90 Minutes With AT&T Customer Service – Modern Problems To Modern Solutions

It turns out that there are a number of people named Patrick McKinney in North America and a few of them who have a very similar email address to me. From time to time I will get a message that was intended for one of them and I will reply to it to let the sender know that they have the wrong email address. Sometimes the people are gracious, sometimes they laugh, but mostly they don’t reply. Oh well, whatever.

A few months ago I started receiving email from AT&T – they are a large US telecommunications provider while I am an averaged size person who lives in Canada. They are not my provider and I do not live in the country in which they operate. The first few messages were the standard “welcome” messages and outlined some of their other services. I scanned the message looking for an unsubscribe link so I could put an end to them before it went any further. No luck with that. I was free to update my email preferences with them, but I would need to log into my account to do that and since I didn’t have an account, or more accurately, the account login information, I was powerless to do anything about the messages. I deleted it and returned to whatever it was I was doing before the message arrived.

It turns out the person who used my email address set-up their account to email them notifications to pay their bill, so every month I receive an email letting me know that it is time to pay them X amount of money. Every month I ignore the message and return to living my life. Whoever the AT&T customer is, they are responsible. They pay the bill in full every month and seemed to be doing a good job remembering on their own, since they aren’t getting the email reminders.

Today I received their April reminder and right as I was about to delete it, I stopped to consider how I could waste 90 minutes of my day. Of course, at the time that wasn’t what I considered. What I actually wondered was what would happen if I tried to get my email address taken off of the account? How easy, difficult, or impossible would it be? Could I get it done?

Off I went, to the kitchen to make lunch, brew some coffee, and try to update an email field for an account that wasn’t mine.

Idiot!

When I consider my options on how I will connect with the company, I choose chat because I don’t want to pay any long distance charges and I want to be able to listen to podcasts or music while I solve the biggest non-problem in my world today. This wasn’t a mistake, choosing chat was a fine way to do the very stupid thing I was about to trying to do.

After our hellos and how are you doings, I went straight for it:

Me: I am not an AT&T customer but continue to get billing emails. There is no “unsubscribe” link. How do I stop the messages?

Power move right there. Direct, simple, and easy to understand. I’m getting messages that are someone else’s and I just want to stop them. In my head, the only other thing that is going to be required is the email address that is receiving the messages and maybe a few minutes of waiting while they look it up and empty the email field.

They ask for my name and I let them know that they can call me Tom. Tom is a no nonsense name. One syllable, aggressive and forceful at the start that fades out gently as the mouth closes and the airflow transitions to the nose. Masculine, check. Powerful, oh absolutely. When you say it out loud you know the person you’re with dealing means business. I wasn’t just going to be Tom, I needed the rep to know they were dealing with one.

Except they don’t say it out loud, they read it. Reading “Tom” doesn’t give it the same energy that saying it does. It isn’t weak or anything, it’s just three letters, easy to recognize and as far as names go “Tom” is one.

There’s a little bit of back and forth, I give them my email address and that evaporated whatever Tom clout I had built up. Not only was I not a Tom, I was the kind of person who would lie about being one. A wannabe Tom, and who wouldn’t, but a Pat does not a Tom make or something like that.

The power dynamic is shifting, I can feel it. They can help me, but only if I jump through a couple of hoops for them. Maybe they’ll play fast and loose with the fish, maybe they won’t. But if I want the reward, I’m going to have to do exactly what they tell me to do.

Except they don’t know who they are dealing with, other than knowing it isn’t Tom and is probably someone named Patrick.

Rep 1: I have already checked this with our Billing Team, and they would like to speak with you directly for the issue.
Rep 1: I am actually documenting this now for our Billing team so that this can be checked at the soonest. All you need to do there is to give us a quick call so that we can proceed with further verification processes for your request. Are you ready for the phone number?
Rep 1: Just checking to see if you are there so we can continue.
Me: I’m sorry, I’m not going to do that.
Me: I’m not a customer so I’m not calling to get the messages to stop.
Me: I’ll mark them as spam and be done with it.

Sand meet line!

Except this is quick sand.

The rep has been through all of this before, many times, and calls my bluff in an almost magic way:

Rep 1: I’m with you on this.

Like now I’m just going to hang-up and label rep 1 spam when they’re with me on it? No way! The kind of person who is going to reach out to AT&T to try and correct an email address mistake for an account that isn’t theirs is not the kind of person who is going to leave rep 1 stranded on a customer service chat app. We’re in it together. I don’t disconnect from my commitments. No way, you have me mistaken for a different wannabe Tom.

Rep 1: Just a quick recap, you chatted us about the email that you are getting, I’ll be partnering you with the designated team which is our Billing team to remove this email on file. Is there anything else that I can help you with?
Me: Actually there might be.

I have a passive aggressive streak. This is something that I am not proud of and I thought I had put away, but every now and then, when I’m emotionally wounded, it comes back to life. Rep 1 and I have history. Sure, it’s not a long one, but for the last few lines of chat text I actually believed that they were with me. It was a stunning moment of disillusionment to hit me with the knowledge that they were going to be partnering me with, I shudder to think it, Billing.

There might still be hope, maybe this is a polyamorous customer service experience. Time for clarity:

Me: I don’t know what you mean by partnering.

Rep 1: I’ll be connecting you to our Billing team to make this easy for you, since they are the designated team who can further assist you in removing the email on file.
Me: Ahhhh.

No, it’s happening. What we had together is gone.

Rep 1: I just want to make this instant and fast for you that’s why I’ll be connecting you to our Billing team.

This was a lie, well, maybe not a lie but it wasn’t the truth. It was going to be neither instant nor fast. It’s all so clear now, rep 1 wanted to get rid of me and if that meant the entire billing team was going to take me on they didn’t care. All that matter to rep 1 was that I disappear. They were never with me on anything. That was a lie too. And to think, all I had been was direct and completely honest with them.

Rep 1: Tom, I’m transferring you now. Thank you for choosing AT&T!

Oh yeah, that’s right. I lied about my name. Never mind, on to billing.

Rep 2 is no rep 1, that’s for sure. But working for the billing team does that, to my perceptions of the implied tone of text that appears on the screen. This was just a rehash of my history with rep 1. But, unlike rep 1, rep 2 was going to transfer me to the Loyalty team.

This was a game changer, or something. I wasn’t a customer and had more or less opened with this fact. I wasn’t loyal, well, I was more loyal than rep 1, but so was rep 2, so that isn’t saying much. The fact is that I am not an AT&T customer. The decision to transfer me to loyalty didn’t make sense, unless….. What if this chat had been going on for so long that I had actually proved my chops in terms of being a steadfast and determined partner in solving this issue? Could it be that long enough had passed for them to realize that I should be treated as though I was one of them even though I wasn’t?

Rep 2: Trust me, they are the best team who can handle this.

And suddenly I don’t, and get the feeling that they are pulling a rep 1 on me and dumping me like garbage.

Me: No.

That isn’t the kind of thing a Tom would say, at least not with that tone.

Rep 2: I just need you to stay on the chat with me while I’m waiting for available specialist. Is that okay?
Me: Please don’t do that.

Begging, pathetic.

Rep 2: Okay
Rep 2: Hold on.
Rep 2: I’m currently coordinating with my support here.
Rep 2: Please stay with me.

This is the line of a hero, and it never goes well for the person they direct the line towards. I’ve seen enough army movies were one of the supporting characters gets hit and the hero is sitting beside them, holding their hand, looking intensely into their eyes and says “stay with me.” This is a decision point:

Me: okay.

I choose to die on the battle field.

Rep 3: Hi
Rep 3: Good day
Me: You misspelled “Oh my God you’ve been waiting for 90 minutes to deal with something a normal person would just delete. Seriously, you need to get it together. I could help you with this, but it’s not right to reward bad behavior in case that makes you more likely to repeat it.” But I too misspell it and type “Hello”
Rep 3: Please allow me to review the previous interaction to better assist you. Thank you
Me: okay

There is a long pause during which time I listen to a BBC news podcast. Turns out my problems are small. However, it just seems like Rep 3 has been reviewing for too long.

Me: Hi Rep 3. I seem to have underestimated the complexity of removing an incorrect email address from an active customers account.
Me: Would it be better for everyone if I was to just mark the messages from the AT&T address as spam so I don’t see them anymore?
Me: The challenge I am running into now is twofold.
Me: I’m almost out of time that I can devote to this.
Me: And I’m almost out of the will to see it through.
Me: At some point in the very near future I will have to get back to living the rest of my Tuesday.
Rep 3: Sorry I’m here

I believe this 100%. My request is very straight forward, no one is confused about what I want to have happen, and no one is able to make it so. In situations like this, I believe that rep 1 is sorry they are there and rep 2 is sorry they are there.

Rep 3: I received your responses late
Rep 3: Due to system maintenance

Yeah, I don’t care anymore. I got more out of this than I ever thought possible. But I’ve grown rep 1 kind of bored and I’m with AT&T in this no longer.

Rep 3: Would you mind if I call you back within an hour?
Rep 3: Sorry we need to reboot our system due to maintenance

Ah, a way to fix this. Perfect.

Me: I think I understand the solution you are suggesting and I like it.
Me: Call my number on file and when I answer
Me: ask me to update my email address
Me: I won’t remember this chat but that won’t matter so long as I update the email address.
Rep 3: Kindly give me the number that I can call you
Rep 3: Since I would not be able to update any information
Rep 3: Since most of our system/tools are down
Me: use the number you have for me on file.
Rep 3: Alright
Rep 3: talk to you soon
Rep 3: Sorry for the inconvenience
Rep 3: Have a nice one: )

Rep 3 doesn’t have any idea how effectively they solved the problem and I can only imagine how weird the first few moments of their conversation with the account holder will be. But their genius will shine through once they say everything out loud.

The account holder wanted the email reminders, they just entered the wrong email address and have never recieved them. The best solution is to have their actual email address on file because they didn’t leave the email blank when they signed up. AT&T seem unable to update the email address to an empty or null value, something that is common with databases – you can leave it blank but once it is filled in and a valid email address has been saved, format error checking on the form prevents you from submitting a blank value. It wasn’t that my request was unusual, it was simply that the technology did not allow for the request to be completed. The email field NEEDS a valid entry so without a valid email address, AT&T was not going to be able to update it.

The person who should have been talking to AT&T was the customer but they didn’t know that they were not getting the emails because that is not how knowing things works. They were never going to call AT&T to give them the updated address, so it was up to me and the phone rep to figure out how that connection would be made.

When rep 3 said that he would call me back, the opening for the connection between the actual customer and AT&T presented itself and I jumped at it. By asking rep 3 to call the phone number that is on file for the account, they will be calling the person who the bill is for and will be able to get the updated email address from them. Of course, the customer wouldn’t know why the rep is calling because it wasn’t them who was on the chat. My statement “I won’t remember this chat but that won’t matter so long as I update the email address” was made to address this fact.

The idea of the call makes me laugh though.

Rep: Hi customer, sorry we got cut off, I’d like to close off your concern about the email address associated with your AT&T account.
Customer: I’m sorry, I don’t know what you are talking about. We didn’t get cut off, I wasn’t talking to anyone from AT&T today. And I don’t get emails from them anyway.
Rep: (thinking to themselves, he said he wouldn’t remember) Okay, well you said that you didn’t want to get the emails any more.
Customer: I didn’t say anything because we weren’t talking and I have never got the emails.
Rep: Okay, I think I understand, maybe we don’t have the right email address on file. Let’s take a moment to make sure things are good.
Customer: Okay
Rep: Is your email address __?
Customer: No.
Rep: (as his accidental genius hits him). Let’s update right now and make sure things are set up correctly.

I have learned a valuable lesson today which is to just delete the messages from large corporations to their customers and not try to fix anything. It isn’t my business or my concern, and it isn’t as simple as it seems like it should be. Should it take three different people from three different departments over the course of 90 minutes to not get it fixed? I don’t think so, but maybe it should. Maybe things need to be harder than they are to toughen us up and help us grow more tolerant towards the complexity of life now.

Modern solutions beget modern problems. Before email there wasn’t a single problem associated with email addresses. Why shouldn’t the increasing complexity cause more problems than it solves? Do we really want to live in a world in which progress doesn’t create its own set of problems?

Emotional Selling / Buying

For reasons of survival, human beings cannot think logically when they are experiencing an emotional response; the prefrontal cortex is mostly deactivated and we are moved to action vs. thought. This is fantastic when immediate action is required but it creates a vulnerability when thought would serve you better. And let’s face it, there are not a lot of times in modern life that require immediate mindless action.

