Reading notes (2021, week 16) — On virtuous leaderships, the weak case for grit, and the misinformation virus

Mark Storm
31 min readApr 20, 2021
Antoine de Ruffi School in Marseille, France, by TAUTEM Architecture + bmc2 architectes — “The architects have voluntarily limited the number of architectural and technical components to guarantee simplicity and longevity and to ensure easy maintenance. Built with ‘low carbon,’ light-colored concrete, between the pearl white blanc and beige of the coquina sand, the building was poured in place and without joints. The painstaking work of the ‘skin’ has produced alternating parts of coquina and smooth, mat and shiny surfaces and an interplay of light and shadow in the embrasures.” (Photographs: Luc Boegly)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: Why leaders must be both of good character and competent to achieve sustainable success; where’s the evidence that grit predicts success?; the more you know, the more vulnerable you can be to infection; why applied history matters; are we enslaved by the finer things in life?; Nikolai Gogol in the twilight of empire; subway to Studio 54: a bygone New York; and, finally, Moby and our case against cows.

Virtuous leadership

Virtuous Leadership: Does It Help Organisations Thrive? is the translated title of a Dutch article by Martijn Hendriks, an assistant professor at the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, in which he gives an overview of the research literature on the relationship between virtuous leadership and the flourishing (of people) within organisations. What follows is an unpolished translation of the original article from M&O Tijdschrift voor Management and Organisatie (Boom Uitgevers, Amsterdam).

For those interested in the many references mentioned in this article, I simply refer to the research paper Virtuous leadership: a source of employee well-being and trust, by Martijn Hendriks, Martijn Burger, Antoinette Rijsenbilt, Emma Pleeging, and Harry Commandeur, published in Management Research Review, Vol. 43 No. 8, 2020.

Despite the long list of corporate leadership scandals, ‘character’ typically plays a marginal role in the training and evaluation of leaders. This suggests that virtuous leadership is viewed as of secondary importance or as harmful to the leader or the organisation (Seijts et al., 2019). On the other hand, there has been a long-standing belief that a leader’s character is a fundamental building block for effective and sustainable leadership as it shapes his goals and behaviours, and can therefore have a strong impact on the organisation, individuals within the organisation and the leader himself (Peterson and Seligman, 2004).

This belief that leaders can succeed by doing what is morally right has made a comeback in the last decade (Wright and Goodstein, 2007; Flynn, 2008; Crossan et al., 2017). An inspiring example is Greystone Bakery, founded by Bernard Glassman to help an underprivileged local community in New York, by offering jobs to people with few job opportunities (through an open hiring policy) and by returning the profits to the local community. The approach of this successful social enterprise is nicely summed up in the company’s credo: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to be able to hire people.”

Not all leaders are equally virtuous. Some are naturally more virtuous than others, but also the divergent beliefs about the consequences of righteous leadership are an important reason why leaders differ in their willingness to act righteously. This raises the question, what is the connection between virtuous leadership and the flourishing of (people within) organisations?

[Flourishing individuals and organisations are regarded here as functioning well in the sense that they achieve their goals in a sustainable manner, while virtue is aimed at pursuing and improving the good rather than merely avoiding the bad.]

What is virtuous leadership?

Character is inseparable from virtues. Good character arises from and is visible through the routine practice of virtues (Newstead et al., 2020). In turn, virtuous behaviour stems from core values and the intrinsic motivation to do the morally right (virtue ethics). Good behaviour is not virtuous if it is motivated by the achievement of a certain result (utilitarian ethics) or the fulfilment of norms and obligations (deontological ethics). Thus, virtuous leadership is based on character and demonstrated by voluntary (intrinsically motivated and deliberate) virtuous behaviour in relevant situations (Hackett and Wang, 2012).

There are many virtues, but literature and cultural traditions highlight several core virtues that transcend all other virtues. The list of core virtues, as well as the interpretation and relative importance of these virtues, substantially but not completely overlap between cultural traditions (Hursthouse, 1999).

Four core virtues

Riggio and colleagues (2010) define virtuous leaders in Western societies as leaders who act in accordance with four core virtues: prudence or practical wisdom, moderation, justice, and courage. These were considered the four Cardinal virtues in ancient Greek philosophy (Aristotle and Plato) and the Judaeo-Christian tradition (e.g. Thomas Aquinas), and have had a profound influence on Western thinking. They can therefore be regarded as the most important virtues for leaders in Western societies.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) and Hackett and Wang (2012) conclude that they are also core virtues in most other cultures and can therefore be seen as global core virtues of leaders. Crossan and colleagues (2017) demonstrate that these four cardinal virtues are also seen as essential in a sample of North and Latin American leaders. So we can say that virtuous leaders worldwide must have at least the following characteristics: make morally right choices to achieve virtuous goals, through morally right means (prudence or practical wisdom), control of one’s emotional responses and desire for self-enrichment (moderation), give others what they deserve (justice), and persist in acting as is believed to be morally right, despite the risk of negative consequences (courage).

According to Artistotle, courage or fortitude enables a person to stand firm against and endure the hardships of life, to restrain fear, or to moderate fear in the face of danger, all done in accordance with reason. (Painting: Fortitute, 1470, by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510); tempera grassa on wood, 167 x 87 cm. Part of the colection of the Uffizzi in Florence, Fortitude is one of seven panels representing the Seven Virtues, commissioned by Florence’s Tribunale della Mercanzia, the body overseeing the city’s guilds. Piero del Pollaiolo (1441–1496) painted six panels and the series was completed by Sandro Botticelli in 1470. Fortitude is one of his very first works.)

