Strong Opinions, Loosely Held

The truth is there even when we do not know it and cannot see it. But in order to find it, we must first accept that it is there, and in order to see that it is there we need to consider that maybe there is something that we do not know.


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The first time I recall hearing the saying “Strong Opinions, Loosely Held” was a few years ago. A friend of mine, lets call her Grace, was considering a move to a different job and had the opportunity to interview with one of the senior people in the company. This person had the reputation of being incredibly intelligent in terms of processing speed, world class in terms of their understanding of the financial numbers, and in possession of the narrowest emotional spectrum that it is possible. They were not an emotional void, but they had one emotion that was always on display.

My friends experience of the interview was extremely positive because she operates in effectively the same way. While he was more skilled with the numbers part of it, Grace was much more emotionally fluent. Both were very bright and capable of making very good decisions with limited amounts of information. But it was a job interview and there were question to be answered, and he ruthlessly asked them.

Facts are facts, and it was clear to him that some of the answers were only just scratching the surface of some critical things, so he re-asked them and made it clear that he knew there was a lot more going on that he needed to surface in order to make an informed decision. This was an inflection point for her, she could play it safe by answering the questions in a way that was politically harmless or she could answer them with the whole truth and see how the cards fell. She went the complete disclosure route because at the end of the day being politically safe creates a career that is essentially an act of subjugation in terms of what is viewed to be the best way to play the game “corporation.” There is very little chance that you will reach the top by playing safe and there is no chance that you will stay there if you then decide to fundamentally change how you play the game. The notion that once you become the top leader in the company you will suddenly be free to do righteous work is false because your reputation will stay with you and people will have a very difficult time trusting and being led by you because of the lack of consistency. People notice the lack of authenticity that these actions indicate.

So she answered with the truth and he liked it. The fact was that he knew the answers already because her actions had revealed the answers. You do not get to be remarkable by doing average things and the fact that she was sitting across from him was a statement as much about her achievements as it was about her dogmatic commitment to doing world class work in a way that makes things better as well as more profitable.

She wasn’t sure if it was a test to see if she was self-aware enough to understand why she took the actions she did or if she was secure enough with her decision making process to say it out loud, or if it was for some other reason entirely. All she knew was that there wasn’t a political cost to answering completely and that there would have been if she had continued to keep things purely surface level.

It was a great conversation, a fantastic interview, and she left it feeling very good about everything she had done from the start of her career to that moment. As they shook hands he left her with a final thought – “always have have strong opinions that are loosely held” – and that was that.

When she shared this with me I was a little taken back. I consider myself to be fairly righteous and practically obsessed with the truth. Playing politics isn’t one of my strong traits and, in general, I’m going be honest even when lying would seem to benefit me more in the long run. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts. Facts do not belong to people, they are not dictated by the most powerful or the winners of wars in spite of the tendency for a lot of history to be captured this way. Facts are independent, completely objective, and unchanging. If my upward mobility within a company is hurt by my expression of the truth, I will free up my own future and move on to somewhere else. It is easier to be authentic than to try and be what you think other people are looking for, and you will be so much better at it.

Consider how doing the opposite will manifest itself. It leads to a person being remarkably thin skinned because they do not have a solid foundation of belief. They will be highly sensitive to criticism and will come across as dogmatically committed to maintaining their point of view. There will be a noticeable incongruence in their efforts to try to bend the world to conform to their perceived needs and wants while maintaining their reality distortion field at all costs. This makes things harder for other people because they will not share the same reality.

It wasn’t her being completely truthful that put me on my heals, it was that he wanted to hear the truth and was willing to keep asking until he got it as opposed to just accepting the first answer and moving on. It was also shocking that he gave her some parting advice, advice which is remarkably good leadership advice.

There is no denying that he is very effective at the job he was doing, which is why she got to meet with him. He has a reputation of seeing through BS and fearlessly going after the truth because it is the only way the company is going to know what actions need to be taken and in what direction it needs to go. Being honest IS an act of kindness, even when it leaves people feeling bad. It makes sense that someone who has no diversity of emotion would approach life like this.

He knew her numbers before she walked into the room and that is the ONLY reason why the meeting ever took place – if her numbers were average or the result of anything other than the beautiful marriage of pragmatism and talent there would have been no meeting. His job was to know who the top talent was in terms of generating results and then to find out if they had the self-awareness to actually know what was going on. Her safe answer, when paired with her results, indicate that she gets it. But that would not be enough if playing it safe was a habit and not a tactic used when needed. By pressing the issue, he forced her to size him up, make a decision and then commit to it.

He is at a distinct advantage when it comes to processing information, as is anyone who doesn’t get wrapped around the axle with negative emotion or the fear of looking bad. The truth is just the truth when all is said and done. It isn’t good or bad so long as it is accepted, processed, and factored into decision making. The moment it is ignored, withheld, or denied, it morphs into something very different; generally it becomes a weapon that is used to inflict harm upon the person who is not accepting it although it may not initially appear that way.

I believe that this was a key part of the wisdom he was trying to impart to her at the end of the meeting when he referenced strong opinions being loosely held, and particularly when you are a leader of other people.

It is the essence of pragmatic leadership, both in terms of leading others and in leading yourself. You need to be sure of yourself, confident that what you know is true, and based on enough evidence that allows it to be a strong foundation on which to base all of the related decisions. But it cannot be so firmly rooted within your mind as to be unchanging, even in the face of absolute proof that isn’t correct. Leaders are right in their views and their actions. This means that when their views are shown to be incorrect, they act correctly and change them.

Life is very complicated, things are much more complicated than they seem at first glance and the more we learn about something, the more complicated it gets and the less we seem to know about it. Of course it just seems that way. The more we learn the more we know regardless of how this newly acquired information expands the map of what there is to know. The truth is there even when we do not know it and cannot see it. But in order to find it, we must first accept that it is there, and in order to see that it is there we need to consider that maybe there is something that we do not know.

This can be very hard for a lot of people. Not knowing is a very different experience than knowing with certainty. Knowing and not knowing are not the opposite of one another, not knowing is way bigger than knowing. The magnitude of the emotional of not knowing is disproportionately larger than the positive emotional experience of knowing with certainty. If knowing is a +1, not knowing would be a -10. The third option, of not knowing that there is something to know, therefore something that you do not know, is for all experiential purposes, neutral. It is not a quantity of something that can be either positive or negative, it is so much less than that. It is, in essence, nothing at all.

If knowledge was a house and specific subjects were rooms, “knowing” would be an open door leading into a room that was filled, “not knowing” would be an open door leading into a room that was empty. Not knowing that there is something to know would be a secret room that was empty and behind a perfectly finished wall. There’s no way in, but that doesn’t matter, because you have no awareness that there is somewhere to go into that you cannot go into.

The process of knowledge acquisition is the linear movement from “not knowing there is something to know” to “not knowing that which we know can be known” to “knowing that which we know can be known.” The transition between the first and second step is the creation of a door in the perfectly finished wall that leads into the empty room. Making this door requires effort and it moves a person from a neutral state to a negative state, a state that will remain until they learn the information, which is a positive state. This shifting of psychological states, from neutral to negative and from negative to positive, is what forms the narrative framework of an disincentive / incentive model to opening one’s self up to new information and then learning this information.

Logically we can understand the truth of the statement that ignorance is bliss. Being completely clueless is a lot less painful than knowing that we do not know. Even when a person enters the knowing state, the positive emotion is only temporary given the evolving nature of things and the almost complete certainty that they do not know everything about the subject.

All of this is to say that we need to be willing to endure the negative that is associated with not knowing if we are to ever learn something. This fact doesn’t matter to young people (those younger than six or seven) because their relationship with emotions that have a negative or positively valence is not very refined. They are not inhibited by the notion of having to admit that they do not know something because they have spend all of their life not knowing things and are remarkably tolerant to the sensations associated with it. But this changes as they learn more about costs of not knowing and the benefits of knowing. In fact, their relationship to these things is conditioned to be as large or as small as it is through social learning and the systems of reward and punishment that their caregivers and teachers use.

Of course, the person running the interview was not concerned with the facts of all of this. They were concerned only with the outcome, and with particular reference to my friends ability to remain open to the reality that accepting that they do not know something is painful and a critical step in moving forward. They need to act with decisiveness fueled by what they know, but remain willing to endure whatever negative comes from accepting that there is something that they do not know because there is always something that they do not know. Once they accept that there is something that they need to learn, they should do whatever is needed to gather this information, learn it, adjust their opinion and quickly get back to making good decisions based on knowing the truth.

Consider the counter positions of “strong opinions, loosely held” as a matrix of four squares – the combinations are “strong opinions, loosely held,” “strong opinions, tightly held,” “weak opinions, loosely held,” and “weak opinions, strongly held” – and the unworkable of these other options will be evident.

Those who hold opinions tightly will not learn from their own experience or from the experiences of other people. They will be impervious to the truth and everything that occurs will either be aligned with their point of view or simply be wrong and of no significance or value. Their knowledge will become dated very quickly and they will remain locked in the past, at the very moment in which their opinion was solidified and they became completely rigid. The only win in this situation is when the person is actually correct, in which case the holder of a strong opinion will direct the decisions to the correct end. The holder of a tightly held weak opinion will not present the opinion with enough force to overcome the resistance of others, rending what they know to be of no significance. In fact, this person is effectively useless to the team as the only time their decisions matter is when no one else has an opinion and they actually have the correct answer.

Someone who holds weak opinions, loosely will be viewed as lacking maturity and the experience that is required to more forcefully engage the world. This is kind of how we want young people to act, to have ideas about the world and the openness to accept new information and to allow it to update their world view very quickly. While they cannot be counted on to forcefully state their point of view, they will not drain other people with the requirement to be proven wrong before they are open to education / information.

There are two main types of people who find themselves in the middle leadership ranks of a company, those with strong opinions that are tightly held and those with strong opinions that are loosely held, because these people tend to be more vocal or forceful than everyone else, which is often taken as a sign of certainty. They are not the same leaders though. The tightly held leader will always be right, even when they are wrong, and they will rely on their forcefulness to dominate others with their opinion. When they are correct, this is fine, it can be a little unpleasant but right is right. When they are incorrect, things go off the rails as they hammer on others in an effort to break them down and get them to conform to their will. They will fight everything that they do not agree with and will take steps to sabotage others to make sure the movement forward is what they recommend. Wrong is wrong though, and since they won’t learn from it, everyone else will be at fault. Good people will disengage and the top talent will move on to different opportunities. The aim of strong opinion tightly held leaders is to control other people.

The strong opinion loosely held leader will show up in very much the same way as their tightly held counterpart, except they will be more collaborative when it comes to solving problems and planning actions. When things are happening that do not make sense their first impulse will be that there is some information that they are missing and NOT that someone else is wrong. This is fundamentally different because it allows for other opinions to exist and for the temporary existences of parallel truths. It is based on the assumption that people have the opinions their information supports so when two people differ, person A needs to know what person B knows and person B needs to know what person A knows. The moment this information is shared, both parties advance their understanding and the appropriate solution will be uncovered. The aim of strong opinion loosely held is mutual improvement and the cultivation of a shared understanding that is an accurate representation of the truth.

At the upper levels, the strong opinion tightly held leaders will all but disappear, having removed themselves from consideration due to their lack of collaboration with others and their inability to admit to and learn from their mistakes. This can make a little bit of room for weak opinion loosely held people; people who are naturally this way or through the conversion of strong opinion loosely held into weak opinion loosely held. Regardless of which, the reason is the same, people need leaders who will learn from their mistakes and from other people, and who have the humility to accept that they cannot know everything about the company. They will need to defer to the experts on their team and should not do anything that will alter the messaging from these experts. Being very aware of the impact their title can have on the members of the team will reduce the impact they have on the strategies and tactic used to accomplish achieve their vision. This cannot happen when a leader has strong opinions but is incapable of learning, of keeping their mouth shut, or of allowing what they view as wrong to occur.