But that doesn’t mean that we can over-write or undo millions of years of evolution. When we perceive a threat – consciously or unconsciously – we are initially going to be motivated to run or fight.

And this is how we end up buying a lot of stuff that we don’t actually want. It’s rather remarkable actually. We go looking for something, a car for example, and the sales person shows up, friendly, happy and effectively building rapport. We’re guarded at first, we’ve bought a car before and we know the racket, but parts of our brain that function without our awareness are taking in and processing all the information. After some period of time we open-up simply because there is no actual threat. No one is going to harm us and our life is definitely not in jeopardy.

The sales person will find out what kind of car you are looking for, what your specific needs are and how much money you have to spend; they may not be so bold about finding out this information but you’ll give it to them because normal conversation flows in such a way that we tell people stuff. Effective sales people are going to uncover what they need to know in order to begin to trigger emotional reactions within us. And we give them the tools they need because the sales process is set-up like that.

I am one skeptical human being. Some would consider me to be paranoid and I agree, I am very aware of just how easily an emotional reaction can be triggered. I am not the mark I used to be, but I have had to work like hell to not become a part in this click wirr process. When I bought a car a few years ago the entire process was extremely unpleasant for me. I ended-up with a brutal headache and feeling very sick towards the end of it. I bought the exact car I went in to buy and actually paid a little less for it than I had planned. To an outsider it would have looked like a pleasant experience, a win:win for me and the sales person, and he was an extremely nice and good natured person. But I never let my guard down because I didn’t want to get taken.

When the gas water heater people make their rounds I try to get out of the conversation quickly. I don’t really want to waste their time because there is no way they are going to come into my house and I’ve found that when I do talk to them, the conversation degrades very quickly as I call them on the manipulative things they say. They try to use fear that the water heater that is in our house isn’t up to code; they can’t possibly know because they’ve never seen it. They try to tell me it will save money; modern water heaters are extremely efficient. They say that we are entitled to government grands; they don’t even know if we have a gas heater so they cannot know if we are entitled to anything. They say that they are with the gas company and are just in the neighborhood and would like to give our heater a free check-up; no successful company sends out its technicians unannounced and without a reason.

I can say this, they have been well trained to push the buttons that trigger emotional reactions, which will then lower resistance to what they are selling. Listening to them, it is easy to understand how people get sucked into long term contracts with the gas resellers they represent. This makes me angry because I don’t think it’s fair that people knock on your door and try to make you feel things just so you can buy stuff you don’t want. I suppose I could simply just close the door, but even though I have no respect for what they are doing, they are still human beings and deserve some respect.

And I think that’s the problem with emotional selling, it takes so much energy to combat that it ends up changing how we interact with other human beings and this makes the world a little worse of a place for everyone. These automatic reactions are the result of intensity, recency and an averaging of experiences.

Each one of us has a mental storage capacity that is enormous. We are capable of remembering hundreds of thousands of experiences, possibly millions, and when given enough time, we will be able to access most of them. A few of them will come to mind instantly, these will be the most recent and the ones that are the most intense for some reason, but almost all of the remainder will require a certain amount of deliberate mental. A system being set-up like this is very practical. When we need to make a decision very quickly, it limits the amount of information that comes to mind allowing us to filter through with ease and make a decision. We don’t get bogged down reviewing volumes of information, parsing out context, checking for relevance and reprocessing this for patterns and a relationship to other things that might be useful. The brain is capable of performing these tasks, it just doesn’t do it initially and it doesn’t do it very quickly. But when faced with a life or death situation, or when we need to determine IF something is a life or death situation, bringing to mind the most useful and revealing information that is relevant is the fastest and most effective way to do it.

Initially, three things will come to mind, one right after the other:

The first thing that comes to mind will be the contextually similar things that were accompanied by an extreme emotional reaction. There is a favoring of negative emotions over positive emotions here – things that scared us or made us angry – and the corresponding emotion will be triggered to some extent. Our consciousness will be filled with the memory and our body will be hit with some of the emotion. We will be, in a way, transported back that moment in time and this will ready us to respond to that specific stimuli in the event the present situation is a reasonable copy.

The second thing will be the most recent thing that was contextually similar – the context being determined by the last time we crossed the threshold into the physical / geographical space or a location – entering a room, getting into our car – or that is defined by a metaphoric meaning – going to work, talking to a spouse or sales person. Things that happened longer ago have less salience than the things that happened more recently, and the things that happened moments ago will take on a much greater portion of our awareness.

The final thing that comes to mind will be a sort of average of all of the situations that were close enough to the present situation in terms of context, language, emotional state, and a match on any other information that the brain deems as relevant. These will be thrown into a pot, mixed together and formed into a prototypical or representative case that called into mind in response to the sensory data that the present situation provides.

These three things impact the brain in slightly different ways and have different response curves. The emotional one will be first and if there is no negative component it will fade away very quickly. If there is a negative component, it will linger for longer, and if fear is the primary component, it will begin to shut down higher level cognitive processes as a fight or flight response takes over. There is a small window here in which the other two responses can mitigate the response and allow the emotional hijack to fade away. If recent experiences have shown the situation to be safe or if the average experience has been deemed to be safe, the hijack will be reduced.

This is why cognitive behavioral therapy or systematic desensitization is so effective at helping people gain a higher degree of control over their thoughts and reactions. Through repeated exposures that have a positive or neutral outcome, the brain begins to factor them into the average which will begin to lessen the severity of the response.

Assuming that there is no emotional hijack, the recency wave will peak next and fade away, quickly followed by a slow peaking average wave, which will remain for a lot longer before trailing off slowly. What ends up being perceived as reality will most often be a combination of the average and the sensory information. So long as a response is taken quickly, the process for this moment ends and there will be very little deeper searching of long term memories.

The average wave is interesting because it will be comprised of the things that happened more often and things that happened once or twice may not be included. If these single or infrequent happenings are critical for decision making, the person will need to hold off action for a while to give their brain the opportunity to activate these memories and bring them to mind.

This is the process that my brain goes through when there is a knock at the door and I see someone who is trying to sell me something when I open the door. They are not threatening, but I am on a heightened state of awareness because of what has happened before and fairly recently – someone just like them, in a context identical to this, tried to make me feel scared that there was something in my house that was no longer at up to code and could kill me. So without so much as a moments conscious thought, I’m already a little bit angry. When the average of all of the experiences like this fills my mind, I’m only slightly less annoyed and ready to tell them “no thank you” and “good bye.”

In general, these interactions are never as bad as the worst one was, they are fairly transactional once they say their bit and I reply to them based on how they are treating me. The only ones that are in anyway bad are the hot water tank people or the energy resellers, the telecom people are selling a service that they cannot match our present provider on, the political candidates and real estate brokers know that they won’t ever get my vote or my business if they are pushy or rude. And the religious people get thanked for their time and efforts as I politely say “I don’t feel like talking about it.”

At this point, the only door to door sales people that are able to trigger me into an emotional buy are the kids who are selling cookies or raising money for something, or who knock on the door asking to wash my car or shovel the snow from the driveway. They will get money almost every time and I have even paid them to not touch my car as an attempt to reinforce their entrepreneurial efforts.

What is most interesting to me is how Heather doesn’t have any problem listening to people try to sell her things or with their attempts to trigger an emotional response in order to get her commitment to buy. She actually enjoys it because she’s very aware of her internal state and feels it immediately when someone is trying to manipulate her. I’ve heard her complement sales people on their tactics, point out what they did and tell them “no thanks, I’m not buying anything from you.” All without any rage or obvious level of agitation, and even with some enthusiasm for having learned something new.

Heather and I are very different emotional operators. Historically I have been a much more empathetic person, with a tendency to feel emotions to a larger extent and for a much longer duration. She has as wide an emotional spectrum as me but is much more compassionate in terms of how she feels in response to the actions of other people and her perception of their immediate experience. I have only seen her angry once and I have never seen her behave in a way that would be viewed as inappropriate or out of place. The episode of anger was directed towards someone who was completely out of line and in desperate need of some social correction. The consequence of our differing ways of processing emotions is that, while I am more inclined to have a larger first response in terms of emotionality based on my previous experience before it fades to a more objective assessment of the immediate situation, her first response is very low or non existent in terms of emotion because her interpretations are well calibrated with reality. Someone trying to manipulate your emotion is only a threat IF they are successful and trigger a response. They have no power over you when you maintain control of your emotional state. Someone who is actually dangerous will not rely on slow methods to gain control, they will use force right from the very beginning.

The key to emotional selling or to combating emotional buying is logical thought because rationality helps people rank the importance of whatever is occurring. Sellers using these tactics are trying to gain the upper hand by creating a state that favors impulsive or rash decision making. An emotional hijack is the most effective way to do this, and it helps to complete a sale when the person is selling the solution to the proxy cause of the emotional response. Note, the cause of the response is the words / communication of the sales person and the proxy cause is the thing that they are talking about.

For example, the water heater guy is trying to get me to buy a new water heater by making me afraid that my present heater is no longer up to code and is therefore dangerous. He’s presenting the problem and the cure to something that is not a problem in need of a cure. The code change he was making reference to was an update to how gas pipes are labelled. There is nothing unsafe about anything. The ministry just made the determination that better labeling of gas lines would be more helpful. Of course I didn’t know this when he knocked on the door, but since our utility supplier hadn’t told us anything, I was confident there was no actual safety concern. When the sales guy told me my life was in danger I just replied with “good, if something happens you get to be right and I won’t ever have to talk to you again. Now get off my property and stop trying to scare people into buying crap from you.” This isn’t as good a response as what Heather would have had, but she asks me to answer the door because she gets a kick out of hearing what I say when someone’s efforts to make me afraid instead trigger anger.

The best approach is to take your time to allow your brain to surface as much information as it can and to allow whatever emotional response might be triggered to run its course and for your body and brain to return to baseline. This might mean not buying something at that moment in time and missing out on any first visit incentives. It might mean having to buy the product / service elsewhere. But doing it is going to mean that you will buy only the things that you want to buy and that these things will be YOUR choice. Your past will be used to shape your decision making – all of your past, not just the recent past or the experiences that were highly emotional – which will lead to better choices based on reality and actual need.

Visit to the Juravinski Cancer Centre – For Glioblastoma Multiforme (Brain Cancer) – Post Revisited

In December 2011 my family took a trip to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. The trip was taken just to cross-off a possibility from the short list of possible actions that is given to you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. The list was my dad’s, which means the cancer was his. GBM, the most common type of brain cancer. It was a primary tumor, it grew very quickly, and it was located in a part of the brain that made it difficult to operate on and there would be very serious damage to the surrounding tissue. Surgery could be performed but since there was no chance that they would be able to remove all of the tumor it would grow back, likely at the same speed it grew in the first place.

My dad was 67, which placed him on the do nothing side of the surgery decision matrix. He was remarkably healthy for a man of that age, still very lean, strong, and in possession of all of the markers of good health. Apart from the cancer he was in great shape. During the conversation with the oncologist he said that they would be willing to perform the surgery because it was low risk in so far as my dad would live through it. The decision was my dad’s to make, but only after sitting down with the treatment team of doctors who would look his case over and give their honest assessment of what should happen next.

What struck me at the time and what I still remember very clearly is the flatness of each one of the doctors. They were nice, seemed kind and were honest. At no point did I or my family get a sense that they were being anything other than truthful. There was stuff they could do. The surgeon said that there was no way to get rid of the entire tumor without leaving the brain as a complete mess, but he could de-bulk it and doing this would give my dad a little more time. The radiation doctors knew they could destroy a lot of the remaining tumor, and this would buy some more time. The oncologist wasn’t confident that there was anything more that could be done because the blood brain barrier prevents most chemo therapy drugs from entering the brain. While there were some experimental medications that showed promise, getting into a drug trial was unlikely given my dad’s age. We were free to source and buy the drugs elsewhere but he wouldn’t be able to offer any support or advice. The feeling we all got was that they would go to bat as hard as they could, in the event my dad decided that he was going to treat it.

