Addicted to Success

This is a repost from July 2013.  It’s been included in Understanding Global Higher Education: Insights from Key Global Publications.

The Con

Diederik Stapel

In the summer of 2011, a Dutch social psychologist was in the process of losing his job. His name was Diederik Stapel and he’d committed an unimaginable fraud: over ten years he’d falsified data for over 55 experiments, some of which formed the basis of doctoral theses he’d supervised.

Stapel was a researcher who studied “priming,” the influence exerted on individuals by suggestive information. He was most interested in its effects on self-assessment: his doctoral thesis focused on how we assimilate or contrast when primed with information. He argued, for example, that subjects asked to meditate on the abstract idea of “intelligence” will assimilate and see that trait in oneself and others. Conversely, subjects asked to imagine something more concrete, like “Einstein,” will contrast with the man’s genius and see themselves and others as unintelligent. The impact this data-gathering has for the persuasive arts cannot be underestimated. All good persuaders – from carnival barkers to political scribes – succeed or fail on the basis of this knowledge, be it the product of native intelligence or data gathering from focus groups. The work of professors like Stapel has the power to influence those in power and, arguably, to influence the kind of beliefs they disseminate.

Stapel’s story fascinates because, as the Greeks recognized, there’s a rubber-necker in all of us. His is a cautionary tale of hubris, accentuated by the sheer size of his deception. Like Bernie Madoff before him, Stapel fooled many people for many years. His mea culpa, a 315-page book titled Ontsporing (Derailment), has done little to redeem his reputation.

addicted, successThe facts are this: for three years after receiving his Ph.D, Stapel did the grunt work of experimentation and played within the rules. However, he reached a turning point while experimenting with attractiveness. He wanted to prove that how individuals rate theirs is influenced by their proximity to beauty. Subjects were flashed – on a screen and in a tenth of a second – the faces of others. Stapel’s hypothesis was that those who were flashed a plain face would assimilate and rate themselves as more attractive; those who were flashed an attractive face would contrast and find themselves less so. He started tinkering with the numbers when his hypothesis failed — he’d invested time and effort in the study and didn’t want to abandon it. His tinkering went undetected and the results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2004. According to Yudhijit Bhattacharee, who wrote about the scandal in the New York Times, the article caused a sensation and “Stapel’s career took off.”

Was he addicted?

Stapel’s thoughts about his actions are naturally self-serving and suspect. However, his references to addiction, in Bhattacharee’s account, ring true:

He described his behaviour as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high…Some friends, he said, asked him what could have made him stop. “I am not sure,” he told me. “I don’t think there was going to be an end. There was no stop button. My brain was stuck. It had to explode. This was the only way.”

addicted, success
Yudhijit Bhattacharee

Even after he became a dean at Tilburg University, Stapel still had difficulty “resisting the allure” of more falsified experiments. The allure appears to have been the obvious rewards of success, but also, and perhaps more darkly, the risk-taking involved in his fraud. He experienced the “high” of achieving acclaim, but also of knowing he was fooling his colleagues and getting away with it. No wonder then that when Ontsporing was published, unofficial and free versions soon appeared online. In what seems to be a reasonable response to collateral damage, Stapel’s victims did not want him to profit from the chaos he’d created. As I write this, several of his doctoral students are still awaiting judgements: their Ph.Ds theses, based on data authorities assert they knew was fabricated, may be revoked.

Much has been made of the academic context of Stapel’s fraud. Questions about the honesty of social scientists have arisen and rounds of finger-pointing, within the discipline, are focusing on subtler forms of dishonesty. However, despite the spectacle of Stapel’s fall, his addiction to power is almost canonical in our winner-take-all world. Chrystia Freeland writes about this phenomenon in Plutocrats, pointing to one clear symptom of it: the emergence of a more broadly defined superstar culture. This new stratosphere is not just for rock stars: there are celebrity chefs, decorators and, yes, professors too. It’s a new paradigm of meta-recognition, built on twin pillars of meritocracy and technocracy. Thanks to the internet, its effects are being felt globally.

Dislocation Theory

Bruce Alexander is interested in economics too. He’s a Canadian addiction specialist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. His ideas about addiction parallel trends noted by Freeland and provide further insights into them. He focuses on “dislocation,” a theory taken from the work of economist Karl Polyani:

addicted, success
Bruce Alexander, Author of The Globalization of Addiction

“Dislocation” is the condition of great numbers of human beings who have been shorn of their cultures and individual identities by the globalization of a “free-market society” in which the needs of people are subordinated to the imperatives of markets and the economy. Dislocation affects both people who have been physically displaced, such as economic immigrants and refugees, and people who have remained in place while their cultures disintegrated around them. Dislocation occurs during boom times as well as recessions, among the rich as well as the poor, among capitalists as well as workers. 