The advice he gave was not specific to any role Grace might have been considering, nor was it a warning about how she was operating. It was just general advice for someone who is intelligent, highly talented, and very effective at generating positive results. These things can easily go to someones head leading to a false certainty about all of their decision making and lead to them deliberately surrounding themselves with sycophants.

Strong opinions, loosely held is good advice for everyone.

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 2

It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy.

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This is the second half of the post Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited.

So what can we do to improve our ability at affective forecasting other than the things that have already been mentioned in part one? That’s a good question that I’m going to try to answer, along with suggesting an alternative to trying to predict future emotional states.

In my original post, I mentioned the lack of lasting happiness that was associated with my getting visible abs and I related similar experiences that my clients reported when they achieved their fitness goals. The achieving a goal was a fine experience, but the physical transformation had no lasting impact on the level of happiness or satisfaction that was experienced. We all returned to baseline very quickly, as regression to the mean predicted would happen. The only technique that I had found to be effective that promoted a lasting happiness or sense of accomplishment / satisfaction was to anchor the negative feelings they had at the beginning of their journey and to trigger these feelings later on to remind them what it used to be like or to create a perceptual contrast between then and now. This is a trick though, it isn’t anything more than a thought experiment that generates a sense of gratitude that things are no longer the way that they used to be. It’s powerful, it’s effective, and it can keep people going when they’re not sure the effort is worth it but it doesn’t actually change the baseline. It improves affective forecasting in so far as it gives the person the ability to predict gratitude and its associated happiness and then trigger it in the future to give them the sense that they were right about their prediction.

The truth is that human beings have NO idea why they do what they do, think what they think or want what they want, or if they even want what they think they want. We are, in a word, clueless about these things. And that is fine. Does a dog suffer an existential crisis because it didn’t get the $30 food? No, it eats what it is fed and then tries to get its owner to play fetch or whatever activity brings it the most reward. Cats don’t care that they get adopted by low energy people, or high energy people, or people who do laundry on Friday evenings. They just live their life dealing with what they have to and taking whatever steps they need to in order to continue to live. So long as they aren’t being harmed and are being looked after relatively well they stay with their owner and do whatever cat things their brain has them do.

Human beings are not as wise as dogs or cats. Almost every moment of our life is an existential crisis and the source of agony. It doesn’t need to be that way, it is just that way because we choose to do the things that cause it to be that way. We suffer simply because we have not accepted that our brain controls EVERYTHING and that conscious awareness is an unintended consequence of having a large brain and that consciousness itself is just another unconscious mental process that happens to manifest itself as awareness. We over complicate things believing that we are in control of what goes on under the surface and then suffering when reality has our experience regress to the mean and our baseline level of function returns. Approaching everything with an inflated sense of optimism that the next thing we do will turn out perfectly, we repeatedly get returned to “fine” or “okay” after a moment of satisfaction.

It is probably a good idea to consider the possibility (reality) that life was not meant to be any better than it is right now. While our health and life span has never been so high or so long, there is nothing to suggest that we are any happier now than we were a hundred years ago. Things are improving across the planet, food insecurity and personal safety are concerns of a decreasing number of people, more of our species has clean water, electricity, plumbing, and equality of opportunity is being granted to more and more people in a growing number of countries. Life is easier and per capita each individual has more than at any other time in the history of the human race. But there is no indication that we are any happier. And this moves us to the final section of this post.

If we are not very good affective forecasters and if having more things, more money and a life that is easier than before does nothing to improve our level of happiness, is there anything that we can do to improve things?

The reason why I suggests a 98% certainty that any prediction a person makes about their future emotional state will be incorrect is because there are a couple of ways to actually improve things. They all amount to the same thing, taking steps to change your baseline so that when things regress to the mean they go to some place that is slightly different than before. Will this make us better affective forecasters? No, but it might make life a little easier to experience and it may allow us to have better connections with other people.

There is a Buddhist saying that goes something like “where your attention goes, your mind will follow” that represents the first step in changing your baseline. The brain is programmed to make sense of everything it comes in contact with. It can do this by actually making sense of it, by unpacking what it means, what is it, how it came to be, how it works, and so on or it can do it by ignoring it. The fact of the matter is that most of the time it takes the path of least resistance and ignores everything. It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy. This will allow you to live a life with more ease and it will allow you to spend less of your time in a state of uncertainty, confusion, denial, or having to deal with being wrong. All of these things have a negative emotional valence to some degree. While this does not automatically equate to a greater level of happiness, it is very much like the contrast happiness made possible by anchoring a negative feeling from the past and reminding someone that their life is no longer like that. It’s a start if nothing else.

But it is an important step in the right direction. Knowing things is helpful when making decisions and it comes with a bonus in the form of the chemical reward that is released by the brain when it matches a pattern or knows the answer to a question. You’ll never go wrong when you learn something that is true.

The formula here is very simple, pay deep attention to the things that matter to you and that you want to learn. Practice doing them often and over a period of time, always paying deep attention to what is going on, and your brain will do the rest. It will lay down the brain tissue to support the new knowledge and it will create the unconscious mental process that supports implementing the new information in useful and prescribed ways. Pay attention, practice consistently over time and your brain will grow in response to the stimulation. It’s just that simple, although it isn’t easy. In fact, it can be hard work and you are not necessarily going to feel like doing it all of the time. Do it anyway.

But what does it mean to pay deep attention? Well, it means being aware of what is going on in your brain and body while you are practicing. It means cultivating a keen ability to concentrate on things that are not necessarily obvious or innately rewarding. It means gaining the ability to quickly identify when your mind has wandered and to then shepherd it back onto the task at hand. And doing this over and over and over again, as often as the mind wanders.

Attention is the only way you can use your consciousness to trigger the brain growth that will make life different, and probably easier. The fact of the matter is that you have no idea what your brain is going to do with the sensory information it gets. Your brain does what it does and that’s about all there is to say about it. The only control you have is to determine what that information is, and on the quantity and quality of that information. That is it. It would be great if we could get the brain to do specific things with it, but we do not really have that kind of control over how the brain functions.

Generally speaking, the brain will run a bunch of innate processes and will have the ability to run a number that are specific to the life you have lived. A plumber for example will see things from the eyes of a plumber and will likely be more aware of water and to any sounds that have a water-like quality. An animal doctor will see things through the lens of managing the health of animals and avoiding unnecessary stress of the living creatures that happen to share the same geographic space as them. The point is that the plumber and the veterinarian were not born with these mental processes. Their brain created them in response to the things that they paid a lot of attention to and practiced consistently over time. This is what being an expert is about. Taking in a lot of information consistently over a period of time and allowing the brain to manufacture or write the code for the processes that this stimulation evokes. Sometimes these processes will be predetermined, like how to join two pipes together or the symptoms of distemper in a cat, other times they will be determined by the brain and based on how it responded to the stimulation, like the first heart transplant or the idea for an iPhone.

Paying attention is a mental skill, much like reading or identifying causal patterns or relationships based on spread sheet information. It can be independently rewarding although reaching this point can take a lot of effort and hard work. Initially, we will find it much easier to pay attention to specific things that we have learn to find rewarding. Again, these things are skills and we learn to find certain things to be rewarding through the pairing of those things with the release of reward chemicals. However, the upside to this fact is that we can condition ourselves to find paying attention to the most trivial things to be as rewarding as paying attention to our biggest passion. It just takes consistent practice, over time, and the willingness to return our attention to whatever object we are practicing on everytime it wanders.

Curiosity is one of the best tools at helping this process along because at the root of curiosity is the question “what is going on here?” that the brain is almost powerless to not answer anytime it is asked. Something is always going on even if we have historically made the decision to ignore it. Being alive feels like something. Even of you are not consciously aware of the feeling in your left knee from moment to moment, your left knee is there and the sensory receptors are sending information to your brain constantly. Most of the time we are only aware of that information when something extraordinary has happened – it bumps into a wall, hot coffee is spilled onto it, you land funny after taking a jump shot – but that does not actually mean that information is not always being transmitted to the brain. The brain has had to figure out how to deal with the constant supply of information from millions of sense receptors and over time it created a mental process of paying attention only to the stuff that is in contrast to what is coming in from the surrounding sensory receptors or stuff that is very different from what was coming in from the same receptors the moment before. This is a process that allows us to effectively navigate life without being constantly overwhelmed by trivial and insignificant data; it is much more akin to an active ignoring than it is to a lack of information. And we can, with sufficient effort and practice, create a counter process that allows us to notice the information that is flowing in from moment to moment from any part of the body we want.

This is when our baseline takes a step in the direction of better. By cultivating the ability to pay attention to the sensations that come from the body, we begin to notice the sensations that are coming from the body when we are doing other things. While it may be very unlikely that your knee will vibrate or feel warm in response to someone lying to you, it is not entirely out of the question that this could happen. And if we assume that it does, by learning how to pay attention and then creating the mental process that allows you to notice the sensations in your knee, you will have effectively turned your body into a lie detector. This isn’t going to make your life better, but it will prevent you from believing lies while it will eliminate whatever negative emotions or experiences cause by finding out that someone has lied to you; which is a contrast improvement in the quality of life.

Learning how to pay attention and turning your attention inward will reveal a lot of stuff about the experience of being alive that you been ignoring for years. You will very quickly notice how the mind wanders and the frequency of random thoughts that seem to have no relationship to what you were thinking or doing the moment before. And this is the next big step up in terms of your baseline moving towards something that is better. You’ll probably notice that the brain is doing stuff ALL of the time and you are only just aware of a small number of these things. You’ll likely notice that some thoughts appear instantly and powerfully while others seem to bubble-up as though out of thin air and only take hold if you allow your attention to go to them. You’ll get better at allowing thoughts to come and go and grow very comfortable with the wisdom that no matter what it is you are thinking or feeling right now, it will not last because it hasn’t always been there.

And maybe, with enough practice, you’ll realize that you are more of an observer of life rather than the driver of it. You’ll grow comfortable with the fact that your brain is controlling the entire thing and that you have an amazing brain that is capable of profound and unimaginable things. And you’ll get so much better at deciding what you want our of your time on the planet and paying attention to the things that will give your brain the experiences it needs to make those things happen. Life will get easier because you’ll stop spending time on the things that do not help to move you forward or the things that you are doing habitually simply because they are your baseline. While life will have fewer ups, it will also have fewer downs, which will make living it easier. You won’t suffer through the eliminated down times and you won’t suffer when the good times fade away. This may seem like a sure fire way to create a boring existence, it is the exact opposite of that. It is a stable existence that is filled with the curious pursuit of the things that you want and the chemical rewards that the brain releases in response to doing things that it has been conditioned to reward.

And in the end, it will make you a much better affective forecaster because you’ll know with certainty what you are going to feel in the future. This is slightly different for everyone, but in general it is a peaceful satisfaction that is slightly pleasant, slightly rewarding, and reinforcing. It won’t be a “high” per say, but it will make going to sleep a lot easier and it will help you get out of bed to start the next day an almost effortless thing.

I wouldn’t go back and change anything about how I arrived at this moment in time with these realization because I can’t but mostly because those experiences were critical in helping me arrive here. When I think back on my experiences of achieving a goal, there has always been a sense of satisfaction that lasted longer than any sense of happiness. Human beings have no issue with hard work and we have evolved to reward ourselves chemically when we put the effort in and get a little more reward any time we reach the successful end of a journey. Would I rather feel happy or satisfied? I think I would rather feel satisfied because it doesn’t peak nearly as high, it lasts longer, and it fades out gradually. Most importantly though I’m certain that it will be the outcome when I reach a goal and when I take any individual step towards that goal.

