Tag Archives: interviews

Making Sense of Our Compulsions

Photo credit: Kayana Szymczak

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2017 | 15 minutes (3,932 words)


Checking our smartphones every few minutes. Making sure every spice jar is in the exact right place in the rack. Shopping. Stealing. Working nonstop. Hoarding. “Compulsions come from a need so desperate, burning, and tortured it makes us feel like a vessel filling with steam, saturating us with a hot urgency that demands relief,” Sharon Begley writes in her new book, Can’t Just Stop. “Suffused and overwhelmed by anxiety, we grab hold of any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control.”

In a time of extreme anxiety for many of us, Begley’s book feels particularly relevant. In chapters that run the gamut from obsessive-compulsive disorder to compulsive do-gooding, Begley—a senior science writer for STAT, whose previous books include The Emotional Life of Your Brain and Train Your Mind, Change Your Brainexplores how behaviors that range widely in both character and extremity can come from a common root. “Venturing inside the heads and the worlds of people who behave compulsively not only shatters the smug superiority many of us feel when confronted with others’ extreme behavior,” she writes. “It also reveals elements of our shared humanity.” Begley and I spoke by phone about what anxiety is, exactly; her own compulsions; and whether it’s possible to have no compulsions (not likely).

What is the definition of “compulsion,” as compared to addiction and impulsive behaviors?

This was the first thing that I had to grapple with. The first thing I did was go around to psychologists and psychiatrists and start asking, “What is the difference between these three things?” To make a long story as short as possible, they really didn’t have a clue, or at least they were not very good at explaining it—to the extent that the same disorder would be described in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, using “compulsive” one time and “impulsive” the next.

So where I finally came down, after finding people who had really thought about this, is as follows. Impulsive behaviors are ones that go from some unconscious part of your brain right to a motor action. There is very little emotion except for that feeling of impulsivity. There’s certainly little to no thought involved.

Behavioral addictions—and this is where I thought it started to get interesting—are born in something pleasurable. If you’re addicted to gambling, it probably is because, at least when you started, it was a whole lot of fun. You loved it. You got a hedonic hit, a pulse of enjoyment. And certainly as things go along, a behavioral addiction like gambling can cause you all sorts of distress and destroy your life. But at least at the beginning, it brings you extreme pleasure.

Compulsions are very different. They come from this desperate, desperate need to alleviate anxiety. They’re an outlet valve. The anxiety makes you want to jump out of your skin, or it makes you feel like your skin is crawling with fire ants. And what compulsions do is bring relief only after you have executed the compulsion, whether it is to exercise, or to check your texts, or to shop, or to keep something if you’re a hoarder. And crucially, compulsions, although they bring relief, bring almost no enjoyment except in the sense that if you stop banging your head against a wall, then it feels good to stop. Read more…

The Intelligence, Intuition, and Sex Lives of Octopuses

Photo by damn_unique  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In an interview at National Geographic, Sy Montgomery, author of the book The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, reflects on the uncanny intelligence, intuition, and surprising sex lives of octopuses.

The fact that three-fifths of an octopus’ neurons are not in their brain, but in their arms, suggests that each arm has a mind of its own. All of these things make it very hard to measure the intelligence because, we only have four lobes in our brains, while octopus have 50 to 75, depending on how you count them. It’s hard to take the measure of the mind of somebody like that.

I heard one story about an octopus in a home tank, who would get out, cruise around the house, take knick-knacks and drag them back to its tank. Like a dog! They’re so smart that there are octopus enrichment handbooks so you don’t bore your octopus. I’ve seen them play with Legos, Mr. Potato Head, you name it!

…the female whooshed into the male’s arms. They enveloped each other and turned colors with their emotions. There was a lot of wrapping around and afterward they turned white, which is the color of a relaxed octopus and they lay literally in each other’s arms, holding each other, for hours. It was lovely.

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Paul Auster: ‘I Feel Utterly Astonished That We Could Have Come to This’

Photo by Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder (CC BY 2.0)

In a candid interview at the Guardian, author Paul Auster — who turns 70 next month — discusses his breadth of work over the decades, American life and politics in the age of Trump, and his new novel, 4321, which he refers to as the biggest book of his life.

“I’ve been struggling ever since Trump won to work out how to live my life in the years ahead,” he says. And he has decided to act: “I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself.”

