03 September 2008

Models and Paradigms

This is really a side note to talk about the posts that I have made and will continue to make.

Most of the books on behavior, communications, and emotions have at their core a model or a way of thinking (paradigm). That is, it is a representation of reality from some perspective. One of the best quotes I have ever heard about models is that "All models are wrong, some are useful."

The same holds true of most of my posts on Emotions for Engineers. I attempt to condense things I have seen written and learned and put it into a context that make sense to logical thinkers, e.g. engineers.

A good example of a model is the diagram for communication. The diagram shows a sender with some intent, encoding into a language, transmission, decoding into the receiver's language, and message received. All that is followed by a feedback loop to ensure accuracy.

Is that exactly what really happens? Not normally. People are notorious about not using the feedback loop. There are multiple messages and paths (actual words, tone of voice, body language and seeing and hearing). The actual diagram of a conversation would be much more complex.

But, importantly, it's a useful model. We can use it to debug conversations that go awry, and learn to do better next time.

Likewise, the concept that love is defined by a set of actions, not a feeling. If you look up the word love in the dictionary you might find a definition that says something like, "A feeling of extreme fondness." This is fine, but not a particularly useful perspective. If we think of love as a feeling, it sets up unrealistic expectations--for example, that true love will never die. After all look at all the old married couples. This perspective means that people can "fall out of love." It's not in their control.

Setting up that unrealistic expectation makes the model less than useful. On the other hand, defining love by one's actions, does provide some guidance to us. It gives us a sense of what we need to do in our relationships in order for them to work. Love is then defined by what we do to or for each other. It therefore give us a guide to something over which we have control. Love becomes a choice, not an uncontrollable outcome.

Another example is nutrition. I have, for most of my adult life been in the "Eat Fat, Get Fat and Die" school of thought. After all, the American Heart Association and the US Government said or implied that was how it worked. Gary Taubes' lecture at Berkeley changed the way I think about it. Many months later, I am coming to realize that his lecture and book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (soon in paperback) are incomplete. They do not cover some of the biochemical pathways, or the role of some of the other hormones besides insulin. But... They were right enough to be useful and get me started down the right path. A more complete treatment would likely have lost me.

Finally, models can also be simple quantitative representations of processes. I posted a spreadsheet a few weeks ago that helps a person think about how much to eat and exercise in order to lose fat. Is it right? No. There are a number of approximations involved. For example, 31 calories per pound of body fat, fat loss, is an average and is representative of people who are basically sedentary. It also does not take into account changes in metabolism over time and as a person's body composition changes.  Your hormonal environment changes based on body fat percent, calorie balance, activity level, and diet. However, it is reasonably close and gives some guidance around the limits of exercise, eating, and fat loss.

So keep in mind, what you see and read here is a way of thinking about life, emotions, and physical and mental well-being. Any given post that I put up has a textbook written about it. My purpose is to give you a useful perspective and some reasonable references to follow-up.