That’s about all there is to say about affective forecasting right now. You can keep doing what you have always been doing and get it wrong or you can take the time to improve your ability to pay attention and then use this skill to create a new mental process that allows you to experience the present moment as it is. When you do this you will shift or change your baseline and stabilize your affective experience making it more predictable. The outcome of doing this for me is that I’m going to feel satisfied when I put in the work and a little more satisfied when the goal is reached. And then I will begin to feel normal again regardless of what I achieved.    

Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited Part 1

Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.

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About five years ago I wrote Affective Forecasting to talk about some of my feelings about human beings inability to predict how they are going to feel in the future. I concluded that the best predictor of how we will feel in the future is how we feel right now because we have a baseline level of functioning that our brain will work to restore any time we move away from it. There are a few exceptions to this, chronic pain or becoming locked into a mental cycle that re-ups suffering, but almost everything else will be habituated quickly and allow us to return to whatever psychological state reflects our “normal.”

I recommend you give the original post a read or a reread before you continue this one. It covers some of my own experiences, the experience of some people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and some of the experiences that my clients have had while working towards their fitness goals and after having achieved them. Without fail, NO ONE was correct in their prediction about how they would feel when the future becomes the present.

In the half decade since I wrote the post, I have had a lot of different experiences, consumed a lot of information, and draw almost the exact same conclusion. How you feel right now is very likely going to be how you feel in the future. If I had to bet on it, I would put the odds at around 98%; we will return to the 2% later. The big difference between then and now, in terms of how I think about the subject, is that I know a lot more about why we get affective forecasting so wrong.

Life is very complicated, so the brain has come-up with a variety of ways to make living more efficient. Generally speaking, the brain needs certainty that it is populated with a world view that reflects reality well enough to allow it to make accurate predictions. This certainty serves to reduce cognitive overhead simply because it prevents the brain from cycling on the unknown. While this is more of a narrative explanation than a neurological or biological one, and it does introduce a few assumptions in order to avoid tackling the hard problems of consciousness – for example, is the cycling the result of uncertainty or is the uncertainty the result of the cycling – the outcome is the same, uncertainty is exhausting and “knowing” is mentally a lot easier than not knowing, even if the knowing is not based on any evidence.

The brain creates processes to help manage the information flow. Many of these processes function with almost complete perfection. There is a relationship between the amount of real world experience the person has, practice, and the quality of the process. The more hands on practice a person has, the better their brain will be at making predictions or guesses about a particular thing. This is what one would expect because it is the manifestation of how the brain functions optimally – physical experience with the real world is evidence and the greater the amount of evidence, the larger the memory pool the brain can draw from in order to make predictions.

These processes are created automatically and unconsciously in response to stimulation flowing into the brain. You are almost powerless to stop it from happening. In a way, the brain is innately programmed to write code to optimize the handling of the influx of information of a particular type under a specific context. And this is a very good thing! It is empowering to know that all you need to do in order to become an expert at something is to pay very close attention to what is going on while you are doing the thing and to practicing it consistently over a long period of time. By paying deep attention, you will maximize the in-flow of sensory data which will cause the brain to adapt more completely to the stimulation. Over time, the neural networks that support the most efficient way of dealing with the data will grow dense and allow for the automation of nearly perfect ways of responding.

So far so good, but things begin to fall apart when the processes are not based on a lot of real world evidence or practice. Processes that are formed with insufficient information and fail to have predictive accuracy are called cognitive biases.

If we stop now and consider the world from which the brain evolved, we’ll notice that it was a complicated world, but that it was very small in terms of the diversity of things that a living being would be exposed to. It consisted of doing the same ten things each day – finding food, finding water, finding shelter, finding security, getting sleep, staying warm, protecting family, establishing connections to other living beings, maintaining social connections, and teaching the young or ignorant the skills needed to satisfy the other nine needs. Life was hard, and the experience of living was a binary flip flop between periods of satisfaction and an immediate need to satisfy something. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was, and the living beings just did what they had to continue to survive. NOTE – I left out reproduction as one of the ten things because without the ten, reproduction was a liability that was more likely to reduce the chances of survival than to promote it.

The level of abstract thought that was involved with living and surviving was low. Most of what happened ACTUALLY happened, so the creature engaged the real world in a physical way. This is the definition of evidence and the brain is perfectly suited for this type of environment.

But this is no longer the world that human beings live in. Our world is much more complex than before, and the abundance of this complexity is abstract in nature. Most of what we know doesn’t spontaneously exist in nature. It’s real, but not really real. It is the consequence of some creative insight that just happened to be deemed as valuable or rewarding enough by other human beings to get picked-up, shared, and spread throughout various sub-groups of the population. Those who did not have the information did not understand, want or even consider it. Those who did have it would use it to their advantage, and would likely use it against those who didn’t have it. Not necessarily in a direct way, although sometimes, but in a way that gave them an advantage. The consequence was that those who had more information would do better than those who had less.

Writing and reading, farming, and tools are examples of this. Writing and reading are very similar to teaching, but their creation eliminated the need for the teacher and student to actually spend one on one time together, and it allowed for the teacher to teach hundreds or thousands of people in one shot thus making the process exponentially more efficient and creating the opportunity for the standardization of knowledge about a subject. Farming was very similar to gathering food from the wild and hunting, but it allowed for people to concentrate their efforts onto a much smaller well defined area which reduced the labour cost per unit of food. Tools allowed people to perform more work with the same amount of labour which reduced the cost of the work. These three technologies – writing and reading, farming and tools – represented a way for people to do more of what they were already doing. They were advances that created an abundance of resources that groups were able to use to make their lives easier. They were abstract ideas or novel ways to accomplish existing goals with greater ease or efficiency.

The consequence to abundance is that everything expands, which leads to a massive increase in the amount of information that is available or known and the propagation of this information. At some point, the world in which most people lived no longer resembled the world from which their brains had evolved. The software was fine for small groups who had ten things to do over and over and over again, but it wasn’t really ready for whatever modern society was becoming. Gone were the days of direct hands on daily experience and practice, which allow for the creation of nearly perfect processes. Here were the times of indirect mental practice with abstract things that don’t actually exist in the real world. Consider traffic lights for a moment. We have a good understanding of them, but what would happen if someone who had never seen them was placed into the driver’s seat of a car that was approaching a red light (assuming that they know how to drive a car). There is a set of rules that govern the behavior of cars at traffic lights and without knowledge of these rules, things could get dangerous and ugly. Regardless of how effective and helpful these rules are, they only exist in the minds of the people who know what traffic lights are, and they only exist because someone invented traffic lights as a solution to a problem. They do not exist in the ocean and the wildlife in the forest have no need to them.

This brings us to cognitive biases. Our brain is very effective at creating mental processes that govern and control things that it has had ample sensory data for, the predictive accuracy of these process is dependent upon the verification of these predictions. Without this error correction, a process will not evolve and improve. Thinking about the traffic lights, the rules governing traffic light behavior are abstract but they are easily and consistently verified and validated. There are very few accidents with intersections (when compared to the number of cars that travel through an intersection) and much fewer with them when compared to non-controlled intersections. There is an abundance of sensory information available that is transmitted and received by people allowing their brain to create a near perfect rule concerning them.

This is not the case with most things in modern life. While there is an abundance of sensory information available about any specific topic, there are millions of topics meaning that there are probably billions of possible pieces of information to know. A billion of anything is too much for the brain to handle so it means that it will ignore practically everything. At best, it will create a sufficient set of rules that are well tested and accurate that will provide professional expertise, a set of social rules that are well tested to ensure coexistence with other people, and lot of mental processes that have not been tested but are accepted as being valid. These are cognitive biases, and human beings have shared patterns of thinking that result in the formation of a fairly consistent list of cognitive biases.

It is important to mention that this does not have to be the case in theory, and is likely the consequence of our need for certainty. Those who are innately fine with uncertainty or who have trained themselves to always assume that there is always going to be something that they need to learn about every subject and to be curious and seek out this information are much less susceptible to making decisions that are based on cognitive biases. They will either admit that they do not know and will find out or they will take the time to learn and experience enough evidence in order to correct the processes and boost their predictive accuracy.

Five years ago, I was less aware of what I didn’t know and the role this void was having on my life. While I had noticed that I wasn’t very good at affective forecasting, I hadn’t taken much time to consider why that was the case. I was also aware that the same was true for my clients – they were only temporarily happy or satisfied when they achieved a hard earned goal and would quickly return to normal. My noticing this was why I had started to suggest to them that that they track in on their reasons for seeking my help vs. the outcome they were hoping to achieve. How someone identified that they were physically weak and needed to improve their strength was more important than knowing that they wanted to become stronger because two cognitive biases impact the perception of the future when it comes to physical transformation – the optimistic bias and the planning fallacy.

The optimistic bias basically has a person believe that things will be easier and will result in better outcomes than they will. The planning fallacy has a person believe that things will progress more quickly and result in faster outcomes than they will. These two things work together and, as a result, we are lousy affective forecasters. Things take longer and are never as good as we believe they will be.

By tracking in on the specific reason why a person realized that they were not physically strong, the focus is shifted away from imagined perception of what the future will be like and onto the reality that they’ll be able to do the thing that caused them difficulty. They will have a reference point for how bad they felt at the beginning and this can be leveraged to contrast to their life today. It can be used to motivate them to notice that even though things are moving much more slowly than they had anticipated, they are getting better as they move further and further away from the moment when they realized they were physically not strong.

Now I know this because I noticed it in myself and in others because I had been lucky enough to have the experiences that allowed me to see it occurring. This motivated me to say something about it and to then seek out the reasons WHY it was the way it was. This is the reason why we engage the help of experts. They do not suffer from the same cognitive biases, at least not in the same way, as we do. They have taken the time to be uncertain and to then seek out the evidence to update their processes to make them more accurate. After having done all of the work, they do not make the same mistakes that the rest of us do and they are actually in a position to help guide us through the experiences that we need to have in order to get what we want.

With all of this being said, my 98% guess at the odds of someone getting their affective forecasting wrong should now be becoming clearer. It’s the perfect storm of a number of factors.

The first is that we do not have a good set of rules or processes set-up when it comes to doing something that we have never done before. This opens the way to the impact that cognitive biases can play.

The second is that we are generally not very open to new information and will rely on our gut feeling and hunches to guide us vs. any objective assessment of what happened before or what is the more likely outcome. This fact needs to be understood completely because it is part of the same problem I was alluding to when I mentioned that the brain does not do well with uncertainty.

Feelings are not the same things as thoughts. Both are related to and will influence each other but they are very different things. Feelings are, for the most part, the brains way of alerting us to a memory that we have about the past that was significant. The nature of the emotion will reveal information about the memory that can provide context or other background information. The reason for this is very straight forward, the brain is very effective at gross single trial learning and can condition a very specific emotional reaction, in terms of the chemicals that make it up, to   something that happens. The conditioning is very general and tends to be void of most of the contextual clues that reveal exactly what happened, why it happened, and what could have been done differently to avoid the situation. But it is a strong association and sufficient enough to trigger the release of the same chemicals whenever the brain perceives the same or a similar event. If a particular loud sound preceded something frightening, the brain will learn to release the same chemicals in the event that it hears or perceives the same sound in the future. On the very extreme side is post-traumatic stress disorder that may cause a returning war veteran to become extremely anxious or panicked when they hear a loud bang from a truck, a door slamming, or something on television. Their brain has done such an effective job at conditioning a sudden loud sound to a sympathetic nervous system response that this response will be triggered even when the person is well aware that they are in a completely safe context. This type of learning is extremely sticky and may last for decades afterwards.