After evaluating both non-Western and Western cultural attitudes, Peterson and Seligman (2004) concluded that there are six universal core virtues: the four cardinal Western virtues mentioned above, plus compassion (i.e. treating others with love, care and respect treating) and transcendence (ie connecting with the surrounding universe and thereby providing meaning).

The framework of Hackett and Wang (2012) focuses more specifically on the perspectives of Confucius (East Asia) and Aristotle (Western) and adds two core virtues mentioned by Confucius to the four Western cardinal virtues: honesty or trustworthiness, and compassion. So both frameworks argue that humanity is a core virtue. Although not explicitly mentioned by aristotle and Plato, it implicitly emerges in Western cultural traditions as an essential virtue and is seen by modern ethics scholars as essential in Western societies.

Consensus on framework

Thus, there is far-reaching consensus about the broad framework of virtuous leadership, but context-dependent nuances are important.

In Africa, for example, the following four core virtues emerge: reliability or honesty, courage, humanity, and humility (Adewale, 2020). Another example is that transcendence is the most important virtue in Buddhism, but it is not seen as essential in many other schools of thought. Crossan (2017) illustrates that leaders in North and Latin America believe that virtuous leaders should also possess some other core virtues, such as responsibility, integrity, humility, drive, and the ability to cooperate.

Another important side note is that other virtues are emphasised in the more pragmatic, less theoretically grounded and ethical-oriented organisational psychology (Meyer, 2018; Sison and Ferrero, 2015). For example, Cameron (2004) considers forgiveness, trust, integrity, optimism, and compassion to be core elements of virtuous organisations. Crossan (2017) emphasises that prudence is seen as the central virtue by modern leaders in North and Latin America. This is consistent with Aristotle’s belief that prudence is the ‘mother of all virtues’ (Flynn, 2008; Riggio et al., 2010).

Following Aristotle, ethics scholars do emphasise that the cardinal virtues form a whole, which means that people rarely possess certain core virtues but not others and that these core virtues only lead to positive outcomes together (see, among others, MacIntyre, 1984). For example, a prudent but cowardly leader will not be very effective in promoting employee happiness. And the righteous actions of a leader lacking humanity will not be fully appreciated by others. Empirical evidence confirms that employees often judge that leaders score consistently high on all virtues or consistently low on all virtues (Riggio et al., 2010; Thun and Kelloway, 2011; Wang and Hackett, 2016; Hendriks et al., 2020).

However, considering specific virtues in specific situations remains important, because the importance and the specific role of virtues is context-dependent (Riggio et al., 2010). Different scales have been developed to measure the character and virtue of leaders. To measure the character of leaders, Peterson and Seligman (2004) developed the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS). It doesn’t measure virtues explicitly, though, because the developers consider them to be too abstract and general to measure. Instead, the VIA-IS measures the 24 positive character traits that form the basis of the six core virtues distinguished by Peterson and Seligman (2004). Thus the character traits bravery, tenacity, integrity, and vitality are the building blocks of the virtue courage. Riggio and colleagues (2010) and Wang and Hackett (2016) later developed validated scales that explicitly measure the virtues of leaders through questions to employees.

Prudence or practical wisdon is described by Aristote as an intellectual habit (virtue) enabling the person to deliberate properly in order to choose the virtuous course, the right means of action in any here and now situation. As such, it is primary over the other cardinal virtues. (Painting: Prudence, 1470, by Piero del Pollaiolo (1441–1496); tempera on wood, 168 x 90.5 cm. Prudence is one of six paintings by Piero del Pollaiolo for the Seven Virtues, commissioned by Florence’s Tribunale della Mercanzia. Collection of Le Galleria degli Uffizzi, Florence)

Do employees flourish through virtuous leadership?

Good leadership promotes employee flourishing in three important ways. First, virtuous behaviour can have a substantial impact on the objectively observable job characteristics and outcomes of employees. Giving due praise and recognition to employees, for example, can have a positive influence on the career opportunities of employees. The fair allocation of work tasks can have a positive influence on the work content of employees. And showing compassion can have a positive influence on the work-life balance.

But virtuous behaviour can also harm the objective situations of employees if others, for example competing companies, take advantage of it. For example, certain virtuous behaviours can lead to a poorer competitive position and, as a consequence, lower job security.

Second, virtuous leaders can make followers flourish through a subjective process; trust is a central mechanism in this respect (Hendriks et al., 2020). The character of leaders is a primary source of trust in the leader because trust is primarily built when virtuous behaviour arises from intrinsic motivation and is deliberately and consistently applied in relevant situations (Dirks and Ferrin, 2002). This perspective suggests that character-based virtuous leadership can strengthen trust more than other, related leadership styles, which are traditionally associated with trusts, such as transformational and ethical leadership.

This is because those leadership styles are not fully focused on character, but also focus on behaviour that generally generates less trust, such as compliance with rules or moral duties (a deontological focus) and goal-oriented behaviour (a teleological focus). Trust, in turn, is the catalyst of different attitudes and behaviours that make followers thrive. This includes aspects directly related to the leader (such as satisfaction with the leader and the relationship between leader and follower), organisation-related attitudes and behaviours (such as being able to identify with the organisation; Schaubroeck et al., 2013) and broader psychological aspects (such as reduced work stress; Liu et al., 2010). Together, these processes make trust in a leader essential for employee prosperity (Dirks and Ferrin, 2002; Hendriks et al., 2020).