My brother asked what it would look like if my dad decided to take whatever treatment options were available and each doctor spoke dispassionately as they gave their best guess. The radiation doctors said 5 treatments a week for 6 to 10 weeks. Possibly a few courses of them over the remaining time. The first week wouldn’t be too bad, but from there it would get tougher as the tumor cells died, along with any other tissues that were impacted. It would start like a cold, then move into the realm of a flu and effectively become the worst sickness he had ever had. A week or so after the final treatment the body would begin to show signs of recovery, and my dad would start to feel better. After a few weeks he would be back to feeling cold and flu free. They avoided saying back to normal because that was never going to happen because radiation was only going to be used if surgery was performed. Whatever version of my dads brain existed before he went under the knife would be gone forever, so the radiation was going to be destroying the tumor along with a portion of whatever brain tissue remained.

The surgeon went next. His version was more intense because his intervention involved gaining direct access to the tumor. The radiation was a beam generated by a machine that penetrated the flesh and bone; which is kind of like shining a flash light on something. Surgery involved cutting the skin, peeling back the scalp, sawing through the skull, cutting a path through the top layers of the brain to get access to the tumor and then cutting and burning away as much of the tumor as he could while trying to avoid cutting away viable tissue and damaging the thousands / millions of tiny pathways connecting different parts of the brain to one another. Once the debulking was complete, they’d close-up, join the piece of the skull that was removed to the rest of the skull using metal plates and screws, flip the scalp back and stitch it back together. There would be antibiotics to prevent infection, pain killers to help deal with the pain associated with cutting through the skull and scalp – there wouldn’t be any pain from the brain because it doesn’t have pain receptors – and a few days of recover in the hospital.

There was an enthusiasm in how he described what he would do, and I was confident that he would do it really well. But whatever sense of optimism his enthusiasm created crashed when he talked about the recovery.

“We have no idea what we will have to do once we get inside. We’ll do more imaging before we go in, but there is no way to know exactly what the tumor looks like, what other tissues it involves and how it will have grown between the scan and the day we do surgery.” He paused to let this sink in before continuing. “Given all of that, the tumor is still be there and it will grow again. And it is brain surgery. We’re cutting into your brain and we will be removing pieces of it. No matter how careful we are, and I am very good at this and our team is excellent, your brain is never going to be as it is right now.” Another pause and then, “even as the tumor continues to grow now, you are still you. You won’t be after surgery. Removing pieces of the brain changes who you are and we have no idea what that will actually mean until after surgery and about a month and a half of recovery. There is a chance that surgery and radiation will buy you another 9 months, maybe 11.” Looking at the oncologist, who nods, then back to my dad, “great, you’re healthy, maybe 15. But it isn’t you who will have them, it will be the post surgery version of you and there is no way to predict who that will be, what they will be like and what they will still be able to do.”

The next few moments were longer than any before or since. The silence hung in the air, most uncomfortably.

He was very good at his job though, and took a brave next step. “If I had a relative who was just like you, and this was their brain scan,” holding up the printed image of my dads tumor, “I’d help them get their affairs in order and then go and spend a month or so somewhere hot and sunny with them.”

The oncologist spoke next, not giving much time to let what the surgeon had just said sink in. “There were a couple of things they could do in terms of medication, but the powerful chemo therapy drugs that have a strong track record of destroying cancer sell couldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so there wasn’t anything that he knew would work. We’re looking at surgery, radiation and whatever medication makes your remaining time easier.” And that was more or less that.

My dad decided against surgery and that was the end of it. There wasn’t going to be a cure so why bother with all the hassle of having to recover from brain surgery, maybe having to relearn how to walk or talk or think only to die in a few months anyway? Didn’t seem to him to be worth the inconvenience. He was still himself and would be until he died, so he got after enjoying whatever remained.

I haven’t been back to the Juravinski Cancer Centre and haven’t spent any time thinking about that day until about an hour ago when I reread the original post. What hit me was the paragraph about how we filled the half hour or so between the initial conversation with the oncologist and the group chat with the treatment team:

Some food at the cafeteria / lounge that had a piano but no singer. The family chats back and forth about stuff. I’m looking around and starting to feel strange because as I look at each group of people I’m trying to guess which one of them has cancer. If you haven’t played this game, you don’t really win when you guess correctly. There’s a table of 3 people, one is dying, the two that aren’t are going to be grieving their asses off soon. You can’t guess who is who without looking at their faces and when you do, you see a 21 year old son with his mom and grandmother, mom’s in a wheelchair because she has cancer. I felt rage deep inside that made me want to wreck something for what’s about to happen to this poor kid. I suddenly wonder what type of cancer killed the cafeteria singer and as I do, my eyes meet Des’ and he’s just seen the kids future too. I glace away towards my dad unwittingly winning another round of the stupid game my brain is playing.

I do not remember writing that nor do I remember thinking it. In fact, I have no recollection about that moment whatsoever. I can relate to it, it sounds very much like something that my brain would do and the words are almost identical to the ones I would use to describe such an experience.

I remember a conversation with my dad about art. I was sounding off about a painting being really expensive for just being a picture of something and he said “son, you have no idea what that picture actually represents, or what it represented at the time. Sure, it’s a picture of a scene, and to you and me it is a really good picture. It looks like what it is a picture of. But imagine that this was the first time someone did that, would that make it more important?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about and he knew it so he continued, “before that picture was painted, people didn’t paint pictures like that, they painted pictures like how they painted pictures. That artist saw that paintings didn’t look like real life and that real life didn’t look like the paintings and he changed that. He saw something that was always there but no one else had ever seen, and if they had, they had never painted it.” He could see that I was still kind of lost so he added, “art is a strange thing son, the artist who created that was the first to paint that way and he was probably laughed at for how bizarre it looked compared to everything else. But it was art because it captured something about reality that no one had ever captured before and after he did it, it could not be unseen.”

That is how I consider the paragraph I quoted above. I wasn’t the first person to have that experience, and I am probably not the first person to put it into words. But I feel good knowing that I captured a moment of humanity that is uncommon but likely experienced by everyone who sits in a cancer center, life on pause, waiting to hear from a team of doctors who are there to offer up their advice about what they can do in response to the cancer that has taken hold. It’s peaceful, still, and extremely short lived. Life starts up again as soon as we gather in the room, and this moment fades into the stew of memories that shape who we become, even if time causes us to forget that it happened.

Empathy vs. Compassion

The 1990 movie “Jacobs Ladder” is about an American soldier who has returned from Vietnam under some sketchy circumstances. As he tries to get his life in order and move forward he starts to experience a growing number of odd and unsettling things. These leave him shaken, and since some of them seem to be related to his time in the war, he grows more curious about what happened. As the movie progresses he starts to realize that his memory has some huge gaps in it and the continuity problems began on a specific day while his platoon was stationed somewhere in the Vietnam jungle. SKIP AHEAD three paragraphs if you have not seen the movie and want to avoid finding out why his life became so bizarre.

The climax of the film centers around what happened on that day. In an attempt to turn human beings into the ultimate fighting machines the Army scientist manufacture an LSD-like drug they call the ladder – the main effect of it is to trigger primal fear within the user. The rational is that fear is the source of all anger and if a soldier is angry, they will fight with more aggression – think about how a cornered wild animal seems to throw a switch that redirects their flight energy into fight energy that causes them to do a 180 and to violently attack whatever has cornered it. Something is going to die in the next few seconds and the cornered animal is going to do everything it can to make sure it isn’t it.

During the day in question, the soldier are hanging out, talking, eating, smoking, playing cards, etc…. You hear some helicopters flying over that one of the soldiers comments are not expected. Over the next few minutes everyone begins to start acting differently. A few of them run off screaming, one of them begins to look terrified, the rest of them just seem to go to pieces. There’s a fast forward and the main character is seen in the jungle holding his gun clearly looking for the enemy. Suddenly there is some action and he is stabbed. At the end of the film it is revealed that he was mortally wounded by another member of his platoon because the ladder worked so well that the soldiers were unable to perceive anything other than threat and viewed any other person as the enemy. There is no such thing as logic when you are completely overcome by a fight or flight response, so there was no way they were going to be able to discern their platoon mates from their actual enemy and everyone began to attack the first person they saw.

This is the problem with empathy and it is why our species is much better served by compassion.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” while compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” In a metaphoric way, empathy allows us to become another person by taking on their feelings, or our interpretation of what their feelings are. This is very different from compassion which has us remain as ourselves and experience our version of concern for someone else. There is no blurring of the boundaries between us and them, allowing us to remain in control and more rational about what we are experiencing or our interpretation of it. The risk of an amygdala or emotional hijack is much lower when compared to the risk level when an act of empathy triggers fear or anger.

The maintenance of boundaries is critical when dealing with challenges because detachment or separation from a situation is very important for objective problem solving. There is a tendency for the number of solution choices to drop dramatically the closer one gets to the events. A normally very pragmatic person can be left incapable of anything other than a “hulk smash” reaction to something when they are part of it while those on the outside will see many alternatives that do not involve the destruction or elimination of a “threat.” The passage of time will also have the same effect. The massive reaction today will probably seem over the top in a few hours or a day later when the person can see that they could have just said “thank you, I’m not interested” and closed the door.

Having too much empathy causes us to relate too much with one of the two parties in a conflict. This comes at the cost of being able to maintain the idea that the other party is an equal and therefore entitled to the same respect and rights that we are bestowing upon the person we are connecting with. This makes sense, we are actually feeling what we believe the person is feeling, which will trigger us to respond to the other person as though they are actually acting towards us. But there are two sides to everything so our hyper vigilant quest of complete understanding for one party causes their experience to take on a disproportionately large role in our understanding of the situation or conflict as a whole.

Of course, we are wrong with whatever it is we are feeling in terms of empathy because we are NOT the other person and we have very little understanding of the context that led to things being what they are. While it might be true that IF we found ourselves in that situation we WOULD feel a specific way, this should beg the question, would we ever find ourselves in the situation? There is a very good chance that somewhere along the way, before things got were they are now, we would have done something different that would have change the course and eliminated what is presently occurring from the list of future possibilities. The context piece of it is very important because it is rarely visible and therefore very hard to bring to mind, particularly when the amygdala has hijacked our brain.

Not all people who are suffering are victims; or at least not all people who are suffering are being victimized. This is a very important fact to consider, one that empathy doesn’t really allow for. Emotions are a strange thing in that it is a lot easier to be angry at someone else than it is to be angry at ourselves and the anger towards others will last a lot longer. The context provides important information about how each person arrived at this moment and it will clearly show the level of responsibility each person has for what is going on. Very often, the person who is suffering has made a series of bad decisions, one after the other, leaving them with the choice of this bad thing or that bad thing. When they had the opportunity to create a future that didn’t have this situation as one of the possible outcomes, they made a bad choice.

This can be a tough pill to swallow because it does land like victim blaming and dogmatically adhering to it does kind of remove compassion from the equation. It also seems like a very “right wing” view of the world, and it might be. And none of these things, even if they are all true, make this perspective incorrect. I’d argue that the moment someone sees themselves as the cause of their situation marks the beginning of their situation improving. There is no power in being a victim. Life is DONE to victims and their only choice is to put-up with it while feeling worse and worse. But the growing negative feelings only serve to hijack their logical thinking to an even greater degree, leading to fewer solutions and more “victimization.”

There are some real victims, people who have found themselves in bad situations with no good options through no fault of their own. People who would have done something else if they knew what as actually going on. These people need assistance, which is best fueled by compassion. Feeling pity or concern will allow you to remain helpful because you will not become overwhelmed with whatever feelings being empathetic causes to come to the surface.

This is the same approach that should be employed with dealing with people who are suffering as a result of their own poor or lazy decision making. In fact, empathy will only be counter productive with these people because it will cause you to miss critical clues about context that are needed to restore their sense of control and autonomy. Consider the case when someones computer crashes causing them to lose a lot of work. There are two ways to look at this situation. The first is to see the person as a victim of bad luck, and to empathize with them. You’ll feel disappointment and anger, and this will lead to a strong sense of bitterness. The second way is to see the person as having played a role in the situation through one or more of their actions. You can be compassionate towards them, it really sucks to see the screen go blue and know that the last few hours of your work has just disappeared. But you don’t need to live their negative feelings and cultivate a sense of bitterness that you’ll bring with you into the rest of the day. This isn’t helpful and will only do harm.