Given that feelings have a real life experience aspect to them and the fact that they occur BEFORE we become consciously aware of their causes, they have a characteristic of having always been there, at least in the moment and before we take any time to reflect on what is going on, and of being very important. Both of these things are true, at least from a historic point of view. It makes a lot of sense to prime the body for a fight or flight series of actions as quickly as possible the moment the brain senses a threat. In fact, a very good case can be made that those individuals who had a tendency to be primed for action even before they were conscious of the need for action, were in a much better position to survive when a legitimate thread presented itself. It is entirely probable that a part of our operating system evolved to favor type one errors and to instantly react as opposed to waiting for validation, which promotes the likelihood of a type two error. It is better to be wrong and live than to be certain and die. It you think about it, the last person to respond to a real threat has the greatest chance of being the one who has to deal with the threat directly because they will be the last one to start running away. There is almost no cost associated with running away when you don’t need to and a huge advantage to being the first one to run when you have to.

So feelings are important, and they played a big role in keeping our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce. Paying attention to them and reacting to them is an innate part of the code that runs our operating system. But much like the nature of information that we were tasked with handling – the ten things that we needed to do every day in order to continue to survive and how our skill level with them was earned through direct experience with the physical world – our present environment is very different from the one that shaped our brains. A lot of the code is fine, but some of it doesn’t apply to the same extent or at all in modern life. A full on fight or flight response is something that will never be needed by most of us. The world is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be and now most of the things that will kill or damage us can very easily be avoided with a little bit of thinking.

I cannot say that the emotional system is antiquated or that our gut feeling should be ignored, but I will say that we have a very good reason to slow things down a little bit and to allow the source or probable source of an emotional reaction to surface before we take any action or commit to any view about the correctness or wrongness of something simply because the gut weighs in on it. The truth is that the gut is based on previous experience and we do not have instant access to the exact memory that shaped the feeling or conditioned the emotional reaction. If the conditioning was formed based on inaccurate information or under a general context and not a very specific one, the gut feeling cannot be trusted to be correct. Better decisions will become possible when we take the moment to think about things and to ensure that we do not make either a type one error OR type two error. It is possible that we will be able to take the time to figure out what the correct answer is or to lean into the uncertainty for long enough to allow logic and statistics to bring forward probabilities.

Of course, this will not happen when we go with the gut and act without thinking. And this contributes to our profound inability to accurately predict how we will feel in the future. Our initial feeling that “I’ll feel very happy when I get the body that I have always desired” or “that I will feel sad if I find out that I have a terminal illness” are gut reactions to thoughts about a potential future. They are not based on what IS and are therefore suspect. It’s true that you might feel temporarily happy and temporarily sad but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that you’ll simply return to baseline and feel the same way you feel right now.

It is our lack of openness and a misplaced reliance or trust on feelings that prevents us from taking in the information and having the experiences that are needed to eliminate cognitive biases. Education and experience is the antidote to them simply because these are the things that the brain needs to create, shape, and refine the mental processes that allow us to make accurate predictions about the world.

The final factor that contributes to our poor affective forecasting is that very little ever changes. Staying alive is a very difficult task and almost all of our mental effort is directed towards sustaining life. We are oblivious to most of this effort and tend to only become aware of the things that require us to move in order to satisfy – we get thirsty or hungry, we feel cold, we feel pain, etc. – and that is about it. Most of the important stuff is controlled by the brain automatically and without any conscious intervention. And by the same token, most of the conscious thoughts that we have play no role in the manifestation of the quality of our life or the richness of the emotional experience of being alive. In a very real and almost absolute way, our brain does what it needs to do with conscious awareness being more of a side effect to having a large brain than a critical piece of it.

The end result is that most of what we are and how we experience the world will remain as it is and as it has always been for us REGARDLESS of the things that we achieve. Everything regresses to the mean eventually. No matter how happy you are right now, if it is at a higher level than normal, you can be certain that it will not last. And as much as that is a tough pill to swallow, the opposite is also true. If you are less happy right now than normal, it won’t last and you’ll be back to normal after a while. In fact, regression to the mean is so prevalent in terms of affect that practically everything we do will have no impact on the mean simply because most of what we do is done automatically and without conscious awareness or intervention. Life is just that difficult to maintain that the ninety percent of our actions and thoughts are controlled by the brain and it doesn’t waste much effort adjusting to the things we believe that we want.

I’m going to stop this article here and post the second part of it next week. It covers what you can do to improve your affective forecasting and suggests an alternative to trying to predict your future emotional state.

The Truth And Media Bias

The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger.

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People are full of crap. Some know they are, these people are bullshitters. They are motivated by the need or a desire to be believed. They don’t care about the truth one way or the other and will only tell it when doing so helps them to get other people to believe them.

Most people do not believe that they are full of crap and will say with complete honesty that they are truth seekers and that they do not lie. I have no reason to disbelieve them when they say this, and there is a lot of evidence that indicates that they ARE telling the truth and that they work in earnest to seek out and consume things that they believe are true.

“On Bullshit” is a 2005 essay written by Harry G. Frankfurt that covers some of this very effectively. The truth teller and the liar both have an important relationship with the truth. Both know what it is and act in predictable ways when dealing with it. The truth teller will take the steps that are required to uncover the truth and to always say and do things according to it. The liar will take very similar steps to uncover it and will then say things that are untrue and will allow other people to believe things that are not true. Liars do not always lie though, which makes life a little more challenging. However, if someone knowingly tells a lie, it is reasonable to conclude that they will do so in the future and to withdraw unconditional trust for them and to stop viewing them through the most charitable lenses.

Truth tellers will always tell the truth as they know it. This is not the same thing as always telling the objective truth because that would imply that they know what that is. While this fact complicates things considerably, it is no reason to completely give-up on people and withdraw from society. We just need to be aware that uncovering objective reality is hard work, and it may not even be possible some of the time. Life is very complicated and there is a lot to learn. Sometimes we need to believe things that we do not know and do our best with what we have. This is a part of the reason why honest people will speak untruths and it is why we need to be charitable towards others who do not actively set about to mislead us.

However, there are limits to this. Someone who shows a lack of willingness or ability to learn from their mistakes, or remains completely committed to their views when evidence to the contrary has been shared with them, are acting in a way that is at least to some degree dishonest. Updating world views is hard work but this effort is necessary in order to move forward in life with a better internal representation of the objective external world. Anybody who does not put in the work to adapt to their experiences should be demoted and assumed to be less than honest. Let’s call these people the truth impervious.

The transition zone between the truth impervious and the truth teller is not a clear line, and it probably shouldn’t be. In general, we want people to be very quick in updating their world view when presented with new information. The blurred line is the result of differing thresholds for what constitutes evidence of new information. The size of the blurred line is occupied by the truth resistant.

When we are young, the line is fairly well defined. We accept everything as truth and store all of it into long term memory. This maximizes our ability to learn in terms of speed and quantity while making us more susceptible to dishonest players who try to gain from getting us to believe lies or untruths. This is the reason why it is critical to tell children the truth as much as possible and to limit the lies that you are willing to tell them. There is a cost to every lie and it is the child, or the adult they will become, who will pay that cost. It’s probably fine to tell them certain cultural fairy tales in terms of holidays about rabbits, eggs and gifts, but it may not be. It is also better to avoid answering a question choosing to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not actually sure” than to make something up. Again, telling the truth is the best course of action, but sometimes it might not be appropriate to relate this information to them too soon. So long as the withholding of information is done to prevent too early an exposure and not as a way to make your life easier there may be some downstream benefit to doing it.

But there reaches a point when the only thing that gets shared is the truth, and this point will be more or less the moment when the truth impervious and the truth resistant begin to cleave themselves off from the honest. This occurs because the person as learned a massive amount of information and is now in a position to listen more critically and to interrogate what they hear / experience against what they have stored in long term memory. They will still continue to update their world view, but they will start to become more responsible for making the decision on what to do when something goes against it. This is a big leap forward in terms of shoring up their understanding of things as they will already have developed a general case for a lot of common knowledge. The ability to identify when something doesn’t match the general case is of upmost importance in generating an advanced or expert level of skill.

It goes something like this: an experience doesn’t match their internal view of reality, but since they have crossed into the realm of critical analysis, they take a moment of pause when they identify the error / in-congruence. It’s a moment of inflection in so far as they think “what do I not know and need to know as a result of what has just happened” or “this doesn’t match my world view and is therefore wrong and needs to be ignored.” Of these two thoughts, younger people tend to favor the first while people who are older will drift towards the second. Those who are honest and in the second group will, after enough experience, change their approach and open-up to letting in new information. The challenge is in getting to the threshold amount in so far as there is a disincentive to seeking out information that does not support our present world view. It is both work and experientially painful – while not in the same ballpark as getting hit with a baseball, the brain does not release reward chemicals when consuming information or having experiences that do not match the patterns we have stored in our long term memory. This is a critical fact that makes life much more difficult for some people than it needs to be. The essence however is that for people who lean towards viewing as false anything that is not compatible with what they know to be true UNTIL they get enough information to justify changing their world view, are honest people but will initially present as truth impervious in that they will not learn from experience and will seem to view things are wrong without any evidence other than what they have stored in their heads.

You will know that it is a truth impervious person when they do not seek out evidence to support the accuracy of the new information they were exposed to and remain unmoved by evidence that is presented to them. Honest people may have a threshold for triggering change and they will change their behavior when presented with evidence. They may not update their world view, but they will not flat out deny reality. When they actually hear the evidence, it will be clear that their brain has started to process it and is beginning to answer the question “what do I not know that would make this information correct?” They will be curious as they consider what it is that they do not know.

So this is what we are left with:

Bullshitters, liars, the truth impervious, the truth resistant and the honest.

You’ll stay away from bullshitters and keep liars at arm’s length. The truth impervious will, over time, reveal themselves as unchanging and allow you to keep them at whatever distance makes the most sense. They are not the same as the other two – those who do not care about truth and those who know what it is but are willing to avoid it to get something they want or need – because they are simply just not letting in anything that doesn’t map directly onto what they know. They are useful and are only dangerous when you mistakenly believe that they are truth resistant.

The truth resistant and the honest are who you will seek out, identify, and choose to surround yourself with; assuming that you are either one of these types of people. This is the method for creating the most ease in your life and that will give you the greatest number of opportunities to learn, grow, contribute, and succeed. It is definitely worth putting in the work to find as many of these people as you can and to take the steps necessary to remain as one yourself.

This is going to require constant effort, a willingness and the ability to tolerate the discomfort of being wrong, and the willingness to seek out experiences and information that does not cause the release of any reward chemicals. This last one is the bigger challenge because as you already know, your brain releases reward chemicals when it makes correct guesses and when it matches patterns; reading something that confirms our world view is chemically rewarding and in no way punishing while reading something that doesn’t match our world view is not chemically rewarding and very likely to be punishing.

Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would do it, except for the fact that in the long run it might be better because it can make life easier and this will allow us to get more done. In the immediate time frame, it is not an innately rewarding experience. You can however condition your brain to release reward chemicals in response to learning. Making this link will serve to fuel your future quest for wisdom and truth. Doing this is relatively simple, but it requires a lot of hard work, particularly early in life, and this work can be perceived as punishment or sacrifice. If a love for learning was not instilled during childhood and adolescence, it can be developed later in life by re-framing the experience as a positive and a sound investment into your future or by learning how to pay absolute attention to the things you are learning. Suffering, that is a negative emotional experiences in the absence of physical pain, is the result of too much focus on yourself. When we pay attention to what we are learning or what is going on from moment to moment, we are no longer capable of paying attention to ourselves and this will eliminate whatever negative experience was occurring. This will serve as a reinforcement if for no other reason as the reduction in pain. Overtime, our brains learn the response and will begin to trigger it as a result of the learning.