Third, through their virtuous behaviour, leaders can influence the virtuous behaviour of others in the organisation through internalisation, fostering a more virtuous organisational climate (Cameron and Winn, 2012). Positive organisational psychologists argue that virtue in organisations, in turn, leads to a self-reinforcing spiral of positive practices (such as prosocial behaviourand increased commitment), as well as positive feelings (such as emotional well-being, and job engagement satisfaction; Cameron et al., 2004). Besides, the virtue of the organisation has buffering properties, giving organisations the resilience to face difficult times, for example through increased solidarity and trust (Cameron et al., 2004; Nikandrou and Tsachouridi, 2015).

Consistent picture

Because coherent measures of virtuous leadership have only recently been developed, they have been used only by a small number of studies. However, the available studies paint a consistent picture: employees with virtuous leaders thrive more. Riggio et al. (2010) and Hendriks et al. (2020) show that employees in Western countries who rate their supervisor as more virtuous score better on several dimensions of work-related well-being, such as moral identity, psychological empowerment, identification with emotional well-being, and job satisfaction). The study of Wang and Hackett (2016) shows that American employees with more virtuous leaders also had higher general well-being (happiness and life satisfaction) and performed better within their job responsibilities (‘in-role’) and beyond this range of duties (‘extra-role’), even after correcting for the charismatic style of leaders.

These findings are consistent with the positive relationships found between individual virtues and employee performance and well-being. Thun and Kelloway (2011) found in their study with North American employees that employees with prudent leaders had a more affective engagement, employees with moderate leaders had more confidence and that employees with more fellow human leaders had more involvement, psychological well-being and trust in the leader. Prottas (2013) shows in a sample of American employees that employees with upright leaders have higher well-being, while Mackey et al. (2017) show that exploitative forms of leadership are associated with lower performance and less well-being of employees. At an organisational level, virtue is also related to better performance and well-being of employees (see, among others, Chun, 2009).

Despite the abundant correlational evidence that employees flourish more with virtuous leaders, further research using coherent measures of virtuous leadership in different contexts (such as industries) is needed to better identify causal relationships.

Self-Restraint, one of the virtues of Buddhism, pertains to the sense organs to achieve right concentration of mind: “If this is not attained, knowledge and insight which see things as they really are will not be attained” (Tachibana, 1992). Consequences for not having self-restraint take the form of vanity and binding one’s self to human passions. (Sculpture: Head of Buddha, 5th–6th century, Afghanistan, probably Hadda; stucco with traces of paint, 19.1 x 12.1 x 11.4 cm. Collection of The Met, New York)

Do leaders flourish through virtuous leadership?

A major reason why leaders regularly behave mischievously is their belief that acting righteously will have negative consequences, both for themselves and the organisation. In some situations, especially in the short term, mischievous behaviour can indeed have positive effects. For example, fraudulent behaviour regularly yields objective (financial) benefits in the short term. However, current empirical evidence consistently shows that virtuous leaders tend to flourish more. Wang and Hackett (2016), for example, show that virtuous leaders have higher hedonic well-being and are more effective leaders in organisations.

The literature on character strengths, which is mainly rooted in positive organisational psychology, shows that the use of a person’s character strengths and working on character weaknesses can be conducive to subjective well-being (eg Seligman et al., 2005), sense of purpose at work (Littman-Ovadia and Steger, 2010) and work performance (Lavy and Littman-Ovadia, 2017). Positive associations are often also found in studies of specific virtues. Sosik et al. (2012) find that the courage, social intelligence and especially integrity of leaders in corporate America are positively related to how their executives and board members rate the performance of these leaders.

An American experiment by Robinson et al. (2013) shows that others are more willing to do business in the future with CEOs who are compassionate. In relation to the well-being of the leader, Krause and Hayward (2015) find that more practical wisdom (prudence) is associated with a stronger sense of self-esteem and more hope. Thus, current literature suggests that virtuous leaders tend to flourish more. These findings confirm that good character is fundamental to effective leadership and that there is generally no ‘trade-off’ for leaders between virtuous behaviour and self-interest.

Six mechanisms

In theory, there are several mechanisms by which virtuous leaders perform better. First, a significant portion of the performance of leaders depends on the performance of employees and, as noted, virtuous leadership generally has a positive impact on employee performance.

Second, investors, customers and suppliers are more willing to do business with virtuous leaders. This has a positive influence on both the performance and the well-being (e.g. self-esteem) of the leader (Robinson et al., 2013).

Third, virtuous leaders tend to be more awe-inspiring because they are more respected and trusted. This allows them to implement their vision and ideas more effectively in the organisation (Yukl, 2010).

Fourth, virtuous leaders tend to be more engaged at work. For example, they experience work as more meaningful (Bass and Riggio, 2006), which helps in achieving personally valued goals (Arjoon, 2000).

Fifth, good character helps leaders in the ethical decision-making process (Crossan et al., 2013), promoting effective decision-making.

Sixth, virtuous behaviour has intrinsic benefits. For example, a large number of studies show that prosocial behaviour makes a person happier (Dunn et al., 2008).

And finally, virtuous leaders have better relationships and foster a virtuous organisational climate, which relates positively to both job happiness and performance (Cameron and Winn, 2012).

Do organisations flourish through virtuous leadership?

