Coping and Cultures

by Spiracular3 min read6th May 202013 comments



Coping and Cultures

(or, Acquiring Coping Mechanisms from the Culture of a Field of Study)

One of the useful pieces of implicit knowledge that college or mentorship gives people are mental adaptations that make the stressors particular to a field of study more tolerable. These often go unnoticed, and seem undervalued as a result.

Some adaptations like this seem to become a part of academic cultures, and get osmosed by most students. Others might only have living cultures in industry, with academics carrying a reputation for burnout compared to individuals who learn on the job.

I expect self-taught individuals to be more likely to be missing some of these. Their absence may predispose them to burnout, by getting drawn into neurotic and/or unsustainable attractors when doing professional-grade work in that field.

I feel like this might be partially remedied if people knew to look for this while learning a new field, which is a lot of my motivation to post this.

This mostly focuses on stress and burn-out, but it warrants a broad trigger-warning for body-horror in the biology examples section. Feel free to skip the examples altogether, and to jump to the follow-up questions for any reason.

(Note: I took a stab at this, but this document is still alive. Both this post, and the thought behind it, still feels pretty rough. I am moderately likely to revise it, probably adding to it considerably, after posting.)


Dark Humored Biologists

In biology, particularly in certain subfields (ex: entomology, medicine, pathology), almost everyone makes jokes about dark things and has learned to take a certain joy in what most would find distasteful or macabre. Anyone who has heard of medical acronyms like GOMER probably has some inkling of what this looks like.

A minority of people even seem to have recontextualized a subset of skin-crawling feelings that most would translate as disgust, and instead perceive them as interest, attention, or excitement.* And we need this to be true of some people, or the world probably wouldn't have enough morticians to go around.

One straightforward example: if you are studying or working in surgery, you expect to be exposed to blood and gore on a regular basis. At a bare minimum, you need to be able to reliably cope with blood. If you have any intention of becoming a really good surgeon you must not only keep your cool, but also adopt an attitude of fascination towards such subject matter.

I have never been a surgeon, but I did study insects in college. Teachers for that major could reasonably expect their students to have a high horror tolerance; the study of invertebrates is pretty ill-suited to anyone who doesn't. With this as their audience, they could show photographs of people with maggots where their teeth should be, or a video of eye-worm removal during lessons. Those are just two that I found memorable; it was a regular occurrence. The first picture I described showed up in the slides for at least 3 different classes I took. I occasionally make jokes that "phobias are just another word for entomologist job-security."

For some of the people in the creepier biology subfields, this attitude seems to have generated spontaneously, and sometimes very early in life. Speaking personally, I was practically born with my disgust wired a bit weird, and I have been dutifully memorizing gross facts since as back as far as I can remember. But the rest of the students likely passively learned these thinking patterns from classmates and professors who had them, and who may have been more successful in part because they had them.

I've known at least one self-taught biologist who seemed to be largely missing the disgust-to-excitement cultural module, and my read was that they were far less happy doing biology research (and probably more prone to burn-out) because of it.

* Some people seem to have rewired disgust in a manner roughly analogous to how some people recontextualize the painful sensation of spicy food as enjoyable, or learn to enjoy higher and higher doses of adrenaline.


I expect that freshman and post-grad med students are dramatically different along this axis, and would be interested to see if someone can confirm/disconfirm.

Psychologist Separation

Psychology explicitly tries to pass on norms of separation of self from client to reduce burnout, in what is presumably a bid to make individuals in the field more inured to the field's inherent psychological challenges.

This has been thoroughly explored elsewhere, so I don't feel the need to explain it. If I find an especially good link for the topic, I'll forward it.

Marketers Drink, Authors take Stimulants, Artists do LSD

I am not a member of any of these groups, so low-confidence for all of it.

Which particular drug addictions are common (or even near-universal in some cases) to fields might be in part a cultural adaptation to the challenges of the work.

I have a passing impression that physical labor and high-extraversion jobs seem to more frequently have cultures of drinking. Part of me wonders if this drug known for inducing gregariousness and weakening inhibition is well-liked and used by this group because it helps support near-constant social interaction, helps users avoiding dwelling on thoughts of things like unfulfillment afterwards, or perhaps both.

I've heard at least 3 famous authors extoll the benefits that amphetamines, cocaine, or other stimulants had on their writing productivity, at least initially (withdrawal is hell). There seems to be an easy causal line to draw for successful author societies to be unusually prone to normalizing both caffeine and stronger stimulants, and perhaps getting addicted to them more often as a consequence, although I'm not sure if either of these are actually the case.

Everyone in the world seems hooked on coffee, so I feel less certain of spotting a difference between cultures on that.

Follow-up questions

What are some of the useful adaptations of programmer culture for the challenges inherent to that field of work/study? (What about math? history? others?)

Is programmer-style "laziness" one of these? (hating repetitive tasks) Does it typically predate or post-date learning programming?

What field is coffee the most adaptive for? Does it match with which fields drink the most coffee per person?

Which fields seem particularly prone to religion as a culturally-transmitted coping strategy? Which stressor or inclination does this seem to be buttressing?