In 4321 the young Fergusons react to landmark events of 1960s US history: the civil rights movement and JF Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam war and the student protests at Columbia University in 1968. I ask Auster if there any connections to be made between then and now. “Tumultuous as those times were, they weren’t as depressing as what’s going on today,” he reflects. “How little has changed in American life since then. Race is still a very big problem. Stupid foreign policy decisions are still being made. And the country is just as divided now as it was then. It seems as though America has always been split between the people who believe in the individual above everything else, and those people who believe we’re responsible for one another.”

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A Conversation With Dan Ariely About What Shapes our Motivations

Photo Credit: May R.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2016 | 14 minutes (3,711 words)


“It’s astonishing to me how some ideas endure even when it’s obvious that they are no longer relevant,” Dan Ariely writes in his latest book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. A professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely relentlessly examines our assumptions about ourselves—and finds they’re often totally misconstrued. We think, for example, that money is our main motivator in the workplace. But not only are “a sense of connection, meaning, ownership, and long-term thinking” often more effective, it also turns out that monetary bonuses can work against us, undermining our commitment to the work itself. In one study, workers at a semiconductor factory were offered rewards of a pizza voucher, a compliment, money, or nothing on the first day of a workweek. That first day, the voucher and the compliment boosted productivity more than the bonus, but all three motivated people more than the control condition (getting nothing). But as the week went on, people who’d gotten the bonus that first day began to perform worse than people who hadn’t been rewarded at all!

Please excuse the exclamation point, but it’s hard to describe an Ariely finding without one. His work often so directly counters our common understandings that it’s startling, even funny. This also has a lot to do with Ariely himself. His tenacity as a researcher is matched by his commitment to sharing his ideas with the public, in plain language and often with a dose of humor. He’s written a slew of popular books, including Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, and given a number of TED Talks. (Full disclosure: I wrote about Ariely for TED last year.) We spoke by phone on a mid-October morning, and Ariely was professorial in the best way: no jargon, tons of examples, and committed to helping me understand.

Your field is behavioral economics. What is that, exactly?

There are two ways to explain it. The first one is in opposition to standard economics. In standard economics, we assume all kinds of things about people: that they know their preferences, that they always make decisions that are in their best interest, that they don’t have emotions or limitations of time and attention and thinking capacity. Based on those assumptions, economists go ahead and make recommendations on how to design our lives, how to do our tax and education and healthcare systems.

Behavioral economics just doesn’t start with any assumptions. Rather than saying, “People are perfectly rational,” behavioral economics starts by saying, “We just don’t know.” Let’s put people in different situations and see how they behave. And when you put people in different situations, people often behave very differently than most rational economists would expect. Because of that, the recommendations that come from behavioral economics are very different.

The second definition is that behavioral economics is really, for me at least, an applied field of social science that is designed to figure out how we actually make decisions and how to make things better. Now, not everybody is interested in the “better” part, but it’s an analysis of the true forces that influence us in our day-to-day lives and how we harness those forces to improve our ability to make decisions. Read more…

Dancing Naked in Public

Courtesy: Jerry Saltz

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,104 words)


If the contemporary art world seems like a place of pretension, status-seeking, and giant checks being paid through Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, then it’s the critic Jerry Saltz who may be the last hope of bringing us all back down to earth. As Saltz once wrote: although contemporary art may not be of everyone’s taste, it’s still for everyone.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Saltz went to the Chicago Art Institute wanting to be a painter but dropped out; he soon became a long-distance truck driver, but after a decade of driving, he decided life couldn’t get any worse and that he might as well go back to his truest passion. So in the early-1980s, with no formal degree, he moved to New York and entered the art criticism scene, writing mostly for the Village Voice. Fast-forward to today and he’s now the senior art critic at New York magazine and has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

Howard Halle, the chief art critic at Time Out New York, calls the 65-year-old “America’s art critic.” And yet, Saltz, although perhaps an American icon, has hardly become a universally beloved one.

A few years ago, Saltz was briefly banned from Facebook for posting what Zuckerberg and co. determined, initially, to be pornography (Saltz maintains that posting ancient and medieval artworks depicting fellatio, cunnilingus, and circumcisions hardly constitutes pornography, and he continues to post these images on his re-activated Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, all of which boast, on aggregate, hundreds of thousands of followers). He also recently tried to pull the veil on the economics of the art scene—not everyone is making the big bucks—by posting a photograph showing his Chase checking account balance to be $3,832.16.