Good leadership can contribute to better performance of the organisation as a whole, through the positive associations with the performance of leaders and employees. On the other hand, a lack of virtuous leadership can damage the company’s reputation and thus make the company less attractive to investors, customers and suppliers (Shanahan and Seele, 2015).

They are better at mitigating risks than those whose behaviour is guided by deontological and utilitarian thinking (Chakrabarty and Bass, 2015) and, as a result, attract responsible investors. However, virtuous behaviours can also be costly, such as compensating for potential negative impacts on ecological environments or local communities.

The literature on the virtue of organisations has examined the sum of these positive and negative effects. In this literature it is generally found that the virtue of the organisation is associated with positive performance of the organisation, for example, better financial performance (such as higher profitability) and better operational performance (such as increased customer loyalty and lower staff turnover; for an overview see Meyer, 2018). At the team level, Palanski et al. (2011) find that behavioural integrity leads to better performance as a result of greater transparency and trust in the team. Also, the 2007 global financial crisis and many corporate leadership scandals at, among others, Enron, WorldCom, Hewlett-Packard and Siemens and more recently Barclays, Volkswagen and Samsun, illustrate that neglect of virtuous leadership can cause serious harm to organisations and the economy.

In conclusion

The main conclusion of this literature review is that the current evidence shows that employees, organisations, and the leaders themselves tend to flourish more when the leader has a virtuous character and displays virtuous leadership. An important consideration is that the current evidence is primarily correlational and that more research is needed to better determine the causal impact of virtuous leadership on thriving in organisations in different contexts.

The findings of this literature review provide initial support for Hannah and Jennings (2013) proposition that leaders must be both of good character and competent to achieve sustainable success and that both alone are insufficient. This general pattern also suggests that the concerns of many leaders are unfounded, that virtuous leadership is adversely affecting themselves or their organisations.

The findings imply that organisations can potentially benefit greatly from fostering virtuous leadership. However, it should always be remembered that virtue is a reward in itself and does not require a positive instrumental outcome.

The weak case for grit

“It might surprise you to find out how little evidence there is to support the idea that boosting students’ ‘grit’ — their propensity to tenaciously attack difficult problems they encounter rather than give up — is a reliably effective way to improve their school performance or to close long-standing education gaps,” Jesse Singal writes in The Weak Case for Grit, an excerpt from his book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

Grit’s popularity is largely due to the work of the concept’s inventor and chief evangelist, Angela Duckworth. In her 2013 TED talk, which has almost 21 million views as of August 2020, she presents grit as a new way of looking at, among other things, the old problem of school achievement: “In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ. But what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?”

“The media have helped spread the idea that Duckworth discovered something new and exciting […]. Her book has been a long-term bestseller. The Obama Department of Education expressed a lot of enthusiasm about grit, and The Sacramento Bee reported in 2015 that some schools in California were giving students a ‘grit’ grade. Yet Duckworth doesn’t appear to have ever explicitly claimed that she had discovered a reliable way of increasing grit. At one point in her TED talk she said, ‘Every day, parents and teachers ask me, «How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?» The honest answer is, I don’t know.’”

A few months after her 2013 TED Talk, Duckworth won the MacArthur grant for clarifying the role that intellectual strengths and personality traits play in educational achievement. But “[t]he evidence for her strongest claims about grit’s efficacy still hasn’t arrived,” Singal argues. “Almost two decades since she started her research, it has not been established that grit is a genuinely useful concept that tells us much that we didn’t already know — or that it can be boosted, anyway. As Duckworth and her colleagues acknowledge in their very first paper on grit, personality psychologists already have a concept that seems similar: conscientiousness.”

“[T]here was never much in the literature to support either of the two ideas that launched grit on its way: that it was more useful than conscientiousness and that it seriously outperformed ‘traditional’ measures of cognitive or, in the context of military training, physical performance. It is difficult to justify Duckworth’s statement that grit ‘beats the pants’ off older, more established measures. Many of the examples she gives consisted of studies in which the predictive usefulness of grit wasn’t compared with its most obvious competitor, conscientiousness, in which grit simply didn’t perform as well as traditional measures, or both,” Jesse Singal writes in The Weak Case for Grit. (Photograph: Angela Duckworth at het desk at the University of Pennsylvania, by Zave Smith)

Which leaves the concept where, exactly?

The most comprehensive answer, according to Singal, came from Marcus Crede, a reform-minded psychologist who has made it his mission to critique what he views as questionable findings in his field and has a particularly keen interest in education and workplace performance.

“Both grit and conscientiousness seem to be measuring the same underlying concept, argue Crede and his co-authors [Michael C. Tynan and Peter D. Harms in Much Ado About Grit]. Therefore, they suggest, grit’s popularity might be the result of the jangle fallacy in which people believe that two things that are actually the same are different simply because they have different names. That is, if Duckworth had published research showing that conscientiousness can, to a certain extent, predict academic success, other researchers would have rolled their eyes and said, ‘Of course, we already knew that.’ But by presenting a seemingly new concept with a catchy name, Duckworth might have gotten a great deal of mileage out of an idea that had been part of the literature all along (which is not to suggest that this was some sort of intentional obfuscation on her part). NPR reported in 2016 that Duckworth, responding to this critique, said she would prefer to think of grit as ‘a member of the conscientiousness family,’ but one with independent predictive powers.