So this is truth, learning, how to make life easier and therefore potentially better, and the categories of people in terms of their possible relationship with honestly.

The fact of the matter is that life is both work and very complicated. There is an incentive to avoid work and complexity because doing so helps to conserve energy, making it available for later in the event there is an emergency that we need to deal with. This makes sense when we consider where our species is coming from – the past when food scarcity was a reoccurring problem that killed off a lot of people each time it showed-up – but it has been much less of a concern over the last few thousand years as a result of the discovery of farming. However, the genes of our ancestors do not disappear in response to changes in the environment. They disappear either through mutation, meaning they code for something entirely different, or the individuals with those genes die before they are able to reproduce which might, over the long run, see them removed from the species IF the genes are not contained in the code of the individuals who do mate successfully. The conservation of energy genes however are ubiquitous across all species and all areas of the planet. They are not going anywhere meaning that for the foreseeable future human beings are going to default to conserving energy by any means possible and will only choose to spend it through an act of will OR in an attempt to receive a reward.

This creates an interesting situation when we factored into our understanding of the truth and learning. Sugar is sugar, and it is as useful for one specific aspect of metabolism as any other aspect of it. The brain doesn’t care HOW it saves energy, it is just coded to try and save it. Our brain uses about twenty percent of our basal metabolic energy and it is more or less on all of the time when we are awake. Heavy sessions of deep thought might theoretically burn more energy than a session of equal length involving us watching waves or sitting quietly in a darkened room but the evidence for this is inconclusive. What is clear is the increased cost of recovery from or adapting to the intense session of deep thought. When what is sensed, perceived and experienced is different from what is stored and represented in long term memory, assimilating this information will cost energy in terms of the organic cell growth of the new neural networks that contain the new and updated information. When the information that flows in is the same as the information that is already stored, nothing needs to happen.

This means that living beings have a survival incentive to avoid new information because adjusting to it will use energy that might be better spent elsewhere or held onto in the event it is needed for an emergency. Phrased another way, it is easier and cheaper in the short term to remain ignorant than it is to invest the effort to cultivate knowledge or wisdom. Any argument about medium and long term costs of this need to be tempered with the reality that the future is an abstract thing and therefore does not exist in any tangible way. Do not allow this fact to derail your understanding here because it is fairly trivial and has very little consequence to how the brain operates. The future is brain activity in the frontal cortex, the past is the organic material that comprise all of the neural networks that make-up our long term memories and the present is the influx of sensory signals and the corresponding mental processes that they trigger. The only way the future exists is when we have the part of the brain that is responsible for generating it and when that part of the brain is active; otherwise it just isn’t a thing that the brain has any awareness of or access to.

Narratively it is safe to say that learning as much as possible is an investment in the future but in practice this isn’t exactly the case. The body will adapt to EVERYTHING that it does in a way that will make doing it again a little bit easier. The improvement in capability and efficiency with each subsequent repetition will be small, but there is an improvement. The general rule of thumb is that each time you double the reps you do, you will become 20% more effective. Over time, if a skill is not practiced, no new tissue will be laid down to support it and this will result in skill decay as cellular turnover reduces the number of dedicated cells. This is why practice makes us better and is critical for maintaining high levels of skill fluency.

All of this is to say that if we are never going to do something again, it is cheaper for us to avoid doing it in the first place because this will allow us to avoid all of the metabolic costs associated with this 20% increase in efficiency. Since important things occur often and unimportant things occur very infrequently, unless it is an emergency or a life or death situation, we are statistically better off if we ignore something the first few times we are faced with it because this will prevent us from wasting energy on the insignificant and allow us to focus energy on what is important or save it for use later.

I like math and I love how useful statistics are at telling a very interesting story about what is going on, but statistics are NOT real life. They are an amalgamation of many individual stories that are themselves real life. Just because we are statistically better off doing something does not necessarily mean that we are individually better off doing it. Think about it this way, the mean is the average of all of the values. If we have to guess what any individual number is and have no other information to go on, our best option is to pick the mean value because half of the numbers will be larger and half of them will be smaller, and the mean is based on something – an average of ALL of the numbers – but not much more than that. Say we have 10 people who take a test that is scored between 1 and 10. The results have a person score each of the whole numbers between 1 and 10; one person gets 1, one person gets 2, one person gets 3, etc…. You are told nothing about the test, are told that the mean score is 5.5 out of 10 and are then asked to guess the score of person 7. You go with the mean which is about the best you can do, but are wrong because they scored 8. And guessing the mean will always be wrong because the test doesn’t give out half marks. In this case any whole number would will have a 1 in 10 chance of begin correct vs. 100% certainty of being incorrect.

This is how I think about learning from what happens. While there is energy to be saved by ignoring reality the first few times it presents itself, there is very little reason for me to worry about this energy. My body fat level puts me into the realm of being able to go without any food for at least 10 days before I might enter a danger zone in terms of starvation. There is no food scarcity where I live and, if I ever find myself in a position that the energy that was spent learning something actually makes a difference, that would be the least of my problems. I would argue that one of the major benefits of technology is the enhanced learning environment and potential that these technologies have created. I can “waste” energy learning things that don’t matter, doing things that do not enhance my chances of surviving, and adapting to novel or otherwise meaningless stimuli simply because of the work the previous 450 generations did to create a surplus of food, safety, security, and shelter. Whatever energy I save by waiting until something happens three or four times before dealing with it makes no difference in my life. I probably throw out enough food each day to pay attention to and learn from practically everything that comes along.

Of course my DNA, brain, and operating system do not consider my level of body fat or the richness of the food I waste when faced with new information. The default is to ignore, resist, and justify doing nothing. Which is fair and a big pain in the ass when it comes to the truth. There is a huge evolutionary drive for us to be right because being in that state means we do not have to do anything. There is nothing to learn when we are right because being right is an indication that we have already learned what it was to know. Great, except being right and wrong are only things that exist when you take the time to consider them. Other than what we have stored in our long term memories that we are able to access and bring to mind from moment to moment, the only things that are real are the things for which there is a stream of sensory data flowing in. Everything else doesn’t exist.

This is a type of conundrum because in order to assess something for accuracy or truth, it needs to exist and the only way it can exist is if the sensory data is allowed to enter into your brain. If it isn’t let in, the thing isn’t right or wrong, it’s so much less than that. The thing isn’t a thing at all.

There is a potential cost to letting the stuff in because if it doesn’t match what we have stored in our brains, we will need to spend energy to adapt to the new information. So this leaves us with a choice, do we ignore things and be certain to save the energy or do we pay attention to them and risk having to spend the energy? Of course, there’s a third choice which is to already know what it is we are paying attention to – or to be right about the things we are letting in.

Personally, I’m a fan of letting the stuff in and learning as much as possible, even when it may never be needed in the future. But I understand the drive of staying closed or of consuming only things that confirm a preexisting piece of knowledge. That doesn’t mean I agree with these approaches, nor does it mean that I respect the conservation efforts of people who engage in them.

The truth resistant are made-up of people who employ these tactics when dealing with reality. They’ll ignore reality for a while until they deem it time to let the new information in.

The truth impervious will also use these tactics, but they’ll rely on always “being right” when cherry picking what to let in to ensure that they never need to do anything differently. The remarkable thing about this is just how simple it can be to maintain rightness in the face of contradictory information so long as that information never makes it into the brain or when it accidentally leaks in, it is perceived in a particular way that ensures there is nothing new to learn.

If you are curious to see this in action, take a look at the web site https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/. This site deals with political biases and is an attempt to rank news sources as left bias, left leaning, least biased, right leaning and right bias. You are able to get a list of sources that match each of these categories, along with a few others, and read the sites write-up about the source.

What is most interesting is that on the page that contains the write-up, you can follow a link to the source site and read their articles for yourself. Not that big a deal, except when you start to really pay attention to what is going on in your brain and your body. We don’t simply consume information and feel nothing while doing it. Oh no, we do so much more. Whatever biases we have, whatever preconceived notions that exist inside our brains and whatever we know as the truth play a role in determining how we emotionally respond to things. When faced with erroneous information, we respond, when faced with correct information, we respond, when faced with ambiguous information, we respond. The unconscious parts of our brain that deal with complex information fire-up, do their thing, and trigger specific emotions based on their interpretation of the sensory stimuli.

If I was forced to say, I would suggest that I am a social liberal and have a slight right lean financially. I don’t think the government knows what it is doing most of the time, so I don’t believe it has a place in telling the citizens how to behave. If you are not harming other people and only engage in consensual interactions, the government should pay no attention to you. I’m a believer in public health care and some social programs, but I believe that people should work as much as they can to pay their own way unless they have a strong reason why they are not able to or have been able to get someone to consent to paying for them. I have very low expectations for politicians and I expect them to lie because I don’t think a completely honest person could effectively run a country.

All of this being said, I have a tendency to avoid news sources that have a right bias and notice that I feel off when I am consuming news that has a strong left bias. The right stuff seems like superficial nonsense and the left stuff seems too over the top and unreasonably fatalistic. The stuff in the middle lands better because it just seems like they are revealing a series of facts about things that happened. It is as though they are reporting the news as a kind of boring list of things that occurred and leave the rest of it up to me to figure out.

This is much closer to what the world is actually like. Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems in the moment. What a thing is will become clearer over the days and weeks that follow. Was it good or bad that such and such won an election? Well, it was both. Things will be different because of it, some of the things that were good will get better, some that were bad will get worse, some things will stay the same, other things will reverse valence.

But in the moment, it’s amazing, or awful. It feels like it matters more than anything else ever could or ever will. Which is true, given that the future only exists as brain activity in the present moment, but in a few minutes you’ll have moved off of it and onto something else that matters more than anything ever could or ever will.

This is the reason why we need to consume information from all sides of an argument, particularly from the side that we do not align with. You may never change your mind about it, but it is important that you understand that there are people who believe things that you do not believe and that you know what these things are. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle between two polarized points of view. But you’ll only find it when you allow for the existence of the other pole. When you know with certainty that they are wrong, you close off to the truth and become a little less useful at being a human being.

Gas Lighting – Vice-Signalling And A Lack Of Self-Respect

There is an innate tendency for people to seek out information that validates their beliefs and to resist information that does not confirm what they believe to be true, and when given access to all of the information of the world via the Internet, there is no reason for someone who is motivated to believe something to ever to be exposed to anything that contradicts it.

The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.

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The concept of gaslighting was first introduced in the 1938 play “Gas Light” by Patrick Hamilton, which was made into a movie a couple of time. The story is set in 1880 when houses are artificially illuminated with candles for the lower classes and gas for the middle and upper classes. The husband and wife, main characters, live in a big house that is lite with gas. Their relationship is not a good one. The apartment above remains vacant after the murder of a rich lady who had a lot of expensive jewelry. The husband spends the evenings searching an upstairs apartment for the jewels but he doesn’t tell his wife where he is going or what he is doing. Of course, he uses the gas lights when he searches the upstairs apartment, which causes the lights in the rest of the building to glow more dimly. His wife hears sounds coming from the apartment and notices the lights getting dimmer but when she asks her husband about these things he tells her that they are not happening. He does it so frequently and so convincingly that she begins to doubt her own experience of reality and starts to question her sanity.

