Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Get Better at Reading People

"Reading" people is one of the most important, and vastly underrated, skills we can possess. I'll operationally define "reading" as the process of understanding why people believe, think, and behave the way they do. The better you get at reading people, the easier it becomes to navigate our social world. Honing this one skill will make you 

Pretty much all of my own personal success can be directly attributed to this skill. Aside from my better-than-average skill at understanding human behavior, I'm decidedly average. I'm not especially smart, funny, or athletic. Any "talents" I possess are a function of a lot of hard work, not the result of winning a genetic lottery. Despite all of the apparent limitations, I've been able to do some pretty cool shit in my life like earn multiple degrees, spend over a decade teaching, written books, run ultramarathons, and even fought a pro mma fight. By my count, I've had about fourteen jobs in my life and have never "lost" an interview. I've always gotten the job. All because I "get" people a little better than most.

My own "people reading" skills were developed early in childhood, mostly as a result of weird passive-aggressive martyr tendencies that defined my immediate and extended family. People almost always had a hidden motive, so I needed to be able to ignore the facade and assess their real intent. That "skill" was so deeply ingrained in me, I wasn't even aware of it until my thirties. Once I "discovered" it, I was able to actively work to improve the skill. 

The Challenge

Reading people is tricky because we always wear masks to hide our real selves, even to those closest to us. Deep down, all of us have elements of our personality that are so disturbing, we'll never let others see them. As we go through life, we all experience dark thoughts, totally inappropriate hedonistic sexual desires, and occasional thoughts of unspeakable violence. We also have incredible insecurities that, if discovered, would reveal that we're really just barely winging this game of life. Worse, we assume we're the only people that have these feelings. As such, all of us are VERY highly motivated to bury them as deep as we possibly can, put on a smile, and try to convince the rest of the world that we have our shit together. 

The problem - most people assume others do not have an elaborate mask that hides their real self. They take people at face value, then get confused when their ability to explain, predict, or even influence their behavior fails. Even if they do look behind the facade, they assume it's just a flimsy cardboard mask that's easily circumvented. As I'll describe in the next section, that false confidence causes them to stop searching once they believe they've discovered "the truth." 

The Basic Principles

Developing your people reading skills is pretty simple, it just takes a lot of practice. Understanding some basic principles is a prerequisite to reading people.

  • Understand and accept that you can never really know anyone. No matter how close we are to someone, they will never reveal everything. Ever. They would rather choose death. Dramatic, but true. The reason this is important is because, as I stated above, it causes us to stop searching. Until that person surprises us by doing something completely unpredictable. As good as I think I am at reading people, I fully understand I can only ever see a minuscule fraction of people's real self. Even my wife.
  • Foster curiosity. Curiosity is the engine that fuels the ability to read people. In order to improve, you have to be obsessively curious about what makes people tick. The moment understanding human behavior becomes boring is the moment your skills become ineffective.
  • We all have common behavior patterns. Yes, it's true that we're all individual snowflakes. But we're still snow. We're cold, fall from the sky, and melt at a specified temperature. Like snowflakes, humans have almost universal similarities. These universals can be learned from all sorts of sources. Many of the similarities I use regularly come from the study of psychology in general and social psychology in particular, studying psychics (read up on "cold reading"), and just paying attention to general sociocultural trends. Check out the movie Leap of Faith
  • We all have "tells." All of us wear masks, and we'll use different masks for different situations. These masks are essentially lies that we carefully fabricate. The problem, of course, is that we have a million details to monitor, especially when switching masks. Looking for and recognizing incongruencies between people's masks is a very easy way to see behind the masks. In the movie Gattaca, the main character is assuming the personality of another dude with the goal of becoming an astronaut. He fools everyone throughout the movie, except for the guy that collects urine samples. How did he know the main character wasn't who he claimed to be? He pissed with the wrong hand. Everyone has tells; you just need to keep your eyes open.
  • Observe people without judgment. I was originally trained as an experimental social psychologist, which provided a perfect foundation for learning how to read people. Being an experimental psychologist requires the observer to watch what's happening around them without interpreting. It's a deceptively hard thing to do, but absolutely necessary. Interpretation comes later. If we try to interpret at the time, the interpretation interferes with the continued observation because we assign motives and begin introducing stereotypes. 
  • Look for patterns, especially hypocrisy. We like to believe we possess a set of values, beliefs, or principles that guide our behaviors. We like to believe we're capable of intellectualizing anything and everything we do. We like to believe we're rational, logical creatures. But we're not. At all. Humans are anything but rational, logical creatures. Instead, we have biological drives that act as an invisible hand that compels us to do the things we do. When processing after the fact, we rationalize our behaviors in some way... and we're really good at that. Understanding this principle is probably the single biggest key to reading people, and it's really easy to see. Just look for hypocrisy. We're exceptionally bad at aligning our behaviors and stated beliefs. Hell, I'm acutely aware of this principle and still fall into the trap all the time. 
  • Never assume you have the puzzle figured out. I've spent nearly four decades observing human behavior. I've definitely gotten better to the point where I'm really good. Yet I've just scratched the surface. There's always new individuals with different sociocultural backgrounds, new trends, new environmental factors, and a host of other things that are always changing. More significantly, individuals themselves are incredibly dynamic. The person I could read really well a few years ago may be completely unreadable today because something about them changed. 