As for the question of grit’s malleability, there isn’t much evidence of reliable, scalable interventions for increasing conscientiousness or grit. That isn’t to say conscientiousness remains immutable across the life span. ‘Happily, many studies show that conscientiousness does change with age,’ Brent Roberts, a leading personality psychologist […], told [Singal] in an email. ‘And, not only does it change, but typically for the better — it goes up … Of course, changing slowly, incrementally, through life experiences is nice, but may provide little solace to the parent of a teenager who remains unmotivated.» (Sure enough, one of Duckworth’s key early papers includes a chart showing average grit differences by age that exhibits this general pattern.)”

All of this, Singal argues, “offers a strong reason to be skeptical of the claim that grit instruction — or any sort of similar effort, really — could make much of a dent in the massive problem that is American educational inequality. But I’d go a step further: It may be unfair to poor kids to focus on grit. Doing so reflects a blinkered understanding of how inequality operates and perpetuates itself. It could be that the grit hype caught on because of its seductive promise to spare us a great deal of trouble. A serious effort to make life less unfair for neglected kids would likely require enacting bigger, more ambitious redistributive social programs — social programs that are very unlikely to be enacted given the state of 21st-century American politics. Grit, by contrast, is a quick fix.”

The misinformation virus

“Lies and distortions don’t just afflict the ignorant. The more you know, the more vulnerable you can be to infection,” Elitsa Dermendzhiyska writes in The misinformation virus.

“To fully grasp the pernicious nature of the misinformation virus, we need to reconsider the innocence of the host. It’s easy to see ourselves as victims of deception by malicious actors. It’s also tempting to think of being misinformed as something that happens to other people — some unnamed masses, easily swayed by demagoguery and scandal. […] But as it turns out, misinformation doesn’t prey only on the ignorant: sometimes, those who seem least vulnerable to the virus can prove its keenest hosts, and even handmaidens.

Startling evidence for this possibility comes from Dan M Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale University who has been studying how ordinary people evaluate complex societal risks. One strand of his research is trying to shed light on the sometimes dramatic disparity between public opinion and scientific evidence. Together with a small group of researchers, in 2010 Kahan set out to demystify this disparity in relation to global warming. At the time, despite widespread consensus among climate scientists, only 57 percent of Americans believed that there was solid evidence for global warming, and just 35 per cent saw climate change as a serious problem. ‘Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they face but agreed so little about what they collectively know,’ Kahan wrote.

One explanation, which Kahan calls the ‘science comprehension thesis,’ holds that people have insufficient grasp of science, and are unlikely to engage in the deliberate, rational thinking needed to digest these often complex issues. It’s a plausible explanation, yet Kahan suspected that it doesn’t tell the whole story.

In the 2010 study, published in Nature in 2012, Kahan and his collaborators measured subjects’ science literacy and numeracy, and plotted those against the participants’ perceived risk of global warming. If the science comprehension thesis was right, then the more knowledgeable the subjects, the more they’d converge towards the scientific consensus. Surprisingly, however, the data revealed that those who scored high on hierarchy and individualism — the hallmark values of a conservative outlook — exhibited the opposite pattern: as their science literacy and numeracy increased, their concern for climate change actually declined. What explains this seeming paradox?

Kahan argues that rather than being a simple matter of intelligence or critical thinking, the question of global warming triggers deeply held personal beliefs. In a way, asking for people’s take on climate change is also to ask them who they are and what they value. For conservatives to accept the risk of global warming means to also accept the need for drastic cuts to carbon emissions — an idea utterly at odds with the hierarchical, individualistic values at the core of their identity, which, by rejecting climate change, they seek to protect. Kahan found similar polarisation over social issues that impinge on identity, such as gun control, nuclear energy and fracking, but not over more identity-neutral subjects such as GMO foods and artificial sweeteners. In cases where identity-protective motivations play a key role, people tend to seek and process information in biased ways that conform to their prior beliefs. They might pay attention only to sources they agree with and ignore divergent views. Or they might believe congruent claims without a moment’s thought, but spare no effort finding holes in incongruent statements: the brightest climate-change deniers were simply better than their peers at counter-arguing evidence they didn’t like. This hints at a vexing conclusion: that the most knowledgeable among us can be more, not less, susceptible to misinformation if it feeds into cherished beliefs and identities. And though most available research points to a conservative bias, liberals are by no means immune.”

The illusory truth effect, as it’s known, suggests that the easier to process and more familiar something is, the more likely we are to believe it. […] This can pose a challenge for corrections that work by repeating the original misinformation. Consider, this retraction to a myth prone to ensnare hopeful new mothers: ‘Listening to Mozart will not boost your child’s IQ.’ The tiny ‘not’ mid-sentence is all that sets the myth and its correction apart — and it’s easy to imagine that as time passes and memory fades, that ‘not’ will wash away, leaving Mozart’s symphonies and smarter babies linked together in memory, and making the myth more familiar,” Elitsa Dermendzhiyska writes in The misinformation virus. (Painting: The Boy Mozart, 1763 on commission by Leopold Mozart, anonymous, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1721–1782); oil on canvas, Collection of the Mozarteum, Salzburg)

“In a 2003 study, Geoffrey Cohen, then a professor of psychology at Yale, now at Stanford University, asked subjects to evaluate a government-funded job-training programme to help the poor. All subjects were liberal, so naturally the vast majority (76 per cent) favoured the policy. However, if subjects were told that Democrats didn’t support the programme, the results completely reversed: this time, 71 per cent opposed it. Cohen replicated this outcome in a series of influential studies, with both liberal and conservative participants. He showed that subjects would support policies that strongly contradict their own political beliefs if they think that others like them supported those policies. Despite the social influence, obvious to an outsider, participants remained blind to it, and attributed their preferences to objective criteria and personal ideology. This would come as no surprise to social psychologists, who have long attested to the power of the group over the individual, yet most of us would doubtless flinch at the whiff of conformity and the suggestion that our thoughts and actions might not be entirely our own.