According to Alexander, the privileging of free-market systems, at the expense of cohesive communities, is at the heart of a global addiction problem that’s growing exponentially. A conspicuous addiction tells the story: obesity in the U.S. has risen steadily since the 1970s, a trend that correlates with the institution of free trade, a failed “war on drugs,” and various deregulation and anti-trade-union movements. The convergence of these policies started the U.S. on a path of income inequality that has, 30 years later, quite literally shot off the charts. This growth forward toward a pinpoint of privilege has been recognized, albeit belatedly. The problem is that leaders in a position to stop its momentum seem as helpless as the general public, and opportunities to redress its root causes are frequently foiled by partisan politics. That failure to strengthen communities and share prosperity, Alexander argues, has brought about widespread psychosocial disintegration and cultural diminishment. It’s a context that makes escape, chemical or otherwise, attractive.

addicted, successHow does Stapel’s fraud fit into the addiction landscape? Like Freeland’s superstars, Stapel sought recognition in his discipline and then meta-recognition beyond it. His needs, like an addict’s, come into sharper focus when we discover he initially studied acting and, later, once he finished his Ph.D, often appeared as a commentator on Dutch television. The search for acclaim is nothing new; big cities the world over are full of seekers and their stories. However, what sets Stapel apart is his level of success, which was quite laudable to begin with.

The Peacock Class and Income Inequality

This is where Freeland’s study of the peacock class — earners in the top 10% — comes in handy. Stapel’s excessive striving for recognition is hardly unusual when set against their behaviour. What is novel is that their environment seems to be changing and changing in ways that echo Alexander’s ideas about dislocation. For example, stratas within that elite group are appearing, stratas resembling divisions that used to exist in the lower 90%. Mirroring Stapel’s behaviour, these changes seem driven by individuals who are already rich, but want to be even richer. It’s a process of intensification addicts refer to as “the disease of more.” Freeland explains:

addicted, success
Chrystia Freeland

And even within tribes whose training collectively vaults them into the 1% — like bankers, lawyers or computer programmers — there’s a twist to the impact of skill-biased technological change that lessens the sense of group prosperity. This is what economists call the “superstar” effect — the tendency of both technological change and globalization to create a winner-take-all economic tournaments in many sectors and companies where being the most successful in your field delivers huge rewards, but coming in second place and certainly in fifth or tenth has lesser economic value.

The distribution of wealth in the top 10% reflects this obsession with earnings and perfection: it’s the top 1% within the 10 that are earning the most and earning the most by far. While on the surface this intensification seems inexplicable — we might wonder why these people aren’t satisfied —  an explanation can be found in a phenomenon called the “paradox of unhappy growth.” What this refers to, loosely, is the anxiety associated with instability caused by growth, even when the growth itself may be positive. So while the rural poor move to urban centers and earn more, they are generally less happy. They are also, Freeland observes, more “frustrated with their income.” These feelings of frustration, anxiety and unhappiness are paradoxical for those at the prosperous end of their class’ wealth spectrum: it seems that to avert uneasy feelings, they spend or reach for more.

So why isn’t the American middle-class getting richer? The class that found its footing in the post-war years of the last century is slowly being hollowed out by technology, leaving two classes left: high earners who are well-educated and at ease with computing, and low earners, who are left with the barista jobs. The chart below illustrates these nascent stratas in the top 10%. The lowest earning households in that group take home an average of $161,139, while the highest earning, three levels up and comprising just one-tenth of 1%, take home an average of 24 million.

addicted, success
Graph courtesy of Mother Jones.

The superstar effect is the key to explaining these top layers of wealth. The elites have the power to make the people who provide services for them — their lawyers, chefs and hairdressers — into superstars of their own. As Freeland points out, these providers are undoubtedly talented, but that doesn’t make their less-recognized peers any less so. Madonna may feel she has to fly to France to visit her superstar dentist, Bernard Touati, but that doesn’t mean there are no good dentists closer to home. However, it’s the perception of scarcity and value combined that is driving this clustering of money and talent, with the elites creating their own class of super-rich servants.

Cheat to Succeed?

So what do things like income inequality, Diederik Stapel and obesity have in common? The feelings that led Stapel to his choices are worth reflecting upon. As Bhattacharee reports:

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely lead to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth”…he [later] admitted to a lifelong obsession with…symmetry. 