This is the origin of the term “gaslighting” and it is a powerful way to manipulate other people. It is a long game and it tends to work more effectively on people who have a connection to or a reason to care for manipulator. The effects are cumulative and will only occur after repeated exposure. In general, it works because someone lies so convincingly and so consistently about a subject that the victim begins to doubt their own experiences. It will not work when the person knows that they are being lied to, either because they have proof of the lies or they have other social proof that their experience of reality is actually true, and it cannot be said that a person who is motivated to believe the other persons lies is suffering from gaslighting.

Recall or consider the Asch conformity experiment that asked subjects to answer a question about line length. Subjects were placed into groups with other people who were, unbeknownst to them, confederates and working with the experimenter. The group was shown two pictures, one with a single line drawn on it and one with three lines drawn on it. They were then asked to select with line in the second picture matched the length of the line in the first picture. When the subject answered first or when the previous answers did not agree, they would always answer correctly. But when they answered last and there had been complete agreement on a particular line, they were more likely to offer-up the same answer. This is not a case of gaslighting even though most of the subjects did, at least some of the time, go along with the answers the rest of the group gave. These subject consciously made the decision to conform and give the same answer as the rest of the group members. At no time did they question their belief that the group was answering incorrectly. They simply made the decision to go along with the group to avoid the negative feelings associated with standing alone. This is a critical distinction because it illustrates the importance of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. In Asch’s study, the subject doubted the sanity of the other group members, with gaslighting, the victim doubts their own sanity.

The play came out in 1938 and for a few decades nothing much came of it other than it being a moderately interesting evening of entertainment and a decent thought experiment in terms of “what would you do” in a similar situation. However, during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the term began to build-up steam and started to take root in mainstream consciousness to refer to any deliberate actions that were taken to undermine someone’s perception of reality. It is now widely accepted as a manipulation tactic used by narcissists, sociopaths, and people who wish to destabilize another person’s view of what is real.

The timing of this is not much of a surprise either. We are now living in what many consider the post truth era. This is a time in which the truth is much less important than being right or being believed. It happens to coincide with the elimination of tight social groups and the formation of virtual social groups that coexist around a shared interest in a particular subject or way of viewing the world. This creates a powerful selection bias effect that convinces each member of the group to believe that their point of view is much more common and much more significant than it actually is. Consider the current political climate. While it may seem like the world is very polarized, it is about as polarized as it has ever been. The distribution of political leanings maps perfectly onto the normal distribution curve that is highest in the center and drops off on either side. Most people are moderates and are very tolerant of the other moderates. They just go about living their life and accept that other people will have views that are different from them. Those who do not agree are not wrong, they are just people who have a different perspective. If we assume that the middle is made-up of the one standard deviation above and below the mean, we need to accept that this will amount to 68 percent of the population. If we assume that it is made-up of two standard deviations above and below the mean, we need to accept that this will amount to 95 percent of the population. Either way you look at it, the middle is MASSIVE while the fringes are tiny.

However, our large population and the Internet has given us the ability to seek out, find, and connect with like-minded people about any subject, regardless of geographic location. The ability to broadcast anything in real time has given the small numbers of fringe members the ability to echo and amplify their message creating the illusion that there are more of them than there are. Compounding this illusion is the relative ease at which people can disregard information that does not support their point of view. There is an innate tendency for people to seek out information that validates their beliefs and to resist information that does not confirm what they believe to be true, and when given access to all of the information of the world via the Internet, there is no reason for someone who is motivated to believe something to ever to be exposed to anything that contradicts it.

The truth does not matter when it can be ignored.

This was not the case until very recently. When the population was low and the ability to find and connect with people who shared your particular perspective was severely limited, we had no choice but to listen and coexist with those who were near us in a geographical sense. Our views were balanced and tempered by the exposure to other people who held a slightly different perspective of the same subject. We needed to get along with them because they lived close to us, so we learned how to tolerate other points of view and likely learned things from the people who differed from us giving us a better understanding of facts, evidence, and the truth. Gaslighting was rare when we were exposed to a variety of people who had a diverse collection of perspectives.

Gaslighting has really taken off over the last 10 years because the ability to self-select the information we consume and the groups to which we identify as being a part of. And it is a real problem.

In fairness, I don’t really care what adults do so long as it doesn’t impact the freedom, safety, and liberty of other people. My view is that the human brain is an amazing thing that has a massive storage potential in terms of memory and it is innately coded to assimilate sensory information in a way that allows it to create mental processes to perform powerful and arbitrary tasks. The world would be a much better place to live if everyone used their brain to its potential by bringing in the most accurate information available and then allowing it to write the code to handle the process of living more effectively, but this isn’t what people are going to choose to do. If you’re over the age of 25, there is still hope for you because the brain maintains its powerful abilities for the duration of life, but you are your own problem now. You are an adult and you have every right to choose the life you are going to live.

It is a problem for the people who are not adults because they are in the process of learning how to be adults and they have always existed in the post truth world that favors virtual interactions with little social cost over the face to face interactions that reveal other human beings to be a slightly different version of the same thing they are.

Gaslighting in this context is much easier to accomplish and a lot more damaging in terms of long term consequences. Younger people do not have the life experience that contributes to knowing much about anything. Most of their time has been spent getting up to speed with the skills most of us take for granted – the 80% of the skills that all human beings have in common. Moving, talking, learning how to read language, learning how to interact with the physical objects in the world, etc. consume much of learning opportunities in the early parts of life. Young people are also much more open and just accept what they hear as being the truth because they don’t have a choice. Their lack experience with almost everything means that in order to learn anything they have to assume that what they experience is the truth and are at the mercy of the intention of the people they encounter.

In a way, this is worse than conscious gaslighting. With gaslighting the person knows the truth and is being manipulated into thinking that maybe their view of reality is suspect. It’s not a great situation because being taught to doubt your experiences of reality can create a habit or behavioral pattern of doubt. However, the cause of the problem is the misplaced trust in someone who is willing to weaponize this trust as a way to take something that they want. With young people, there may not be any knowledge or notion of the truth. Their first experience with the truth will be the implantation of a lie that serves only to manipulate them and to give-up whatever the liar wants from them.

Consider what gaining knowledge about a complex subject is like. Imagine the totality of what is known about something would fill-up a fifty page notebook – both sides, single spaced, in the times new roman font at a size of 11, with one inch margins top, bottom and sides. This is about 70000 words assuming 1400 words per page – 700 on the front and 700 on the back – and is a considerable amount of information and it will take a number of years to learn.

Now think about what happens to the person on their first day when they are exposed to the subject. There is a moment when they go from not having the notebook, meaning they do not know that there is a subject, to them getting the notebook. This moment is important because it serves as the introduction to both the fundamentals of the subject and the fact that the subject is a thing that can be known that they do not know much about. They are very vulnerable at this point because all they have is an almost completely blank notebook with very little typed-out. It might have a title and a few sentences, but most of it is empty and there are no page numbers. There is no way for them to know how long the book is because they know almost nothing about the subject other than the title. At this moment in time, and for a few pages at least, they have no choice but to type-out EVERYTHING they hear about the subject and commit it to memory because unless they start filling-up the note book, they are never going to know anything about it.

This empty notebook phenomenon isn’t isolated to young people, although it is much more prevalent with them. We can be exposed to a completely new subject at any time in our life and when it happens, we are just as vulnerable as the young person is to disinformation, lies, or biased / unbalanced information. There will be an almost complete transcription, word for word, of everything that is said for a few pages and this information will make-up the foundation of the persons understanding about the subject. Ideally, the authors of these foundational sentences will be honest brokers of the truth and will make it clear that what they are sharing is only a tiny portion of the totality of the subject. This was much more likely in the past, when the teacher was someone from the immediate community and the information was shared or taught via a face to face interaction. There was also a long term relationship or connection between the student and the teacher meaning that the teacher would likely play a long lasting role in the process of education about the subject and if so, they would be around to see the positive outcomes or the consequences of what they taught. When dealing with smaller social groups, there is a cost to lying or setting out to manipulate and that cost is paid by both parties creating a disincentive for the teacher to act selfishly.

We now live in a world that looks nothing like that. Balance doesn’t matter because of the size of the population. Interactions are transactional and manipulation frequently goes unnoticed and even when it is, it is very often unpunished. People can get away with saying whatever they like, with little disincentive for deviating away from the truth and the potential for big reward by presenting biased, incomplete, or wrong information as fact. The inevitable outcome to this is an abundance of people who have the first 20 pages of their notebooks filled with garbage, propaganda, or conditional facts, that serve only to benefit the person who exposed them to the stuff in the first place. This leads the owners of the books to be certain about things that are wrong, and to contribute to the potential gaslighting of the people who are close to them. This isn’t exactly their fault, they have never been exposed to both sides of the story and since they do not know enough about the subject to know how long the book is, they have no basis for believing that there is a lot of stuff that they don’t know and have yet to learn or that what they have been taught was bullshit and existed only to control them in some way.

It gets a couple of steps worse though. As much as I have contempt for people who manipulate others just so they can get what they want, I can at least understand their motives. It’s sneaky and awful, but their intentions leave clues and are very simple to figure-out once you start to consider the possibility that they are not acting selflessly. The moment you begin to follow the money or the payout, their reasons for doing what they do are obvious. These folks are bad, but they are predictably bad and bad in very specific ways. The people who cause me the most consternation are the ones who are gaslighting but for no reason obvious reason. These are the ones who could and should be acting differently but are just not taking the time to be careful or educated enough to actually be helpful to other people.

If it isn’t clear the type of person or things I am making reference to here, consider what gets posted to most twitter accounts that is of a derogatory nature. Almost everything that anyone does makes logical sense to them, although it may not be based on reality. If someone doesn’t have the right information, there’s a much better than random chance that they will get something wrong. But having the power to broadcast is much simpler than the world is, leading everyone to have an almost equal voice. Most of what people say is going to be wrong under certain contexts and anyone who understands the subject only under those contexts has the power to point out just how stupid the person is for making their statement. The truth is that both people are correct, except person A doesn’t have the same content in the first 10 pages of their notebook that person B has, and neither one knows how long their notebooks are. All they know is that what they know is all there is to know so anyone who disagrees with them is insane.

There is no possibility for balanced perspective or for learning. The only thing that comes of it is an argument or fight between two people who know only enough to be dangerously ignorant and absolutely certain that their point of view is infallible. The only thing that stops it from being gaslighting is the complete lack of respect or connection between the two people who are trying to convince the other that they are wrong.

The collateral damage is anyone who happens to respect and trust one of the participants who doesn’t share their point of view. These people end-up getting steered away from their perspective as they become convinced that it is incorrect REGARDLESS of how they came to hold the point of view. Without realizing that they are being impacted by someone who has very little understanding of the subject, they flip the switch on what they know is fact and turn it into fiction. They have learned a new piece of disinformation and the wedge of doubt has been hammered into their level of certainty that the person who taught them the thing in the first place was correct or that they should be trusted in the future. This has potential long term negative effects in that it can whittle down the number of people that the young person considers sources of truth.

Again, when this concerns adults, I don’t care all that much. Everything I am saying here is well documented and available to anyone who cares enough to seek it out. For adults in western society there is no longer such a thing as ignorance, there is only willful ignorance (a legal term) or ignorance through laziness (a narrative colloquialism). They have the opportunity to acquire whatever information they need to make an informed and well educated decision, so any failure to do so is purely the result of an unwillingness to put in the effort.

Willful ignorance in contemporary law, and its historical counterpart willful blindness, refer to the action of deliberately not learning the facts in an effort to avoid future accountability or prosecution. For example, someone agreeing to drive a car across the border only to claim that they didn’t know that there was contraband in the trunk. While it may very well be true that they didn’t know that there was anything illegal in there, they are still responsible for crossing the border with it because it is reasonable to expect that someone should know what is in the car they are driving OR that they should have been suspicious about the request. Willful ignorance is also one of the main reasons why there are so many signs at airports telling you to NOT check any luggage that you did not pack yourself.

