The usefulness of uselessness

Plus, a cognitive bias that makes you unnecessarily self-conscious

“One thing the past has taught me is that the world has endless opportunities to positively impact people's lives.”  –Maya Shankar

BRAIN WAVES

  • The joy of being useless. Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi praised the virtue of uselessness. In a parable, Zhuangzi explained that an old tree was “too twisted and gnarled to be used for beams or pillars,” with a trunk “too splotched and split to be used for a coffin.” A carpenter encounters the tree and deems it worthless lumber. But for the tree, this is a blessing. While useful trees get chopped down, the useless tree survives. Edward McDougall, a philosopher at Durham University in the United Kingdom, says this parable offers a valuable lesson about humanity. “It presents an alternative way to think of freedom – we must stop feeling that we have to be useful all the time, or seeing that there is no more to life than utility,” McDougall writes. “In this way, perhaps we can just be ourselves again.” If you’re feeling burnt out, read McDougall’s case for uselessness.

  • Risky business. Researchers recently looked at how our moral judgments affect our perceptions of COVID risk. They found that people judge how risky an activity is based on what they deem to be moral or immoral behavior. For example, in one scenario, "Joe" was stuck in an elevator with strangers not wearing masks – he needed to mail "a crucial work document.” But in another scenario, Joe got stuck in the elevator on his way to pay a hostile drug dealer. As predicted, people judged behavior as less risky if they thought the behavior was morally justified or if it couldn’t be helped. “The effect in our paper is small, but congruent with previous work,” said co-author Cailin O'Connor. “Possible implications for public health messaging: 1) risk messaging should track real risk, not morality, and 2) risk messaging should (maybe) focus on morally good activities like going to church or protests.” Read more about their research here.

  • Think about the last time you asked someone for something. Maybe you were nervous or worried about what the person would think of you. But you might not have realized that they might be feeling the same way. “Egocentric bias” can make it hard to see things from another person’s perspective, and it can make us unnecessarily self-conscious. Listen to learn more.

ON THE PODCAST

May 24: Has life ever stopped you in your tracks, forcing you onto an entirely different path? Maya Shankar was well on her way to an extraordinary career as a violinist when an injury closed that door. She eventually found a new path forward in a very different field.

May 31: What do the things you own say about who you are? Bruce Hood studies the psychology behind our possessions – from childhood memorabilia to the everyday objects we leave behind.

MIND GAMES

Five years ago, a boy was three times as old as his sister. Now he is only twice as old. How old are the boy and his sister?

LAST WEEK’S PUZZLE

What is special about these words: job, polish, herb?

The answer: Capitalize the first letter and they’re all pronounced differently.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

A MOMENT OF JOY

The 2007 viral video “Charlie Bit My Finger” may be disappearing from YouTube soon. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

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