Embedded in Stapel’s words are the technocrat’s credo: data, symmetry, order. There’s also the desire to avoid a mess, which is another trope of the technocratic perspective, a perspective that breeds organizing principles intolerant of less logical details, details that by their abundance and diversity contribute to communities’ identities and make them unique. It’s this wish to conveniently bin the elaborate tapestries that are our identities — that messy mass of details, in other words — that lies at the heart of Stapel’s troubles. The problem is that he is not an outlier in this regard, as his comments about the business of academic life make clear. Talking about that crucial moment when he first decided to cheat, Stapel told Bhattacharee that journal editors actively discourage complexity: ‘They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler.'” After hearing it often enough, he said, he made the decision to write “elegant” rather than truthful articles.

Commercial Interests and Education

What are the larger implications of this sort of commercial interference? The global student body is currently being seduced by a technocrat class that would like to train it for their future. One of its latest propositions is this: we will teach you online and cheaply, and you will be taught by the world’s best professors. Yes, there will be 10,000 of you in the same class, but you will connect via the internet. Yes, you will be graded by computer, which will have a reductive effect on what you learn, but your education will be affordable.

The superstar effect  — the perception of value and scarcity — is being used here to suggest that only a handful of professors, plucked off the global stage, are qualified to teach Calculus, American Literature or Anatomy. It’s a lie and a sales pitch, but combined with the prospect of inexpensive learning, it just might work. The real cost, of course, is that it’s a form of education that will relegate graduates to a lower class in a system designed by those in power. Their chances at upward mobility will depend, largely, on whether or not they please their betters.

It’s worth noting here that the wealthier classes will not be educating their children this way, and that there is more to this intersection of business and education than meets the eye. While most people are susceptible to the idea that if something is expensive it must be good, there is another rule that emerges when we apply this to private education, particularly education in the lower grades. It’s the less stated, albeit equally powerful idea that if one pays a private school a lot of money, one will get the grades one wants. That’s because intimidating non-unionized teachers in a private school is easier than intimidating unionized teachers in a public one. When it comes to universities, relegating masses of students to an online university (and away from a brick and mortar one) is a way of replicating, for the students who remain, the privileged environment of the private system — the balance of power, it’s likely, will be the same.

Diane Ravitch and Community Support

Diane Ravitch is an American historian of education. She and Bill Gates have crossed swords on many issues, but a recent argument that stands out is this: Gates is demanding that school boards stop paying premiums to teachers who have advanced degrees in education. It’s the latest bid he’s made to “improve” education, one in a series of eccentric bids that has brought about no improvement to the (mostly chartered) schools he’s supported. His camp will report that some under his guidance have improved, but as Ravitch points out, these are schools whose populations have changed composition. What she really means is that the weakest students have been weeded out and sent to neighbouring schools in the public system. That’s a system in decline, she says, thanks to the interference of Gates and other business leaders like New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

addicted, success
An American tent city

One difference between charter and public schools can be found in how they each reward students. Charters, it’s clear, focus on merit almost exclusively. Rewarding students on that basis — which is another technocrat ideal — is not in itself a bad thing. However, Gates and others like him are missing something important: these rewards need to be contextualized. They need to be managed locally, by communities that intimately know the children they are educating. That means letting go of donations once they are made. Rewards and punishments should not, as is the current case in some of Gates’ schools, be applied to third graders who don’t do well at math.

These are the students being counselled out of some charter schools. It’s a Darwinian approach to education as imagined by technocrats unprepared for the complexities of inclusive and comprehensive school management. It is a problem, moreover, that can be solved without Draconian measures: a qualified teacher with a manageable class size, ideally, would have the time to help her weaker students. Community support for both teacher and student, of the kind advocated by Alexander, Polyani and Ravitch, would help too. Fostering that kind of support is a messy business, however, making it less attractive to philanthropists expecting a return on their dollar.

It’s easy to blame university administrators and professors for the rise in the cost of education. They are obvious targets since they are on the physical premises. But they did not create the many tent cities that sprang up in the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis. That was the direct cause of greed and unethical business practices. If we want answers about why this happened, we need to look at banks and business communities and the people leading them. We also need to look at the politicians, and their parties, who gave these entities the lax oversight and standards they wanted.

When it comes to Diederik Stapel and his addiction to power, he is right about one thing: it was up to him to resist the siren call of fame. However, it might be helpful to ask who played the role of playground pusher and led him to where he would hear it.

More importantly, we can ask if he had enough support, the kind that would have allowed him to acknowledge he was addicted to success.

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