. "Some of the prostitutes are big, strong people," she said.


True, false, or exaggerated, for my money, Drudge's headline is right up there with the classic New York Post headline: "Headless body in topless bar."

That headline inspired a movie, a German rock album, and a book on homicides in strip clubs (725 cases as of the first printing). Not to mention all the papers it sold.

The perpetrator -- of the afore-mentioned decapitation, not the headline -- was denied parole earlier this year. The editor who actually came up with the headline has never been identified, though many have claimed credit.

Now, the pole-bending-prostitute story was not the lead item on Drudge. And it may have already slipped off the site's home page by the time you read this. But I think it tells us something about news on the web. And it's not a lesson to be drawn exclusively from right-leaning web sites.

This morning's left-leaning Huffington Post home page featured the headline "Circus tiger urinates on wealthy patrons." The actual story, in which the tiger "pees on wealthy patrons," was based on reports from the New York Daily News and Novosti-Kazakhstan, where the "pee-formance," as Huff termed it, actually occured.

The Huff Post "breaking news" story of events now four days old featured a video, a Google map of the town where the "pee-culiar" event occured, and a blogger's first-hand description of tiger urine  as "very savory, like yeast and salt and an added mix of strong herbs simmering in rotten meat broth." 

TV news used to follow the adage "if it bleeds it leads" because producers knew that Neilsen ratings would soon follow, as would -- like lemmings -- advertisers. Web site producers, who don't have to wait for Neilsen,  simply follow clicks in real time. 

Drudge and Huff Post are an agglomeration of tabloid headlines, designed to incite clicks. The headlines that get the most clicks move up on the home page. The laggards drop off. 

The world's Daily Newses, Novosti-Kazakhstans, London Telegrams, and legions of other dying newspapers complain that they are not being compensated for their content, whether it is sliced and diced (as in the circus tiger "story") or simply hijacked (as in the New Zealand pole-bending story).

They have a legitimate gripe. But the real losers are all the people who look to the likes of Huff Post and Drudge for the filtering and aggregation of their news. 

According to Pew Research, half the top ten "news sites" are tied to so-called legacy news organizations, such as the New York Times, CNN, or Fox. The other half are online-only outfits, such as Huff Post and Drudge.

The question is whose business model -- curate for clicks or report for news -- will prevail.


Call to arms

Palin_bikiniEver see this photo?

It's a complete fabrication, courtesy of PhotoShop and the 2008 political campaigns.

Lots of people believed it because it confirmed everything they already thought about Gov. Palin. 

And know what? Many continued believing it even after fact-checking organizations definitively knocked it down.

Ironically, checking these "facts" has never been easier., which bills itself as "the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation," has been in business since 1995.

In those days, the Internet was little more than an electronic bulletin board for people who communicated in Unix code. These days, Snopes attracts upwards of 300,000 visitors a day, many seeking confirmation or denial of some forwarded email they received.

In fact, the market for checking the veracity of Internet rumors and (mis)information has grown so steeply that Snopes has been joined by a band of fellow truth arbitrators such as FactCheck, sponsored by the Annenburg Public Policy Center, and PolitiFact, a service of the St. Petersburg Times. Not to mention regular newspaper columns such as "The Straight Dope" in the Chicago Reader and "The Fact Checker" in the Washington Post.

Indeed, these truth mongers have been known to check up on each other from time to time. FactCheck, for example, reviewed a sample of Snopes' responses to political rumors regarding George W. BushSarah Palin and Barack Obama, and found them to be free from bias in all cases. 

Anyone capable of forwarding an email can check the veracity of almost any supposed "fact" within seconds. So you would think no one would have an excuse for forwarding a pants-on-fire whopper. 

And yet they fill my email inbox.

Last week, for example, I received an email that had been forwarded at least six times. Not surprising, since it was originally written in 2009.

The gist was that the Obama administration spent $3 billion on the Cash for Clunkers program only to save $350 million. A professor at the University of West Virginia supposedly did the analysis.

It took me about two seconds to type "cash for clunkers, university of West Virginia" into Google, and five seconds to scan the results. (I could have been faster, but I had to wade through a long list of web sites like Freedom Watch and The Conservative Corner, all reprinting the original email.) As it turns out, the "Hillbilly Report" (a self-professed "rural progressive site") sent me directly to Snopes.

Snopes declared the email "mostly false." It had several flaws. Starting with a relatively accurate estimate of the cost for the Cash for Clunkers program, it then went wildly awry with basic math errors, a fundamental misunderstanding of gasoline refining, and a miscalculation of the program's multi-year impact.  

By Snopes' estimate -- without taking into account the rising cost of oil or the impact on new auto sales -- the program basically paid for itself in four years. Not spectacular, but probably not worthy of the breathless email it produced. You can read the original email and the Snopes analysis here.

I try to knock down these emails whenever they infect my inbox, sending whoever forwarded it to me a polite correction, with a link to whatever fact-checking organization I used. 

What I usually get in response is (a) nothing, (b) a non-sequitur such as "well Obama was born in Kenya," or lately (c) "my friends tell me Snopes is run by a bunch of lefties."  

Send enough rebuttals, and you're taken off their mailing list for forwards.

What gives?

I've come to the conclusion that these emails have nothing to do with sharing information. They're all about reafirming personal identity. Kind of like carrying a Goyard bag or wearing a Rolex watch.

People who send these emails pay as much attention to their accuracy or veracity as Goyard-toting fashionistas do to the stitching on their handbag. 

Attack the facts in the email and you're attacking them. In response, they do what anyone under attack would do -- they dig in their heels and counterpunch. In fact, there's plenty of research suggesting that corrections result in the reinforcement of misinformation and false beliefs.

The end result is a climate of partisanship that has become even more threatening than global warming.

So this is a call to arms.

Let's promise that we won't forward any email that we haven't personally vetted, even if it seems to confirn our most cherished beliefs. 


The deal's the thing

12330903-finding-a-good-deal-iconThe lead story in the business section of the Sunday New York Times provides a little insight into the demise of the old, "new" AT&T, i.e., the 1996 - 2003 version I worked for.

The story concerns the demise of Dragon Systems, a voice technology company that merged with another high-tech flier in 1999 only to see its acquirer almost immediately file for bankruptcy. The owners of Dragon Systems -- who had been paid $580 million in then worthless stock -- lost everything.

Their investment bank for the deal was Goldman Sachs, which also happened to be AT&T's adviser on more than $100 billion of deals at around the same time. (Dragon asserts that their bankers were supervised by Gene Sykes, the same banker who was lead on AT&T's mergers and acquisitions, but Sykes denies it.)

In any case, the Dragon owners are suing Goldman for providing "unsupervised, inexperienced, incompetent and lazy investment bankers." 

Goldman's defense is equally succinct. “We gave them great advice. We guided them to a completed transaction.”

Apparently, getting the deal done is the goal. Never mind if it doesn't make any sense. 

Born digital

ClosedBack when I was in my twenties, we were warned not to trust anyone over 30.

There was a huge values gap between my generation and those that came before. It was reflected in the sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights, and especially the Vietnam War protests.

It got quite noisy, kind of like Occupy Wall Street on steroids (or, more appropriately for the times, amphetamines). 

A similar gap is opening, albeit more quietly, between those of us over 30 and our children and grandchildren.

Anyone born after 1980 -- today's 32 year-olds and younger -- was born into a digital world.  They have never known life without personal computers, cell phones, email, texting, web sites, or on-demand media. 

They are more tightly connected to each other –more than eight out of ten send text, email or instant messages; more than half use social networks of some kind. 

They are natural multi-taskers and expect everything to happen quickly. The meritocracy and openness of the Internet made them very impatient with hierarchy and information hoarding.

Most of them lived through the, stock market and housing booms, as well as the busts. They grew up adapting to innovation and change.  They don’t draw a sharp line between work and the rest of their life. They want to enjoy both.

But they don't live in a world of linear entertainment and information. They watch less TV than previous generations, go to fewer movies. The news they consume is tailored to their interests and arrives through social media or the web. And what scripted entertainment they do watch is much more likely to reach them on-demand than on a distributor's schedule. They’re media savvy and trust their friends more than ads or third parties.

The “born digital” generation is also more culturally diverse -- one out of three is Hispanic, African American, or Asian. They’re socially conscious and more aware of the world around them than previous generations. And they're more open to new social and moral standards, such as births out of wedlock, interracial and gay marriage, and even abortion under certain cirecumstances.  

Anyone who isn't seriously considering the implications of these cultural changes for their brand, their company, or their community is in for a lot of trouble. As Dorothy told Toto, "We aren't in Kansas anymore."


Department of corrections (historical division)

Department-of-correctionsThis posting is essentially an historical correction.

A recent post quoted an editor's observation that our political leaders (and those who pretend to such) have a lot to learn from our Founding Fathers.

That may be so, but as a friend notes, all was not as rosy as it seemed way back when Adams and Jefferson were knocking around Philadephia trying to knit together a new country.

He says, in part:

I know we tend to reflexively reject the notion that our Founders were somehow above petty politics and their notions and strivings were grander and nobler than politicians today. Unfortunately it just ain't true.

Adams and his contemporaries were often just as partisan, just as petty and just as obstructionist as any politician today and they did not put aside their differences to accomplish great things.  That is a mis-reading of history.

There was probably no more in-the-gutter presidential campaign than Adams' run for reelection in 1800 against Jefferson.  This campaign made today's campaigns look like a church social.  The nicest thing said about Adams was that he was a traitor and a criminal lackey of the British King, while Jefferson was accused of being so debased and lacking moral principles that his election would threaten the very honor (aka virginity) of every young woman in the country.  And this was what was written in the mainstream press.  Imagine some of the more partisan broadsides.

The Founders did not create our system of government in a flash of greatness and graceful compromise. [Starting in 1776,] it took about 13 years of fighting, arguing, debating, wrangling, accusing, and obstructing before they could grudingly compromise enough to create a constitution -- which by the way was approved only by the narrowest of margins.

Were we to have lived through that 13 year period, I am certain we would have complained about how petty, small and mean these guys were (they were all guys, sorry).. 

My point is not to demean the Founders - my admiration for them is second to no one's.  But we should not elevate them to thresholds they never achieved and their successors could never hope to match.  They were just as human as the generation of politicians and leaders that succeeded them.

The Founders put in place a republican (small "r") power structure that was meant to move slowly, deliberately, and be more resiliant than whatever foibles resided in the current generation of leaders.  The Founders saw debate as the lifeblood of the republic.  In the past, that debate has sometimes been inspiring and intelligent, other times silly and pedestrian. Such is the case today.  Notwithstanding, the republic worked then, it works now.

I won't stop arguing that we wouls be a lot better off if politicians spent less time questioning each other's patriotism, morality, and sanity. But -- point well taken -- such behavior isn't exactly a recent development. 


Practical empathy

Alcatellucent2-300x247I started my career, back when dinosaurs still roamed the canyons of Manhattan, at a company known as Western Electric.

It eventually became part of what is now known as Alcatel-Lucent. So when I was researching OtherWise, I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview the company's CEO, Ben Verwaayen.

I titled the chapter that resulted "Practical Empathy."

I guess the Alcatel-Lucent folk were happy with it because they asked me to contribute a posting to their corporate blog. You can read it here.

If you want to read the "Practical Empathy" chapter itself, you'll find a link on Alcatel-Lucent's blog as well.

Contracted hearts

John-AdamsBack in 1776, John Adams worried that the Continental Congress' decisions would be dictated "by noise, not sense; by meanness, not greatness; by ignorance, not learning; by contracted hearts, not large souls."

He could easily have been talking about the 112th Congress of today.

Just five months from the end of the current session on January 3, 2013, Congress faces another Armageddon moment. Before it adjourns, it needs to resolve more than $1 trillion in expiring tax cuts and automatic spending reductions in domestic and defense programs.

Plus, Congress has to do something about the national debt limit, the same exercise that virtually paralyzed Washington a year ago. According to the nonpartisan according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, doing nothing all but guarantees a second recession. 

Ironically, Adams also provided the remedy. "There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank or we are undone," he wrote. "In a popular government, this is our only way." That's good advice, not only for public officials, but also for the people who vote for them.

Jim Toedtman, Editor of the AARP Bulletin, reminded us of Adams' warning in a recent editor's letter. As he put it, "History tells us Washington can accomplish great things setting aside vanity and shortsightedness."

The question is whether our public officials can do it in the midst of an election campaign. Or will they again be paralyzed by the contracted hearts, brains, and souls of partisanship?



Are we still a land of opportunity?

Land-of-opportunityOne of the byproducts of our polarized, partisan political scene is a nagging feeling that truth lies somewhere in the middle.

One side thinks government is the problem; the other, that it is the solution.

Those of us who consider ourselves political "moderates" see the logic of both arguments and tend to think the right answer is somewhere between the two extremes.

But that isn't always true.

Consider David Brooks' column in the New York Times. He writes about a recent study showing that "the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities."

Brooks is citing research by political scientist Robert Putnam. In some ways, it seems to confirm conclusions drawn by Charles Murray, a political scientist at the other end of the political spectrum. 

But that doesn't mean, as Brooks suggests, that conservative and liberal policy makers should meet in the middle to find a solution. The answer is not necessarily a combination of tax and spending cuts in some arbitrary proportion.

Putnam's data is alarming. He discovered that the affluent spend more time with their kids, invest more in their kids' extracurricula activities, and just generally pay more attention to them, especially in infancy when cognitive development is at critical stages. And when he looks at outcomes, he sees a stark difference. The children of the less affluent don't do as well in school, they participate less in sports and other activities, they volunteer less.

Looking ahead, Putnam predicts “There’s a growing class gap among American youth among all the predictors of success in life. A social mobility crash is coming." He says everyone who’s looked at the data agrees.

Determining the cause of this state of affairs is critical. If you blame government programs that undermine poor people's self-reliance and initiative, leading to eroding social structures, as Murray does, you will come up with starkly different solutions than if you think the causes lie elsewhere.

Putnam, for example, tends to agree with Laura Bush, who has said: “If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house or your job, you have less energy to invest in your kids.”  

Putnam's research, which probably won't find its way into a book for another two years, is alarming. He draws a straight line from family income, to the way kids are raised, to their social mobility and opportunties in life.

As the conservative thinker, Arthur Brooks, aptly put it: "The real question is whether America is an opportunity society. If it is, then inequality is fair. If it isn't, then inequality isn't fair."

Most of the available data suggests that opportunity for the less affluent has been in decline in recent decades. Tax reductions, government transfers, educational investments, and job openings have all favored the most affluent among us.

That's the problem we should be addressing.





Great to see you out

Gay adWe'd all like to think the actions corporations take are guided by doing what's right.

Those of us who worked on executive row know the real world is a lot more complicated.

But one question seems to consistently resolve the thorniest moral dilemma: which action has the better payoff?

So a recent story in the Wall Street Journal may explain why more companies are paying attention to their gay customers.

It quotes Bob Witeck, a consultant who has studied the gay community for 20 years. He estimates there are roughly 16 million gay adults in the U.S. with projected spending power of $790 billion this year, or roughly $49,000 each.

That compares to annual per capita spending of about $26,000 for the overall market.

Add the millions of people who support greater inclusiveness based on sexual orientation, and it helps explain why companies like J.C. Penney, Target, and Miller/Coors are suddenly becoming OtherWise. 



A friend reports that a recent crossword puzzle gave "different" as the clue for a five-letter answer. The solution? "Other." Maybe the word is spreading...

How to be happy

HappyAs if to round off my last posting, this article in the New York Times suggests that conservatives are happier than liberals.

Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, cites a 2006 Pew Research study as definitive proof for the claim. According to Pew, "conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were 'very happy' about their lives." Apparently, that's been true for decades.

So, as far as Brooks is concerned, "The question isn’t whether this is true, but why." 

One theory is that a conservative lifestyle -- characterized by marriage and faith -- accounts for the difference. Indeed, surveys show that married people are happier than the unmarried. And conservatives are more likely to be married than liberals (53% versus 33%). 

Furthermore, conservatives are four times as likely to be religiously observant, and believers are twice as likely to be happy.

But to me, the most interesting finding Brooks unearthed is the following: "The happiest Americans are those who say they are either 'extremely conservative' (48 percent very happy) or 'extremely liberal' (35 percent). Everyone else is less happy, with the nadir at dead-center 'moderate' (26 percent)."

Apparently, knowing that you've got things figured out and everyone else is out of step is one of the keys to happiness.


Partisan genes?

Mmw_POLITICALGENESIt's too early to declare a winner in the battle between nature and nurture.

But functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has put some interesting twists and turns into the debate.  

It sometimes seems that every PhD with access to an fMRI machine has shoved people into it, watched their neural circuits fire in response to various stimuli, and declared that they have discovered the center of this or that behavior.

One scientist replicated the Pepsi challenge in an fMRI machine. He discovered that many people prefer Pepsi if they don't know what they're drinking, but prefer Coke when they get a glimpse of the labels. Coca-Cola seems to stimulate the parts of the brain dealing with strong emotions.

Other scientists claim to have discovered something similar with political beliefs. According a recent article in Discover, a long series of studies show the anterior cingulate cortex seems to be larger or more active in the brains of liberals, while the brains of conservatives are more likely to have an enlarged or more active amygdala.

The ACC has a variety of functions in the brain, such as evaluating competing choices and controlling emotions so cognitive processes can work most effectively.  People with a larger ACC tend to be more adaptable to changing situations. They have a higher tolerance for complexity and are more flexible.

The amygdala is the area of the brain associated with forming emotional memories and learning, such as fear conditioning, as well as memory consolidation. People with a larger amygdala are more likely to accept beliefs that touch them on an emotional level.

It all sounds pretty pat, but it's important to take these "discoveries" with a large grain of salt. Reading fMRI data is hardly an exact science -- at best they measure minute changes in oxygen levels corresponding to blood flow that may or may not reflect actual brain activity.

Even then, the article's author is careful to note that correlation is not causation. "I don’t want MRI scans to become the phrenology of politics any more than you do," he writes. 

Another scientist, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, says the differences between political left and right "connect with very basic personality tendencies that don't really have anything in particular to do with politics." 

In fact, those personality tendencies may be the real point. The fMRI may actually be reflecting peoples' preference for either stability or change.  

According to the Discover article, there's a certain logic to that theory. "If you look at liberalism as adaptability, and conservativism as stability, the party reactions to various events ... all make perfect sense," the author writes. For example, on gay marriage, liberals are willing to accept new ways of thinking, conservatives want the stability of long-held values.

That doesn't mean we can scrap voting booths in favor of fMRI machines. People can still form political beliefs inconsistent with the size of their ACC or amygdala. Peer influence plays an important role. And there's even evidence that the brain is plastic enough to change in response to consistent behavior and belief. 

But understanding the general personality traits that seem to align with different political views can help us develop empathy and understanding. And you don't need an fMRI machine to know that there isn't enough of that in the world.


Smartphone addiction

Smarphone-addictionMy wife and I were in a hotel bar recently, enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail and having a conversation driven largely by people-watching.

A well-dressed couple came in. They sat at the adjacent table and, after ordering drinks, whipped out their respective smartphones. Then they spent the rest of the time we were there clicking away.

Now, it could be that they were texting each other. But I suspect what we were witnessing was an example of information addiction.

Scientists have discovered that dopamine -- the chemical released when we have sex or eat -- is also excreted when we are stimulated in other ways. Like hearing the ping of an incoming text message or finding email in our inbox.  

Frank Partnoy, writing in the New York Times, puts it all in context. "E-mail, social media and the 24-hour news cycle are informational amphetamines," he writes, "a cocktail of pills that we pop at an increasingly fast pace — and that lead us to make mistaken split-second decisions."  

Despite Malcolm Gladwell's panegyric for thinking by blinking, economists label the problem “present bias.” Fast, salient stimulation has an out-sized -- and sometimes deleterious -- effect on our judgment. 

The release of dopamine in sex and eating was an evolutionary adaptation that ensured our survival as a species. Unfortunately, many other kinds of addictive behavior can also stimulate its release. Video games, for example, or checking email.

So think about that the next time your smartphone pings.


Change that sticks

TAPEOne of the people featured in OtherWise is Jack Rowe, MD.

Rowe was president of the Mt. Sinai Medical Center when he was approached by the Aetna Insurance Company to become its CEO.

Aetna at the time was the insurance company people loved to hate. It was embroiled in a class-action suit with physicians over its low reimbursement rates and mind-boggling bureaucracy. And it was losing one million dollars a day.

Rowe was a research scientist, specializing in gerontology, who had never run a public company. But ready for one more challenge in his already illustrious career, he took the job.

I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Rowe in researching OtherWise. How he turned Aetna around, despite skeptical investment analysts, provided so much fodder for the book he appears in two chapters.  Hint: he's exceptionally good at listening and understanding what really matters to people.

Some Booz Allen consultants have tilled the same fertile ground and come up with lessons to keep in mind when undertaking cultural change.  See "Cultural Change That Sticks" in the July/August Harvard Business Review

Welcome the job creators

IStock_hispanic-entrepreneurWho are the job creators?

Many are the very people some politicians are trying to keep out of America.

A new study from the Fiscal Policy Institute found that about 18 percent of U.S. small-business owners are immigrants, much higher than their 13 percent share of the overall population.

In fact, immigrants own small businesses employing nearly 5 million people and generating nearly $800 billion in sales. They accounted for nearly a third of small business growth between 1990 and 2010.

More immigrant small business owners come from Mexico than any other country, followed by India, Korea, Cuban, China, and Vietnam. 

None of this should be particularly surprising. As the study itself notes, people "with the ambition and energy to uproot themselves and build new lives in a distant land are well equipped to build businesses and the economy, too."

And it's reflected in more than small businesses. As I noted in OtherWise, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, including Apple, Google, and Intel. More than two-thirds of U.S. scientists and engineers with a doctorate are immigrants.

In fact, immigrant inventors accounted for more than a quarter of all U.S. patent applications in recent years, filing at a rate twice that of native-born Americans. The products and services they invented changed our lives, created new jobs, and turbo-charged our economy.

So instead of building real and metaphorical walls to keep new immigrants out, let's roll out the welcome mat for these job creators.






The rise of Asian Americans

Allamericangirl-lrgContinuing to catch up on reading relevant to OtherWise...

Pew Research recently issued a report showing that Asia is now the primary source of immigrants to America.

Thirty-six percent of all immigrants are Asian, versus 31 percent who are Hispanic.  

Nearly two-thirds of Asian immigrants have college degrees. They account for about three-fourths of H-1B visa holders, meaning they have skills that many employers need. According to Pew Research, they are even more likely than native-born Americans to believe that anyone can get ahead if they're willing to work hard.

Asian Americans are anything but monolithic. In fact, only a minority even describe themselves as "Asian." Most refer to themselves by their country of origin and/or American.  

Overall, Asian Americans place a higher value on marriage, parenthood, education, and career success. They are better educated and have higher incomes than average. More than half say they speak English "very well." Yet one out of five has personally experienced discrimination in the past year.