When you allow yourself to be compassionate, you will very quickly start to solve the problem and empower them with the responsibility of implementing the solution. In this case, a computer crash shouldn’t mean the loss of hours of work because everyone KNOWS that computers crash and should be taking the steps to preempt the consequences of this happening. Those who have not backed up or saved their work are completely responsible for whatever work is not available to them once the computer reboots. It isn’t Microsoft or Apples fault, nor is it the fault of the company that makes your computer. Operating systems are complex, powerful, and fallible. An individual transistor is simple, a collection of a billion of them isn’t. Complex things throw errors and you need to know this when working with something that is complex. There is a non zero chance that any complex thing will stop working in the next second so given enough seconds it IS going to break down. Save your work often, back-up you work often and back-up your back-ups often. If you choose not to do this, when the complex thing breaks down and you lose the last few hours of your work, it is gone because YOU made the choice to make the most of your bad luck.

This doesn’t mean that you laugh at the person who didn’t look after their work, but you shouldn’t ever empathize with them UNLESS you are willing to really feel what it is they should be feeling. Saying “stupid piece of crab” or “useless bloody operating systems” as you cultivate an anger that is directed towards a computer is entirely the wrong thing to feel when someone loses their work as a result of a computer crash. While that might be a pure expression of empathy, it isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. In this case, empathy should be having the rage sent inwards for NOT saving their work and backing things up. The expression of emotion onto something that is external is an effective way of not feeling the consequences of the truth, but it is a lousy way of making the future any better than the present.

And this is one of the main problems with empathy, it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation and is based only superficially on the context and the history leading-up to the moment in question. It cannot be said that your feelings are wrong because they are what you are feeling, but it is fair to say that they are not appropriate when they are not based on all of the events that contribute to the situation. When someone doesn’t take responsibility for backing-up their work and the computer crashes, being compassionate towards them, by acknowledging their disappointment and maybe offering to help them look for any auto recovery versions of the work because you have a more clear head about things, is the only course of action that makes sense, and the only one that might possibly help them find the lost work.

The other area in which empathy is exceptionally problematic is in the realm of conflict. Specifically when it comes to taking sides, because it is impossible to take both sides of an argument at once. Human beings cannot be objective processors the moment they start to feel what they believe one of the sides in the conflict is feeling. In fact, the longer they stay in an empathetic state, the more subjective their interpretation and perceptions will be. If they spend long enough there, they will be able to manufacture hatred, rage, and complete contempt for those on the other side of the conflict; all while having very little access to the context and the history of the events that lead up to the escalation.

This does not mean that every conflict is justified, nor does it mean that no conflicts are justified. The second world war was absolutely needed to happen to stop the actions of those who started it. Hitler was awful, his ideas were wrong, and his solution to things wasn’t grounded in a version of reality that was shared by anyone. However, and I’m not making excuses here, when you take a look at what happened after the first world war, the second world war seems almost inevitable. How Germany was treated throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s was both the result of too much empathy for those who were effected by WW1 and a complete lack of compassion for the German people who didn’t have anything to do with starting the war. They were simply people who were trying to carve out lives for themselves in exactly the same way as the people from any other country that found itself involved in the war. When the ruling class starts a conflict and the entire country is made to pay for it afterwards, there is almost no way to avoid future conflicts because the population is eventually going to grow tired of the punitive measures they are forced to endure for something they had no hand in starting. This is why the end of most of the wars since WW1 have had the winning side provide finance and participate in the recovery efforts.

On a much smaller scale, empathizing too much with either side of a conflict is going to dramatically reduce your ability to actually be of service in terms of offering solutions or helping to broker peace. The other side will be bad, evil or untrustworthy, and this will fuel suspicion and animosity, which will trigger a greater emotional reaction and keep the cycle going.

As unappealing as it seems to the other side, having compassion for both groups is critical for cooling things off and putting an end to strife. It is a lot easier for outside parties to approach the issue with compassion vs. empathy BUT not impossible for those who are involved in it. When it happens, a strong characteristic of compassion alters the dynamic in a powerful way. Compassion, like empathy, humanizes the person we are relating to. But unlike empathy, compassion for the other is possible (thus ensuring the ongoing objectivity) and once it is triggered, it is nearly impossible to not approach the situation from a more objective and balanced point of view. When this occurs, the vilification of others becomes much more difficult and the notions of right and wrong evaporate to be replaced by differences in opinion based on different perspectives or access to different information. This will allow both sides to track into the specific challenges and the key players in the conflict. Hitler was accurately determined to be evil, along with a number of his supporting players, but the German people were not lumped into this bucket because of the objective assessment compassion allows.

The ladder in Jacobs Ladder was a fear creating drug. It eliminated the possibility for compassion or an objective assessment of what is going on because when fear is involved there is only “me,” “them,” and the rest. The rest is everyone and everything that presents no threat and is ignored into non existence. The only thing that comes to mind is the threat – them – and the only thing to do is to take massive action to run away or to destroy the threat.

Under normal circumstances we have the ability to expand this binary reaction dynamic by avoiding an empathic reaction and preventing ourselves from getting lost in the experience of feeling our perception of other peoples feelings. This will give us the clarity to see things for what they are and to consider the role each person played in creating the present situation. We will be able to care and relate to the people involved, but we’ll not get lost in blaming other people for things that they didn’t have very much to do with. This is much more helpful to the person who is suffering because we give them understanding but do not give them permission to remain locked in a less than ideal situation. In the end, showing compassion for others is an act of caring that can help to move them through something they do not like by reestablishing the link between their actions and the outcomes they are experiencing. It reveals to them that they have the power to change their circumstances simply because it prevents you from getting wrapped up in the emotions that crush objectivity and reduce clarity and options.

There is no drug called the ladder, but too much empathy might be a fairly good behavioral proxy. We all have the power to choose between compassion and empathy when faced with someone who is suffering, and if we really want to help them, we’ll take whatever steps we need to in order to show that we care for them. They’ll know that they are not alone while being certain that we are committed to helping them move past whatever the miserable experiences is they have found themselves in because we will be standing beside them and not, metaphorically, INSIDE of them.

Google Expert – Noun? Not Verb? – Second Run At It

A few days ago I wrote the post Google Expert – Noun? Verb? – First Run At It and today I am taking the second run at it. The reason I am doing it is because the article I intended to write was not what I ended-up writing. This is often the case when I get into writing about something I think is important. My brain goes off and does its own thing and my consciousness is left trying to stitch together the outcomes of the various processes the initial thought triggered. It would be silly to be upset about this because it is only a brain after all and it cannot help itself from acting like one.

Recall that I said:

… the 2019 Kentucky Derby that was run on May 4 saw the first disqualification in the history of the race. The horse that crossed the line first was later disqualified because it seemed to change its path and was deemed to have impeded another horse. A lot of people are commenting about it. I don’t know anything about horse racing so I don’t know if the DQ is appropriate. Google experts.

Assuming, because I am, using the term “google experts” as a noun. It’s intended to be slightly ironic or maybe a little sarcastic. Google-experts are a relatively new thing, but there have always been people who are full of crap. The only time there were not people who were full of crap is when there were no people. It’s hard to hold this against people because our large brain makes a lot of things possible that are not desirable.

The main trait of the brain that doesn’t entirely work for people is their need for certainty. It doesn’t work because the world has always been so insanely complicated that the chances of us being certain about most things is never going to be 100%. We can exclude the pure sciences from this – there is a right answer to most of the things in science, even the things that we do not know yet – leaving everything else. Math, for example, is a realm that deals with certainty in terms of there being a correct answer to questions and a near infinite number of incorrect answers. You are certainly going to be wrong when you say that 4 times 4 is 19 or 367, just as you will be certain that you are correct when you say that 4 times 4 is 16. And given that most things in science are governed by mathematical formulas, these things have a right and wrong answer. When we learn and follow the proper processes we can be certain that the answers we generate will be correct.

About almost all other things, certainty isn’t something that most of us will ever have a legitimate claim to. But that isn’t how we feel about them. Putting aside your keen ability to manage and coordinate a diverse and complex collection of actions taken by the people you work with, or your impressive ability to analyze spread sheets to uncover trends in complex global markets, or your legendary ability to write a tune and lyrics that capture the ubiquitous suffering that is being alive – or whatever expertise you have in your area of specialization – you are not an expert in anything else. In most other things, you have the average level of ability, which is to say almost none because most people do not know anything about most things. The Pareto distribution more or less dictates that 20% of the people have 80% of the resources. This leaves everyone else sharing the remaining 20%. The statistical analysis is based on things for which there is a finite quantity; money for example, 80% of the worlds population share 20% of the worlds money.

In a way, but not a big way, Pareto does not apply to things for which there is an infinite supply. Fluency in language is an example of a non-finite resource. Most people can learn how to communicate in their native language at an average level. Some people will have much higher skill than the average, while others will have much less skill than the average, but for those who are in the middle 60%, they will get along fine. Trouble may only be experienced with the lower 10% meaning the upper 90% will have no functional challenges that are the consequence of their language fluency. BUT the upper 20% will be exceptional while the lower 20% will have noticeably less skill. With common or shared traits, the curve isn’t as steep at the upper levels and is more steep towards the bottom levels.

BUT the capacity to develop language fluency is something that is possessed by almost all people and it only requires exposure and practice to cultivate. In this regard, it is like any other skill, but it differs from most other learned skills in so far as it is a critical survival skill. It is much closer to walking in this regard – given the poor survival outcomes when compared to those who can walk and talk – than it is to bowling. In fact, bowling is something that most people could learn and become very good at. All they would need is exposure and practice. But the distribution of bowling skill maps very well onto the traditional Pareto curve and not at all onto the normal distribution curve.

This is where most people go off course, and it may not be their fault. We are taught the normal distribution curve in school because it is useful for helping people gain a basic level of understanding about statistic. Everyone knows someone who is smarter than them and they know someone who is less intelligent than them. It is very easy to understand the nature of the bell curve with a high bump in the middle, covering 68 percent of the population, and decreasing tails on either side to account for decreasing number of people who are very smart or very low in intelligence. And it works for helping people to understand the distribution of abilities. The problem is that it doesn’t reflect much else and is actually very misleading from a visual stand point. It deals with distribution and NOT quantities. The fact that there is a bump in the middle is an indication that there are a lot of people in the middle. It doesn’t indicate a quantity of something OTHER than people. To see the actual quantity you need to look at the x axis to see the IQ level of 100 as the score that corresponds to the maximum peak of the curve. 100 is the mean score or the statistical average score for EVERYONE in the population.

It’s fine, but it is misleading because it creates the impression, or more accurately, it does nothing to disabuse or prevent the creation of the impression that the mean is a large quantity of something. The truth is, a mean level of anything probably isn’t going to be very much of that thing.

Let’s assume that the global money supply added together equals 100 and that there are 100 people in the world. The average amount of money is 1 unit. Okay, so long as everyone has the average amount of money, everything will be fine because no one will be falling behind. BUT this isn’t how money is distributed. If we assume that money has a normal distribution, the person who is in the middle will have an average amount of money, 1 unit, while each person above them will have more than one unit and each person below them will have less than one unit. This should immediately cause your brain to throw an error. Because it doesn’t make sense and your brain knows that. What is described here isn’t what happens.

We have to assume that every person who is above the middle has at least a little bit more than the person who is immediately below them – if person 50 has 1 unit, person 51 has 1 unit + some amount, person 52 has what person 51 has + some amount, etc…. The same thing goes the other way but instead of adding some amount, it is subtracted. This makes narrative sense, but it isn’t what happens in practice. Instead, the person at the top has almost infinitely more money than the person at the bottom, while the person at the middle has an average amount of money. Again, the brain throws an error. What does it mean to have an average amount of money?

You probably do not have any idea of what it means because the chance that you have ever seen someone who is making the average amount of money is very low. If you are reading this, you are much more likely to be in the top 20% in terms of income than you are to be at the 50th percentile simply because the global supply of money was never evenly distributed. A select group of countries have always had more money that others and there is a very good chance that if you are reading this, you live in one of those countries.

This is why the median value is more frequently used when talking about the distribution of things. The median value is the quantity possessed by the person who is in the very middle. In the above example, it would be the amount of money held by the person who was ranked in the 50th position.

There are benefits to using the median instead of the mean, and there are costs. The benefit is that it can tell a story that feels closer to reality. The mean income for a human being is estimated to be around $2 a day while the median income was estimated to be around $3000 in 2013. There is a big difference here, but when you think about it for a minute or two, it makes sense that the two numbers are so different. Very specific income data is only recorded for countries that have the ability to record it. The 2013 median income value was not the actual income of the person who was at the very middle position, it was the value for the person who was at the middle position for the data that was available. And this brings us to the main cost of using the median instead of the mean. It has the effect of turning down the volume on the outliers – those with almost everything and those with almost nothing. While this maps closer to our lived experience, factoring out these groups of people blunts the impact of reality and it has a profoundly negative effect on our ability to understand statistics.