For Kahan, though, conformity to group beliefs makes sense. Since each individual has only negligible impact on collective decisions, it’s sensible to focus on optimising one’s social ties instead. Belonging to a community is, after all, a vital source of self-worth, not to mention health, even survival. Socially rejected or isolated people face heightened risks of many diseases as well as early death. Seen from this perspective, then, the impulse to fit our beliefs and behaviours to those of our social groups, even when they clash with our own, is, Kahan argues, ‘exceedingly rational’. Ironically, however, rational individual choices can have irrational collective consequences. As tribal attachments prevail, emotions trump evidence, and the ensuing disagreement chokes off action on important social issues.


It’s easy to despair over all the cognitive quirks, personal biases and herd instincts that can strip our defences against the ever-evolving misinformation machinery. I certainly did. Then, I found Elizabeth Levy Paluck. She is a psychologist at Princeton University who studies prejudice reduction, a field in which a century of research appears to have produced many theories but few practical results. In 2006, she led an ambitious project to reduce ethnic hostilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She blended a number of prominent theories to create a ‘cocktail of treatments’: a radio drama, in which characters from different communities modelled cooperation and mutual trust; a talk show whose host read audience letters replete with messages of tolerance, and who encouraged listeners to put themselves in the shoes of outgroup members. Nothing worked. After a year of broadcasting, prejudice remained as entrenched as ever.

For Paluck, this was ‘an empirical and theoretical puzzle,’ prompting her to wonder if beliefs might be the wrong variable to target. So she turned to social norms, reasoning that it’s probably easier to change what we think others think than what we ourselves do. In 2012, Paluck tested a new approach to reducing student conflict in 56 middle schools in New Jersey. Contrary to popular belief, some evidence suggests that, far from being the product of a few aggressive kids, harassment is a school-wide social norm, perpetuated through action and inaction, by bullies, victims and onlookers. Bullying persists because it’s considered typical and even desirable, while speaking up is seen as wrong. So how do you shift a culture of conflict? Through social influence, Paluck hypothesised: you seed supporters of a new norm and let them transmit it among their peers. In some schools, Paluck had a group of students publicly endorse and model anti-bullying behaviours, and the schools saw a significant decline in reported conflicts — 30 per cent on average, and as much as 60 per cent when groups had higher shares of well-connected model students.

I’ve wondered recently if […] misinformation is becoming part of the culture, if it persists because some of us actively partake in it, and some merely stand by and allow it to continue. If that’s the case, then perhaps we ought to worry less about fixing people’s false beliefs and focus more on shifting those social norms that make it OK to create, spread, share and tolerate misinformation. Paluck shows one way to do this in practice — highly visible individual action reaching critical mass; another way could entail tighter regulation of social media platforms. And our own actions matter, too. As the Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson said in 1917, ‘everything is what it is because it got that way.’ We are, each and every one of us, precariously perched between our complicity in the world as it is and our capacity to make it what it can be.”

And also this…

“Forget the seduction of grand theories and presentist moral judgments. To learn the lessons of the past, the great foreign policy analysts of our age must rediscover the art of historical discernment,” Iskander Rehman argues in his essay Why applied history matters.

“For centuries, a solid grounding in history was considered essential both to the conduct of statecraft, and to the prosecution of military strategy. From the Ancient Greeks to the Victorians, the careful study of past events lay at the heart of ‘practical wisdom,’ or prudence, and the mastering of such a historical techne was perceived as one of the finest political arts. Not only did history teach humility, it was also a school of statesmanship, that provided a mental ‘workshop within which basic ideas about core policy issues (could) be hammered out,’ thus enhancing future strategic performance. As Polybius famously noted in the Histories,

‘There are two ways by which all men can reform themselves, the one through their own mischances, and the other through those of others (…) For it is the mental transference of similar circumstances to our own times that gives us the means of forming presentiments of what is about to happen, and enables us at certain times to take precautions and at others, by reproducing former conditions, to face with more confidence the difficulties that menace us.’

And indeed, for statesmen grappling with the uncertainty of their present circumstances, the business of liaising between the universal and the particular has often been conceptualized in terms of a temporal process, with the hope that the lessons of yesteryear hold the promise of better ascertaining future outcomes. As Yaacov Vertzberger has rightly observed, history teaches by analogy, enlightens by metaphor, and educates by extrapolation; but analogy can mislead, metaphor can be misplaced and extrapolation misguided. The acquisition of a historical sensibility should thus go hand in hand with a certain degree of intellectual caution — one that avoids succumbing to deterministic historical narratives, and that does not systematically rely on analogical reasoning as a means of predictive inference.

Perhaps most importantly, the accomplished historian is a skilled manager of complexity and a processor of information — someone trained to detect patterns of cause and effect. The great Harvard historian John Clive thus once wondered whether,

‘… historians, especially those dealing with abstract entities like groups and classes and movements, have to possess a special metaphorical capacity, a plastic or tactile imagination that can detect shapes or configurations where others less gifted see only jumble and confusion.’

If so, then it would seem as though the historically trained mind reflects many of the mental processes most prized by generals and statesmen. Political and military judgment, like historical study, demands a capacity for integration, for perceiving qualitative similarities and differences, and a ‘sense of the unique fashion in which various factors combine in the particular situation.