Although one wonders how much of his “everyman” appearance is an act (he maintains that it’s not), Saltz’s lack of pretension has been a burst of fresh air in the often-stodgy art criticism scene. Who else but Jerry would compliment Morley Safer’s painting of a hotel room after Safer unconvincingly tried to tear apart the contemporary art scene in two 60 Minutes segments? Or, even more surprisingly, who might say of George W. Bush’s paintings—in which the former president depicted his view of himself in the bathtub and while taking a shower, his back turned, only his face reflected in a small mirror—“I love these two bather paintings. They are ‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways”?

Not everyone is on board with the Saltz movement. The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr called Saltz “the class clown” in an interview with Yale Radio, adding, “the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world… all of these things are about Jerry. And it’s too bad.” Storr even clumped in Saltz’s wife—Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—saying, “They are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principles, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.”

But Saltz doesn’t mind it. He’s endlessly quotable and his optimism and energy for art has led to an engagement with the art world from the most surprising of sorts—irritable Twitter users, suburban teenagers, essentially anyone with an opinion. Saltz has, in effect, de-localized art criticism, taking it from students at the Courtauld, writers at Artforum, the galleries and museums in New York and London, and instead placing it online, where anyone with even a modicum of interest in art can share their thoughts with both Saltz and one another.

Saltz and I recently spoke over the telephone, and we discussed, among other topics, where the art world is heading, how it can reorient itself, the current trends (good and bad) in contemporary art, and what the roles of critic, artist, and viewer are and could one day be. Read more…

The Invisible Forces Behind All of Our Decision-Making

Photo: Deborah Feingold

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 16 minutes (4,137 words)


Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at Wharton, has spent more than 15 years investigating social influence. In his 2013 book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, he explains how and why certain products and ideas become massively popular. In his new book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, Berger focuses on the immense sway others have over the choices we make—whether we’re imitating or differentiating from them—often in ways we aren’t aware of. Berger and I spoke by phone about the often surprising findings he draws on in the book, the tension between fitting in and standing out, and how social influence can best be wielded.

How did you first become interested in studying social influence?

I’m from the D.C. area originally, and have a friend who’s a lawyer there. I was talking to him, and he was complaining that all D.C. lawyers drive BMWs—when they make it, they go out and buy a BMW. He said, “Look at how D.C. lawyers are all conformists.” I pointed out that he had actually himself just bought a BMW. And he said, “No, no, but I bought a blue one. Everyone else buys gray ones.”

What I thought was really interesting about that story was a few things. One, he saw everyone else as influenced, but not himself. Sometimes we recognize that social influence is out there, but we think only other people do it. We don’t see it in our own lives. And yet, here was a great, amazing, powerful example of someone’s own life being shaped by what others are doing.

But also, influence isn’t a simple thing. It’s not just doing the same thing as others. Often, when we think about influence, we think, “If someone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?” But influence is actually much more complicated than that. Influence is actually like a magnet: sometimes it attracts and leads us to do the same thing as others; other times it repels and leads us to do the opposite thing. And sometimes, like with this example of the BMW, it actually leads us to be similar and different at the same time, so that we’re optimally distinct. We end up being similar on one dimension and different on another.

And so what I wonder is, when do these different things happen? When does influence lead us to be the same? When does influence lead us to be different? When does it lead us to go along with the group? When does it lead us to be more independent? How do others motivate us? How do others de-motivate us? And how can we use all this science to live happier and healthier lives? Read more…

Bringing Bach to the Public

Photo: Michelle Ross and 'Discovering Bach'

Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 15 minutes (3,866 words)


In December, I stayed in New York City while its residents flew away and visitors flooded the streets. I treated the quiet time like a vacation, searching for little adventures. On a Tuesday shortly before Christmas, this little Jew put on her most respectable NYC-adventuress outfit—a green-and-gray-plaid skirt, black heeled ankle boots—and went to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Several days prior, scouring the detailed schedule of the (insanely beautiful) Cathedral, I’d seen a mysterious listing for a Bach pop-up concert. I knew little about what I was headed to, and hadn’t seen this concert advertised anywhere. When I showed up, only a smattering of people filled the seats in the grand cavernous space.

It is hard to describe a completely transporting musical experience; all the most accurate words feel cheesy. But here it is: this experience was transcendent. The woman playing Bach on her violin created a trance in which we were all held captive. It felt ludicrous that there were not more people there to witness it. When the performance ended, I blinked and smacked my hands together, wanting more.

She announced she’d be playing again shortly, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, so I dutifully followed. It was a different space—crowded with patrons, small, the sound loud and close. But I was entranced yet again. I beamed a gaping smile at the strangers around me, less cool adventuress than extremely uncool sycophant, but I couldn’t help it: this was pretty euphoric.

Afterward, I introduced myself to the musician. Her name was Michelle Ross, and it turned out this was the culmination of “Discovering Bach,” her 33-day project playing Bach’s entire solo violin cycle in public spaces throughout New York City. She kept a blog throughout, but hadn’t promoted the series anywhere; she wanted to create an authentic communal experience, not do a publicity stunt. Ross is young and extremely accomplished: she spent over a decade training with the  legendary Itzhak Perlman, has played on famous stages all over the world, curates a classical music festival in Utah, and even composes her own music. We met up a couple of months after her mesmerizing performance to discuss “Discovering Bach” and what it means to perform classical music in a public space, to let it be raw. Read more…

Mark Haddon: ‘Ultimately, There Is No Narrative Without Death’

Photo: Rory Carnegie

Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2016 | 15 minutes (3,709 words)


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Mark Haddon’s first novel, and the one that made him famous. Told from the perspective of an emotionally limited young man named Christopher, the book has sold millions of copies and is now being performed on Broadway. But Haddon was writing long before Curious Incident, including many books and picture books for children, and has been just as prolific since.

Haddon’s new short story collection The Pier Falls deals largely in darkness. The descriptions, soaked through with detail, often verge on the grotesque. In the title story, a pier collapses, bringing many lives with it, a process Haddon details with excruciating exactitude. In “Bunny,” we witness the effects of the protagonist’s obesity, while in “The Weir,” a newly separated middle-aged man saves a young woman from a suicide attempt, yielding an unlikely friendship. Haddon and I spoke by phone about the infusion of death and destruction in his work, his writing process, and his fascination with writing about fatally arrogant men. Read more…

‘My Model for Writing Fiction Is to Replicate the Feeling of a Dream’

ClowesPortrait (1)

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2016 | 20 minutes (5,074 words)


In 1989, Daniel Clowes started a comic-book series called Eightball. Instead of lauded superheroes following traditional plotlines, his comics often featured oddballs, meandering or dreamlike sequences, and an acerbic wit. At the time, it felt like he was writing into the abyss.

Since then, Clowes has become one of the most famous cartoonists in the world. Eightball was the original home to what became the standalone graphic novels The Death-Ray, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and Ghost World, among others. Ghost World was adapted into a feature film in 2001 (Clowes collaborated on the screenplay); his graphic novel Wilson will have the same fate. Eightball itself was republished in a slipcase edition last year. This is a wildly abridged history, and I haven’t even mentioned the awards.

Clowes’s new work is his most ambitious to date: the graphic novel Patience, a huge gorgeous slab of a book with drawings so sumptuous and vibrant I wanted to plaster them all over my walls. The book opens on Jack and his wife Patience learning they’re going to have a kid, shortly after which a wrenching turn sends Jack on a tumultuous trip back and forth in time. We spoke by phone about Patience, dreams, teen-speak, and when Clowes gets his best ideas: when he’s really bored. Read more…

The Making of Janet Jackson’s ‘Control,’ 30 Years Later


The way our studio was set up back then was we had a control room where our mix board was and all that stuff, then there was a little lounge right outside with a couch. She was out there sitting and when I put it on, I could see her starting to move a little bit to it, then she got what we called “the ugly face.” The ugly face is something you get when something is really funky. She said, “Ooooh, who is that for?” I replied, “It can be for you, if you want it.” She said, “Oh. I want it.” That song turned into “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” The rest is history. It became the first single.

-Producer Jimmy Jam, at Red Bull Music Academy, reflecting on his and Terry Lewis’s work with Janet Jackson on her smash hit album, Control, released in 1986. The album included hit singles “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “Control,” “Let’s Wait Awhile,” and the No. 1 track “When I Think of You.”

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