Everyone has an idea of what a person with no money looks like and can imagine what their life is like. For those who own a computer or a phone, and have access to the Internet, the image generated by the thoughts of an insolvent person or someone who is flat broke is very different from the lived experience of someone who has a median income. But when we look the other way, we have less clarity about what it would be like to live as the richest person in the world. We’re able to visualize an abundance of nice things, luxury trips, the best quality food and clothing, and the ability to buy anything that they want, but the difference between the imagined life they live and the life we live is about the quantity and quality of things – we have a car that we share with our family, they have a number of cars that are much nicer and paid for. We have a modest house or an apartment, they have many giant houses and penthouse apartments that take-up the top three floors of some skyscraper in New York, London, Hong Kong, etc…. We eat a high quality steak occasionally to celebrate something, they eat $400 steak because it’s dinner. But in general, we do not go hungry or thirsty, cold, scared, without shelter or experience any real concern about surviving tomorrow.

At the lower end there is suffering and turmoil, at the upper end there is a glorified version of the life experience of the median person. This does not give us any indication of what having 150 billion dollars is actually like, or of what having that quantity of money means when compared to the average amount of money – either the mean or the median.

The same applies to things like IQ. The smartest person I know personal has an IQ of around 145. This places them in the top 0.25 percent of the population, meaning that they are the one person in about 400 who has this level of intellectual horse power. But it is very hard to tell that they are bright by looking at them, and it can take a couple of minutes to figure it out when talking to them. The best way I can describe the experience of engaging them is that they thing faster than most other people. They have the same capacity for input, they just generate the output at a speed which is noticeably different. And the nature of their output can have a much wider reach or large foot print than the output of a closer to average person. It is as though more mental circuits are activated and these allow them to draw from a lot more information or experiences. Generally though, they arrive at the same conclusion as I would, they just get there faster. However, they are capable of doing things with their brain that I am not able to do. They have a data processing capability that falls outside of my scope, and this is the most common narrative observation that people have about the extremely intelligent.

What does this have to do with google-experts? Well, considering that we are blind to the upper and lower 20 percent and have such a poor understanding of statistics that we do not have a realistic idea of what average anything is like, we are painfully unaware of just how little we know about most things. Assuming that we have an average level of knowledge about some subject, our natural tendency will be to assume that this ability places us at the 50th percentile. This is fine and may even be accurate. But doing so has an automatic and unconscious consequence of mapping this ability to IQ distribution and then making assumptions based off of what we know or believe we know about the abilities of a person with an IQ of 100.

The consequence of doing this is an unwarranted boosting of our perceived ability because we have a difficult time noticing the actual differences between someone with an IQ of 100, 120, 140 or 160. We see that they do different things for a living, but most of their life is about the same as everyone else’s. 100 might be an electrician or carpenter, 120 might be a nurse or pharmacist, 140 might be a physician, and 160 might be a theoretical physicist or surgeon. These are very different jobs and each requires a very different set of skills. But at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, each will drive a car to their destination, each will eat food, and each will need shelter and a sense of security in order to sleep soundly.

I am not suggesting that 160 is better than 100 nor am I suggesting that either one of these people is more valuable than the other. Frankly there are so many people on the planet that the average value of any individual person is nothing to brag about. Each one of us matter to a few people and to the rest of the population we are complete non-factors.

What I am suggesting is that there is a big difference between the average level of something and the level possessed by someone in the top 20%. And this difference NEEDS to be considered and kept in mind when we engage the world in a way that involves people or relies on our abilities in an area that we are not an expert. Specifically we need to generate an awareness of what “average” means in terms of skill or ability, and we then need to allow this awareness to influence our thinking and actions.

Our brain does not do well with uncertainty so it is coded to manufacture certainty and default to this state. When there is nothing on the line, this tendency only harms ourselves because it prevents us from seeking out actual knowledge and wisdom that would allow us to be both certain and correct. But when there is something on the line, or when our actions will impact other people, our false certainty and general misunderstanding of what average is causes a lot of suffering for ourselves and other people. When we KNOW but are wrong, we push forward with things that cause ripples of consequence that will very often make our futures less certain and more difficult.

This is the root of the problem with google-experts. We can do an Internet search and instantly have access to a wealth of information about a subject that, if consumed and remembered in its entirety, would make us an expert in the field. But consuming all of it would take a very long time, and remembering it all is impossible. The search results that google brings forth represents the potential for future expertise but it does not represent instant expertise.

And this is why things are so messed up. Our need for certainty and the brains ability to manufacture it based on very little information, when paired with a google search, results in an instant and unjustified sense that we are an expert in something that we didn’t know existed moments ago. Whatever innate error correction might exist is consciously suppressed by the knowledge that we started off with an average level of ability and have just added to it by reading a couple of search results. All of this is true, but it is based off of a profound misunderstanding of what “average” means.

Average knowledge about a subject that we don’t have expertise in, or didn’t know existed a few minutes ago, is about the same quantity as the average amount of money a human being has. When it comes to reviewing the correctness of a legal decision handed down by the courts, I, like most people, have an average level of knowledge about the legal system and am therefore painfully unqualified to comment on the accuracy of the judgement. I have around 1 unit of legal knowledge and while I can comment on my feelings, I cannot comment on the legal rationale of the decision. I may not like the ruling and be certain that it is wrong, and when I google search it, this certainty will allow me to select the evidence that supports my position while ignoring the evidence the proves that my feeling isn’t appropriate because the ruling was legally sound.

I have watched the horse race and was hit by a couple of things. The first is that the sport looks really dangerous. I was shocked that the horse that appears to have been cut off didn’t get its leg broken by the horse that was in front of it. The second thing was that the ground was really wet, there were pools of water and I started to wonder if horses care about that type of thing? Do horses choose dry ground over wet or wet ground over puddles? The third thing was that I had no idea if what happened was right or wrong in terms of the rules. It was this final thing that lingered. I was forced to accept that I have, at best, an average level of knowledge about the rules of horse racing and that left me completely unqualified to vet the accuracy of the decision the officials made about the disqualification.

Of course, no main-stream news story goes without a google search and once I read what the rules are I had to conclude that I still had no idea about the accuracy of the decision that was made. Making a call like that is hard. It’s complicated because noticing exactly what is happening on the video isn’t something that I am capable of doing given that I have never seen anything like it before.

Once I realized that I didn’t know and wasn’t ever going to know, I started to read the opinions of experts and was quickly faced with a dilemma, I don’t have any idea who the experts are. There were opinions, but nothing to indicate who should be listened to and who was a google-expert like me. The only thing I was able to use as an indication that someone wasn’t an expert was if they used the decision as a way to piggy-back in a different issue. Animal rights advocates used it as a way to talk about the dangers of horse racing, advocates for the elimination of instant replay used it as a way to say that the fastest horse didn’t win, and those with an axe to grind about anything used it as a segue to talk about their issue.

People are entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts. There is no such thing as alternative facts, there are facts and there are opinions. The Internet gives us the ability to uncover the facts, but they are hidden among an almost unending sea of opinions, screeds, and lies told to sell people something. It’s entirely possible that someone could take the time to wade through all of the stuff that is available and come out the other end legitimately informed and in possession of an expert level of knowledge. But like the cultivating of any skill to a high level, this process will take time and a deliberate effort to consume information that doesn’t match the belief we are constantly updating and becoming certain of. The world is very complicated and being certain about anything is a matter of facts, not a matter of feeling.

Google Expert – Noun? Not Verb? – First Run At It

Or maybe the subtitle “how to change the meaning of anything using punctuation” would be more clear. Check this out:

“Google expert.” Google-expert. Google “expert.” Google expert.

The same two words in the same order can have two distinct meanings depending on punctuation and how it is used. Without the quotation marks or the hyphen the meaning is unclear – it means each of the distinct meanings, just not both at the same time. It probably doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things because so long as there are some follow-up sentences to add context people will be able to figure out what is going on. Except when speed is required, and when dealing with a specific type of thinker.

For example, the 2019 Kentucky Derby that was run on May 4 saw the first disqualification in the history of the race. The horse that crossed the line first was later disqualified because it seemed to change its path and was deemed to have impeded another horse. A lot of people are commenting about it. I don’t know anything about horse racing so I don’t know if the DQ is appropriate. Google experts.

What do I mean by google experts? There is probably enough context there to be 70% sure that I am being ironic and implying that most people who are commenting are as qualified as I am when it comes to horse racing. That leaves about 25% to assume that I am inviting you to do an Internet search to find out what horse racing experts have to say about the race and to allow you to formulate a more educated opinion. The remaining 5% is to cover the possibility that I didn’t proof read this post and failed to notice the sentence fragment at the end of the above paragraph.

This is not a case in which speed or specific types of thinkers will be impacted by my lack of punctuation. The world does not depend on you understanding exactly what I mean in that situation. In fact, the lack of clarity is actually what I’m getting at here. BUT it is lousy writing in the paragraph nonetheless. Ideally I should go back and correct it to say “Google experts.” By the same token, I would be incorrect to go back and update the post title to “”Google Experts” – Noun, Not Verb” because that would be redundant given that the second half of the sentence directly says what part of speech I am making reference to. While not technically incorrect, it’s just, well, redundant.

Being very specific is important when there isn’t much time to process and respond to the information that is being communicated. Consider the use of “affirmative” vs. “right” used by air traffic controllers and pilots. Both mean “correct” but only one of them means a direction. It’s a small thing right now, but in an emergency situation it could become the only thing.

Being specific is very important for “run with it” (RWI) or “primed” thinkers. In the event that you have never really thought much about it, people have a number of different thinking processes, some of which are more dominant than others. Many people will be able to loop back and correct their thinking path when they realize that they made an error while interpreting an ambiguous sentence. A little time will be wasted with having to do this, but if there is no time crunch it won’t matter very much. However, those who’s thinking is disproportionately RWI may never loop back and correct their path. Their interpretation triggered unconscious thought processes and the thinking has begun. It will not be influenced by the intended meaning until it runs its course. This could take a while because of the recursive nature of unconscious mental processes – whatever output is generated becomes input and is reprocessed. With someone who is dominated by this type of thinking, a lack of clarity can cause them to waste a lot of effort on stuff that doesn’t matter or was never intended to have been said.

“Primed” thinkers are very similar to RWI thinkers but differ in terms of just how quickly thoughts take hold. While a RWI thinker is off to the races and will not be back until they reach the end the thought stream, the primed thinkers are less overcome by their mental experiences. Unconsciously a lot is happening – various mental processes will fire-up, but these are less recursive in nature and can be looked at as being clerical or akin to database access commands. While a RWI thinker will go a great distance, a primed thinker will activate memories, knowledge, the neural networks that contain the process code for mental functions, and anything else that the brain brings to mind as a result of the idea or notion they have been primed with.

In the above example about the Kentucky Derby, if we assume that I was inviting people to google the horse racing experts in order to find out what the entire thing is all about, the 25% probability interpretation, a RWI thinker who makes the 70% probability call, that “google experts” was my intended meaning, a whole lot can be triggered and happen before it reaches an end and they return to learn that it was an invitation to seek out actual expertise and not a critical statement that anyone can scream their opinion on-line. The primed thinker may be more likely to loop back quickly and receive the corrected meaning BUT their brain will be filled with a lot of stuff that has to do with the false experts and the misrepresentation of knowledge as wisdom and the over confidence that is associated with the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Of course, it would be my fault if this was how they ran with it and I would be the person who was responsible for bringing them back or correcting the misinformation that I put out. People cannot be held accountable for how they interpret unclear communication and if my lack of clarity was responsible for an unnecessary mental journey, the sole responsibility of cleaning it up fall onto me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is immoral for us to waste other peoples time and mental resources. They have a very limited bandwidth so when we are asking for a portion of it, we need to be very careful with how we put it to use.