And yet despite the seemingly obvious benefits to be derived from its study, applied history appears to have fallen out of favour. As much of American political science has become more positivist in its intellectual leanings — with a heightened focus on quantitative methods, and theoretical abstraction — it has also become more narrowly self-referential. When contemporary political scientists do draw on military history, they often do so in a limited and self-serving way, retroactively selecting case studies that appear to confirm their parsimonious theories. The past is thus often viewed as a ‘treasure house, to be plundered in search of illustrative effect, rather than being examined and analyzed for its own sake.’ This dispiriting state of affairs, however, should not solely be attributed to the evolution of political science. Indeed, within the embattled academic field of history itself, the study of military and diplomatic history has been shunted to the sidelines, and the production of policy-relevant works of historical analysis is often frowned upon. On popular national security or foreign policy websites, military and diplomatic historians remain heavily outnumbered by political scientists.”

The problem, however, is not that too many people draw on Thucydides, Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, but rather that they often do so superficially, self-servingly, and seem to not have fully read the texts in question. Unfortunately, the same charges can also often be levied at their critics — especially those in the field of political science — who frequently fail to properly engage with the relevant primary and secondary literature. (Consider, for example, this recent academic roundtable on the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap,’ which does not incorporate a single classicist or ancient historian),”Iskander Rehman writes in his essay Why applied history matters. (Mosaic: Thucydides mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE. Collection of the Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

“Meanwhile, many of the most well-examined case studies in the security studies literature — from America’s approach to carrier warfare to the Wehrmacht’s adoption of the blitzkrieg strategy during World War II — are by now overly familiar. Vast spans of military history, from late antiquity to the early modern era, are considered less relevant to contemporary concerns and almost uniformly ignored, with contemporary international relations scholars drawing the overwhelming majority of their historical case studies from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. The great French historian Marc Bloch famously inveighed against this tendency for analysts to consider only the more recent historical periods to be the most relevant, caustically asking,

‘What would one think of the geophysicist who, satisfied with having computed their remoteness to a fraction of an inch, would then conclude that the influence of the moon upon the earth is far greater than that of the sun? Neither in outer space, nor in time, can the potency of a force be measured by the single dimension of distance.’

One could apply the same metaphorical association — of distance versus relevance — to geography as well as time. Granted, there is most definitely, as scholars such as David Kang have repeatedly urged, a pressing need for more substantive work focused on Asian diplomatic and military history. Acquiring a better understanding of China and India’s military pasts, along with seminal texts such as Arthashastra or The Three Kingdoms, for example, is essential to understanding both Asian behemoths’ respective strategic cultures and ideational outlook. That being said, the oft-subsidiary assumption that one should automatically dismiss certain periods in history or strategic traditions as irrelevant to contemporary challenges in Asia, is not only shortsighted, but also somewhat disconcerting. Is the underlying premise of such culturally freighted arguments that the lessons to be derived from European history are somehow solely for Europeans, and the lessons and insights from Asian history only for Asians? Can we not somehow all pool and learn from our collective historical experiences rather than hive them off into our respective sub-disciplinary corners?

Moreover, there is an additional risk nested within such culturalist assumptions: that of falling victim to the more insidious variant of regional essentialism promoted by authoritarian state actors such the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, Beijing has long insisted that its supposedly exceptional historical trajectory entitles it to an unprecedented degree of deference on the basis of a so-called ‘different historical model of international relations.’ It is not immediately apparent, however, that China’s much-touted ‘tributary model’ of international relations provides a better repository of insights into its current behavior in the South China Sea, than, say — the Valois and Plantagenet dynasties’ sophisticated use of lawfare for purposes of territorial contestation in the fraught decades leading up the Hundred Years War. Lessons can be gleaned and applied across different cultures as well as across different periods. There are most certainly rich seams of world history that remain woefully underexplored, but the default posture should not be to argue in favour of further disciplinary siloization, but rather to read more, to read deeper, and to read across traditions.”

You can also listen to Rehman’s excellent essay, read by Leighton Pugh.

There are many different ways in which luxury, technology and easy-living can ensnare us or box us in. In many ways, this is a modern and relatable phenomenon, but it goes back at least to the Roman writer, Tacitus,” Jonny Thomson notes in Lessons from the Roman Empire about the danger of luxury.

The use of luxury to win over a people is a tactic mirrored across time, ranging from cheap opium that was shipped to China by the British to cheap American TVs and refrigerators that inevitably worked their way into the USSR. “But the most relatable example for most of us today is our relationship with Big Tech. Companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google slowly and surely wire our lives into their algorithms and platforms. Social media are designed and calibrated to be deliberately addictive. Time- or money-saving services, like cloud-based storage, have become so universal, that going back is becoming impossible. It’s increasingly the case that we don’t even know our passwords for things — we let our phones or apps invent and store them for us. A new technology or service is initially a luxury, until it becomes so normalized and ubiquitous, so essential, that we can’t go back to the time before it appeared. What was once a ‘want’ becomes a ‘need.’”

