I’m tired of seeing bits of social science research taken out of context and presented to the public in soundbites that purport to offer insight into life — strategies for being happy or successful.  There’s nothing wrong with seeking better ways to be happy or successful, and to the extent that academic research sheds light on the matter, journalists should examine the research and share it with inquiring non-specialists.  But too often this sharing is done irresponsibly, in the form of soundbites that purport to have the authority of “research” behind them — soundbites that encapsulate a provocative idea without offering the reader enough context to think critically about it.  A particularly dangerous article in this genre cropped up in my newsfeed a few days ago, courtesy New York Magazine: It Pays to Be Overconfident, Even When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing.  Really?

The article summarizes a couple of academic papers that suggest that overconfident behavior — speaking firmly and making exaggerated claims of your ability — leads to increased social status and influence, and that even when people “overestimate their skills so grievously that you might expect to see backlash,” there is usually “insufficient downside” to deter the behavior.  The benefits of overconfidence outweigh the drawbacks, even when the overconfidence has been exposed as such, so you might as well “act like you run the place.”  Donald Trump may be a blowhard but it hasn’t hurt him — he’s still rich and famous, in some part because of his arrogance.

What should we make of this claim by academic psychologists, filtered through popular journalism, that it “pays” to be overconfident?  I should point out that the article is styled as a casual update on recent research, not a definitive statement on the question of how to behave.  The author acknowledges that overconfidence has some disadvantages, and never tells us explicitly what attitude we should adopt.  We are even told that the psychologists who conducted the research are undecided about what its practical implications should be.  But it’s the title of the article that will linger in readers’ minds — “It Pays To Be Overconfident” — along with the idea that this dictum has been somehow vetted by science.  The downsides of overconfidence are never thoroughly explored, the question of what makes good or bad research in psychology is ignored, and the criteria for judging a behavior’s worth are never mentioned: if it “pays” to be overconfident, whom does it pay, and in what measure?

The article mentions the Iraq war as an example of “overconfidence getting us into trouble,” and I feel the key points of the article can be rebutted simply by giving this one terrifying example the attention it deserves.  Why doesn’t the author linger just a little here?  Yes, overconfidence paid off handsomely for a bunch of elected officials as they sought to lure a nation into war.  The beneficiaries of overconfidence were those in power, and the benefit came in the form of influence.  The losers were everyone else: the Iraqis who lost their lives, the U.S. soldiers who lost their lives, an entire group of nations that got sucked into a costly, destructive, and unnecessary war.  As a behavior, overconfidence was both highly valuable to a small group of powermongers and extremely damaging to society at large.  Does it really pay to be overconfident?  Of course the answer depends on whether you look at the immediate returns for the overconfident individual, or at the long-term consequences for the many people in that individual’s sphere of influence.  If we were to judge behaviors by the former criterion — considering only the immediate returns for the perpetrator — it would be just as easy to argue that stealing is beneficial.  And of course, many people think it is.  I don’t.  I don’t think we should live our lives by blindly adopting whatever behavior brings us maximum individual advantage.  I believe we have a moral obligation to behave with honesty and integrity.  Overconfidence conflicts with those qualities, especially when it is adopted as a deliberate social strategy.  To me this point is so obvious that I shouldn’t need to write about it, but I fear that in a sea of soundbites claiming the authority of science, we very easily forget the obvious.

Music, Tuning

Overtone Scale II

In my previous post on the so called “overtone scale,” I questioned whether any scale defined in the context of 12-tone equal temperament can be said to mimic the harmonic series.  I provided an audio example that shows the way accurately tuned harmonic partials seem to fuse into a single tone, whereas when those partials are altered to match equal temperament, the composite sound is rough and unstable.  My point was that the special perceptual properties of the harmonic series depend on accurate intonation, an appropriate pattern of amplitude decay, and appropriate registration; we should be cautious about assuming that any scale constructed in equal temperament will somehow inherit the special properties of the harmonic series by virtue of an incomplete resemblance to it.  My aim in the post was not to call into question the musical worth of any particular scale (and certainly not to address George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept as a whole), but only to point out that the Lydian Dominant scale shouldn’t be called an “overtone scale” when played on the piano or any tempered instrument: that name is misleading.

In this post I’d like to share another simple audio example that might help readers form their own judgments on the matter.  If the scale 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7 really does invoke the harmonic series in our minds, even when we hear it on a tempered instrument, how would that scale sound if its pitches were brought into exact alignment with the harmonic series?  Would that tuning bring us closer to the essence of the scale, or would it conflict with what we want to hear?

In the first audio example below, you will hear the Lydian Dominant scale rendered on an equal-tempered organ.  The ascending and descending scale is followed by a short tune that I wrote in the scale.  In the second audio example, you’ll hear the Lydian Dominant scale tuned so its pitches match the harmonic series, followed again by the example tune.  The just intonation ratios used in the second clip are: 1/1, 9/8, 5/4, 11/8, 3/2, 13/8, 7/4.  You will hear that the second, third, and fifth degrees of the scale sound similar to what you hear in equal-temperament, while the flat seven, the sharp four, and the natural six are quite different.  (The flat seven is tuned to the seventh partial, the sharp four is tuned to the eleventh partial, and the natural six is tuned to the thirteenth partial.)  Which tuning do you prefer?

Clip 1 — Lydian Dominant Scale in Equal Temperament:


Clip 2 — Lydian Dominant Scale in Harmonic Series Tuning:

Music, Voice


In this clip I sing a Hindustani-style vocal alap in Rag Marwa, accompanying myself on tanpura.  Marwa is a difficult raga to sing as phrases often avoid sa (the home note) and seem to establish dha or re as an alternate tonic.  When the true sa is finally heard, the experience is more of a surprise than a comforting return home.  In the recording here I’m attempting to sing with the specific intonation I learned from my teacher.  The tanpura sometimes takes me an hour to really get in tune, as does the voice, and the raga should be sung at dusk, so it’s taken me many evenings of practice to get a usable recording. This one is far from perfect but it felt good to make and I hope you enjoy listening.