Not knowing something, when you reasonably should have known or when you actively avoided finding out, opens you up to criminal prosecution. It is very serious and on the same level as having taken the actions with full knowledge – the willfully ignorant is as guilty as the person who planted the drugs, the main difference is that the person who planted the drugs isn’t sitting in the police station or border security holding cell. The only possible defense to willful ignorance is plausible deniability which holds that the person was far enough removed from the information that it is not reasonable to believe that they would have actively had to take steps to avoid knowing it. Consider a long haul truck driver who has picked-up a sealed load at a distribution center that turns out to have drugs hidden in the cases of coconut milk. It is not reasonable to expect them to check the entire load, particularly when it has been pre-cleared and has a customs seal.

This concerns gaslighting because gaslighting is intended to make the victim doubt the validity of what they know to be true or to doubt what they believe about reality. While lying will be a component to it in most cases, the perpetrator does not necessarily need to lie or to even know what the truth is. All that is required is the intention to cause doubt or psychological uncertainty and to take actions to create this outcome. This is important because honesty and truth telling are the antidote to gaslighting. The truth is the objective definition or description of reality, therefore anytime someone tells the truth, they are making factual claims about what is real. Someone who consistently tells the truth can be counted on when doing an ecology check to vet the quality and accuracy of another’s assumptions or claims. Truth teller will shamelessly state that they do not know when they do not know. In fact, their locus of control is completely internal meaning that they care a lot less about being believed than they do about telling the truth OR NEVER telling a lie.

This is the essence of my beef with the post truth era and with people in western society who say things that are not true. It isn’t that they are making their own lives more difficult, they are adults and are responsible for making their own decisions, and I don’t care all that much about their experience of life. It is that they are making other people’s lives more difficult. They are, by my thinking, willfully ignorant and therefore a step above complicit in allowing the truth to fall by the wayside; particularly given the ease at which the truth can be uncovered via the Internet.

This begs the question, are they gaslighting? Well, consider the fact that telling the truth is the antidote and the only way to immunize others from it, anyone who is lying might be gaslighting. It then comes down to their intention when they talk – are they saying what they are saying to cause the listener to doubt their view of reality? The answer here is less straight forward, but in a world were learning the truth is a matter of putting in a little bit of effort and were avoiding the telling of a lie is simply a matter of saying “I don’t know,” we’d be foolish to extend any charity towards someone who is willfully ignorant and vocal. They are choosing to lie when saying nothing, admitting that they do not know, or when finding out the correct answer are available options.

It comes down to why someone would do this, and this is why I consider it to be gaslighting. They want other people to believe that they know what they are talking about and that they know the truth. Neither of these things is true, therefore they are trying to convince the listener to believe that reality is different from how it actually is. When they could simply announce that they do not know or that they are putting forward a guess or an opinion, or when they could hold off on saying anything until they know the answer, they are making the decision to speak in an attempt to manipulate the person they are talking to.

It is dangerous because it might work. The listener may view them as an expert and a source of truth. They may start to disbelieve something that is true. They may even stop listening to someone who is an honest broker of the truth simply because the other person doesn’t soften any of their statements with words like “opinion” or “I think.” And any of these things make the future of the listener much more difficult because they have promoted a gaslighting liar into their circle of influence and demoted a mentor or truth teller out of this circle. The only possible outcome here is a degradation in the quality of their view of reality.

Again, NONE of this is necessary. All of the answers are available to anyone who is willing to put in the effort to find them. Yet it is happening more now than ever before which is making a lot of things worse for young people and the adults who are afflicted with this pathological and chronic willful ignorance.

The Internet is both the cause of and the solution to the pandemic of gaslighting. The truth is out there, readily available to anyone who is willing to take the time to find it. But there is less of an incentive to put in the work to learn how to get along with people we do not agree with, now that we can self-select our social groups and the information that we consume. We are beginning to see the negative outcome of this now that people who are less tolerant to having their ideas challenged and are less willing to value different opinions have a platform for vocalizing their disdain and irrational phobia of the people who hold incompatible perspectives.

My view is that gaslighting is an indication of a lack of self-respect and it amounts to vice-signalling. Laziness is a vice, so anyone who is willing to avoid putting in the effort that is required to find answers in favor of saying whatever they feel like is making a strong clear statement about how much they value their brain and their wisdom – not enough to do an Internet search and manage their way through whatever discomfort new information triggers inside of them.

Trick To Uncover A Cognitive Bias – Change The Name Of The Subject

As the world becomes more polarized, we are being faced with an increasing number of subjective or biased perspectives. While it is always true that any statement that a person makes will be, by definition, subjective, it is not always true that these subjective statements will fail to be objective. The truth is the truth, so regardless of someone’s lived experience or pre-existing bias, if they speak the truth, their subjective statements can be viewed as objectively true. Facts used to be very important and people used to pride themselves on speaking only the things that they knew were true and would take steps to avoid saying things that they knew were not false or to find out what the truth was before they said anything. “I don’t know” was not a badge of shame because it was assumed that people wouldn’t know everything and that was fine.

Things have changed recently with the propagation of the Internet for three big reasons. The first reason is because almost all of the information that is known to humanity has been posted to the Internet. With the exception of state secrets and proprietary information, knowledge can be tracked down and consumed when someone is willing to take the time to find it. The post Google Expert – Noun? Not Verb? – Second Run At It makes reference to this and points out some of the things that can go wrong when someone doesn’t take the time to gather enough information to provide a complete picture of what is going on.

This takes us to the second and third big reasons why the truth is not the imperative that it used to be. These two are related, and they are a consequence of our aversion to experiencing discomfort. In order to actually gain knowledge and eventually a clear understanding of the truth about something, we need to consume a lot of information and this will include an abundance of information that doesn’t align with our world view. Remember that we are seeking to become subjectively objective which means that we will need to consume information that doesn’t directly map onto our life experience and that may be the exact opposite of it. Human beings place a much higher value on the things that they have experienced and on the things that they have known for a long time. This basically means that we are inclined to place a greater weight on our existing knowledge than on something new. This won’t matter much when the new information supports what we already believe and it will quickly be integrated and stored into long term memory.

However, when faced with information that is incompatible with our world view, we will experience discomfort. The exact source of this discomfort is not entirely clear but it probably has something to do with the fact that anything that challenges our world view actually causes us to become uncertain about the future given that our ability to make accurate predictions about what might happen is reduced. This discomfort serves as a disincentive for both the accepting of the conflicting information as fact and in seeking out more information; in theory there is a disincentive for surfacing information that is in conflict with what is already known and assumed to be true, but since there is no guarantee that any piece of new information will confirm what is already known, the pain associated with exposure to conflicting information serves to close a person down to ALL information.

So while the Internet represents the opportunity to gain knowledge, wisdom, and the truth about almost any subject, it is also a source of discomfort when new information does not align with existing understandings. This is the source of the third problem the Internet has caused when it comes to becoming a dogmatic broker of the truth. There is just so much information out there that it is impossible, without putting in deliberate effort, to get a balanced exposure to allow for a comprehensive synthesis of the truth. Unless you are willing to endure and in fact set about to experience the discomfort of being challenged by things that do not align with your present world view you can spend all of your time consuming things that actually agree with your point of view.

This is where we are today. We have access to all of the world’s knowledge. But the world is complicated and it takes a lot of effort and time to learn enough to actually know what the truth is. Every step along the way will be a challenge because as we integrate new information, we become certain about its accuracy, which will make the new piece of information increasingly harder to accept because as we move forward towards wisdom we track in on more and more of the exceptions to the rule. Since each one of these exceptions will trigger feelings of uncertainty, each one of them serves as a type of punishment for continuing along on the journey. The opposite feeling as available when we consume something that aligns with our world view, and the Internet is absolutely stuffed with sources that support anything as being the truth.

It is the relationship our brain has with these sources that is actually the problem with seeking out the truth. On one side we have sources that will lead us towards the truth because they present a part of the picture that we do not know yet, but consuming these things hurts. On the other side we have sources that support our existing view and are therefore rewarding to consume. Our brain is innately programmed to seek out information that confirms what we already know and to avoid things that question it. If you want to feel good, you’re going to avoid the things that challenge you, and this means you are not going to be putting in the work that would move you towards knowing the truth.

This is the source and nature of the confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that sees us seeking out sources that agree with what we believe and to be overly critical about sources that do not confirm what we already know to be true in order to dismiss them as being invalid.

All of this is very interesting and worth knowing, but for the purposes of this post it is just set-up for what comes next. How do we identify when this cognitive bias is occurring and is there any way to identify when we have accidentally tracked into something that serves only to confirm what we already believe? The word “accidentally” is very important in the previous sentence because it implies that you are an honest operator who is motivated to become a broker of truth for its own sake. If you are not interested in the truth or are deliberately choosing to consume something that you know or have reason to believe is biased or serves only to support your existing point of view, you have not accidentally tracked in on anything. In this case you either know better or simply do not care about cognitive bias. With those who know better, hopefully you are consuming it for the sake of balance and NOT because it feels good to have your opinion validated over and over again. With those who do not care, as you were.

The method outlined below for testing whether or not you are committing the confirmation bias, works most effectively when dealing with issues that have a subject that is a real person. This person can either be the person who is saying the thing or they can be the person that the thing is being said about. Given that most things are either written by people or are about people, this method can be used with almost everything.

The only other criteria that will need to be satisfied is that you will need to have a good mental idea about two other people or a clear understanding of two other subjects. The two people or subjects will need to be one that you like and agree with and one that you do not like and do not agree with. For example, if you are someone who is left leaning politically, you will need to have a strong right leaning subject – a person or group and if you are right leaning you will need to have a person or subject that is left leaning. You will need to have two, one on the right and one on the left in the event that you are neutral.

Once all of these conditions are met, you go about your life consuming whatever it is you choose waiting for a chance to try this method out. The moment you find yourself agreeing strongly with what you read or hear or strongly disagreeing with it, you pause for a moment and then switch out the subject and replace them with the one you have thought-up and reconsider your feelings had this person said it or had the thing been said about this person. Take a moment to allow your feelings to surface and then compare these feelings to the ones that you had before. It’s difficult to say what you are looking for but when it happens you’ll be aware that something very valuable has been revealed.

The reality of life is that the truth is the truth regardless of who says it. A factual statement should not be any more or less believable when said by or about someone you like or dislike.

I’m not a big fan of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He’s a little more to the left than I land politically and the job of being the leader of a country is impossible; I wasn’t a fan of Stephen Harper either, Canada’s last PM, I thought Obama was a very good statesman but not entirely aligned with my view of how the world should be, I can’t understand what Trump is talking about most of the time but accept that he’s connecting with people in a way that allows them to feel heard and that some of his policies are exactly what are needed to accomplish what he’s trying to do. So there are four people, one very right, one middle right, one middle left and one more to the left. When I am considering something someone is saying about a Justin Trudeau or Trump policy and I’m not sure if my thoughts and feelings about it are making sense, I substitute one of the other names in, or their political party and take another run at it to see what my brain comes up with.

If we take the US trade war with China as an example, it’s clear that this is Trump’s trade war given that Obama didn’t take the same actions as Trump and that Canada has more or less regarded China as a trading partner in good standing for a long time. So consider the tweets:

Donald J. Trump
Verified account @realDonaldTrump
May 14, 2019 06:16:58 AM

When the time is right we will make a deal with China. My respect and friendship with President Xi is unlimited but, as I have told him many times before, this must be a great deal for the United States or it just doesn’t make any sense. We have to be allowed to make up some….

.…. of the tremendous ground we have lost to China on Trade since the ridiculous one sided formation of the WTO. It will all happen, and much faster than people think!