How to Improve

So how exactly do we get better? For the novice, here are my suggestions:

  • Read the book "Social Animal" by Elliot Aronson. This is the gold standard for a primer in understanding why we do the things we do.
  • Read the book "The Art of Seduction" by Robert Greene. Weird, but effective. Greene's book outlines some basic human personality types. Since it's framed as "seduction" and sexual desire is perhaps our strongest social drive, it's far more practical than other books about personality types.
  • Read up on "cold reading" and "mentalism" (used by psychics and magicians, respectively.) Ian Rowland has some wonderfully useful stuff.
  • People watch. Find a comfortable place with a large number of people, and just observe their behaviors. Continually ask yourself "why are they doing what they're doing right now?" Once you feel comfortable watching people, try to predict what they do next. That forces you to observe seemingly insignificant behaviors that normally don't register in our brains.
  • Plumb the depths of your own psyche. One of the best exercises you can do is to consider why YOU do the things you do. In this specific situation, asking how and why you classify and stereotype people can be an invaluable exercise. There's a reason we react a certain way towards certain people, and understanding why gives you insight to exactly what they do to earn that classification. Do that enough and you start to notice your own patterns of observation, which can clue you in to the stuff you're ignoring. In short- this exercise improves your ability to observe more details. 
This list is far from comprehensive; it's intended to be a VERY basic primer. I love talking about the topic, so please post any questions you may have in the comment section.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

"What's the Deal With Jason's Facebook Craziness?!?"

A friend recently asked me about my activities on social media in general and Facebook in particular. Specifically, he asked me why I post and comment in the way that I do. If you're unfamiliar, he described it as "schizophrenic." [note - it's actually more "dissociative identity disorder-ish, but that's neither here nor there] Basically my activity falls into one of about four categories:

  • "Normal" posts about my family or daily life
  • Posts intended to inspire or pay tribute to people or institutions I respect
  • Things that amuse me in some way
  • Posts that are intended to learn about human behavior
The first three are pretty standard, but the last one is what results in the "what the fuck is wrong with you???" sentiment I get from people that don't actually know me well in real life. These types of activities usually involve posting about a news story or issue, then inciting debate and arguments. I rarely if ever voice my true opinion. Instead, I post things that will elicit a reaction which often means taking a stance that's completely the opposite of what I really believe. And it drives a lot of people crazy.

"Why Do You Do This?!?"

First - a short back story. When I was growing up, I went through different phases of what I thought I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to be an astronaut, professional baseball player, punter (for pro football), a business manager, a marketer, and a woodworker. In college I earned an Associate's degree in business, then decided to switch gears to become a history teacher. I really wanted to coach football and teaching was the best conduit. Before graduating, I discovered and fell in love with psychology and added another year to my undergrad studies. Upon graduation, I applied for teaching jobs and grad schools with the goal of either becoming an experimental social psychologist or a high school history teacher. Serendipity came knocking and I landed a job teaching high school psychology. As a bonus, I also got to coach my beloved football. For a few years, I was in my element. Eventually the realities of being a public school teacher set in (administration, parents, paperwork, grading, No Child Left Behind, friction between our union and administration, lack of public support, etc.) made the job unbearable. I had an opportunity to travel the country teaching about barefoot running, so I took it. When that adventure ran it's course, I settled into my current "occupation" as a writer. 