I accept that this may seem like an over the top assessment of the value of other peoples intellectual horsepower. And it might be more than just an over the top assessment. But when you take a moment to consider what your time is worth and the value you place on having agency over your own brain, it may not seem so far fetched to suggest that we need to take great care when making requests for others people brain power. The truth is that thinking is so much more than what is consciously going on in someones brain. That piece is actually the smallest part of it – maybe 10 percent. Most of the thinking a person does happens below the level of awareness, meaning that it can be next to impossible to identify when our actions have actually triggered their brain to do something and when we are the direct cause of the usurping of someone else’s bandwidth. It will never be a bad idea to be mindful to the reality that our actions have an obvious and a covert impact of the brain of other people. When we engage others carefully and with a genuine intent to be helpful and only as disruptive as absolutely necessary, we will eliminate a lot of the wasted mental effort for all of the people we engage.

Under certain circumstances some useful information can be revealed by analyzing how a person interprets ambiguous statements, but this would only be done when absolutely necessary and with as much consent as it is possible to get. The nature of conversations means that things will happen that are not planned, that mistakes will be made and information will be revealed without anyone setting out to get it or agreeing to allow it to be mined. That’s fine, so long as the lessons are learned and the knowledge is applied to the conversations moving forward. It is essential that this approach is never used as a form of manipulation or to get other people to do what you want them to do. While both of these things are possible, the people you do them to will learn to not trust you and to avoid spending time with you. As they should, because manipulating people is a pretty underhanded thing to do.

Clarity is very important, which is a big reason why I prefer to read the things that I want to learn as opposed to watch them. Words and punctuation work together to eliminate some of the possible meanings and to more clearly indicate the intended meaning. This works for me because I have a tendency towards running with it when I get an interpretation and can very easily find myself five or ten minutes older and having invested a lot of mental energy onto something that didn’t matter, wasn’t said, or wasn’t what was intended to be communicated. Reading can limit a lot of these potential tangents and allow me to remain more focused on the subject at hand.

When I want to float away and give someone else influence over what my brain does from moment to moment, I’ll listen to Podcasts or YouTube videos. This is a lot less constrained and very often results in more creative thinking. And that is great, but only when I have the time to deal with it. Otherwise it can be a real pain in the side, and a very inefficient use of the finite amount of mental energy and capacity that I have access to.

Speaking, writing, or communicating clearly can be a little more challenging, but in the long run it allows you to make much better use of other peoples brain power. You’ll get the best quality information from them, and you will get to a solution as quickly as possible. Even if it doesn’t have this impact on others, it’s worth the effort. It will streamline your own thinking and narrow the scope of what your brain does because it will limit the input to a single thing – as opposed to having to decode the ambiguity before considering a single thing or divide the mental effort giving both potential meanings an equal share.

My Thoughts On Facebook – Post Revisited

In early August 2007 I wrote a post called My Thoughts On Facebook in which I outlined why I had deleted my account.

I reactivated my account a few months later and engaged in the social media world to a certain degree for about 8 years. I stopped posting to Facebook a couple of years ago when I became aware of how the platform made me feel – mostly crappy – after taking an inventory of how my day to day actions were contributing to my sense of well-being. For the record, I do not blame Facebook for my actions nor do I hold them accountable for how I interacted with the site. I was always free to act otherwise and they did not evolve the brain chemistry that makes the quest for “likes” so addictive.

When it got right down to it, I had to answer the questions “why am I doing what I am doing?” and “should I continue to do what I have been doing?”

Many of the people I know use Facebook for the reasons it was created – to stay in contact with other people in a way that gives them control of when and how deeply they get involved. They are busy and finding the time to meet up with friends is tough and usually unnecessary. Most of the connections serve to download whatever updates are needed just to make sure nothing important slips through the cracks, and this is what Facebook is really good for. It’s a semi interactive medium that allows all of our friends to read whatever they feel like that we are inclined to share. “Here’s pictures of a wedding, a vacation, a child’s concert performance, a cat video I found funny, etc….”

This is something that I still use it for, except I don’t post anything about my own life any more. My wife tags me in pictures and that is about it. I’m happy to stay up to date with the on goings of people I know, and I’m honestly happy that their lives are progressing as lives do. Those people have the opportunity to see where I have been with Heather, which is about all I do that I think is worth sharing – here I am with my favorite person doing something we decided to do, planned out, and made happen.

My problem with Facebook, and I literally mean my problem with it in terms of me judging myself, is that it plays on the most insecure parts of my personality. I had found myself posting for “likes” and then feeling good or bad depending upon the responses of other people.

After my dad died, I was a little lost and set about posting a lot in an attempt to generate some sense of belonging or connection. At the time I knew what I was doing and was fine with giving a few months to it because I felt so aimless. It’s hard to say if it served that purpose given that human beings move through grief and maybe I would have felt better anyway but I’m willing to be charitable and say that in the months following his passing that Facebook did afford me the opportunity to reach out and engage the world in a way that contributed to the rebuilding of my happiness. And if it had ended there I think I would still be active on the platform.

It was my quest for “likes” that I identified as problematic; specifically, the transactional rules I had manufactured that governed my engagement. On the face of it there shouldn’t be any complexity here. Posting a quote that I found that was interesting or a thought that I had that I believed was inspirational are not a cause for sadness or social turmoil, and for a lot of people these things are one and done. Socially well-adjusted people will either post the things and deal with whatever comes of them, having no emotional response one way or the other along with no need for a particular response, or else they will just not post them because none of it matters all that much. I was not one of those people. I noticed myself considering “likes” as a growing part of my life. It wasn’t enough for me to get a kick out of reading something or having an interesting thought, I needed OTHER people to get the same kick or acknowledge a kick of sorts. In the very lamest sense, the quote or the idea was not the source of joy that it once had been, the reward came from other people liking or commenting. And the moment I noticed myself deleting posts that didn’t do either of these two things I realized that I had crossed some boundary into the realm of behavior that wasn’t working for me in terms of happiness.

I don’t recall the date, but I recall the moment when it dawned on me that my behavior was not what I wanted or needed it to be. When you hear yourself think “okay, that didn’t work, I have to delete it so people don’t know that it was there” and watch your hand click “delete post” a switch has flipped. Again, I don’t blame anyone but myself nor do I believe that most people develop the same maladaptive behavior. It was me and that is all I am talking about here.

There is NO reason why my happiness should depend upon the decision other people make to check a “like” button about my musings UNLESS I had conditioned my brain to respond that way. Given that relying on other people for anything, let alone actions that will lead to my happiness, is a pointless exercise that leads to unhappiness and resentment, along with it being the effective non consensual enrollment of other people in a contract they don’t even know exists, the question had to be asked, “what the hell was I doing?”

That is much more interesting, and something that I would not have taken the time to figure out had I remained engage in the pursuit of approval on social media. In fact, my life changed directions the moment I asked that question.

Why do people do the things that they do? The superficial answer to that question is usually going to be a post hoc rationale for an action. This is fine when that is the actual reason for doing something. But how often is that?

Not very often. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually have to do most of the things that we do – there is no compelling or life preserving reason to participate in nearly every social interaction we engage in. Most of our communication is pointless in terms of it doing anything useful. It is made up of talking about things that don’t matter, about people, about how things that are as opposed to how we engineer them to be, back stabbing, or conversations about subjects that we don’t know anything about and cannot contribute to. With the exception of work and child rearing, how many of your thoughts, internal or said out loud, make a difference? Do any of them change anything? If so, which ones and why? And of all that remain, why did you think and then say them out loud?

I’m more than willing to create a bucket called “thinking out loud” to throw these pointless utterances into because thinking is a complex thing and sometimes the physical matter we add to a thought by saying it out loud gives it an energy that makes it actually real / useful when trying to uncover the truth of something. A lot of what I say is actually an attempt to think; in much the same way that my writing is a way of thinking. Writing is better than speaking for this because the words have a much longer half-life and the ability to reread them causes them to be more “real” – both have an impact on the objective world in so far as each takes brain activity and converts it into something with more mass – air and sound waves with talking and physical movement that creates a visual representation of the thought – which give us an opportunity externalize the stimuli and receive it as though it is coming from outside of us.

So with the exception of communication from these three categories – child rearing, work, and thinking – what is the point of the rest? I’ll maintain that there really isn’t one, at least not one that can universally be viewed as helpful. Most of what remains will be in the realm of useless speak or back biting, that serves as validation that we are alive, worthwhile, and connected to other people or to make us feel more secure in our connection with other people by denigrating those who are not there to defend themselves.

My Facebook quest for likes satisfied this. I wanted to feel connected to others and worthwhile and relied on the influx of “likes” as proof of these things. When the likes didn’t come, didn’t come quickly enough, or were not in the numbers I wanted, my quest was not satisfied. The experience is not a flat emotional experience. Getting the likes was rewarding – I had trained my brain to release reward chemicals in response to them. Initially a like was all that was needed, but over time it needed to be more than one and by the time I found that I wasn’t feeling good about being on Facebook the likes needed to arrive very close to the time of posting and needed to cross a threshold number within a certain time frame. Let’s say they needed to start within 10 minutes and needed to hit 10% of my friends list within 4 hours. A post that was liked by 2% didn’t give me what I was looking for, and instead of feeling like nothing, it felt like the absence of something good.

This should sound very similar to addiction, particularly what you might have read about cocaine addiction. Everyone who takes the drug reports that they feel at least good but probably fantastic the first few times they take it. And of course they do, it stimulates the release of dopamine, among other things, which is one of the primary reward chemicals the brain releases. Under non drug situations, the release of dopamine is associated with a change in the internal environment that is perceived as the occurrence of a conditioned stimulus. In learning theory, classical conditioning is the learning that occurs when a reward is closely paired in time with a stimuli that is benign (not innately rewarding). The result of this pairing is that the reward will be released when the stimuli is experienced. Pavlov uncovered this type of learning when he noticed that dogs began to salivate when they heard the sounds that preceded their daily feeding. Since the salivation occurred before the food was given, he realized that the reward was not required to trigger the behavior. The language around the entire thing can be slightly confusing but the conditioning process is real and the discovery shined a big light on what was going on in the brain. What was actually going on became less important than what the animal believed was going on – the raw sensory data mattered less than how the brain interpreted the raw sensory data.

My addiction to likes is a version of this that only differs in terms of the complexity of the perceptions – the unconscious meaning that I was putting on likes. Almost all of the learning happened unconsciously and without my awareness. I think I liked the feeling of social validation and approval although there was nothing intrinsically rewarding with seeing a thumbs up icon appear, or a larger and larger number appearing to the right of it. This was simply visual information. The heavy lifting was being done by unconscious thought processes that extracted / manufactured the meaning. The release of reward chemicals was also done unconsciously and based on the output of a process that interpreted the likes as social validation. None of this was anything that I was aware of as it was happening and it only became obvious months or years later when NOT getting the likes as quickly as I wanted them created a negative experience.

Again, NOT getting likes isn’t a thing that actually exists. However the brain is able to interpret the absence of something as a negative when it has learned to expect something positive. The lack of likes did not trigger the release of dopamine. Since my brain expected this reward, not getting it was experienced as a negative.

The big upside to “likes” addiction when compared to drug addiction is that you only experience the negative withdrawal symptoms when an anticipated reward is received. When I stopped posting, nothing changed other than the elimination of some rewards and some negative experiences when my posts were not received the way I was anticipating. I did not notice the times when I did not get rewarded and did not NOT get rewarded. This is very different from cocaine which is reported as one of the toughest drugs to withdraw from.

Understanding this process is important for a few reasons. When we introduce an exogenous chemical that triggers the release of reward chemicals, our body starts to down regulate the production of the impacted reward chemical because it tries to maintain homeostasis. With Cocaine and dopamine, each person has a natural level of dopamine inside the reward centers of their brain. When they take cocaine, the concentration of dopamine increases. Initially, this will feel great, but since the increase pushes levels above the upper threshold of what is natural, the body adapts by decreasing dopamine production to restore homeostasis. If, which isn’t usually the case, the person does not increase their cocaine consumption, their brain will find a level of dopamine production that reflects the normal level. They won’t feel high anymore, just normal. This is called tolerance and it is the manifestation of the brains attempt to keep things within a very specific level of operation. If the cocaine is stopped, the brains decreased dopamine production will result in a lower than normal level of dopamine which will be experienced as a negative by the person.

Dopamine and other naturally occurring reward chemicals are considered action creating or action promoting because they will motivate the person to take whatever action they have paired as the conditioned stimulus. In my case it was the quest for “likes” but in the case of a cocaine user it will be drug seeking and taking behavior. The reason why my quitting Facebook cold turkey did not cause me any withdrawal was because I hadn’t done anything to down regulate my natural dopamine production. My brain was operating as it naturally did. It manufactured the normal amount of dopamine and released it in response to the things it had been conditioned to release it to. The only tolerance that had occurred was the learned tolerance to the number, frequency and speed of “likes.” My brain was doing what it always was doing and that is to grow accustomed to rewards in so far as to grow the magnitude of the stimuli that was required to trigger the release of the dopamine.

