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?

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The set of cultures I most want to poke this lens at, and yet want to write up not at all, are the various military ones.

High-stress environment, with a strong culture and close-to-explicit transmission to young people. And the type of stress varies considerably depending on whether you're in the Army, Navy, Air Force... it seems like an ideal case-study. But it's also a Whole Can of Worms. I suspect it's a bad idea for me to try to publicly analyze subsets of American military culture with thoughts that are half-cocked.

At minimum: I kinda suspect the style of Boydian thought was an excellent fit to the challenges and culture of fighter pilots at the time. Agile judgements that take uncertainty into account, done within a competitive environment where "outmaneuvering your opponent without overextending yourself" is the name of the game.

I believe that military stuff, including and maybe especially culture, is a long-term interest of LW user, Lionhearted. You could message him, also look at his writing on mental toughness within the Strategic Review series.

Thanks! Sounds like a promising lead.

I'm not sure what you expect to dig into, but fwiw this worry seems... probably overblown to me? At least, I have a vague background belief that there are tons of thinkpieces on military culture, way too many for any Powers That Be to pay attention to any particular one.

(I can imagining probing in ways that are actually hazardous, but I have a sense that the last few people who were worried about posting this sort of thing publicly mostly were overly worried)

It's more "Ugh, I hate pissing people off on the internet" than "Oh Noes the Governments." Whether I have good or bad things to say, it's a contentious and semi-political topic. That said, I'm still probably overreacting.

(I'm more worried that I'll be wrong about something, that people will badly misinterpret me or misconstrue my beliefs, or that I rub people's personal issues the wrong way than that I Awaken the Powers That Be by... armchair philosophizing about the influence of culture on PTSD?)

Ah, gotcha. 

This was pretty great – a surprising, yet obviously (or at least probably?) true in retrospect concept. 

I wish the non-biology sections had more details. I’m curious what the new culture you’ve been exploring is, if you’re willing to share that?

I plan to flesh more examples out, but this had languished untouched in my Drafts folder for close to a month. So I settled onto "publish first, flesh out more later."

The idea mostly struck me when examining differences between good biology culture and rationalist culture, rather than from a particularly new cultural exposure on my part.

(The Catalyst conference may have highlighted the differences a bit.)

Makes sense, thanks!

Don't just look in the exciting directions :) There are adaptations to maintaining a constant level of attention.

Fledgling botanists (or people with natural predilections) are pretty mellow about walking distances and watching the roadsides again all night long on replay. It's not your feet that get tired first, it's your brain.

But fully grown botanists have the even pace through the habitat at maximum useful speed and the ability to observe all they need to, without fluctuations in attention. I knew a guy who seemed possessed, running through the wood throwing Latin left and right (we had to write it down after him).

True, and I've seen lab work cultivate something similar.

(I'm pretty sure this particular skill is the inverse of programmer-style "laziness," funnily enough. In one field, seeing repetition is reassuring. In the other, it can be evidence that your code is not as elegant and modularized as it could be.)

I always thought you'd automatically learn the gait if you just did the work often enough, though. It's definitely a coping skill, but I read its origins as more cultivated than culturally-induced or taught.

It mostly follows the natural incentive gradients of the work. This can be in contrast to things like separation of self and client in psychology, which seems to feel actively un-natural for many people. Of course, there's something of a spectrum here, with heavy individual variation.

Yes. How do you identify the culturally-induced or taught CM in people who have started working? (In contrast to personal CM erected through self-teaching which was gained simultaneously [with the CM obtained by peer cross-pollination and between-generation communication].)

And you should have mentioned talking in your sleep. My bookshop manager used to discuss complex orders with many items required by different parties, according to her husband.

Also, it is probably better to distinguish the "outer" adaptations like the cultivated image of the profession and the "personal" ones which include coping mechanisms. Our entomology instruction didn't include worms in the eyes (not so graphically, anyway), we rather had to adapt to the sheer diversity of the taxa.