All of these experiences taught me an important lesson - I have two intense passions in my life: Teaching, and studying human behavior. For a while, these two passions aligned perfectly in my high school psychology gig. Since then, I've played the two off each other in various ways such as barefoot running, ultrarunning, and sex and relationships. 

The point to this trip down memory lane - the reason I do the things I do on social media is to learn about people. Specifically, what leads people to do the things they do, believe the things they believe, and most importantly, how they adapt to change. I'm more interested in how and why people react and respond than what they react and respond with. I don't care about other people's opinions as much as I care about how they developed those opinions. This also gives me insight to my own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. I'm as fascinated with my own inner workings as much as I am fascinated by other people's inner workings. 

I can then use this insight to human behavior to leverage my other passion - teaching. A key element to teaching is tailoring the pedagogy (the methods and practices of teaching) to individuals. That requires the teacher to understand the student. The greater that depth of understanding, the better-matched methodology that can be utilized.

THAT is the reason I do what I do on Facebook. I occasionally frame my social media antics in that way, but most of the time I write it off as "entertainment." That works because the exchanges are almost always amusing, at least to a certain niche of friends. 

My long-time friends just roll with it, but I sometimes run into issues with brand-new friends or, more likely, friends of friends. They'll engage in arguments with me to try to prove why they're right and I'm wrong, then get pissed when I dance around the topic. They don't get that my refusal to engage is a calculated attempt to get them to reveal the motives behind their passionate stance on seemingly inconsequential issues that do not affect their day-to-day lives. 

Even some of my go-to antagonist topics fit that bill. Yes, that means I really don't care if people are vegans, vaccinate their children, engage in helicopter parent behaviors, or believe in psychics. I have a few issues and causes I feel strongly about, but not strongly enough to keep me from using them as social media debate fodder. My self-run social experimentation is more important than advocating for this or that, mostly because I understand that social media rants are piss-poor pedagogy. 

Why Not Just Become a Researcher?

Many people, especially those employed in research capacities or studying to be researchers, question the validity of my "experimentation." Having been trained as a researcher, I'm acutely aware of the limitations of social science research. It's slow and expensive, and it can take years to collect enough data to develop a consensus on any given hypothesis. There's a reason we don't have any "laws" related to human behavior.

I prefer the practical. Not only does it provide more immediate satisfaction, it's good enough to fuel that need to understand my potential students. The Barefoot Running Book and Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel would not have been so successful without a deep understanding of how my audience thinks and learns. This is also the reason my "traditionally published" version of The Barefoot Running Book and The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running and Ultramarathons have not done as well... my editors neutered my voice to the point where it no longer resonates with my audience.

So there you go - I use social media as my sociopsychological sandbox to help me learn about people to help make me a more effective teacher. Keeping with that theme, I'm curious how other people would describe their social media activity. Tell me your story in the comments!



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Defriending Your Annoying Facebook Friends Makes You a Horrible Person

Earlier today, my friend Tina Plantamura posted a Huffington Post article she wrote about defriending on Facebook. The article was supposed to be humorous, but quite a few people apparently didn't get the joke. The article caused me to reflect on my own friending/ defriending behaviors, which are a little bit unique. 

Over the years, I've developed a Facebook policy that prevents me from defriending people. No matter what annoying, offensive, disturbing or boring stuff they post, I keep them around. It's worth noting: I treat Facebook sort of like I treat teaching. It's a stage. The role I assume isn't the person I really am, though my Facebook persona is made up of elements of my personality. Often, I post thoughts and opinions that are the polar opposite of what I really believe in order to stimulate discussion. That slight dissociation allows me to more easily carry out the "no defriending" policy. Here's five reasons why I developed the policy:

  1. It's a grand thought experiment that expands my horizons. This is the biggie. I have a lot of strong opinions, but I'm also open to points of view that contradict my opinions. That self-skepticism is basically a function of age. Over the years, I've went through a lot of phases ranging from ultra-conservative to crazy-liberal. The end result is the realization that the world is a continually-shifting collection of shades of gray. Absolutism, in any realm, is a ridiculous approach to life. Exposing myself to divergent opinions allows me to see things from other people's perspective and helps develop empathy. Being able to listen to their opinions is an excellent learning experience.
  2. Echo chambers are boring as shit. If I surrounded myself with folks that thought exactly like I do, Facebook would be incredibly lame. I already know how and why I think the way I think and spend plenty of time in my own head. Why the fuck would I want to spend even more time discussing the exact same crap?
  3. Trolling is fun. I know, I know. This isn't very open-minded of me, but trolling friends' status updates is a blast. It's sort of a douchey thing to do, but being douchey on occasion is good for the soul. 
  4. Being offended by something is, in my world, a mortal sin. A few years ago, Shelly and I decided to start working toward becoming "offended-proof." It's really just a manifestation of the "zero fucks given" mentality. No matter what anyone says, the goal is to laugh it off. I cannot begin to describe how valuable this has been as a life-enhancer. Once we started that journey, I realized just how much our "I'm offended" culture traps us in a prison by letting other people's thoughts, ideas, behaviors, appearance, etc. affect us on a personal level. I take the right of free expression VERY seriously, and my right to express myself freely is entirely contingent on my willingness to grant the same right to everyone else. Playing the "I'm offended" card immediately gives everyone else the right to do the same, thus destroying my own right to free expression.
  5. The natural filtering mechanism automatically creates a really awesome tribe of open-minded people. While I do not defriend people, many defriend me. In fact, I lose about five friends per week. I never really paid attention to this until I started getting friend requests from people I assumed were already friends. Anyway, the people that stick around usually need to be relatively open-minded to tolerate the hyperbole and dumbassery that occurs on my wall. The resulting tribe is thus capable of discussing a huge range of topics and issues from all sorts of angles, which helps fuel items one, three, and four on the list. 
 There you have it- five reasons why I don't defriend people. Of course, those that know me know I'm usually a bit hypocritical. I have defriended people in the past, and I have hidden a small number of people's status updates. The people that were defriended (happened three times) all showed very obvious signs of mental illness and posed a real, significant threat to my family (yay psychology degree!) The "hidden" people (about five) all fall into the same category - all are "one-trick ponies" that only post about one topic usually pertaining to ridiculous conspiracy theories. I consider my inability to tolerate their rants as a personal weakness, and it is something I'm continuously trying to improve.

Could this policy be right for you? If I were you, I'd give it some consideration. It has made me a more open-minded, empathic person, and I suspect it could do the same for you.

Some questions to consider (feel free to leave answers in the comments section): 
  • What is your current "defriending criteria?"
  • How do you handle posts that offend you?
  • Has social media changed your opinion on any matter? If so, give the rest of us an example.


Like being offended? Want to get better at tolerating offensive shit? In a relationship with someone with a mismatched sex drive? Not in a relationship but want to do the next one better? Consider picking up my new sex and relationship book No-Bone Zone! It's currently on sale in Amazon's Kindle store for $2.99. The price will continue to increase all week, however, so act now!

Check out the link here:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You're Fat Because You're Bad at Counting

A few years back, I wrote a BRU post (and cheeky, snarky "book") about the concept of calories in/ calories out as a means of losing weight. Since that time, I've experienced a steady stream of people, in real life or via social media, that have asked me about weight loss. My response is usually the same: 

Eat less and move more.

The typical response is usually either a) "I already tried that and it didn't work", or b) "I read (or saw a YouTube video) that refuted the idea. A new post by NPR more or less sums up my response to those responses, which is basically something along the lines of "You're just really bad at math."

Here's the deal. Weight manipulation is relatively straight-forward assuming you don't have a disease that alters metabolism. Even then, the basic principle still applies. 

If you want to lose weight, you need to create a caloric deficit.

If you want to gain weight, you need to create a caloric surplus.

That's it. It really is that simple. "But wait!" you say, "I want to lose weight. I've tried that and it has failed!"

Here's why.

Reason #1: You think you consume less than you really do. This is the biggie. In my experience of working with people trying to lose weight, they ALWAYS under-estimate portions. You may think you're eating one portion of roast beef, but you're really eating two-and-a-half. And you forgot to add that handful of Chex Mix. And that third glass of wine.

Reason #2: You think you burn a lot more calories than you really do. Let's say you run three miles on a treadmill at the gym. It took you a half hour. You probably burned about 300-330 calories. That's not even enough exercise to make up for those medium fries you ate from McDonald's.

Reason #3: You fail to account for adaptation. This is common when people have initial success, then reach a plateau. This usually happens for two reasons. First, as body weight drops and body composition changes, the number of calories needed to sustain life (or are burned through exercise), the fewer calories you need. Second, your metabolism usually adjusts to the deficit by becoming more efficient. Both of these require a continually-diminishing caloric intake until the goal weight is achieved. 

Reason #4: You're over-simplifying the equation. There are all sorts of things that probably affect caloric uptake and expenditure, like the type of food, environmental conditions, internal states, etc. For example, eating 100 calories of carrots will probably help create a deficit better than 100 calories of chocolate cake because of the way the body digests both. Since we know so little of the vast myriad of potential effects, the only reliable solution is to consider yourself an experiment of one to learn what variables seem to be at play.

That's it. I know a lot of you will be tempted to refute the idea by posting links to YouTube videos from people that "found a way to cheat the system." But they're either wrong or their idea subscribes to the deficit/surplus idea with added layers of complexity. Either way, it's ignoring the obvious:

There has never been a case of a person gaining weight with a caloric deficit or a case of a person losing weight with a caloric surplus. 

My own experimentation confirms this. Back in the day, I used to weigh about 215 pounds. I attempted to lose weight often, but always failed. The one thing that eventually worked: creating and sustaining a caloric deficit.

It's worth noting I don't continually create said deficit because, well, I like food. And beer. And wine. And I like lounging around. For me, creating a caloric deficit sucks balls. As such, I tend to cycle every few months. Gain five pounds, lose five pounds. Wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes that weight gain is mostly muscle (for mma, for example.) Other times it's mostly fat (again, I'm lazy and I love food.) Regardless, I don't sweat it because I've done the hard work of learning how my body responds to all sorts of caloric manipulations, which is what's really necessary.


Shameless plug: I'm offering the ebook version of my new sex and relationship book "No Bone Zone" for $0.99 via Amazon until the morning of Monday, January 19th, 2015. That's about 90% savings off the list price. Use this link (may not be available outside the U.S.):

Not sure if you'll like it? Check out a free pdf sample here: No Bone Zone Sample

Ninety Percent Off Jason's Newest Book!

Great news! I'm teaming with Amazon to offer the Kindle ebook version of my new sex and relationship book "No Bone Zone" for 90% off! The original price is $9.69; the sale price is only $0.99. This special price is only available until Monday (1/19/2015) morning so act now!

Here's the link:

If you've already read the book, I'd appreciate a review on the Amazon page.




Thursday, December 18, 2014

New Sex and Relationship Book Release: No-Bone Zone

I'm excited to announce the release of my latest book, No-Bone Zone: The Ins and Outs of Curing Long-Term Relationship Boredom. This book has been in conceptual development since my days as an undergraduate psychology student studying to be a human sexuality researcher, but became a realized dream about six months ago. Like The Barefoot Running Book, Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel, Must Have Been Another Earthquake, Kids (a book about full-time RV living with children), and The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running and Ultramarathons (which was released about a month ago,) No-Bone Zone takes the idea of creative self-experimentation with unorthodox ideas and utilizes it to make our sex and relationship adventures more interesting, exciting, and fulfilling. 

Here's the official description:

So you and your significant other used to go at it like rabbits, but now your sex life has cooled off and you have entered the dreaded No-Bone Zone. How do you fix your mismatched sex drives and recapture some of that early magic?

As a sex and relationship blogger, this is one of the most common issues I have seen long-term couples encounter. Far too many couples struggled with this common issue, especially after children. Pop psychology, relationship counselors, and the self-help community typically offer advice that ultimately exasperates the problem. In other words, we're doing relationships wrong. 

No-Bone Zone flushes that viewpoint down the toilet and explores our relationships and the issue of boredom from a different, unconventional, and sometimes controversial perspective. This new perspective allows us to create long-term solutions that can save our relationships. No-Bone Zone fuses emerging hard science with easy to understand language and outside-the-box thinking to produce an entirely new framework for making our relationships last.

The first few sections of the book are available as a sample, which can be downloaded here:

The book is currently available exclusively via Amazon, and is being published as a dead tree paperback version and a Kindle ebook version.

Questions? Leave a comment and I'll answer it as soon as possible.



Thursday, December 4, 2014

Don't Like the World? Change It.

I've been involved in a few Facebook discussions over the last few weeks, which isn't necessarily news-worthy. After all, it's kind of my social media MO. However, I have noticed a particularly annoying trend: 

Lots of people seem to be passionate (or fixated) on or about one particular issue, yet really do nothing to improve the issue or situation.

Back when I was a teacher, one of my goals was to teach the idea that any one of us has the power to make a dent in the universe. I've continued to operate under that belief since traveling the country and eventually settling down in San Diego. It always seemed like a fairly straight-forward concept, but far too many people, for a wide variety of reasons, choose to merely complain about the status quo.

That's bullshit.

Here are a few of the more common excuses I hear:

  • "I don't have time."
  • "I don't have a degree."
  • "I have children."
  • "The 'man' is holding me down."
  • "I'm not an insider."
  • "They are too powerful."
  • "Things have always been like this."
  • "Nobody else understands this issue."
  • "I'm not a leader."
  • "I'm trying to instigate grassroots change, so it's a slow process."
... and so on. The point - people make a lot of excuses to stay in their comfortable cocoon of inaction. That's fine; not everyone has to be a instrument of social change. However, if you do feel there is a great injustice in this world, you owe it to yourself to make that change happen. Despite this, the vast majority will still be content to sit on their asses.

My journey through life has taught me at least one very important lesson - doing shit to change things for the better is a hell of a lot better than talking about how and why things need to change. People that personally know me can attest that I'm not special. I'm not exceptionally intelligent, I'm sometimes socially awkward, I'm not overly attractive, a below average uncoordinated athlete, and I'm only marginally funny. I'm a mediocre public speaker, write at around a middle school level, and, while I have a lot of formal education, I did the bare minimum to get by. In other words, almost all of the people that read this have more skills and knowledge than me. 

Despite this, I've been able to affect some pretty decent change in the world, which includes helping change the running industry by promoting barefoot and minimalist shoe running, helped expand trail running and ultrarunning to the masses, became a proponent of minimalist and RV living, and helped advance the way we think about our romantic relationships. Those "causes" have included:

  • Attracting somewhere in the ballpark of three million blog hits,
  • Worked as a shoe consultant and brand ambassador for a $500 international outdoor company,
  • Held around 150 running clinics in forty-six states and four countries, 
  • Self-published four books which have sold somewhere around 35-40,000 copies,
  • Had two books published by traditional publishers, 
  • Finished six hundred milers and a slew of shorter races (some barefoot), and
  • Fought a pro mma fight at the age of thirty-eight.
All of these adventures were fueled by my passion to make the world a better place. The exact methodology changed depending on the cause, but the rough formula followed the steps:

  1. I identified the change I wanted to see in the world.
  2. I made the personal changes that I wanted to see generalized to others (like Gandhi's "Be the change you wish to see in the world" idea.)
  3. I identified how and why the world is the way it is, which usually involves identifying the people that hold the power and/or serve as gatekeepers that normally maintain the status quo.
  4. I came up with a plan to affect the people at the top, which usually involved getting around (not through) the gatekeepers.
  5. I put the plan in action.
  6. I modified the plan based on progress.
That's it. That's my methodology. It really is THAT easy. If I can make as big of an impact as I've made given my decidedly pedestrian qualifications, image what you could do with your unique gifts? I guarantee all of you have even more power to create real, significant social change than I do... it's just a matter of doing it.

Still don't think you can do it? Use this trick, which I believe I got from one of Seth Godin's books: Use "If only..." statements. Fill in the sentence:

I would like to change ________________. 
I would make this change happen if only ________________________.

The first blank is the change you want to see. The second blank is the thing that is preventing you for taking action. Once you spell out exactly what is holding you back, do everything in your power to overcome that one barrier. Once overcome, you no longer have an excuse to sit on your ass.

My challenge to you: stop bitching, complaining, and making excuses and make something happen