This is different from chemical tolerance because my brain was still capable of manufacturing and releasing a normal quantity of dopamine. It just doesn’t do it in response to the same amount of stimuli as before. It is a type of behavioral tolerance or stimuli tolerance – it is completely perceptual and based off of brain activity. Chemical tolerance is the brain changing how it functions to reduce the amount of the dopamine that is manufactured. It has nothing to do with perception (mental activity) and is a completely biological response to changes in the physical internal environment.

The other reason why it is important to get a good understanding of the Pavlovian conditioning of reward activation to perception is that it reveals a lot about how human beings find themselves locked into acting in ways that do not objectively reflect their best interests. I am grateful that I set about trying to get likes only to find that there was a growing need for them in order to experience whatever positive outcome I was getting. Had I not journeyed down this path it might have taken me a lot longer to notice what was going on and, therefore, what had always been going on. It was just very easy to notice the changes in my response given the immediacy of things that happen on the Internet.

It is fair to say that my brain operates in more or less the same way as everyone else’s brain, which is more or less the same way that every brain has operated for millions of years. Not that pre-modern man thought about getting “likes,” just that they had a brain that would release reward chemicals in response to things that it wanted to repeat; in the same way a dog’s brain gets it to do the things that preceded a reward before. This is both exceptionally simple and remarkably powerful.

Much of its power comes from the fact that it is both unconscious and automatic and this renders us almost completely incapable of stopping it. The opposite is not true, we CAN consciously impact it – we have the ability to teach our brains that any benign or neutral stimuli is rewarding simply by rewarding / triggering a reward within close temporal proximity to the stimuli. In fact, given our power of perception and our ability to have conscious thought, there is almost NO limit to what we can condition our brains to believe is rewarding because the idea of future reward serves as a sufficient proxy for actual reward. We can learn to delay gratification almost indefinitely so long as our brain has sufficient experience with finally receiving a reward for something that it delayed.

There is a lot of talk about the marshmallow experiment that deals with delaying reward. The initial reports from the study seemed to reveal that children who were able to delay gratification at an early age were able to carry this ability with them into adulthood and, as a consequence, had better behavioral outcomes. Children at a particular age were given the choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 5 minutes. Some of the children would just eat the marshmallow immediately while others would hold off for the larger reward later. Children in the second group were said to have the ability to delay gratification and were viewed to have better impulse control and they appeared to have fewer behavioral issues later in life. The narrative here makes sense, but subsequent studies reveal a more detailed picture that isn’t as cut and dry.

Children who were able to delay gratification could very easily be flipped into non-delayers if during the initial trial their waiting was not rewarded with the promised larger reward. This is an important finding because it complicates things dramatically. The researchers did not have control or complete knowledge of everything that happened before the study. While it might seem that some children were incapable of delaying gratification, it is possible that they had just learned that there is no such thing as delaying gratification based on their previous experience. If a reward is available now and a greater potential reward might be available later if they wait, experience has shown them that there never is a greater future reward, there is only a reward now or no reward at all.

The brain will reach a particular age that context will begin to factor into things meaning that a child of a particular age won’t be flipped into an immediate gratification seeker by a dishonest actor and will simply identify the dishonest actor as being someone who cannot be trusted. This means that there is an age / maturity threshold at which point the brain will be able to parse the context for specific information that will allow them to make a tight rule about who cannot be trusted vs. a general rule that no one can be trusted. It would not surprise me that, before this age, the dishonesty of a primary care giver would have a catastrophic effect on the long term trust strategies developed by a child.

All of this is said to explain that rewards are not a simple topic or that the rules that apply to dogs necessarily apply to humans. The larger the brain, the more complicated and robust the rules can be. And as an individual gains more experience and forms more long term memories, these rules can be shaped by things that are not real, have never happened, and are not even in the realm of possibility.

This is where Facebook and my quest for “likes” was given room to grow. Social acceptance is a thing that human beings are coded to identify and something that we likely find rewarding. The initial rewards may not be dopamine fueled, but it would stand to reason that they would be sooner or later. Once that happens, dopamine will be released in response to any form of perceived social validation coming from any perceived source. And after my brain got used to getting it, it would begin to need more and more of it in order to trigger the reward. This is why I started to dislike my time on Facebook and why I found getting off of it to be a positive. There was no withdrawal, just the creation of freedom as I no longer felt the drive to think up something profound to post in an attempt to harvest “likes.”

From what I gather, I am not alone in finding the potentially rewarding nature of Facebook likes to be more than a little disruptive to the day to day experience of being alive. Most of the social media sites have altered their business model to become attention capturing and holding over something else. People who are a lot smarter than me are working on the problem of how to keep people engaged with the sites / platform by stoking whatever emotional triggers serve to hold their attention most tightly. They don’t care about doing good or about helping people make the most of their time on the planet. They care about keeping users attention while generating as many clicks as possible. Social validation, outrage, humor, in-group / out-group thinking, etc….. it doesn’t matter. The attention of potential users is what is critical because this is what they will use to generate money.

I don’t blame Facebook or other social media platforms. It isn’t their fault they have figured out that third party companies will pay them a lot of money if users remain connected to the platform. And it isn’t their fault that they have figured out the way that peoples brains work and are using it to generate a lot of money. I’m kind of grateful actually. As much as it might seem like it was a big waste of time, I wouldn’t have taken the time to figure out what I was doing or why I was feeling the way I was had I not had the opportunity to do those things and feel that way. Facebook actually helped me wake-up to what was going on in my brain by forcing me to ask some very important questions.

Why do I do what I do? Well I don’t know, but at least some of the time I know it is for the dopamine. The rest of it, maybe because it makes me angry or outraged, maybe because it once got me something I thought I liked, and maybe because I’m not all that different from the rest of the living beings on the planet and do what I have done before and just normalized.

I have no idea what role Facebook and other social media platforms will play in my future but I’m pretty certain that I’m going to have a better idea of how they are trying to get me to do it. And I think that is actually a lot more fun and interesting than anything else. Knowing and accepting that I am the product and the fuel in their business model gives me a lot more control of how mindfully I engage it, and in setting the limits of what I’m willing to do and for how long.

The Battle For Winterfell – Cost Vs. Losses

Watching episode 3 of the final season of Game Of Thrones was a mixed experience. The battle has seemed inevitable for the last few season and the series has built the tension up dramatically over the last six or so episodes. I’m not going to spoil it other than to say that the battle happened at night and during a snow storm of sorts. Who won? It doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article.

The show in general is a visual masterpiece. It is filmed in a number of different locations and doesn’t rely too heavily on CGI to generate spectacular scenes. Green screen is used a lot and there are some CGI / post production components but the producers make use of reality as much as possible in terms of make-up, costumes, and real buildings. When I think back on some of the episodes and what they brought to the screen it really is breathtaking. Top marks needed to be given for the quality of what appeared on the TV screen week after week.

That was not the case on Sunday and I noticed my mind drifting off onto the experience of watching as opposed to being lost in what I was seeing. This was annoying to me, given the build-up of the battle that was being depicted on screen. The show took a full year off to film, edit, produce, and do whatever was required to make sure it was exceptional. This was evident in the first two episodes of the season and for portions of this one, but once the call to arms was sounded, the waiting to ensure the high quality seemed to have been pointless.

From a story-line perspective, it was decent, and held-up. The action was fantastic, the tension arc was outstanding and even though it is a show that has dragons and the ability for dead people to be reanimated like zombies, there wasn’t anything about the story that was too over the top that broke the spell or forced the viewer to suspend reality past the boundaries of what I was willing to do.

The problem I had with it was just how difficult it was to see. It was really dark. It was as though it was a battle that was occurring at night – which it was – during a snow storm – which it was – before they had invented electrical light – which it was – and the only source of illumination was fire – which it was. It was very authentic, and that is what is what made it really hard to watch.

When I say hard to watch, I don’t mean hard in an emotional way – like it was making me sad or angry. I mean hard in an energetic way. It was draining to watch because the normally super crisp details and HD clarity wasn’t there. While it was clear that people were fighting, it wasn’t clear who those people were or what the outcome was. The exceptions to this were when key characters got killed or did some killing. As I write that, I suppose that I should have used that as a tell that something important was about to happen. Oh well, maybe I’ll rely on that the next time I watch something that is only marginally brighter than dark.

The experience was not uninteresting. Even though the show was missing a lot of what makes it great and very easy to watch, the difficulty I was having in seeing what was happening on the screen served as a strong contrast to the normal viewing experience. I found that I began to care less about what was going on and started to become critical of the premise of the show. It wasn’t that I wanted any or all of the key characters to die, it was closer to not caring about the outcome one way or the other. One side is going to have to win and the sooner they did the sooner this visual black hole would end. The premise that I have always been willing to accept as just a part of the show started to receive the brunt of my critical internal dialogue. Dragons do not exist so their abilities are not constrained to any historical or factual set of rules or guidelines. But my skepticism was building about them and their imaginary powers. They breathe fire when they exhale but somehow they are able to exhale for a long time, even when they had been flying all over the places and should be breathing really hard? Their fire wasn’t just flame, it was like spraying napalm that continued to burn for a long time afterwards. How can they have an unlimited supply of that?

I didn’t get critical all at once, it was a slow build. Initially I just wished that thing were brighter, then I wanted to see things better, and then the frustration arrived and grew. On the screen was the unfolding of an epic battle that had been festering for 7 seasons and in my head was an annoyance that was growing with each passing minute of almost invisible action.

At around 30 minutes in, the amount of energy I was spending trying to see and figure out what was going on hit the “too much to bother” level and I disengaged.

What’s interesting about it, is the finding that people have better recall of text that is harder to read than they do text that is visually highly contrasted and very crisp on the page. Ease is a problem when it comes to short term memory and the tougher things get, the better our recall tends to be. I would imagine that there is a level of difficulty that represents the upper threshold of what people are willing to tolerate when it comes to working their way through difficult text, and that this level is related to the incentive the person has for putting in the work. I have no doubt that if I was going to be tested on what happened during the episode and that there was something on the line, if knowing would actually matter, that I would have been able to keep at it for longer. But there wasn’t any incentive for me to keep doing the work. In fact, the effort that was required actually served as a disincentive to keep manufacturing whatever meaning I had created that allowed me to remain interested. It is entirely possible that watching it was so draining that there was no energy left over to do the mental work that is needed for the suspension of disbelief.

This is a common enough occurrence. People who are highly engaged are willing and able to continue to work hard towards an impossible goal but only as long as they are able to maintain their belief that it is possible. The moment reality breaks through, they view their efforts for what they are and they check out. The process is very much like the experience I had. The amount of effort that is required to sustain the belief increases in a relative sense – either because it requires more units or because fewer units are available to do it because they are being siphoned off and directed onto something else. Once the relative effort hits a certain level the foundation begins to fall apart and the weight of the belief causes it to collapse leaving reality to stand uncontested.

Human beings are programmed to understand what they are experiencing, and are more than willing to take some very big steps to construct a coherent narrative interpretation of what is going on. Entertainment relies on this quality. Without it watching a play or reading anything other than nonfiction would be a waste of time because we would only be capable of perceiving what was going on as being fake. The context in which we are viewing the make-believe stuff serves to prime our brain with the information that makes watching or reading possible. There is a piece of us that is completely aware that it is a play or a work of fiction, but the volume of that part is dialed down allowing us to get lost in what we are experiencing. It isn’t that we do not know that it is fantasy, it is that the part of us that cares is being actively suppressed.

Being aware of reality is a natural operation while ignoring it is not; this is almost a paradoxical situation in that it costs more energy to suppress reality than it does to accept it. The consequence to this fact is that we will only suppress reality when there is an incentive to do so. In this case, the incentive is reward chemicals that are released in response to the thoughts or the type of thinking that only flow when reality is suspended. It only works when we get something out of it and when what we get out of it is much greater than the cost of what we have to put into it.