“The Britons were enslaved, not by chains, but by their desire for good wine and elegant dinner parties, Tacitus noted. In fact, the governor of Britain, Agricola, deliberately sought to pacify this tribal warrior society by the ‘delightful distractions’ of warm baths, togas, and education,” . As Tacitus wrote, ‘The naïve Britons described these things as ‘civilization,’ when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement,” Jonny Thomson notes in Lessons from the Roman Empire about the danger of luxury. (Photograph: Sepulchral inscription for P. Cornelius Tacitus, the consul and historian. Collection of the Museo Epigrafico, Rome)

E. M. Forster’s novella, The Machine Stops, imagines a world where every facet of life is provided by ‘the machine.’ There are buttons ‘to call for food, music, clothing, hot baths, literature and, of course, communication with friends.’ How prescient has this turned out to be? Today, we have Uber, Skype, Hello Fresh, and Amazon Prime. Our friends and family are also plugged into the machine. Is it possible to leave?

Though we view technology as liberating, it also boxes us in. If we believe Tacitus, we are now enslaved by the things we once saw as luxury. It’s the job of philosophy to see these chains for what they are. And, as we examine our lives, we can then choose to wear them happily or start the long hard journey of throwing them off.”

In 2019, The New Yorker published a short essay by Oliver Sacks, The Machine Stops, in which he writes about the parallels between what he sees around him and the world described by E.M. Forster in The Machine Stops.

“When it came time to join the civil service himself, [Nikolai Gogol] had little interest in or patience for the entire endeavor. His middling grades at his lyceum in outside Kiev meant that, upon graduation, he had to enter the service at the 14th rank — the lowest,” Jennifer Wilson writes in Among the Rank and File.

“In 1828, Gogol moved from Ukraine to St. Petersburg to find work, landing first at the Department of State Economy and Public Buildings and then at the Department of Domains. Shortly after starting, he was diagnosed with hemorrhoids — which turned out to be a blessing in his eyes since it gave him an excuse to quit the post, which involved long hours sitting at a desk. ‘I am very glad this happened,’ he wrote to a friend.

Throughout his tenure in the civil service, Gogol more than once failed to return on time from a leave of absence, though this does not seem to have had much of an effect on his career (in fact, he was promoted after one of these delinquencies). He frequently wrote his mother letters to register his misery and frustration with the entire system and its effect on the residents of St. Petersburg: ‘No spirit sparkles in the people, everyone here is a clerk or official, everyone talks of their departments or ministries, everything is suppressed, everything is steeped in the trivial, insignificant labor in which their lives are pointlessly wasted.’”

“Through his tiny mistakes — misplaced plumes and miscategorized clerks — Gogol not only created a fictional world of his own but also mapped the unstable hierarchy and shaky ground of the actual one,” Jennifer Wilson writes in Among the Rank and File. (Painting: Nikolai Gogol, 1841, by Otto Friedrich Theodor von Möller; oil on canvas, 59 x 47 cm. Collection of The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

“It is tempting to see in Gogol’s satirical tales a kind of precursor to David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, his study of corporate bloat and capitalist inefficiency. Indeed, Graeber’s taxonomy of meaningless jobs and the people who hold them — flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, task makers, and bean counters — reads similarly to Gogol’s characterizations of the mind-numbing civil service positions open to him. Yet Gogol was ultimately less interested in the drudgery of office work than in the kind of people who built their lives around titles, prestige, and arbitrary notions of superiority. He drew on the grotesque and perfected the absurd in depicting their shallow worries and pointless cruelty. He also revealed the arbitrariness underpinning Peter’s supposedly meritocratic system: Mislabeling the ranks and ascribing the wrong kinds of jobs to certain titles, Gogol created his own world of random hierarchies, and in turn revealed the randomness of the real one.”

Skaters, dancers, hustlers, boxers… The Swiss photographer Willy Spiller prowled the streets of New York from 1977 to 1985, capturing characters from all walks of life. He currently has his first solo exhibition at Bildhalle, Amsterdam (from April 10th until May 22nd).

Source: Subway to Studio 54: a bygone New York — in pictures

A Train to Far Rockaway, 1978 — “His longtime friend and companion Paul Nizon once said: ‘I‘ve often asked myself what made Willy Spiller’s photography so forthright, so refreshing and so riveting.’” (Photography by Willy Spiller)
Edna on Wheels, 1979 (left) and Leroy in Harlem, 1984 — “The series New York, 1977–1985, was shot while Willy Spiller lived in the Big Apple.”
Sunday Morning on Orchard Street, NY, 1980 — “Whether he focused his camera on subway rides, dancers at the legendary Studio 54 or hip-hop culture in the streets, Spiller captured many facets of a bygone world.”
A Train to Brighton Beach, 1977 — “His images have appeared in numerous European newspapers and magazines and he has received prizes for both his published and exhibited work.”
Elevated Station 180 St, 1982 — “Paul Nizon concluded: ‘I believe it’s a blend of unabashed curiosity and roguish complexity combined with a fraternal sense of compassion.’”
Lunch on Broadway, 1982 — “And that is the reason Spiller sides with humanity, which is just another way of saying that he has an innate love of mankind.”
Moby, whose real name is Richard Melville Hall, was given his nickname by his father, shortly after birth. It’s a reference to the family’s ancestry; Moby is the great-great-great nephew of Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick (Photograph by Jonathan Nesvadba)

“If there’s one animal in this world that has every reason to wipe all fucking humanity off the face of the earth, it’s the cow. Cows approach us with innocence and vulnerability and we respond with torture and murder. If you spend some time with cows you will find out what beautiful animals they are. Playful, social and curious. Really, if there was such a thing as a cosmic court, we would have long since lost our case against cows.” — Moby, from Moby’s whole kit and caboodle (de Volksrant Magazine, April 17, 2021)

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought