Monthly Archives: December 2011

Arriving to parties: On-time or late?

It’s the holiday party season again, and this raises a perennial question:  Should you arrive at a party on time, or should you arrive “fashionably late”?

I’m sure that any etiquette book will give you an answer, but I’m going to ignore that sort of answer and look for a more practical, logical one.

To start off, let’s look at three possibilities that cover everything:  Either you can be early, or you can be on time, or you can be late.  First, let’s look at this question:  If you only had the choice of showing up early or late, which would you choose?  I think that most people would choose to be late.  If you’re early, you might catch the host/hostess still getting ready, it’s awkward with no-one else there, and so on.  So, late it is.

Now, let’s examine whether to show up on time or to show up late.  Problem is, unless you live next door to the party, it just isn’t possible to show up on time.  Whether you drive, take a taxi or public transportation, get picked up by someone, or whatever, there’s enough unpredictability to ensure that you’re either going to get there a few minutes early or a few minutes late.  But, wait a minute.  We didn’t want to show up early, remember?  So, faced with this unpredictability, I think that a lot of people, perhaps unconsciously, choose to leave at a time that, at best, they’re there on time.  Most likely, they’re a few minutes late.

So, it’s not that people who arrive “fashionably late” are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for the right time to leave for them to be 15 minutes late or whatever they might be aiming for.  Rather, these people are trying to be on time without being early, and, the world being as unpredictable as it is, this means that they’ll usually be late.

The Montreal Canadiens: An Anachronism?

I’ve been getting a little behind in writing due to Christmas, but I did want to touch on the story of Randy Cunneyworth being named head coach of the Montreal Canadiens the other week.  As you’ve likely heard, there was a bit of an uproar that the head coach of the Canadiens couldn’t speak French.  I think that this uproar suggests that the idea of the Montreal Canadiens is obsolete.  Why?  Well, let’s look at the history of the club.

The Montreal Canadiens were first formed slightly over 100 years ago.  Back then, it was quite common for teams, even those competing at the highest level of play, to be composed solely of people from the same ethnic group.  You can find teams named the “Bulldogs”, “Shamrocks”, “Thistles”, and other ethnic designations on the Stanley Cup or in the standings for various leagues.  It was in this atmosphere that the Canadiens were born.  Their roster was populated solely with French-Canadians.  And, unlike some of their competitors, this idea actually worked out pretty well for them, and they survived and won lots of Stanley Cups.

During the “Original Six” era (I don’t like that name, since four of the six teams weren’t original, but I won’t dwell on that here) each team had the exclusive rights to juniors who were from the surrounding area.  For the Canadiens, that primarily comprised, you guessed it, French-Canadians.  The fact that they had access to all of this talent was a big reason for their success in the “Original Six” era (and a big reason why Boston, Chicago, and New York, who at the time were surrounded by relative hockey wastelands, were unsuccessful back then).  During the mid 1960s, the NHL, anticipating expansion, switched to a draft.  Now, the talented French-Canadian might end up anywhere.  However, the Canadiens still had lots of talent in their farm system, which enabled them to remain a strong team until the end of the 1970s (they won four cups in a row between 1975-76 and 1978-79).

Over the next 32 years, the Canadiens have only won the cup twice.  Now, that’s a bit better than chance and a bit better than some other teams *cough*Toronto*cough* but the Canadiens are far from the dynasty that they were when they had exclusive access to some of the best hockey talent in the country.  Things have changed.  First, there are a lot more sources of hockey talent than Quebec.  Second, if they want that hockey talent from Quebec, they can’t get it for free anymore; they’re going to have to pay for it.  Basically, the Canadiens must make a choice.  They can either choose to be a French-Canadian team, or they can choose to be a winning team.  Either they choose the best players they can get, or they choose French players that may not be as good.

The same goes for their head coach.  They can either choose a good head coach, or they can choose one that speaks French.  The choice is theirs, but it’s an either/or choice.  They can’t have it both ways.  If the Canadiens want to win, they need to realise that the idea of the team as a French-Canadian team is an anachronism and abandon it as obsolete.

I Hate My Teenage Daughter, episode 2

While I did write a blog entry for last week’s pilot episode, not sure whether I’ll write a blog entry for each episode but I’ll write one tonight.

Back 15 years ago, other than reading a diary, which I’m sure nowhere near everyone kept, how did parents figure out what their children were doing?

The “family night” part of the show was pretty hilarious. It was a nice touch how Nikki and Gary “got” each other’s Pictionary pictures so quickly. It was also neat how Sophie’s mood swung so quickly. Other than that, the episode wasn’t really about the teenaged daughters. I wonder whether the Powers That Be at Fox decided to ditch the idea of the mothers disciplining their daughters (and, let’s face it, when I write it out like that, it doesn’t sound all that funny, does it?) and instead make the show about Annie and Jack. We’ll see what the next episode holds.

I thought it was curious how perceptive Jack was last week about others yet is completely clueless that Annie likes him. Wonder how many real-life people are like that.

On Willpower

I’ve started to read the book Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. It’s a pretty interesting book so far and it got me thinking about willpower.

One interesting experiment discussed early in the book is quite interesting. In the 1960s, Walter Mischel was studying how a child learns to resist immediate gratification, and performed an experiment in which a four-year-old would be brought into a room, shown a marshmallow, and told that the experimenter would be leaving for a while (15 minutes) and that they could eat the marshmallow any time they wanted, but if they held off until the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow. Some children couldn’t wait at all; some tried to resist but eventually failed; others managed to hold off until the 15 minutes were up. What is particularly interesting about this experiment wasn’t discovered until much later, when Mischel discovered that those who had held off eating the marshmallow went on to get better grades and test scores, become more popular with their peers and teachers, earn more money, live a healthier lifestyle, and so on.

Now, Willpower cites this as an example of the benefits of willpower. But what does this experiment illustrate? Let’s change the experiment a bit. Say that the child can eat the marshmallow whenever the child wants, but there’s no reward for waiting 15 minutes. Does the new experiment still demonstrate willpower? I don’t think a lot of people would; here it’s just a personal preference when you eat the marshmallow; it isn’t better or worse to eat it earlier or later.

So, in my opinion, the quality demonstrated in this experiment isn’t “willpower” in any traditional definition of the term (e.g. some sort of great power summoned from within to enable one to achieve some goal or another) but just an ability to weigh both the present and future consequences of an action in some manner that we would consider appropriate. Actually, a lot of problems in life seem to centre around not weighing future consequences properly. The authors give a long list of problems that are attributed to low self-control: “compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger”. However, all of these problems relate to doing what feels good now and not what will feel good later. Compulsive spending and borrowing? It’s nice to get what you want. Violence and anger? It’s a great release. Underachievement in school? Partying’s a lot more fun. Poor eating habits? Sweets and salty snacks just taste so good. Alcohol and drug abuse? Using these substances makes you feel awesome.

Now let’s take another twist on the marshmallow experiment. Say that the child can eat the marshmallow whenever the child wants and if the marshmallow is still there when the experimenter comes back, the child gets a second one, but now the room is full of hungry, marshmallow-loving dogs that would love to snatch the marshmallow at the first possible moment. In this case, waiting 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow wouldn’t demonstrate willpower as much as it would demonstrate idiocy.

Actually, the last scenario probably best represents the way things have been for people throughout most of humanity’s history. Say you’re one of our cave-dwelling ancestors and you come across a few apples growing on a tree. If you were to come back a few days later, they might be somewhat larger and somewhat better tasting; however, if you don’t take the apples now, it’s just as likely that in a few days another animal has eaten the apples, or you’ve starved to death, or you’ve moved on and won’t be back again.

However, our modern world has brought a degree of stability to our lives, making it expedient to value future consequences of our actions. We can be fairly confident that if we sow in spring, we will reap in fall. However, in times of stability, the future goes out the window. If you know that some invading army or another is going to burn or plunder your crop, there’s no point in bothering. If your country is enduring hyper-inflation, such as in Germany after World War I, it’s a good thing to spend everything you have right away and, if at all possible, borrow more money and spend that right away. However, for most people, it probably is a good idea to think for the future.

Anyway, getting back to what I was talking about, I think that these examples suggest that what we call “willpower” isn’t some sort of magical force or great power, but just the ability to evaluate future consequences of actions. Looking at the examples that the authors give in the book above, this seems to make sense; the things that the authors suggest that people are able to control relatively easily, such as sexual urges, are ones where the negative consequences are easily fathomed, while ones that people don’t do such a good job at, such as watching TV or using Facebook or otherwise procrastinating when they need to work or study, are ones in which it isn’t as easy to imagine the future negative consequences.

I would even suggest that “willpower”, using the traditional definition of the word, doesn’t really exist. Furthermore, this ability to evaluate future consequences may not always be useful; there may be circumstances where thinking for the future is best, and circumstances when doing what feels good now is best.

That doesn’t mean that having whatever people have called “willpower” isn’t a good thing; it just means that its nature is different. So, perhaps what we need to do if we want to be successful is to practice looking at the future consequences of our actions and determining what is the best course of action with both present and future consequences in mind. But I think it’s important to call a spade a spade.