When I try-on Obama saying something like that, I notice a few things. The first is that I am a lot less dismissive of it and I try to understand what it might possibly mean. Specifically, what is in the statement that is true that I am not willing to consider when it comes from Trump. This makes me aware that I do not take any time to consider what Trump says because I don’t have an easy time understanding it. These tweets are not hard to understand and I do not disagree with the main thrust of what he’s saying, although I do not believe that it is the fault of the WTO or that China has set about to hurt the US through their trade actions. It’s just a difference in opinion. He is right to suggest that, when compared to before China become a part of the WTO in 2001, there has been a change in the nature and size of the trading relationship between the US and the world and China and the world. But of course this happened, things change over the period of almost 20 years.

The consequence of this exercise is that I realize that I don’t really spend much time considering Trumps tweets and that I have to accept that he is at the very least, latching onto a valid point to help sell or move his message. And this is where it seems to go off the rails. The next sentence “… the ridiculous one sided formation of the WTO” would not have been spoken by Obama, or either one of the Canadian PMs mentioned above. It uses victim language that places the US on one side and at least China on the other. I accept that Trump cares only about the US but his words read as though the world is a massive zero sum contest and that China gaining MUST be a US loss and therefore something that needs to be corrected.

And this leads me to my final conclusion. Trump’s Twitter account is a very subjective and biased source of information. It makes sense for me to consume it from time to time so that I can get some insight into what he is thinking, but the act of changing the subjects proves it to be a biased source simply because other world leaders, even those on the right, would be very unlikely to say many of the things that he says. It is not the truth and is therefore not objective in spite of the fact that some of what it contains can be supported by evidence.

Try it out. Pick your people / subjects and consider the following quote:

“Who cares about winning? We should focus on serving.”

Imagined as something Trump said makes me laugh. The only context that allows it to make sense is in a legal sense as in someone being served papers and paying a settlement to avoid trial and therefore the chances of losing.

Imagined as the other three people and I have no difficulty believing that any one of them could have made the statement. All three of these leaders seemed to have a “together we can do it” type of approach to their jobs. It seems more probable that it was something that Obama or Justin Trudeau said than Stephen Harper, given that it isn’t how he spoke vs. how he acted.

It is a statement that I don’t have any problems getting behind in terms of believing that it is true and that it represents a better approach to living than win at all costs. This is the primary reason why it I have such difficulty pretending that Trump said it. He seems to care more about getting what he wants, and while he may have an honest belief that what is good for him is also good for the country, he doesn’t even play lips service to the notion that serving is more important than winning let alone considering the possibility that winning doesn’t matter at all if people are suffering.

It was a Trudeau quote.

Two things need to be said here. The first is that with very polarized statements or very polarized subject-people it can be extremely tough to run the mental process of considering the statement from the opposite point of view. That’s understandable but no reason to avoid putting in the effort. In fact, it’s just more evidence to validate that there is a real need to put in the effort to try it out because any failure to do so will result in the ignoring of valuable information and knowledge. While it does make sense to consider the source of any statements to uncover any potential conflicts of interest that they may have, a conflict of interest does not necessarily mean that the statement is false. People who know what they are talking about or who are experts in an area may have positioned themselves to benefit from the truth simply because they understand the subject well enough to make a living doing the right thing. In these cases, disregarding what they say for the sole reason that they stand to benefit from having you believe it will be a mistake.

Recently we had a water pipe burst due to the extremely cold weather. It was annoying, but not really a surprise. We had been planning on replacing the pipes and to move them away from the outside walls and closer to the middle of the house. When the plumber came to deal with the frozen pipe he made the decision to cap it and shut down the water to that area of the building. This didn’t matter much because the pipe brought water to a second bathroom that we could go without using for a while. The pipes were copper so he cut them and soldered them and that allowed us to turn the water back on in the rest of the house.

I asked him about moving all of the pipes and he wrote-up a quote. He was going to use PEX which is plastic as opposed to copper. When I asked him why, he told me that PEX was cheaper to buy and much faster to install, meaning that they would be able to complete the job in a day vs. two or three days. The quote was for the job as opposed to time and materials meaning that the faster they do it, the more money they make. This forced me to consider things from a different point of view so I asked him about the benefits of PEX over copper. He said that he’d do whichever I asked for but that PEX was a better choice in this situation because it can expand slightly and this meant it was more resilient than copper in the event that the pipe temperature dropped below freezing. This mattered because the building that was getting the work done is prone to the occasional power failure which shuts down the HVAC system given that the gas furnace won’t turn on unless air can be circulated through the heat exchanger. If we used copper and there was a power failure, there was a chance that the internal temperature of the building would drop below freezing which could result in ruptured pipes. They would be easier to fix because they would no longer be buried in the walls, but that doesn’t matter very much when water flooding into the basement. PEX is not better than copper and it can still rupture, but for our purposes it is the better product to use.

Before we agreed to get the work done, we asked a couple of home inspectors what they would do in our situation. These people had nothing to gain from the decision we made and were, for all intents and purposes, objective. While they we more confident with copper given how long it has been the standard way of doing things and PEX is about 2 decades old meaning the first generation of fittings are starting to fail, they agreed with the plumbers rationale for suggesting PEX. Even if the plumber stood to gain from using it instead of copper, it was the correct solution in this case. This is more or less the same thing as switching the subject – different subject-people said the same thing lending support to the plumber’s statements.

This means, in general, a conflict of interest is NOT necessarily a show stopper when it comes to listening to what people have to say. While it can serve as an incentive to have them lie or to have an extremely biased point of view, an expert is going to have figured out how to benefit from telling the truth.

This brings us to the second thing that needs to be said. Your goal is, or at least it should be, to uncover and learn the truth. This usually means doing a lot of work because the world is complicated and things are not always as they appear to be or how you believe them to be. By switching subjects, you are doing a type of dialectic analysis that will only help to clear the fog surrounding an issue. Even if it turns out that your initial assessment was correct, the exercise of considering things from a different point of view will reveal information that you didn’t have before. Worst case is that you gain a greater insight into why something is the way it is. Best case is that you collect more information about the subject and this will help to generate a more complete understanding. No matter what way it turns out, taking the time and putting in the effort to switch the subject will go a long way in helping you uncover an unconscious cognitive biases and allow you to think about something more objectively.

Very few human beings think in completely logical and objective ways so it is safe to assume that there is something biased about your thinking and to take some steps to prevent this from taking an unnecessary toll on your life. To this end, if you find yourself dismissing something you hear simply because of the source, or accepting something because of its source, switch the subject to the opposite type of person and see it you would make the same decision. If you would, great, you are probably thinking clearly. But if doing this changes things at all, step back and reassess what is going on. Take the time to think things through and to find out what exactly is fueling your biased decision making.

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.

Pay For The Right To Pay Less And Other-such Nonsense

A few years ago I went into a supplement shop to buy some gels – these are individual wrapped single servings of complex sugar in a gel form. People take them when they are running or riding a bike (or doing anything that makes eating / digestion challenging or impossible). What I found interesting was the price of them. There were two prices, the regular price and the card member price. What was odd and completely transparent was that the card member price was the same as the regular price at SportChek. The card at the supplement shop cost $10 or $20 and it entitled me to pay the same price as I would have to pay elsewhere. I left after buying nothing. I haven’t bought anything from them since they created this program because I don’t like feeling like an idiot.

I recently remembered this when I went to Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) to buy shoes and was asked for my membership card. The whole process of becoming a member / owner at / of MEC was strange when I first shopped there but the cost of the card was low enough for me to not care, given that their prices are really good and have never been mistreated by them. That card paid for itself with the first thing I bought there.

Recently another one of these type of programs has come to my attention. Again it is supplements, but this time it’s a little more complicated and uses cognitive biases to capture people and their money.

It starts off with a specific course that you take and need to renew every year. The initial course costs a little more than $1000. You have a few options to renew your certification and can take on-line courses. Depending upon which ones you take, it’ll cost between $450 – $725 for two courses which will count towards your renewal. It isn’t clear what you do the following year but it looks like you will at some point need to take the initial course again; that looks like another $1000.

If you are successful at completing the course, you will then be allowed to sell their supplement line. They will give you the wholesale price on these supplement. If you fail to renew your certification, you will no longer get the wholesale price. I don’t know what the wholesale price is, but their retail price is fairly high and they sell vitamin E (supplementing with vitamin E has been linked to increased risk of prostate cancer and it probably shouldn’t be sold) so I question their intentions of selling any supplements.

What sucks about this last example is that it plays on the sunk cost fallacy – those spending the money to get the certification are disinclined to give it up given that they have spend a lot of money on it. It also creates the illusion of a great value because if you get the certification you get to save a bunch of money on the supplements that they recommend during the course, compared to the retail price of these supplements.

I won’t speak about the course because I haven’t taken it. Those I know who have, do come out of it with a sense of having gained profound insight about what makes people gain / drop body fat. And they do come out very enthusiastic about the quality of the supplements that they can now sell and how they can prescribe these supplements to help people achieve their fitness and physique goals. So long as they workout regularly, intensely and specifically, and eat moderate amounts of high quality food, including lots of vegetables.

Maybe I don’t understand the draw here, but it seems like the course is a gateway to capturing resellers of their supplements, which will help people achieve their goals so long as they do all the things that evidence based science has repeatedly demonstrates helps people drop body fat and improve muscle tone.

It’s one heck of a business model! Get people to pay you to convince them that you have the solution and then let them sell this solution for you, over and over and over again to the people they convinced to buy it.

Why Your Life Is Fine

In my post about the Dunning–Kruger effect I spoke about the inverted bell curve shape between the amount of knowledge someone has about a subject and their level of confidence in the subject – those who are experts and those who know very little about a subject will display the same level of confidence about the subject while those in the middle will show low levels of confidence in the subject matter.

Your life is fine because you rely on shortcuts to make a call as to who to listen to. One of these short cuts is the level of confidence a person displays. ‎As a consequence you’ll trust an amateur as much as an expert. Welcome to you fine life.

Dunning Krueger applies equally to yourself though. Often times you’ll believe you know an enormous amount about a subject when you know practically nothing. The end result is that you feel confident cherry picking information that confirms your point of view while you close off to anything that doesn’t match your world view. This tendency is called a confirmation bias and given that wealth of information that is easily available on-line, it is hard not to find opinions, studies and data that support any point of view.

Think about it this way:

When you listen to someone talk about a subject, you’ll approach it from one of three places. The first is that the person is correct ‎because what they are saying matches what you know / believe to be true. The second is that they are wrong because what they are saying doesn’t match what you know. The final way is from a place of curiosity about what they are saying, why they are saying it and how did they end up believing it. They aren’t wrong, they are correct in what they are saying not because they agree with you but because human beings are completely logical even if one of their assumptions is inaccurate.

Few people spontaneously approach things from a place of genuine curiosity; they either nod and think “yeah, thats how it is” or shake their head and say “what a load of nonsense.” Both approaches are a flawed, dangerous, and hurting the quality of your life.

Consider what would happen if you were to, as soon as you hear something and feel agreement or disagreement, immediately go to the other side and come-up with reasons as to why you disagree or agree. It’ll force you to think about things in a very different way, to try on some unusual thoughts and feelings and help you find out ways to be right about something that is wrong. After you come-up with 3 or 4 possible reasons, allow your mind to return to its initial state and then move forward as you deem appropriate. The goal is not necessarily to change your point of view, it is to take a moment to get away from knowing and open-up to other possibilities.

When you do this, you’ll find yourself becoming more curious about what is actually going on and very soon realize that you’ve started to learn more about something you thought you knew a lot about. This is going to take your fine life and make it so much better!