Imagine that it takes 20 mental units of energy to suspend reality. However, the chemical reward that this can lead to is worth the equivalent of 50 units of energy. This is a positive experience and is therefore something that the brain will be more inclined to perform in the future. After enough of these experiences, the brain will have learned that suspending reality is always worth the initial cost because of the magnitude of the reward. This is why consuming fantasy literature or entertainment is a learned experience; it is available to everyone who has a brain that releases reward chemicals in response to the changes in thinking that suspension of reality facilitates AND who have enough experiences of the pairing of the stimulus and the response. If anything is missing the person will remain fixated on reality and will never have a reason to transcend into the realm of fantasy entertainment.

However, for those who have learned to find the experience rewarding, it is not without its limits. There is a cost associated with generating the reward, and the cost must be paid before the reward is released. Human beings have a propensity to be more loss adverse than they are reward seeking, and this creates an interesting phenomena in terms of sensation and perception. The ratio of loss to gain is one : two meaning that a loss of one unit is equal to a gain of two units. This is the general break-even point marking the boundary between when someone will do something that takes effort because the gain is worth it and when they will not take an action because the gain is not worth it. For example, we’ll put in 50 units of effort to get 110 units of reward, but we will not put in 50 units of effort to get 90 units of reward. The math is fairly straightforward although the timing of the rewards does not necessarily need to be immediate once the learning has taken place. If we were to get 50 reward units now and get another 100 units later, so long as we believed that the 100 units later were the result of spending 50 units now, we would have no difficulty perceiving this situation as a win and making the effort. This delaying of gratification is also a learned skill so the notion of investing effort for future reward is something that tends to come into play a little later in life.

The 2:1 ration is a perceptual thing in that it is the threshold that separates costs from losses. It is of big narrative significance because it alters the meaning we give to work / effort / actions. As long as the reward at least 2 times greater than the amount of energy we have to put in, we view the effort as a cost. Since things of value have a cost, we are accustomed to paying a price for things. The lower that price is relative to the value we get out of them the better; and it is not uncommon for something that is priced too low to be viewed as less valuable than it is. This means that we do not necessarily want the things that are handed to us and that we are actually more inclined to want something more when its price is slightly inflated. There is a sweet spot or range within which we are willing to work at varying degrees to get the value of something. Above it we perceive it as worthless and below it we view the effort we need to put in as a loss.

The lower threshold is about 1:2 in terms of effort to reward. There is some variability at the exact point, but narratively it can be defined as the point at which the cost of something is experienced as a loss. It’s an entirely relative thing but that does not change the dynamics at all. All things being equal, if the reward increases the cost can increase by a factor of 0.5. If the reward decreases, the cost will need to drop by a factor of 2. If the cost increases, the reward will need to increase by a factor of 2 and if it decreases, the reward can drop by a factor of 0.5. When one of these things does not occur AND when the ratio of cost to reward drops below 1:2, the costs become losses and the transaction will no longer be viewed as favorable. There is a small margin in terms of the time it will take before the brain makes the decision to abandon the transaction but the window is very small and dependent upon the size of the ratio – 1.1:2 will be tolerated for longer than 1.2:2 and a 3:1 ration might result in an immediate end to their participation in the behavioral transaction.

Past experience will pay a role in someone’s interpretation of reward and in their willingness to delay gratification. Those who have a longer track record of positive transactional ratios or who have a number of experiences that support the notion of delayed gratification will remain engaged for longer than someone who has little or no experience with either one of these elements; both generally, but more specifically with reference to the context of the current situation. However, most people will reach a breaking point eventually and once it has been crossed, the transaction ends and will only be reactivated when the ratio improves again to move the outcome from loss to cost.

This is what was at play for me while I watched this episode of Game Of Thrones. I have been more than willing to put the energy into suspending reality given how I have learned that doing so can lead to immediate and future rewards – consuming fiction has been rewarding and I have gotten a lot out of watching this series. Up until about 9:20 pm the ratio had been favorable and I had not minded putting in whatever effort was needed to keep me watching because the reward had been predictable and large enough to consider this effort a cost. However, the ratio dropped below the critical threshold which threw the costs / losses switch in my head. I very quickly burned through whatever good will that had been built-up and my brain was no longer willing to waste the effort that was needed to suspend reality or figure out what was happening on the screen. And that was it, the spell was broken and I instantly became aware that I was watching a TV show about make believe stuff that cannot and will not ever happen. The laws of physics flowed in and altered my perception of what I was able to see on the screen so I stopped. It suddenly became kind of silly, far-fetched, and unimportant.

The episodes director, Fabian Wagner, doesn’t believe that there was a problem. He suggested that the lighting was by design and used as a way to aid in the story telling. Everything that was important was visible, even if it was a little tougher to see than normal. He made some other comments about it that aren’t helpful. Suffice it to say, what was broadcast WAS what we were supposed to see. A collection of people took a look at the final product and approved it for distribution. I’m not a film maker and am only a fly by night fan of the show and not likely the person they were targeting with this episode. I am a lot less engaged than a diehard fan and may lack the specific commitment to put in the effort that was required to manufacture the information low picture quality failed to supply. True fans probably did the work and remain lost in the battle of until it was won.

Responding To Criticism – Post Revisited

About seven years ago I published a post title Responding To Criticism. It outlined a more pragmatic way to handle criticism that can shift / reverse the negative emotional valence reaction and allow you to make take the most out of the interaction regardless of the validity of what is said or the intentions of the person who is giving it to you. Basically, you treat the interaction as if it is a part of an improv act and employ the “yes, and” strategy. You simply just assume that the criticism is valid and take some time to figure-out what the consequences are.

At the time I suggested that you remain quiet and approach it as though it is an introspective exercise. There should be some later processing to factor in who the person is that offered the criticism because the motives of other people can be much more revealing than the actual words they are using. The key is to accept whatever it is that the person says as being a possible truth and to allow it to exist without judgment. This is tough to do when we feel that someone has just criticized us given that negative value judgments tend to trigger emotional reactions that hinder objectivity.

I maintain the view that we should accept whatever is said as being the truth and remain as open and non-reactive as we can to ensure that we are able to extract as much value from the statement as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we unconditionally accept it as the truth, just that we accept it as true for the initial run at it. This is how improv operates, there is a single thread that runs from beginning to end as each player takes their turn reacting and responding until time runs out, the audience is laughing, or a natural end point is reached. Unlike improv, once our introspection reaches an end, we return to the beginning and reprocess the subject factoring in context – who the person is, what their motives are, how they would gain from having the criticism accepted and acted on, etc…. This is much closer to dialectical analysis because it allows for the consideration of much more of the picture than simply just the words.

Frankly, in the moment you cannot care much about the person who has shelled out the criticism because having feelings towards them one way or the other will bias your initial interpretation of what they said. As such, you have to try things on from both sides – like you care about them and are more willing to assume that they are telling you the truth OR like you don’t care about them and are more willing to assume that they are lying to you. The best option is to assuming each, one after the other, in order to arrive at a more complete picture of things.

You’re probably going to keep this process to yourself and not ask them to be a part of it. They’ll say their piece and you’ll go through the pros / cons of it being true and then the pros / cons as being the statement made by someone in the present context. However, you may want to get the other persons involvement. Doing so is a little risky in so far as it can be interpreted as being confrontational and if done carelessly it can prevent future feedback from a well meaning person.

In this case, the “yes and” part of it is done out loud. As opposed to doing the introspection and analysis yourself, you push the responsibility of much of this onto the other person. By asking them to explain the consequences of your behavior, you might be able to find out why your action / behavior is problematic, how it makes them feel, and to uncover the distance between your intention and the actual outcome. There is also a chance that they will be able to suggest an alternative that might lead you to the outcome you are seeking. Regardless, how the person addresses you will indicate a lot about their state of mind and might just reveal their actual intention / motives for saying something in the first place. The rule of thumb is that people are either trying to help or trying to hurt and their follow-up answers will be aligned with their intention.

No matter what they say, you will have to take some time to process all of it from both sides of the coin in order to extract the maximum benefit from the interaction. The positive outcome is clear when the person is acting with good intentions – they what the best for us and are providing a portion of the road map towards achieving that. In the case of a person who is being critical because it serves their ends, the introspection that is fueled by the dialectical analysis will bring up a lot of very useful information – who to trust and why or why not, the nature of this persons relationship with the world and with facts, the nature of how they operate in terms of manipulating you into feeling or doing something, and, most importantly, what they view as bad in so far as most people do not criticize others for things they themselves view as positive.

The good, the bad, the ugly and the UGLY. How you engage the other person in response to criticism will go a long way in determining what you get out of them. With those who are making an earnest attempt to help, you will get the good stuff out of them by employing either the good or the bad approach, but will likely alienate them with the ugly, or when the bad approach is used exclusively. Those who wish you harm will offer up more useful information when the bad approach is used and less with the good approach. When the ugly approach is used, they will shutdown or attack. The quickest way to find out someones intentions is to use the ugly approach; but this comes at the cost of the potential alienation of those who care about us and a toxic interaction with those who wish us harm.

The good approach will have you ask probing questions to uncover what the person heard you say and how that made them feel. You are approaching the other person with an open mind and a sincere willingness to understand how your action made them feel, how it was interpreted and what the consequences or likely outcome will be. It is granular, very specific and absent of any judgment. Everything is fine and after this interaction, the future will be better. You are taking the responsibility for guiding the conversation, something that will become more clear when you read the bad and the ugly, but in general they will not feel any resistance and your curiosity will prevent any defensiveness.

The bad approach will have you ask a flat question that is very much the same as “yes, and?” This is more like improv in that it is assumed that each person has an obligation to take a turn and contribute to the conversation / interaction. Whereas you were asking them specific questions with the good approach, which removed any sense of obligation, the bad approach is more forceful. You are agreeing with the person by saying “yes” but are then asking them to explain the consequences of that truth. This is much more abrupt and it instantly forces them to think about the interaction in terms of possible outcomes. Someone who is offering genuine feedback will already have done this to some extent and while they may become slightly defensive by your direct ask, the information you are seeking will be readily available. Those who are throwing bombs, or are have been emotionally triggered into criticizing you, will not have this information available to them because they will not have spent any time thinking about it before they speak.

The ugly approach will have you ask something to the effect of “so what?” This triggers defensiveness in almost everyone who hears it because it is empty of curiosity and is completely void of the collaborative agreement that are innate traits of the good and the bad. It also has hints of a dominance hierarchy in that they are being forced to present a justification for their criticism / feedback for consideration. The dynamic is set up in such a way that you get to be a decider and vet the legitimacy of their rationale. It has a linguistic / conversational structure that is establishes inequality or validates that the interaction is not between two equals; this is the primary characteristic of contempt.

The ugly has a long lasting quality that the good and bad do not have. It creates a negative emotional experience in most people. This serves as a punishment in a psychological sense – it suppresses the actions that preceded it along with creating the pairing of negativity with the person, serving as a disincentive to spending time with the person in the future in any context. An honest player might engage the person once or twice because they are genuinely trying to be helpful but they will quickly learn that it isn’t worth it. A dishonest player won’t care because their objective was to do harm and the ugly response serves as proof that they were successful. Those who rely on this approach will quickly find themselves surrounded by people who do not care about them, do not try to help them and will say and do whatever is required to end the interaction as quickly as possible.

The UGLY approach is any reaction that can be considered to mean “you would say that” or “I don’t care.” It is the outright dismissal of the other person and not just their opinion. Regardless of the intentions of the person who offered feedback / criticism, the reaction will be negative. The relationship with a positive operator will be permanently damaged; they may not say anything to indicate that harm has been done but things will never be the same again. The reaction from someone who is setting out to do harm is very likely to be hostile. This slight will be noticed and will serve to fuel the escalation of their animosity. An UGLY response will eliminate the possibility of harvesting anything good or useful from the interaction because it will stop it dead in its tracks.

It is fair to say that the difference between feedback and criticism is determined by the intention of the person who is offering it. Those who are trying to help are giving feedback while those who are trying to harm are given criticism. However, the intent to do harm does not necessarily mean that you will be harmed or even that you cannot benefit from the other persons efforts. When you assume that everything is feedback and offered-up with the goal of improving your future actions, on the initial pass, you will be able to extract a lot of potentially useful information. You are not on your own here and can engage the other person in this endeavor. Depending on how you set about extracting this information, you have a lot of control on both the amount of information they reveal and the context from which it is coming. Bad actors can be revealed quickly, and their efforts to do harm do not need to be successful.

Of course, when you assume only nefarious motivations you will miss out on the positive intentions of the good and will never have access to the possible benefits of listening and hearing what the unsavory players have to say.